Around 1800 BCE, people from the land of Canaan had already made their way to Egypt and established a dynasty. This comes to us from historical and archaeological evidence. It isn’t specified that these people were Israelites. Still, they may have been given the timeline of the sojourn in Egypt and the lifetime of Moses. The Israelites were to be slaves in the land of Egypt for 400 years, so this would line up rather nicely with the traditional lifetime of Moses and the writing of the books of Moses (1450–1400 BCE). However, around 1650 BCE, a group called “Hyksos” invaded Egypt and ran things until about 1550 BCE. They’re presumed to have been from Asia.
The traditional dating of Exodus is 1446 BCE, which is given to us from a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1, which placed the building of Solomon’s temple at 966 BCE, 480 years after the Exodus. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know if the numbers are used literally or symbolically. The Israelites and ancient peoples of the east believed numbers had symbolic and, therefore, religious meanings. In this case, if we were to read it symbolically, we’d begin with the number 40, which is a go-to number symbolizing a complete or appropriate period. Moses’ life is broken up into three periods of 40 years. Israel would spend 40 years in the wilderness wondering. Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted. Are we to understand these numbers literally or symbolically? 40 times 12 gives us 480—twelve symbolizing the tribes of Israel. According to the numbers, these symbolic numbers held religious connotations, which would have been viewed as a divine period of time. There can be problems reading the numbers as literal numbers rather than symbolically as they might have.
This is always something I caution when reading the Old Testament. Some who read these books read everything literally, and that’s a product of our Western Civilization, especially for us living in the twenty-first century who’ve inherited the Enlightenment way of processing information. They thought and told stories differently than we do, so we have to try to get in their minds as best as possible. This can be hard, but it makes studying the Old Testament so much more enjoyable once we’re there.
When Did Exodus Occur?
Archaeology points to a mass Hebrew settlement in the land of Canaan in the 12th century BCE. When you look at it that way, it will make for a massive discrepancy between the actual historical exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Some figures suggest a disparity of 200–300 years. We know that much time didn’t elapse between the departure and conquest, so what are we to make of this gap of centuries between the two based on archaeological evidence?
First, just because this was when the settlements appear doesn’t mean that’s when Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan. They could have been there sooner. The settlements may point to a period of economic prosperity more than arrival in the land. Second, because the Pharaohs are unnamed in the book of Exodus, it may point us to an actual, historical conflict that occurred in the 16th century BCE between a divided Egypt. This second point is what I’ll focus on here.
From Genesis, Israelites settled in Goshen, which was located in northern Egypt. Interestingly enough, Northern Egypt is referred to as “Lower Egypt” while Southern Egypt is referred to as “Upper Egypt.” Anyway, in the sixteenth century BCE, Egypt was divided, culturally and politically. Northern Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos. Some historians believe that the Hebrews were their slaves during this period. Perhaps as we see from the story of Exodus, Pharaoh grew concerned by their numbers and that they may ally themselves with Southern Egypt against them, which would unify the country.
Near the end of the 16th century, the Southern Egyptians began a campaign to unify Egypt. There’s a notable coinciding abandonment of Semitic people, which the Israelites were, around the same time. Before these events, Egyptian sources report natural disasters that afflicted Egypt, including abnormal weather conditions and disease. Could these have been the plagues? That sounds like it. The discrepancy of dates is more about how the data is read than anything. There is a plausible explanation, and this is it.