To find the historical roots of the Torah, we should begin with archaeology. Then we can identify which aspects of the literature line up with the physical evidence.
The earliest Hebrew settlements have been dated to the beginning of the .1:35 The settlements were what we would call small towns — home to a couple hundred or a couple thousand people apiece — amounting to less than 50,000 inhabitants in all of Canaan. The only indication that they were Hebrew is simply that no pig bones have been found in the trash heaps — in all other respects, the sites are indistinguishable from Canaanite towns.2:108,3:54,4:19-24 Nevertheless, not eating pork is a distinctive custom that persists to this day, so something happened during this period to affect a lasting cultural change.
The absence of any other clearly identifying artifacts is not terribly surprising, since Judaism forbids idolatry.5 In the words of Tacitus,6:35,7:5
The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.
So there simply aren't going to be any religious trinkets to identify Hebrew settlements, and just because archaeology only notes the absence of pig bones doesn't mean that the inhabitants were not already practicing an early form of Judaism. (The Star of David didn't come into use until the 1st Temple Period, and the menorah, though mentioned in the Torah, isn't attested elsewhere before the 2nd Temple Period.) We should also note that in its infancy, Judaism might not have had such strict rules against Canaanite idolatry, perhaps not having settled on how HaShem should be characterized. In other words, they might have been both pagan and Jewish, just as one day there would be a group of Jews who were also Christians, before they locked down on beliefs that just couldn't be reconciled with Judaism. So in the , they might have already sworn to hold no other god before HaShem, but that didn't mean that they had to toss their lesser gods, and while Judaism didn't have any idolatry of its own, they had yet to decide that all idolatry was profane.
Now if we look at the contemporary literature, we see other Hebrew customs appearing for the first time during this period. For example, in Figure 1, notice the knotted fringes in the garment worn by the Canaanite in the , and that they are in clumps (left, right, front, & back, making 4 total), as prescribed in the Torah.8,9
Figure 1. Ceremonial garments of Libyans, Nubians, Canaanites, and Egyptians, in the Book of Gates ().
Figure 2. Orthodox prayer shawl with 4 knotted fringes.
Another example is found in a treaty between the pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite king Hattusili III, written in . This refers to the Judaean Mountains as "the land of the Habiru of the Sun."10:96,11:28 Of course, Sun worship was ubiquitous, but the dominant gods in Canaan at the time were Ba'al, Asherah, and El, while the reference here is to people defined by their worship of the Sun, which was unique to this period for Canaan. So the people who didn't eat pork (i.e., a Jewish custom), and who wore garments with four knotted fringes (i.e., a Jewish custom), were Habirus (i.e., Hebrews), who had converted to Sun worship (mentioned several times in the Torah).12,13,14
A cultural conflict between Egyptians and Sun worshipers, resulting in the expulsion of the latter, and which is recorded in the Torah, is easy to see in this period. The Treaty of Kadesh () stipulated that "in the event that Ramesses' own subjects committed another crime against him, the Hittite king would come to his aid in suppressing such a disorder."15 A crime, committed by his own subjects, which would warrant the intervention of a foreign ruler, could only have been an insurrection of some sort. Ramesses left out the details, but the most dramatic upheaval in the New Kingdom was just before Ramesses' time, during the Amarna heresy (). So Ramesses might have feared another uprising of Atenists.
Just after Ramesses' time, we see the earliest mention of Israel, on the Merneptah stele (), which states that "the Israelites have been wiped out [...] their seed is no more." If that is taken to mean progeny, Merneptah must have missed a few of them, because modern DNA studies show that the Hebrews started to become genetically distinct around ,1:35 due to their enduring unwillingness to intermarry with other ethnic groups, as both Josephus and Tacitus noted.16:b1:§7,7:5
So all of the most salient archaeological, literary, and genetic facts point to the as the period in which the Hebrews got established in the central Levant.
Next, where did the Hebrews get their name?
Since King Hattusili III called the people in that area, during that period, the "Habiru of the Sun," we should like to examine the origin of the word Habiru. This didn't actually refer to a specific tribe, or collection of them. Rather, it was roughly synonymous with "Bedouin," meaning a nomad or migrant opportunist, anywhere in the Middle East.17:98 The earliest known use of the term was in northern Syria in , which was marked as the "year when King Irkabtum made peace with Semuma and the Habiru."18:200 These certainly weren't Hebrews (i.e., they did eat pork, and they didn't wear clothing with knotted fringes).
An inscription from near the end of the reign of Amenhotep III () tells of an incursion of "Habirus led by Yashuya" at Jericho.19:197 The date coincides with an earthquake that leveled fortifications at Jericho and Ugarit around .20,21,10:129/162,22 This was probably part of the inspiration for the biblical Joshua. More credence is added by the story of Jephthah, who was asked to lead a campaign against the Ammonites in , and who claimed that there had been a continuous presence of Hebrews on the other side of the Jordan from Jericho for 300 years,23 meaning that Joshua began organizing the Habirus . Note that Jericho doesn't seem to have been inhabited in the period of ,24:213-218 and some biblical scholars believe that Joshua had to have taken the town on or before , when there was still something to take. But that assumes that the conquest was as momentous as the biblical account — the other possibility is that Jericho was sparsely populated, and that once the earthquake knocked down the walls, there was nothing keeping a Bedouin chieftain from ransacking what was left.11:22~24 (In other words, either Jericho fell to Joshua when it was bigger, or the walls fell when archaeologists say they fell, and Joshua was smaller.) As further testament of Joshua's position on the timeline, we can note that late in his career, the Philistines had established the Pentapolis (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath), but had yet to infringe on Canaanite territory.25 Since they arrived in ,11:53 this would have described them as of , after Joshua had taken Jericho and other towns in , but before they had advanced into the Judaean Mountains.
After the earthquake, there were numerous mentions in the Amarna letters of Habiru raids throughout the Levant,26 at least some of which could have been led by Joshua, adding to his notoriety. His story seems to have been further augmented by the assimilation of the Canaanite legend of King Keret,27 perhaps due to a later redaction that patronized Canaanite converts to Judaism. But the Tanakh greatly exaggerates Joshua's ruthlessness — aside from the effects of the earthquake, there is no destruction layer dating to his time. Jericho wasn't burned until .28 Hazor was burned even later, around ,29,30 and the boundaries established after the conflicts include a place named after Merneptah,31,32 suggesting that some of the details came from the war against the Sea Peoples in .33,34:243 Thus Joshua 6-11 seems to be a conflation of 160 years of conflicts, starting with Joshua's lootings in , through Seti I's campaigns ,35 to Merneptah's suppression of the Sea Peoples in . Joshua just happened to be the only person who conquered much of anything in Canaan who wasn't an Egyptian pharaoh, so the Deuteronomists gave him credit for all of the conquests there. But the "Habirus led by Yashuya" in Amenhotep III's time displayed none of the telltale signs of Hebrew culture, and we can only conclude that they were simply Bedouins who pre-dated the arrival of the Moses. And the person who Moses called Joshua had to have been a different person. (See the article on Yashuya, Hoshea, & Jacob for more on that.)
After the Habiru raids in the , order was not restored in the Levant until the campaign of Seti I in ,36:410 and this is when the Hebrew settlements began to appear. So while the Hebrews were a mix of Egyptian expatriates and Transjordan Bedouins, not all Habirus converted to Judaism, and there is no cultural continuity, from the marauding Habirus of the , into the Hebrew settlers of the . In fact, the Habirus and the Hebrews couldn't have been more different, since the former were isolated bands of competing outlaws,36:409 while the latter became famous for their strict moral codes and cultural cohesiveness. Thus the Hebrews were simply those Transjordan Bedouins who converted to Judaism, settled in the Judaean Mountains early in the , and formed a distinct culture that persists to this day, which ceased to be Bedouin (economically, politically, culturally, etc.) during the settlement period. That the name "Hebrew" stuck to them is simply one of the ironies of history, and shouldn't carry the stigma of "Bedouin" in modern readings of the history.
Some authors evade the semantic issue by not using the term "Hebrew" at all, preferring "Israelite" instead.37 But the present thesis identifies a brief period in which Hebrews & Israelites were distinctly different groups, the former being Bedouins who converted to Judaism and moved into Canaan from Moab in , and the latter being the already-entrenched descendants of Jacob.38:279 Eventually these groups merged, but at the time, there were distinct differences that figure significantly in a detailed treatment of the events.
With the Hebrews settling in Israelite territory early in the , thanks to Seti I's campaign in , and with Merneptah laying waste to the Levant late in the same century (i.e., ), we can say that the first Hebrew nation — the "land of the Habirus of the Sun" — stood as an organized political entity for roughly 77 years, in the range of .
Following is a map of the political boundaries in the Middle East for the . It shows Syria under the control of the Hittites (after Suppiluliuma I's campaigns ), and Mitanni already assimilated by the Assyrians (in ), while Egypt was still in control of Canaan.
Figure 3. Map showing the approximate extension of the main kingdoms of the Middle East during the , with the main cities and archaeological sites, and some regions, courtesy Zunkir.
Of course, political boundaries don't tell the whole story — just because Canaan was controlled by Egypt doesn't mean that the culture was Egyptian. The main Egyptian interest in Canaan was just that forts and trading posts were defensible and well provisioned, so that the trade routes could be protected. The pastoral nomads were unruly, and little tribute could be extracted from the small farming communities. But to the north and east were the thriving nations of Hatti, Mitanni/Assyria, and Babylonia. To get a feel for how things were, imagine rural towns along a major highway connecting two modern cities, with truck stops and highway patrol facilities along the way. The locals might be capable of self-sufficiency, but they supplement their incomes by selling goods and services to the people using the highway. As a consequence, the locals are familiar with the language and customs of the travelers, while remaining culturally distinct from them. Similarly, Canaan might have been a vassal state of Egypt during this period, but culturally the Canaanites were distinctly different — for example, they spoke a different Semitic dialect from the Egyptians. So traveling through the Levant and talking to the locals would have been like pulling off I-95 somewhere in rural New Jersey and asking for directions.
With that as the context, we can begin to evaluate which aspects of the Torah are rooted in this particular period. According to the Torah, the pivotal event was the Exodus, when Hebrews who had been enslaved in Egypt were led to the Promised Land by Moses. So is there reason to believe that there was an Exodus of some sort, beginning late in the , and ending early in the on the heels of Seti I's campaign? Indeed there is.
The most meticulous record-keepers in the region were, of course, the Hebrews themselves,39 who invented the idea of maintaining continuous chronicles. The Seder Olam Rabbah (a chronology of the Hebrews written in the ) states that the Exodus began in , or 7 years into the reign of Horemheb (i.e., the same date as in the Book of Jubilees from the 40:1:1). This seems to contradict 1 Kings 6:1, which has the Exodus beginning 480 years before Solomon began building the First Temple, estimated by modern scholarship to have been in , meaning that the Exodus would have begun in . But many scholars take "480" figuratively, as 12 generations times the biblical standard of 40 years per generation.34:236,41:81,42:74 If we go with a more realistic estimate of 30 years per generation, the actual number is 12 × 30 = 360 years, and the Exodus would have begun in , which is a lot closer to the date of quoted in the Seder.
The earliest Egyptian historian whose works have survived was Manetho, who wrote in the (as preserved by Eusebius) that the Exodus began in the reign of Rathotis,43:53 who most historians believe to have been Tutankhamun,44 who reigned Egypt , consistent with the adjusted date of from 1 Kings 6:1, and just 15 years before the Seder's.
The 15-year difference there ( versus ) might not be a discrepancy per se — the different sources might have simply been pointing to two different episodes, which were closely related but nevertheless separated by 15 years. In , Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna, exiling the high priests, and in , Horemheb outlawed Atenism altogether, generating another wave of refugees. So perhaps Manetho and 1 Kings 6:1 referred to the exile of the priests in , while the Seder referred to the exile of the rest of the congregation in . Either way, Horemheb was the Egyptian authority with the hardened heart, in as Tut's senior vizier, commander-in-chief of the army, and minister of foreign affairs, and again in as the pharaoh himself.
We can draw a loose inference that Moses negotiated with Horemheb from the following passage.
1 (E) Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 (J) And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 (J) And Moses said, "I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned."
Midian was east of the Sinai Peninsula, while Mount Horeb is thought by many to be at the southern tip of the Sinai, and by some to be in Sudan near the Red Sea coast. Either way, if the shepherd had ventured that far from Midian, the sheep probably would have complained (especially about having to do all of that swimming, which they don't enjoy). The mismatched geography might be the author's hint that we are to interpret the passage loosely. One possible reading is that Horeb is short for Horemheb,11:28 and that the "mountain of God" was the pharaoh, who the Egyptians considered to be a living god. The identification of Horeb as a person instead of a place would make it easier to understand why it is so easy to place Mount Sinai on the map (i.e., in the middle of the Desert of Sin, a well-known geographical region), but so difficult to place Mount Horeb, which is not mentioned outside of the Tanakh, and which various scholars have placed all over the Middle East on the basis of the context in which it's mentioned — Mount Sinai is a mountain that stays in pretty much the same place, while Horemheb was a person who could have met with Moses in any number of places.45,46,47,48,49,50,51
Another loose correlation between the Torah and secular history comes from the mention of slaves being put to the task of building structures out of mud-bricks just before the Exodus.52 These would have been dwellings for the people themselves, since public buildings were all built from stone. Ordinarily, such dwellings were built by the people on their own time, so why did the pharaoh commission mud-brick construction on a scale worthy of mention in the Torah? The largest public housing project in ancient Egypt was the rapid construction of Amarna, which became home to roughly 50,000 people after just 2 years ().53 So the oppression of Moses' people, leading directly to the Exodus shortly thereafter, would have been at Amarna.
Some scholars dismiss the mention of slaves building mud-brick houses, since slavery wasn't common in Egypt. That might be true, but recent archaeological studies have revealed hardships suffered by the workers at Amarna that can only be evidence of slavery.54:3 So if the uprising described in the Torah is going to line up with secular history, it's going to be in the at Amarna, and it didn't occur in spite of slavery not being common in Egypt — rather, it occurred because of the uncommon oppression at Amarna.
Tacitus wrote early in the (based on Lysimachus) that the Exodus began in the reign of Bakenranef,7:5 who all authorities agree came much later. But the story mentions Moses, who led people out of Egypt and into a new country, where they expelled all of the inhabitants, and built a temple. So it's the right story. Interestingly, Tacitus also mentions the outbreak of a contagious disease, which he calls leprosy, but which at the time simply meant "any contagious skin disease." We now know from archaeology that there was a pandemic during the reign of Akhenaten (), father of Tutankhamun.55 And of course the Torah describes plagues just before the Exodus, the 6th of which was a skin disease (perhaps bubonic plague).
Lastly (for now), one of the tribes on the Exodus was Asher,56 which settled in Galilee,57 and which is confirmed by an inscription in Seti I's time.58:236-238
More evidence will be examined in the next article, but suffice it to say for now that there is easily enough to support the working hypothesis that the Exodus began in the late , consistent with the noticeable appearance of Hebrew settlements in Canaan early in the . So let's begin a time-line (at right), calibrated by the well-known reigns of the pharaohs (using the Low Chronology), and to which we can add the events in Canaan as we examine them. The earthquake that opened the door for Joshua is shown at . Amarna was abandoned in . If the priests were exiled, it might have provided the date used in 1 Kings 6:1 and by Manetho. Horemheb's abolition of Atenism in would have exiled a lot more people, which might be the source of the date quoted in the Seder. (To clearly identify specific waves of exiles, the year is attached, such as the 1329-Exodus and the 1312-Exodus.) The "Habirus of the Sun," as Hattusili III called them, were the Hebrews known to archaeology as having gotten established in the , and who were the ancestors of the modern Jews.
Before we continue, we have to acknowledge the evidence that we don't have. The Torah says that 600,000 men left Egypt.59,60 Adding women and children, we would then estimate the total at something like 2 million. There were only 3 million people in all of Egypt at the time.61 This begs the question of why a religious dispute would result in the exile of the majority of the people, leaving the minority behind, instead of the other way around, and suggests that the number was greatly exaggerated. So how many people actually left?
There are several ways of constraining the estimate, and all of them require very low numbers.
The Torah itself states that Moses' followers were the smallest of nations,62 and so few in numbers that if they were the only ones in Canaan, the land would become desolate and overrun by wild animals.63 Elsewhere, it more specifically states that they numbered in the thousands, not tens of thousands or more, or leaders would have been appointed.64,65,66 Just a little later, the people are numbered in the thousands.67
There is a noticeable absence of archaeological evidence of a mass migration in the Sinai Peninsula. If any sizable number of people left Egypt, we would expect the trail from Egypt to Canaan to be littered with the proof. Yet the finds are not more than what one would expect from the nomadic tribes known to have been there.
There is no new Egyptian influence in Canaan on construction techniques, pottery, tools, etc.
A mass migration invariably brings the language of its people to a new land, and the number of words that they add to a local language is roughly proportional to the percentage of the population that moved in. Yet the language of the Canaanites was already established before the Exodus, and changed little because of it.
The small Bronze Age villages in the Levant couldn't have supported any large group of sojourners. Even in modern times, if thousands of tourists were to descend on a small town in the Middle East that was home to just a couple hundred people, not all of the tourists would get fed. Then word would travel faster than the tourists, and on arrival at the next town, everything would already be gone, including people, possessions, and most importantly, food needed by the locals for their own survival. The tourists surviving such an ordeal would probably want their money back from the travel agency. Likewise, any large group of people in ancient Egypt considering the prospects of a journey across the Sinai would have looked carefully at the total number of people involved, and would not have participated if the group was larger than the desert could support.
This can only mean that if the "Exodus" was an historical event, only a very small group of Egyptians could have been involved.68 For such a small group to have such a profound impact on the culture in the Levant, they had to have been very influential people. We also know that the impact was not on Canaanite construction, pottery, or language, but on religious practices. Hence they were a small group of evangelists, not a large group of colonists, and they left their mark on Hebrew ideology, without leaving much in the way of artifacts for modern archaeologists to dig up. The evidence of a faith centered on an abstract conception of deity is somewhat more subtle. But the Egyptian influence is unmistakable if we look in the right places for it. For example, a number of orthodox Jewish traditions came from Egypt, such as circumcision (brit milah),69,70:34 fringed linen (talit), segregating linen from wool in a garment (shaatnez), and marking a door-post to show membership in a cult (mezzuzeh).71 The people living in Canaan remained distinctly non-Egyptian in all other respects,72:546except when it came to their most sacred religious practices. This is not evidence of two cultures simply brushing up against each other, where a few of the customs rubbed off. Historically speaking, cultural intermingling quickly alters construction, pottery, and language, but far more slowly alters the most sacred religious practices. This can only be evidence of a small but very influential group of Egyptian evangelists.
Who were the evangelists? That question is answered in the next article. But to conclude this article, it cannot be understated that the Exodus wasn't a major demographic shift — it involved a couple thousand Egyptians at most, and to make it across the desert, they had to split up into groups of just a couple dozen people apiece, or they would have starved.73 Still, all of the evidence points to the evangelists leaving Egypt late in the , and the new Hebrew nation thriving in the Judaean Mountains in the .