Out of Egypt

An educational Forum based on new
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Article # 1

The Exodus in Egyptian Sources

© Ahmed Osman 2001
Ahmed Osman
Historian and Scholar


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[This paper was read at the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, held in Boston November 17-20, 1999.]

At the center of the Bible account there is the story of a Semitic Hebrew tribe descending to Egypt at the time of Joseph, then returning to Canaan some time later at the time of Moses. Biblical scholars and Egyptologists had, up to the mid-20th century, accepted the Exodus narration as representing a true historical account. Following the Second World War, however, the situation changed dramatically. Thanks to archaeological excavations, more light was thrown on the ancient history of both Egypt and Canaan; nevertheless, no evidence was found to support the Exodus account of the Bible. Negative evidence from historical sources led many scholars to dismiss the Exodus narration as a mere fiction, and ten years ago, Professor Donald Redford concluded that the story of the Exodus is, in fact, based on the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, therefore much of its detail is fictitious.

I do not agree, however, with this conclusion. I believe that the biblical account of the Exodus does represent true historical events. The lack of historical evidence, in my view, is due to the fact that scholars have, so far, been looking in the wrong historical period.

The search for the Exodus has been toponymic in nature, related to the names of geographical locations mentioned in the Bible, such as the area of Goshen and the store-cities of Ramses and Pithom. When Eduard Henri Naville arrived at Tell el-Maskhita in the eastern Delta in the winter of 1883, he was looking for the store-city of Pithom. Six months later, Naville confirmed to the first annual meeting of the Egypt Exploration Fund in London that this location in the Wadi Tumilat was in fact the store-city of Pithom built by Ramses II. Naville then proceeded to show that the biblical word Goshen is equivalent to Egyptian Gesem, which is the name of the area of Faqus in the eastern Delta. Having found Pithom and Goshen, the next step was to try and locate the city of Ramses, where the Exodus is believed to have started. Looking for Ramses, however, proved to be more elusive. Different locations were suggested by different scholars for that city—from Tanis, modern San el-Hagar at the bottom of Lake Manzalah at the start of this century, to Tell-el Dabaa Qantir in the eastern Delta at the present time.

The fact that all these locations are related to Ramses II persuaded scholars to regard this king as being the Pharaoh of the Oppression; Merenptah his successor being the Pharaoh of the Exodus. But when, in 1896, Flinders Petrie found the stele of Merenptah's 5th year which mentioned the Israelites already in Canaan, the date of the Exodus had to be re-fixed to the end of Ramses II's rule. Ramses II has now become the Pharaoh of both the Oppression and the Exodus.

The following step was to find the date of the Descent. This step proved to be an easy task. Following the Book of Exodus, which states that the Israelites' Sojourn in Egypt lasted for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41), they counted 430 years back from the end of Ramses II's reign and arrived at the very beginning of the Hyksos period for the arrival of Joseph into Egypt. In this way the time of both the Descent and the Exodus was fixed, not on chronological, but on geographical evidence. Looking for historical confirmation of a Semitic Exodus from Egypt at the end of Ramses II's reign, however, they found only negative evidence. To rely mainly on philological and geographical similarities, in my view, was the main reason behind the failure to reach a positive conclusion. Chronology is the backbone of history, and it is for the time of both the Descent and the Exodus that we should start looking.

One of the main reasons which persuaded early scholars that the Hyksos period was the right time for Joseph in Egypt, was their belief, following William Albright, that it was the Hyksos rulers who first introduced the war chariot into Egypt. As the biblical story of Joseph has three references to chariots, this meant that this war machine was already used in Egypt at the time of Joseph. Recent archaeological excavations in Hyksos locations, however, failed to produce any single evidence to show that they ever used this advanced war machine. Almost all Hyksos locations in Egypt have now been excavated. Neither at Tell el-Dabaa, Tel el-Yahudia, Tell el-Heboia, or at any other Hyksos location at the eastern Delta, has any evidence come to show the existence of chariots.

Moreover, Egyptian accounts of their war against the Hyksos, as found in the Kamose Stele and the tomb of Ahmos Son of Abana, or Manetho's history, have no mention of chariots taking place in the fighting. Before the time of Amenhotep I of the 18th dynasty, no archaeological evidence has been found in Egypt to support Albright's view of the introduction of the war chariot by the Hyksos.

Accordingly, Joseph's arrival in Egypt could not have taken place before the 18th dynasty. But at which part of the 18th dynasty was his arrival?

Again the Bible account does offer a clue that could help us coming closer to the time of Joseph. While Genesis 41:43 states that Pharaoh gave Joseph a chariot at the ceremony of his appointment to his position, Genesis 50:9 mentions that Joseph took with him "both chariots and horsemen" when he went up to bury his father in Canaan. This account indicates two things: that Joseph was appointed to be responsible for the chariots, and that the chariots had already been separated from infantry to become a separate entity. This situation could not have been possible, as Alan Schulman was able to show, before the time of Amenhotep III at the beginning of the 14th century BC. The first man appointed at the head of the Chariotry was Yuya, therefore we should be looking for Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt starting only from the time of Amenhotep III.

Here we find some interesting archaeological information. As Professor Raphael Giveon has shown, a fragmentary list of toponyms of the Shasu Bedouins of Sinai included the name Ta-Shasw-Yahw, (Giveon 1971:26f.) which suggests that Semites worshipping Yahweh were found in Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III. Another significant archaeological evidence of this period comes from Sakkara. In 1989 Dr. Alain-Pierre Zivie discovered the tomb of Aper-el, a chief minister of both Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. His name indicates a Hebrew origin, possibly also related to Elohim.

When, on the other hand, we attempt to look for the date of the Exodus, we find that the only archaeological evidence in Egypt that mentions Israel by name confirms that they were in Canaan in the 5th year of Merenptah, during the last quarter of the 13th century BC. This evidence indicates clearly that the Israelites must have left Egypt at a considerable time before that date, in which case the 430 years of the Exodus account could not be representing the actual length of the Sojourn. In fact, the Book of Genesis gives us a contradictory account regarding the length of the Sojourn.

According to the Book of Geneses (15: 13, 16), it was the fourth Israelite generation since their Descent to Egypt who left in the Exodus. The time of four generations between Joseph and Moses could not possibly be 430 years. A close examination of the biblical narration shows that the figure of 430 years represents the total ages of these four generation, for if we add the ages of Levi (137), Kohath (133), Amram (137) and Moses (120), the total would be 527 years. Of this, 57 years were deducted as representing the age Levi reached at the time of the Descent, as well as 40 years which Moses is said to have lived after the Exodus, which leaves us with 430 years. As the first two generations, Levi and Kohath, had already been born in Canaan and arrived in Egypt with Jacob at the time of the Descent (Genesis 46:11), only two generations could have been born in Egypt: Amram and Moses. If we allow 25 years for every generation to beget his firstborn, we should be looking for a period of only about fifty years plus for the length of the Sojourn. In this case, we should be looking for the historical evidence for the Exodus starting from the mid-14th century BC, fifty years from the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep III.

As the Exodus account implies an attempt by some Semitic tribes to leave Egyptian Sinai to enter into Canaan, we soon find the evidence for the one and only such attempt. This only recorded exodus attempt by Bedouin tribes from Sinai trying to enter Canaan took place at the end of the short reign of Ramses I. Immediately after the death of Ramses I c.1333 BC, we find evidence of some Semitic Bedouin tribes of Sinai, called Shasu by the Egyptians, attempting to cross the Egyptian borders to Canaan.

On the east side of the northern wall of the great Hypostyle Hall in Amun's temple at Karnak we find two series of scenes, which are distributed symmetrically on either side of the entrance to the temple, representing the wars of Seti I who succeeded Ramses I on the throne. The first of these wars, chronologically, is found at the bottom row of the east wall and represent the war against the Shasu. After setting out on the route between the fortified city of Zarw and Gaza—known in the Bible as 'the way of the land of the Philistines' (Exodus 13:17), and passing the fortified water stations, "pushing along the road in the Negeb, the king scatters the Shasu, who from time to time gather in sufficient numbers to meet him." One of these actions is depicted in this relief as taking place on the desert road. Over the battle scene stands the inscription: "The Good God, Sun of Egypt, Moon of all land, Montu in the foreign countries ... like Baal, ... The rebels, they know not how they shall (flee); the vanquished of the Shasu (becoming like) that which existed not."

In this campaign it seems that Seti pursued the Shasu into the northern Sinai area and Edom, which includes 'the waters of Meribah,' as well as the land of Moab at the borders between Sinai and Canaan/Jordan—before returning to continue his march along the northern Sinai road between Zarw and Gaza until he reached Canaan itself. Just across the Egyptian border he arrived at a fortified town whose name is given as Pe-Kanan, which is believed to be the city of Gaza.

Another scene has the following inscription over the defeated Shasu: "Year 1. King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menma-re. The destruction which the mighty sword of Pharaoh . . . made among the vanquished of the Shasu from the fortress of Zarw to Pe-Kanan, when His Majesty marched against them like a fierce-eyed lion, making them carcasses in their valleys, overturned in their blood like those that exist not.

Pa-Ramses, who later became Ramses I and established the Ramesside 19th dynasty, was the vizier and Commander of the army during the reign of Horemheb. He was also appointed as the governor of the fortified border city of Zarw, which supervised the whole border area of northern Sinai, including the land of Goshen, and which had been turned into a big prison by Horemheb. Ramses himself belonged to a local family coming from this area, and it is this Ramses who must have been remembered by the Hebrew scribes putting down the biblical account. Ramses I was already a very old man at the time of his accession and did not survive the end of his second year on the throne. His son Seti I followed him, and it seems that the Shasu attempt to leave Egypt began before the death of his father. At the very beginning of Seti's reign a messenger arrived with the news: "The Shasu enemies are plotting rebellion. Their tribal leaders are gathered in one place, standing on the foothills of Khor (Palestine) and are engaged in turmoil and uproar." And although Seti I was able to stop the Shasu leaving Sinai, forty years later, during the 20th year of Ramses II, we find them already in Canaan.

Shasu was the name given by the Egyptians to the Beduin of Sinai, known in both the Bible and the Quran as the Midianites, allies of Moses. It seems that the Israelites were only a small part of a large Semitic attempt to leave Egypt for Canaan.

Thus Horemheb becomes the Pharaoh of the Oppression and Ramses I the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

Ahmed Osman

Historian, lecturer, researcher and author, Ahmed Osman is a British Egyptologist born in Cairo.

His four in-depth books clarifying the history of the Bible and Egypt are:Stranger in the Valley of the Kings (1987) - Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990) - The House of the Messiah (1992) - Out of Egypt (1998)


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Editors Note:

The Egypt segment of the Forum brings to your attention one of the most evocative issues on the philosophical/theological horizon.

It calls for a clarification of age-old stories and a reintegration of new findings on a world stage that begs for unity and reconciliation. This important development offers an opportunity for dialog and discovery; for understanding and conciliation, for healing and empowerment.

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