Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition

  • James K. Hoffmeier
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. xix + 244 pp. Hardback, $35.00. ISBN 0-19-509715-7.

Hoffmeier's study represents the fruit of many years of study in Egyptology and the Old Testament. The work is a substantial contribution to the ongoing discussion on the subject of Israel's presence in Egypt and represents a view that is in harmony with an appreciation of the Bible as a valuable historical source. The text divides in four sections of roughly equal length: the issues presently debated about the conquest and Israel's emergence in Canaan; Israel and Semitic presence in Egypt before the events of the book of Exodus; the events leading up to the exodus; and the exodus and initial stages of wilderness wandering.

In the first part, Hoffmeier surveys the current debate on Israelite origins with reference to Canaan. His study of the Merneptah stele which mentions Israel lead him to conclude that "the Canaan" is not a land but the city of Gaza. This follows Redford's suggestion and, given its use elsewhere, it should be considered as a possible interpretation. Hoffmeier's earlier contention (agreeing with Younger, myself, and Josh. 11: 11-13) that the Canaanite cities and towns that the book of Joshua records as being destroyed by Israel, were not destroyed by fire and therefore should yield no archaeological burn layer.

Having his belief that Israel could have entered from the outside and that the biblical record does not disagree with the archaeological evidence (p. 43), Hoffmeier is able to consider whence they came and thereby to examine early evidence for the patriarchs and then Israel in Egypt. He sets this in the broader context of the abundant Egyptian evidence for Semitic speaking peoples in the land. However, unlike Currid's recent work and earlier such studies, Hoffmeier focuses on the eastern frontier and the border defenses at the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat where there is evidence for Egyptian forts and a canal system to protect the border from encroaching Bedouin and other Semitic peoples. He identifies a number of tells in this region that possess evidence for early and mid-second millennium B.C. occupation. Hoffmeier turns his attention to the story of Joseph in Egypt. In this account he finds many parallels with Egyptian practices of the early second millennium B.C. including similarities that agree only with that period and not later. This is a useful section for anyone interested in Genesis 39-50.

The chapter on the Israelites in Egypt directs the book to a theme that will dominate the second half of the volume: geography. Hoffmeier presents all the evidence, pro and con, for the locations of Egyptian cities and places mentioned in the book of Exodus. Ramesses is located at Tell ed-Dab'a (Qantir in Egyptian sources) and Pithom at Retabeh. Goshen is not identified with any known land in the inscriptions. However, Hoffmeier does note its translation in the Septuagint as Gesem of Arabia, and a possible association with the Qederite Arabic name. Redford had posited this as an example of seventh and sixth century influence on the biblical account. This leads Hoffmeier to posit here an example of late editorial influence. However, Qederite texts are not attested for the second millennium B.C. and yet the existence of this influence is found elsewhere in early biblical texts, specifically the qyn root for the name of Cain (and Kenan and Tubal-Cain) in Genesis 4-5. This root appears in personal names only in Qederite and is the principal example of a later name in these early chapters where elsewhere the personal names tend to occur in early second millennium B.C. texts (R. S. Hess, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1993) op cit.). There may be a common thread here that suggests the preservation in Qederite of earlier names that were lost in other traditions.

Hoffmeier discusses the perennial issue of the date of the exodus. He presents the cases for both the early and late dates. His arguments for rejecting the late (thirteenth century) date (p. 125) seem forced. To do this he must reject understanding the 480 year period of 1 Kings 6:1 as symbolic. To state that "the genealogical lists from the exodus period to Solomon's day do not add up to twelve or eleven" does not prove a lot since there are many lists that cover this period in both Testaments and there is no consistency in the number of generations. Further, to state that "there is no evidence elsewhere in the Bible for using a large figure to symbolize a number of generations" is odd given Gen. 15: 13 and 16 where the 400 years becomes four generations. Hoffmeier refers to this text in the attached endnote but it is not clear how he can then deny the presence of evidence in his main text.

The chapter on Moses and the exodus surveys, for example, Egyptian vocabulary in Moses' birth story and Greta Hort's analysis of the plagues in the light of the ecology of Egypt. Hoffmeier moves along to the final three chapters which are entirely devoted to his study of Egyptian geography, and specifically to sites at the middle and eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat. A whole chapter examines the possible presence of a canal connecting Lake Timsah and the El Ballah lakes to the north. Using ancient Egyptian and modern geological and topographic reports, Hoffmeier argues that in ancient times the water level of the Red Sea extended as far north as the Bitter Lakes and even Lake Timsah. This created a natural barrier that was extended farther north by the canal.

A few specific comments might be added. (1) The use of Fischer's historical fallacies do not always assist the case. For example, the fallacy of presumptive proof on p. 10 can cut both ways. Burden of proof tends to lie with one's opponent. (2) For a great many of the textual parallels with the Joseph story and for some with the book of Exodus, Hoffmeier relies heavily upon Kitchen, to whom he dedicates the volume. This is not necessarily a criticism but much of this is already available in K. A. Kitchen's The Bible and Its World (Leicester: IVP, 1973) or in his updated article in R. Hess et al. eds., He Swore an Oath: : Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50, co-editor, Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1993; Second edition, Carlisle: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994. (3) I don't like endnotes. The usefulness of this carefully researched volume would be greatly enhanced by footnotes instead of endnotes.

This is an excellent volume for introducing the subject it covers. Of the three books published in 1997, Currid's work has the advantage of dealing with the religion and the essays edited by Frerichs and Lesko deal with a variety of issues (see these books reviewed elsewhere in Denver Journal), but Hoffmeier's work is best to lay the necessary historical framework from which to evaluate the others.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary