Dating the Pentateuch :
"Rameses (Tell el-Qantir) and the fields of Zo'an (San el-Hagar, Egypt)"

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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On 28 May 2010 Google ranked this article Number One over 11,000,000 other urls when "fields of Zo'an" was keyed-in.

15 February 2002 ; Updated: 17 July 2004; 14 Aug 2004; 31 Aug 2004

Some Conservative scholars believe that Moses, in the course of the 15th century B.C., was responsible for writing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Pentateuch. Other scholars have argued it is a creation of a much later period, perhaps Exilic or Post-Exilic. 

My current on-going research endeavors are directed toward establishing the dates that the Pentateuchal stories were formed by, utilizing the findings of archaeology, which has established when certain cities and villages mentioned in the biblical narratives came into being.

According to Numbers 13:22 Hebron was built seven years before Zo'an in Egypt. This is stated in the context of events taking place in the course of the Exodus, while sending up spies from Kadesh-barnea. 

Numbers 13: 17, 21-22  RSV

"Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, 'Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country...So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin...They wet up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron...(Hebron was built seven years before Zo'an in Egypt)."

We are informed by some Conservative scholars that 1 Kings 6:1 suggests that the Exodus occurred approximately 1446 B.C., providing a "historical marker" that the narrator understands that Zo'an and Hebron "predate" the Exodus of the mid 15th century B.C. The Genesis narratives give further information about Hebron being in existence in the 3rd millenium when Abraham dwelt in its vicinity (Ge. 13:18). Evidently the Pentateuch's narrator understands that Zo'an and Hebron were in existence in the 3rd millennium and certainly no later than the 2nd millennium B.C. when the Exodus is stated to have occurred.

Psalms 78:12 & 42-43 suggest to some commentators that God's miracles wrought on Egypt via Moses, who apparently personally confronted Pharaoh, occured in "the fields of Zo'an":

"In the sight of their fathers he wrought marvels in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zo'an...They did not keep in mind his power, or the day he redeemed them from the foe; when he wrought his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the fields of Zo'an. He turned their rivers to blood...They did not keep in mind his power, on the day when he redeemed them from the foe; when he wrought his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the fields of Zo'an."

Some viewers may not be aware that in aniquity the Nile flooded the whole Delta annually, thus settlements were made on elevations which stood above the floodwaters. These elevations are called in Arabic Geziras/Jeziras, meaning "islands" for they become islands when the innundation occurred. This means that Israel during her 400 year captivity in Egypt, dwelt on "islands."  The site of biblical Rameses in Egypt is also a cluster of "islands" identified with modern Qantir and Tell ed-Dab'a.

Scholars have determined that the earliest mention of Zo'an in Egyptian records is of the 13th century B.C., and that it appears again as a minor provincial town in the 12th century. But with the establishment of the 21st Dynasty under Smendes, the town is transformed into Egypt's capital, and its "renown" is established in succeeding centuries as the country's capital, from ca. 1069 to 727 B.C., when Sais replaces it. 

An Egyptologist, Professor Donald B. Redford, makes the following observations:

"Although the district 'field of the storm' (D`, whence D`nt) is known from the middle of the 13th centruy B.C., Zo`an the town is first mentioned in the 23rd year of Ramesses XI of the 20th dynasty (Ca. 1183 B.C.). It is the residence of Smendes, the officer assigned to the administration of Lower Egypt. When Ramesses died (childless ?) and Smendes succeeded him as founder of the 21st dynasty (ca. 1176-931 B.C.), Zo'an became the official residence, replacing the old Ramesside capital, Pi-Ramesses, 30 km. to the south...The first great builder to turn the small provincial town into a monumental city was Psusennes I , son and successor of Smendes. He laid out the enclosure and built the temple of Amun, which was enlarged by Siamun (984-965 B.C.)...The Hebrews became familiar with Zo'an during the period of the monarchy, when it was the Egyptian capital (Isa. 19:11,13; 30:4; Ezek. 30:14); one tradition localized the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in the 'field of Zo'an' (Ps. 78:12,43)."  (p. 1106, Vol. 6. Donald B. Redford. "Zoan." The Anchor Bible Dictionary. N.Y. Doubleday. 1992)

Hoffmeier (another Egyptologist) made similar observations about Zo'an:

"Psalm 78:12 an 13 locates the events of the exodus 'in the fields of Zo'an (Tanis),' which reflects the time when Tanis was the dominant city of the northeastern Delta (ca. 1180 B.C. onwards), after Pi-Ramesses was abandoned." (p. 210, James K. Hoffmeier. Israel in Egypt, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. New York. Oxford University Press. 1996)

Professor Kitchen (another Egyptologist) on Zoan being a later anachronism, updating/replacing Rameses (which he associates with Pi-Ramesses at Qantir), and favors an Exodus in the days of Ramesses II in the 13th century B.C.:

"...Pi-Ramesse was abandoned as a royal residence circa 1130. When Ramesses VIII made dedication to Seth, it was to him as lord of Avaris, not the Seth of Pi-Ramesses any more...Instead, concurrent with Memphis from 1070, the new East Delta capital was Tanis, and known exclusively as Tanis (Djanet/Zoan)." (p. 256. Kenneth A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2003)

"In Iron Age II versions of the saga of Exodus, Tanis accordingly replaces the long-outdated term "Raamses" - see Ps. 78:12, 43, with its "Field of Zoan" (twice)! Pi-Ramesse/Raamses is a marker of the 13th/12th centuries, not later." (p. 479. Kenneth A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2003)

Pusch, who is overseeing the archaeological investigations at the site of Qantir, believed to be Per-Ramesses, expressed the opinion that the site was occupied from the 13th century B.C. to the first millennium B.C.:

"Altogether, the strata represent a period of more than three hundred years of settlement history, from about 1300 B.C.E. to the beginning of the first millennium, from the latter part of the 18th Dynasty to the early 20th. Earlier occupation levels (Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period) are to be found at Tell ed-Dab'a." (p. 48. Vol. 3. Edgar B. Pusch. "Piramesse." Donald B. Redford. Editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001)

Professor Stiebing on the excavated archaeological stratum at Zo'an being no earlier than the early 21st Dynasty which began under Pharaoh Smendes ca. 1069-1043 B.C.:

"...excavations at Tanis have not produced an archaeological stratum that can be dated before the 21st Dynasty. " (p.61. William H. Stiebing Jr. Out of the Desert? Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Press. 1989)

Graham on Tanis (Zo'an) :

"Tanis, the capital, royal cemetery and principal Mediterranean port of Egypt during the Third Intermediate period (c. 1081-711 B.C.E.). Its role as a great metropolis was brief, for it had little history before that period and declined thereafter. As an archaeological site, Tanis, in the northeastern Nile Delta, is characterized by an eclectic reuse of materials that were usurped from other locations and earlier reigns.

The village of San el-Hagar was built upon the western quay of Tanis, which occupied the eastern bank of the Tanite Nile distributary, the Bahr Saft, now only a small stream that dissipates into Lake Manzalla. The site of Tanis comprised two geziras (sandy hills above the flood plain); the southern hill is called Tulul el-Bid, and the northern Tell San el-Hagar. This northern tell, the largest in Egypt, comprises more than 177 hectares, and rises as high as 32 meters (100 feet). Its once fertile fields are now salty steppe, a condition that has prohibited modern occupation and preserved the site from recent destruction...

The first mention of the town is known from a 19th Dynasty building block of Ramesses II (ruled c. 1304-1237 BCE) used originally in Memphis.  At Tanis, 20th Dynasty burials lie under an enclosure wall, indicating a settlement; however the greater metropolis was not founded until the 19th year of the reign of Ramesses XI (c. 1087 B.C.E.), last king of the 20th Dynasty, when Egypt was divided between two potentates: High Priest Herihor took Upper Egypt, while Generalissimo Smendes seized Lower Egypt, and opened Tanis as a port, since Piramesse had ceased to function...Smendes (reigned 1081-1055 B.C.E.) eventually founded the 21st Dynasty. He was probably buried in Tanis...By the Roman period (27 B.C.E.- 337 C.E.) the port of Tanis had silted up, and Tanis became a minor village...In Byzantine times (337-641 C.E.), Tanis served as a small Bishopric, but it was eventually abandoned in Islamic times and was not resettled until the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha, under the Ottoman Empire...The site of Tanis is now characterized by large mounds of occupational debris...The interior is strewn with fallen statuary, reused columns ranging in date from the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdoms..." (pp. 348-350. Vol. 3. Geoffrey Graham. "Tanis." Donald B. Redford. Editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001)

Warning : We seem to possess some contradictory statements here about when Ramesses XI and his successor Smendes reigned. Redford gives Ramesses XI's 23rd regnal year as being ca. 1183 B.C.; Hoffmeier claims Per-Ramesses was abandoned ca. 1180 B.C. and Zoan thereupon became the "principal" city, Pusch says Piramesses was occupied into the 1st millennium B.C., that would be after 1000 B.C. Then we have Stiebing stating no archaeological stratum exists earlier than the 21st Dynasty , but 20 Dynasty graves were found at the site according to Graham.  Clayton states that Smendes reign began ca. 1069 B.C., he makingTanis his capital.

Who's right? Redford who says Smendes commenced his reign ca. 1176 B.C. or Clayton who says 1069 B.C. or Graham who says 1081 B.C.? It would appear Redford is in error, or a "typographical error" has occurred, as the listing of regnal dates for various Pharaohs in the end pages [inside back cover] of Vol. 3, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, (2001) of which he is the Editor-in-Chief, gives Smendes reign as commencing in 1081 B.C. Clayton states that the beginning of the 20th Dynasty was circa 1185 under pharaoh Setnakhte (p. 160), while the founding of the 21st Dynasty at Tanis was circa 1069 under Smendes I (p. 174).

Conclusions :

From the above facts about Zoan I draw the following observations about the historicity of the Pentateuchal accounts:

If the Exodus really was ca. 1446 B.C. as suggested by some Conservative scholars citing 1 Kings 6:1, it is difficult to understand Zo'an being portrayed as an "important city" like Hebron  in Numbers 13:22. Zo'an's rise to "fame and renown" occurred when it became the capital of Egypt from ca. 1069 to 727 B.C. In 727 B.C. the capital was moved to Sais under Pharaoh Tefnakht, founder of the 22nd Dynasty who reigned ca. 727-715 B.C. (cf. p.183. Peter A. Clayton. Chronicle of the Pharaohs, the reign-by-reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. London. Thames & Hudson. 1994)

It is equally impossible to see "the fields of Zo'an" (Ps 78:12, 43) as the place where Moses confronted Pharaoh, in the 15th century B.C., as it was not a "residence of Pharoah" until after ca. 1069 B.C.

Evidently whoever wrote the account about Hebron being founded 7 years before Zo'an (Numbers 13:22), it wasn't Moses in the 15th century B.C., nor a narrator in the days of the Hyksos Exodus of 1540 B.C., nor the Humanist posited Exodus of ca. 1250 B.C.

It appears obvious to me that whoever wrote the accounts about Zo'an, they certainly had no knowledge as to just when Zo'an's rise to "renown" had occured as a capital of Egypt, warranting its favorable comparison to Hebron, a prominent town of the Judean Hill Country.

Many scholars assume that the store-city of Rameses mentioned in the Pentateuchal accounts (Ex 1:11) must be Per-Rameses (at Qantir?) the capital built by Pharaoh Rameses II. This is quite surprising as the text nowhere suggests this association. It is quite clear from the Psalmist's statements that a location near Zo'an, "the fields of Zo'an," was envisioned as the Pharaonic residence, not Rameses (Qantir). 

The mention of Zo'an in the Pentateuch as well as in Psalms is then an important historical marker dating this texts' composition to a period probably several hundred years after the 11th century B.C. (ca. 1069 B.C.) and the founding of Zo'an as a capital, when the national memory banks had forgotten just when that city had rose to fame and world renown. Elsewhere I have argued that the Primary History (Genesis-Kings) was composed in the Exile, ca. 560 B.C.

The fact that the earliest mention of Zoan is an inscription upon a building block of Ramesses II originally from Memphis (noted above by Graham), might be a clue that Israel could have dwelt in the vicinity in Ramesside times.  However, no dwellings of this period have been identified yet.

Please click on the following urls for maps showing Zo'an's location vis-a-vis Rameses (Qantir & Tell el-Dab'a) and the "Land of Goshen" (Faqus & vicinity)

Map of Rameses        Map of Goshen

Aerial view maps of excavations by French archaeologists at Zo'an ("Tanis" in the scholarly Egyptological literature) can be accessed by clicking on the following url (the text accompanying the photos is in French) :

If one clicks on the word suivant at the lower right below the map at the above url, you will be taken on a tour of aerial photos of Zo'an/Tanis.


Peter A. Clayton. Chronicle of the Pharaohs, the Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. London. Thames & Hudson. 1994.

Geoffrey Graham. "Tanis." pp. 348-350. Vol. 3. Donald B. Redford. Editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001.

James K. Hoffmeier. Israel in Egypt, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. New York. Oxford University Press. 1996.

Kenneth A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2003.

Herbert G. May & Bruce M. Metzger. Editors. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. [Revised Standard Version]. New York. Oxford University Press. 1977.

Edgar B. Pusch. "Piramesse." p. 48. Vol. 3. Donald B. Redford. Editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001.

Donald B. Redford. "Zoan." p.1106. Vol. 6. David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992.

William H. Stiebing Jr. Out of the Desert? Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Press. 1989.

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