Author of the Month

The Parting of the Waters:
The Case from Scripture for the Reincarnation of Jesus
By Mark Gaffney

The Sea Peoples and the Disputed Date of the Exodus

The Book of Numbers 11-21 describes the many wanderings of the Hebrews in the desert, including the long march north to Bashan (TransJordan). The next book, Deuteronomy, recounts the three discourses of Moses, in which the patriarch, shortly before his death, lays down the Law to the Hebrews, who at the time were camped on the plains of Moab. The first discourse (Deuteronomy 2:23) looks back to the wanderings and mentions that sea invaders from Caphtor had established themselves on the coast of southern Canaan, what is today the Gaza Strip. The name Caphtor refers to Crete, and more generally to the Aegean. These Caphtorians were the same Sea Peoples--Mycenaeans and other proto-Greeks--who at various times threatened Cyprus and the coast of Canaan, from Turkey to Egypt. We know that Merneptah, son of the Pharaoh Ramses II, and also Ramses III, fought major campaigns against these same sea invaders, including pitched sea battles at the mouth of the Nile and off the coast. Shore battles were also fought in northern Egypt. Surviving Egyptian records describe how the pharaohs vanquished the enemy in these battles. However, scholars have questioned the veracity of the Egyptian accounts, because, despite claims of victory, the evidence points to a stinging defeat.[1]

The Sea Peoples were not simply raiders out for booty. They came in search of new lands to settle. According to Deuteronomy (2), the invaders sacked the original Canaanite towns on the coast, drove out or slaughtered the inhabitants, then rebuilt the coastal cities on a much grander scale. The names of these urban centers are recorded in the Bible: Ascalon, Ashdod, Gaza, Ekron and Gath. Probably there were others. According to the great linguist Cyrus Gordon, the invaders from the Aegean, although Greek, spoke a Semitic tongue, like the Minoans. And, in time, they became known as the Philistines, from which the name Palestine is derived.[2] These same invaders are also mentioned in the Song of Miriam, also known as the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:14), which I have already cited, one of the oldest surviving fragments of oral tradition in the Old Testament.[3] The Philistines are also mentioned in Genesis (26: 2, 8, 18), which suggests that their arrival in Palestine occurred at a very early date.

Mainstream archaeologists dismiss these scriptural references out of hand, however; because they cannot be squared with conventional wisdom about the date of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, and the desert wanderings. Considerable evidence does affirm the presence of the Philistines in southern Canaan. For example, in 1992, the ruin of a previously unknown Philistine fortress was discovered in the hill country of Mannaseh, near present-day Al-Ahwat, on a site which overlooks the Samaritan mountains.[4] The construction of the fortress, twelve miles from the sea, probably occurred after the Sea Peoples had consolidated their hold on the coast, and were attempting to expand inland at the expense of the Canaanites. At issue is not the presence of the Philistines--on this scholars are in agreement--but rather, the date of their arrival, which most archaeologists place at or around the start of the twelfth century BC. This conforms with the standard date of the Exodus at around 1250 BC. Most archaeologists believe that the passages from Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Genesis pointing to a much earlier arrival date are unreliable, the result of anachronistic editing by later scribes.[5] The standard chronology of the second millennium which is the basis for these dismissals has been seriously challenged, however, first by Immanuel Velikovsky in the 1950s, and more recently--and much more substantially--by the maverick Egyptologist David Rohl.[6] In his important 1994 book Pharaohs and Kings Rohl pointed out that 100 years of archaeology in Palestine has failed to produce any hard evidence affirming the conventional date of the Hebrew conquest and occupation. For example, Kathleen Kenyon's painstaking stratigraphic analysis of Jericho in the 1950s demonstrated that the site was not even occupied at the time of Joshua's attack, when, we are told, the walls came tumbling down.[7] Some scholars have seized upon Kenyon's work, and similar evidence from Meggido and other sites, to impugn the historicity of the Bible itself, much in the manner of nineteenth century skeptics who equated Biblical history with mythology.

But does the archaeological data, or lack of it, support the wholesale devaluation of the Bible as history? No says David Rohl, who in his book argues that the problem is not with the Bible, but with our interpretation of it. As Rohl points out, without archaeological support, the standard chronology of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) remains entirely derivative, a house of cards based solely on the king lists of the Egyptian pharaohs. The problem is that these king lists, like all regnal dating systems, are extremely difficult to interpret. In regnal dating systems an event in the ancient record is described as having occurred in the year such-and-such of the reign of the ruler so-and-so. The difficulty lies in fixing an absolute date based on this relative information. Interpreting the Egyptian king lists is a tricky business, as it involves a number of variables and uncertainties. For example, if two dynasties were contemporaneous, rather than sequential, as new evidence suggests was often the case--Egypt did not always have a united monarchy--then the true period of their reigns would be less than previously expected. Glitches of this sort tend to add up--they are cumulative--and can skew the chronology by centuries. In Rohl's view this is exactly what has happened; and explains why the archaeological data does not support the conventional date of the Hebrew Exodus. Rohl would amend the record by rolling back the Exodus by some 200 years, to the mid-fifteenth century BC.

It will be years, perhaps decades, before David Rohl's serious challenge has been confirmed or rejected, based on the evidence. Which is why, in this study, I have refrained from fixing dates for the second millennium BC--no sense venturing into quicksand! Nor will I delve into the continuing controversy about the date of the Exodus, wanderings, and conquest. The issues are complex. Furthermore, the matter has been competently discussed elsewhere.[8] The implications for Biblical scholarship are immense. But, fortunately, for our purposes the disputed chronology is unimportant.

Nonetheless, when the dust has finally settled, and scholars arrive at a more precise date for the Hebrew captivity, Exodus, and wanderings, I believe the aforementioned passages in Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy about the Sea Peoples will be affirmed as real history. I do not believe they are anachronistic--later additions.[9] I take this view because I agree with the scholar David Neiman that the timing of Joshua's invasion of the hill country of Canaan was not happenstance. Neiman was convinced that the Hebrews had shrewdly exploited the Philistine occupation of the coastal plain, and even turned it to their advantage. Neiman believed that the Egyptians and Canaanites became so preoccupied with the Philistine menace that the Hebrews were able to move into the hill country from the east unopposed, gain a foothold, and consolidate their position before a decisive counter-attack could be mounted against them.[10] Although the Hebrews later suffered serious defeats at the hands of all three, the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines, they were never subsequently dislodged from Ephraim.[11] The Philistines continued to dominate the coastal plain through the period of the Judges, until they were finally defeated by a coalition of Phoenicians and Hebrews led by King David.

Of course, it is possible that the timing of the Hebrew thrust into Canaan was serendipitous. But I think not. I tend to agree with Neiman. No doubt, Joshua had numerous sources of intelligence, and was himself an astute observer of the changing politico-military situation. Many years before, Moses had sent an expedition from his base in northern Sinai, Kadesh-Barnea, to reconnoiter the southern approaches into Canaan. The party was led by none other than the young Joshua himself. The mission followed the easiest and most direct route through the Negev, along what the Biblical geographer Nelson Glueck called the Way of the Wells.[12] The party returned with frightening reports that the Canaanites "are a people bigger and stronger than we...." Some of the Hebrews rashly attempted an invasion of the Judaean hills anyway, against the advice of Moses, only to be routed north of Hormah by the Canaanites and their allies the Amalekites; and forced to retreat.[13] If Neiman is correct, the growing presence of the Sea Peoples along the coast eventually altered this equation, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Hebrews. No doubt, Moses received continuing intelligence reports from various sources, including his spies, and simply bided his time. The long-awaited opportunity did not arrive, however, until Joshua had assumed leadership of the tribes; which brings us to our real purpose, the exploration of an Old Testament theme whose true importance cannot be guessed by the rare or reluctant attentions it has received from Biblical scholars.

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  1. The evidence is inscribed on the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu (part of the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt). The same military campaign is also described in the Harris Papyrus. Bryant G. Wood, "The Philistines," Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December, 1991.
  2. "An Interview with Cyrus Gordon," in Biblical Archaeological Review, Nov/Dec 2000, p. 52; also see Gary A. Rendsburg, "Is Linear A Semitic?" in the same issue, pp. 60-61.
  3. Cross, 1973, p. 121; also see Albright, 1949, p. 233.
  4. The discovery is recent enough that, insofar as I know, nothing yet has been published.
  5. Cross, 1973, p. 124.
  6. Velikovsky, 1952; also see Rohl, 1995.
  7. Kenyon, 1960; also see Rohl, 1995, pp. 299-314.
  8. See David Rohl's book. For a summary of the mainstream view see Israel Finkelstein, "The Date of the Settlement of the Philistines in Canaan", Tel Aviv [Journal], 22, 1995.
  9. This was also the view of Cyrus Gordon, who believed that the Sea Peoples arrived in waves beginning early in the second millennium BC. Gordon believed the earlier migrants came in peace, rather than as invaders. For a discussion of the evidence, including Aegean-style pottery found at Jericho and Beth-Shan, see Gordon, 1964, pp. 121-122. For a convincing photo of this Minoan pottery see Glueck, 1946, p. 206.
  10. Cited in Albright, 1968, p.163.
  11. For example, see Judges 14:4.
  12. Glueck, 1959, p. 88.
  13. Deuteronomy 1:28-46; Numbers 14.

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