Israelites in and out of Egypt

Was there ever an Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt? If so, who was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites and who let them go?

By STEPHEN ROSENBERG
April 18, 2011 16:58
A canopic coffinette of Tutankhamun

King Tut_311. (photo credit: Andreas F. Voegelin/Resnicow Schroeder Associates )

Pessah is the season when the subject of the Exodus looms large. Was there ever an Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and, if so, who was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites and who was the Pharaoh who let them go?

The account in the Bible is so full of detail, and the celebration of Pessah so universal amongst us Jews, that the temptation to prove the Exodus is great. But, outside the Bible, the evidence just does not exist, so we may try a different tack to see if we can establish an indirect link to the event.

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The Torah is full of references to Egyptian geography and religious cults and customs, and it is clear that the compiler was speaking to an audience familiar with Egypt. When Lot parted from Abraham, he chose the plain of the Jordan because “it was well watered… like the Land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). The Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia was built of brick, because “they used brick for stone” (Gen. 11:3), it being necessary to explain this to the Israelites, who only knew monuments built of stone, as in Egypt.

When Joseph brings his sons to be blessed by his father Jacob, “he brought them out from between his knees” (Gen. 48:12). Egyptian carvings typically show children standing between the legs of their elders. During the seven-year famine, Joseph arranges for all the land to be transferred to Pharaoh, but he cannot do that with the land of the priests (Gen. 47:26) as the temples held their land independent of the state.

With reference to temples, one can see that the description of the Tabernacle of the Wilderness, the Mishkan, is based on Egyptian models. The Ark of the Covenant is made of three layers, a wooden chest overlaid with gold inside and outside, like the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. It is protected by two cherubim, just like that of Tutankhamun, except that he had four. Much of the furniture from his tomb was fitted with carrying staves, like those of the Tabernacle.

The table of shewbread, or the “bread of faces” in Hebrew, is the equivalent of the table of food carved before the tomb of every high-ranking Egyptian, which was laid with 10 to 14 loaves in two sets facing in opposite directions, having literally “two faces.”

The Mishkan is a precious intricate structure that could hardly have been built in a wild unwatered desert, and scholars have seen it as a retro-description of Solomon’s Temple, of the tent that David built for the Ark in Jerusalem, or of the Tabernacle set up in Shiloh. But the biblical description points more clearly to a portable kind of battle tent, perhaps that of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun. As far as we know he never went to war, but we have a rendering of his battle chariot and a suitable tent would have been prepared, just as one was built for Ramesses the Great, only some 50 years later.

It is very possible that Tutankhamun’s portable tent, built in the ornate style of his tomb artifacts, which included all the precious elements of the Mishkan mentioned in the Bible, was carried off by the escaping Israelites and re-erected with modifications by craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab in the wilderness.

If we take that as a starting point, that would have been in about the year 1325 BCE, the year of Tutankhamun’s death, and from that we can reconstruct further events. King Tut succeeded the iconic Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had revolutionized the Egyptian cult by concentrating it on the single worship of one god, the Aten, the disc of the sun. By doing that he had solved the land problem, for he curtailed the power of the priests and went on to seize their lands for the worship of his single god.

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He drew away from the official cultic center at Thebes and built a new capital at El-Amarna, calling the city Akhetaten (“horizon of the Aten”), in homage to his god Aten. Being built in mudbrick, with stone only for the shrines and palaces, the city was erected in the phenomenally short time of two years, with the help of the army and foreign labor, that could have been drawn from the Israelites of the Delta.

In that case Akhenaten, who had started his reign under the official name of Amenhotep IV (1350-1334 BCE), was the persecutor of the Israelites, “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). He was the one who ordered the male babies to be drowned, from which fate Moses was saved to become a prince at his court, as Sigmund Freud suggested 80 years ago. When Moses saw his brothers slaving at the building of the city, he reacted as described in the Torah and eventually, on the death of Akhenaten, saw a chance to lead them out of Egypt. That chance soon came.

The death of Akhenaten is shrouded in mystery and his successors, sons-in-law Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun, reigned through a period of instability while the hated new religion of the Aten was rejected and Egypt returned to the polytheistic worship of Amun and many other gods. Both Akhenaten and Tutankhamun had died under suspicious circumstances and without obvious heirs, and this perhaps gave rise to the idea of the slaying of the firstborn, when the normal dynastic succession of father to son was broken. As far as we know, Akhenaten had six daughters and two sons who seem to have died young, thus again giving rise to the subject of the 10th plague.

This period of instability gave the Israelites the opportunity to organize their escape and take with them considerable treasure, including the highly ornamented battle tent of Tutankhamun. But Tutankhamun was succeeded by the powerful and effective Horemheb, a former commander-in-chief who, while restoring order out of chaos, would have regretted the escape of the Israelites and chased after them, though without success, with his 600 best chariots to the Red Sea.

From the Ten Plagues on it was all miracles, the crossing of the sea, the manna, the water from the rock supplying hundreds of thousands, the building of the Tabernacle under desert conditions, and later, even the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of Jericho were miracles. It is hard for historians and archeologists to deal with miracles.

If the Exodus occurred in about 1325 BCE, and the wanderings were one generation (Num. 14:29-31) the entry to Canaan could have been in about 1290 BCE, at the beginning of the Ramesside dynasty in Egypt in 1293 BCE. The fourth king of that dynasty, Merenptah, records the conquest of Israel as a nation, in about the year 1210 BCE, which would have given the escapees a reasonable period of 80 years to get established in the land together with the tribes that had remained from earlier times.

As for the biblical statement that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Ex. 12:40), if they left in 1325 BCE, that would imply entry in 1755 BCE, and this could well correlate with the entry of the Hyksos, who had established their own dynasty of kings in Egypt by 1663 BCE, and must have entered well before that. The early Jewish historian Josephus claims that the Israelites came down with the Hyksos, and it could well be that the first wave came with the Semitic Hyksos hordes around 1700 BCE.

When we are told that Solomon’s Temple was started 480 years after the Exodus (I Kings 6:1), that looks like an estimate based on 12 generations of 40 years. Solomon’s Temple was started in about 965 BCE, so the 480 could perhaps be reduced to 360 years, which means either 12 generations of a more credible 30 years or, more likely, there were only eight or nine generations as the Judges that came after Moses and Joshua were not consecutive in their rule but rather overlapping, and then the period of 360 years between the Exodus of 1325 BCE and the Temple commencement of 965 BCE is plausible.

Of course, all this playing with figures is speculative, as we decline to take the biblical figures at face value and we cannot even fully verify the dates we have for the pharaohs, but there appears to be a correlation that is not impossible, and which shows that the biblical compiler had records that went back many years and that retained a sense of the past in numerical terms. So what? Sitting around the Seder table we like to believe the full biblical account of the Exodus, the 12 brothers, the slavery, the Ten Plagues, the national release and the gaining of our freedom. The historians and archeologists think it is all a wonderful folk-tale but hardly one founded on any historical fact. Proof there is none, but information based on equating the battle tent of Tutankhamun with the Tabernacle of the Wilderness can, when put together as above, make a credible narrative.

Stephen Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem


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