Israel Knohl has a new theory about Israel’s origin that is poles apart from whatever consensus there is. It is only fully published in a Hebrew book, How the Bible was Born (summary here). There is a review by someone who read it in Hebrew here.
Dribs and drabs of his theory are coming out in English on the internet. What I know about it intrigues me because he finds the Moses-moment at the junction of the 19th and 20th dynasties in Egypt. I also think that same early 12th century date is likely.
But some things Knohl proposes need way more support than I (not having read his full presentation) am aware that he has. He has a theory about Psalm 68’s earliest form dealing with the war with Merneptah in the late 13th century. I have read his exegesis of that Psalm. He has made some proposals that are probably right, such as Sinai in the Psalm referring to a deity instead of a mountain. But so far I am not convinced about the historical setting. There is just not enough in the Psalm to pinpoint the conflict it refers to as Merneptah’s campaign.
I have also seen references to a theory of his that Joseph equates to the late-13th-century figure, Chancellor Bay. Putting Joseph that late would need much more support. I suspect that what Knohl proposes may not be that Bay was Joseph so much as that the Joseph stories were based on the memory of Bay. But maybe not. It occurs to me that if you assume that the claim that Israel took Joseph’s bones back to Palestine is fact, then putting Joseph’s death in recent history would make sense.
Pharaoh Siptah put Bay to death. His tomb was unfinished. We have no mummy..
Parts of Knohl’s proposal seem a little wild.
The crux of his proposal seems to be that there is no need to go looking for Israel’s background any earlier than the very late Bronze Age. The patriarchal era seems to be the 13th century. The claim that Israel was in Egypt some 400 years is suspect anyway because the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about those centuries. It only tells us about events right at the end.
Apparently Knohl interprets the late Bronze Age famine and the admission of Shasu from Edom into Egypt in that period as the entry point for Israel.
But there has been published in English now a very important part of his evidence here. He refers to a study by Thomas Romer and Israel Finkelstein that says that there may be something historical behind the Jacob stories. I posted about that study here. They said that an unresolved issue was how the story of Jacob’s kinship and animosity with Esau came about.
Well, Knohl has a solution for that. In topographical lists from Thutmose III, Ramses II, and Ramses III there is a place called Jacob-el. In the Ramses II list, Knohl sees the other sites close to Jacob-el having the element q-s. He interprets this as the Edomite god Qaus. So Knohl thinks that, at least in Ramses II list, Jacob-el was in Seir near Edomite or proto-Edomite settlements.
So Jacob and Esau were at least geographically related at this time. Also there are Egyptian references to the Shasu of YHWH. The Egyptians may not have seen much difference between Israelites, Edomites, and Midianites. Indeed, even the Bible has them all related..
Apparently, in his larger theory, Knohl has the sons of Jacob go down to Egypt during the time of Ramses II. But here he brings up the Kenite hypothesis—that Israel brought its YHWH religion from the southeast through Moses’ father-in-law, the priest of Midian. Another proposal has been that YHWH came up by caravan in the commercial relations between Israel and Midian.
However Knohl thinks that the Jacob-el was a clan that migrated out of a position where its neighbors were Edom and Midian. It brought YHWH worship from this area and later joined with other clans to form early Israel in the late 13th century.
Perhaps I do not grasp his whole theory. But this seems to me to make the sons of Jacob awfully busy over just a few decades. They established themselves in Seir, along the Jabok, and in Egypt.