Set of scrolls of the entire Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Source: Pete Unseth via Wikimedia Commons
Here on this blog, I’ve written some pieces focusing on the authenticity (or the supposed lack thereof) of the Bible book of Genesis. (See, for example, “Writer of Genesis: Moses or Someone Else?,” “How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?,” and “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?“) Here I’ll try to take up the question of when the book of Genesis was written, based on the timing of the Exodus, that is, the migration of the nation of Israel from Egypt.
The Exodus is often dated by scholars at about 1250 BCE. Others argue for an earlier date, perhaps 1450 BCE. An internal chronology of the Bible would place the Exodus at 1513 BCE and the writing of Genesis at about that time. This earlier date assumes that Genesis is authentic, and that Moses is an historical character and the writer of the book.
Is Genesis an accurate account of the beginnings of humanity and the Hebrew nation? I’m interested in the question as a spiritual person and as a student of ancient history. But more relevant to this blog, I’m interested as a writer of historical fiction portrayed in Biblical settings. My current series, The Cursed Ground, is set in the ancient world described in Genesis 1-11, the earliest times of humanity, according to the Bible’s account. One of the issues I struggle with is whether fiction based on that account can even be called “historical.” Much of conventional academia scoffs at the idea that Genesis is anything but a collection of myths and distortions.
Moses, the Exodus, and the writing of Genesis
I wrote awhile back about the identity of the writer of Genesis, purported to be the Hebrew prophet Moses. With regard to timing, the popular but hypothetical Documentary Hypothesis (DH — note the word “hypothesis” here) places the writing of Genesis during the early- to late-first-millennium BCE. The DH ascribes the actual writing to a compiler or group of compilers much later than the Moses portrayed in the Bible.
My previous article outlines the critique of the DH and its dating of Moses’ writing. Here I take up a critique of the popular 1250 BCE date for the Hebrew Exodus. This is important, because many archaeological researchers have based their investigations on that late date for Israel’s departure from Egypt. I’m not going to try to set out the entire critique here, but I do want to point out that such a critique exists. You’ll often hear negative assertions about the Bible’s accounts voiced by academics who stake a claim to the official version of the truth. Readers and students trust them and often parrot what they’ve heard from the experts. But it’s important for the thinking person to realize that there are substantial critiques to majority opinions. (See “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”)
Internal Bible evidence pointing to an exodus in the mid-2nd millennium BCE
Israel crosses the Red Sea after fleeing from Egypt. Source: Jim Padgett, Sweet Publishing, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The 1250 and 1450 BCE dates for the Exodus are widely referenced (sometimes 1446 or 1447 is used).
The ca. 1450 BCE date for the Exodus is based on an internal Bible chronology assuming that Solomon’s fourth regnal year was 967 BCE. The first book of Kings 6:1 says that year was 479 years after the Exodus, which would take us back to the 1450 date.
An alternative chronology places Solomon’s fourth regnal year and his starting the temple construction at 1034 BCE. Counting 479 years back from that point would yield the 1513 date for the Exodus. This 1513 date is determined by pinning the calculation to the year 539 BCE, a pivotal point widely supported as the year when Persian ruler Cyrus overthrew Babylon. The Jewish former exiles would have been back in Israel in 537 BCE (Ezra 1:1-3; 3:1). Working back from that year results in the 1034 BCE date for the beginning of temple construction, using the following internal Biblical evidence:
- Jeremiah 25:11 and Daniel 9:2 cite a 70-year period for the Jewish exile in Babylon, from 607 to 537 BCE.
- Ezekiel 4:5 counts 390 years from the division of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom, to its destruction by the Babylonians in 607 BCE. The division of the nation, then, would date to 997 BCE.
- 1 Kings 11:42,43 says 40 years passed from the beginning of Solomon’s reign to the division of the nation. Solomon’s first regnal year, then, would be 1037 and his fourth year 1034 BCE.
Thus, for those who don’t dismiss the account of the Exodus as a total fabrication, the hypothesized dates for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt come down to two basic time frames:
- The mid-second millennium BCE (ca. 1450 or 1513 BCE)
- Or the mid-13th-century BCE (ca. 1250 BCE)
… or a difference of as much as 250 years. Such a discrepancy can make a lot of difference in the work of researchers who try to piece together the human past out of old inscriptions and objects dug up from the ground.
What’s wrong with the 1250 BCE date for the Exodus?
The 1250 BCE estimate for a Hebrew exodus from Egypt is still widely cited by academics, with Israel’s entry into Canaan following at the generally accepted date (GAD) of 1230-1220 BCE.
In 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014), archaeologist Eric H. Cline points out various problems with the 1450 date and writes:
[M]ost secular archaeologists favor an alternative date of 1250 BC for the Exodus, which ignores the Biblical chronology but makes more sense from an archaeological and historical point of view.
Along with many researchers, Cline bases this date in part on the Biblical reference to the city of Rameses, which he assumes to be the city of that name built by the pharaoh Rameses II at about 1250 BCE. He also thinks this date fits with the destruction a few decades later “of a number of cities in Canaan by an unknown hand,” possibly the invading Israelites. (Pages 90-92)
In spite of its popularity among academics, the 1250 BCE date has been questioned for many years.
A deputation of Asiatics visits Egypt ca. 1900 BCE. From the 1902 drawing of a tomb relief. Credit: NebMaatRa, via Wikimedia Commons.
In Biblical Archaeology Review in 1987, Trinity College lecturer John J. Bimson and Biblical scholar David Livingstone outlined some of the important objections to the 1250 date. (Full text available here for “Redating the Exodus,” BAR, Sep/Oct 1987.)
Bimson argues that the GAD of 1230-1220 for Israel’s entry into Canaan doesn’t fit the archaeological evidence. He also shows how the enslaved Israelites could have been involved in building a storage city at Rameses (Exodus 1:11) hundreds of years before the life of the pharaoh of that name.
Bimsom discusses archaeological evidence showing city-building and an extensive Syro-Palestinian presence in the eastern Nile delta during the Middle Bronze II period (MB II), generally dated from 2000 to 1550 BCE. This fits the Biblical chronology for the residence of Israel in that area. They could have been in that region at the same time as other Semitic groups, such as the Hyksos.
Some mid-20th-century archaeologists such as Nelson Glueck claimed that the ca.-1500 BCE conditions of settlements in Canaan and Transjordan didn’t fit the Bible account of the Exodus and the Israelite invasion over the following 40 years. Such migration could only have happened during the 13th-century, they claimed. However, Brimson shows that those archaeologists had jumped to conclusions. As often happens in archaeological investigations, they hadn’t found everything there was to be found. In archaeology, the next dig could always be the one that turns scholarship on its head.
It speaks well of Glueck that he changed his views once new information came to light. Brimson points out that not all researchers have been so reasonable:
The important point, which has been reinforced again and again in recent decades, is that Glueck’s initial conclusions were definitely wrong, and it is disappointing to find scholars citing them as if they were still valid evidence against an early date for the Exodus. All too often the 13th-century date for the Exodus has been perpetuated by the baseless repetition of outmoded views.
Can it be “historical fiction” if it’s based on Genesis?
This article has grown long, and the truth is it could have been much longer, because there’s a lot to say about the dating of the Exodus, the life of Moses, and his writing of Genesis. The main point here is that there is good reason to doubt the often-cited date of 1250 BCE for the departure of Israel from Egypt, much as researchers might like to refer to that date as if it were indisputable. There is, in fact, a good argument to be made for the dating of the Exodus about 250 years earlier, around 1500 BCE.
This, in turn, speaks to the authority of the book of Genesis as an historical source — and worthy of consideration for those of us who are writing fiction based on its accounts.
ARK — 8 May 2015