Friday, June 09, 2023

This is the first of a series of seven columns that will discuss how events in ancient Egyptian history may have intertwined with the Exodus story told in the Torah, based on a new approach to dating the Exodus and the key milestones that preceded it. The journey to the Exodus began with the Israelites’ arrival in Egypt, as portrayed in Miketz and Vayigash. We read of the Israelites’ enslavement, and the appointment of Moses and Aaron to liberate them from Egypt, in Parshat Shemot. The first seven of the 10 plagues are inflicted on Egypt in Va’era, leaving the last plagues and the Exodus itself to be recounted in Bo.

By way of background, there are already numerous plausible settings for the Exodus. I will mention three only. By far the most widely accepted dating is during the 13th century BCE reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). Indeed, the words Ramesses and Raamses appear in the Torah as place-names in two contexts (principally, Gen. 47:11 and Exod. 1:11). The latter was one of the store-cities (arei miskanot) built with Israelite slave labor, and Ramesses II’s palatial city Pi-Ramesse in the northeast Nile Delta certainly could be the city referenced in the Torah. However, nothing has been found to date in the historical record that even hints at the Exodus or the 10 plagues during the reign of Ramesses II. Perhaps for this reason, Kenneth Kitchen, an advocate of a Ramesses II-era Exodus and one of the greatest living Egyptologists and a vigorous advocate of the Torah’s historicity—his “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic—writes that the Egyptians probably saw the Exodus as a “fleeting, if unpleasant, event.” The second most popular theory, championed mainly by a school of Christian scholars, dates the Exodus to 1446 BCE. That was 480 years prior to the construction of the First Temple in 966 BCE (the commonly accepted date), which is consistent with a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1. However, an ancient Egyptian context for this dating has not been fully fleshed out. Bible scholar Gary Rendsburg proposes a third setting: the 1100s under Ramesses III. This makes chronological sense of the Ramesses/Raamses place-names, and it would explain why the Torah calls the coastal route in Canaan the Way of the Philistines (Exod. 13:54) even though the Philistines of the historical record evidently did not invade Canaan until well after Ramesses II died. But a plain reading of the Merneptah Stela’s reference to a people called “Israel” (ca. 1209 BCE) places them in Canaan decades earlier, and Rendsburg’s view is hard to reconcile with 1 Kings 6:1.

A new approach to dating the Exodus has surfaced. Egyptologists who have carefully examined the extensive documentation of the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE), long thought to have ruled Egypt during one of its most tranquil and opulent periods, have made a startling discovery: roughly eight years—from this Pharaoh’s 12th year to his 19th—are missing from the historical record. His most recent biographer, Egyptologist Arielle Kozloff, calls these his “lost years” and cites increasing evidence that deadly epidemics silenced his scribes. Using the most widely accepted Egyptian chronology, these lost years can be dated roughly to 1378-1370 BCE, so they include the year 1374 BCE. This year was 408 years before construction of the First Temple, which can be reconciled with 1 Kings 6:1 if a seemingly modest word change occurred in that verse: shemonim for shemoneh (80 substituted for 8). The same kind of change may account for a far greater discrepancy between 1 Kings 5:6 and II Chronicles 9:25; the number of King Solomon’s horse stables is given as arba’im elef (40,000) in the former but arba’at alafim (4,000) in the latter. A scribe’s motive for changing 1 Kings 6:1 is not hard to imagine: 480 is a multiple of the biblically significant duration of 40 years, while 408 is not.

Having a date that plausibly correlates both to ancient history and biblical chronology—albeit that both dating systems are still subject to uncertainties—enables us to assign a year not only to the Exodus itself, but also to Jacob’s arrival in Egypt (1584 BCE) and the Israelites’ enslavement (1479 BCE), using rabbinically-derived intervals between these events and the Exodus. These in turn enable us to identify known events in ancient Egypt that may tie to the Exodus (and 10 plagues) and the milestones, as will be discussed in this column over the next two months.

In all fairness, epidemics were not uncommon in ancient Egypt, so the epidemics that likely occurred during Amenhotep III’s reign could have had nothing to do with the 10 plagues. But a biblical connection is possible on other grounds as well. For one thing, Amenhotep III’s eldest son and in-laws likely died during this period (the in-laws died of malaria). For another, Egypt’s armies remained silent for decades during and after Amenhotep III’s reign, even as its Canaanite city-state vassals were in the throes of civil war, threatening the tribute they paid Egypt and Egypt’s very hegemony over Canaan. This would certainly bear out Moses’ statement to the Israelites that God destroyed [the Egyptian army] to this day (Deut. 11:4). Also, Amenhotep III feverishly ordered the Egyptians to create and offer daily prayers to many hundreds of statues of plague goddess Sekhmet. In a Jewish Link article last year, this author discussed biblical verses suggesting that God used the Egyptians’ pleas for relief and revenge from this deity—known to ancient Egyptians as “the Destroyer”—to demonstrate the futility of their faith in their deities (Exod. 12:23).

It may also be protested that all this amounts to speculation and at most produces circumstantial evidence. But Sir Alan Gardiner, one of the great Egyptologists of the 20th century, said that much of ancient Egyptian history has been reconstructed from “a collection of rags and tatters.” So one hopes for tolerance of informed speculation, even if by a layman and even if based on fragmentary hints, particularly if it may contribute to our understanding of the Torah and its historical context.

In the coming weeks, this column will show how the story of the Exodus—from Jacob’s arrival to our final liberation from Egypt’s tyranny—may have played out over more than two centuries, leading to the Exodus under Amenhotep III.

By Ira Friedman

 Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history. The matters he writes about are discussed in further detail in three articles: “Amenhotep III and the Exodus: Echoes of the Biblical Narrative from Egypt’s Golden Age” (Jewish Bible Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 2017 (scheduled)); “The Exodus Syndemic: The Epidemiology of the Tenth Plague” (Jewish Bible Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 2017); and “‘And Upon all the Gods of Egypt I Will Execute Judgment:’ The Egyptian Deity in the Ten Plagues,” (Tradition (Spring 2015)).


Sign up now!