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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Israel in Egypt

Attempts to anchor the Exodus events in broader historical currents typically begin with the biblical account, taking the text of the Bible at least initially as a primary source document. Superficially, the Bible does appear to provide historical data that might locate the Exodus account in history. As we have seen, however, serious problems arise when the biblical text is used for modern historical interpretations, and critical historiography casts doubt on the usefulness of the biblical narrative as a historical source for the Exodus. Potential factual information contained in the account falls into three categories: events within the borders of Egypt; the geography of the Exodus; and biblical reckonings—the figures given for establishing the date of the Exodus and for the number of participants in the flight from Egypt and the wilderness wanderings.

What is immediately striking about the earlier portions of the Exodus saga is the lack of distinctively Egyptian content and flavor, despite the Egyptian setting. The only description that contributes a slight Egyptian cast to the locale is that of Exodus 7.19 (echoed in 8.5 ), which refers to “the waters of Egypt…its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water.” None of the Egyptian pharaohs in the entire narrative—not those who presumably dealt with Joseph, Jacob, or the “sons of Israel,” nor the pharaoh who did not know Joseph, and certainly not the pharaoh of the ten plagues and the Exodus who sent his army after Moses—are identified by name. Nor is there a hint of individual or historical idiosyncracy by which to distinguish one pharaoh from another. There is, moreover, no characteristically Egyptian phraseology, no allusion, brief or otherwise, to distinctively Egyptian literary or historical material, and no invocation of local color (apart from the description cited above) that would help authenticate an Egyptian location or suggest an Egyptian origin for any part of the account. Instead, except for a few references and an occasional name (for example, Pharaoh, Nile, Moses, Rameses, Pithom), the purportedly Egyptian setting is so generic that the action could have taken place almost anywhere.

Given this curious absence of Egypt from the Exodus narrative, scholars have focused on the few clearly Egyptian terms that do occur, but with disappointing results. The supply cities of Pithom and Rameses bear indisputably Egyptian names, but neither can be situated with certainty. Pithom is derived from Egyptian Pr-'Itm (Per Atum), the temple domain or estate of the god Atum, a relatively common designation beginning with the mid-second millennium BCE. In Egyptian usage, Pr-'Itm would not stand alone but would be followed by a specific location designator, identifying the Per Atum of a specific place. In effect, the biblical rendering of Pithom strips the reference of its specificity and thus identifiability, and transforms it into a collective allusion equivalent to the generic references to “Pharaoh.” Biblical Pithom's most plausible association to date is with Tell Retabah in the Wadi Tumilat, although it has also been identified with Heliopolis. The supply city of Rameses is most often equated with Per-Rameses, the delta capital founded by Rameses II (ca. 1279–1213; Dynasty 19) and occupied throughout the Ramesside period (Dynasties 19 and 20, ca. 1295–1069). This city is now identified with Qantir, an eastern delta site currently under excavation by a German archaeological team. At least one prominent Egyptologist, however, challenges the equation of Rameses and Per-Rameses. Moreover, in typically Egyptian fashion, the memory and name of Rameses II continued to live on and function in Egypt long after the king's death, and the name Rameses was used in a variety of place-names down to Greco-Roman times. Thus the name Rameses functions only as a terminus post quem: that is, any appearance of the name must date no earlier than the time the name first occurs. The place-name Rameses may even have been inserted into the biblical narrative at a later date, and some scholars have suggested that the reference to Rameses (and also to Pithom) is an anachronism reflecting the geography of a much later period, from somewhere within the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE.

The land of Goshen, identified as the area inhabited by the Israelites in Egypt (Exod. 8.22; 9.26 ), has never been localized with certainty. Most scholars assume that Goshen lay in the eastern Nile Delta, but the word Goshen does not occur in any Egyptian texts, and efforts to derive it from the Egyptian language are unconvincing.

The name Moses is most likely Egyptian, although other etymologies have been proposed. If so, the name comes from the Egyptian verbal root msy, meaning “born.” In Egyptian usage this is generally linked with the name of a god. Thus Ramose means “the god Re is born,” Ptahmose means “the god Ptah is born,” and so forth. Such compounds are particularly common in the New Kingdom and later. In the biblical narrative, however, the divine element is missing, producing the abbreviated name Moses, a shortened form not common in Egyptian. The lack of the divine element in the biblical name is not surprising, however; if it existed, it could have been removed to avoid an affiliation between a central figure in the development of Israelite religion and a foreign god. Moreover, Aaron and his son Phinehas also have names of Egyptian origin.

And what of the harsh tasks inflicted on the Israelites during their servitude? Numerous Egyptian texts dating throughout the second millennium BCE tell us that “Asiatics” (‘amw, the most common appellation employed by Egyptians for people coming from the general region of ancient Syria-Palestine), like all prisoners of war or foreigners in service to the Egyptian crown or temples, were forced to perform a variety of tasks, including agricultural labor and heavy construction work. But the oppressive task that the biblical narrative complains about most (Exod. 5.7–19 ) is brickmaking, not the most common of the responsibilities assigned to Asiatics in Egypt. Clearly, Asiatics were in no position to choose their work assignments, and brickmaking was an ever-present need in Egypt, particularly in the alluvial delta, where stone was at a premium. On the other hand, sun-dried bricks made without straw are found at sites in the delta from a variety of periods, and it is difficult to see how the making of such bricks imposed a significant hardship on the Israelites.

Do any of the Egyptian references in the Exodus narrative provide possibly useful historical clues? The name Rameses, as noted above, provides a terminus post quem for the Exodus events of Rameses I, the first ruler to bear the name. A similar beginning point is implied by the outfitting of Pharaoh's army with chariots and horses: both horse and chariot are unknown or rare in Egypt prior to Dynasty 18. The Egyptian term Pharaoh (pr‘3, meaning “great house”) originally referred to the palace, and not until the reign of Thutmose III (ca. 1479–1425 BCE) in Dynasty 18 was it also used for the person of the king. In general, the limited linguistic evidence found in the narrative seems to date to the New Kingdom or later. Finally, the prominence in Pharaoh's entourage of magicians, who initially match Moses miracle for miracle, may reflect a first-millennium BCE setting.

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