The first evidence we have of Israelites in Canaan is approximately 1200 BCE and in the opinion of non-religious scholars of the Bible, the earliest passages of the Old Testament do not date any earlier than about 950 BCE. So a sceptical mind might well consider the stories of the Exodus and before to be mere myth or legend.
So what can we make of the Exodus story? And what are the real origins of the Israelite people and the Jewish faith?
It is quite plausible of course that the stories the Israelites told about their origins may have contained grains of truth carried down orally from generation to generation. Certainly there were nomadic movements of people in the area, including from Mesopotamia to Canaan. So the movement of an ancestor of the Israelites from Sumer to the area west of the Dead Sea (such as depicted of Abraham in Genesis) is not entirely unlikely. Also there were people from Canaan that moved into Egypt (the Hyksos, who formed their own dynasty during the second intermediate period of Ancient Egypt’s history are one such example of this), so it is also not implausible that the story of Jacob and his sons settling in Egypt during a time of famine may have a grain of truth to it.
But in terms of the Exodus story and the dawn of the Israelite faith there is another explanation that I find intriguing and satisfying to the point of believing that it might be the most probable theory of Israelite origins.
Almost immediately the New Kingdom of Egypt expanded its territory and influence into Canaan, which reached its fullest extent during the reign of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE). This Egyptian presence in Canaan declined during the 19th Dynasty, such that by about 1200 BCE the Egyptian Empire was effectively no more.
The timing of these events is revealing. The Exodus is traditionally supposed to have occurred some time between 1350 and 1200 BCE. That the Israelites were apparently leaving Egypt to wander in the desert for 40 years and then conquer Canaan during a period when Egypt actually ruled Canaan, seems extraordinary, as does the fall of the Egyptian Empire occurring roughly around the same time that we first find evidence of Israelites in Canaan.
Add to this the fact that one pharaoh in particular (Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten) instituted an unusual religious reform in Ancient Egypt, of devotion to one particular Egyptian god (Aten, the sun disc) and it is hard not to draw an extraordinary conclusion. Akhenaten reigned roughly from 1353-1334 BCE and during his reign Egypt also lost ground in the region of Canaan to their rivals the Hittites. Some restoration of fortunes took place during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) but Egyptian presence in Canaan was basically in decline following Akhenaten.
Although the Ancient Egyptians soon returned to the polytheistic worship of traditional gods soon after his reign, could it be that Akhenaten’s reforms were actually the first example of monotheism that the world had ever seen? Could it be that, with Egyptian presence in the region at the time but their influence and hold in Canaan declining soon after, some inhabitants of that land were influenced by Akhenaten’s reforms and religious ideas into creating their own form of monotheist worship?
And more interestingly still, could it be that the Exodus story is actually a metaphor for all this taking place? Maybe the Israelites were never in Egypt at all. Maybe they “came out of Egypt” in the sense that they were delivered from Egyptian domination in their own land during the rise of a new monotheist belief, which in turn inspired the beginnings of their own faith?
I find this idea hard to resist and it’s my own personal explanation for the origins of the Israelite people.