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Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus

Egyptologists and Biblical scholars treat the Exodus differently. They approach the idea of an historical Exodus from different assumptions and perspectives and they respond differently to new information about the Exodus. In this blog, I present a speculative case study on how the two disciplines will react differently to the same information drawing on my own book, The Exodus, An Egyptian Story.

The information for this comparison derives from the life of Moses as an Egyptian before he fled from Ramses into the wilderness (in the book) and encountered the Kenites (not in the book). Specifically,

1. Moses helped plan and organize Seti’s campaigns against the Shasu and the Canaanites.
2. Moses was popular with the Egyptian military.
3. Moses was probably 10 to 15 years older than Ramses (not mentioned in the book).

Based on this information derived from Egyptian sources, how would Egyptologists and Biblical scholars react?


As previously stated, Egyptologists avoid the Exodus like plague. No Egyptologist wants to jeopardize their academic careers by delving into the historicity of the Exodus. They can accept based on Manetho and Donald Redford, that it has something to do with the Hyksos, but beyond that tidbit, they do not wish to get involved.

In the previous blog (Passover and Pharaoh Smites the Enemy), I presented information from Kara Cooney in her new book The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World. She expresses the normally academically taboo of having changed her mind about a fundamental truth in her discipline. She refers to herself as a recovering Egyptologist from an abusive relationship. In Egyptology, she is referring to the traditional acceptance of the concept of maat in a positive sense while overlooking or being blind to the violence it legitimizes by Pharaoh in the real world.

Ramses and the Exodus figure in her study. She asserts that Ramses tried to convince the populace that he was truly what he said he was. At the Battle of Kadesh, we are to understand that if it had not been for the heroics of Ramses combined with the blessings of Amun [whom Ramses beseeched], that Egypt would have lost. Cooney claims that Ramses compared himself to Seth, the god of violence who the Egyptians believed could vanish Apophis, the force of chaos, every night in the seventh hour [when as it turns out, the historical Passover occurred]. Cooney adds that we can be sure that some of the military knew the complicated truth, particularly the ones who were there at the battle. [In my book, I cite other Egyptologists making that same claim and would have included her if her book had been published earlier. The military people who knew the truth were the ones who either participated in the Exodus or who allowed it to occur without interfering.]

According to Cooney, Ramses portrayed himself in innovative ways not previously seen before in a Pharaoh. He appeared in the company of his men, driving his horses into the maelstrom of battle, even getting off his chariot and fighting hand-to-hand with his sword. Strategically, this Ramses positioned himself as the direct patron of Egypt’s mercenaries. This depiction is part of new development within Egyptology where the Delta in general and the military in particular are described as “diverse,” an equivalent of “mixed multitude.”

Finally Cooney daringly states that “This zeitgeist is an origination point for the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible….I am not saying that Ramses II was the pharaoh of the Exodus or that such a series of events actually happened in reality, supernaturally aided or not. But I am saying that the biblical narrative holds kernels of truth” (243-244). To the best of my knowledge Cooney is neither an evangelical Christian nor an Orthodox Jew and she still is in good standing as an Egyptologist despite situating a possible historical Exodus in a real-world Egyptian context.

Now Cooney has the opportunity to take the next step as an Egyptologist and incorporate new information/interpretations. She writes of Ramses excelling in the art of spin and hyperbole (211). Her Ramses seeks to be like Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator (239). She asks “What kinds of insecurities was this king hiding?” (212). Now she has the answer. As suggested in the three points above, Moses was Maximus while the younger Ramses was Commodus. The Sun God lived in the shadow of the man Moses his entire life. Ramses acted exactly the way Cooney describes and had the exact insecurities she asked about and the Exodus did occur precisely in the zeitgeist she portrays at the hour she mentions without realizing it. The missing ingredient that pulls the pieces together into a coherent narrative is Moses. With Moses, she can build on her presentation to tell a fuller story about Ramses than she does without him. The existence of Moses does not threaten her paradigms or standing as an Egyptologist; it enables her to be a better one by applying this new information/interpretation from a book she has read and for which she has written a recommendation.


The situation is quite different for biblical scholars. Consider the following interpretations which are legitimate in scholarship today:

1. The Israelites were Shasu.
2. The Israelites were nomads.
3. The Israelites were revolting Canaanites.
4. The Israelites were Canaanites of long duration filling a void.
5. Israel did not leave Egypt, Egypt left Canaan.
6. There was not one Exodus but multiple teeny-weeny exodii.
7. A teeny-weeny “Pilgrim” exodus group spread its experience to all Canaan.
8. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Exilic times.
9. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Post-Exilic times.
10. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Hellenistic times.

Has anyone suggested Roman or Byzantine times yet?

All these legitimate interpretations within biblical scholarship share one trait in common – they reject the very notion of “Yahweh led thee out of the land of Egypt.” It’s as if any explanation for the American Revolution is acceptable as long as it does not include the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” except as something concocted centuries later.

Now consider the opportunity available to biblical scholarship following the same information available to Cooney. When Moses flees to the wilderness he does so as one who previously had organized, planned, and participated in a campaign against the Shasu. He is no Sinuhe. He already knows the name “Yahweh” but “led thee out of the land of Egypt” is his new hope, vision, and political goal.

Moses does not encounter the Kenites by chance. These smiths are the one neutral or protected people among the various Shasu tribes. They offer him a sanctuary or safe haven. Moses marries into/is inducted into the Kenite tribe. He now has the mark of Cain which renders him safe from those he had fought as a Hyksos Egyptian under Seti. At this point Moses does not expect to be wandering in the wilderness when he leads people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses.  Some of the Shasu decide to assist Moses in his effort against Egypt. Later they will become Calebites and be included in the Exodus narrative alongside those who did depart from Egypt. The kingdom of Judah under David thus will be an odd combination of Canaanite Jebusites (Elyon) who had been allies of Egypt, Amorite Benjaminites (Shaddai) who had been part of the Exodus from Egypt and had a Mesopotamian orientation, and Shasu Calebites (Yahweh) who became allies of Israel during the Exodus.

This scenario was not in my book. That study was limited to Egyptian sources. This reconstruction partakes of biblical exegesis which would have added a whole new dimension to the book and made it much longer. However it does reveal the opportunity available to a biblical scholar if one should abandon one of the accepted Exodus paradigms listed above.

A recent article “Was King David a Nomad. New Theory Sparks Storm Among Israeli Archaeologists” by Ariel David (Haaretz), highlights the challenge. He writes: “Most scholars agree that the preceding stories [to David] in the Bible, such as the Patriarchs cycle and the Exodus are not historical events and are essentially foundation myths.” Exactly. That is the paradigm from which one must not deviate if one is to be taken seriously within biblical scholarship.

An example of this restriction may be seen in the current issue of Biblical Archaeological Review. Daniel Master, Wheaton College, has an article “Piece by Piece: Exploring the Origins of the Philistines. The article is not about the Exodus but is reflective of biblical scholarship towards the Exodus. Master makes three claims in the article.

1. based on the archaeology, the Philistines came from Crete.
2. based on archaeology, the Philistines remembered their Cretan origin centuries later even after they had assimilated with the 12th century BCE population.
3. based on textual information, Israel also remembered the Philistine origin in Crete.

The unstated implication of the analysis is that is that if both the Philistines and the Israelites could remember the Philistine migration from Crete, why couldn’t Israel similarly remember its departure from Egypt? Of course, Israel could and did. So while Egyptologist Cooney can directly posit an historical Exodus in the zeitgeist of Ramses II, Master only implies that one occurred.


An anomalous situation may develop. Theoretically, Egyptologists can accept as legitimate an historical reconstruction of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses based on Egyptian evidence that is not trying to prove the Bible true because it does not threaten any deeply held Egyptological attitudes towards the event. By contrast, biblical scholars cannot accept as legitimate an historical reconstruction of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses based on Egyptian evidence that is not trying to prove the Bible true because it does threaten deeply held biblical scholar attitudes towards the event as listed above.

As long as Egyptologists continue to avoid the Exodus like the plague, there is no problem for biblical scholars. The more Egyptologists are willing to accept as legitimate an Egyptian based historical reconstruction of the Exodus, the more the onus shifts to biblical scholars as to why they cannot. Obviously the disruption to the timeline of Israelite history and writing of the Hebrew Bible would be significantly affected if an historical reconstruction of the Exodus in the time of Ramses is accepted as legitimate. The revised “Kenite Hypothesis” described above is just the tip of the iceberg of the potential changes which would follow. So the question becomes not whether this historical construction is correct, but if it is even legitimate based on the Egyptian, not biblical, evidence.

Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites

The Hun versus Lady Liberty (Recruiting Poster

With this post, I continue my examination of presentations at the ASOR and SBL conferences now with a focus on tribes. The Kenites and the Amalekites are not known by name in the archaeological record. Information about them derives from the biblical narrative. These two peoples are linked at two critical points in time. Both appear in the wilderness stories of the Exodus. The memory of those encounters is cited in the stories of Saul and David. In those stories they are remembered as the enemy people and as allied people to Israel. Given this dichotomy in cultural memory, one should keep in mind the ability of storytellers in poetry and prose to draw on these images to deliver their messages. When studying the Kenites and Amalekites to determine who they actually were, it is critical to keep in mind how the Israelites perceived them and used them within an Israelite storytelling context.


Yigal Levin, Bar-Ilan University The Role of Amalek in the Transfer of the Monarchy from Saul to David (S18-116 Book of Samuel: Narrative, Theology and Interpretation)

I was not able to attend this paper at SBL. At ASOR it is fairly easy to jump from one session to another but at SBL given the number of venues it all depends on LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. I chose not to rush to try to hear this paper especially since I expected to be able to get a copy of it which I did.

In 1 Sam. 15 Samuel, speaking in God’s name, commands Saul to attack and to totally annihilate the Amalekites, taking revenge for the Amalekites’ attack on Israel back in the days of the Exodus (Ex. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19), thus “closing the account” left open for centuries. Saul, for whatever reason, does not complete the job, leaving the Amalekites’ sheep, cattle and king alive. God expresses his sorrow at Saul’s failure to fulfill his commandment, cuts off all ties with Saul, and eventually sends Samuel to search for a new king. This failing of Saul is repeated by the risen spirit of Samuel in 1 Sam. 28:18, as one of the reasons for Saul’s imminent death. Amalekites, however, also have a role to play in the actual rise of David, as Saul’s successor. In 1 Sam. 27:8 they appear as one of the desert tribes against whom David fights, paralleling their first appearance in 1 Sam. 14:48. In chapter 29, which takes place while Saul is fighting for his life on Mount Gilboa, Amalekites raid David’s camp at Ziklag, and are hunted down by David. And finally, in 2 Sam. 1, it is an Amalekite lad who brings news of Saul’s death to David, bragging that he had actually killed Saul, and also bringing Saul’s diadem and bracelet, the symbols of his reign, directly to David from Mount Gilboa. After David kills the lad, no Amalekite is ever mentioned again in the entire Deuteronomistic History. David, even without being told to do so, completed what Saul had failed to do, and had this proven himself to be fit to rule over Israel. This paper will examine the role assigned to the Amalekites within the Deuteronomistic History in general and the book of Samuel in particular, and especially as that of a test, one which Saul fails and David passes.

Levin locates the Amalekites southwest of Dead Sea based on Gen. 14:7. He then proceeds book by book from Genesis to Judges to identify the appearance of the Amalekites in the Israelite story. In Ex. 17, the encounter between the two peoples becomes a defining wilderness showdown important enough for Moses to write it as a memorial in a book. Levin describes the Amalekites as a perpetual and bitter nomadic enemy in the southern deserts.

When Levin continues his review of the Amalekite presence in the Books of Samuel, he notes a significant correlation. Amalek serves as a vessel or symbol of the transition of the monarchy from Saul to David. The Amalekite people or an individual Amalekite appear at key points in the careers of both kings. He notes that the building of the central sanctuary contingent on the Lord giving Israel “rest” from its enemies (Deut. 12:10). Joshua, David, and Solomon all know such rest, Saul does not.

One lesson from this presentation is that there are two Amalekites: there are the actual literal Amalekites in history and the metaphorical Amalekites within the Israelite cultural tradition. The actual literal Amalekites appear to have been a real wilderness people, possibly a rival of the Kenites, who had negative encounters with Israel in the time of Saul and David and possibly in the wilderness as well before Israel became a settled people.

The actual literal Amalekites then became a metaphor for chaos within the Israelite tradition. While Saul defeated the Amalekites, evidently his encounter could be interpreted as not being sufficient for a king in battle against the forces of chaos. By contrast, David was successful as the king defeating the forces of chaos. As Levin points out, an Amalekite brings David the news about Saul’s death:

And David said to the young man who told him, “Where do you come from?” And he answered, “I am the son of a sojourner, an Amalekite.” David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy Yahweh’s anointed?” (2 Samuel 1:13-14)

The terminology here is loaded with cosmic significance: the sojourner versus the anointed. The author has skillfully delineated the battle between cosmos and chaos in just a few sentences. The Amalekite has disrupted the cosmic order so it should be no surprise that he will pay the price. Cosmos will be restored.

The exact same scenario plays out in Gen. 14 with the Elamites as the force of chaos. Again it is important to distinguish between the actual literal Elamites who were disrupters in the Babylonian world with the seizure of the statue of Marduk and who never physically reached the Levant with the metaphorical Elamites as a symbol of chaos. The author in the original version of Gen. 14 draws on the Elamite image as a disruptive people of chaos who seized the physical expression of the deity to deliver a message in Israel. Who restores order? Who restores cosmos? Who defeats the forces of chaos who had seized the physical expression of the deity? The answer is the warrior-shepherd-meaning-king of Hebron meaning David.  The audience knew who Abram, Lot, and the Elamites represented while we have to determine the meaning of the metaphors. 

The story would work just as well if instead of Amalekites or Elamites the authors had used Attila the Hun…except no one then would have understood the metaphor. During World War I, the Allies used the image and legacy of the Huns to recruit for the war effort (see the war poster). It was precisely at that time when Uncle Sam came to fore as the vigorous fighting symbol of America. While there really had been an “Uncle” Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, who supplied the American troops in the War of 1812, a century later that historical basis had been forgotten. Nonetheless, everyone knew the metaphor and what it signified. The same was true in ancient Israel when authors used Amalekites and Elamites in stories where Moses and Abram/David were the victors.

If you are not familiar with this metaphorical or allegorical form of communication, I refer you to the Star Trek Next Generation episode “Darmok,” where the Enterprise crew encounters a civilization that communicates through allegory. The story of Gilgamesh is used to bridge the communication gap. As an example, trying using the phrase “David and Goliath” to describe a situation (an image is worth a thousand words) to someone who is not familiar with that story. Biblical writers wrote metaphorically not historically so attempting to understand them literally is counterproductive.


With the Kenites, we turn to a people more closely aligned with Israel due to the tradition of the intermarriage between the Israelite founder and the daughter of a Kenite leader. It can’t exactly be called a tribal alliance (Ex. 4:24-26) since at the time Moses was a leader of a people of one person. Nonetheless, it does place the Kenites at the origin of the Israelite people and suggest why the Kenite genealogy was the first one developed in the Israelite narrative tradition.

Zev Farber, Project TABS – The Kenite Redaction: A Supplementary Approach to the Hovav and Kenite Accounts (SBL S19-117 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible)

Some of the Kenite traditions seem ancient and yet many of them were clearly added into the Bible at a later stage, as a redaction-critical analysis shows. Moreover, the editors make little effort to have the Kenite traditions cohere. Their eponymous ancestor appears in Genesis as the son of Adam and Eve and yet they are treated in most of the Bible as merely a small tribe of locals in Canaan. They are allies to Barak and Saul, and yet they live among Amalekites and are cursed by Balaam in Numbers and described as murderous and cursed in Genesis. In some texts, they are treated as synonymous with Midianites, in others they are associated with Canaanites, and yet they are also described as allies to the Israelites. How are we to understand the history of this group in Israelite mnemohistory and why do the redactors of the Enneateuch treat them in such a haphazard manner?

Farber certainly asks all the relevant questions regarding the Kenites. His presentation points out these issues rather than resolves them. He suggests that Cain should be considered the ancestor of the peoples of the Negev. They are allies to Israel but not Israel and are integrated into the Israelite narrative. But as Midianites they appear as both family and villains.

Here is where the link between these smiths and the Arabah copper-producers becomes important. The Deborah, Saul, and David stories tend to employ the term “Kenite.” The reference here is positive. I suggest that “Kenite” is the name by which Israel from Merneptah to monarchy knew the people – as anti-Egypt wilderness smith allies, some of whom joined Israel itself. For me, the Cainite traditions would not be part of the Israelite narrative unless some Kenites were part of the Israelite people.

Then there was a name change. In the time of Solomon and the development of trade with the Arabah Midianites, this new name to the Israelites became associated with the old name of the wilderness smiths. Unlike with Kenites, the Midian stories convey positive and negative images as Farber points out in his presentation. How come?

Imagine a book on American history with contributions on Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee by Unionists and Confederates. For non-Americans, I am referring to the two sides in the American Civil War/War of Northern Aggression (1861-1865) where Lincoln was the President of the Union and Lee commanded the Confederate armies. If one read a combined text one would find the names of both men but with completely divergent representations. The dichotomy is due to the presence of two different sources.

So it was in ancient Israel. “Midian” became a metaphor for the Mushite priesthood due to the legacy of the marriage of Moses to a Kenite woman now called Midian. A pro-Midian story such as Ex. 18 derives from a Mushite source: Israelite society should be organized based on the values of the Mushites. An anti-Midian story like the Gideon and Phineas stories derive from an Aaronid source: Israelite society should be organized based on the values of the Aaronids. Notice that the Zadokites (Gen. 14:18-20) are not directly part of this debate.

Biblical stories are more political in nature than historical, more metaphorical than literal. In other words, people, meaning the priests or political factions in modern terms, engaged in political polemics through storytelling and not op-ed pieces or essays. I did not realize that Kenites and Amalekites were used to tell stories of cosmos and chaos until I began to write this blog about the SBL and ASOR conferences and ended up combining them in a single post. If I had reported on the sessions I attended in the order in which I attended them, I may not have made this connection. Similarly the combination of the Edomite presentations from the last post and the Kenite one from this one enabled me posit that the reign of Solomon marks the turning point from the use of Kenites to Midianites in Israelite storytelling. I did know about Mushites versus Aaronids and metaphorical-political writing and enjoyed being able to apply that template to additional stories.