You will hear from time to time about the ZIBBC on Messianic Jewish Musings. The ZIBBC is the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, edited by John Walton. This is a resource I recommend for Bible readers. The set for the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is $157 on amazon.
Among the many ways to read Torah, one that I commend is reading with an interest in the historical background. Each year in the Torah cycle you can concentrate on different ways of reading. For example, this year for me is the year of Nahmanides (the Ramban), the 13th century Spanish commentator. Yet I always have an interest in historical studies, considering archaeological evidence and so on.
Bruce Wells covers Exodus in the ZIBBC. Wells got his PhD at Johns Hopkins and teaches at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
The greatest thing about the ZIBBC is the abundance of images and maps that bring you right into the context of the scriptures you are studying. I love the opening page in Exodus with its image of a detail from the coffin of Nespawershepi, a scribe in the temple of Amun. It shows the sun god Ra in his boat spearing the serpent god of evil, Apophis, in his daily triumph over darkness. The image sets the reader into the context of the book of Exodus right away. This is an Egyptian story.
Wells begins his coverage by noting that any discussion of the historical background of Exodus is tentative. We can’t place the Exodus story in an exact time. It could be as early as the fifteenth century B.C.E. or as late as the thirteenth (some would say even later).
There are too few historical details by which to pin down the date of the Exodus story and too many possible connections in Egyptian history which might fit the story.
Interestingly, Wells includes a number of pieces of historical background as he works his way through the early chapters. Any one of these could suggest something about the timing of the Exodus event, but they would all place it in a different time.
For Starters: Understanding Egyptian Geography in Two Hundred Words or Less
The longest river in the world, the Nile, runs from south to north and dumps into the Mediterranean. The northern part is called Lower Egypt. Yes, it’s confusing because “lower” sounds like the southern part, but is really the northern part. It’s “lower” because the river runs down to the north.
Lower Egypt is called the Delta. Why? And where did the term “delta” come from designating the mouths of great rivers (e.g., the Mississippi Delta)? It’s because the Delta region in Egypt is shaped like a triangle with the point to the south. The Greek letter delta is a triangle. Modern Cairo is at the tip (southern peak) of that triangle.
Going up the Nile from the Delta and south into Egypt brings you to Upper Egypt. At some periods Upper Egypt was the capital region and at others it was Lower Egypt. The Israelites lived in Lower Egypt, in the Delta. Keep going upriver and south and you come to Nubia and Cush (Sudan and Ethiopia today) and the river goes further south still. (That was 177 words).
Could the Hyksos Era Be the Time of Joseph?
The Hyksos were a Semitic people (as were the Israelites and Canaanites). They came to rule in Lower Egypt from 1630-1530 B.C.E. It is possible their rule did not extend down to Upper Egypt.
Could these Semitic people have been more favorable toward other Semites, including Joseph and his family? Could the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” have been one of the Pharaohs after the Hyksos were expelled? If so, might not Semitic peoples like the Israelites living in the Delta have been despised?
It’s all slender evidence, only the merest hint of historical possibility here. If Joseph’s time were about 1600 B.C.E., then the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt could easily bring them down to 1450 or 1230 (commonly suggested times for the Exodus event).
But Wait! What about the Y-H-W of the Shasu from 1400 B.C.E.?
Here I think Wells uses too much the language of probability. He notes that two texts from 1400 B.C.E. in Nubia (south of Upper Egypt, in modern Sudan) speak about the Shasu. The term Shasu is known from a number of texts and seems to refer to desert-dwellers who raise animals and live in tents (like Israelites, Midianites, other ancient nomads, and like the modern Bedouins).
These texts mention “Yhw (in) the land of the Shasu.” This Yhw is most likely a form of [God’s name] and represents a location based on the Israelite name for God.
Most likely? I haven’t seen an article on these texts, so I could be missing some of the evidence that leads Wells to this assertion. It seems to me that Yhw could be a place name, the name of a clan, or so on. Note that the preposition “in” is not in the text, but is inserted as a possibility in translation.
Still, if this text was referring to a Bedouin group whose deity was known by the name of the Israelite God, this would correlate with some other parts of the Exodus story. Jethro was a priest of Midian. The Midianites dwelt in this region of the Shasu (in Arabia). Jethro is said in Exodus to have regarded Horeb/Sinai as the mountain of God. Israel’s God also calls it his mountain. Could Jethro have already followed the God of Israel before he knew there was an Israel?
This hypothesis is intriguing (maybe disturbing). It would suggest that while the Israelites were bowing to Egyptian gods, having all but forgotten the covenant of the patriarchs, Midianites were worshipping the Lord. It could lead to speculation that Moses had a conversion experience in Midian and brought his religion back to his people in Egypt! It certainly would cast doubt on the exclusivity of the Israelite experience with God.
I suppose, on the other hand, someone could suggest this reference is actually to Israelites as Shasu and living in Arabia (the wilderness) in 1400. But again, there is so little evidence, all of these theories hang mountains on a thread.
Piramesse, the House of Ramesses
Wells notes, and this seems to be something of a majority view, that the events described in Exodus fit best in the time of Ramesses II or his father Seti I. The New Kingdom in Egypt saw an increase in the use of Semitic slaves and brickmaking for the massive (unprecedented in size) buildings, palaces, and other works of the city of Ramesses (or Pirammese — I think it is pronounced pie-ram-zee).
There is a bit of a problem because Merneptah (also spelled Merenptah in many books), son of Ramesses II, claims that his conquests of peoples and places in the Levant included Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel. This is the earliest reference to Israel and is from about 1210. If Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, how was there time for Israel to be in the land and for Merneptah to conquer them? There are explanations (such as a battle with one clan or group of Israelites that the Bible does not mention).
Still, the whole story of the Exodus is hard to correlate with any exact period of Egyptian history.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I, for one, think it is foolish to dismiss ancient stories out of hand. And my faith is built on a chain of historical events which includes a prominent place for the Exodus story, so I’ll believe it unless and until God tells me to stop.
So the ZIBBC does what I think is best. It presents many elements of the history of the time and suggests possible connections. I think it could have been organized a little better regarding the question of the timing of the Exodus and correlation to known history, but the possibilities are all here.
As I prepare to read Shemot, I am glad to have the images, charts, maps, and facts from the ZIBBC to add depth to my understanding. Even if there is much uncertainty, the context is roughly set and richly illuminated.