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The Exodus - Conquest Dating Fiasco

by Dr. David Livingston

How the Dating of the Exodus and Conquest Became Confused

Since correct dates for the Exodus and Conquest are crucial in the investigation for locating Bethel and Ai, we consider the dating discussion to be a critical part of this research.

One frequently reads that archaeological evidence contradicts the Bible, especially the Exodus and Conquest accounts.

It is also a story which has not held up well under archaeological scrutiny. Citing a lack of evidence of sudden destruction at several key sites -- such as Jericho and Ai, neither of which appears to have been occupied at the time -- mainstream scholars for years have rejected the biblical description of a military conquest of Canaan (Sheler 2001: 440).

  480 years
+960 years
1440 BC/BCE Exodus
  –40 Wilderness years
1400 BC/BCE Conquest

I Kings 6:1

We cannot agree with this opinion, and in this chapter will explain how this happened. We hope that by using the diagram below while following in the text, that the dating problems will become clear.

Although G. E. Wright believed the Bible was essentially historical, he followed Albright’s lead and in 1946 wrote, “It is generally believed that, since the account in Joshua is later, it is unreliable” (1946: 105).

By 1961 many others had “joined the crowd,” and D .N. Freedman had adopted the same position reiterating, “The thirteenth century is now all but unanimously agreed upon as the date of the Exodus, both earlier and later centuries have been discarded, and it alone remains as both plausible and inevitable” (1961:270).

However by 1975 the dating picture was changing, and Joe Seger, from a Palestinian perspective, suggests that the termination of the Middle Bronze age was more gradual and took nearly a century -- the end of MB coming as late as 1450 BC, instead of 1550 as Albright postulated (Hoffmeier 1989:181).

John Bimson published a full treatise in 1978 based on the presupposition that the Israelite Conquest signaled the end of the Middle Bronze period. Then, together with this author, they published their view in Biblical Archaeology Review in 1987. See also Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Davis 1986: 18-21) for a discussion of an early Conquest.

James Hoffmeier ended an article in Levant dealing with Egypt supposedly bringing the MB period to a close with this, “The Egyptian textual evidence simply does not account for the widespread destruction of MB IIC Palestine. If southern Canaan was the epicenter of Egyptian military activity, as traditionally understood, we are at a loss to explain why there is no literary evidence to support this conclusion” (Hoffmeier 1989: 190).

The spies Moses sent to scout the land brought back a report that the “cities are great and walled up to heaven” (Numbers 13:28, Deuteronomy 1:28, 9:1). This description fits the late MB period, not the mid-LB period (when cities were smaller and more of them were open).

Chart Showing Dates for the Conquest


Two Sets of Dates on Chart: Top and Left Side

Three dates are noted across the top: 1550, 1400, and 1250 BC/BCE (hereafter, "BC"). These go from earlier (1550 BC) to later (1250 BC). They are only round numbers, with a few years difference for each, depending on whose book one reads. Exact dates are not necessary for the following explanation.

Ca. 1550 BC has been the traditional date for the end of the Middle Bronze (MB) Period, the date when the Egyptians drove out their Hyksos (Semitic) rulers. Presently, those holding the high chronology put this date at 1540; those holding the low chronology put it at 1529 (Kitchen 1987). At the end of the MB Period the Canaanite culture was at its peak with the greatest number of well-fortified cities. 1550 BC was later than Joseph, but earlier than Moses and no Bible books were written then.

Ca. 1400 BC is the approximate biblical date for the Conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites. This date is derived by adding 480 years to the year Solomon laid the foundation of the Temple (ca. 960 BC, I Kings 6:1). Such a time frame gives about 1440 BC for the date of the Exodus. Subtracting 40 years for the wilderness wanderings gives the approximate date of the Conquest -- 1400 BC. This date is confirmed by other Scriptures, notably Judges 11:26, and I Chronicles 6:33-37.

However, ca. 1250 BC is the approximate date for the “Conquest” accepted by most archaeologists today. Scholars arrived at this date through what they considered to be strong archaeological evidence for a date later than that of the Bible. Some evangelical scholars have chosen to accomodate Scripture to this late date.

On the chart note the quotation marks around Conquest. The late “Conquest” date was set at 1250 BC in the 1930’s. Since then, it has become clear through intensive archaeological research that there apparently was no massive military onslaught in Canaan at that date. Thus, many scholars have concluded that a “Conquest” of Canaan is a misnomer. An example is found in an article by Fredric Brandfon in Biblical Archaeology Review. He said, “I put ‘conquest of Canaan’ in quotes because. . . . It may or may not have involved a ‘conquest’” (1988: 54).

The revised explanation for the Israelite occupation is that it must have occurred other than by conquest (contrary to what the Bible says). Suggestions are that it occurred either by: 1) slow infiltration over a long period of time; or, 2) there was a “peasant revolt” which overthrew the city-states. There is some support for both these views in Scripture. But the veracity of the Bible is discounted as the theories are developed.

Evangelical scholars who have opted for the late date now have little, if any, evidence of destructive assaults against the Canaanite cities at ca.1250 BC and are unable to correlate with what the Bible describes as assaults. Because, as evidence accumulates, it becomes more apparent that the cities had become small and weak by that time.

Left Side of Chart

Starting from the top and going downward are modern dates from the beginning of the last century to the present. The chart follows the developments of scholarly thinking through most of the last century. Actually, we could have begun in the 1930s when the big change began. But we have done it this way to emphasize the unanimity of thinking during the early 1900s.

Rejection of the Biblical Date of the Conquest

In 1900, figuratively speaking, “everyone” believed the Conquest was accomplished about 1400 BC (with the Exodus occurring about 1440 BC). For most scholars, the Bible was the standard for historical truth in ancient times, although there were always some who questioned it.

The Bible nowhere states that the Israelites destroyed Bethel.

However, in the 1930s that all began to change. In that decade, two well-known archaeologists dug at two important sites in Palestine. Englishman John Garstang dug at Jericho and found ample evidence that the destruction of the city took place ca. 1400 BC. At the same time, American W. F. Albright dug at Beitin, which he assumed was Bethel. At the beginning of the decade, both men held to a 1400 BC Conquest. But during his excavation, Albright wavered, then switched from the early to the late date for the Conquest (Albright 1934:10,11). That is, from 1400 BC to 1250 BC. He chose the date based on a thick destruction level which had occurred about 1250 BC at “Bethel.” (See page 184.) He assumed this level was the Israelite destruction (1934: 10), even though the Bible nowhere states that the Israelites destroyed Bethel. He also found a similar destruction at Tell Beit Mirsim, which he thought was biblical Debir . However, of that destruction he said, “In any case the work at TBM has not hitherto settled the question” (1935: 11). At Lachish, James Starkey found that it, too, had been destroyed about this time.

But all the sites which supposedly have “Israelite destruction levels” are useless in identifying signs of a military onslaught since there is no historical reference to the Israelites being responsible for them. The Bible identifies only three sites where we can expect destruction levels caused by Israel: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (Joshua 6:24, 8:28, 11:11).

Because of Albright’s brilliance and pervasive influence on the next generation of archaeologists, his view prevailed and almost everyone by the 1950's agreed with him and opted for the late date.

Meanwhile, a few "diehards,” including John Garstang, continued to hold out for the biblical date of 1400 BC. For the most part, scholars committed to the Bible as truth were the only ones who continued to hold to the early biblical date. Throughout the archaeological controversy , these men tried to accomodate archaeological evidence to the Bible, and not vice versa. Thus the 1400 line continues straight downward. Probably, they were correct all along. That is, the archaeological evidence, when it is all in, could finally come to support their position.

Returning to the line which diverges from the biblical date line in the 1930s, we come to the 1950s. Dame Kathleen Kenyon (also from England) did not agree with Garstang’s finds and did not have his commitment to the Bible. She returned to dig at Jericho. A meticulous archaeologist, she nevertheless made some serious errors. Of the section of the city destroyed by the Israelite Conquest, she dug only one-thirteenth as large an area as Garstang. Based on an absence of imported wares, and essentially ignoring Garstang’s work, she concluded that the “Conquest” had occurred in 1325 BC (Wood 1987: 6-16). Even worse, she concluded there were no walls around Jericho when the Israelites arrived.

Her work was heralded as definitive, and the results were incorporated into the overall picture then being synthesized by scholars. It was becoming clear that, not only were there no walls around Jericho in 1325 BC and even later, there were no walls around most of the other sites “conquered” by the Israelites around 1250 BC. In fact, solid evidence for a massive military onslaught of any kind, at any site in Israel, was still lacking in spite of greatly increased excavation.

Thus, during the 1960s and 1970s doubts about the veracity of the biblical Conquest story became confirmed in the minds of many. In the meantime, the lack of archaeological evidence for an Exodus from Egypt around 1290 BC (during Rameses II’s reign) also led many to conclude that this story, too, was no more than a myth.

Because Rameses actually ruled 150 years AFTER the Exodus, it then "appears" that there is "no" archaeological evidence for an Exodus.

Thus, the consensus today among scholars who have no commitment to Scripture as truth, is that no Exodus and no Conquest occurred. Generally, the scenario they accept is "that the Israelites are little more than the outgrowth of small groups which had immigrated to Palestine over several hundred years and finally banded together about the time of David or shortly before. They gathered folklore and other literature which scribes supposedly put together during the time of the Israelite monarchy (to create a national entity). The books the scribes authored were then attributed to Moses and Joshua to give them authenticity."

But this error is a blind alley. Bible and archaeology will never be reconciled following this course.

New Developments

Conversely, new developments in archaeology are ignored by scholars committed to the late date scenario. These developments suggest a revision of the 1550 BC date for the end of Middle Bronze. (Much of what follows was discussed in more detail by John Bimson and this author in the Biblical Archaeology Review for September/October, 1987.) It is true there were few walled Late Bronze cities in 1250 BC, and these settlements were small. On the other hand, at the close of the Middle Bronze Period (1550 BC) the cities were at their peak development. Cities at the end of the MB Period may be described as having the greatest fortifications in all the history of the Land.

Logic suggests that those who hold to the biblical story must go backward (from 1400 BC) to the time when the cities fit the description of Moses’ spies. They had described the cities as “fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28, Deuteronomy 1:28, Joshua 2:15, and many other citations).

Go back to 1550 BC? But that is 150 years!

Even though at first the end of the MB Period seems too early for the Conquest, perhaps in this case archaeology should be reinterpreted in light of Scripture (instead of the reverse, as is usually done). Or, conversely, some of what was thought to be “MB” occupational remains actually continued into the Late Bronze (LB) Period, down to 1400 BC.

Overlapping Cultures at the End of the Middle Bronze Period

Originally, the scenario for the end of the MB Period assumed by W.F. Albright and others was that the Egyptians drove their Hyksos overlords out of Egypt in 1550 BC. This event may have occurred at that time in Egypt. But along with driving the Hyksos out of Egypt the assumption by Albright was that the Egyptians continued to ravage many of the cities of Palestine as they chased the Hyksos back home. Thus destructions found in cities all over Palestine at the end of the MB Period, were attributed to an Egyptian rampage in 1550 BC.

There are two problems with this interpretation. One is that the Egyptians had gone through a hundred year period of humiliation and weakness under the Hyksos. Because of that, they barely had the power to drive them out. This conclusion is evidenced by the length of the siege of the very first city the Egyptians encountered -- Sharuhen. The siege lasted three years before they conquered it. After that, there is no record of them attacking any other city at that time.

Perhaps archaeology should be reinterpreted in light of Scripture instead of the reverse.

The second problem is that, although the MB Period ended with the cities in Palestine being destroyed by violent conflagrations, it is becoming increasingly evident that this did not occur shortly after 1550 BC. It was later, much later, in some cases. However, it may be noted that many of these destructions were eventually caused by the Egyptians. Thutmose III and, after him, Amenhotep II, conducted at least 14 campaigns into Palestine. Thutmoses’ lists of conquered cities around 1470 BC include Gaza, Joppa, Gezer, Aphek, Megiddo, Bethshan, Taanach, Hazor, etc. Those sites that have been excavated have destructions at the end of the MB Period. Important to note is that these are all in the lowlands or along the coast. There is no record of Thutmose III (or later pharaohs) attacking hill country cities. Yet this is where Israel settled.

William Dever makes a strong case for a “composite transitional MB III/LB IA phase which would embrace both the later campaigns (of Thutmose III) that ended MB III.” We note with this that he brings LB IA down as late as 1450 BC. He says further, “[This] takes into account the difficulty that virtually all scholars acknowledge in discerning a clear ceramic break between the Middle and Late Bronze ages (Dever 1992:16).” In this we find at least 100 years drop in the date for the end of MB II making only 50 years difference between that date and the biblical date of 1400 BC.

The evidence for the Israelite Conquest in 1400 BC is very clear at Jericho.

In the eastern Negev there were no LB sites at all. Thus, the battle with the king of Arad who defeated Israel supposedly cannot be true. Or, since Tel Malhata and Tel Masos were both MB sites and the only fortified sites in the Negev, one of them was likely ancient Arad. This then supports the postulate that the Conquest occurred while some sites were still in the MB period (Aharoni 1975: 114-115). Personal correspondence with Itzaq Beit-Arieh, well-known for his Sinai excavations, confirmed that there are no MBII sites in central or southern Sinai. Our conclusion, then, is that Aharoni is correct about Malhata and Masos.

There is mounting evidence that the Middle Bronze Period continued in Palestine beyond 1500 BC well into the 1400’s. The strong, lowland Canaanite city-states were under Egyptian authority by 1400 BC. By then, Thutmose III had made Palestine an Egyptian province.

The Hornet

John Garstang in 1930 suggested that Thutmose III may have been the “hornet” spoken of in Exodus 23:28, Deuteronomy 7:20, and Joshua 24:12. The frontispiece of his book, Joshua Judges, illustrates this. He points out that one of Thutmose’s insignias was a hornet. Does the biblical “hornet” refer to Thutmose III and later pharaohs? Conversely, John Davis suggests that “hornet” and “panic” are synonyms here (Davis 1969:89), thus having a different meaning, but also possible.

Collapse of the walls at Jericho

Garstang’s Discoveries at Jericho

Garstang’s discoveries in the “City IV” excavation should have settled the date of the destruction of Jericho in the 1940s since he recovered considerable Cypriot bichrome ware (or local copies), as well as Late Bronze I local wares. One sherd only of Mycenean pottery was found in City IV, eliminating the possibility that it was destroyed in the mid-13th or 14th century BC (Garstang and Garstang 1948:126).

Dame Kenyon had mistakenly dated the debris from City IV to the end of the Middle Bronze Period (1550 BC), apparently based on the absence of exotic imported wares. Was she unaware of Garstang’s bichrome ware, or did she simply ignore it for some reason? The local pottery, Egyptian scarabs and a carbon-14 date, however, all indicate that the city continued until ca. 1400 BC before it was destroyed (Wood 1990).

Although he did not make a final report, Garstang published enough Late Bronze material that there should have been no question that the City IV destruction was at 1400 BC (Garstang and Garstang 1948:121, and reports from 1932 to 1936 in the LAAA). In fact, a 1400 BC date seems so certain, based on solid evidence, that we cannot help but wonder whether many scholars have simply ignored Garstang and “gone with” Kenyon for their own personal reasons. Kenyon was mistaken and, unfortunately, most scholars accept her conclusions.

Conversely, Garstang was correct. Scholars should have been more cautious about accepting Kenyon’s revision of Garstang’s work, especially since he excavated an exponentially larger area of the final Bronze Age city than did Kenyon.

The Habiru/‘Apiru

Because the generally accepted date for the “Conquest” is 1250 BC, the Habiru/‘Apiru intruders to Palestine, mentioned in the El Amarna letters, cannot be linked with “Hebrew” invaders.

On the other hand, if the date of the Conquest is again acknowledged to be about 1400 BC, then these bands of intruders could well be considered as describing hostilities early in the period of the Judges. The time is right. Amenhotep III and IV are mentioned in these letters and their reigns come shortly after 1400 BC. So a return to an early date may open renewed interest in connecting at least some of the “Habiru/‘Apiru” with the “Hebrews.”


This brief overview will not resolve the issues. But we hope this summary and chart will encourage readers to “dig deeper” into biblical archaeology and to overcome the uncertainty prevalent today.

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© 2003 David Livingston