The Exodus and Conquest Revisited

The Exodus and Conquest Revisited

September 10, 2007

I am preparing for one segment of the introduction to my class on the book of Exodus that deals with the exodus events and their dating.  To catch up I have been reading and re-reading recent treatments on the subject.  Let me share with you some of my conclusions.

When I began teaching Old Testament, I offered to students the evidence for two possible dates for the exodus and conquest events, one coming forty years before the other.  At that time the two views taught were either 1446/45 or 1290 BCE for the exodus and 1406/05 or 1250 BCE for the conquest.

The fifteenth century date was the traditional view based on chronological reckoning from 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26.  Since the year mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 comes from the fourth year of Solomon's reign and dates the exodus from 480 years previous, conservative scholarship provided a 1446/45 date.  If Jephthah's date is around 1100, then the 300 years mentioned in Judges corresponds to the fifteenth century.

Mid-twentieth century archaeology uncovered significant destruction at biblical sites in the thirteenth century and little destruction in the fifteenth so proposed the 1290-1250 BCE dates.  The chronology in 1 Kings is accounted for by understanding a counting of all year numbers in Joshua, Judges, and Samuel adding up to 480, a number that did not mean years because of overlaps.  Of course, we don't know when Jephthah judged Israel, it was reasoned that if it was later than 1100, the 300 years could place the date closer to their conclusion.

Some scholars found reasons for one date or the other.  Bruce Waltke argued that burn levels or their lack at many sites attributed for misunderstanding.  Joshua claims that only three cities were burned on their tells ? Jericho, Ai, and

Megiddo.  Burn levels do correspond to the fifteenth century at Megiddo, the only site with a clear record since Ai has not been uncovered yet and Jericho was mud brick and burn levels washed away. Egyptian evidence supports both dates, but leans toward the thirteenth century.  The Merneptah stele mentions Israel in the Land already in 1220 BCE.  Raamses II and the storehouse cities of Pithom and Raamses corroborate the thirteenth century.

In the eighties further archaeological surveys complicated the picture.  In light of growing evidence scholars proposed that we set aside the biblical tradition of a large-scale invasion and conquest and come up with an alternative more in step with the varied evidence from physical remains.  Some proposed a series of migrations from various tribes, probably out of the desert, looking for pasturage.  Most others supposed some kind of internal revolt due to the disintegration of Canaanite culture.  The peasants rose up and ended the city-state period of the Bronze Age.

These proposals do not take serious the biblical records.  Instead, they believe the accounts were made up later to provide a "history" for Israel's origins.

However, the archaeological evidence gives a mixed picture.  Where twenty years ago I would argue that we did not have a clear picture at a macro-level or at a micro-level, either through a large sweeping overview of towns and villages or specific sites and occupation levels at those sites, continuing research and digging continues to amass the evidence for Israelite occupation in the twelfth century and following.  William Dever has proved the most careful interpreter of the evidence in a series of books, the most basic being his book, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003).

Dever's approach accounts for biblical, textual, and archaeological evidence in a balanced discussion.  He is one of the few first level archaeologists who have the wherewithal to assess the archaeological evidence.  His training also brings in biblical records, Egyptian records (although Kenneth Kitchen disputes some of his Egyptian abilities), and Canaanite sources, namely the el Amarna tablets from the fourteenth century.

As Kenneth Kitchen notes in his latest book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2005), after dismantling proposals for nomadic infiltration or sedentarization and providing a wonderful, site by site assessment of the archaeological evidence Dever then lapses into speculative hypothesis for Israel growing out of Canaanite disintegration by a people desiring a new start in life.  Dever is still the best on the physical and textual evidence.

Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier are the best on the Egyptian evidence.  They opt for the thirteenth century.  They have been opposed by Bryant Wood who argues for the early date.  These three gentlemen are all evangelicals.

Where does all this leave us?

I start from the presupposition that the biblical record is true.  Thus I think Israel left the eastern delta of

Egypt and invaded and conquered the Land forty years later. 

On the other hand, in the last twenty years I have become insecure with our understanding of biblical numbers.  I no longer believe we need to understand the biblical chronology on face value, such as 1 Kings 6:1.  In other words, I do not know exactly what the biblical writers were understanding when they said 480 years since all the numbers given in Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, with one interpolation of forty years in a gap, add up to this number, including the problem of 1 Samuel 13:1 where obviously Saul was not one year old when he came to power.  There is more I do not know than I know (or, said another way, the more I study and research the less I know).

The evidence today (that could change tomorrow) supports the collapse of the culture in Canaan in the thirteenth century and the material change to villages and towns in the Late Bronze and Iron I ages in the hill country by the Israelites.  I thought I would never say it.  But today I am the exception because I do believe Israel existed, left Egypt, wandered in the desert, and conquered Canaan, just in a different century than I used to think.