Wednesday: Dating the Exodus: Exodus 1:8-22

Exodus 1:8-22 In this week’s lessons, we learn about the historical setting for the exodus, and see that it is far better to be counted among the righteous lowly who serve the Lord than the pagan great who serve the world’s idols.
Dating the Exodus

When we read our text for this study, starting with 1:8, the first question we have is who is this king who did not know Joseph? Who is the pharaoh of the exodus? There were two different men involved, and scholars are divided on it because when you read the book of Exodus it doesn’t tell you who the pharaoh was. And when you turn to Egyptian records, they don’t have any record of the Jews except to a reference to them in a stele set up by Pharaoh Merneptah, in about 1220 BC, that describes a victory that the pharaoh had over the Jews in the southern area of Canaan. But this is well after the Jews had left Egypt and settled in Canaan.

However, not having an earlier record of the Jews in Egypt is not surprising. Since the Jews came out with great power as a result of the plagues brought upon the country by Jehovah, you wouldn’t expect the Egyptians actually to record defeats of that magnitude in their historical records. There are perhaps ten references to a people called the Habiru people. It certainly sounds like “Hebrew,” but it refers to Semitic people generally. And there were a lot of them, so that doesn’t necessarily refer to the Jews.

Some scholars give very early dates for the exodus, between 2000 BC and 1477 BC. I’m simplifying this, but the chief reason for scholars thinking that the exodus may have happened as early as that is that there was a lot of destruction of the cities of Canaan about that time. And if the destruction of these cities was the result of the invasion of the Jews under Joshua, then the exodus took place at this time.
The difficulty is that it doesn’t link up very well with the dates that are given us for various events in the Old Testament itself. We’re told in Genesis 15:30 that the Jews would be in Egypt for 400 years, and more specifically, 430 years in Exodus 12:40. Now, we don’t know exactly when Abraham lived, but a reasonable time for him puts the exodus in the middle of the second millennium rather than at the beginning. Also, in I Kings 6:1 there is another very interesting figure. We’re told that the years between the exodus and the beginning of the construction of the temple under Solomon were 480 years. Construction began around 962 BC, which means that the date for the exodus happened later than the range scholars give for this very early date.

A second possibility is a very late date, that is, about 1280 BC. The chief argument for this date comes from the book of Exodus and its early reference to two cities. We’re told of the people building the store cities for pharaoh, and they were called Pithom and Rameses. Now, the great Rameses was Rameses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC, and that store city was named after him. So if that is a name that describes the city as it was known at the time in which it was being built, well then, probably the people lived during the reign of that king, and the exodus has to be associated with him. Continuing this line of argument, Rameses II’s father, Seti I, may have been the pharaoh of the oppression, and Rameses II may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus.

A few other items contribute to this view. There are tablets known as the Amarna letters, and in them they refer to the Habiru people being brickmakers during this period. But of course, that would have happened anyway, whether or not it was the Jews. But it’s a possibility. There is also information from Palestine through archeology. Several important cities in Palestine were destroyed about 1240 BC, cities like Lachish, Bethel, Debir and Hazor. And if that matches the invasion under Joshua, well, then that would fit in well with that date.
The third possibility is for a date around 1445 BC. I think this one is right because of the biblical data. The Bible says that the temple was begun in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign, which we know was 966 or 965 BC. And from 1 Kings 6 we learned that the exodus was 480 years before this, then the exodus would have been in the year 1446 or 1445 BC. And if the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years, it means they would have entered in the time of Joseph about 1875 BC.
However, that takes us away from Rameses II. Rameses is popular because we know a great deal about him. But there is another king that fits the bill very well, a king named Thutmose III. He reigned from 1483-1450 BC. He is known to have been antagonistic to foreigners because he was the chief king that drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. So it’s understandable that he’d be critical and oppressive of foreigners. His successor was Amenhotep II, who was probably therefore the pharaoh of the exodus.

None of this is conclusive, of course. There are attractive arguments made for the various positions, which is why even conservative scholars differ. People make their decisions on the basis of what evidence they think is most important. If you are most impressed with the archeological evidence—that is, the ruin of the cities—then you may come up with one of those very early or very late dates. But if the years given to us in the Old Testament have any bearing on this, which they certainly do, then you come up with a date in the 1440s, as I have suggested.

There is another significant fact about the dating for the exodus as I have suggested. If it took place under Thutmose III or his successor Amenhotep II, then this is Dynasty XVIII, the great period of Egypt. What it really means is that God brought the people out of Egypt with a mighty hand when Egypt was its strongest, most sophisticated, and most powerful, at the very period where it had developed the greatest army. It’s really a way of saying that God is more powerful than all of the nations of the world, and that we need to bow before Him.

Study Questions

Application: What do we see about God in this first chapter of Exodus? What does this mean in terms of your own life lived for the Lord?
Key Point: What it really means is that God brought the people out of Egypt with a mighty hand when Egypt was its strongest, most sophisticated, and most powerful, at the very period where it had developed the greatest army. It’s really a way of saying that God is more powerful than all of the nations of the world, and that we need to bow before Him.
For Further Study: Download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “God’s Man in Egypt.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

  1. Why might Egyptian records not give information about Israel’s presence in Egypt?
  2. What is the earliest date range for the exodus? Why do some take this position?
  3. Describe why some people hold to the second possibility for the date of the exodus.
  4. What is the third possibility, and the reasons for it?
  5. Why is it significant that the exodus occurred during the eighteenth dynasty?
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