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Let My People Go and Go and Go and Go, Abraham Malamat, BAR 24:01, Jan-Feb 1998.

Semites in EgyptEgyptian records support a centuries-long exodus

Nothing in the archaeological record of Egypt directly substantiates the Biblical story of the Exodus. Yet a considerable body of Egyptian material provides such close analogies to the Biblical account that it may, in part, serve as indirect proof for the Israelite episode.

No other event figures so prominently in the Biblical tradition as one of the foundations of Israelite faith. The Bible refers to the Exodus from Egypt more often than it does to any other event in Israel’s past—in the historical narratives, in the prophets and even in the psalms.

Is the Exodus story merely the product of later, primarily theological, contemplation, or was it a historic event? To decide, we must first recognize that the Exodus story is a folktale. This does not automatically deprive it of all historicity, but it does require us to focus not on the elements of folklore and artifice in the account, but on what Goethe called die grossen Züge, “the broad sweep of affairs.” Does the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, their enslavement there in what the Bible terms beth avadim, the house of bondage (a very apt coinage characterizing totalitarian regimes throughout history), their exit and flight from Egypt into the Sinai desert and, finally, their takeover of Canaan hold a kernel of historical truth, or are these events merely figments of the imagination of later scribes?

The lack of direct Egyptian evidence for any of these events does not prove that they didn’t happen. Egyptian sources could have been indifferent to the Exodus and the takeover of Canaan merely because these events did not shake the foundations of the political and military scene of the day. The events were central, however, to Israel’s turbulent history.

In the past, the debate over the Exodus often focused on when it could have happened. Much of this debate, unfortunately, ignored what I call the “telescoping process”—the compression of a chain of historical events into a simplified and brief account of Biblical historiography—especially of Israel’s proto-history. Complex events were compressed into a severely curtailed time span by later editors viewing the events in retrospect. The Bible presents a relatively brief, streamlined account of the Exodus, a “punctual” event, as opposed to a “durative” event, which could conceivably involve two or more exoduses or even a steady flow of Israelites from Egypt over hundreds of years.

If the Exodus was a durative event, as seems likely, the search for a specific date for it is futile, since it might have happened anywhere from the 15th to the 12th centuries B.C. Even so, there must have been a peak period when the most Israelites left Egypt—we will call this the Moses movement—that can be dated more exactly. To identify when this punctual peak, the climactic stage within the durative event, happened, we must survey the history of Egypt in the context of the contemporaneous regional history.

In the 13th century B.C., the Egyptians fought the famous battle of Kadesh against the Hittites, the other superpower of the day. The battle site, Kadesh-on-the-Orontes (to be distinguished from Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites camped in the Sinai), lies about 70 miles north of Damascus, in modern Lebanon. Descriptions of this battle have survived in both Egyptian and Hittite records. The Hittite account explicitly states that the battle was a fiasco for the Egyptians, although this is not as clear in the Egyptian records. Even before the battle, which we can now date rather securely to 1273 B.C., give or take a few years, Egyptian hegemony was suffering a decline, especially in Canaan, where local rulers had erupted in revolt. In the wake of the battle of Kadesh, such a situation could well have facilitated, in a broad manner of speaking, an Israelite exodus. For some time I set the punctual peak, the Moses movement, at this time, as did other scholars.

Now, however, I am inclined to lower the date of the Moses movement to the early 12th century B.C. During this time both the Egyptian and Hittite empires suffered breakdowns. In modern terminology, the political systems of two opposing superpowers collapsed. This simultaneous decline of previously dominating empires provided a rare historical opportunity, the occasione, in Machiavellian terms, for the oppressed—the small peoples and ethnic minorities from Anatolia to lower Egypt. This fluid time may be the true setting for the Israelite escape from Egypt into Canaan.
Significant indirect Egyptian sources provide a sort of circumstantial evidence for this dating of the Moses movement and thereby lend greater authority to the Biblical account. Let us look at some of this evidence.

The Leiden Papyrus 348 and Pi-Ramesses

According to Egyptian records, Ramesses II (1279–1212 B.C.) built a new capital called Pi-Ramesses, the House of Ramesses, on the eastern delta (where the Israelites had apparently settled). Exodus 1-11 records that the store cities of Pithom and Ramesses were built by enslaved Israelites. Are these sources referring to the same place?

Leiden Papyrus 348, a decree by an official of Ramesses II concerning construction work at his new capital, Pi-Ramesses, declares- “Distribute grain rations to the soldiers and to the Apiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Ramesses.” Although the matter is still debated, some scholars connect the Apiru (and Habiru) referred to in this and other Egyptian documents with the Hebrews (Ibri), both linguistically and ethnically. From the context of the Apiru references, they were apparently a renegade population or displaced persons, possibly outlaws or mercenaries.1 If the Apiru were indeed connected to the Hebrews,2 it would seem that the Hebrews were forced to build the capital city of Ramesses. This evidence is circumstantial at best, but it is as much as a historian can argue.

The Merneptah Stele

Although it has no direct connection with the Exodus, the famous Merneptah Stele, now dated to 1208 B.C., does mention a people called Israel living in Canaan.

The Egyptian Military Road in Northern Sinai

Exodus 13-17 states-

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said- “Lest the people repent when they see war and return to Egypt.”

Early in the 13th century B.C., Pharaoh Seti I built the tight network of strongholds along the coast of northern Sinai referred to as the “way of the Philistines” in Exodus 13-17. This military road remained under the strict control of the Egyptians throughout that century.3 It might easily have become a trap for the wandering Israelites; hence, the command attributed to God to avoid this route.

Also, Moses tells the Israelites to encamp at a site that will mislead the pharaoh- Once camped here, the pharaoh will say (according to Moses) that the Israelites “are entangled in the land [that is, Sinai]; the wilderness has closed in on them” (Exodus 14-3). This passage reflects a distinctly Egyptian viewpoint that must have been common at the time- In view of the fortresses on the northern coast, anyone seeking to flee Egypt would necessarily make a detour south into the desert, where they might well perish.

Papyri Anastasi

The reports of Egyptian frontier officials stationed in the border zone between Egypt and Sinai, known as the Papyri Anastasi, are especially significant. They reveal the tight control exercised by Egyptian authorities over their eastern frontier in the last decades of the 13th century B.C. Some of these papyri, which surfaced as early as 1839, show that neither Egyptians nor foreigners could enter or leave Egypt without a special permit from the Egyptian authorities.

Papyrus Anastasi III4 records the daily border crossings of Egyptian-approved individuals during the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (at the end of the 13th century B.C.). Papyrus Anastasi VI5 records the passage of an entire tribe from Edom into Egypt during a drought. The papyrus records that for some travelers, passage into Egypt was necessary “to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive.” This report is reminiscent of several Biblical episodes involving Abraham and Jacob, who are also said to have descended into Egypt to escape a drought.

Without this strict border control, minorities as well as entire groups of Egyptians could have escaped from the Nile delta into Sinai and Palestine. No wonder Moses and Aaron had to repeatedly plead with Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”

Indeed, Papyrus Anastasi V (also from the end of the 13th century B.C.) refers to the escape of two slaves, or servants, from the royal residence at Pi-Ramesses. The fugitives fled across the fortified border into the Sinai wilderness. The high-ranking Egyptian military commander who wrote the papyrus had been ordered by the Egyptian authorities to ensure the capture of the runaways and their return to Egypt. He writes to the Chief of Bowmen of Tjeku, Ka-Kem-wer, the Chief of Bowmen Ani and the Chief of Bowmen Bak-en-Ptah-

In life, prosperity, health! In the favor of Amon-Re, King of the Gods, and of the ka of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt- … Another matter- I was sent forth … at the time of evening, following after these two slaves … [Now] when [I] reached the fortress, they told me that the scout had come from the desert [saying that] they had passed the walled place north of the Migdol of Seti Mer-ne-Ptah … [W]hen my letter reaches you, write to me about all that has happened to [them]. Who found their tracks? Which watch found their tracks? What people are after them? Write to me about all that has happened to them and how many people you send out after them. [May your health] be good!6

This story shares at least four parallels with the Exodus story- (1) Slaves, or semi-slaves, escape from the area near the city of Ramesses in search of freedom; (2) an Egyptian military force pursues them with the intention of returning them to Egypt; (3) the runaways follow an escape route into Sinai roughly identical with the Biblical route; and (4) the flight takes place at night, as hinted at by the pursuing Egyptian official, who mentions leaving a short time after the escapees, “at the time of evening.” Similarly, the Exodus of the Israelites started “toward midnight” (Exodus 11-4).

The Elephantine Stele

Our final indirect proof comes from a stele found on the island of Elephantine near the First Cataract of the Nile. Published for the first time in 1972, this stele still receives intense study. It dates to the second year of Pharaoh Sethnakht’s rule (or Setnakht), in the second decade of the 12th century B.C.7 According to the stele, one Egyptian faction was apparently rebelling against the pharaoh and battling a faction that remained loyal. The revolutionaries bribed some Asiatics in Egypt to assist them in their plot against the crown. They bribe them with silver, gold and copper—“the possession of Egypt.” The pharaoh foiled the plot and drove the Asiatics out of Egypt, most likely forcing them on an exodus of sorts toward southern Canaan.

An enigmatic episode in the Exodus story8 resembles this stele story. Exodus records that the Israelites, according to the usual translations, “borrow” from or “ask” (sha’al) the Egyptians for “silver and gold, and clothing,” which the Israelites then take with them on their flight (Exodus 3-21–22, 11-2, 12-35–36; Psalm 105-37). In this context the word sha’al really means “appropriate” or “steal” rather than “borrow” or “ask.”

In both cases, Asiatics take the same objects from the Egyptians. This may simply be an example of parallel literary motifs. But Exodus 1-10 reveals the pharaoh saying, “Come let us deal shrewdly with [the Israelites] … [lest] if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” The Egyptians are explicitly fearful that these Asiatics, the Israelites, might join the Egyptians’ enemies in a revolt. That is precisely what happened in the episode recorded in the Elephantine stele.

In sum, although an Israelite exodus is not mentioned in Egyptian sources, a number of important analogs are apparent. These may date back to the time of the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who conquered Egypt in the 17th to 16th centuries B.C., during the 15th and 16th Egyptian dynasties. These analogs are more concentrated, however, in the late 13th century, around 1200 B.C., supporting that date for the climax of the Israelite Exodus.9

For a more extensive version of this paper, and an expanded bibliography, see Abraham Malamat, “The Exodus- Egyptian Analogies,” in Exodus- The Egyptian Evidence, ed. Ernest S. Frerichs and Leonard H. Lesko (Winona Lake, IN- Eisenbrauns, 1997).

1. If the Apiru are, as I suggest, connected with the Hebrews, this would rule out the suggested connection with the Shasu, another group sometimes alleged to be connected with the emerging Hebrews/Israelites.

2. Although every Israelite is a Hebrew and likely an Apiru, not every Hebrew or Apiru is necessarily an Israelite.

3. Alan H. Gardiner, “The Ancient Military Road Between Egypt and Palestine,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 6 (1920), pp. 99–116; Eliezer D. Oren, “‘Ways of Horus’ in North Sinai,” in Egypt, Israel, Sinai, ed. Anson F. Rainey (Tel Aviv- Dayan Institute, Tel Aviv Univ., 1987), pp. 69–119.

4. John A. Wilson in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 258.

5. Wilson, Texts, p. 259.

6. Wilson, Texts, p. 259.

7. See R. Drenkhahn, Die Elephantine Stele des Sethnakht (Wiesbaden, 1980).

8. Hinted at by M. Görg, Kairos 20 (1978), p. 279f. and n. 28.

9. For an even later dating in the 12th century B.C., see M.B. Rowton, “The Problem of the Exodus,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 85 (1953), pp. 46–60; and Gary A. Rendsberg, “The Date of the Exodus,” Vetus Testamentum 42 (1992), pp. 510–527.

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