«I. Introduction Competing Scenarios Much has been said and written by the proponents and opponents of the various camps in the interminable debate ...»
The Exodus: Convergence of Science,
History and Jewish Tradition
By: JUDAH LANDA
Much has been said and written by the proponents and opponents
of the various camps in the interminable debate over when the exo-
dus (of the Israelites from Egypt) occurred and under what circum-
stances it occurred. The dominant view in the scholarly community
today is that the exodus occurred (if it occurred at all, some of them
hasten to add) ca. 1250 BCE during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II.1 We will refer to this date as the Widely Accepted View (WAV).
Another camp is equally certain the exodus occurred ca. 1450 BCE when Egypt was ruled, they maintain, by Pharaoh Amenhotep II.2 We shall refer to this view as the Fifteenth Century Date (FCD).
Less known is a third view, subscribed to by many in today’s Or- thodox Jewish community, who pinpoint the year of the exodus to 1312 BCE, during the reign of Pharaoh Horemheb. We designate 1 Key proponent: William F. Albright, Kenneth A. Kitchen.
2 Key proponent: Evangelical Christian community.
Judah Landa is a retired physicist with a lifelong interest in the interaction between Torah and secular knowledge. Currently residing in East Brunswick, NJ, he is the author of numerous published works, including Torah and Science (1991) and In the Beginning Of, A New Look at Old Words (2004), both of which reflect this interest. His weekly public lectures on this topic are known as The Genesis-Science Lecture Series, still popular and well attended going into its fifth year.
188 : Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought this as the Jewish Calendar Based (JCB) date. Finally, a fourth view has been floating around the margins of the debate, ignored and discredited by most, that associates the exodus with the expul- sion of the Hyksos (described later) under Pharaoh Ahmose I, ca.
1550 BCE.3 This we will label the Very Early Date (VED).
Each camp has presented apparently persuasive biblical, archae- ological and historical arguments to support its view, and counter- arguments to weaken or negate the arguments put forth by the oth- er camps. This essay brings good and bad news to the discussion, both of which ought to be welcomed by all the camps, since they help bring the debate to a modicum of resolution.
First, the bad news. Recent scientific discoveries make it in- creasingly unlikely that any of the above scenarios got it quite right.
And this leads to the good news. It turns out that the same scientific evidence converges with evidence from other areas to support the scenario depicted by the ancient Jewish sources pertaining to the exodus and the Israelites’ experience before, during and after their sojourn in Egypt. Out of this grand convergence will emerge a new date and setting for the exodus for us to consider.
Since our only source for the exodus story is the Hebrew Bible (HB), particularly the Torah, also referred to as the Pentateuch, a text that we accept as having been passed down through the generations going all the way back to Moses at Sinai, and he, and the Israelites whom he led, were intimately involved in all its important events as they occurred, it behooves us to pay serious attention to what this ancient text and its oral traditions have to say about the matter. We shall refer to the views expressed in the ancient Jewish sources about the exodus and the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, both their written and (originally) oral components, as the Ancient Jewish Tradition (AJT). Unless otherwise stated, all dates in this essay refer to years Before the Common Era (BCE), and all biblical translations are from the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) version of the text.
3 Key proponent: Flavius Josephus.
The Exodus: Convergence of Science, History and Jewish Tradition : 189
(a) Years and Generations A key biblical statement with a direct bearing on our analysis appears in the context of the Covenant Between the Parts (CBP) in Genesis. After being informed that he was taken out of Ur “to assign this land (Canaan) to you as a possession,” the Patriarch Abraham asks God, “How shall I know that I am to possess it?” (Gen 15:7-8). Abraham then has a vision in which he is told, among other things, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Gen 15:13). A few verses later Abraham is told, “And they (his offspring) shall return here (to Canaan) in the fourth generation” (Gen 15:16).
The common reading of v.13 is that the three elements of alienation (not being in their own land), enslavement and oppression all refer to one and the same period, namely the sojourn in Egypt where all three elements applied simultaneously—the land was not their own, they were enslaved and they were oppressed. It follows therefore that the “four hundred years” must refer to the sojourn in Egypt. But the AJT departs significantly from this interpretation.4 Abraham’s offspring experienced alienation long before the Egyptian sojourn, in Haran, Philistia and Canaan. This is described at length in Genesis and is summarized succinctly in Deuteronomy.
“My father (Jacob, Abraham’s grandson) was a fugitive Aramean.
He went down to Egypt with meager numbers…” (Deut 26:5).
Abraham himself is already an alien at this time (the CBP), having been taken away from his homeland, Ur. So his son Isaac was born into a state of alienation. The AJT also sees the explicit reference to oppression as not synonymous with enslavement, otherwise the Torah is redundant here. A key principle of the AJT is that there are no superfluous words in the Hebrew text of the Torah. Every 4 Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah, fol. 9a; tractate Sofrim, 1:8; Rashi, Nachmanides, Ibn Ezra and others on Gen 15:13, 16, Ex 12:40, 41.
190 : Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought word imparts meaning.5 The reference to oppression must therefore go beyond enslavement to more acutely oppressive policies such as the killing of the Israelite newborn sons, then throwing their bodies into the (Nile) river (Ex 1:16, 22).6 This was decreed by Pharaoh some time after the enslavement began, when it became clear that mere enslavement will not accomplish the goal of shrinking the Israelite population (Ex 1:12). Since this should have taken some number of years to discern, the enslavement and oppression cannot both be assigned the same number of years.
So, if each of the three elements in v.13 is to be associated with a different number of years, which was to endure four hundred years?
The matter is further complicated by the realization that a fourhundred-year sojourn in Egypt cannot be reconciled with v.16, which assigns four generations before “returning here.” Abraham is in Canaan now (at the CBP), so “returning here” must refer to his offspring returning to Canaan after the sojourn in Egypt. But how could four hundred years constitute just four generations? This problem has, of course, been noticed by others, but no satisfactory solution has been forthcoming.
In addition, a four-hundred-year sojourn is contradicted by the facts. Jacob’s grandson Kohath accompanies his father Levi to Egypt (Gen 46:11). His son Amram (Ex 6:18) is the father of Moses (Ex 6:20), who is eighty years old at the time of the exodus (Ex 7:7).
Now, even if Kohath is assumed to be only one year old when he arrives in Egypt, and Amram is assumed to have been born on the very last day of Kohath’s long life of 133 years (Ex 6:18), and Moses is assumed to have been born on the very last day of Amram’s life of 137 years (Ex 6:20), the number of years between Kohath’s arrival (with the entire family of Israel) and Moses turning eighty at the exodus is 133 plus 137 plus 80, or 350 years. This is nowhere near 5 As epitomized in tractate Pesahim (fol. 22b) of the Babylonian Talmud, where every ‘et’ in the Torah—and there are hundreds of them, normally considered totally useless expressions—is to be turned into a meaningful addition to the text.
6 See text of Haggadah (recited at the Passover Seder) for other manifestations of oppression that go beyond enslavement.
The Exodus: Convergence of Science, History and Jewish Tradition : 191 four hundred years! And the figure of 350 years must surely be further reduced by the overlap in the lives of Kohath, Amram and Moses.7 Just as important, did you notice the number of generations between arrival in Egypt and return to Canaan in this leading family of Israel? Starting with the adult Levi who goes to Egypt, the next generation in this family is Kohath, then Amram, then Moses, then Moses’ sons who return to Canaan. That is four generations, as prescribed in Genesis 15:16.
Based on these and other considerations, and on passed-down tradition, the AJT associates the four hundred years of Genesis 15:13 only with the first and longest of the three elements enumerated in that verse, namely that of alienation. Abraham’s offspring would experience alienation “in a land not theirs” for four hundred years. There is no reason to associate that experience exclusively with Egypt. They would also experience enslavement for a lesser number of years, in Egypt, and oppression for an even smaller duration, also in Egypt.
It is as if the verse stated, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, four hundred years, and they shall 7 Some have tried to stretch the meaning of various Hebrew terms to make the genealogy fit a greater time span (K. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, 356-357). The Hebrew Binai (Ex 6:18), which usually means ‘sons of,’ they would stretch to include grandsons and great-grandsons. Dohdato, ‘his aunt’ (Ex 6:20), they would turn into his great-great-aunt. Vatailed (Ex 6:20) would mean not the usual ‘gave birth to,’ but gave rise to or produced, presumably after many generations have passed. While these ‘stretched’ definitions have their place in the Torah, where the words can so be understood from the context or where the matter is of no great consequence, it is extremely unlikely that these words are so used in Ex 6. For here the subject is the leading family of Israel, including those in the foundational roles of High Priest (Aaron) and greatest Prophet/Teacher (Moses). We expect accuracy and transparency here, not vague and misleading terminology. The AJT never seriously considered applying such definitions in this context; no opinion along these lines was ever offered by anyone among the sages, although these definitions are applied in other contexts. To do so here would violate the AJT principle, “the text comes not to obfuscate, but to clarify” (Rashi on Gen 10:25 and others quoting Seder Olam, a preTalmudic text).
192 : Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought be enslaved and oppressed.” The ancient Hebrew of the Torah displays a multitude of such out-of-order expressions; this is really not unusual at all.8 It is probably the way people spoke and wrote millennia ago.
Since Abraham at one hundred years of age is already in a state of alienation when his son Isaac (his designated offspring, as opposed to Ishmael, Gen 21:12) is born, the four hundred years of “your offspring shall be strangers” begins at the moment of Isaac’s birth. Since Isaac is sixty years old when Jacob is born (Gen 25:26) and Jacob/Israel is 130 years of age when his family (the Israelites at the time) arrives in Egypt (Gen 47:9), 190 of the 400 years of alienation (60 plus 130) elapse before the sojourn in Egypt begins. The forty years in the wilderness between the exodus and return to Canaan (when the process of making the land “theirs” began) cannot be reckoned as alienation “in a land not theirs” because the Israelites in the desert were not subject to any alien power. There was no entity to claim that land (the wilderness) as “theirs,” thereby effectively rendering the Israelites as “strangers.” So the AJT concludes that the sojourn in Egypt endured for 210 years (400 minus 190).9 8 See for example Gen 41:57 with commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra). The Hebrew there does not say (as is frequently translated for the benefit of the reader) “and all the land came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations,” but literally “and all the land came to Egypt to procure rations to Joseph.” 9 The four generations of Levi, Kohath, Amram and Moses spanning the sojourn of 210 years present no difficulty at all. We may propose that Kohath is a little boy of five upon arrival in Egypt. He has Amram 65 years later at age 70, Amram has Moses 65 years later at age 65, and Moses is 80 at the exodus. The total of 65 plus 65 plus 80 is 210 years.
However, some eyebrow-raising numbers do appear on the women’s side of the genealogy. Amram has Moses after he marries his father’s sister Jokhebed (Ex 6:20) who was born to Levi in Egypt (Num 27:59). To avoid proposing miracles not attested in the Torah (like what happened to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who gave birth at age 90 Gen 17:17, 21:5), we should assume that Jokhebed is no older than 50 when she gives birth to Moses. Since Moses is 80 at the exodus, Jokhebed was born to Levi 130 years (80 plus 50) before the exodus. This is 80 years (210 minus 130) after Levi’s arrival, when he is 43 years old (sec. IIIa). So Levi is 80 plus 43, or 123 years old, when he fathers Jokhebed.
The Exodus: Convergence of Science, History and Jewish Tradition : 193 This is less than 350 years, as expected, and is the longstanding AJT of the duration of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt—210 years.