The Israelite Exodus from Egypt

The Israelite Exodus from Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Merenptah's stela contains what is probably the first reference to Israel outside of the Bible

The Israelite Exodus from Egypt, recounted in the Bible, tells of the oppression of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, their flight from the country led by Moses and their journey through the wilderness before eventually settling in the "Promised Land".

Strictly speaking, there has never been any clear evidence discovered in Egypt, or elsewhere, to support the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, though there is no small amount of conjecture and theories. In fact, today it is fashionable, among Egyptologists, archaeologists and even some Jewish scholars to doubt the whole biblical story. At the same time, a complete rejection of this account may very well be undeserved, though it is very likely that the details of the incident may be lacking in historical footing.

Attempts to date the Exodus are problematic because of the Bible itself, for it provides us with two conflicting clues as to when the event took place. Kings 6:1 clearly dates the Exodus to 480 years before the founding of Jerusalem's temple by King Solomon. This would put the date of the Exodus at around 1450 BC. However, in Exodus 1:11, we are told that the Pharaoh put the enslaved Hebrews to work on two "store-cities" called Pthom and Raamses.

There is no agreement on the location of Pthom among scholars, but Raamses is usually agreed upon to be a Hebrew rendering of the Egyptian royal name Ramesses, and as a place name it is thought to be Egyptian Piramesses, the extensive Delta capital built by Ramesses II. If so, then the Hebrews cannot have left Egypt before the 13th Century BC.

Various explanations have been provided for this discrepancy. For example, the 480 years given in Kings is symbolic, or derived from adding together shorter periods that actually overlapped, such as those contained in the Book of Judges. It is also very possible that there was already a city in the Delta that Ramesses II built upon to make Piramesses, and the Hebrews worked on this earlier city. The rendering of Raamses could have therefore been a later update of the original city's name. Of course, it is also possible that the details of the account vary from the Biblical story, and that there were actually more than one Exodus. For biblical scholars, there are other issues such as how subsequent events, such as Joshua's conquest of Canaanite cities, might fit into the archaeological history of Palestine.

Merenptah, along with his father, Ramesses II, or both often given credit as being the Pharaoh of the Biblical Exodus

Because of an inscription from the reign of Merenptah, who succeeded Ramesses II on the throne, it has been suggested that the event of the Exodus should not be dated much later than the middle of the 13th Century BC. In the last lines of this inscription, carved on a stela set up to commemorate Merenptah's victory over the Libyans in his fifth year on the throne (about 1209 or 1208 BC), the king boasts of his victories over various peoples and places in Syria-Palestine. Here, he claims, with the common exaggeration of royal inscriptions, that "Israel is desolate, and has no seed".

Clearly, Merenptah's army had victoriously fought some part of Israel, and the message to us today is clear. By this point in history, the Israelites were in the land of Canaan though the account does not really help us to date their actual arrival. Hence, the majority view among scholars is that the Exodus must have taken place by at least the 13th Century BC.

Moses, of course, plays an obviously important role in the Exodus. The Bible tells us that he was born in Egypt to slave parents and saved from a genocidal policy of the pharaoh when his mother places him adrift on the Nile in a basket. The basket was then found by a daughter of the king, and he was thus brought up at the royal court. However, he would grow up to become the Israelite's leader, deliverer in to freedom and lawgiver.

One widely accepted theory is that behind the name Moses, which is Mosheh in Hebrew, is the Egyptian word mesi, meaning "give birth". This was a verb commonly added to the name of an Egyptian god to produce a human name, such as Ptahmose, Ramose and Thutmose. Hence, Moses appears to be an Egyptian name from which the divine element has been dropped. However, it is interesting that Exodus 2:10 tells us that Pharaoh's daughter gave Moses his name, "Because I drew him out of the water".

It may be that this may be one of the situations from the Old Testament where the explanation for a personal name is actually a word play by the writer. This is surely the case here, for the word play works only in Hebrew, while the speaker is supposedly an Egyptian princess. In fact, the word play seems to have a double meaning. The name Moses can also be related to the Hebrew verb "to draw out" (masha), but in a from that means "he draws out", rather than "he is drawn out". The word play is thus designed to point towards the future and Moses' role as leader of the Exodus, as well as reflecting the circumstances of his adoption.

However, there was nothing unusual about a foreigner being raised in the royal court, though the purpose was generally to indoctrinate and gain the individual's loyalty, which apparently did not happen with Moses. Semites are found in court positions during various phases of Egyptian history, and during the New Kingdom the sons of foreign vassals were frequently taken to Egypt to be trained in the service of the king. The Bible tells us that Moses belonged to a large group of Semitic settlers whose ancestors had arrived in Egypt from the land of Canaan. This rings very true, for archaeological evidence shows that such groups of people from Canaan were settling in parts of the Eastern Delta from around the middle of Egypt's 12th Dynasty. Evidence has been unearthed, for example at Tell el-Dab'a in the Delta, that these newcomers were of mixed origin, including pastorial nomads like the Hebrews described in Genesis 47:1-11. Though we cannot positively identify Israel's ancestors in Egypt, it is intriguing to note that during the 17th century BC the site of Tell el-Dab'a was developed a the Hyksos capital known as Avaris, and in the 13th century BC, it was absorbed by the sprawling city of Piramesse, which had its center a short distance to the north.

It should also be noted that the route chosen by the escaping Israelites, from Piramesse to Tjeku (biblical Succoth: Exodus 12:37) and eastwards, was precisely the same that was used by two escaping slaves of the late 13th century BC, as reported in Papyrus Anastasi V.

Egyptian workers making bricks much like described in the Bible

One problem, however, is the number of Israelites involved in the Exodus. The Bible gives as the number of men 600,000, which would mean as many as two million people including women and children. This is an unrealistic figure at this point in time. However, it has been pointed out several times over the last century that the Hebrew word 'elef", conventionally translated as "thousand", can mean other things as well, such as "family", tribal unit" or even "leader". Applying this range of possibilities to various passages in the books of Exodus and Numbers, biblical scholars have come up with a more realistic estimate for the total migration. Some of the most recent studies suggest a figure of about 20,000 for the whole group. When compared with the numbers of prisoners claimed by New Kingdom kings in their campaigns, this is very plausible.

However, as stated earlier, there is no hard evidence that the Exodus ever took place. There is no written record regarding the Exodus, and some feel that this is no surprise, even though the Exodus would have likely occurred during a period when we have considerable documentation provided to us from the ancient Egyptians. Frankly, those who are not surprised that the Egyptians would not record the major catastrophes which accompany this biblical account, and the loss of an army to the Red Sea, are probably mistaken. Certainly it may be unlikely that the Egyptians would record such a defeat, but it is equally unlikely that they would not have recorded at least a twisted account of the event. In fact, given the gravity of the plagues which were inflicted upon the Egyptians according to the Bible, it is highly unlikely that there would not be some sort of account in at least some private tombs.

Nevertheless, many individuals have advanced interesting theories. One good example is the Tempest & Exodus by Ralph Ellis, which focuses on the founder of the New Kingdom, Ahmose. Others site interesting theories surrounding the reign of Akhenaten, while some cite evidence of the Exodus such as chariot wheels that have been discovered in the Red Sea. While Ralph Ellis's account has some merit, chariot wheels in the Red Sea prove nothing. In the final analysis from the information we have today, it is quite possible that an exodus did take place, though the Biblical account of it may be embellished with fictional details. Perhaps someday there might be found real proof of this historical event, but for the time being, the Biblical account lacks any real grounding in the Archaeological record.

See also:






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