For the account in the Torah is the basis of our people’s creation, it is the basis of our existence and it is the basis of our important Passover festival and the whole Haggada that we recite on the first evening of this festival of freedom. So that makes archaeologists reluctant to have to tell our brethren and ourselves that there is nothing in Egyptian records to support it. Nothing on the slavery of the Israelites, nothing on the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to let them go, nothing on the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, nothing.
Nothing at all. There are three Pharaohs who said they got rid of the hated foreigners, but nothing to say who the foreigners were, and no Pharaoh is named as having persecuted foreign slaves or suffered unspeakable plagues.
However, there is another way of looking at it, another way of seeking support for this fundamental experience of our peoplehood.
We do not look for evidence from the biblical text, but we can look to it for the general context of a sojourn in, and an exodus from, Egypt, and there are three major elements.
The first is that the Israelites were slave workers in mudbrick. They had to manufacture the material and they were semi-skilled workers in laying the bricks. As there were thousands of Israelites, what projects were they working on? The pyramids and the temples were in stone, the mudbrick houses of the peasants were built by themselves, so what project needed hundreds of workers in mudbrick? Secondly, when the Israelites escaped, it was during a period of turmoil brought on by the magical plagues, a period when the Egyptians were off their guard and keen to see the slaves go as they wished into the desert.
When could that have been? And thirdly, the Israelites escaped into the desert and there built a most luxurious portable shrine to their God, to accompany them through their long desert trek and to house the Deity that would lead them and protect them on the way. It was to be made of fabulous materials, in hardwood and colored cloth with gold and copper trimmings, as described in detail in 16 chapters of the Torah.
How could all that have been manufactured and assembled in the arid Sinai wilderness? We should then ask, is there any period in Egyptian history when the conditions for these three elements could have come together and thus formed a basis for the context and account of the Exodus? And the answer here is “yes” – there was one such period.
It was around the death of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, the one who decreed that all worship should be directed to the single god Aten, the disc of the sun, and all other gods should be downgraded to secondary rank. To impose his new religious order, Akhenaten closed the old cultic centers of Saqqara and Luxor, closed the temples there, disowned their priests and founded a new city, Akhetaten, called the Horizon of the Aten, on a prime site well away from the old centers.
TO IMPOSE the new rule, the city had to be built quickly, and it went up in the incredibly short time of two years, being built throughout in mudbrick, except for the temple and palace, which were in traditional stone.
How could it have been built so quickly? It was said to have employed thousands of slaves working under military taskmasters. It was the largest mudbrick project in Egyptian history and it required thousands of bricklayers and millions of bricks. It employed the army to supervise the slave workers and force them to work as fast as the Pharaoh demanded.
The new city was at El Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile, where there was plenty of soft mud for the bricks but little straw.
Thanks to slave labor, Akhenaten’s model city was built in record time, but it did not last long. After only 16 years, Akhenaten died, his reforms had been deeply unpopular and when he died, his new religion was abandoned, and so was his city. Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefertiti had had no son, only six daughters, and so it was one of the sons-inlaw who succeeded him: Tutankhamun, the famous boy king Tut.
He had the onerous task of restoring the old order, the old religion, the old gods and their priests, and he was under threat if he did not do so. The restitution stele says that the old gods would punish him if they were not given back their old rights and positions.
Hapi, the androgynous god of the Nile, would make its waters undrinkable; Kermit, the goddess of fertility, would release her frogspawn to swarm over the land; Osiris, the god of corn, would not prevent the locusts from consuming his cereals, and Ra, the sun god, would refuse to shine. Sound familiar? The laws of succession had already been altered, there was no firstborn son to succeed Akhenaten, only a daughter and son-in-law.
As the new city was abandoned, there was breakdown in law and order and the Israelite slaves saw their chance to escape. Like the other departing inhabitants they took with them any treasure they could lay their hands on. They “despoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36) and marched off with precious materials and above all the battle shrine of Tutankhamun.
Every Pharaoh had a portable battle shrine, to go with him into war, so he could consult the deity and look to it for guidance on the field. Tutankhamun did not go to war, as far as we know, but he had to be ready and he had a war chariot, as one was figured on his furniture, so he would have had a battle shrine as well, but none was found among the luxurious treasures of his tomb when it was uncovered by Howard Carter in 1922.
Where then was his battle shrine ? It had been taken away by the Israelites.
And what was its form? We can assume that it was similar to that of Ramesses the Great, whose battle shrine is depicted on the walls of his temple at Abu Simbel. It was a two-chamber movable building set in a large courtyard; the inner chamber was square and contained the ark of a deity protected by two winged birds, and the outer room was twice as large, for the worshipping priests.
That of Tutankhamun was taken by the fleeing Israelites and converted by artisans Bezalel and Oholiab, as instructed by Moses, to become the portable Mishkan or Tabernacle, that accompanied them through the wilderness and landed up at Shiloh, in Canaan. Thus it was made of the finest material, as was everything else that Tutankhamun left behind, including furniture with carrying poles and a golden chest surrounded by cherubim. Sound familiar? THUS, AT the death of Akhenaten we have a situation in Egypt where the three major conditions of the Israelite account of the Exodus came together; the building of a vast mudbrick project; a period of unrest and turmoil when slaves could escape; and the foundation of the Mishkan in the shape of a luxury battle shrine. The date of the death of Akhenaten is placed at about 1330 BCE, and Tutankhamun came to the throne the same year. Was that then the date of the Exodus? Dating is a tricky subject and it is difficult to see how the Hebrew Bible can give us exact dates, for how were they counted in antiquity? But the Bible gives us two hard dates. One is that the Children of Israel were in Egypt for exactly 430 years, from entry to Exodus (Exodus 12:40). If the Exodus was 1330 BCE, the entry would have been in 1760 CE. That of course is too early for Jacob and his 12 sons, and the rabbis themselves have rejected that period of 430 years and reduced it to 210 years in the Passover Haggada, to relate it more logically to the four generations from Jacob to Levi, to Kehot, to Amram, to Moses. But it works with the idea that the Israelites came to Egypt with the semitic Hyksos, as proposed by Josephus Flavius, the early Jewish historian, and that event is placed by scholars at around 1750 BCE.
The other “fixed” biblical date is that the Solomonic Temple was built 480 years after the Exodus (I Kings 6:1). That is a nominal date as the author will have counted 12 generations and multiplied them by the biblical reckoning of 40 years per generation. But that figure is too high, as a generation, for even in biblical times it was more like 30 years. If we then say 12 generations make up 360 years, then 360 years after 1330 is 970 BCE. The Temple is dated by most scholars to around 950 BCE, so 970 BCE is not a bad fit.
Evidence or not for the Exodus? Evidence there is none, but we can see that there was one period in Egyptian history when such an event could have taken place, one period when the three major conditions suggested by the biblical account came together and could have given it plausibility. And that would make Akhenaten the Pharaoh of the Oppression and young Tutankhamun the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the date? That would be around 1330 BCE.