A theme of the holiday of Shavuot is the number seven (i.e., seven weeks). A child of a friend once asked me if there was any connection between the word for the number seven, shivah, and the word for an oath: shevuah. I had never noticed the similar root before! Most scholars would make a connection and would suggest that the earliest oaths involved doing something seven times! See, e.g., Ernest Klein’s, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, which suggests that originally one bound oneself by seven things or took seven oaths.
Let us now move to the number six. A shoshanah is a type of flower in Tanakh. Could it be called this because it has six petals?
More interesting is the Hebrew word for five, hamesh. Four times in Tanakh (II Samuel 2:23, 3:27, 4:6 and 20:10), the word homesh is used to mean the belly area: Someone is struck in the belly area. We see homesh as meaning “belly area” in other Semitic languages as well. (There are those who understand the meaning in the four instances in II Samuel as the “fifth rib.” But this is very unlikely.) Is there a way to relate the “belly area” meaning to “five”? My own thought (completely conjecture) is that a man can be viewed as having four basic body parts: two arms and two legs. The belly area in the middle of the body can perhaps be viewed as the fifth body part!
At Ex. 13:18 and three other places in Tanakh, the related word hamushim is used. It seems to have a connotation of military preparedness. Why? The belly area was likely the area where one’s spear or sword hung. When people are described as hamushim, it originally meant that their swords were at their belly, and the meaning then became “armed, ready for battle.” If you think this is farfetched, just pause for a moment and think of the English word “armed.” Surely it arose based on the notion that people carried their weapons on their arms!
Now let us move to another numerical topic. In what year BCE did the Exodus and Mattan Torah occur?
The more traditional Orthodox writers and publishers (e.g., ArtScroll) will provide a date around 1311 BCE for the Exodus. Why? If you start with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, you can count backwards. Rabbinic chronology (based on the Tannaitic work Seder Olam Rabbah) assigns 420 years to the Second Temple period and 410 years to the First Temple period. The Tanakh characterizes the period between the Temples as 70 years. Finally, according to 1 Kings 6:1, the Exodus occurred 480 years before the building of the First Temple. Counting backwards from 70 CE, and utilizing the above numbers: 420, 70, 410 and 480, one arrives at the date of 1311 BCE for the Exodus. (Remember that there is no year zero between 1 BCE and 1 CE.). Some start the backwards count from the year 68 CE, instead of 70 CE. They arrive at 1313 BCE as the Exodus date.
So is 1311 BCE or 1313 BCE the date of the Exodus? Should I end my column now? Well, Jewish chronology is not that simple.
It turns out that the length of the Second Temple period is not 420 years but 589 years. This is a well-known problem. (I wrote a book on this topic: Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology.) Less well known is that the First Temple period spanned not 410 years, but 380 years.
So if one makes the required adjustments to the 420 and 410 year figures (and makes another necessary four-year adjustment that I will not trouble to explain), one gets a date of 966 BCE for the building of the First Temple. In other words, secular historians will agree today that the fourth year of Shelomoh (the date when the Temple was built according to 1 Kings 6:1) was approximately 966 BCE (with a margin of error of 1–2 years.) (This is very different from the 831 or 833 BCE date that one gets from using the 420 and 410 figures!)
Assuming the First Temple was built in the year 966 BCE, it seems like a simple matter to conclude that the Exodus occurred in 1446 BCE, based on the 480-year period specified at 1 Kings 6:1. If so, Thutmose III (1479–1425) would be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. (Perhaps on Shavuot night some should stay up all night studying the history of his reign and looking for clues to our history!)
But it is not that simple. Archaeological studies of recent decades suggest that the period that the Israelite settlements begin to appear in the land is the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, not the 15th and 14th centuries BCE. Moreover, the Philistines appear as a major enemy of Israel during the period of the Judges, and they only arrived in the region of Israel in the early 12th century BCE.
For reasons such as this, many today think that that 480 number at 1 Kings 6:1 is too big and should not be taken literally. Also, the book of Judges provides lengths of the individual rulerships for the judges, but it is possible that many of these judges were only regional rulers and the numbers can be viewed as overlapping.
A different approach to dating the Exodus can be based on Exodus 1:11. This verse tells us that the Israelites built a store city named Ramses, perhaps implying that the Pharaoh who ordered this work bore this name. Ramesses I only reigned sixteen months (1295–94), but Ramesses II reigned for over six decades (1279–1213). More importantly, archaeology has shown that Ramesses II was responsible for building a vast city called Pi-Ramesse, which would have required vast amounts of laborers and brick. Ramesses I, on the other hand, is not known to have built any cities. All of this points to Ramesses II as being the Pharaoh who enslaved us (i.e., the Pharaoh of the Oppression).
But Exodus 2:23 tells us that the Pharaoh of the Oppression died. If Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the Oppression, the Pharaoh of the Exodus would be his successor, Merneptah (1213–1203). The Hertz Chumash, in one of its classic essays, takes this approach (p. 395).
(The movie The Ten Commandments took a slightly different approach. Seti reigned between Ramesses I and Ramesses II. In this movie, Seti was portrayed as the Pharaoh of the Oppression, and Ramesses II was portrayed as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.)
Much much more needs to be said here, and the implications of the Merneptah Stele must also be discussed. For anyone who is interested further, I refer to my lengthy April 2011 article at seforim.blogspot.com. (For an entirely different approach, based on a close analysis of the 10 plagues, see Ira Friedman’s article in Tradition, Spring 2015.)
I will close with the clever observation of one scholar:
The absence of the pharaoh’s name [from the Biblical Exodus story] may ultimately be for theological reasons. The Bible is not trying to answer the question “Who is the pharaoh of the exodus?” to satisfy the curiosity of modern historians. Rather, it was seeking to clarify for Israel who was the God of the Exodus!
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.