Using the Bible to Date the Exodus

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Hosea 11:1, NRSV


The pivotal event in the history of ancient Israel is an event that has come to be called “the Exodus.” The word exodus is a compound Greek word from the preposition ek meaning “out of” and hodos meaning “way” or “road.” The biblical book of Exodus derives its title in English Bibles from the Greek Old Testament, the LXX. In Hebrew, the book of Exodus is known as Sefer ve’eleh shemot – “the book of ‘These are the names'” (Exodus 1:1). Within the book of Exodus we find the story of how the Israelites, enslaved by the powerful Egyptian Pharaoh, are rescued by Yahweh through his servant Moses. The Exodus is the event whereby the Israelites left Egypt to head to the land promised to their forefathers.

If you are an inerrantist or believe that the Bible portrays the history of Israel accurately, you believe that the events detailed in the book of Exodus happened just as they are described. The actual evidence for the Exodus event is virtually non-existent, leaving apologists scrambling to come up with something to vindicate its authenticity. A prime example of this is the chapter on “The Historicity of the Exodus” which appears in the recently revised Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and his son Sean. [1] In it the father-son duo cover a range of topics from the relationship of Moses to the Egyptian court as well as “loanwords” that the Hebrew text lifts from the Egyptian language. They also tackle the dating of the Exodus event, a very difficult thing to do.

The reason it is so difficult is because the Bible itself gives us a few different dates. Over at the website Biblical Historical Context there is a fascinating overview of the dating of the Exodus by way of the Bible. The author explains that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament give us not one but four different dates for the Exodus event.

  • Using 1 Kings 6:1 in the Masoretic Text (MT) you arrive at a date of 1446 BCE.
  • Using 1 Kings 6:1 in the LXX you arrive at a date of 1406 BCE.
  • Using Acts 13:17-21 you arrive at a date of 1536 BCE.
  • Using the general narrative of the Torah and the Deuteronomic History you arrive at a date of 1596 BCE.

This is problematic for innerantists as it reveals that not even the biblical authors could pin down exactly when the Exodus event transpired. But if you are not hung up on inerrancy or you are willing to accept that the biblical authors weren’t necessarily “doing history,” this isn’t a problem. Carol Redmount notes,

Biblical dates and numbers are…indifferent to concerns of strict historical accuracy. As with other details, the biblical reckonings are subservient to theological images and themes. The improbabilities of the data can be rationalized in different ways: but once rationalized, they lose their claim to ancient authority, historical or otherwise. [2] 

In truth, the Exodus story is less about how it happened than it is what it means. Even if it cannot be rooted in a historical event, that doesn’t mean the story cannot have some value. Even Christians seen in the events of the Exodus a picture of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel goes out of its way to portray Jesus as the new, more obedient Israel (Matthew 2:15, 4:1-11, etc).

The Exodus event as described by the Bible didn’t happen. And the fact that the biblical authors are unable to figure out when it purportedly happened is pretty telling.

ENDNOTES

[1] Josh McDowell & Sean McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017), 459-479.

[2] Carol A. Redmount, “Bitter Lies: Israel in and out of Egypt,” in Michael D. Coogan, editor, The Oxford History of the Biblical World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 70.

1 Comment

  1. The 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 was said to be 12 x 40, with 40 years symbolising a generation (Rowley). However. Albright, Wright and many others, argue that a generation would more likely be 25 years, thus arriving at 300 years and not 480. One piece of evidence used to support the 25 years was the Ur III dynasty that covered four generations and 109 years, another is the First Dynasty of Babylon that spanned ten generations and 286 years (Rendsburg). The 12 x 25 would place the Exodus at 1266 bce, which would solve the ‘Pi Rameses’ problem, but there are still huge problems with taking the Exodus account at face value. We have to conclude that the Exodus did not happen exactly as the Hebrew Bible claims it did. It should also be noted that there has been a great many attempts to discover an Exodus of some description, but all have failed.

    Liked by 1 person

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