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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Late Bronze Age

The Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BCE) was a brilliant, sophisticated, cosmopolitan era, in which great wealth accumulated and unprecedented international contacts and exchange occurred throughout the eastern Mediterranean. People, goods, and ideas flowed freely, by sea and by land, to an extent unparalleled in earlier times. The Late Bronze Age was also an age of empire, marked by complex political, economic, social, and cultural interactions, superpower politics, and an international way of life. Over the course of its three and a half centuries, the Late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean saw the rise and fall of six major kingdoms or empires—those of Egypt, Mitanni (northern Syria), Kassite Babylon, Assyria, Hatti (ruled by the Hittites; Anatolia), and Mycenae. Of all these, Egypt's empire was the greatest, controlling the largest amount of territory, commanding the most prodigious wealth, and lasting the longest.

The era begins with the accession of Ahmose to the Egyptian throne in the mid-sixteenth century BCE and the final expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. Its end is generally dated to approximately 1200 BCE, when international trade connections ceased, anarchy spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin, empires splintered, and destruction or crisis struck the Canaanite city-states. In Egypt, the Late Bronze Age coincides with Dynasties 18, 19, and the beginning of Dynasty 20—the greatest part, literally and figuratively, of the New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom period was unsurpassed in Egyptian history for its wealth, power, and cosmopolitanism. An enormously rich, militaristic Egypt dominated much of Syria-Palestine throughout the Late Bronze Age. Palestine in particular remained yoked to Egyptian imperial might for the entire period and was controlled and exploited by Egyptian administrators mostly resident in the region. Since it is in Egypt and Palestine (including Sinai) that the Exodus narrative is set, we will concentrate on these areas, invoking broader international events and trends as appropriate.

A loosely organized patchwork of local city-states, each ruled by a “prince,” dominated the political landscape of Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age. The heart of the city-state system was a polity centered on one autonomous urban settlement; around this core lay hinterlands of varying sizes and compositions, contributing additional human and natural resources. The heavily fortified main city was usually located along at least one important trade and communication route. The city-states vied continually with each other for political, economic, and military dominance. Rarely were they completely independent: Syria-Palestine's position as corridor between Africa and Asia and outlet to the Mediterranean Sea attracted larger imperial powers like a magnet, one or more of whom invariably controlled the region. Alliances and allegiances, local and international, constantly shifted, as the military might of empires ebbed and flowed. The independent-minded city-states remained jealous of their lost autonomy, and scheming local rulers never missed an opportunity to rebel.

When Ahmose's victorious army ended its war of liberation against the Hyksos in the mid-sixteenth century BCE, a new era began in Egypt. Ahmose's ascension to the throne signaled more than just the beginning of Dynasty 18; it marked a break with past policies and attitudes. The rulers of Middle Kingdom Egypt (Dynasties 11–13; ca. 2106–1633) had intervened in Asia with only occasional military incursions to protect or secure their commercial interests. Middle Kingdom Egypt seems to have had few political and no territorial ambitions in Asia.

An increasing number of Asiatics nevertheless appeared in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom. Many undoubtedly came as slaves or mercenaries. Others seem to have percolated slowly but freely into the eastern delta, probably beginning sometime early in the second millennium BCE. As the Middle Kingdom gradually weakened and central control deteriorated over the course of Dynasty 13, the Asiatic influx into the delta increased and the power of the delta Asiatics grew proportionately. Eventually, sometime in the mid- to late seventeenth century, they became strong enough to seize control first of the eastern delta, then of the capital Memphis, and finally of the entire country, forming Dynasty 15. The Egyptians called these Asiatics “heqaw khasut,” “rulers of foreign lands,” a term rendered in Greek as “Hyksos.” Archaeological excavation in the eastern delta over the past thirty years, especially at the Hyksos capital of Avaris (Tell ed-Dab‘a) and the Hyksos enclave at Tell el-Maskhuta, have confirmed the Canaanite origin of the Hyksos.

Foreign subjugation, previously unknown, sent shock waves through the Egyptian psyche, which would reverberate throughout the New Kingdom state. After about a century of foreign rule, the native Egyptians from their base at Thebes finally broke Hyksos power. In a series of campaigns, the pharaohs of Dynasty 17 and early Dynasty 18 drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and into southern Palestine. The era inaugurated by Dynasty 18 is notable not only for renewed national unity but also for a militaristic spirit and an approach to foreign affairs fundamentally different from any before. New Kingdom Egypt maintained the country's first standing army and soon valued horse and chariot for warfare. Imperialism became a foreign policy, and official iconography emphasized the divine king as an indomitable warrior and universal conqueror.

The Egyptians rapidly recovered from the humiliation and indignity of Hyksos domination: fired by a “never again” attitude, in less than a century they carved out an extensive empire in Africa and Asia. Initially, for what remained of the sixteenth and the first half of the fifteenth centuries BCE, Egyptian kings from Ahmose to Thutmose III concentrated on securing Nubia. Canaan they kept pacified by sporadic military forays. Incursions into Syria-Palestine could be deep, however; Thutmose I (ca. 1504–1492) led an expedition to the Euphrates River in Syria.

Thutmose III (ca. 1479–1425 BCE), a brilliant general, directed Egyptian military might into Syria-Palestine. The catalyst was partly the death of Hatshepsut, his stepmother, aunt, and co-regent, and partly the revolt of a league of 330 Canaanite princes led by the prince of Qadesh (Tell Nebi Mend) in Syria. This Canaanite confederacy had gathered at Megiddo in a blatant challenge to Egyptian authority; provoked, Thutmose III marched rapidly northward at the head of a large army. The Canaanites were crushed and fled into the walled city of Megiddo, which fell after a seven-month siege. Even given the hyperbole of the time, the booty captured by Thutmose III's army was staggering in quantity and variety.

The battle of Megiddo inaugurated a new phase of Egyptian imperialism, with Egypt now aggressively pursuing territorial expansion into Asia. With Palestine under firm control, Thutmose III moved to subdue Syria, taking the coast as far north as modern Tripoli and capturing Qadesh on the Orontes. Instead of slaughtering his opponents, Thutmose III bound them to Egypt by loyalty oaths and then carted assorted Canaanite royal family members off to Egypt as insurance policies for princely good behavior. He also created a network of Egyptian garrison cities and headquarters to carry out Egyptian imperial policies and ambitions and to ensure the steady flow of tribute. Coastal and lowland plain cities, including Megiddo and Bethshan, predominated in the network, but strategic considerations also dictated the establishment of key inland garrison cities to monitor trade routes and control the more sparsely occupied hill country. Syria-Palestine was partitioned into three large provinces, each controlled by an Egyptian official. Native rulers were generally left in place and the Egyptians remained mostly uninterested in local affairs—as long as the city-states respected Egyptian officialdom and delivered on time all required tribute, taxes, requisitioned goods and personnel, corvée labor, and military provisions.

But Egypt was not the only international power with imperial ambitions in western Asia in the fifteenth century BCE. Thutmose III's northern campaigns propelled him onto a collision course with Mitanni, the foremost northern power of the time. The kingdom of Mitanni, a coalition of Indo-Aryan and Hurrian elements, reached the peak of its power in the mid-fifteenth century. Mitannian territory extended from the upper reaches of the Tigris River (and possibly Armenia) across northern Syria to the Mediterranean. In his thirty-third year, Thutmose III launched a direct attack on Mitanni. He sacked towns along the Euphrates River as far as the great western bend, where he erected a stela on the riverbank next to an earlier one raised by his grandfather, Thutmose I; these stelae mark the farthest point ever reached by an Egyptian king in western Asia.

In the end, the confrontation between Egypt and Mitanni cost Mitanni most of its suzerainty west of the Euphrates and made Egypt the preeminent military and economic power of the Near East. At the height of his conquests, Thutmose III ruled an empire some 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) long, stretching from the Euphrates and Orontes Rivers in the north to the fourth cataract of the Nile in the south.

Thutmose III's imperious and ferocious son and successor, Amenhotep II (ca. 1427–1400 BCE), continued his father's campaigns in Asia, ruthlessly deporting masses of people and brutalizing prisoners in order to terrorize the local population and discourage dissension. Thutmose III's reign had produced a keen appreciation of the wealth available for the taking in Syria-Palestine; under Amenhotep II, Syria-Palestine was viewed as a conquered land ripe for constant plunder and exploitation. Egypt and Mitanni eventually made peace, probably sometime in Amenhotep II's reign. Their alliance was sealed by a marriage between a Mitannian princess and Thutmose IV (ca. 1400–1390), Amenhotep II's son and successor, who mounted at least one Asiatic campaign early in his reign, proceeding as far as the Orontes, and apparently taking captives from Gezer. By the close of the fifteenth century, Egypt's extensive empire in Asia was secure.

A pax Aegyptica settled over the Near East for the first half of the fourteenth century BCE, which coincided with the reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390–1352). Egypt reaped the fruits of empire. The frontiers were quiet, the land routes were secure, and the Egyptian garrisons functioned effectively. Sea trade around the eastern Mediterranean flourished. Amenhotep III cannily maintained the international balance of power through masterful diplomacy rather than military campaigns, marrying daughters of Babylonian and Mitannian kings to strengthen Egyptian alliances. Enormous wealth flowed into Egyptian coffers. Egypt stood at the height of its imperial power and glory.

Amenhotep III's death, however, inaugurated a troubled era in Egypt, known as the Amarna period. The throne passed to Amenhotep IV (ca. 1352–1336 BCE), who soon changed his name to Akhenaten (“One Effective on Behalf of Aten” or “Illuminated Manifestation of Aten”) and moved his family and his court to the newly created city of Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”), located on the Amarna plain approximately halfway between Memphis and Thebes. From his isolated capital, Akhenaten launched an austere religious revolution. In short order, he overthrew the ancient gods, closed their temples, and forbade their worship. In their place, he ordered the worship of the Aten, the solar disk with its life-giving rays. According to Atenist theology, the Aten was the source of all creation, and the king and his beautiful wife Nefertiti were the Aten's earthly divine children and terrestrial co-regents. The Aten was to be worshiped through and alongside the royal couple, and the Aten and the king and queen formed a “divine family,” which was supposed to be the only focus of religion for all of Egypt.

No figure of ancient Egypt is more controversial than Akhenaten. He has been judged lunatic, saint, and genius; monotheist, atheist, and henotheist; ruthless politician, mad revolutionary, and brilliant philosopher. Akhenaten's uncomfortable and largely sterile religious revolution barely survived his death, however, and the alacrity with which it was abandoned demonstrates its unpopularity among the Egyptian people. The artistic revolution that accompanied the religious upheaval lasted longer, and “Amarna art,” despite the early excesses including grotesque depictions of the king with an ambiguous sexuality, promoted a naturalism that had a more lasting impact on Egyptian culture.

Neither did the new capital long survive the death of its founder, and the royal court returned to Thebes under Tutankhamon (1336–1327 BCE), born Tutankhaten. But ironically, the rubble of Akhetaten at Amarna, a site of fleeting importance and negative associations for the ancient Egyptians, has produced one of our most valuable resources for illuminating New Kingdom foreign policy and foreign relations. The Amarna letters, baked clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions, were part of the official Egyptian court archive. Approximately 350 letters have been recovered, mostly dating to the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. The exact chronology of the Amarna letters remains problematic, but scholars generally agree that the preserved archive covers fifteen to thirty years, beginning around year 30 of Amenhotep III and extending no later than Tutankhamon's year 3, when Akhetaten was abandoned.

The Amarna correspondence provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the intricate game of international power politics as practiced in the mid- to late fourteenth century BCE. The archive includes two groups of letters, the first consisting of correspondence between Egypt and independent foreign powers, and the second of missives between the Egyptian crown and its Asiatic vassals. The majority of the letters originated outside Egypt, although occasional material of Egyptian origin was also preserved.

A number of sovereign powers dealt with Egypt as equals, including Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni, Arzawa (in western Anatolia), Alashiya (Cyprus), and Hatti (the Hittite empire). Following diplomatic convention of the time, the rulers of these independent kingdoms addressed each other as “brother.” Correspondence between the Egyptian king and his royal rivals centers largely on the exchange of “gifts” and brides. The pharaoh sought foreign royal brides to forge or strengthen political alliances and to enhance his position as the foremost potentate in the ancient Near East. Egypt never returned the favor, however, and no Egyptian women were sent abroad as royal mates. What foreign rulers demanded most from Egypt was gold, which Egypt reputedly possessed in limitless quantities. Much ceremony accompanied the exchange of consorts and gifts, the latter including raw materials, manufactured commodities, and human and animal resources.

The majority of the Amarna letters deal with the administration of Egypt's empire in Syria-Palestine. The pharaoh wrote to his vassals to procure goods and personnel, to introduce Egyptian officials and certify their authority, and to exact needed logistical support for Egyptian activities. The vassals seem to have written to the Egyptian court neither regularly nor by choice, communicating only in response to some request of the king. Unfortunately, vassals were not permitted to address a king by name, which makes it difficult for us to correlate letters and monarchs. As a whole, the vassals' letters are a litany of bitter grievances against compatriots, charges and countercharges of sedition, assertions of innocence and fawning protestations of loyalty, and urgent requests for Egyptian military aid. An unappetizing picture emerges of petty dynasts jockeying for position vis-à-vis each other and their overlord.

In the north, the Amarna letters reflect increasing political and military pressure from a revitalized Hittite state in Anatolia. Some of the Syrian vassals soon acceded to the more immediate demands of this close and growing power. Others, also far from Egypt, embarked on their own glorification and expansion; the most successful was Amurru, which transformed itself into an important kingdom. In the south, vassal politics remained more insular, and the Amarna letters reflect shifting local coalitions and internecine rivalry and conflict. In the thick of this strife were the Apiru, the outcasts and troublemakers first documented in the area under Amenhotep II, who generally allied themselves with the less loyal of Egypt's vassals. Abdi-Hepa, ruler of Jerusalem, complained of the havoc wreaked by the Apiru in the central hills as he pleaded for Egyptian military support.

We have few corroborating sources for the Amarna letters. It is therefore difficult to assess the validity of the vassals' complaints. Had Egypt really abandoned its empire? Originally, scholars assumed that the correspondence reflected a disintegrating Egyptian empire neglected by a religious fanatic. Today it is believed that the documents reflect only business as usual in the quarrelsome Asiatic provinces, with the vassals attempting to exploit each other and to extort Egyptian support. Leaving the vassals to their own divisive devices is seen as a laissez-faire technique of implementing a divide-and-conquer policy. Egypt was not so paralyzed by religious turmoil that it ignored its interests in Asia. In fact, territorial loss in Asia during the Amarna period resulted less from internal dissension than from an unfortunate combination of revived Hittite potency and increasingly virulent disruptive elements such as the Apiru and the Shasu.

The resurrection of the Hittite state under Suppiluliumas I in the mid-fourteenth century BCE heralded the dawn of a new international balance of power. As “great king” of the Hatti, Suppiluliumas I first annihilated Egypt's ally Mitanni and absorbed the city-states of Syria formerly under Mitannian suzerainty. He then expanded southward, making his new frontier in southern Syria and appropriating Egypt's northern vassals. This Hittite expansion triggered a superpower rivalry that dominated politics in Syria-Palestine for much of the next century.

Egypt's Dynasty 19 ushered in both a new century and a new spirit. The Dynasty 19 kings started the thirteenth century BCE by returning to the ideals and practices of the great pre-Amarna pharaohs of Dynasty 18. Rameses I, the founder of Dynasty 19 (1295–1186), came from an eastern delta military family and ruled only briefly. He was succeeded by his son, Seti I (ca. 1294–1279), who set out to recapture the glory days of the empire. Invoking the optimism of the new age, Seti termed his first year of rule “the renaissance,” and marched forth to consolidate Egypt's power over the Asiatic provinces. Control had grown so lax that Seti had to begin his campaign in Sinai battling Shasu bedouin who menaced traffic along the Ways of Horus, which connected Egypt and Gaza. In his vigorous reign, Seti I skirmished with the Apiru, defeated a local Canaanite alliance at Beth-shan, brought the northern coastal cities to heel, and even briefly returned Qadesh to the Egyptian fold.

Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE) succeeded Seti I and ruled for one of the longest reigns in Egyptian history. He created a new eastern delta capital at Pi-Ramesse, “Domain of Rameses,” identified with Qantir, a site adjacent to the Hyksos capital of Avaris/Tell ed-Dabea. After consolidating his position at home, the young king marched into Syria, penetrating as far as the Dog River (Nahr el-Kalb) near Beirut and subduing the kingdom of Amurru. The return of Amurru to Egyptian control infuriated the Hittites, who recognized Egyptian aggression for what it was: an attempt to reclaim lost Syrian territories and resurrect Thutmose III's empire. Major conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable.

In his fifth year, Rameses II again marched into Syria. This time, however, an enormous Hittite army lay in wait just east of the city of Qadesh. Cleverly, the Hittites permitted the capture of two of their spies, who led the Egyptians into a trap sprung by an estimated seventeen thousand Hittite soldiers. Only the pharaoh's personal bravery prevented total annihilation of the Egyptians. Both Hittite and Egyptian accounts of the battle are preserved, and both sides declared victory. In reality, the battle was a draw that led to political and military stalemate. Rameses II continued to campaign throughout Asia in succeeding years, but never regained Qadesh. Eventually a changing world forced the two parties to the peace table. The growing power of Assyria pressured the Hittites from the south, and Libyans and their allies menaced Egypt from the west. In the twenty-first year of Rameses II's reign, a full peace treaty was signed and hostilities between Hatti and Egypt ended. Copies of the treaty have been found in both Anatolia and Egypt. Essentially it enshrined the status quo: the Hittites retained Qadesh and northern Syria; Egypt kept southern Syria and Palestine. Thirteen years after its signing, the treaty was commemorated by the marriage of Rameses II to a Hittite princess.

Merneptah (ca. 1213–1203 BCE), Rameses II's thirteenth son, became king as a mature man of over fifty. During his reign, Egyptian territorial integrity in the western delta was threatened by a large Libyan army aided by an ominous assortment of Sea Peoples. Merneptah's defeat of this Libyan coalition is immortalized on the “Israel Stela.” Unfortunately, Merneptah soon died, leaving the crown in dispute and Egypt teetering on the brink of anarchy. The murky remainder of Dynasty 19 left little obvious mark on western Asia beyond an occasional inscribed object. The last nominal ruler of the dynasty was a queen, Tewosret; the power behind her throne, as already noted, was apparently the foreigner Bay, a man of Syrian origin.

Eventually Setnakht restored order and inaugurated Dynasty 20 (ca. 1186–1069 BCE). He ruled only briefly, leaving a temporarily renewed kingdom to his son Rameses III (ca. 1184–1153), the last great New Kingdom pharaoh. Rameses III successfully faced an immediate threat in the western delta from another Libyan coalition. A far greater menace, however, loomed just over the horizon. The Sea Peoples—who were neither a people nor, strictly speaking, entirely from the sea—were moving inexorably toward Egypt, spreading havoc throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin.

The enigmatic Sea Peoples seem to have been a shifting coalition of diverse population elements, probably originating in Anatolia and the Aegean. Egyptian records give us the names of their component groups—a total of fourteen are known—and occasional depictions. They first appear in the Amarna letters, and again in Rameses II's accounts of the battle of Qadesh and Merneptah's commemorations of his victory over the Libyans. They seem initially to have allied themselves with various Near Eastern powers, alliances that probably kept them under temporary control. By the time of Rameses III, however, a new confederation of Sea Peoples was on the move independently. In the closing years of the thirteenth century BCE and the opening years of the twelfth, these Sea Peoples, their families in tow, left a trail of carnage throughout the eastern Mediterranean. What precipitated this mass movement of population is unknown, but its consequences are clear.

By the time the Sea Peoples menaced the borders of Egypt, they had sacked the Hittite capital and territories and plundered Cyprus and Syria. Vivid testimony of the passage of the Sea Peoples and the destruction in their wake comes from Ugarit, where a kiln full of clay tablets was abandoned during the fall of the city. These tablets report famine in the Hittite empire and Cyprus, and the urgent transfer to the north of Ugarit's army and navy. The city-state was left defenseless to face the Sea Peoples' fury; one tablet even records the sack of the city.

Rameses III was compelled to mount a massive defense of Egypt. He deflected the Sea Peoples in major land and sea battles in his eighth year. Although these Sea Peoples, identified as the Peleset (Philistines), Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, did not breach Egypt's borders, it was a pyrrhic victory. Egypt entered a period of decline that would last for centuries. Initially, it sought to retain its hold on Palestine, and sporadic Egyptian control continued briefly until the middle of the twelfth century BCE. After this, however, Egyptian authority collapsed completely.

Archaeological data are our primary source for the history and culture of Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age. Supplemented by some textual material, they inform us that population and settlement density declined in the area, a number of important cities were abandoned or shrank in size, and marginal areas were deserted. Southern Transjordan, Galilee, and the central hill country became sparsely populated; the few major cities in these areas, such as Shechem and Jerusalem, lay much farther apart than did lowland cities. The population that did exist was highly heterogeneous, and along with the settled occupants of the city-states it included such disruptive stateless elements as the Apiru and Shasu. Substantial destructions and the partial abandonment of major sites dominate the archaeological record of the second half of the sixteenth and the first half of the fifteenth centuries BCE. The remainder of the fifteenth century gives evidence of severe population disruptions, likely triggered by mass deportations carried out by Thutmose III and his successors. Then, in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE, archaeology in Syria-Palestine reveals a heightened Mediterranean trade; evidently superpower confrontations were not permitted to disrupt international commerce. From the Amarna period in the fourteenth century to the end of the thirteenth, archaeological evidence of Egyptian presence in Palestine grows much stronger. Fortified Egyptian citadels have been found in northern Sinai and Palestine; so-called Egyptian residencies are known in a number of cities; and Egyptian or Egyptian-inspired temples appear in several sites, notably Beth-shan.

The Late Bronze Age ended with the death or exhaustion of all the major participants in its power struggles. International trade and cosmopolitanism declined sharply, as did the standard of living throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the fortified cities, the centers of urban Canaanite culture, were destroyed. Out of the wreckage of the Late Bronze Age empires arose a changed world marked by a new political pattern. In the early Iron Age, new settlements were smaller, and located in areas only sparsely populated during the Late Bronze Age. A series of small nation-states grounded in ethnic affiliations developed; in southern Canaan, these included Philistia, Israel, Ammon, Moab, and Edom.

Given the omnipresence of the powerful Egyptian empire in Late Bronze Age Palestine, even during the Amarna period, it is difficult to understand Egypt's minimal role in the biblical account of the Exodus. After the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians disappear from the narrative. If the Exodus occurred in the sixteenth or fifteenth centuries BCE, events prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy would have played out in the middle of Egyptian imperial might. Yet not a trace of Egyptian hegemony appears in the Bible. If, on the other hand, the Exodus occurred in the thirteenth century BCE, just prior to the dissolution of Egyptian power, the absence of Egypt from the Exodus account is understandable.

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