As Passover approaches it may be worth looking once more for extra-biblical
evidence of the Exodus.
Archeologists are reluctant to discuss the
subject as there is absolutely no external evidence for it, they say. On the
other hand the Hebrew Bible is so explicit, and the folk memory is so important
to us as Jews, that archeologists prefer not to get involved. It is true that
there is no direct evidence, but there is the possibility of approaching the
The biblical record of the whole Exodus episode is one
set of miracles after another, from the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt and
the crossing of the Red Sea to the collapse of the walls of Jericho in Canaan.
Moses is heavily involved but it is the hand of God that rules supreme, and
attempts to explain the magic rod that cures scorpion bites, the blow that
brings water from the rock, the manna that falls from heaven and so on, have all
failed in terms of reality. They are all miracles and archeologists cannot deal
with miracles. However there remain a number of themes that can be reexamined in
the light of Egyptian history.
First, the Children of Israel were in
Egypt as slave-workers and specialists in producing and working in mud-brick,
under harsh conditions. Secondly, they left Egypt as a scratch army under a
scratch general, Moses. And thirdly, they constructed a shrine or tabernacle,
the Mishkan, in glorious technicolor and luxurious detail, all in the middle of
a most barren wilderness. Now, there is one period of Egyptian history which can
accommodate these three different scenarios.
Mud-brick in Egypt was not
used for monuments, such as temples and pyramids, which were considered to be
worthy of stonework. It was reserved for plain domestic houses, in a process
that was both cheap and quick, and it would have been surprising to find great
numbers of workers, such as the Israelites, engaged in such work, as domestic
buildings were largely constructed by homeowners themselves.
was one enormous mud-brick project in Egypt that would have required large
numbers of semi-skilled workers, and that was the city of Akhetaten (“Horizon of
the Aten”). It was the brainchild of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, who required
a new city as the center of his religious revolution, and needed it
Akhenaten had imposed on his people the new religion of the
worship of the one god, the Aten, the disc of the Sun, to the exclusion of the
other multifarious gods, and he wanted his new city to be away from the
traditional religious centers of Memphis and Thebes so that he could quickly
promote his revolutionary ideas without contamination from the old beliefs and
WITH THE help of slave laborers and the army, the main
portion of the city was completed in two years, and the final works in another
six years. It was the largest mud-brick construction known to us in the Egyptian
world and it is probable that the Israelites were conscripted to carry out the
work. They had to work hard and fast under insistent taskmasters in the burning
heat of the site, later called El Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile, half-way
between Thebes and Memphis, yet they had decent housing they were allowed to
build for themselves and their families, just to the east of the new city, so
they survived and multiplied in numbers.
Akhenaten had this city built to
a well-ordered plan in record time, but his reforms were not popular, certainly
not with the priests and not with the population, who were used to worshiping
multiple gods and liked it that way. Thus, when Akhenaten died, only eight years
after the city was completed, there was a general evacuation by the inhabitants,
who went back to their old villages and took with them some of the wonderfully
rich artifacts that the new town had produced.
The city was left to the
wind and the weather and the blowing sands that covered it until it was exposed
by an early 20th-century German expedition that set out from Berlin, financed by
the Jewish millionaire philanthropist James Simon.
As the population
left, so did the workers, the army and the Israelites and, as compensation for
their back-breaking work, they took with them precious materials and provisions
for their long trek back to their ancient land of Canaan. To ready themselves
for a dangerous journey through enemy territory, they formed themselves into an
amateur army under the leadership of the amateur general Moses, who was one of
theirs, but had been educated in Egyptian ways and had adopted the new religion
of one God above all others. And what the Israelites needed on their journey was
a shrine, a tabernacle, what their leader later called the Mishkan, where he
could communicate with the one God.
Now, Akhenaten had been succeeded by
one of his sons-in-law, the young Tutankhamun, whose duty it was to oversee the
return to religious sanity after the death of his father-in-law, who had died
without a son and heir. Tutankhamun was left to regulate the chaos that took
place on the death of Akhenaten. But he was powerless to stop the population
from leaving the city and, as we know, he himself left for Thebes where he died
young, leaving a very rich set of royal treasures in his tomb, but there was no
battle-shrine to be found.
Every Pharaoh had a battle-shrine, as we know
from the case of Rameses II, whose own is shown on the walls of his temple at
Abu Simbel, as erected for him at the battle of Kadesh. It is a two-room shrine
within a large courtyard, and the inner room of the shrine had a central podium
surmounted by two figures with outstretched wings protecting a single deity,
which in this case is a non-representational tablet or cartouche.
battle-shrine is uncannily like the biblical Mishkan described in Exodus 25,
even up to the Ark with its two cherubim.
From his tomb we know that the
young Pharaoh Tutankhamun had a battle chariot, ready to go to war, so he would
have had a battle-shrine to go with it.
WE MAY speculate that the shrine,
which would have been of the finest materials, like all the rest of King Tut’s
heirloom, was carried off by the Israelites in their escape from the city. In
that way they had a ready-made tabernacle, and were able to have it adapted to
their very own Mishkan, by Bezalel and Oholiab, the Israelite craftsmen, in the
midst of that barren Wilderness where there were neither precious materials nor
luxury furnishings to be found.
This scenario, of the Israelites building
the mud-brick city of Akhetaten, escaping from it while impounding for their own
use the battle-shrine of prince and Pharaoh Tutankhamun, could be equated with
the account of the Exodus of the Children of Israel and the construction of the
Mishkan, whose description takes up so many chapters of the biblical Book of
And when would all that have taken place? Akhenaten died about
the year 1334 BCE and Tutankhamun in 1325 BCE, so the period of the Exodus would
have been between 1330 and 1320 BCE.
That could correspond with the
biblical date of 430 years after the Children of Israel entered Egypt (Exodus
12:40), which would then be about 1755 BCE, which is some hundred years before
the Hyksos ruled Egypt, and it was with them, ancient Jewish historian Josephus
claims, the Israelites came.
On the other hand it was a hundred years too
late for the date of 480 years before the building of the Solomonic Temple (I
Kings 6:1). In other words, it was a hundred years too early for one, and a
hundred years too late for the other, thus not a bad average to correspond with
the two fixed biblical dates for the Exodus.
As for the army formed by
the fleeing Israelites, this is clearly hinted at in the biblical record, which
says that they left Egypt “armed in groups of fifty” (Exodus 13:18). They were
counted as men of military age, from 20 years of age and upwards, and they
protected the Mishkan by encamping around it in military order by their
individual standards, “Degel mahane Yehudah...” flag of the camp of Judah
(Numbers 2:3) and so on, tribe by tribe. They were only a scratch army and
nearly lost the first war with Amalek but, after Jethro had advised Moses how to
form a professional force with trusted chieftains over ranks of ten and fifty,
and a hundred and a thousand (Exodus 18:21), they never, as a complete army,
lost another battle in Sinai or Transjordan.
In conclusion, we can say
there was one period in Egyptian history when an Exodus could have taken place.
It was after the completion of an enormous mud-brick project, when an opportunity
arose for the Israelites to escape, when there was a practical foundation for
the elaborate Mishkan of the Sinai Desert, adapted from an Egyptian model, and
when there was good reason for the Israelites to form an army and be counted in
military ranks and numbers. And if that was indeed the period, then Akhenaten
was the Pharaoh of the Oppression and Tutankhamun the Pharaoh of the
The writer is a senior fellow at the W.F Albright Institute of
Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.