Saturday, February 10, 2007

Date of the Exodus

The date of the Exodus has been a matter of debate for quite some time, even among evangelical scholars. There are currently two schools of thought on the matter. The older view bases the date of the Exodus on the information given in 1 Kings 6:1 which states that the building of Solomon's temple began in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the Exodus. The date of Solomon's reign is usually given as 970-930 BC (though there is some variation, as much as ten years either direction, depending on whose chronology you are examining). But 970 BC is widely agreed on, putting the fourth year of his reign at 966 BC. Adding 480 years to that number gives a date of 1446 BC for the Exodus itself, and a date of about 1406 BC for the beginning of Israel's conquest of Palestine under the leadership of Joshua. That would seem to fix the date pretty well. Such a date also seems to coincide well with the statements made by Jephthah in the preiod of the Judges (see Judges 11:12-28, especially vs 26).

But for some scholars, the problem with that date is that it does not seem to comport with the events and calendars from Egyptian history. Hence, in the 1950's and 1960's, many began to argue for a 13th century date for the Exodus. This view was set out briefly but forcefully by Kenneth A. Kitchen in Ancient Orient and Old Testament (1966), arguing for a 13th century date (1260-1250 BC). He has recently restated this view in On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003, pp. 307-310). His view is largely based on considerations of Egyptian chronology and a harmonization of the Biblical materials with the Egyptian resources. He has to conclude that the 480 years of 1 Kgs 6:1 are not "real time" years. Unfortunately, his treatment seems to take the Egyptian material more seriously than it does the Biblical text. He dismisses Jephthah's statement in a most unscholarly fashion saying, "What we have is nothing more than the report of a brave but ignorant man's bold bluster in favor of his people, not a mathematically precise chronological datum" (p. 209). This sounds suspiciously like special pleading. A recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (I'll post the precise reference on Monday, since I don't have it with me at the moment) does an excellent critique of Kitchen's view.

In addition to Kitshen's dismissal of Jephthah, his earlier treatment concluded that the 480 years had to be a figurative number, perhaps indicating a complete set of generations (since 480 is 12 x 40, and we all know that 40 years is a Biblical generation, and twelve is a number of completeness relative to Israel). Unfortunately for Kitchen, the Bible nowhere defines a generation as forty years, and while both 40 and 12 are significant numbers in the Old Testament, they function in different spheres and are nowhere brought together.

Thus it is safe to conclude that the Exodus took place in the mid-15th century BC. Any apparent discrepancies between Biblical and Egyptian data should seek to harmonize the Egyptian data to the Bible, and not the other way around.

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