Bible and Beyond
Parts of Exodus Written Within Living Memory of the Event

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How old are the Bible’s narratives of the Exodus from Egypt? Can we really date the texts that preserve those narratives? And if so, what is the oldest Biblical text that discusses the Exodus?
To start with the answer, we can date Biblical texts. And the oldest text attesting the Exodus dates to sometime between 1125 and 1000 B.C.E.

The Exodus occurred, according to the previous article in this issue by the distinguished archaeologist of Egypt, Manfred Bietak, in about 1150 B.C.E. Most scholars have followed the lead of the Bible in placing the Exodus itself in the late 13th century B.C.E. Bietak’s date is somewhat arbitrary, but the formation of an “Exodus tradition” (as he designates it) probably does roughly belong to the 12th century B.C.E. So, unlike much other Biblical material, the earliest attestation of the Exodus in the Bible is almost contemporaneous with the very origin of the tradition! This means that when the Exodus texts were composed, some people were probably still alive who participated in the event or remembered it—whatever it may have been. (Bietak also thinks that King David began his reign around 1020 B.C.E., while others place the start of that reign around 1000, but the variation in chronology here is small.)

How Bietak arrives at his archaeological datings is a matter for another article. But we can begin, now, to tell the story of how we arrive at reasonable conclusions about the dating of Biblical texts.
Taken together, archaeology, on the one hand, and the study of language development, on the other, permit us to date a large number of Biblical texts with a considerable degree of certainty. Scholars often cite “inconsistencies” in a text as evidence that portions were added long after its original composition. Sometimes the evidence is strong; more often the “inconsistencies” turn out, on closer scrutiny, to be complexities instead. By and large, then, one can date the major part of a Biblical text—say, the Book of Ezekiel, and more specifically almost all of Ezekiel 1–39—with some confidence to a reasonably limited period of time.

The basic political chronology of the Iron Age (1200–587 B.C.E.) is fixed by lists of Assyrian kings and eponyms (officials appointed one per year). One such list contains a dated reference to the solar eclipse of 763 B.C.E., so we can project regnal lengths forward and backward from that point. This permits us to date reports of military campaigns, often to particular years. Hence, the sychronisms these lists share with kings of Israel and Judah permit the construction of a chronology based on reports of regnal lengths in the two books of Kings. For example, in the sixth regnal year of Shalmaneser III, 853 B.C.E., “Ahab the Israelite” participated in a battle waged by a coalition of Western kings against Assyria. And in 841 B.C.E., Shalmaneser’s 18th year, Jehu (king of Israel) paid Shalmaneser tribute. So the 12 regnal years attributed to Ahab’s sons must stretch from 853–841, meaning that Ahab died in 853 or so, and Jehu assumed power in 841. Using these dates as a basis, synchronisms between Kings and passages concerning foreign monarchs and international events from Mesopotamian, Aramaic and Moabite sources (as well as the Tyrian annals preserved in the work of the first-century C.E. historian Flavius Josephus) fit neatly into the chronological web that Assyrian (and, later, Babylonian) sources form. Thereafter, there are synchonisms for a series of Assyrian monarchs and Israelite and Judahite kings—Adad-Narari III and Joash (of Samaria); Tiglath-pileser III and Ahaz (of Judah) and Menahem, Pekah and Hosea (of Israel); Sargon II (721–705 B.C.E.) mentions the kingdom of Judah, and Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.E.) mentions Hezekiah and known rulers of other states. Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.E.) and Ashurbanipal (668–631 B.C.E.) refer to Hezekiah’s successor, Manasseh. Although the length of time assigned to Pekah’s reign (735–733? B.C.E.) creates difficulties, it still looks as though the Biblical royal chronology is fairly accurate.

All of this chronology will help us to date some Biblical texts.

In fact, the securest dating comes from prophetic texts dealing with politics. Thus, Amos 1–2 (and much of the rest of the book) clearly belongs to the world of the mid-eighth century B.C.E., in that it reflects permanent Assyrian advances into the West. The Assyrian conquest took place definitively under Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.E.), but began in his predecessors’ reigns; the reference in Amos 1-5 to the ruler of Bit-Adini (Beth Eden) may conceivably reflect a period before Tiglath-pileser. A slightly later date, sometime after 735 B.C.E., suits much of the Book of Hosea. It closely reflects the destruction of the northern kingdom, Israel, primarily by Tiglath-pileser III in the years 733–732 B.C.E.

These texts also provide historical anchors of another kind—linguistic markers. The Hebrew language has a long and complex history. Spellings change; so do sounds and grammar. One of the texts that can be dated by linguistic evidence is Deuteronomy. Its language conforms to the conventions of the seventh century B.C.E., linking it to the time of King Josiah of Judah. Its laws also square with Josiah’s religious reform.

Let’s look at a few of the linguistic markers that permit us to date Biblical texts.

The name David is spelled without vowels as DWD in pre-Exilic texts and inscriptions. (The W represents the letter waw in scholarly convention, pronounced v in modern Hebrew.) In Chronicles, however, the name is spelled with an additional letter, a vowel, yod (Y). By this time, in the post-Exilic period, a few letters, including yod, were used as vowels in the spelling of Hebrew, which previously did not represent vowels at all. So in Chronicles the name is spelled DWYD, with the Y representing the vowel sound i.

Another slightly more complicated example- the case of the Hebrew suffix for “his.” Until the sixth century B.C.E., as we know from pre-Exilic inscriptions and from the Book of Ezekiel, this suffix was spelled -h on singular nouns (“his mother”), and -w on plural nouns (“his sons”). But by the fifth century B.C.E., less than a century after the return from Exile, it was spelled -w on singular nouns (“his mother”) and -yw on plural nouns (“his sons”).

As scribes copied Biblical texts in later times, most spellings were gradually “corrected” as copies multiplied. For this reason clusters of late spellings do not necessarily prove a later date; the spellings may have been “corrected.” Nevertheless, late spellings do noticeably congregate in texts that refer to events from the late sixth century B.C.E. and thereafter.

The spelling of “his” has not been corrected in all cases. When we see the earlier spelling, and especially clusters of early spellings, we can date the text to the pre-Exilic period. The singular “his” occurs 7765 times in the Hebrew Bible—7710 spelled in the post-Exilic way and 55 times in the pre-Exilic way.1 In these 55 cases, we can be confident that the text is pre-Exilic. But how “pre” remains a question.

Scholars typically separate the Pentateuch into four authorial strands, which they call “JEPD”- “J” for the Yahwist (in German spelled Jahwist); “E” for the Elohist; “P” for the Priestly Code; and “D” for the author of Deuteronomy. I will not consider here how scholars assign texts to each strand; rather, I am interested in clues contained in the strands (and other Biblical texts) that are useful for dating.

One clue is the pronunciation of certain words, because pronunciation, especially of foreign names, is always changing- Think how Peking became Beijing, or Cambodia Campuchea. Thus, the same Arabian state called Yoqshan in J (yqsûn) is called Yoqtan (yqtn) in P. P was written in the seventh century, after J. Therefore the pronunciation in J places it sometime before the seventh century B.C.E.

Pronunciation of ancient Hebrew also varied from location to location- Compare standard English “thus,” “there,” with Brooklynese “dus, dare,” or English “think, thank, thumb” with Brooklynese “tink, tank, tumb.” When we examine pronunciation differences in light of geography and history, we can arrive at chronological conclusions. An example- The authorial strand J and the Book of 2 Samuel mention an Aramaic kingdom, Geshur; P, however, calls it Geter. The sh of J and Samuel is earlier, corresponding to inscriptions in Old Aramaic. What this means is that J and Samuel are pre-seventh-century B.C.E. texts, perhaps considerably so. This conclusion is reinforced by references in J to Maacah as an Aramaic kingdom. At least some of Maacah’s territory was incorporated into Israel in the tenth century B.C.E. (2 Samuel 20), but it was reconquered by Damascus in the ninth century. The reference to Maacah indicates that J and 2 Samuel belong to early phases in Israelite history—probably the ninth and tenth centuries B.C.E., respectively.

From clues like these, we can conclude that 2 Samuel, almost in its entirety, stems from the tenth or early ninth century B.C.E. Aside from considerations of how it spells words and suffixes, 2 Samuel presupposes a geography of Judah that is compatible only with a date in that period. The text describes the Negev as settled, a condition that was no longer true after the campaign of the pharaoh Shishaq (called Sheshonq I in Egyptian inscriptions) shortly after 930 B.C.E. And the hill country of central Judah is virtually empty in 2 Samuel, which would contradict facts on the ground after the early eighth century B.C.E. This is only a sample of the reasons for dating 2 Samuel to this early period.2

So, in all, we have a sequence of literary sources, beginning with 2 Samuel, dating from the tenth-ninth century B.C.E. It was followed by J in the late ninth or early eighth century, and then by E in the eighth century (more decidedly if, as many scholars believe, it stems from the northern kingdom of Israel). J and E were combined sometime around 700, possibly during the burst of literary activity surrounding Hezekiah’s religious reform.

King Hezekiah of Judah centralized worship ostensibly in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-22), but most probably in state shrines in fortresses around Judah’s territory. He demolished the high places, the rural centers of clan-based worship. He destroyed religious symbols identified as “Canaanite.” He even shattered the Nechushtan, the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the Israelites were offering sacrifices to it (2 Kings 18-4). As Julius Wellhausen conclusively showed as long ago as 1878, neither J nor E reflects any limitation on the location of sacrifice. On the contrary, E permits sacrifice in almost any locale (Exodus 20-24–25), and J would appear to do so as well (Genesis 22-14). This means that JE could be no later than the late eighth century B.C.E.
In sum, we can solidly anchor the main Biblical literature about the Exodus—J and E—in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E.

Older still than J, however, are a number of poems still preserved among the narratives of the Hebrew Bible—the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33, in which Moses blesses the tribes), Psalm 68 and Exodus 15, known as the Song of the Sea or, alternatively, the Song of Miriam. Exodus 15-1–18 is a victory hymn sung after the pursuing Egyptians are drowned in the waters of the “Reed Sea.” It is placed in the mouth of “Moses and the Israelites,” hence its attribution to Moses. But after the text of the song, we are told that “Miriam…and all the women” sang it, too. The text then repeats the first line of the song previously attributed to Moses. Critics have concluded that in the original, it was Miriam and the women who really sang the song and that in the Biblical text she has been displaced by her brother Moses. Hence, the song is now often called the Song of Miriam.

All of these poems contain grammatical elements that are genuinely archaic, and they lack the elements that consistently characterize later poetry.3 Read them; even in translation, their archaic cast is clear. If you have a Bible in Hebrew, look at the way the words are specially arranged on the page (as they are in a scroll in the synagogue). Even when their early dating is sometimes disputed, it is never on grounds of the grammar or syntax.

It is the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) in particular that engages our attention here because it is directly relevant to Exodus tradition. But, before turning to it, I want briefly to comment on the other poems I mentioned. They all place the origin of Yahweh, Israel’s national God, in Sinai. The Song of Deborah refers to “Yahweh, He of Sinai” (Judges 5-5). In Deuteronomy 33-2, Moses begins by telling the tribes of Israel that “Yahweh came from Sinai.”

In Psalm 68-8–9, 16–18, we read, with some small emendations-

O God, when You went out at the head of Your folk,

When you strode in the desert,


Earth quaked, yea the sky tinkled, from before God,

The One of Sinai, from before God, the god of Israel.

A bountiful rain you heaved down, O God,

Your stake, when it languished, You made it firm,

Your camp dwelled in it…

Oh mountain of God, Mount Bashan,

Mountain of ridges, Mount Bashan,

Why do you dance, mountains of ridges,

The mountain God coveted for his dwelling,

Even where Yahweh will tabernacle forever?

The chariotry of God are two myriads,

Thousands, the archers of Israel,4

(When) my Lord comes from Sinai among the Holy Ones.

Placing the origin of a national God (Yahweh) in Sinai, outside the territory of the nation (Israel), is quite extraordinary, though it dovetails with 14th-13th century B.C.E. Egyptian references to a people of Yahweh living in the Negev or Sinai.5 The idea of divine extra-territoriality can be said to undermine any claims of an exclusive sanctuary in the land of Canaan, or it may lend equal legitimacy to all shrines—as does the law of Exodus 20-23–26 (from the E source), enjoining sacrifice “wherever I cause my name to be called out.” Such geographical vagueness would hardly be encouraged at a time when the hopes or expectations of the nation focused on Yahweh’s residence in Jerusalem (that is, from the tenth century B.C.E. onward). In short, these texts must date from before the tenth century B.C.E.

Let’s turn now to Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea. A careful analysis indicates that it is the source of two other narratives, which are intertwined in Exodus 14- one by J, one by P.6 Since the Song of the Sea provides a source for these accounts, it must be earlier than either of them—that is, earlier than the ninth century B.C.E. (J), or, again, the tenth century (based on linguistic evidence)—and perhaps by a considerable margin.7

The names of peoples in the Song of the Sea also carry chronological implications—but in the other direction.8 At Exodus 15-14–15, the “inhabitants of Philistia” tremble in fear of Yahweh. The Philistines were not present in coastal Canaan until about 1190 B.C.E., so the Song of the Sea stems at the earliest from the twelfth century B.C.E.9

On the other hand, in contrast to the “inhabitants of Philistia” (and those of Canaan), the song speaks of the “clans” of Edom and the “rams” of Moab. By and large, when the term “inhabitants” is used in connection with the name of a town or a country, permanent settlement is implied. The terms used for Edom and Moab, however, carry no implication of permanent settlement. The contrast is probably deliberate. The Mesha stelaa attests an extensive permanent settlement in Moab as early as the mid-ninth century B.C.E. Kings 1 and 2 also attest permanent settlement in Edom (1 Kings 22-48; 2 Kings 3-4–27; 8-20–21). This further indicates that the Song of the Sea predates the ninth century and dates to a time when the Edomites and Moabites were not yet permanently settled peoples.

In addition, the song implies Philistine complicity with the Egyptians and their (perhaps erstwhile) Canaanite vassals. The archaeological evidence indicates that this could not have been the case before about 1130 B.C.E. because the Egyptians embargoed the Philistines for a long period. Only after the end of the XXth dynasty (c. 1085–1070 B.C.E.) do Philistine sites or Egyptian sites witness trade with one another; nor did Philistine pottery begin to reach Canaanite areas until this time.

Altogether, these considerations place the Song of the Sea most probably sometime between 1125 and 1000 B.C.E. To conclude, then, the Exodus tradition in the Bible goes back to the late 12th or 11th century B.C.E. If the date assigned to the Exodus from Egypt in the preceding article by Manfred Bietak is correct, when the Song of the Sea was composed, there were probably still people alive who had participated in the Exodus.

a. See André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” BAR 20-03, and S.H. Horn, “Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces,” BAR 12-03.

1. By the count of F.I. Andersen and A. Dean Forbes, Spelling in the Hebrew Bible (Biblica et Orientalia 41 (Rome- Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1986), pp. 323–324. Note also the omission of final -h as a mater lectionis for the feminine suffix, /â/, as at Genesis 26-14, 28 (J source). This phenomenon, which reflects writing prior to the late eighth century B.C.E. in Jerusalem (as found in the Siloam tunnel inscription), is of course most frequent in the Pentateuch.

2. See generally Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons (Grand Rapids- Eerdmans, 2001).

3. Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Society of Biblical Literatue Dissertation Series (SBLDS) (Missoula, MT- Scholars, 1975); D.A. Robertson, Linguistic Evidence in Dating Early Hebrew Poetry, SBLDS 3 (Missoula, MT- Scholars, 1972), pp. 31–32 and 138. Robertson’s criteria are generally sound, but he mistook b ‘sûr in Judges 5-27 as a preposition + (late) relative, rather than as a proposition + (old) noun meaning, “in the place where.”

Furthermore, -m to indicate the third-person plural (in verses 14, 20, 21) is not an index of age, and may even reflect an original defective orthographic tradition. And in identifying suffix-form verb followed by w + prefix-form verb as a standard later form, Robertson failed to analyze verb function as an index of age. The instance in verse 28, nsûqph wtybb, expresses ongoing action in the past (“she was looking down and wailing”); this is not identical with the later use of the sequence for simple past narration (for example, “she looked down and wailed”).

4. See Numbers 10-36, and also compare Psalms 68-2 and Numbers 10-35.

5. See Shmuel Ahituv, Canaanite Toponyms in Ancient Egyptian Texts (Jerusalem- Magnes Press, 1984), pp. 121–122.

6. Halpern, The Emergence of Israel in Canaan (Chico, CA- Scholars Press, 1983), pp. 32–43.

7. There is, of course, a question whether the Song of the Sea documents an Exodus at all. Clearly, it connects an Egyptian defeat to the secure settlement of the Israelites in Canaan. The idea of an Exodus is never divorced from that of the Conquest in any Israelite literature. After all, the Exodus without the promise of the land would be pointless. A connection between Egyptian defeat and the Conquest, coupled with an identification of YHWH as the God who led Israel into Canaan, is prima facie evidence for an Exodus tradition.

8. As my friend Gary Knoppers reminds me.

9. How long thereafter the southern coastal territory may be called “Philistia” is also a question. Furthermore, though the song connects the Exodus directly with the Conquest, such a direct connection may not have been close to the events in question.