The Exodus enigma

We can say there was one period in Egyptian history when an Exodus could have taken place.

RamsesII370 (photo credit: Courtesy Stephen Rosenberg)
(photo credit: Courtesy Stephen Rosenberg)
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 subject obliquely.
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.
But there 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 quickly.
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 their priests.
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.
This 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 Exodus.
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 Exodus.The writer is a senior fellow at the W.F Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.