Pinpointing the Exodus from Egypt
An edited chapter from איך נולד התנ”ך [How The Bible Was Born]
By Israel Knohl
The covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis 15:13 includes the prophecy: “And they [i.e., future oppressors] will enslave them [i.e., the Israelites] and torture them for four hundred years.” When the story of the exodus is told in Exodus 12:40, however, a different timeline is described: “And the Israelites dwelt in Egypt four hundred and thirty years.” How do we reconcile this numerical conundrum? Was the Exodus an historical event? If it was, when did it happen?
First, we must consider which historical details in the Joseph and exodus stories, respectively, may be corroborated with events recorded in Egyptian inscriptions and archaeological findings. The first thing to know is that a great famine—like that mentioned in the Joseph story—occurred around 1200 BCE, give or take 25 years. To anchor the Joseph story in historical fact, we must assume that he was active during this period, around 1200 BCE, during the great famine crisis.
When Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph discusses with Pharaoh where they should live. Genesis 47:11 says, “And Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and he gave them an estate in the land of Egypt in the best of the land in the region of Ramses.” Scholars usually repudiate the notion that Israelites settled in the region of Ramses, since he would not rise to power for many years. However, new evidence shows that the Israelites actually did come to Egypt during the reign of Ramses II, due to a great famine around 1225 BCE; those at the time of Joseph who settled in the region of Ramses, however, can be correlated with the Jacob-el people from Edom. There is Egyptian documentation about a group from Edom who migrated to Egypt because of famine, starvation, and thirst.1 The migration of the Jacob group to Egypt was similar to this episode.2 In both cases, migrants whose vocation included shepherding were despised by the Egyptians because the latter deified the ram as a holy animal, symbolizing the Egyptian god Amon. Thus, it seems logical that the Egyptians would conscript these starving migrants as lowly physical laborers to build the city of Ramses.
The circumstances of the Jacob-el group’s exodus from Egypt are recounted in many documents, most notably by Manetho, an Egyptian priest writing during the Second Temple period around the third century BCE. His writings are preserved in the work of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who lived in the first century CE.
According to Manetho, a group called the Hyksos came from Canaan, overran Egypt, were driven out, went back to Canaan, and ultimately settled in Jerusalem. Later, the pharaoh named Amenophis, who wanted to come face to face with the gods, was told by his counselor that only if Egypt was cleansed of lepers would he be able to see the gods. Amenophis collected all the lepers in Egypt together and settled them in a remote city, Avaris, which had previously been the Hyksos’s capital. The lepers rebelled against Amenophis and appointed a leper priest called Osarseph as their leader. Osarseph had previously served at the temple of the sun god (the biblical “On”) in Heliopolis, and he gave the lepers a new religion that was hostile to the Egyptian religion. They despised the Egyptian gods and sacred animals, which they slaughtered, roasted, and ate.
When the lepers were attacked, Osarseph sent messengers abroad to conscript a militia. He approached the Hyksos in Jerusalem, and they arrived in thousands from Canaan to help Osarseph and the lepers, at which point Osarseph changed his name to Moses. Together, the lepers and the Jerusalemites formed a military power that took over Egypt, looted the Egyptian temples, profaned the idols, and slaughtered and ate the sacred animals. Amenophis fled Egypt and went to Ethiopia. Years later, Amenophis left Ethiopia with a huge army and returned to Egypt. Together with his (now grown up) son Ramses, he fought the joint forces of the lepers and the Jerusalemites, and pursued them into the Syrian mountains.
We have here a story of an ethnic group in Egypt that threatened the indigenous Egyptian religion and objected to the worship of Egyptian idols and sacred animals. This group was reinforced by people arriving from the north, from the direction of Canaan, and together they seized power over Egypt, until Pharaoh Amenophis, aided by his son Ramses, drove them out.
Thomas Römer, a scholar working in Paris, noticed the similarity of plot and argued that it was very reminiscent of Pharaoh’s words at the beginning of the book of Exodus:
And the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, and multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. . . . And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: come, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply and it come to pass that when any war should chance, they also join our enemies and fight against us and so go up out of the land (Exod. 1:7, 9–10).
Here, too, is a scenario whereby an enemy from within joins forces with an enemy from without. Römer concludes from these literary affinities that the writer of the exodus narrative borrowed these plotlines from Manetho. Either way, this provides convincing evidence that a correlation between these narratives truly exists.
The story of the exodus from Egypt is very complex and may be taken two ways. On the one hand, it is the story of a group of miserable slaves coerced into forced building labor in Egypt. A charismatic leader called Moses emerges, and under his leadership the slaves manage to escape from Egypt: “And it was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled” (Exod. 14:5). On the other hand, we are told that the Israelites are driven out of Egypt because of the Egyptians’ fear of them: “because they were driven out of Egypt” (Exod. 12:39). Also, contrary to the notion that the Israelites were very downtrodden, other verses describe them as leaving Egypt with great wealth: God lends the people favor in Egyptian eyes, and the Egyptians give them gold and silver vessels (Exod. 11:2–3; 12:35–36). There is even a verse reading, “and the people of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 13:18); literally, they were armed soldiers, the precise inversion of a downtrodden people. According to these verses, then, the exodus included a military element: armed Israelite soldiers and foreign mercenaries who came from abroad to help them. This parallel’s Manetho’s account in a profound way.
I think one can point precisely to the time when these events took place, based both on the biblical story and the Manetho tradition. We have to go back to the story of the Egyptian prime minister Bay-Joseph and the child pharaoh Siptah, whom Bay puts on the throne. The widow queen Tausert, Seti II’s daughter by Merneptah’s widow, was active at that time. She ascended the throne after Seti’s death and became the sole ruler of Egypt. Her reign only lasted two or three years, (ca. 1190–1188 BCE), and then something mysterious happened, something wonderfully puzzling. This dynasty came to an end, and a new dynasty arose, the twentieth, established by Setnakhte, Ramses III’s father, who was later to fight the Philistines and other seafaring nations. But Setnakhte’s ascent to the throne was also achieved through war.
We have two Egyptian documents on the subject: one is a huge papyrus, the largest in existence today. It is about 40 meters long and is called the “Great Harris Papyrus.” One part of the puzzle is written on this papyrus, and the other part is to be found on a monument set up by Setnakhte in the city of Yeb, or Elephantine, the same city where many years later Jewish Israelite soldiers lived under Persian rule. These two sources complement each other.
The Harris Papyrus tells of a neglected Egypt, lacking a single ruler. Each region had a local officer or king, and they quarreled and murdered each other. There is also mention of “empty years,” which could perhaps be a reference to the famine. Then it says that someone took over the throne. The word used on the papyrus is “irsu,” which can mean “someone who made himself,” or it could be a given name. Since we are not familiar with the name “Irsu,” either in Egypt or elsewhere in the region, I favor the first option. This would mean that the text is about someone who appointed himself as a ruler, meaning he was not worthy to inherit the throne of the pharaohs and took power by improper means. It also says he was “haru,” meaning he came from Syria, Canaan, or Transjordan, all of which are called “Haru.” So a person of Syrian or Canaanite origin appoints himself as a prince, as a ruler. He levies taxes on the entire country. He and his followers despoil the Egyptian gods and prohibit the bringing of offerings in the temples.
The papyrus goes on to tell of a turning point when the Egyptian gods took pity on the land and restored the son born of them to power. That was Setnakhte, founder of the twentieth dynasty. He restored order throughout the country, executed the evildoers, and cleansed the great throne of Egypt. In other words, following Tausert’s death, a “Haru”—a Canaanite, Syrian, or Transjordanian—came and took over Egyptian rule. He brought with him a large group of followers who objected to the Egyptian gods and their rituals. He and his followers took over the country for a time and exploited it economically. Setnakhte then battled this foreigner, removed him from the throne, stripped him of power, and ascended the throne in his place.
This document was not written at the time of the events described in it but only several decades later, toward the end of the reign of Ramses III, Setnakhte’s successor. I mentioned another document we have, however, which was written soon after the battle for power in Egypt. This second document is a monument discovered in Yabe, on the island of Elephantine, and dated to the second year of Setnakhte’s reign. There it is written that Setnakhte cleansed Egypt of those who had led her in a mistaken direction, who had defrauded her. His enemies were seized with fear and “fled like swallows fleeing the hawk,” leaving behind the silver and gold that Setnakhte’s enemies gave to the Asians they wanted to bring in as reinforcements, as allies. This plan of bringing mercenaries paid with Egyptian silver and gold failed, and Setnakhte drove them all out of Egypt. Following this expulsion of Setnakhte’s enemies from Egypt, the people became God-fearing once more.
If I were to conflate what is written in these two Egyptian sources, the following story of the end of the nineteenth dynasty and the beginning of the twentieth emerges. Tausert died around 1188 BCE, and her death was followed by two years of internal conflict in Egypt, because she did not have any living offspring and therefore no clear heir. Then someone of Canaanite or Syrian origin took over rule in Egypt. This man despised Egyptian rituals and prohibited offerings to the Egyptian gods. He imported allies from Asia—from somewhere in Syria, Lebanon, or Canaan—whom he paid with silver and gold. Setnakhte, founder of the twentieth dynasty, fought against the foreigner and his Asian allies who had taken over the country, and succeeded in driving them out.
Thus, we have three groups of different kinds of sources. We have Manetho, whose story is preserved in Josephus, we have the biblical book of Exodus, and we have Egyptian documents from the twelfth century BCE. I would argue that the same basic story recurs in all three: A group within Egypt that despises Egyptian ritual brings in reinforcements from abroad, from the region of Canaan and Syria. They come to Egypt and join the local group, but the pharaoh, who remains faithful to the old Egyptian religion, manages to defeat them and drive them out of the country. There is also mention of silver and gold given to the foreigners by Egyptian citizens. Manetho says this pharaoh had a son called Ramses, as did Senakhte, whose son Ramses III succeeded him on the Egyptian throne.
I am not the first to see the analogy between these ancient Egyptian sources and the Bible, particularly between the mention of silver and gold on the Yabe monument and the biblical story about the gold and silver vessels the Egyptians gave the Israelites on the eve of their exodus (Exod. 11:2; 12:35). But scholars who have studied this matter in the past thought that the foreigner who took over Egypt and against whom Setnakhte fought was Bay. Moreover, none of them has noted the connection between the story of these events and the story told by Manetho.
This struggle for power in Egypt, occurring several years after the deaths of Bay and Siptah, cannot have anything to do with Bay-Joseph but is actually about another figure—namely, Moses.
Today we know that Bay was executed by Siptah earlier on, so I claim that this struggle for power in Egypt, occurring several years after the deaths of Bay and Siptah, cannot have anything to do with Bay-Joseph but is actually about another figure—namely, Moses. My claim is that the exodus from Egypt occurred in a specific year: 1186 BCE, which was the second year of Pharaoh Setnakhte’s reign. The Syrian leader who despised Egyptian religion and brought mercenaries over from Syria or Lebanon, mentioned in these sources, is Moses.
In summary, I believe the Israelites came to Egypt during the great famine, which began at the end of Ramses II’s reign, around 1225 BCE. They left at the beginning of Setnakhte’s reign, around 1186 BCE. This is a span of about 40 years. If we recall that Moses is described as “a very great man in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 11:3), we now understand that this verse describes Moses’s historical status. He really was well known throughout Egypt, and he brought together a group of armed supporters who left Egypt with him and who included a band of mercenaries, the “erev.”
The name Moses-Mases is a bona fide Egyptian name, but as is written on the Harris Papyrus, he was Haru, i.e., from Canaan or Syria. As I understand it, Moses’s parents belonged to the Jacob-el group from Edom, who came to Egypt during the famine. In my opinion, he was raised and educated, at least for a time, at the Egyptian royal court, under the protection of Tausert. When Tausert died, he saw himself as the appropriate person to take over the court and ascend the throne of the pharaohs. To do this, he conscripted his people, the Jacob-el group, who were living, enslaved, in Egypt, and then later he brought in reinforcements from abroad, that same “erev,” or mercenary army, we have discussed—a foreign legion mentioned on the monument at Elephantine and in Manetho, each in its own way. There followed a struggle for power between opposing forces in Egypt. Moses and his men lost, were expelled from Egypt, and left for Canaan. This, in my opinion, is the story of the exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt.
- Papyrus Anastasi VI.
- I discuss the issue of Jacob-el in Edom in Israel Knohl, “Jacob-el in the Land of Esau and the Roots of Biblical Religion,” Vetus Testamentum 67, no. 3 (July 2017): 481–84.