Stephen Rosenberg, Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, writing an article for The Jerusalem Post, asked the following question: “Was there ever an Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt? If so, who was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites and who let them go?”
Rosenberg acknowledges that, outside the Bible, there is no evidence for the presence of Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus ever took place. However, Rosenberg wrote: “The Torah is full of references to Egyptian geography and religious cults and customs, and it is clear that the compiler was speaking to an audience familiar with Egypt.”
Rosenberg offers the following information to show that the Biblical writer was familiar with Egypt:
When Lot parted from Abraham, he chose the plain of the Jordan because “it was well watered… like the Land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). The Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia was built of brick, because “they used brick for stone” (Gen. 11:3), it being necessary to explain this to the Israelites, who only knew monuments built of stone, as in Egypt.
When Joseph brings his sons to be blessed by his father Jacob, “he brought them out from between his knees” (Gen. 48:12). Egyptian carvings typically show children standing between the legs of their elders. During the seven-year famine, Joseph arranges for all the land to be transferred to Pharaoh, but he cannot do that with the land of the priests (Gen. 47:26) as the temples held their land independent of the state.
As for the identity of the Pharaoh who ruled the land at the time the Israelite left Egypt, Rosenberg believes that Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who established religious reforms in Egypt, was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites. Rosenberg wrote:
In that case Akhenaten, who had started his reign under the official name of Amenhotep IV (1350-1334 BCE), was the persecutor of the Israelites, “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). He was the one who ordered the male babies to be drowned, from which fate Moses was saved to become a prince at his court, as Sigmund Freud suggested 80 years ago. When Moses saw his brothers slaving at the building of the city, he reacted as described in the Torah and eventually, on the death of Akhenaten, saw a chance to lead them out of Egypt. That chance soon came.
Rosenberg also argues that Israel entered Egypt at the time the Hyksos conquered the land. He wrote:
As for the biblical statement that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Ex. 12:40), if they left in 1325 BCE, that would imply entry in 1755 BCE, and this could well correlate with the entry of the Hyksos, who had established their own dynasty of kings in Egypt by 1663 BCE, and must have entered well before that. The early Jewish historian Josephus claims that the Israelites came down with the Hyksos, and it could well be that the first wave came with the Semitic Hyksos hordes around 1700 BCE.
Read Rosenberg’s argument by visiting The Jerusalem Post online.
Although Rosenberg presents strong arguments that the compiler of the Torah was writing from the perspective of one who was familiar with Egypt, it seems that he does not believe in the historicity of the events mentioned in the Torah since he declines “to take the biblical figures at face value.”
There are several other factors not mentioned by Rosenberg that affirm that the writer of the Torah was familiar with Egyptian society. One of them is the mention of several Egyptian names in the Torah. For instance, in the story of Joseph several Egyptian names are mentioned: Potiphar, Joseph’s master (Genesis 39:1), Asenath, Joseph’s wife (Genesis 41:45), Potipherah, Joseph’s father-in-law, Zaphenath-paneah, Joseph’s new name which was given to him by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45).
In addition, several other Egyptian names appear in the Torah, among them Moses, Aaron, Hori, Hur, Merari, Miriam, Phineas, and many others. A detailed list of Egyptian names, words, places, and customs are given in the book by James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
As for the Pharaoh of the Exodus, scholars believe that Seti I (1305-1290) was the Pharaoh of the oppression and Rameses II (1290-1224) was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. This places the Exodus in the 13th century B. C.
Akhenaten (1364-1347 B.C.) ruled Egypt during the Amarna Period. He was the Pharaoh who established religious reforms in Egypt by promoting the worship of one god, the sun god Aten. Rosenberg’s date would place the Exodus in the 14th century, a date that few scholars accept.
Most conservative scholars accept a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1 which states that the building of the temple was begun in the 4th year of Solomon’s reign, in 966 B.C., 480 years after the Exodus. This information would place the Exodus in 1446 B.C., during the reign of Thutmoses III.
Although the date of the Exodus is debated by scholars, and although the Pharaoh of the oppression and the Pharaoh of the Exodus are not named in the Exodus narrative, the weight of the evidence indicates that the Israelites were in Egypt, just as the Bible says they were.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary