Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Reflections on a Recent Documentary Film


by Dale W. Manor

Professor of Archaeology and Bible, Harding University


Monday, January 19, 2015, Tim Mahoney released a film documentary entitled “Patterns of Evidence:  Exodus.”  Because of interest in the topic and questions posed by a number of friends, I went to the movie and have written a brief analysis of the film. (The photos do not directly relate, but they are from proposed sites of Israel's passage from Egypt.)


    With minimal fanfare, a documentary about the Exodus was released to selected outlets on Monday, January 19. A number of friends apprised me of its release, which prompted my wife and me to go see it. I usually approach such “movies” with trepidation, realizing the tendency for movies and documentaries to approach the biblical texts with skepticism and/or inaccuracy. This video was a bit different.

    Tim Mahoney produced the documentary and stakes claims of some thirteen (13) awards at various film festivals. His rationale to produce the video was to investigate the historicity of the Exodus. His inquiry was prompted by the tendency of many scholars in the academic world to deny the historical credibility of this major biblical event (among others, he interviewed Rabbi David Wolpe and archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Norma Franklin who characterize this position). The documentary traces Mahoney’s sojourn as he seeks to look at what evidence exists and how to assess that evidence. Scholars representing the spectrum from unbelievers, to agnostics, to those who believe the Bible were resources to pursue the investigation.1

    The Exodus serves as the foundational event of Israel’s existence and migration to Canaan—the Promised Land (cf. Gen. 15), and also as a foreshadowing of the New Testament’s claims of Jesus’ sacrifice, which resonates with Exodus and Passover overtones (cf. Jn. 1:29; Lk. 22:15-20). If the Exodus did not occur, significant ramifications exist. Sadly, tracing archaeological evidence for the Exodus has remained difficult.

    The Bible is essentially the only record of the Exodus and as such, many scholars are skeptical of its validity. Compounding the problem is the fact that archaeology has not been able easily to corroborate the event—finding evidence of Israel in Egypt, the plagues, the departure of a large group of people from Israel, the exact route of Israel’s escape, the route through the wilderness, the location of Mt. Sinai, or even the date when the event occurred have all remained elusive and enigmatic.

    The traditional “early date” of the Exodus is based upon a fairly straightforward arithmetic calculation. The process starts with an assumed accession year for king Solomon of 970 BC.2 Working from this date, the chronological data from 1 Kings 6:1 provide the basis of calculation and yields a date for the Exodus in 1446 BC and the beginning of the Conquest (Joshua) in 1406 BC. The “fly in the ointment” is the reference in Exodus 1:11 which states that the Israelites helped build the store cities of Pithom and Ramses. The construction of Ramses is usually attributed to the design of king Ramses II who reigned from ca. 1279-1212 BC (+/- 25 years). The so-called “late date” would place the Exodus sometime in the span of Ramses’ reign.3 The chronological separation of these two proposals is striking—basically 200 years! It is difficult, however, to find archaeological or extra-biblical data to attach to either Exodus date proposal.

    Complicating the study, however, is the tendency for many non-believers to dismiss what evidence does occur for Israel’s presence in Egypt and the Exodus. James Hoffmeier has addressed this question and while the current evidence is circumstantial, the situation is not as bleak as the skeptics claim.4 Regretfully, academic skepticism against the Exodus has become a juggernaut that is difficult to divert, especially since so many people tend generally to write off any kind of faith as an intrinsically prejudicial perspective.

    The first part of Mahoney’s documentary (before the intermission!) lays out the issue of the controversy reasonably fairly, discussing it both from the standpoint of skepticism as well as the perspectives of those who believe. The second half traces Mahoney’s investigation and how he understands the data to come together. His “conclusions” are not new and largely subscribe to the proposals of David Rohl, who appears many times in the video. Interestingly, Rohl is said to be an agnostic, but his respect for the narrative of the Bible is notable.5

    In the end, Mahoney advocates moving the Exodus and the events leading up to it into the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (ca. 1950-1750 BC).6 This period equates roughly to the majority of the Middle Bronze Age in Canaan (ca. 2000-1600 BC). He believes that a number of situations narrated in the Bible better fit this chronological span. Among them are the migration into Egypt of people from Canaan, a period of oppression that appears to have developed, and the narration of a series of catastrophes that are mentioned in an Egyptian document and which sound similar to some of the ten plagues. These, then, Mahoney identifies with Israel’s migration into Egypt, the time of the oppression and slavery, followed by the plagues narrated in the Bible. Mahoney then moves this block of events forward in time from the Middle Kingdom to connect to the so-called “early date” scenario of the Exodus (ca. 1446 BC). In so doing, he believes the sequence of events in Egyptian history and the biblical narrative align remarkably well and that the biblical story is thus vindicated historically and archaeologically outside of the Bible.7

    Mahoney offered Finkelstein an opportunity to respond to this revision, but Finkelstein summarily swept it aside as essentially playing with numbers, wanting no part of it. Similarly, Hoffmeier disregarded the attempt of such a dramatic shift in chronology. Regretfully, Mahoney did not record their rationale for dismissing such a dramatic change, thus making both of them look somewhat narrow-minded and cavalier. (I suspect there was more discussion of these issues than the video preserves).

    While there are far too many issues and details to address in the span of this review (such would really require a major volume), a few observations are in order.

    Regarding the migration of Canaanites into the land of Egypt, probably all students of Egyptian history recognize the legitimacy of this claim. A famous tomb painting from Beni Hasan in Upper Egypt depicts a man named “Ibsha” whom the Egyptians referred to as “the ruler of a foreign country” leading thirty-seven Asiatics (i.e., Canaanites) into Egypt.8 The painting dates to ca. 1900 BC. The Bible noted a migration of people from Canaan into Egypt closely contemporary with this tomb painting— Abraham went to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan (Gen. 13). Later, of course, the entire family of Jacob went to Egypt for the same reason (Gen. 46). Many scholars date Jacob’s descent into Egypt in the 18th or 17th century BC. Whether Joseph gained favor under a native Egyptian ruler or later under a ruler during the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1750-1550 BC) when Asiatics (also known as the Hyksos)9 had come to power is open to discussion.

    The Bible is clear that a time came when the Egyptians feared the Israelites, apparently as foreigners who might align with other foreigners to take over (cf. Ex. 1:8- 10). The Bible notes that there was a new Pharaoh (king) who did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8). I am not inclined to think that the new king was oblivious to Joseph’s identity, but that he did not recognize the legitimacy of Joseph’s rule. With the expulsion of the Hyksos, the rulers of the New Kingdom made a concerted effort to expel and quash the vestiges of foreign power in Egypt.10 Almost certainly this was the setting of the king who did not know (recognize) Joseph, hence the oppression of those who might have been Joseph’s descendants and relatives.

    Egyptian literature indeed preserved a document known as “The Admonitions of Ipuwer” which resonates with plague-sounding calamities. The preserved document dates to the 18th-19th dynasties (ca. 1580-1200 BC), but scholars typically attribute its original composition to the Middle Kingdom or even the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history.11 A scholar in the documentary film dismisses the papyrus’ narrative as fiction. More likely, however, the “Admonitions” reflect a social commentary by an Egyptian who had observed various crises and was compelled to plead for repentance. There is no reason to dismiss the “Admonitions” as fictional… nor is there necessary reason to equate the events narrated with the plagues of Exodus.

    A major difficulty that arises with such a dramatic shift in the chronological scheme as Mahoney and Rohl promote—and likely why neither Finkelstein nor Hoffmeier can subscribe to such a dramatic shift—is the overwhelming ripple effect that would occur with such a move! The video does not address Assyrian chronology, which for the first half of the first millennium BC is quite tight. The Assyrians named their years after government officials. (With such a system in play today, we might have named 2009 “Obama,” and perhaps the next year “Biden!”) This list of years, usually referred to as an eponym list or a limu list, would then identify some significant event associated with that eponymous year—it might be a battle or an exceptional event. One of those years reads: “In the eponymate of Bur-sagale, of Guzan, revolt in the citadel of Assur; in the month of Siwan there was an eclipse of the sun.”12 Astronomers have identified this eclipse with one that occurred June 15-16, 763 BC. With this datum in hand, Millard points out that we can reconstruct a reasonably tight chronology ranging from ca. 910-649 BC.

    This datum has helped to establish the year of the battle between Shalmaneser III and Ahab to 853 BC.13 From this datum we can calculate backwards using the chronological spans of the Israelite and Judahite kings in the Bible to calculate the time that Shishak (Egyptian Sheshonq) campaigned into Judah (i.e., in Rehoboam’s fifth year; ca. 925 BC; cf. 1 Kgs. 14:25).

    Mahoney and Rohl’s attempt to shift the chronology so dramatically has profound ripple effects. To move the Egyptian setting of Israel in Egypt and the Exodus into the Middle Kingdom, and then to move the chronology of the Middle Kingdom down to intersect with the early date scenario of the Exodus ultimately crunches the entire sequence of other, later international synchronisms into total disarray and nonsense.

    A more careful approach is not to disregard the Bible, but to be aware that things are constantly in flux. More discoveries are being made. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the preserved data are only a fraction of what actually existed. Given that, only a fraction of what has been preserved has been found—much still exists for us to excavate! This ultimately is part of the thrill of archaeology—the exhilaration to be the first to see and touch something that has been buried and unknown for centuries and sometimes millennia and to realize that it might have a profound impact on our understanding of history.

    Overall, I would recommend the video as a vehicle to revive the discussion of chronology and historiography. Regretfully, a sizeable segment of the discussion is missing (i.e., the Assyrian data). A more balanced discussion needs to occur, but if people will begin to take the biblical account more seriously, perhaps meaningful headway can be made as more data come to light.

     (The video introduced an artifact with which I am unfamiliar and that I have yet to investigate—it was an Egyptian sign that the scholars who discussed it [one of whom was Aling] stated that it dated to ca. 1350 BC. They said that the sign depicted the Israelites as objects of Egyptian warfare. Hopefully there will be a forthcoming note!)


    1Photo is one suggested location of Marah mentioned in the route of the Exodus (Ex. 14:22-25). The “cast” of interviews is extensive: Charles Aling, professor of history, Univ. of Northwestern, St. Paul; Manfred Bietak, director of Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo and director of excavations at Tell ed- Dab’a; John Bimson, Tutor in Old Testament, Trinity College, Bristol; Mansour Boraik, Director General of Antiquities, Luxor; Israel Finkelstein, Archaeologist, Tel Aviv Univ., and director Megiddo excavations; Norma Franklin, archaeologist, Univ. of Haifa, and co-director Jezreel excavations; Rabbi Manis Friedman, Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies; James K. Hoffmeier, Professor of OT and archaeology, Trinity (Deerfield); Walter Kaiser, retired Old Testament professor and president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary; Michael Medved, Jewish radio talk-show host, film critic; Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel; Shimon Peres, President of Israel; Maarten Raven, Egyptologist and curator, Leiden Museum; David Rohl, Egyptologist; Kent Weeks, Egyptologist and excavator of Ramses II tomb; Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles; and Bryant Wood, archaeologist and director of Associates for Biblical Research.

    2This date is recognized by both believers and many people who do not believe in God as the accession year for Solomon.

    3Most movies use this Ramses context as the date for their settings. Among these are both of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956 [the documentary uses a number of clips from DeMille’s 1923 production); DreamWorks Pictures’ Prince of Egypt (1998) and the most recent, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).

    4See James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Even though Mahoney interviews Hoffmeier, no discussion of Hoffmeier’s evidence appears.

    5Rohl’s views appear in detail in his book Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995).

    6See discussions of Egyptian chronology in Kenneth A. Kitchen, “Egypt, History of, Chronology,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2: 322- 31.

    7Photo is of a proposed location for Elim mentioned in the Exodus account (Ex. 16:1-3).

    8See conveniently, James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near East in Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 2-3, fig. 3.

    9See Kitchen, “Egypt, History of, Chronology,” p. 327.

    10William J. Murname, “Egypt, History of, New Kingdom (Dyn. 18-20),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2: 348-53.

    11For a convenient translation and introduction, see Nili Shupak, “The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage: The Admonitions of Ipuwer,” in Context of Scripture, eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 1: 42 (pp. 93-98).

    12Alan Millard, “Assyrian Eponym Canon (1.136),” in Context of Scripture, 1: 465-66.

    13K. Lawson Younger, Jr., “Kurkh Monolith (2.113A),” in Context of Scripture, ed. W. W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2: 113A (pp. 261-64).

— 23 January 2015 —





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