The Pyramids

Exodus and Ancient History

I have enjoyed history since I was a child, particularly ancient history. I am not an historian or a history buff, but I do like it and when something interests me I am likely to look deeper into the subject.

Equally, I can get irritated when people make avoidable historical errors. For example, the Bible records Roman soldiers as being at the crucifixion. This is often interpreted as being Roman Legionaries, particularly in films, but also by Passion Plays and even in sermons. We weren’t there so we cannot be certain they weren’t legionaries. However, there is no evidence they were and from what we know about the way Rome administered its provinces and used its soldiers, they were more likely Auxiliaries recruited from the province.

In this article, I will look at one of my interests, Ancient Egypt and the Exodus. I will look at what we know of the history of the time. and how sometimes historical errors can creep in to the story.

The Exodus
The book of Exodus, is a record of a people, the Israelites, who are living in a country, ancient Egypt, that many people have studied and researched. That includes, people writing from an historical or archaeological point of view, and those writing from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic stance as well.

There are those who will tell you that the Exodus didn’t happen. There is no evidence for it in Egyptian records or in archaeology. Why haven’t we dug up lots of pottery shards and other objects from the Exodus? One answer to that is that most archaeological finds are from settlements and documented locations, such as battlefields. Three and a half thousand-year-old finds from nomadic peoples, like the Israelites of the Exodus, are rare. Also, like some people today, the Egyptians did occasionally rewrite or erase history they didn’t like. They tried, and largely succeeded in erasing the Hyksos from their history (see later). Did the Exodus happen? I believe it did.

Who’s That Pharaoh?
We don’t know with any degree of certainty exactly when the Exodus took place. Views differ. For most people who have written about this, it began sometime between the 15th and 13th centuries BC. 

One view, based on 1 Kings 6:1, is that it began around 1445 BC. This being 480 years prior to when the building of the temple by King Solomon began. Egypt was being ruled from Thebes in Upper Egypt at that time. According to Genesis, the Israelites had been settled in Goshen, in the delta area of Lower Egypt, some distance from Thebes. However, Thutmoses III, the Pharaoh of this time, made several military campaigns against ‘Asiatics’ in Syria and Canaan. This means that he must have had a sizeable army in Lower Egypt and would have spent a lot of time there himself.

The 13th century BC is popular because the earliest archaeological evidence for Israelite settlements in the Holy Land date from the 12th century BC. Also, some people like to make Moses the stepbrother of Ramses the Great. Ramses was born in 1303 BC and reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Moses was his stepbrother. Rameses is mentioned in both Genesis and Exodus, but only as an area of Egypt, not as a person. It may also be anachronistic. That is, the text is using a later name for the area.

Some Proponents for the 13th century BC date suggest that the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 is actually 12 generations of 40 years and that a lower figure for the span of a generation (e.g. the modern concept of 25 years) would place the Exodus in the 13th Century BC – in the reign of Ramses the Great. The problem with this idea is that it anachronistically places a modern concept of the span of a generation into a book (1 Kings) that was written three thousand years ago.

Rabbinical Judaism dates the life of Moses as being between 1393 and 1273 BC. Dates, which don’t match with either of the other two views. Yes, there is an overlap with the life of Ramses the Great, but Moses would be 90 years old when Ramses was born – hardly a stepbrother – and in any case the Exodus would have started a few years earlier.

There are other views. Suffice to say that we cannot be sure when the Exodus happened. If the Exodus started around 1445 BC, then the Pharaoh could be Thutmose III. If we use Rabbinical Judaism dates, then it could be Horemheb. If it is sometime in the 13th century BC, then it could be Ramses the Great.

Pharaoh’s Chariots and Cavalry
Sometimes historical errors do creep into the Bible. We can say with a degree of certainty that no matter when the Exodus happened, the book of Exodus is wrong when it talks about Pharaoh’s Chariots and Cavalry. The Egyptians of that time had Chariots and Infantry, but no Cavalry. Suitable saddle like equipment that would allow someone to be stable enough to fight on horseback didn’t appear in the Middle East until the time of the Assyrians – centuries later.

How could the writer of Exodus get this wrong? The answer to that could be that the book of Exodus may not have been written down as it happened. It might have been the 11th or 10th Century BC or later, and based on earlier oral history. As it was being passed down through the ages, people might have used what was familiar to them, and as time went by, cavalry would have been commonplace, especially in the Exile period. Like the name Rameses, it might be anachronistic.

Another word used in Exodus is slavery. Your understanding of slavery might derive from what we know of slavery in the Americas and Caribbean or it might be from the modern forms of slavery such as migrants being brought to the West by criminal gangs and being forced to live and work in squalid conditions.

Slavery has seen many forms over the millennia. Many archaeologists and historians will argue that there is no evidence for slavery in Ancient Egypt. That, in part, is due to the difficulty in differentiating between slaves and servants in Egyptian texts.

We know that Pharaoh could require large numbers of people to work on building projects and we know from the book of Exodus that this is what the Israelites were doing at the time – they were building a city in the delta region of Lower Egypt.

According to Genesis the Israelites had been settled in the land of Goshen in the delta region of the Nile, at the time of Jacob, and their numbers had grown greatly by the time of the book of Exodus. This means the labour force to build the city would have been mainly Israelite.

From Exodus, it appears that the Israelites owned property. They lived in houses and had flocks of sheep and goats, from which they took their lambs for the Passover. It is likely that some worked as carpenters, smiths, masons or in other jobs. They were also expected to work for their masters. This may sound a little like medieval serfdom.

So why does the Bible use the term slave? The simple answer is that is what it felt like to the Israelites. We know from the Bible that for decades before the Exodus they were being oppressed by the Egyptians. The Pharaoh at the start of this oppression (different from the Pharaoh of the Exodus) encouraged the Egyptian people to make life difficult for the Israelites and placed task(slave)masters over them. We are told that the Israelite population had grown significantly since Jacob’s time and the Egyptians felt threatened by their numbers. But why, when the Israelites had been willingly accepted into Egypt hundreds of years earlier. The clue might be in the statement that the Pharaoh of the oppression did not know Joseph.

Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. If we take the 15th century BC date for the Exodus, then this puts the start of the oppression in the second half of the 16th century BC. This is not long after the expulsion of the Hyksos (see later). Pharaoh Ahmose I who expelled the Hyksos came from Upper Egypt and was the founder of a new dynasty. Between the Middle and New Kingdom Egypt era’s is a time known as the second intermediate period, when foreigners (the Hyksos) ruled in Lower Egypt. Ahmose I probably wouldn’t have known of Joseph. The Hyksos were also a Semite people and so the Israelites could have been caught in a backlash against the Hyksos.

However credible this sounds, there is no evidence to support this hypothesis and it loses credibility of the Exodus is not in the 15th century BC.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in later Hebrew law a slave would be expected to work harder and longer for their master, than any other worker. Also, the Hebrew word for slave is eved, which derives from the verb la‘avöd (“to work”).

According to the Bible, the number of people who left Egypt in the Exodus, was more than 600,000 men of military age. Considering this excludes women, children and those too old or infirm to fight the actual number could be two million people or even more.  This is a very large number and some people question it. The reason for it being questioned is not because they question the Bible, but rather, they question the translation of the Hebrew word ‘eleph’ as a thousand. The word could also mean the quota of men for military service from a village, a clan, or a military unit.

 Military units in ancient history are often described as 10’s, 100’s and 1,000’s, but this could be used as an order of magnitude, rather than the actual size of the unit. Sometimes the name of a unit can be misleading. For example, the 1st century AD Roman unit known as a Century, commanded by a Centurion, is 80 strong, not 100.

The translation of the word ‘eleph’ as a thousand appears reasonable in the context of the censuses taken by Moses during the Exodus and it certainly makes it meaningful to today’s readers of the Bible. However, we can’t be sure our translations of Hebrew words are always the right ones or in the right context. We don’t know how the census was taken or that it would be handled in the same way as today. It is difficult for translators and they must use their experience and understanding to make judgment calls. Regardless, the Exodus did involve a great many people.

The Hyksos
For over a hundred years, from around the middle of the 17th Century BC, the Hyksos ruled Lower Egypt. Their capital was Avaris, in the delta region. They were a Semite people and they appear to have taken over of Lower Egypt without bloodshed or conquest. This implies that they may have already been in Egypt.

Egyptian records say that the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt by Pharaoh Ahmose I of Upper Egypt in the middle of the 16th century BC, thus reuniting the two Egypt’s again. There are those who believe that the Hyksos were the Israelites and this expelling of the Hyksos is the Exodus. This view is helped by the mistranslation of the word Hyksos as ‘Shepherd Kings’, when it is better translated as ‘Foreign Rulers’.

The expelling of the Hyksos is not likely to be the Exodus. If it is, then the Exodus happened much earlier than most people believe. The Egyptians also talk of the Hyksos as rulers, not a people, so expelling the Hyksos most likely means expelling the former rulers of Lower Egypt, not a large body of people such as the Israelites. However, it can still be tempting to think that the Hyksos were Israelite leaders, descendants of Jacob and his sons, and that these leaders were expelled by the Egyptians, leaving the bulk of the Israelites leaderless in Egypt.

It is tempting, but besides there being no evidence that the Hyksos were the Israelites (or at least their leaders), it would appear that Baal may have been introduced into Egypt by them. This would indicate they were more likely to be Canaanites.

If there is any connection between the Hyksos and the Israelites it is the possibility that they gave the Egyptians a plausible reason for disliking and distrusting all Semites. This, as I have already said, could have led to the oppression.

History and Faith
How does this affect my faith? With history, you can research, analyse and deduce, and no matter how much hard work you put into it you can rarely be certain. However, you will gain an understanding. With everything I know about the Romans of the time of Christ, I can deduce that the four soldiers at the foot of the cross were, most likely, Auxiliaries. I can take a view on when the Exodus took place, who the Pharaohs of the oppression and Exodus were, why the oppression happened and what type of life the Israelites had in Egypt, but I cannot be sure that I am right. I can have doubts over the translation of the word giving the figures quoted for those involved in the Exodus. There can be no certainty in Ancient History, but I believe I have a better understanding of the times and events. I also have an appreciation of the difficulties translators have.

You might be thinking, the Bible isn’t a history book, it’s God’s Word. What part does history have in it? Is history of any significance to the Bible and my faith? I would say yes. Trying to understand more about life in ancient times makes books like Exodus more real, not less. The Bible and history aren’t at odds. Reading about events in the Bible and trying to understand the time and culture they took place in can only make them more real, and in doing so can help deepen your faith because you are no longer tied to 21st century thinking.  To quote from the description of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible:

“The Bible was originally written to an ancient people removed from us by thousands of years and thousands of miles. The Scriptures include subtle culturally based nuances, undertones, and references to ancient events, literature and customs that were intuitively understood by those who first heard the Scriptures read. For us to hear the Scriptures as they did, we need a window into their world.”

For me that window is my interest in Ancient History.

  • The Pyramids
  • An Egyptian Pharaoh
  • Making Mud Bricks
  • St Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai
  • Map of Ancient Egypt