In what follows, I will consider the “year-stamps” employed in Scripture, i.e., statements of the form, “Such-and-such an event took place in the Xth year of Y.” In the process, I will suggest some ways in which the Biblical narrative might relate to events in the extra-Biblical world, though only briefly and tentatively. My primary focus will be the inner logic of the Biblical narrative itself. The conclusion of my analysis is as follows: the year-stamps included in the Biblical narrative follow a consistent and plausible pattern, which scribes have not sought to explain, but to preserve.
The life and death of Jesus has forever changed world history. As a result, we now calibrate the events of history on the basis of Christ’s first advent, i.e., by means of the eras “BC” and “AD”. (And rightly so.) But of course the BC and AD eras were not established until c. 500 AD. So, how did the authors of Scripture calibrate the events of their day? Briefly put, they defined their own eras. Almost any event in history can be seen as the inaugural point of an era--a king’s reign, a nation’s conquest, a person’s birth, and so on. Indeed, every time we refer to, say, a particular year of our lives, or our degree courses, or our marriages, we reckon time on the basis of an era – which is, more or less, what the authors of Scripture did.
The first year-stamped event in Scripture is the death of Noah. Noah is said to have died 350 years after the flood submerged the earth (Gen. 9.28). The flood was a rather important event in world history, so it would make sense for people to ground a calculation in it. (Later historians did the same thing from the rise of king Nabonassar, the foundation of Rome, and so on.)
Our next year-stamp is found in Gen. 14, where Abraham refers to a form of regnal year, namely “the 13th year of Chedorlaomer, an Elamite king” (14.1, 5). If Abraham was at large in Canaan 430 years before the exodus took place (which is a possible interpretation of Gal. 3.17, and is consistent with Greek translations of Exod. 12.40),[i] then the events of Gen. 14 would have taken place in the mid 19th cent. BC. At that time, Mesopotamian and Elamite kings are known to have formed coalitions, and an Elamite-led campaign “to the west” is in fact mentioned in the Mari texts.
Our third year-stamp is found in Exod. 12. The Israelites are said to have dwelt in Egypt (and poss. Caanan) for 430 years--a stay they may well have wanted to count/measure given YHWH’s promise to Abraham to return them to Canaan (Gen. 15.13).[ii]
As they leave Egypt, the Israelites are given a new calendar, which runs from Nisan (Mar./Apr.) to Nisan. Before the Israelites received this calendar, it would have been natural for them to view the year in terms of an agricultural cycle (from Tishri to Tishri): crops were planted in late autumn, and the harvest came to its climax in late summer; hence, Ugarit’s yearly coronation ritual took place in autumn, and Israel’s Sabbatical year began in autumn (cp. the order of the verbs “sow” and “gather” in Lev. 25.3-4). But, with the exodus, a new kind of year came into existence (cp. also Exod. 40.17, where the Tabernacle is erected on 1st Nisan). Consequently, the book of Exodus contains memories of an autumnal year (cp. Exod. 34.22, where the 7th month = “the turn of the year”, w. 23.15-16), against the backdrop of which a new year is defined (12.2, 13.4, etc., Deut. 16.1). At the same time, year-counts begin to be grounded in “the year when Israel left Egypt” (Exod. 40.17, Num. 9.1, 10.11, etc., Deut. 1.3).
A similar year-stamp is employed in 1 Kgs. 6, where Solomon starts to build the Temple in the 480th year since the exodus.
An aside: In Num. 13.22, an editorial comment has been inserted into our text, which says Hebron was “built” seven years before Zoan was “built” (בנה). In Scripture, cities are said to be “built up” when they are fortified and established as a capital (e.g., in the case of Shechem in 1 Kgs. 12.25, and Samaria in 16.24). As such, Zoan (aka Tanis) can plausibly be said (by the authors of Scripture) to have been “built” in c. 1001 BC: Psusennes made Zoan a genuinely capital-like city, died in c. 1001, and handed the “kingdom” over to his son (Amenemope), who is the first king of the 21st Dynasty to have been recognised in both Upper Egypt (Thebes) and Lower Egypt. At the same time (in c. 1001), David conquered Jerusalem. And, seven years prior to that, he established Hebron as a capital city (1 Kgs. 2.11). As such, Hebron can be said to have been “built” = “established as a capital” seven years before Zoan.
Next in our discussion of year-stamps we come to the book of Judges. The book of Judges mentions a number of rulers’ reigns (both inside and outside of Israel), yet does not mention a single regnal year. The book is also noteworthy for a further reason: the intervals it mentions amount to a total beyond what the Scriptural narrative can reasonably accommodate. We read of 8 years of servitude, 40 of rest, 18 of servitude, 80 of rest, 20 of servitude, and then another 40 of rest, all of which is followed by intervals of 7, 40, 3, 23, 22, 40, 18, 6, 7, 10, 8, 40, and 20 years. These measurements amount to a total of 410 years. Yet, as we noted earlier, Solomon started to build the Temple in the 480th year of the exodus (1 Kgs. 6.1), which does not allow anywhere near enough time to accommodate a period of 410 years together with the events either side of Judges (viz. 40 years in the wilderness, Joshua’s campaigns, and the careers of Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David).
Many of the figures in Judges must, therefore, overlap--which is consistent with the narrative of the book of Judges. The book tells the story of a disintegrated nation. Regnal years are not mentioned, since no monarchy exists. The judges function as “local chieftains” rather than kings. And Israel’s tribes are highly isolated entities. Indeed, at times, the tribes seem oblivious to one another’s battles (until long afterwards). And, when they are asked to assist one another in battle, they sometimes decline to do so. One tribe even has a distinctive manner of pronunciation (cp. “Sibboleth”), which presupposes a significant degree of isolation. Consequently, the stories in the book of Judges cannot be strung together in a long sequence. Many of them must be taken to overlap with one another. Not until a unified monarchy is established (in Solomon’s day) do regular and stereotyped statements of regnal years begin to feature in the Biblical narrative, which is as one would expect.
As for the specific regnal figures contained in the book of Kings, they are initially easy enough to follow. Before too long, however, they become difficult to reconcile, as scholars such as Edwin Thiele and after him Leslie McFall and Rodger Young have found out (though to their great credit have persevered with and ultimately reconciled). The explanation for such difficulties is provided in the Biblical text itself.
In the aftermath of Solomon’s reign, Israel splinters into two kingdoms, which operate independently from one another. The uniform calendar established in David and Solomon’s day hence dissolves. Each kingdom then keeps time in its own way, which may explain why Jeroboam is said to have instituted a northern kingdom feast “on the 15th day of the 8th month, like the feast in Judah” (1 Kgs. 12).
To see why, suppose the northern kingdom “intercalated” independently of Judah; that is to say, suppose the northern kingdom inserted an extra month into its calendar, as kingdoms which achieve their independence frequently do by way of demonstration. And suppose Jeroboam then held his own feast of Tabernacles in Bethel (rather than in Jerusalem). From the perspective of Judah’s[iii] calendar, Jeroboam’s feast would have taken in place in the 8th month (rather than the 7th), which may explain what is recorded in 1 Kgs. 12 (i.e., a copy of Judah’s feast, but in the 8th rather than the 7th month). Either way, the northern and southern calendars operated independently of one another until their respective kingdoms were exiled (in c. 722 & 587 BC respectively).
From that point on, Scripture invariably reckons years by reference to the reign of Gentile kings or the dates of Israel’s exile and return. We read of the 25th year of the exile (Ezek. 40), the 1st year of Cyrus (2 Chr. 36.22, Ezra 1.1), the 2nd year of Israel’s return (Ezra 3.8), the 7th year of Artaxerxes (7.8), and so on. And, in the NT, Luke continues the established system since he dates his narrative not by reference to Herod’s reign, but by ref. to Caesar’s (Luke 3.1). Meanwhile, the Canaanite month names mentioned prior to the exile (Abib in Exod. 13.4, and Ziv and Bul in 1 Kgs. 6.1, 38) are replaced by Mesopotamian month names (“Nisan,” “Adar,” etc.), as one would expect given Mesopotamia’s influence on Israel.
In sum, then, the Bible dates its event in the manner we would expect from an authentic and faithfully preserved source (i.e., one free from “editorial assistance”). That is not to say the Bible’s chronological details are always straightforward to interpret, but they clearly repay careful study and attention. They have been set down by God in Scripture not in order for us to tell people they are unimportant or merely symbolic, but in order to be studied, taken seriously, and learnt from. They are also full of theological import, though such considerations must be left for another time (and/or another author).
For more details on particular dates and issues, I would recommend Andrew Steinmann’s book, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology, which continues to build on the work undertaken by Thiele, McFall, and Young.
James Bejon attends a church in Romford, London, where he fellowships, is taught, and teaches. He presently works at Tyndale House in Cambridge (https://academic.tyndalehouse.com), whose aim is to make high-quality biblical scholarship available as widely as possible.
[i] Whereas the Masoretic Text says the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt (Exod. 12.40), Greek translations say the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt and Canaan, in which case the 430 years could cover a pre-Egyptian period.
[ii] The figure of 430 is significant for other reasons. In the Pentateuch, the Israelites are said to have departed from (the city of) Rameses at the end of a 430 year period (cp. Gen. 47.11, Exod. 12.37), while, in Galatians, the law is said to have been established at the end of the relevant 430 years, both of which are connected to the number 430, since both the geographical name ‘Rameses’ (רעמסס) and the word ‘law’ (νομος) have a gematrial value of 430.
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