EXODUS IN EGYPTIAN SOURCES
paper was read at the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of
Oriental Research, held in Boston November 17-20, 1999.]
the center of the Bible account there is the story of a Semitic
Hebrew tribe descending to Egypt at the time of Joseph, then returning
to Canaan some time later at the time of Moses. Biblical scholars
and Egyptologists had, up to the mid-20th century, accepted the
Exodus narration as representing a true historical account. Following
the Second World War, however, the situation changed dramatically.
Thanks to archaeological excavations, more light was thrown on the
ancient history of both Egypt and Canaan; nevertheless, no evidence
was found to support the Exodus account of the Bible. Negative evidence
from historical sources led many scholars to dismiss the Exodus
narration as a mere fiction, and ten years ago, Professor Donald
Redford concluded that the story of the Exodus is, in fact, based
on the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, therefore much of its
detail is fictitious.
do not agree, however, with this conclusion. I believe that the
biblical account of the Exodus does represent true historical events.
The lack of historical evidence, in my view, is due to the fact
that scholars have, so far, been looking in the wrong historical
search for the Exodus has been toponymic in nature, related to the
names of geographical locations mentioned in the Bible, such as
the area of Goshen and the store-cities of Ramses and Pithom. When
Eduard Henri Naville arrived at Tell el-Maskhita in the eastern
Delta in the winter of 1883, he was looking for the store-city of
Pithom. Six months later, Naville confirmed to the first annual
meeting of the Egypt Exploration Fund in London that this location
in the Wadi Tumilat was in fact the store-city of Pithom built by
Ramses II. Naville then proceeded to show that the biblical word
Goshen is equivalent to Egyptian Gesem, which is the name of the
area of Faqus in the eastern Delta. Having found Pithom and Goshen,
the next step was to try and locate the city of Ramses, where the
Exodus is believed to have started. Looking for Ramses, however,
proved to be more elusive. Different locations were suggested by
different scholars for that cityfrom Tanis, modern San el-Hagar
at the bottom of Lake Manzalah at the start of this century, to
Tell-el Dabaa Qantir in the eastern Delta at the present time.
fact that all these locations are related to Ramses II persuaded
scholars to regard this king as being the Pharaoh of the Oppression;
Merenptah his successor being the Pharaoh of the Exodus. But when,
in 1896, Flinders Petrie found the stele of Merenptah's 5th year
which mentioned the Israelites already in Canaan, the date of the
Exodus had to be re-fixed to the end of Ramses II's rule. Ramses
II has now become the Pharaoh of both the Oppression and the Exodus.
following step was to find the date of the Descent. This step proved
to be an easy task. Following the Book of Exodus, which states that
the Israelites' Sojourn in Egypt lasted for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41),
they counted 430 years back from the end of Ramses II's reign and
arrived at the very beginning of the Hyksos period for the arrival
of Joseph into Egypt. In this way the time of both the Descent and
the Exodus was fixed, not on chronological, but on geographical
evidence. Looking for historical confirmation of a Semitic Exodus
from Egypt at the end of Ramses II's reign, however, they found
only negative evidence. To rely mainly on philological and geographical
similarities, in my view, was the main reason behind the failure
to reach a positive conclusion. Chronology is the backbone of history,
and it is for the time of both the Descent and the Exodus that we
should start looking.
of the main reasons which persuaded early scholars that the Hyksos
period was the right time for Joseph in Egypt, was their belief,
following William Albright, that it was the Hyksos rulers who first
introduced the war chariot into Egypt. As the biblical story of
Joseph has three references to chariots, this meant that this war
machine was already used in Egypt at the time of Joseph. Recent
archaeological excavations in Hyksos locations, however, failed
to produce any single evidence to show that they ever used this
advanced war machine. Almost all Hyksos locations in Egypt have
now been excavated. Neither at Tell el-Dabaa, Tel el-Yahudia, Tell
el-Heboia, or at any other Hyksos location at the eastern Delta,
has any evidence come to show the existence of chariots.
Egyptian accounts of their war against the Hyksos, as found in the
Kamose Stele and the tomb of Ahmos Son of Abana, or Manetho's history,
have no mention of chariots taking place in the fighting. Before
the time of Amenhotep I of the 18th dynasty, no archaeological evidence
has been found in Egypt to support Albright's view of the introduction
of the war chariot by the Hyksos.
Joseph's arrival in Egypt could not have taken place before the
18th dynasty. But at which part of the 18th dynasty was his arrival?
the Bible account does offer a clue that could help us coming closer
to the time of Joseph. While Genesis 41:43 states that Pharaoh gave
Joseph a chariot at the ceremony of his appointment to his position,
Genesis 50:9 mentions that Joseph took with him "both chariots and
horsemen" when he went up to bury his father in Canaan. This account
indicates two things: that Joseph was appointed to be responsible
for the chariots, and that the chariots had already been separated
from infantry to become a separate entity. This situation could
not have been possible, as Alan Schulman was able to show, before
the time of Amenhotep III at the beginning of the 14th century BC.
The first man appointed at the head of the Chariotry was Yuya, therefore
we should be looking for Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt starting
only from the time of Amenhotep III.
we find some interesting archaeological information. As Professor
Raphael Giveon has shown, a fragmentary list of toponyms of the
Shasu Bedouins of Sinai included the name Ta-Shasw-Yahw, (Giveon
1971:26f.) which suggests that Semites worshipping Yahweh were found
in Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III. Another significant archaeological
evidence of this period comes from Sakkara. In 1989 Dr. Alain-Pierre
Zivie discovered the tomb of Aper-el, a chief minister of both Amenhotep
III and Akhenaten. His name indicates a Hebrew origin, possibly
also related to Elohim.
on the other hand, we attempt to look for the date of the Exodus,
we find that the only archaeological evidence in Egypt that mentions
Israel by name confirms that they were in Canaan in the 5th year
of Merenptah, during the last quarter of the 13th century BC. This
evidence indicates clearly that the Israelites must have left Egypt
at a considerable time before that date, in which case the 430 years
of the Exodus account could not be representing the actual length
of the Sojourn. In fact, the Book of Genesis gives us a contradictory
account regarding the length of the Sojourn.
to the Book of Geneses (15: 13, 16), it was the fourth Israelite
generation since their Descent to Egypt who left in the Exodus.
The time of four generations between Joseph and Moses could not
possibly be 430 years. A close examination of the biblical narration
shows that the figure of 430 years represents the total ages of
these four generation, for if we add the ages of Levi (137), Kohath
(133), Amram (137) and Moses (120), the total would be 527 years.
Of this, 57 years were deducted as representing the age Levi reached
at the time of the Descent, as well as 40 years which Moses is said
to have lived after the Exodus, which leaves us with 430 years.
As the first two generations, Levi and Kohath, had already been
born in Canaan and arrived in Egypt with Jacob at the time of the
Descent (Genesis 46:11), only two generations could have been born
in Egypt: Amram and Moses. If we allow 25 years for every generation
to beget his firstborn, we should be looking for a period of only
about fifty years plus for the length of the Sojourn. In this case,
we should be looking for the historical evidence for the Exodus
starting from the mid-14th century BC, fifty years from the beginning
of the reign of Amenhotep III.
the Exodus account implies an attempt by some Semitic tribes to
leave Egyptian Sinai to enter into Canaan, we soon find the evidence
for the one and only such attempt. This only recorded exodus attempt
by Bedouin tribes from Sinai trying to enter Canaan took place at
the end of the short reign of Ramses I. Immediately after the death
of Ramses I c.1333 BC, we find evidence of some Semitic Bedouin
tribes of Sinai, called Shasu by the Egyptians, attempting to cross
the Egyptian borders to Canaan.
the east side of the northern wall of the great Hypostyle Hall in
Amun's temple at Karnak we find two series of scenes, which are
distributed symmetrically on either side of the entrance to the
temple, representing the wars of Seti I who succeeded Ramses I on
the throne. The first of these wars, chronologically, is found at
the bottom row of the east wall and represent the war against the
Shasu. After setting out on the route between the fortified city
of Zarw and Gazaknown in the Bible as 'the way of the land
of the Philistines' (Exodus 13:17), and passing the fortified water
stations, "pushing along the road in the Negeb, the king scatters
the Shasu, who from time to time gather in sufficient numbers to
meet him." One of these actions is depicted in this relief as taking
place on the desert road. Over the battle scene stands the inscription:
"The Good God, Sun of Egypt, Moon of all land, Montu in the foreign
countries ... like Baal, ... The rebels, they know not how they
shall (flee); the vanquished of the Shasu (becoming like) that which
this campaign it seems that Seti pursued the Shasu into the northern
Sinai area and Edom, which includes 'the waters of Meribah,' as
well as the land of Moab at the borders between Sinai and Canaan/Jordanbefore
returning to continue his march along the northern Sinai road between
Zarw and Gaza until he reached Canaan itself. Just across the Egyptian
border he arrived at a fortified town whose name is given as Pe-Kanan,
which is believed to be the city of Gaza.
scene has the following inscription over the defeated Shasu: "Year
1. King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menma-re. The destruction which
the mighty sword of Pharaoh . . . made among the vanquished of the
Shasu from the fortress of Zarw to Pe-Kanan, when His Majesty marched
against them like a fierce-eyed lion, making them carcasses in their
valleys, overturned in their blood like those that exist not.
who later became Ramses I and established the Ramesside 19th dynasty,
was the vizier and Commander of the army during the reign of Horemheb.
He was also appointed as the governor of the fortified border city
of Zarw, which supervised the whole border area of northern Sinai,
including the land of Goshen, and which had been turned into a big
prison by Horemheb. Ramses himself belonged to a local family coming
from this area, and it is this Ramses who must have been remembered
by the Hebrew scribes putting down the biblical account. Ramses
I was already a very old man at the time of his accession and did
not survive the end of his second year on the throne. His son Seti
I followed him, and it seems that the Shasu attempt to leave Egypt
began before the death of his father. At the very beginning of Seti's
reign a messenger arrived with the news: "The Shasu enemies are
plotting rebellion. Their tribal leaders are gathered in one place,
standing on the foothills of Khor (Palestine) and are engaged in
turmoil and uproar." And although Seti I was able to stop the Shasu
leaving Sinai, forty years later, during the 20th year of Ramses
II, we find them already in Canaan.
was the name given by the Egyptians to the Beduin of Sinai, known
in both the Bible and the Quran as the Midianites, allies of Moses.
It seems that the Israelites were only a small part of a large Semitic
attempt to leave Egypt for Canaan.
Horemheb becomes the Pharaoh of the Oppression and Ramses I the
Pharaoh of the Exodus.
lecturer, researcher and author, Ahmed Osman is a British Egyptologist
born in Cairo.
four in-depth books clarifying the history of the Bible and Egypt
in the Valley of the Kings (1987) - Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990)
- The House of the Messiah (1992) - Out of Egypt (1998)
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