When did the Exodus happen? Considering the uncertainties. Part 2

In the preceding part, we estimated the date of the Exodus from biblical sources and considered the archaeological evidence that could corroborate such assessment directly or indirectly. Inevitably, this estimate, like its alternatives, is subject to great uncertainty, as none of them is grounded in solid historical proof. The alternative later dating (at 13 century BC) is also theoretical, although many historians support it, including William Albright, a prominent name in biblical archaeology. This is the date cited in most popular science books on the subject. We dedicate this part to the main arguments for this dating, and the counter-arguments against the dates based on the biblical text.

Pithom and Rameses, store cities for Pharaoh

The starting point for the alternative later dating of the Exodus is the mention in the Bible of the building of Pithom and Rameses, store cities for Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11). These cities were built during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses II (1290 – 1224) who was known for his massive construction programmes. The hypothesis on the timing of the Exodus in the later 13th century BC is based on these dates.

Proponents of biblical timing, however, rightly point out that these cities had existed before. To prove their point, they cite several biblical verses, such as one that talks about Joseph settling his father and his brothers in Egypt and giving them property in the district of Rameses (Genesis 47:11). Equally noteworthy is the argument that some cities and territories could have different names over time, while the authors of the biblical books would refer to them by the names accepted in their time. One illustrative example was the Ur of the Chaldees, mentioned as the birthplace of Abraham, even though no Chaldees were living in the city at the time of Abraham.

Merneptah Stele

Another artefact cited in support of the later dating of the Exodus is the Merneptah Stele found in the burial crypt of the Pharaoh Merneptah (1213 – 1203) in Thebes. The text on the Stele describes the Pharaoh’s raids to Canaan and is known as the earliest non-biblical source that refers to the people of Israel. The inscriptions on the Stele read, “Canaan was brutally razed”, “Israel was decimated, its seed was destroyed.” (Rainey A.F., Notley R.S. The Sacred Bridge). Despite the significance of this artefact, its ability to support the timing of the Exodus is in doubt. The only thing it can prove was the presence of the Jews in Canaan in the late 13th century. It does not say when the Jewish tribes came to Palestine.

Another argument cited is the formation of the Moav and Edom dynasties in Western Jordan that resisted Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land. It is suggested that if the Exodus had happened in the 15th century, Moav and Edom would not have been able to resist the Jews.

Settlements of the Proto-Israelites

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for the later dating of the Exodus is the discovery in the mountainous part of Judea of the first settlements of Proto-Israelites dating back to the 12th century. It is suggested that because no earlier traces of the Jews were found anywhere in Palestine, the Jews must have arrived here at approximately that time. 

The weakness of this argument is that it does not take into consideration the important fact that the Israelites were nomadic, and cattle breeding was their main occupation. They lived in tents, and even their main shrine, the Tent of the Congregation, was also a tent. After conquering Canaan, the Jews could continue their lifestyle for multiple centuries before learning the agricultural techniques to settle there. To summarise, the finding of the first Israelite settlements in the 12th century is important but does not suggest that the Jews did not settle there at a later date.

Joseph and the Hyksos

Perhaps one of the most beautiful arguments links the arrival of the Jews in Egypt to the rule of the Hyksos, an Asian tribe of shepherds that controlled Egypt at some stage in history. Similar to the Jews, the Hyksos were descendants from Asia, and the proponents of this argument suggest that the affinity between the two could have promoted the rise of Joseph, a Semite. After the Hyksos were expelled, their former allies Jews fell into disfavour with the Egyptian administration and were eventually enslaved. If this hypothesis is true, then the exodus of the Jew would not have happened any earlier than the 13th century BC. Yet the hypothesis is still waiting to be proven, and its claim for historical truth remains questionable. 

In the Scriptures, we find an interesting account showing that whoever ruled during the time of Joseph could hardly have much affinity or cultural closeness with the Semites. When Joseph invited his brothers to dinner, They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians (Genesis 43:32). 

We have reviewed the main arguments of the proponents of a later dating of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. From a scientific perspective, the fact that the exodus happened in the 13th century is questionable. However, alternative timings are also subject to great uncertainty. The versions based on biblical dating also have multiple arguments in their support, and there is not a single archaeological finding that disproves them. Perhaps we are still waiting for a grand discovery to weigh in on one side or the other.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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