The Dating of the Exodus

Steve Perry


For many years the date of the date of the Exodus has been disputed and the issue has become a major discussion in the realms of Old Testament debate as some feel that issues such as biblical historicity rest upon the matter. There are two main alternatives for the date of the Exodus. An early date in the 15th century around 1450 BCE and a late date in the 13th century around 1270 BCE. Both sides believe their respective dates to fit in best with the main pieces of biblical, archaeological and other data which are discussed in this essay.

The Key Biblical Statement. 1 Kings 6:1. It would be fair to say that the main motivation for those who support an early date is the defence of this text which states:

In the four hundredth and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt in the fourth year of the reign of Solomon he began to build the temple.

As we know that this temple was built in 966 BCE going back a further 480 years before that gives us an Exodus date of 1444 BCE. Late date supporters must first remove or explain this obstacle before anything else. Most late date supporters suggest that 480 is arrived at by totalling different values for several periods which actually overlapped. Various formulas for this are suggested[1] However early date supporters would say that the text includes nothing about totals of other periods, just 480 years.

The Beginning of the Sojourn

The next point of contention is that of the beginning of the sojourn. The late date argument allows the descent into Egypt to occur when the Hyksos ruled. As the Hyksos were of a similar racial stock as the Hebrews then it would have been a favourable time for their reception into the country and for Joseph's promotion. G.W. Anderson[2] says that it is certain that it must be after or during the Hyksos period as a reference to a chariot in Gen. 41:45 excludes dates before this period.

The Early date would give a date 1876 for the Sojourn under Pharaoh Senusert III who has no special reasons for supporting the Hebrews. However supporters of this date would point out G.W. Anderson's[3] view that it is improbable that a Hyksos King would have given the daughter of the priest of On to Joseph as his wife (Gen. 41:45) as the Hyksos despised the sun-God Ra whose temple was at On.[4] Whatever the case the Hyksos period would have been a favourable time for the Hebrew entry.

The Length of the Oppression

The length of the oppression causes problems for both sides. All we know from the narrative is that the period must be at least greater than 80 years of Moses life + plagues period. And there were at least 2 pharaohs involved as one died whilst Moses was in Midian. Gen.15:13 tells us that the enslavement would last 400 years. But this makes it very close to the beginning of the early date supporters 430 year total sojourn giving a very short period for the Israelites to become too numerous for the Pharaoh as told in the Bible. G.W. Anderson[5] points out that the length of the Sojourn in Gen.15:13 is 400 years, but Exod.12:40f. gives it as 430 years[6] which leads us to believe it was an estimate. In any case the genealogical evidence points to a sojourn considerably shorter than 400 years perhaps nearly 150 in reality. The problem of how the Israelites became "too numerous" in such a short time remains unclear on both sides though more flexibility to account for this is given by the late date.

An alternative solution is that the oppression occurred over a long period of time and over several Pharaohs. The first who was the "new pharaoh who did not know about Joseph" in Exod.1:8 and a different one who was king when Moses killed the Egyptian.

The Pharaoh who began the Oppression

The identity of this character could help in deciding the dating. He is "the new king who did not know anything about Joseph." Early date supporters would identify him as a Hyksos ruler. Saying that an Egyptian could not say that the Hebrews were "too numerous". Yet the Hyksos (who ruled by holding key positions) could. The Hyksos fear of the Israelites joining their enemies would be understandable as native Egyptians were still governing the southern part of the country.

If this is so then the gap between the beginning of the oppression (1730) and the Early Exodus would be 284 years giving 150 years for the Hebrews to multiply. However this gives further biblical problems as mentioned earlier about the length of the oppression. The late date option is Amosis (1580-1558) who overthrew the Hyksos which probably induced a backlash against the related Hebrews. This gives an oppression of 134 years for the early date and 310 years for the late date. Both have been argued for. Thutmose II is another contender for the late Exodus band. He ruled with his step mother Hatshepsut for 22 years but persecuted her favourites after her death. (including the Hebrews?) This gives an oppression of 212 years.

The Pharaoh of Moses Day

The next issue that we have to decide is the identity of the Pharaoh who died whilst Moses was in Midian. Early date supporters favour Thutmose III (1504-1450) mentioned above as a late date oppression initiator. His reign (including the joint reign with Hatshepsut) totalling 54 years is the only one of any Pharaoh which fits in with the story of Moses' flight and 40 year stay in Midian (Exod.2:12-23). If the Pharaoh who dies in Exod. 2:23 was the one whom he fled from 40 years earlier there is no suitable Pharaoh for a late date except for Rameses II (1290-1224) though some scholars, (e.g. Petrie[7]) do argue for this.

Late date supporters again see the figure of 40 years as symbolic so that Seti I (1312-1289) could have been the Pharaoh of Moses' day. In any case the biblical records do not record that Moses returned to Egypt immediately on the death of the Pharaoh, and some time must be allowed for the plagues to occur. If the incident in Exod. 2:12 had occurred at the beginning of Seti's reign 1312-1310, Moses could have returned to Egypt 40 years later to lead an Exodus in 1270 BCE.

The Pharaoh Who Initiated the Building of Pithom and Rameses

Clearly Israel must have still been in Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh who built the store cities mentioned in Exod.1:11. This says that the Hebrews built "Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh."

Here the Early date cause falls comparatively silent. Thutmose III had some building projects in the Nile delta region, although he was certainly not known as a great builder. On the other hand, Seti I began work on the capital city Pi-Rameses on the site of what had been the Hyksos capital of Avaris in the Nile Delta, work which was completed in the reign of Rameses II. Contemporary papyri speak of "men making their quota of Bricks daily", and officials not having enough straw to make the bricks , which fits in well with the context of Exodus chapter 5. There are also indications of work gangs having days off for religious festival, cf. Exod. 5:3. However, early date supporters point out that the text refers to store cities not capital cities.

The Cities Themselves

However this does not change the fact that the name of one of the cities indicates that it was constructed in honour of Rameses II (1290-1224). G.E. Wright after discussing the possibility of dating the Exodus in c.1446 on the basis of 1 Kings 6:1, writes: "Now that the site of Rameses has been located at Tanis, we are forced to conclude that this figure must be explained in another way."[8] Early date supporters point out that the city Rameses has been located at other places and is by no means certain.[9] Some early date supporters regard Exod.1:11 as a interpolation. Bimson[10] argues that the text of Exodus 1:11 was altered to give a contemporary name to the city which the Israelites built hundreds of years earlier.[11] These occasions occur several times in the OT.

Another suggestion is that the terms Rameses and Raamses (KJV) were once separate terms the latter meaning "born of Ra". Rea, Wood and Archer maintained that they occurred from the Hyksos time onwards and should not be used to make a connection with Rameses.

The Pharaoh of the Exodus

Although there are no arguments based on the identity of this character he still needs to be mentioned as he is the figure who corresponds directly to the Pharaoh of the plagues in the biblical narrative. As expected for the late date (1270) he is named as Rameses II (1290-1224) whilst an early Exodus in 1446 identifies him as Amenophis II (1450-1426).

The Merneptah Stele

This is dated in the fifth year of the reign of Merneptah, c. 1220 BCE and is the earliest extra-biblical reference to Israel discovered. It reads:

Israel is desolate, it has no offspring,
Palestine has become a widow for Egypt.

This clearly indicates the presence of Israel in Canaan apparently not as an established nation. However, Bright[12] says that there is no certainty that the Israel conquered by Merneptah was the biblical Israel.

The Evidence Concerning the Desert Wanderings

The late date argument points out that the bible shows Moses and the Israelites being compelled to circumvent Edom in view of the large, antagonistic Edomite forces. But scholars such as Nelson Glueck point out an absence of evidence for sedentary occupation of this area from 1900 - 1300 BCE and so casts severe doubt on a 15th century Exodus. Bright[13]3) and G.W. Anderson[14] also subscribe to this view.

On the other hand early Exodus supporters argue that these forces need not have been permanent urban populations e.g. the nomadic Midianites (Num. 31:8; Judges 8:12) were sufficiently organised to have kings, (de Vaux) as were the Amalekites of 1 Sam. 15:8ff.) Also references in ANE texts are often not clear in distinctions between permanent fortified sites and temporary ones. Rea points out that the same Hebrew word 'ir' (city) is used of the Israelites temporary settlement at Kadesh (Num. 20:16), the plural of 'ir, 'arim, is used by Moses when he sends spies out to see if the cities ('arim) are camps or strongholds. (Num. 13:19) The problem with this view is that the references in the text to a recognised set of borders especially v.16 "the edge of your territory", agriculture "fields and vineyards" v.17 seem to point to a sedentary population.[15]

The Evidence concerning Canaan

a) The 13th Century Destruction

Albright opts for a late-date Exodus/Conquest because of evidence at Bethel which shows "a tremendous conflagration", making a complete break between the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age, so great "that no bridge can be thrown across it, and we are compelled to identify it with the Israelite conquest." Similar finds were made at Debir, Lachish, Eglon and Hazor.

Early date supporters would say that similar evidence is lacking for other cities destroyed at the time according to the biblical narratives, e.g. Hebron and Hormah. They also point out that destruction also occurs at Megiddo and Beth-Shan where the biblical account is silent. But if the 13th century destruction wasn't the Israelites, then who was it? Wood suggests some alternatives.

(i) Incursions from the Sea-Peoples.

(ii) Later Philistine invasions of the Judges period.

(iii) Campaigns by Pharaoh Merneptah.

(iv) Various other inter-city wars e.g. Judges 11:33 Jephthah attacks 20 Ammonite cities, Also in the Israel/Benjamin war Gibeah was captured (20:40) and towns were burnt. (20:48).

Generally most early date supporters say, like Wood, that the various attacks can be dated throughout the 14th, 13th and 12th centuries and need not have happened in one main wave.

b) Evidence for Israelite Take-over of destroyed cities

Late date supporters point out that there is evidence of a culturally inferior people taking over the destroyed cities which fits in with the picture of invading Israelites in the 13th century. Early date supporters may regard these as the decimated populations returning to their cities. If cultural changes are evidence of the invasion then Kenyon reckons that the biggest change occurred c.1400 supporting an early date.

Bimson agrees and thinks that there is no way that Israelite culture can be distinguished around that time and doubts whether the decline is anything to do with new arrivals of groups. He sees the argument as subjective and circular as it depends on the assumption of a late Exodus. In general early date supporters would explain the collapse as due to Ammonite, Philistine etc. encroachments and inter-necine strife recorded in the book of Judges.

c) 15th Century Destruction in Canaan

Bimson argues that there is evidence to place the demise of certain cities mentioned in the biblical account in 15th century. These include Arad, Bethel, Dan, Debir, Hebron, Hormah, and Lachish. Bright also points out evidence for this in the form of the tablets found at Tel-el-Amarna in Egypt in 1887 contain letters from Egyptian dependencies in Palestine and Syria asking for reinforcements. There are references to invaders called 'Habiru'. This name is found in other documents from various parts of the near east during the second millennium denoting a loosely organised group of landless people rather than a specific ethnic unit. It has been equated with the Egyptian term for groups of labourers or mercenaries 'Aperu.'[16] If these Amarna letters are taken to mean the Joshua invasion this would give an invasion in 1400 BCE implying an Exodus date of mid 15th century. To corroborate this Prof. J. Garstang (excavator) claimed to have shown that Jericho fell in c. 1400 BCE.

However, late-daters would use Dr. Kathleen Kenyon's work on Jericho which put the destruction of the city that Garstang had excavated as c.1580 BCE due to the lack of certain pottery types. This is far too early for either date and simply means that of Joshua's Jericho nothing has remained to allow us to date its fall thus leaving the case inconclusive. However Wood[17] has criticised Kenyon's work.[18] He argues that Garstang did find such pottery (bichrome) in his survey but at the time it's significance had not been realised in terms of dating. Other datable items were found such as scarabs which suggest activity at least till the LBA1 period mid 13th century. These factors coupled with Woods belief that the evidence also backs up the biblical account of the type of the conquest, i.e. that it was a sudden conquest of a strongly fortified city shortly after the harvest. The walls had fallen, the city was burnt and no plunder was taken. Wood therefore concludes that Garstang was correct about the date of Jericho's fall.

The case for Hazor is slightly more favourable to the early date supporters. The final destruction of Hazor is placed at 1250-1220 BCE which leaves no space for the destruction of Hazor by Deborah and Barak. Yadin argued for a previous destruction of Hazor in 1440 BC fitting in with the early date view. However he has since redated this, on the dating evidence of bichrome pottery, to 1550 BCE.[19] This leaves us with the same problem as we have for Jericho. Nothing has remained of the Hazor of Deborah's day for us to examine.

The Problems with the Judges Period

a) The Length of the Judges period

A date of 1270 BCE only allows c.170 years for the Judges period. But in Judges 11:26 Jephthah sends messages to the Ammonite King and claimed: "For 300 years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements..." As Jephthah was followed by Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson yet even by is time 300 years had elapsed and as this was part of a diplomatic parley and was therefore historically accurate in order to be acceptable to the other party. They argue that attempts to reduce the period to just 170 years by overlapping of the Judges reigns are unreasonable.

Late date scholars have again not taken the figure as literal and have reduced the period of the Judges to 170 years by one or more of the following methods:

1) Including periods of foreign domination within the time of the judges.

2) Garstang arbitrarily omits the years of the minor Judges and the usurper Abimelech.

3) Allowing for significant overlaps in the Judges reigns often by supposing more than one group of Judges. (e.g. Petrie suggested Three, North, East and West) each group having jurisdiction over their area allowing overlaps in their reigns. When the areas the Judges covered is examined each Judge seemed to be involved except for Deborah (six tribes) and Gideon (five tribes.) Hence the following chronology is arrived at:

1230 Conquest

1200 Othniel

1170 Ehud

1125 Deborah and Barak

1110 Gideon

1075 Abimelech

1070 Jephthah

1050 Shiloh destroyed

1040 Samuel

1020 Saul

b) The Judges and the Philistines

The Philistines incursions into Canaan are generally set at c. 1200 BCE on the basis of Egyptian records and archaeological data. Supporters of an early date point out that following the above evidence it would be expected for a late entry into Canaan of c. 1230 BCE, that the Philistines would have posed a threat to Israel throughout the Judges period. However this is not shown in the narrative as Philistine threats do not begin to happen until the late Judges period, i.e. Samson's time.

Late date supporters would argue that the Philistines were still settling and organising themselves until the end of the Judges period.

c) The Presence of Iron in the Judges Period

Finally, late date adherents point out that narratives include references to iron (Judges 4:3 refers to the 900 iron chariots of Sisera, Jabin's army commander) These have been dated after the Philistines entry as Iron was thought to have been brought in to that region by the Sea Peoples.

However the opposing argument is that there are references to iron previous to this in the Armana letters of C14th. Also Thutmoses III list of tribute mentions 'bia' (iron) vessels in aram in the C15th.


The early date argument has gained increasing attention over the last few years and although the majority of scholarship still prefers the late date, it is no longer dismissed as simply a weak fundamentalist attempt to prove biblical authority. However, it still seems to me that on balance that the majority of the evidence favours the late date for the Exodus as there are still too many unsolved problems. Problems such as the destruction of Jericho and Hazor seem to be unclear. Without any new evidence on these sites it remains inconclusive, but it seems that the late date seems to have the upper hand when the entire evidence is weighed up. However, is this a problem with Biblical authority? I think not as I see the situation in the same light as the problem of the two dates for the length of the sojourn 400 years 430 years. Simply that the bible is not intending to give a strict word-perfect historical account of what happened. The theological meaning is more important and so odd errors in dating are not significant enough to render the Bible as uninspired. The early date certainly has its good points, but in the end it seems that certain other historical details (such as Joseph's rise to power in Egypt) are more authentic in the late date. Anyone seeking to defend the historicity of the Bible has to be careful to see that the late date could be said to uphold the historicity of the account to a greater degree than the early date even though it does not directly uphold 1 Kings 6:1.

© 1992 Steve Perry

[Note that this article was written by an undergraduate student at Mattersey Hall Bible College. It should not therefore be directly quoted as reference.]

And Finally...

Thanks to W K. Kay (M.A., Ph.D., Ph.D), Dave Gibson (probably B.D. by now), and Dan Aldridge (City and Guilds in Plumbing) for their hints and tips and sarcastic comments and to Franco Sinaguglia for the use of his E.B.C. notes.


[1] John Bright, [A History of Israel, 3rd edn. London: SCM, 1981, p.123] and Albright suggested that the idea of 480 years is symbolic of 12 generations (of traditionally 40 years; e.g. 40 years in the desert) If 25 years is used then a more realistic amount of 300 years is obtained to provide an Exodus of c.1270 BCE. Petrie even suggested 17½ year generations to allow for 210 years giving a date of 1220 BCE. Opponents to these theories would question the amount of generations. Why should twelve generations be so embedded in the writers mind that he chose this number to make such an important estimate? Harrison accounted for the twelve generations by linking it to the twelve generations of high priests from the 1st temple to Zerubbabel's restoration. A post-exilic writer sought to balance this by allowing for 12 generations of priests from the Tabernacle to the 1st temple. Critics point out, however, that 12 high priests is unconvincing especially as it involves a suggestion that 1 Chron.6:1-15 is mistaken in attributing the first temple to the wrong Azariah. A similar idea to the above is that the 480 years is to balance the time between the 1st temple and the 2nd. 966+480=486 BCE and the temple was built in 536 and finished in 515. The dates don't fit but when the initial amount of 480 years is only attempting to roughly balance it is questionable if 60 years make much difference and this view has a little more credibility

[2] G.W. Anderson, The History and Religion of Israel Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966. p.25.

[3] G.W. Anderson, 12.

[4] From reading the work in question it seems that G.W. Anderson actually used this argument to hint that the date was probably later than the Hyksos period. For example he also says that the names included (Potiphar, Asenath, Zaphenathpaneah,) are typical of the 10th century.

[5] G.W. Anderson, 25.

[6] G.W. Anderson also points out that in the latter passage the Greek and Samaritan texts give this value to cover the sojourn of the Patriarchs in Canaan as well perhaps to reconcile that fact that it appears that only 4 Generations covered the sojourn (Gen. 15:16, Exod. 6:14-27.

[7] Hence the 12 generations of 17½ years mentioned earlier as this date for the Exodus is very late and requires a separate explanation to reduce the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings to around 210 years.

[8]G.W. Anderson and Bright point out that the late date is certainly upheld by this idea

[ 9] Namely Quantir, Tell-er-Retebah, Tell-el-Masquta, and Pelusium. Rowley and Kitchen concluded that the location was at Quantir but as they found no evidence for a 15th century city decided that a late Exodus was evident.

[10] J.J. Bimson,Redating the Exodus and Conquest, 2nd edn. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981. p. 38.

[11] Bimson uses the example of Gen.47:11: "So Joseph settled his fathers and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses." The very latest critical date for any sort of Egyptian sojourn is 1350 BCE. which precedes even Rameses I and the same principle could have been applied to Exod.1:11.

[12]Bright, 123.

[13] Bright, 123.

[14] G.W. Anderson, 26.

[15] Other similar criticisms of Glueck's findings have come from Kenyon who calls the gap "a most unlikely state of affairs", while G.L. Harding writes "There is no doubt that surface surveys can be very deceptive...perhaps we should now consider the not proven." Bimson also points out that the settlements may not have been permanent, but also points out that in the North of the area occupied by Edomites/Moabites a gap may never have occurred.

[16] G.W. Anderson, 26. He goes on to point out however that "if these terms are related to Hebrews then the Hebrews must only have been a part of the Habiru." and therefore may involve attributing the destruction of some of the cities in the biblical account to none Hebraic groups.

[17] L.T. Wood, 'Redating Jericho', Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April, 1990): 45.

[18] "She based her dating on the fact that she failed to find expensive, imported pottery in a small excavation area in an impoverished part of a city located far from major trade routes!", Wood, 50.

[19] P.T. Davies, Old Testament C.D.R.S. and Degree Notes: The Date of the Exodus. Nantwich: Elim Bible College, 1992. p.11.

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