Please welcome our Author of the Month for January, Ahmed Osman. In this article, Ahmed reframes and sheds new light on the Israelite Exodus using Egyptian source material to re-examine Bible chronology of the account. If you’d like to read more about this you can do so in his book The Lost City of the Exodus.
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 leaving back to Canaan some time later, under the leadership of Moses. Biblical scholars and Egyptologists had, up to the mid-20th century, regarded the biblical Exodus narration as representing a true historical account. Following the Second World War, however, the situation changed completely. Thanks to archaeological excavations, more light was thrown on the ancient history of both Egypt and Canaan and the hopes of finding confirmation of the biblical story evaporated. Having excavated all Egyptian locations in the eastern Nile Delta, no evidence was found to support the Exodus account of the Bible.
The lack of archaeological evidence, in my view, was mainly due to the fact that scholars had so far been looking either for evidence to confirm the miraculous accounts in the Bible, such as the parting of the sea, which cannot historically be confirmed, or in the wrong historical period and wrong geographical sites. As they followed biblical chronology, which states that the length of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt, from their Arrival at the time of Joseph to their Exodus with Moses, was four hundred and thirty years, misled them to search in the wrong locations. In order to allow for the four hundred and thirty years, they had to date Joseph to the very early period of the Hyksos rule and to fix the Exodus at the last year of Ramses II. Thus both the time of the Descent and the Exodus were decided, not on historical or archaeological evidence, but according to biblical chronology. While looking for Joseph under the Hyksos produced no evidence, searching for the Exodus in the time of Ramses II failed to find any positive result.
Chronology is the backbone of history, and Bible chronology provides us with two contradicting dates: four hundred years (Exodus 12:40) and four generations (Genesis 15:16), which would come toabout a hundred years. To get out of this uncertainty, it would be better to look for the main biblical characters and major events in Egyptian history, without restricting ourselves with the frame of biblical dates. As both Joseph and Moses were connected to the Pharaonic royal house, it should be possible to find them mentioned in Egyptian sources.
The situation changes dramatically when we start looking in Egyptian sources for evidence of the Israelite Exodus. To start with, the Israel Stele, the only archaeological evidence in Egypt that mentions Israel by name, confirms that the Israelites were already in Canaan in the 5th year of Merenptah, who succeeded Ramses II 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, to allow for their forty years of wonder in Sinai and their settlement in Canaan.
If we were to ignore the chronology of the Bible and start looking for evidence of an Exodus of Semitic Bedouin groups, out of Egyptian Sinai and into Canaan, we find evidence for the one and only such attempt which took place at the end of Ramses I’s short reign.
Following the fall of the Amarna rule; of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Aye, his Vizier and General Horemheb married Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnezmat, to gain the right to the throne. As he had no children, Horemheb appointed General Pa-Ramses to be his heir, as well as being the vizier and Commander of his army. As he was a local resident at the border city of Zarw, Ramses was also appointed to be the governor of this fortified border city, which supervised the area of northern Sinai, including the land of Goshen.
Ramses I was already an old man and did not survive the end of his second year on the throne, and it has been confirmed that his death coincided with a rebellion 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 distributed symmetrically on either side of the entrance to the temple, representing the wars of Seti I, the second king of the Ninteenth Dynasty who succeeded his father Ramses I on the throne. The first of these wars chronologically, is found at the bottom row of the east wall and represents the war against the Shasu. The texts claim that Pharaoh received a report that: “The Shasu-bedouin are plotting rebellion. Their chiefs have gathered together in the hills of Kharu (Palestine). They have fallen into chaos and are fighting and each one is slaying the other. They do not obey the laws of the Palace!”
Shasu and Midianites
The Shasu, mentioned only in Egyptian texts, were semi-nomadic Bedouins who lived in tents and raised cattle, known in both the Bible and the Quran as the Midianites allies of Moses. Earlier, during the time of Amenhotep III, a topographical list inscribed on his temple at Soleb in Nubia, mentions a number of cities and regions conquered during his reign, include six ‘lands of the Shasu,’ referring to nomadic people associated with Sinai, the Negev in southern Canaan as well as Transjordan. Even more interesting in the Soleb list is the reading t3 shsw yhw (‘Yahweh in the land of the Shasu’) as a result of which Raphael Giveon, the Egyptologist at Tel Aviv University, suggested that the toponym Yhw is the tetragrammaton of the God of Israel. [Giveon 1971:26]
Meanwhile, in 1967, Raphael Patai, a Hungarian-Jewish historian, suggested that Yahweh had a wife called Asherah who was worshipped together with him. His theory gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, senior lecturer in the Department of Theology at the University of Exeter, who declared: “After years of research specializing in the history and religion of Israel … I have come to a colourful and what could seem, to some, uncomfortable conclusion that God had a wife,” she said. [Discovery News, Marsh 18, 2011] Aserah’s connection with Yahweh, according to Stavrakopoulou, is spelled out in both the Bible and an 8th century BC inscription on pottery found in northeast of Sinai desert at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud, a fortress on the road between Egypt and Canaan. Stavrakopoulou also points out that Asherah was worshiped in Yahweh Temple in Jerusalem, and the Book of Kings reports that a statue Of Asherah was housed in the temple and that female temple personnel vowed ritual textiles to her.
Going back to the rebellion in Sinai, as soon as he received the disturbing news, even before having being able to bury his father, Seti lead his army out of the border city of Zarw, along the route in northern Sinia, called ‘the Ways of Horus’ by the Egyptians and known in the Bible as ‘the way of the land of the Philistines’ , which consisted of a series of military forts, each with a well, that are depicted in detail in the king’s war scenes at Karnak. The king carried on pushing along the road in the Negeb, scattering the Shasu, who from time to time gathered in sufficient numbers to meet him. One of these actions is depicted in the Karnak 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”.
Seti continued in his way into Edom, south of the Dead Sea, and the land of Moab in modern Jordan – before returning to 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, Menmat-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.
After fighting a running battle with Shasu Bedouin, who were never a serious threat to Pharaoh’s army, Seti arrived in Gaza and began the main part of his campaign of year one progressing north through Canaan all the way into Lebanon. When he returned victoriously to Zarw, Seti travelled to Thebes in Upper Egypt, where a big celebration took place at Amun’s Karnak temple, and where Pharaoh sacrificed some of his Shasu prisoners at the feet of Amun’s image. There are scenes devoted to the presentation of booty to the god Amun-Re. The caption over one reads:
“Presentation of tribute by His Majesty to his father Amun … consisting of silver, gold, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, red jasper and every sort of precious stone. The chiefs of the hill country are in his grasp to fill the workshops of his father Amun.”
Thus Seti I prevented the Exodus of the Semites into Canaan, and they had to go back living in Sinai for many years before they were able to infiltrate into East Jordan, which completely agrees with the biblical account of the Exodus. For according chapter 14 of the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were not able to enter the Promised Land before wondering in Sinai for forty years. Following the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites spent 11 months at Mount Sinai, and soon began to complain about their hardship. The Israelites complained about the food and their complaining angered God and frustrated Moses. They also grumbled against Moses and wanted to return back to Egypt, and talked about stoning Moses and Aaron. So God punished them by forbidding all this generation from entering the Promised Land. They will all die in the Sinai desert, as only their children will be allowed in forty years.
We also have textual reports that the Shasu rebels were able to leave Sinai some years later during the reign of Seti’s successor, Ramses II (c. 1304-1237 BC), and their number in Transjordan was reported to have increased significantly. It was then that the first real explicit reference to Moab and Seir appear in Egyptian texts. Ramses II described himself as one ‘who plunders the mountain of Seir with his valiant arm’ with parallel mentions to Shasu in context. Ramses II is known to have campaigned in Transjordan, including in Moab and Seir, and obviously considered it significant enough to raid or conquer this territory, and the first reference to ‘Edom’ as an entity (as opposed to the more ancient ‘Seir’), along with clear mentions of the Shasu coming from that region, comes from the time of Ramses II’s son and successor Merenptah around 1206 BC. A passage from Papyrus Anastasi VI reports an event that took place in the eighth year of Merenptah reads: ‘We have finished with allowing the Shasu clans folk of Edom to pass the fort of Merenptah that is in Succoth in the land of Goshen, to the pools of Pi-Atum of Merenptah that are in Succoth, to keep them alive and to keep alive their livestock’ [Gardiner in Beinkowski 1992:27]. This shows a more normal relationship between Egyptians and the Shasu Bedouin, who were coming down to Egypt from Edom, to find water and pasturage for their flocks during some difficult circumstances.
Away from biblical chronology, we do have evidence of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, confirmed by Egyptian archaeology, which makes Horemheb the Pharaoh of Oppression and Ramses I the Pharaoh of the Exodus at the start of the Egyptian 19th Dynasty.