The Exodus Debunked: the Hyksos and the Land of Goshen

I will continue my deconstruction of the Exodus accounts by concentrating on the Hyksos. The articles so far have been:

I want to compile them all into a series as I have done with the Nativity and Easter.

The basis for a lot of what I will be telling you will come from my friend and Skeptic Ink Network colleague Rebecca Bradley and her chapter, “The Credibility of the Exodus”, in John Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science (for which I also contribute a chapter on free will).

The Land of Goshen is otherwise known as the eastern Nile Delta and was home to many West Asiatics wondering through Gaza, and in the Middle Bronze Age, it was dominated by Canaanite/West Semitic populations. This meant for some interesting dynamics between neighbouring areas, namely the Egyptian pharaohs to the south.

In the 12th century BCE, Canaanite traders and herders were allowed to settle in the Delta, eventually setting up a capital of sorts at Avaris (Tell el-Daba) and a line of rulers. This was all pretty peaceful and actually became the Fourteenth Dynasty. Famine and potentially an epidemic weakened the area and allowed for an aggressive invasion from Canaanite/West Semitic people in around 1650 BCE. These people were famously known as the Hyksos about which much has been written by secular and Christian/Jewish writers and archaeologists.

Josephus (1st century CE) was the first to associate them with Israelites as many conservative scholars try to do in order to harmonise history and the Bible (Josephus and others also mistranslated their name).

Ancient Egyptian traditions paint a very different picture to enslaved Israelites, however. These warlike people invaded the Nile Valley and conquered up to Thebes. They became the Fifteenth Dynasty.

More recent research now hints that these were not, as the Egyptian consensus had it, a foreign invasion, but one that came out of the existent Canaanite regime already in place. The Hyksos prospered until 1540 BCE, when a stronger force in Thebes arose and expelled the Hyksos. The Hyksos were driven back to Negev and this allowed the Egyptians to reclaim the Delta and work on annexing Canaan and Nubia.

Egypt’s New Kingdom arrived.

Later Egyptian recollections of the Hyksos were that they were pretty egregious people. Probably not so: history as written by the victors.

The questions are: Is this Canaanite presence evidence of the biblical Hebrews enslaved by the Egyptians? Is the nineteenth-century influx actually Jacob and progeny? Is Joseph a Canaanite king of Avaris? Are various rulers nice or nasty Pharaohs in the story? Are the Hyksos the Israelites?

Short answer: no. No, they are not.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, in The Bible Unearthed, state (p. 54-56):

The tale of Joseph’s rise to prominence in Egypt, as narrated in the book of Genesis, is the most famous of the stories of Canaanite immigrants rising to power in Egypt, but there are other sources that offer essentially the same picture – from the Egyptian point of view. The most important of them was written by the Egyptian historian Manetho in the third century BCE; he recorded an extraordinary immigrant success story, though from his patriotic Egyptian perspective it amounted to a national tragedy. Basing his accounts on unnamed “sacred books” and “popular tales and legends,” Manetho described a massive, brutal invasion of Egypt by foreigners from the east, whom he called Hyksos, an enigmatic Greek form of an Egyptian word that he translated as “shepherd kings” but that actually means “rulers of foreign lands.” Manetho reported that the Hyksos established themselves in the delta at a city named Avaris. And they founded a dynasty there that ruled Egypt with great cruelty for more than five hundred years.

In the early years of modern research, scholars identified the Hyksos with the kings of the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt, who ruled from about 1670 to 1570 BCE. The early scholars accepted Manetho’s report quite literally and sought evidence for a powerful foreign nation or ethnic group that came from afar to invade and conquer Egypt. Subsequent studies showed that inscriptions and seals bearing the names of Hyksos rulers were West Semitic – in other words, Canaanite. Recent archaeological excavations in the eastern Nile delta have confirmed that conclusion and indicate that the Hyksos “invasion” was a gradual process of immigration from Canaan to Egypt, rather than a lightning military campaign.

The most important dig has been undertaken by Manfred Bietak, of the University of Vienna, at Tell ed-Daba, a site in the eastern delta identified as Avaris, the Hyksos capital (Figure 6, p. 58). Excavations there show a gradual increase of Canaanite influence in the styles of pottery, architecture, and tombs from around 1800 BCE. By the time of the Fifteenth Dynasty, some 150 years later, the culture of the site, which eventually became a huge city, was overwhelmingly Canaanite. The Tell ed-Daba finds are evidence for a long and gradual development of Canaanite presence in the delta, and a peaceful takeover of power there. It is a situation that is uncannily similar, at least in its broad outlines, to the stories of the visits of the patriarchs to Egypt and their eventual settlement there. The fact that Manetho, writing almost fifteen hundred years later, describes a brutal invasion rather than a gradual, peaceful immigration should probably be understood on the background of his own times, when memories of the invasions of Egypt by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE were still painfully fresh in the Egyptian consciousness.

But there is an even more telling parallel between the saga of the Hyksos and the biblical story of the Israelites in Egypt, despite their drastic difference in tone. Manetho describes how the Hyksos invasion of Egypt was finally brought to an end by a virtuous Egyptian king who attacked and defeated the Hyksos, “killing many of them and pursuing the remainder to the frontiers of Syria.” In fact, Manetho suggested that after the Hyksos were driven from Egypt, they founded the city of Jerusalem and constructed a temple there. Far more trustworthy is an Egyptian source of the sixteenth century BCE that recounts the exploits of Pharaoh Ahmose, of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who sacked Avaris and chased the remnants of the Hyksos to their main citadel in southern Canaan – Sharuhen, near Gaza – which he stormed after a long siege. And indeed, around tne middle of the sixteenth century BCE, Tell ed-Daba was abandoned, marking the sudden end of Canaanite influence there.

So, independent archaeological and historical sources tell of migrations of Semites from Canaan to Egypt, and of Egyptians forcibly expelling them. This basic outline of immigration and violent return to Canaan is parallel to the biblical account of Exodus. Two key questions remain: First, who were these Semitic immigrants? And second, how does the date of their sojourn in Egypt square with biblical chronology?

The problem is, there is no evidence that the Canaanites were ever enslaved. The cities claimed to be built by the Hebrews are not attested to until later in the New Kingdom. On the other hand, the Canaanites actually show themselves to be well integrated and independent of the southern Pharaohs during this Hyksos period.

As Bradley states (p. 266): “The Hyksos were never in bondage in Egypt.”

She continues:

The Canaanite population in the Delta were diverse in origin, not at all the genetically and culturally homogenous population one would expect if they were all descendants of a single patriarch.

The Children of Israel in the biblical account left Egyptian territories peacefully, though under something of a cloud. The Hyksos, in contrast, were expelled by force.

There were no pitched battles in the biblical account – the sea did for the Egyptian army and the Hebrews wandered about for forty years in the slowest ever escape.

Finally, Bradley concludes (p. 266):

The dates are hopelessly mismatched. Conventional Bible timelines that adhere to an “early date” for Exodus place the bondage of Israel at 1600 BCE to about 1450 BCE. Hyksos domination is dated to ca. 1650-1450 BCE. That is, for the first portion of the proposed period of bondage, the Hyksos were anything but slaves; for the second portion, they were already gone. The mismatch is even worse for the “late date” in the thirteenth century; by that point. the Hyksos had been gone (though not forgotten) for upward of two hundred and fifty years. Donald Redford has made an interesting case that widely circulating legends and memories of the Hyksos episode may have some relevance to the later Hebrew Exodus myth – but as the source population for the literal Exodus, the Hyksos are a nonstarter.

And this final point certainly makes a lot of sense. As Finkelstein and Silberman also say, considering a mass expulsion and escape (p. 58-61):

Was a Mass Exodus Even Possible in the Time of Ramesses II?

We now know that the solution to the problem of the Exodus is not as simple as lining up dates and kings. The expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt in 1570 BCE ushered in a period when the Egyptians became extremely wary of incursions into their lands by outsiders. And the negative impact of the memories of the Hyksos symbolizes a state of mind that is also to be seen in the archaeological remains. Only in recent years has it become clear that from the time of the New Kingdom onward, beginning after the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Egyptians tightened their control over the flow of immigrants from Canaan into the delta. They established a system of forts along the delta’s eastern border and manned them with garrison troops and administrators. A late thirteenth century papyrus records how closely the commanders of the forts monitored the movements of foreigners: “We have completed the entry of the tribes of the Edomite Shasu [i.e., bedouin] through the fortress of Merneptah-Content-with-Truth, which is in Tjkw, to the pools of Pr-Itm which [are] in Tjkw for the sustenance of their flocks.”

This report is interesting in another connection: it names two of the most important sites mentioned in the Bible in connection with the Exodus (Figure 6). Succoth (Exodus 12:37; Numbers 33:5) is probably the Hebrew form of the Egyptian Tjkw, a name referring to a place or an area in the eastern delta that appears in the Egyptian texts from the days of the Nineteenth Dynasty, the dynasty of Ramesses II. Pithom (Exodus 1:11) is the Hebrew form of Pr-Itm – “House [i.e., Temple] of the God Atum.” This name appears for the first time in the days of the New Kingdom in Egypt. Indeed, two more place-names that appear in the Exodus narrative seem to fit the reality of the eastern delta in the time of the New Kingdom. The first, which we have already mentioned above, is the city called Raamses – Pi-Ramesses, or “The House of Ramesses,” in Egyptian. This city was built in the thirteenth century as the capital of Ramesses II in the eastern delta, very close to the ruins of Avaris. Hard work in brick making, as described in the biblical account, was a common phenomenon in Egypt, and an Egyptian tomb painting from the fifteenth century BCE portrays this specialized building trade in detail. Finally, the name Migdol, which appears in the Exodus account (Exodus 14:2), is a common name in the New Kingdom for Egyptian forts on the eastern border of the delta and along the international road from Egypt to Canaan in northern Sinai.

The border between Canaan and Egypt was thus closely controlled. If a great mass of fleeing Israelites had passed through the border fortifications of the pharaonic regime, a record should exist. Yet in the abundant Egyptian sources describing the time of the New Kingdom in general and the thirteenth century in particular, there is no reference to the Israelites, not even a single clue. We know of nomadic groups from Edom who entered Egypt from the desert. The Merneptah stele refers to Israel as a group of people already living in Canaan. But we have no clue, not even asingle word, about early Israelites in Egypt: neither in monumental inscriptions on walls of temples, nor in tomb inscriptions, nor in papyri. Israel is absent – as a possible foe of Egypt, as a friend, or as an enslaved nation. And there are simply no finds in Egypt that can be directly associated with the notion of a distinct foreign ethnic group (as opposed to a concentration of migrant workers from many places) living in a distinct area of the eastern delta, as implied by the biblical account of the children of Israel living together in the Land of Goshen (Genesis 47:27). [My emphasis]

There is something more: the escape of more than a tiny group from Egyptian control at the time of Ramesses II seems highly unlikely, as is the crossing of the desert and entry into Canaan. In the thirteenth century, Egypt was at the peak of its authority – the dominant power in the world. The Egyptian grip over Canaan was firm; Egyptian strongholds were built in various places in the country, and Egyptian of ficials administered the affairs of the region. In the el-Amarna letters, which are dated a century before, we are told that a unit of fifty Egyptian soldiers was big enough to pacify unrest in Canaan. And throughout the period of the New Kingdom, large Egyptian armies marched through Canaan to the north, as far as the Euphrates in Syria. Therefore, the main overland road that went from the delta along the coast of northern Sinai to Gaza and then into the heart of Canaan was of utmost importance to the pharaonic regime.

The most potentially vulnerable stretch of the road – which crossed the arid and dangerous desert of northern Sinai between the delta and Gaza – was the most protected. A sophisticated system of Egyptian forts, granaries, and wells was established at a day’s march distance along the entire length of the road, which was called the Ways of Horus. These road stations enabled the imperial army to cross the Sinai peninsula conveniently and efficiently when necessary. The annals of the great Egyptian conqueror Thutmose III tell us that he marched with his troops from the eastern delta to Gaza, a distance of about 50 kilometers, in ten days. A relief from the days of Ramesses II’s father, Pharaoh Seti I (from around 1300 BCE), shows the forts and water reservoirs in the form of an early map that traces the route from the eastern delta to the southwestern border of Canaan (Figure 7). The remains of these forts were uncovered in the course of archaeological investigations in northern Sinai by Eliezer Oren of Ben-Gurion University, in the 1970s. Oren discovered that each of these road stations, closely corresponding to the sites designated on the ancient Egyptian relief, comprised three elements: a strong fort made of bricks in the typical Egyptian military architecture, storage installations for food provisions, and a water reservoir.

Putting aside the possibility of divinely inspired miracles, one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt through the heavily guarded border fortifications into the desert and then into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence. Any group escaping Egypt against the will of the pharaoh would have easily been tracked down not only by an Egyptian army chasing it from the delta but also by the Egyptian soldiers in the forts in northern Sinai and in Canaan.

Indeed, the biblical narrative hints at the danger of attempting to flee by the coastal route. Thus the only alternative would be to turn into the desolate wastes of the Sinai peninsula. But the possibility of a large group of people wandering in the Sinai peninsula is also contradicted by archaeology.

In conclusion, then, there is no literal historical basis in associating the Hyksos with the Hebrews of Exodus. And thus, without this, there is nothing to support the enslaved Israelite story of Exodus as found in the Bible.


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