The Exodus Happened 2450 B.C.
by Gerald E. Aardsma
This is a report on a book entitled The Exodus Happened 2450 B.C. by Gerald E. Aardsma. I have met Gerald, and he is in fact a connection by marriage, being Tina's first cousin once removed. As the title indicates, his book argues for the historical reality of the Biblical Exodus by re-dating it.
The most commonly accepted date for the Exodus (or for the claim of the Exodus) is 1450 BC, based on 1 Kings 6:1: "Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel,..." (NASB)
Other lines of reasoning give the year of Solomon's ascension as c. 970 BC, so that gives c. 1450 BC as the date of the Exodus. Gerald's argument hinges on the proposal that a thousand years have dropped out of the text as we have it, and that it originally was "in the 1,480th year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt..."
I confess, when I reached that point in the book on my first read-through, I dismissed the theory. "Oh, well, if you're going to let yourself change the data to fit, then of course you can get the outcome you want, but it won't be very convincing." On recent re-reading, I find that there's more to it than that.
For a start, Gerald gives some Scriptural reasons for doubting the accuracy of the number 480.
First, if you add up—
- 40 years wandering in the wilderness
- Joshua's tenure during the Conquest of Canaan (length not specified)
- 410 years of pre-monarchy Israel under the Judges
(traditional estimate, but see
- 40 years for the career of Eli
- the career of Samuel (length not specified)
- 40 years for the reign of Saul
- 40 years for the reign of David
—you get something over 600 years (even allowing for the four 40s being round numbers). So taking the 480 at face value is already a problem.
Second, Gerald points out that, while the text of the Bible is enormously well-preserved in general, preserving numbers is one of its weakest points. Examples:
2 Kings 24:8 says Jehoiachin became king at age 18, while 2 Chronicles 36:9 says he became king at age 8.
Genesis 5:30 says Lamech lived to be 595 years old, in the Masoretic text, but it says 565 in the Septuagint text.
1 Samuel 13:1, taken literally, says Saul became king at age one and reigned for only two years.
(And I dimly recall two different values for a census of Israel under David, or maybe it was the size of the army.)
Having softened up the number 480, Gerald spends the rest of the book supporting his choice of 1,480 by arguing for a good fit between the Exodus and evidence dating from c. 2450 BC.
First, the account in Exodus would lead one to look for a pharaoh with a long reign, followed by a pharaoh with a short reign, followed by the collapse of Egypt (due to the ten plagues and the drowning of the pharaoh and the army). In the middle of the third millenium BC, we find the reign of Pepe II, who ruled for 80 years or at least 60, followed by Merenre Antyemsaf II, who ruled for only one year, followed by the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period.
(And Pharaoh's servants said to him, "Do you not realize that Egypt is destroyed?" – Exodus 10:7)
If you look up these two pharaohs, you will not find their reigns to slot in exactly on 2450 BC, but Gerald points out, and Wikipedia concurs, that Egyptian chronology can have considerable ambiguity, especially so far back (even though it is some of the best ancient chronology around).
First Intermediate Period
Second, a standard difficulty with the 1450 BC date is that there is no evidence of a lot of people moving over the Sinai dating from that period, but there is evidence of travel c. 2450 BC.
Gerald cites archeological studies by Oren and Yekutieli of Ben Gurion University, in the Sinai, turning up a mixture of Egyptian pottery fragments dating to the First Intermediate Period and Israelite shards dating to Intermediate Bronze Age Israel. (E. D. Oren and Y. Yekutieli, "North Sinai During the MB I Period – Pastoral Nomadism and Sedentary Settlement," Eretz-Israel 21 (1990).)
The same source found evidence of encampments dating from the same time. These folk were not, by the way, seeking evidence of the Exodus, not expecting any such thing from that time period. In fact, they took their discoveries as evidence of pastoral tribesmen heading into Egypt, helping to bring about its collapse at the end of the Old Kingdom.
The 2450 BC date also helps with the Conquest of Canaan: There is no evidence of war and razed cities in the middle of the second millenium BC, but there is in the middle of the third, including a destruction of Jericho.
Taking a "soft" approach to numbers in the Bible can solve other problems. For instance, the number of men of fighting age in the Exodus is given as 600,000, which, together with the rest of the population, would mean an Exodus of 2 million or more. This is the number that Gerald works with, but it is logistically staggering. Based on a dim memory and a quick googling, I find that the text may be talking about men of 600 clans (of unspecified size) rather than 600 thousands (depending, I gather, on how you translate the Hebrew word 'elep). This could reduce the size of the Exodus dramatically.
See this fellow's website for a similar idea, that later copyists, c. 300 BC, enlarged numbers for dramatic effect.
1 Kings 6:1, which is where we got 480 years in the first place, is not really talking about the Exodus; it only uses it as a reference point. The real subject is Solomon beginning the building of the First Temple. The Exodus is mentioned only as a historical framing, almost as an ornament, to this momentous undertaking. This marginal position might have made it easier for a later copyist to pay less attention to the number and so accidentally mangle it.
Contrariwise, I note that 480 = 12 x 40, two suspiciously nifty numbers in terms of biblical use. Might the writer or an early copyist have simply hazarded a guess at the length of time since the Exodus and come up with a cool approximate number with good rhetorical cachet, a bit like saying "four score and seven years ago" instead of "eighty-seven years ago"? Remember, the passage is not particularly trying to convey chronological data, but to make a connection between the beginning of the period when Israel started using a portable Tabernacle and the end of that period, when the Tabernacle gave way to the Temple.
For another case where I don't think chronology is really the point, see
on my website, concerning Genesis 1.
While adding a millenium takes the Exodus back to a plausible point in Egyptian history, I am uncomfortable with the vast amount of time it adds to Israelite history. Essentially, you now have 1400 years for the duration of the Judges period, from Joshua to Samuel. Yow! That's three and a half times the traditional duration. It implies that, for every year chronicled in Judges, there are more than two years passed over in silence. It's not impossible, and in my state of knowledge I have no specific objections, but it's worrying.
If I'm uneasy about dropping a millenium into Israelite history, I'm also uneasy about the mainstream practice of basing Exodus chronology solely on one verse that was really talking about something else. If we simply allow Exodus to "float," are there other periods in Egyptian and Near-Eastern history that might fit well? Though I have to admit, the chaos at the start of the First Intermediate Period is a match that's hard to beat.
2020 Update: Alternate Exodi
Aardsma proposes that the Exodus took place under Merenre in 2450 BC, at the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period (the plagues of the Exodus being, in fact, the cause of the end of the Old Kingdom).
Another proposed time for the Exodus is under Dudimose I, a time so chaotic it is not clear which dynasty Dudimose was in, with both 16th dynasty (ca. 1690 BC) and 13th dynasty (ca. 1585 BC) being proposed. Again, the chaotic, weakened state of Egypt (the Hyksos invaded and conquered around this time) might be the result of the Ten Plagues. Reasons for picking this time include:
Records from the 13th dynasty of slave transfers with many of the slaves having Semitic names. Female slaves far outnumber males (as in the slaughter of the Hebrew baby boys).
An Egyptian work of literature called Admonitions of Ipuwer that most historians date around this period. It mentions the Nile turning into blood, plagues, fire and ashes falling from the sky and destroying the earth, death, slaves running away, social disorder, poverty, famine and Asiatics invading and sacking.
In 1573 BC (by carbon dating), Jericho was destroyed by an earthquake, allowing invaders to enter and burn what was left.
Kenneth A. Kitchen also makes the case that the traditional date of Exodus, 1450 BC, under Ramses II, is still plausible—at least, there is no evidence against it. In his On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Kitchen points out that:
The Hebrews lived in Lower Egypt, the East Delta region, which, thanks to the swampy conditions, has hardly any archeological record of any kind, so failure to find trace of a particular population of slaves living mud huts is no surprise.
The Egyptians did not make it their business to record objective history, so they certainly weren't going to record anything like the escape of their Hebrew slaves.
Exodi are a kind of thing that did happen. Kitchen sites mass migrations from or to the domains of unwilling kings in Syria, Anatolia, and Lybia, in the 18th through 12 centuries BC.
A careful reading of the book of Joshua shows it describes a slower and less overwhelming occupation of Canaan than traditionally thought, so the absence of evidence for a sudden invation is not a problem.
Return to Introduction to Essays
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011