It is a patent fact… that the chronological element in early Egyptian history is in a state of almost hopeless obscurity.
—George Rawlinson, A History of Egypt (1886)
The Devastation of Egypt
The Exodus destroyed Egypt. Its cattle and crops were gone. The firstborn in every household was dead. The king and the heir to the throne were dead. The army and the chariots were at the bottom of the Red Sea. The nation’s slave labor force, some 2 million men and women or so, had just left the country, and they had taken most of the nation’s gold and jewels with them. Pestilence, fire, and thirst had taken an enormous toll. Egypt’s gods had failed, and her people’s worldview was shattered. Her confidence gone, Egypt was ripe for invasion.
Archaeology and the Bible
Something this dramatic should have left a huge imprint on Egyptian history. Even if the Egyptians refused to record such a humiliating defeat, the consequences of that defeat should echo through the archaeological records of the Near East. But they don’t. So an obvious question arises: Are we looking in the wrong place?
1 Kings 6:1 says that Solomon began to build the Temple in Jerusalem 480 years after the Exodus. Solomon reigned about 960 BC. If we count back 480 years along the timeline of Egyptian history, we come to Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, and to kings and queens we read about in school: Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Akhnaton, and the boy king we call Tut. Egyptologists know this era well. And they know that the kind of Exodus that Scripture describes won’t fit within its boundaries. Egyptian history is full of chaos and destruction, but this time period doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Rather than reexamining Egypt’s chronology, Bible scholars have generally offered two solutions to this apparent problem: 1) The Bible is simply wrong about the date. Infallibility doesn’t apply to chronology. 2) The Exodus wasn’t as big of deal or devastating as scripture seems to indicate. Maybe there were fewer people; maybe the plagues were less severe; maybe God exaggerates for effect. Both of these explanations seriously call into question our ability to read and understand scripture and to trust what it says.
Hermeneutics: How to Read the Bible
Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting scripture. Traditional Christian hermeneutics takes for granted the doctrines of verbal inspiration and infallibility. That is, Christian theology believes that the Bible is the word of God and that its words are the words of God. As such, the words of the Bible are true. All of them are true. They are true to who God is and to the universe God has made. They are true theologically, historically, and scientifically. And, they are true when they speak of chronology.
Traditional hermeneutics does, of course, allow for the figurative, the mystical, even the allegorical in scripture, if the context and the rest of scripture support such an interpretation. Once we know the context of a passage, including the literary form in which it occurs, we can usually tell easily whether God means us to understand its words literally or in some other sense. In the case of numbered days or years, the interpretation is usually straightforward. The prophets and poets sometimes use a hundred years or a thousand year to stand for a very long or full amount of time (Isa. 65:20; Ps. 90:4). We do the same in common speech. On a very, very few occasions, the prophets may use numbered days or years in a purely symbolic manner—or they may not. In all other cases, numbers that mark off days and years describe real chronology, time that can be measured by the clock and the calendar. After all, God can tell time. He created time in the beginning, and He numbered off its first days early on, one by one (Gen. 1).
Hermeneutics and Gnosticism
The story of the Bible is set in real space and real time. It is a matter of history and geography. The things it describes actually happened. Any hermeneutic that plays fast and loose with this truth is at odds with Scripture and what it says about itself. The plea that this geographical fact or that historical incident does not involve the basic issues of salvation completely misses the point. Our Savior is God. Can God communicate with us accurately or not? Can we trust what He says? Does He really care about His material, temporal creation? If the 480 years are in question, then what about the third day that witnessed Christ’s resurrection? Was that a real calendar day? Or is it, too, open to fudging? Did the resurrection really happen the way scripture says it did? If not, we are lost (1 Cor. 15).
The historicity of scripture and the honor of God stand or fall together. To argue otherwise is to drift toward Gnosticism. For the Gnostic, the real is the spiritual, the ideal. Truth is in ideas, not facts. History as history is fundamentally irrelevant to man’s search for truth. Truth is supra-historical and supra-rational. For the Gnostic, Jesus may have “risen from the dead” even if His body was still in the grave on the fourth day. So if we say, “The date and manner of the Exodus really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that God somehow saved His people,” we are playing the Gnostic hermeneutic.
Egypt’s Timeline: Its Nature and Origin
But if we take the words of scripture seriously, we must conclude that Egypt’s history can’t be what the textbooks claim it is. The timeline we know must be horribly wrong.
This should not be an altogether surprising suggestion, even for secular archaeologists. The pagan world in general had no regard for sequential time. Its thought forms were governed by recurring cycles, not by the linear flow of history. The truth is the ancient Egyptians didn’t keep good historical records. They didn’t leave behind a standardized chronology or timeline. They didn’t even leave us a complete list of their kings.
The first list of Egyptian dynasties was compiled by Manetho, an Egyptian priest, who lived about 300 BC. But we don’t have his list. We have fragments of it recorded by later historians. These records are not only incomplete, but incongruous. Yet Manetho’s work is the foundation for Egyptian chronology and history. Initially, historians simply laid out these supposed dynasties end to end with the assumptions that one king followed another without overlap or co-regency. (Imagine if you developed papal history and chronology this way.) This gave Egypt a timeline that stretched back, right across the Flood, to 5000 BC. Eventually, Egyptologists began to question this methodology. They made corrections, partly by recognizing that some of the dynasties overlapped or were concurrent. But even now, after all these corrections, Egypt’s first Dynasty is still set at 3000 BC, well before the Flood.
Reconstructing the Timeline
Immanuel Velikovsky was one of the first to suggest a rationale and method for reconstructing Egypt’s timeline. His book was appropriately titled Ages in Chaos (Doubleday, 1952). Twenty years later, an Adventist scholar, Dr. Donovan Courville, developed a similar approach to what he called The Exodus Problem (1971). Both men argued for a more extensive overlapping of dynasties than Egyptologists have so far been willing to accept. In fact, they argue that some of the so-called dynasties were not dynasties at all, but lists of local rulers who governed as vice regents for particular pharaohs. The total effect of their suggestions is a severe shortening of Egypt’s chronology and history and the elimination of the “dark ages” in the timeline.
The reconstructions suggested by Velikovsky and Courville offer a number of surprising correlations. Thutmose III, who created Egypt’s largest empire, becomes the pharaoh who sacked Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 11). Akhenaton, once hailed as history’s first monotheist, becomes a contemporary of Israel’s later prophets. And Hatshepsut might just be the Queen of Sheba.
The Exodus now falls within the 13th Dynasty, which was succeeded by the invading Hyksos, a nomadic tribe from the wilderness (the biblical Amalekites?). And now we have an Egyptian record that seems to shed some light on the Exodus. This papyrus manuscript comes from around the 13th Dynasty. It was first translated by Alan H. Gardiner in 1909. He called it The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage and more often it is simply called the “Ipuwer Papyrus.” Here are few lines from Gardiner’s translation:
Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere. (2.5)
Forsooth, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. (2.10)
Forsooth, gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire… (2.11)
Forsooth, men are few. He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere. (2.13)
Forsooth, the Desert is throughout the Land. The nomes are laid waste. A foreign tribe from abroad has come to Egypt. (3.1)
Forsooth, gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze, stone of Yebhet and […] are fastened on the necks of female slaves. (3.2-3.3)
Indeed, grain has perished on every side. (People) are stripped of clothes, spices, and oil. Everybody says: there is none. (6.3)
Rewriting and More Rewriting
Velikovsky’s ideas met with stiff academic rejection followed by a carefully engineered silence. Courville’s book sank with hardly a splash, or so it seemed. But in 1993 Peter James and a team of secular scholars again challenged the standard chronology of Egypt in their book, Centuries of Darkness. Their conclusion: Egyptian chronology is inflated. It is too long by 300 years. The third “dark age” or intermediate period never happened. They make initial suggestions for correcting the problem. These suggestions involve (of course) overlapping dynasties. They realize there is still a great deal of work to do because the chronology and history of every ancient Mediterranean nation has been tied to that of Egypt!
The authors of Centuries of Darkness devote only one chapter to Israel’s history. They make only a passing reference to the Exodus before they go on to discuss Israel’s later history. But along the way they make this telling observation:
“The dates the Old Testament gives, even those for historical periods which are potentially useful to archaeology, have been altered, mangled or rejected in arbitrary fashion. It seems that the Bible has suffered from this kind of hypercritical treatment simply because it is the Bible. A similar approach would never have been taken with the sacred literature of other ancient Near Eastern societies (162).”
Is it possible that secular scholars reject biblical chronology simply because it’s the chronology contained in the Bible? Of course, we all have presuppositions that control our interpretation of the facts.
When God destroyed Egypt, He established His reputation among the nations of the Near East for a thousand years and more (Josh. 2:9-11; 1 Sam. 4:8; Jer. 32:20-21). It is no wonder that unbelievers want to believe the Exodus never happened. Given their worldview and attendant presuppositions, I really don’t blame them. But it is tragic that Christians writing commentaries and study notes (in the name of Jesus) are so quick to sell short the great acts of God in history simply because they fear secular criticism. Sadder still is the fact that so-called Christian scholars think God cares so little for chronology and history. It’s as if God has to stand in the dock before all the feeble minded textbook writers, college professors and popular journalists of our day. Fear of secular criticism creates not only desperately poor hermeneutics but an ineffectual witness and life in the faith. God’s word is true… jot and tittle.
For Further Reading:
James Jordan, “Chronology and Gnosticism, “ Biblical Chronology, vol. 10, no. 5 (May 1998).
Donovan Courville, The Exodus Problem and its Ramifications (Loma Linda, CA: Crest Challenge Books, 1971).
Peter James et al., Centuries of Darkness (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993).
John Ashton & David Down, Unwrapping the Pharaohs, How Egyptian Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Timeline (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006).
Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh, Dominion Religion Versus Power Religion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).