Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus Account and the Accuracy of the Biblical Chronology: Time for a New Look

by Wim Vanraes

Introduction

The story of Exodus is a very powerful one, a story that still speaks to the imagination. It has withstood the passing of centuries and even millennia, and still inspires songs and movies. The movie ”The Ten Commandments” is still a classic. And even in an increasingly secular Western culture, the Dreamworks Pictures animated movie ‘Prince of Egypt’ won wide acclaim, where the old story was cast anew with the most up to date animation techniques for storytelling and a superb voice cast, securing a place in modern pop culture.

Just as increased rigor in textual criticism started to question the Bible itself, the advent of more academic research in archaeology in the 60’s and onward began to erode the foundation for the historicity of the Biblical stories. Lack of proof for a Semitic presence in Egypt at the time of Ramses II, for example, tore down the historical status of this story which is so foundational for both Jews and Christians. In the process, Biblical Archaeology was discredited as a ‘serious’ endeavor, as it was thought to mix a strict material evidence-based praxis of archaeology with a predisposed mindset that sought confirmation of ideas and literature, to be read into the material evidence. The current paradigm in science as a whole, is indeed to follow where the evidence leads, and not the other way around. So every attempt ‘to prove the Bible’ is from the beginning seen as invalid.

In 1977 J.K. Eakins wrote “The purpose of biblical archaeology is the clarification and illumination of the biblical text and content through archaeological investigation of the biblical world.” In an interview for the documentary “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” (PBS Nova, 2008) [1] Archaeologist William G. Dever said the following [2]: “Archaeology certainly doesn’t prove literal readings of the Bible…It calls them into question, and that’s what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible.” And in an accompanying PBS NOVA interview, he followed up: “From the beginnings of what we call biblical archaeology, perhaps 150 years ago, scholars, mostly western scholars, have attempted to use archaeological data to prove the Bible. And for a long time it was thought to work. William Albright, the great father of our discipline, often spoke of the ‘archaeological revolution.’ Well, the revolution has come but not in the way that Albright thought. The truth of the matter today is that archaeology raises more questions about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament than it provides answers, and that’s very disturbing to some people.”

The criticism that proponents of ‘Biblical Archaeology’ are prone to bias by starting from an a priori conclusion is certainly not unfounded. However, the current counter idea that all claims that seem to support the Biblical narrative are unfounded because supporting the discredited Bible is likewise an a priori. New discoveries are constantly being made, and so our understanding changes. So the goal should not be to ‘prove the Bible right,’ while the claim that actual evidence on the ground matches biblical stories should be acceptable to make.

When we look specifically at the Exodus story, we see that most scholars accept that Ramesses was the Pharaoh of Exodus, as championed by William Foxwell Allbright, an important figure in Biblical Archaeology. But was he? Several people have started to pull this loose thread, and as the current view on Exodus started to unravel, they proposed their own theories that appear to be a much better fit, as I will show in this article. One of the recent –and well supported – propositions for a revised interpretation of Exodus was offered by David Rohl in his book Exodus – Myth or History? [3], and was popularized by Tim Mahoney in the documentary “Patterns of Evidence – Exodus.” John Bimson and David Livingston have also proposed different chronologies that should be taken into account. [4]

The irony cannot be ignored when you realize that the only reason to accept Ramesses as Pharaoh of Exodus is because the Bible says so. So the bible is wrong, because the Bible says so! Here is where I depart from this discussion about Yes Bible vs. No bible. As an archaeologist, I was impressed by the case as made from the material record, able to sketch a picture that is simply remarkable. If we are going to make a sound case about Exodus, we need to look at the material record. Before we can do that, we have to take a look at the current interpretation and chronology.

Conventional interpretation

In Exodus 1:11 (NIV) we read “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Very early on this was interpreted as telling us that Ramesses was the Pharaoh with whom Moses engaged. As Ramesses was a famous, powerful ruler who built or rebuilt many structures [5], he spoke to the imagination. Who better to pit against Moses, making the miracle of the Exodus even sweeter? And it is right in the Bible: the slaves built the store city of Pi Ramesse! And who oversaw that project? Ramesses II the Great, 3rd pharaoh of the 19th dynasty who is believed to have reigned from 1279 BC to 1213 BC.

This shows the dangers of a priori research aimed to prove or explain the Bible. But somehow modern archaeology and Egyptology have failed to re-examine this connection. Instead they simply went to the next step: is there any material evidence of Israelite presence in Ramesses’ Egypt? Since the short answer was a resounding ‘no,’ most researchers dropped the subject altogether instead of looking at the starting assumption of assigning Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

New Chronology and new interpretation of the record

The date for the Exodus has always been a fiercely debated topic. As mentioned above, for most of the 19th century the Pharaoh of Exodus was believed to be Ramesses II [6]. Or to be more precise: Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the enslavement, and his son, Merneptah, was the Pharaoh of the actual exodus of the slaves. But in 1896 Flinders Petrie unearthed the Merneptah Stele in Thebes, and this changed the discussion completely.

It is the victory stele of Merneptah, detailing his military prowess and victories against the Libyans who had invaded Egypt from the West. Most of the stele deals with this. Yet the last 3 lines (out of 28) mention a campaign in the East. They read as follows:

“[…] All the rulers are prostate, saying «Peace!» (Salaam),
not one among the Nine Bows dare raise his head.
Plundered is Tehenu (Lybia), Hatti (the Hittites) is at peace,
Carried off is Canaan with every evil.
Brought away is Ascalon, taken is Gezer,
Yenoʿam is reduced to non-existence;
Israel is laid waste, having no seed,
Khurru (Syria) has become widowed because of Nile-land.
All lands together are (now) at peace,
and everyone who roamed about has been subdued,
– by the King of S & N Egypt, Baienre Meriamun, Son of Re, Merenptah,
given life like Re daily.” [7]

It recaps that Libya is done for, and then that the Hittites (Hatti) are pacified. Next come four cities that were captured and plundered, pa-Canaan (Gaza) [8], Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam. It concludes with two other larger powers, Israel and Syria (Hurru). If Israel were just out of the exodus, barely having arrived and settled down, they would have been a tribal confederacy. Why then would Merneptah list them next to significant players and well established and rich cities, unless Israel already was an established power and major player in the region? In 1925 James Jack proposed a mid-15th century date to solve this apparent problem.

Some scholars objected to this interpretation, and pointed out that the name ‘Israel’ on the stele is followed by the determinative for ‘people,’ and not for city or nation. This would indicate that they were merely nomads, and not a formal kingdom. Others have proposed that the name should be read as ‘Jezreel,’ a city and valley in Northern Canaan [9]. Alexandru Mihăilă describes the work of William G. Dever in his article “Ethnicity in Early Israel. Some Remarks on Merneptah’s Stele.” [10] He wrote: “William G. Dever opposes the revisionists/minimalists, defending that the Israelites from the Merneptah’s stele should be understood as an ethnic group, distinct socio-economically and politically from the Canaanites, known as such by the Egyptian intelligence, sufficiently numerous and well established in the central hill country to be perceived as a threat by the Egyptians, although not organized into city-states.” [11]

So this controversy is not new. The (re-)discovery of a fragment of a pedestal in the storerooms of the Egyptian Museum of Berlin changes the above academic discussion [12]. On this fragment 3 name-rings are visible, with the first two reading Ashkelon, the second Canaan, and the third (partially preserved) reads Israel. Orthography suggests a time mid-18th Dynasty; David Rohl suggests early in the reign of Ramesses II. Either way, this indicates the presence of a recognizable people named Israel, well before the conventional exodus. Peter van der Veen and other researchers extensively studied this fragment, and concluded that their findings “indeed suggest that Proto-Israelites had migrated to Canaan sometime during the middle of the second millennium BCE.” [13] If Ramesses, then, was not the Pharaoh of Exodus and the slavery, who was?

David Rohl has made a convincing study, which seems to support his New Chronology. I understand that there is debate regarding his revised chronology (see below), but I want to focus on the material evidence and the picture that is painted by it. The parallels become very strong, even in quite unexpected ways. To me, applying Ockham’s razor, the simple explanation is the better one. And chronology should fit the material evidence, not the other way around. I will concede that single elements of what I will present here can be and are debated. However, we need to keep in mind that the case I am making here does not depend on any single point of proof. Compare it with fingerprint examination, if you will. What is looked for is a sequence of distinctive elements in the skin patterns of our fingertips that in sufficient degree should match the sequence of interest. If a sequence is found that shows sufficient match, the overall match of both samples is confirmed, even though there might not be a 100% match and one could point at particular elements that do not seem to fit [14]. The more points of comparison one can find, the higher the probability and certainty of a match.

Likewise, I will present here a combination of both archaeological and historical elements that, when followed chronologically, tells a story that is remarkably parallel to the story of Exodus and conquest that the Bible offers.  Note that, for the purposes of this article, I am not assuming that Exodus should be read as a history book, but that the historical elements it provides in regard to the Exodus and the conquest are at least in large part trustworthy and should be used as an additional reference point.

Chronological issues

Before we venture into the archaeological and historical records, we need to address the issue of chronology in some more depth first. Based on surviving lists of kings and the years they reigned, relative chronologies can be put together. But without conclusive events that allow linking those historical chronologies to the astronomical calendar we use now, they remain floating. The method used is searching for so called synchronisms, events that link two chronologies, such as an invasion, a battle, a treaty, a marriage, etc. that links a certain regnal year of king X from country Xx to king Y from country Yy. Now both chronologies are linked. This repeats until the chronologies can be linked to an event with a known astronomical date.

One of the main anchor points for the older Egyptian chronology, is the synchronism defined by the invasion of Pharaoh Shoshenq I at the beginning of the 22nd dynasty, linked to the Biblical Shishak who plundered Jerusalem and the temple in the 5th year of Rehoboam, king of Judah ((1  Kings 14:25-26;  2  Chron.  12:2-5). Since Shoshenq’s victory stelae that describes this campaign dates from the 21st year of his reign, this campaign can be set in his 20th year. This relative date and link can now be tied to the Assyrian chronology through another synchronism based on the battle of Qarqar, fought in 853 BC between the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (in his 6th year) and a coalition of Levantine kings, among them king Ahab of Israel. The Assyrian chronology, in turn, can be dated absolutely through a record of a solar eclipse. Going back through the Biblical to the Egyptian chronology, the year 925 BC can be assigned to the 20th regnal year of Shoshenq I, and thus to the Egyptian chronology. [15]

This is also seen in the following statement by K. Kitchen, leading expert on ancient Egyptian chronology, at an international colloquium on chronology: “… the 21-year reign of the founder of the 22nd Dynasty, Shoshenq I, can be set at circa 945-924 BC, thanks (i) to his synchronism with the detailed chronology of Judah and Israel, itself linked closely to a firm Assyrian chronology… and (ii) to the series of known regnal years of his successors, which fill up the interval 924-716/712 BC almost completely…” [16]

But is this synchronism correct? Professor Eric Horning writes in a standard reference handbook on Egyptian Chronology the following: “…there remain many uncertainties in the Third Intermediate Period, as critics such as David Rohl have rightly maintained; even our basic premise of 925 [BC] for Shoshenk’s campaign to Jerusalem is not built on solid foundations.” [17]

One of the reasons for assigning this link between the Egyptian Shoshenq I and the Biblical Shishak, apart from the obvious similarity in names, is the Shoshenq campaign relief in Karnak, which shows all the cities and strongholds he conquered. It was Champollion who found this, and he was the first to translate the place names. He came across one that he read as ‘Iuda Ha Malkuth,’ ‘Judah, the Kingdom.’ The implication could not be clearer. Yet soon thereafter, questions were raised. The correct reading was different: ‘Yad ha-Melek,’ Hand of the King, which indicates some monument erected by a king. Moreover, when looking at the place names and reconstructing the campaign, we see that Judah is completely left out, and that it is the northern kingdom of Israel that was invaded! And the list of places sacked by Shishak in the Bible record Judean cities, Jerusalem chiefly among them as an important prize after the reign of king Solomon and the riches he had stored in the temple, leaving Israel alone. Egyptologist John Bimson described all this in his paper ‘Shoshenk and Shishak – A Case of Mistaken Identity?’. [18]

The biblical name Shishak can be read as the Egyptian Sysa, a hypocoristicon (short form, pet name, like calling William J. Clinton ‘Bill’) for Ramesses. Some opposition to that identification had to do with the presence of the K or Q at the end of Shishak/Shishaq and the difference between s and sh. It has been shown that both can interchange between Egyptian and Hebrew, and David Rohl gives a series of examples (e.g. the Egyptian K-s for the land of Kush and the Hebrew K-sh). [19] The name Sysa is rendered in the hieroglyphs as sysw, with the w being equivalent to the Hebrew ‘waw.’ As alphabets changed, the letter originally used for ‘waw’ was a stick with a circle on top, as shown on an ostracon found in the Biblical city of Lachish, in stratum VI which was dated to the same time as the 19th Dynasty. Another ostracon, this time found in central Israel, in Izbet Sartah, dating from the tenth or ninth century BC, shows how a student scribbled an alphabet in practice. We see that ‘waw’ is a straight line, and the letter Qoph (K/Q) drawn as a stick with a circle on top. It is not impossible that the later Masoretes, when reading ‘sysw’, interpreted that as ‘Shyshak,’ having lost the knowledge that at the time the nickname of the great Pharaoh was written as ‘Sysa,’ with the ‘waw’ indicating the modern letter ‘a,’ and not a ‘k.’ [20]

This is a very problematic issue for the conventional chronology, misdating the whole chronology by several Dynasties. The mistake lies in insisting Ramesses is the pharaoh of the Exodus, and that Shysak is Shoshenq. It is amazing to see how everything else is subsequently forced into the framework erected on these faulty identifications. Case in point: the dating of a mummy assigned to Ramesses I.

The Niagara Falls Museum held for years an Egyptian mummy in their cabinet of curiosities. In the 1980’s a German Egyptologist, Arne Eggebrecht, visited the museum and was struck by the mummy. He visually examined it, and was convinced it was someone special, of high standing. The mummy was sent to Emory University in Atlanta, where it was subjected to a battery of tests. One of the tests was a radiocarbon dating of a sample of abdominal skin and muscle. The result placed the mummy at 2734 ±60 BP (uncalibrated), which can be calibrated to 1010–790 BC with a 95.4% probability.

L. Miller suggested the mummy was that of Shoshenq I, based primarily on the calibrated carbon date and of funerary objects from the royal necropolis in Tanis that he assigned to Shoshenq I as proof the mummy was moved temporarily to the tomb of Shoshenq II and then to Thebes. [21] Troy L. Sagrillo, reviewing Miller’s article, shows the material cannot be tied to Shoshenq. He points out that the mummification style, the linen packing in the body cavity, the fact that the mummy has the arms fully crossed over the chest and scraps of the original linen wrappings left on the mummy all indicate a Dynasty XIX date. He then concludes that the mummy cannot be assigned to Shoshenq I, but points out “if the calibrated radiocarbon date truly rules out an identification with Ramesses I,” that several other Ramesses pharaohs remain unaccounted for (including Ramesses VII, VIII, and X.). [22] Indeed, the C14 date is about 250-300 years too late for 1292–1290 BC, the traditional date for Ramesses I.

It is interesting to see how researchers are dealing with this problem. The C14 date more or less rules out Ramesses I, and attempts are made by some (Miller) to ignore the physical evidence to suggest Shoshenq I. We need to keep in mind that chronology is subservient to the material record, as Sagrillo correctly applied when he ruled out Miller’s identification.

In light of the problems with the synchronism used to pin down the Egyptian chronology, as explained above, I propose (for the sake of argument in this article) to accept this C14 date, coupled to the strong evidence linking it to the 19th Dynasty and Ramesses I, but to revise the chronology and bring it forward 250 years. David Rohl, John Bimson, Jeremy Goldberg and others have proposed various revisions, and discussing the merit of each falls outside the scope of this article. We have seen that there are serious problems with the traditional chronology that need an answer or revision. For now, I merely suggest to hold to a 250 year revision, as suggested by the C14 date [23] of the Ramesses I mummy, and look where that leads us.

Archaeological and historical record

The whole story can be broken up in broad phases, each having distinctive markers. These phases are ‘Asiatics in Egypt,’ ‘Slavery,’ ‘Exodus,’ and ‘Conquest.’

Asiatics in Egypt’

In the 12th Dynasty, we have the rule of Amenemhat III, for a while as co-regent with his father Senuseret III. Several events took place under his rule. He is responsible for extensive waterworks, diverting water from the Nile to the Fayum (Lake Moeris, possibly coming from Amenemhat’s prenomen Nimaatre, pronounced like Nimuaria => [ni]Muaria => Moeris). This waterway is called Bahr Yussuf, the waterway of Joseph. We have records of the high water mark for the yearly Nile inundations at Semna/Kumma for this Pharaoh, and we see a sequence of high water, indicating great conditions for plentiful harvests with the extra silt that is deposited. This sequence is followed by an even higher series of inundations, which bring catastrophe, as now the water washes away houses and cattle, and takes too long to recede again, so the farmers miss the season for planting, hence there is no harvest. [24] Such water mark records were very sparse in previous times, but since the reign of Amenemhat on become very important and show organization. Elsa Yvanez wrote “Finally, it is essential to note the pre-eminence of Nile records dated from the reign of Amenemhat III. […] Such a regularity and unity in the records seem to indicate a very strong and particular involvement of Amenemhat III in the control of the river. […] The exceptional nature of the Nile floods in the second part of the Middle Kingdom could explain the important number of inscriptions recording the Nile level dating from this period, in comparison with the very few earlier ones.” [25]

At the same time we see a restructuring of the agricultural system, with the establishment of a ‘Department of the People’s Giving’ and other domestic reorganizations. We find a vizier during his reign with the name Ptahwer (Potifar?) and a certain ‘Ankhu, overseer of the fields.’ Under Sobekhotep I we find Ankhu as vizier, who is a very powerful and long reigned vizier, operating from Avaris. This Ankhu has 2 sons, one them being mentioned as pa-Aam (the Asiatic).

Recent work by the Austrian professor Manfred Bietak in Avaris [26], located in the Nile delta, has shown other details that add to this picture. This place was known as Avaris in the  Middle Bronze Age, and Pi-Ramesse was the city that was built at the same place at the end of the Late Bronze Age (which is why later editors likely changed the then unknown ‘Avaris’ to the well known ‘Pi Ramesse,’ as editors in current documents referg to New York instead of Nieuw Amsterdam).

On level H, Prof. Bietak found a house with a decidedly non-Egyptian floorplan: a mittelsaalhaus as was common in Syria (where Abraham, Joseph’s great-grandfather, came from). In the next level, stratum G/4, a much grander palace was built right on top, following an Egyptian palatial plan, around a courtyard with 12 pillars. Is this the house of Ankhu the overseer of fields, and upgraded when he became vizier? At a later stage, two identical suites were added, perhaps for his two sons?

In the garden around the house were 11 main grave monuments and one larger one, with associated sacrificial pits designating the burials as Asiatic (donkeys and sheep). One of the tombs is larger than the others, and contained in the vaulted chapel in front of the main structure the remains of a two meter high sitting statue, twice life-sized. Reconstruction of the surviving fragments show an Asiatic man (recognizable by the throw stick, yellow skin and red hair), with a multicolored coat. Usually only royal people received larger than life statues, with the only and few exceptions for people of the highest ranks. The quality of the statue and workmanship argue for a connection to a royal workshop. [27] Is this Asiatic man the owner of the palace and the vizier Ankhu, and can we link this to Joseph and his 11 brothers?

The Asiatic population continued to flourish, and from a small village Avaris became a large regional town, as attested by the growth of the number of houses and the graves.

In all this, it is easy to see a ‘Joseph’ figure, warning Pharaoh about a coming famine, reorganizing the agricultural system (collecting grain and storing it) and starting the foresight-based project of the Bahr Yussuf. He then becomes a vizier, second only to Pharaoh. Meanwhile, the Asiatic population increased, partly from his father’s family who had come to find relief from the famine and from partly from a later influx of other Asiatics, so that Avaris grew in size and prosperity.

Slavery

But that only lasted several generations, as soon the skeletal remains of the Asiatics start to show Harris lines, indicative of malnutrition. The grave remains showed also that there was a much higher mortality among infants and young children (consisting of 50% of burials, instead of the average in this kind of ancient society of 25%), and a skewed ratio between the sexes: there were 3 women for every 2 men. [28] What happened to all the adult men? If the story about pharaoh curbing the male population by killing infants is true, this is precisely how it would show up in the archaeological record. Documents such as the Brooklyn Papyrus, show a list of slaves on Upper Egyptian estates: most show Semitic names. [29]

One of the more powerful rulers of the 13th Dynasty was Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV. He married the daughter of the local king of Avaris, who has a son named Mio (hypocoristicon of Hapimose, ‘Born of the Nile flood’?) who is mentioned first on Sobekhotep IV’s Wadi Hammamat stela. On a stela in Wadi el-Hudi, Prof. Kim Ryholt identifies the mentioned prince Sobekhotep, who is accompanying his father Sobekhotep IV, as this Mio, and sees this as an indication of his special status, presumably that of eldest son and designated successor. [30] The histories as written by Artapanus and Josephus suggest that Moses was saved by Merris/Thermutis, daughter of the king of Avaris. If that is the case, it is logical that this Mio/Moses was the first son. An intriguing link attesting to the old sources that Artapanus drew from, is that he named the husband of Merris, Moses’ adoptive father, as Khenophres. The only Pharaonic name matching that is that of Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV. Artapanus decribes the military exploits of Moses against the Kushites (Ethiopians) when they invaded Egypt. There is evidence found by Vivian Davis of such a Kushite invasion from the grave of the 15th Dynasty district governor Sobeknakht, where an inscription details exactly such a Kushite invasion (albeit a different one). [31] Given the unique reference of Khenophres/Khaneferre, it is not unthinkable that Artapanus had access to actual military records in the Library of Alexandria, even if he embellished the tale in his retelling. Artapanus describes how Moses married the Kushite princess, which ended the hostilities by the Kushite surrender (which is very briefly referenced in Numbers 12). Given that Mio was not his own son, and the tremendous success he had against the Kushites, it would be almost expected to have Sobekhotep IV becoming jealous and seeing him as a threat to his throne. Whether or not Mio/Moses killed an overseer, he had to flee for his life.

Exodus

The length of Moses’ exile is recorded as 40 years [32]. Looking at the Turin Kings list, we see that 40 years after Sobekhotep IV we have Dudimose as Pharaoh. Of this Pharaoh, Manetho writes: “Tutimaos. In his reign, for what cause I know not, God smote us (the Egyptians). And, unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence against our land. By main force they easily seize it without striking a blow.” There are two parts that provide tantalizing clues. First, God smote the Egyptians, and only then did the invaders come. Note that the invaders are not the downfall of Egypt; they merely seal the deal as an extra blow.

This links up with the Ipuwer Papyrus, which contains ‘the admonitions of an Egyptian sage.’ Textual analysis by John Van Seters in 1966 assign the date of writing to the end of the 13th Dynasty, based on the occurrence of certain people mentioned and the use of certain words. David Rohl and others see a striking parallel between the calamities that befall Egypt and the 10 plagues, down to every detail. For instance: in Exodus 10:22 we read “For three days there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt.” Ipuwer writes: “Those who had shelter are now in the dark of the storm. The whole of the delta cannot be seen.” Interestingly, Ipuwer also complains that one of the earlier Pharaohs had not killed the Asiatics when they first arrived: “There is a fire in their hearts! If only he (Amenemhat?) had perceived their nature in the first generation! Then he would have smitten the evil – stretched out his hand against it. He would have destroyed their seed and their heritage.

But only one last terrible plague would finally deliver the slaves: the sudden deaths of the firstborn. Exodus 12:29 writes: “At midnight the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt – from the firstborn of Pharaoh, heir to his throne, to the first-born of the captive in the dungeon.” And Ipuwer tells us the same in his own words: “Behold, plague sweeps the land; blood is everywhere with no shortage of the dead. Children are dashed against the walls, the funeral shroud calls out to you before you come near. Woe is me for the grief of this time. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Wailing is throughout the land mingled with lamentations.” Even the subsequent turn in fortunes of the slaves is retold by Ipuwer!

When Tim Mahoney was making his documentary ‘Patterns of Evidence: Exodus,” he interviewed Maarten Raven of the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands about the Admonitions papyrus that is kept there (also named Ipuwer papyrus, after the scribe who wrote it),  Mr. Raven strongly denied that this papyrus could have anything to do with the plagues as described in the Bible. His main argument? Exodus took place during the Ramesside periode, six to eight hundred years after the Middle Kingdom. Again, that original misidentification prevents scholars from seeing the obvious and remarkable similarities. [33]

What is even more remarkable, is that in this same period, we see in Avaris, now in stratum G, several pits with many bodies, tossed in without much care, without the normal burial goods. The bodies appear in different positions, many in each pit, as if they have been hastily thrown in. Professor Bietak explains these people died from a sudden and deadly plague. John Hopkins University professor Hans Goedicke mentions that such a plague is mentioned following the 13th Dynasty, and that it is called the ‘Asiatic Disease.’ Very quickly after the mass graves, the Asiatic quarter of Avaris was suddenly abandoned. They just picked up their belongings, and left. Interestingly, the workers city of Harun, consisting of a predominantly Asiatic population, also just left, leaving tools and pottery and other such things behind. The whole city got deserted, without a trace of violence or illness. Again, a whole city whose people simply vanished.

The second part is that the invaders (Hyksos) came in without a blow. If the biblical account is correct, the pursuing army of Pharaoh was destroyed. Not in the Red Sea, but in the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. This would explain the next clue. There is an interesting report made by a British officer, Major-General Sir Alexander Tulloch, who in 1882 was inspecting the Suez Canal. A sudden wind made Lake Menzala (nearby the position of the Reed Sea) completely disappear, and where once was over five feet of water, was dry ground. [34] It is possible to identify the several waterways the escaping Asiatics encountered, and to calculate the marching distances, fitting a group of that size and composition, with old people and children as part of the main group. But again, going into full detail would be outside the scope of this article.

Conquest

This last part describes the situation in Canaan. Following conventional chronology, the conquest phase of the Exodus happened during the Late Bronze Age, and there are no traces of widespread destruction to be found. There was, for instance, no Jericho to walk around and destroy at that time, only a centuries old ruin. However, if we look at the Middle Bronze Age, a very different picture emerges. All the 32 towns mentioned in the Biblical record are present, and see a simultaneous destruction event.

Look at Jericho. Here, Kathleen Kenyon spent several seasons of excavations. She did not find any destruction during the Ramesside period, but she did find a very violent event in the Middle Bronze age. For that period, she found the city walls collapsed, and then burned. She also found the grain storage jars throughout the town to be still plentiful, supporting the siege beginning shortly after harvest, as described in Joshua 3:15. It also supports the very short siege of seven days. Another interesting detail is that the latest tombs in Jericho show clear evidence of multiple and simultaneous burials, leading Kenyon to suggest a catastrophe, perhaps a plague, to have struck the city just prior to the destruction of the Middle Bronze Age city. In Numbers 25:1-9 we see that the Israelites, camped on the Plain of Shittim in the weeks just before the siege of Jericho, were also struck by a sudden plague that killed many. Is this the same plague that also tested the people of Jericho? [35]

After the destruction, a small palace was built which matches the description in Judges 3:12-25 describing the residence of the king of Moab, where he was murdered by the Israelite assassin Ehud. Then the city lays in ruins for centuries, until in the 10th century a small building is once again erected and occupied for a short time, then abandoned. The only time Jericho is mentioned again is the rebuild in the Early Iron Age, is when King David orders his ambassadors, humiliated with half shaven beards by the king of Ammon, to go to Jericho until their beards had grown back. It was a place where no one lived, so no one could see their shame.

Also in Jericho, in the Middle Bronze Age destruction layer, two other archaeologists, Selling and Watzinger, found that small houses from merchants were built between the inner and outer wall, with some houses being built in the outer wall. And this was the only section of the walls that had not collapsed. Even the story of Rahab being spared, seems to be reflected in the remains of Jericho. But only if you abandon the idea of a Ramesside Exodus, and look for the evidence in the earlier Middle Bronze Age, the image drastically changes. Then, all of a sudden, down to the details, things line up and match.

The city of Hazor was also ordered to be destroyed, and Joshua mentions that he killed its king, Jabin. In Mari in Syria, Middle Bronze Age archives were found, containing correspondence between King Shamshi-Adad and Ibni-Adad of Hazor. Linguistic experts confirm that the Akkadian form Ibni-Adad is the same as the Semitic ‘Yabni-Adad’ or ‘Jabin.’ [36] Recent excavations in Hazor itself have unearthed a small tablet with cuneiform, giving the same name of the king, Jabin.

As a last clue, there is Sechem. Here, Joshua erected a very large stone, in front of which the gathered tribes of Israel swore their allegiance to Yahweh. This standing stone was placed in front of the temple in Sechem. It can still be seen there, but it is not recognized for what it is, as the conventional dating again prevents making that link.

Conclusion

It should be clear that even this summary list of both archaeological and historical finds paint a compelling image of historical event, unique in its scope. And it shows that the Exodus history in the Bible does have a remarkable level of detail that is supported by those finds. When we keep in mind that chronology needs to follow the material evidence, and that the current chronology is based on some serious misidentifications, a scholar with open mind will agree that this proposed narrative has its merits, if only because the unbroken chain of data points that match up beautifully with the Biblical record, the archaeological record and the historical record.

Even the chronological reworking proposed, to shift the traditional chronology forward with 250-350 years, has a whole series of apparently unrelated findings [37] that appear to offer support for such move. I am aware of the many questions still present. But again, the unbroken chain of matching data points present in the archaeological record referenced above, combined with the findings placing question marks around the current chronology, make a strong case to at least reexamine the record in light of the newest findings and proposals.

It also has to be kept in mind that I offer here a narrative, not a worked out theory. It is my hope that this narrative compels the researchers reading this to take a serious look at the problems mentioned, and at the way so many unrelated and small details still end up agreeing and pointing in the same direction, when applying the shift in chronology (which in turn has also numerous findings to support or at least suggest such move). Barring any finds or insight that directly contradict and disprove this narrative and the proposed reworking of the chronology, this narrative needs to be taken into account. The research of David Rohl [38], John Bimson [39] and others has done a great deal of filling in the details of the narrative I sketched, based on their work. A lot more remains to be done, and some problems still persist, but I am confident that further research along these lines will be fruitful and will help deepen our understanding of our past.

Editor’s Note

Mr. Wim Vanraes has done the Kolbe Center and the Catholic faithful a great service by showing that current archaeological evidence harmonizes with the literal historical truth of the Exodus narrative, even if it does not yet “prove” that the Exodus occurred as described in the Pentateuch.  We wish to clarify that, as faithful Catholics, we do not require any “proof” to believe in the literal historical truth of the entire Pentateuch.  We believe it on the authority of Almighty God who can neither deceive nor be deceived.  However, in the modernist milieu in which most of us live, it is important to be able to demonstrate, as Mr. Vanraes does, that, even without the gift of faith, the archaeological evidence harmonizes much better with the literal historical interpretation of the Pentateuch than with the consensus view in history and archaeology which has reigned supreme in academia in recent years.


[1] “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” (PBS Nova, 2008), originally aired 11/18/2008, last aired 03/25/2015. From an interview published in conjunction with the documentary: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/archeology-hebrew-bible.html. Last visited February 10, 2017.

[2] William Dever, in Bible gets a reality check, aired on MSNBC. http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/_news/2008/11/18/4350632-bible-gets-a-reality-check  Last visited February 09, 2017.

[3] David M. Rohl, ‘Exodus : Myth or History?. St. Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media, 2015.

[4] John J. Bimson and David Livingston: “Redating the Exodus,” Originally published in BAR  13:05, Sep/Oct 1987.

[5] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/qatar/research/qantir-piramesse, last viewed March 3, 2017.

[6] See for example Alan H. Gardiner: “There is not the least reason for assuming that any other city of Ramesses existed in the Delta besides those elicited from the Egyptian monuments. In other words, the Biblical Raamses-Rameses is identical with the Residence-city of Pi-Ramesses.” In: “The Delta Residence of the Ramessides, pt. IV,” JEA 5 (1918): 266.

[7] K.A. KITCHEN, Ramesside Inscriptions, vol. 4, p. 15 [KRI 4:19].

[8] But p3knʿn – , pa-kanaʿan, i.e. Canaan with article, could also mean “Gaza,” “the (big city of) Canaan” – cf. H. Jacob KATZENSTEIN, “Gaza in the Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom,” in: JAOS 102 (1982), no. 1, pp. 111- 113.

[9] Eissfeldt, Otto (1965). “XXVI, Palestine in the Time of the Nineteenth Dynasty: (a) the Exodus and Wanderings, Volume II”. Cambridge Ancient History. 31. CUP Archive. p. 14: “Unfortunately, even the supposed earliest mention of the name Israel in the triumphal hymn of Merenptah composed about 1230 BC does not provide any unambiguous answer to this question, for this name may also be explained as Jezreel.”

[10] Alexandru Mihăilă, “Ethnicity in Early Israel. Some Remarks on Merneptah’s Stele,” in Anuarul Facultăţii de Teologie Ortodoxă „Patriarhul Justinian” anul universitar 2009-2010, University of Bucharest.

[11] William G. DEVER, “Merenptah’s “Israel,” the Bible’s, and Ours,” in: J. David SCHLOEN (ed.), Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009, pp. 92-93. Cf. also William P. BROWN, in: John BRIGHT, A History of Israel, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 42000, p. 471.

[12] Veen, Peter van der, Christoffer Theis, and Manfred Görg, 2010  Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections Vol. 2:4, 2010 | 15–25.

[13] Veen, Peter van der, Christoffer Theis, and Manfred Görg, 2010  Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections Vol. 2:4, 2010 | 15–25.

[14] “Identification is: ‘The conclusion of and expert that two fingerprints show sufficient information in agreement, and no principal differences, [emphasis mine] in order to point one donor as the sole source, and whose conclusion is verified and confirmed by another independent expert.” Interpol “Method for Fingerprint Identification,” The Interpol European Expert Group on Fingerprint Identification (IEEGFI), 4 June 2006. http://www.latent-prints.com/images/IEEGFI%201a.pdf, as visited on February 9, 2017.

[15] M. Christine Tetley, “The Reconstructed Chronology of the Egyptian Kings,” Published by Whangarei : Barry W. Tetley, 2014.

[16] K. Kitchen: ‘The Basics of Egyptian Chronology in Relation to the Bronze Age’ in P. Astrom: High, Middle or Low? Acts of an International Colloquium on Absolute Chronology Held at the University of Gothenburg 20th-22nd August 1987, Part I (Gothenburg, 1987, p. 38.

[17] E. Hornung, et al.: Ancient Egyptian Chronology (Handbook of Oriental Studies I, Vol. 83, Leiden 2006), p. 13.

[18] John Bimson: ‘Shoshenk and Shishak – A Case of Mistaken Identity?’ in the Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum 6 (1993), p. 19-32.

[19] David M. Rohl, ‘Exodus : Myth or History?. St. Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media, 2015. p. 65.

[20] David M. Rohl, ‘Exodus : Myth or History?. St. Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media, 2015. p. 61-69.

[21] R.L. Miller: “A Radiocarbon Dated Theban Royal Mummy from Niagara Falls,” 2004 GöttMisz 198:55–62.

[22] T. L. Sagrillo: “The Mummy of Shoshenq I Re-discovered?” 2005 Göttinger Miszellen: Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion 205:95–102.

[23] It is interesting that this date corroborates in essence the proposal of Mr. Rohl. It is very important, however, to note that a single C14 date should never be used as proof for any age or chronology, and that I am not using this date as firm proof. Instead, I merely use it as hook on which to hang the rest of my narrative, to show the way all the different details suddenly line up in an impressive cohesive story.

[24] Stephan Seidlmayer: Historische und moderne Nilstände, Achet Verlag, Berlin, 2001.

[25] Elsa Yvanez: “Rock Inscriptions from Semna and Kumma, and Epigraphic Study,” SFDAS, Khartoum, 2010 p. 9 and p. 11.

[26] Manfred Bietak: “Avaris, the Capital of the Hyksos,” British Museum Press, 1996.

[27] Robert Schiestl: “The Statue of an Asiatic Man from Tell el-Dabca, Egypt,” in: Egypt and Levant 16, 2006, 173-185

[28] E. M. Winkler & H. Wilfing: “Tell el-Daba VI”, Vianna. 1991, p. 82-87

[29] W. F. Albright: “Northwest-Semitic Names in a List of Egyptian Slaves from the Eighteenth Century B. C.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1954), pp. 222-233.

[30] K. Ryholt: “The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period,” Copenhagen, 1997. p. 230.

[31] V. Davis, interview in The Times (London), 28th July 2003.

[32] Acts 7:30 (NIV) “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.”

[33] Timothy Mahoney: “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, A Filmmaker’s Journey,” Saint Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media, 2015, p. 179-183.

[34] A. Tulloch: “Recollections of Forty Years’ Service,” London, 1903, pp. 245-246.

[35] J. Bimson: “Redating the Exodus and Conquest,” Sheffield, 1978, p. 130.

[36] W. Albright: “The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra”, New York, 1963, p. 102.

[37] In regards to the cities of Hormah and Arad, Yohanan Aharoni wrote that the Biblical account “corresponds exactly to the situation during the Middle Bronze Age, when two tels, and two tels only, defended the eastern Negeb against desert marauders, and the evidence points towards the identification of these tels with the ancient cities of Arad and Hormah.” He called this “a most startling conclusion”, but did not see this as pointing to a conquest at the end of Middle Bronze Age II. But he does observe “the Biblical tradition preserves a faithful description of the geographical-historical situation as it was some three hundred years or more prior to the Israelite conquest.” Yohanan Aharoni in “Nothing Early and Nothing Late: Re-Writing Israel’s Conquest”, The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 39, No. 2 (May, 1976), p. 73.

[38] See his book ‘Exodus : Myth or History?. St. Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media, 2015.

[39] See also his article “Redating the Exodus,” by John B. Bimson and David Livingston, originally published in BAR 13:05, Sep/Oct 1987.