Note: Over the past nine years I have contributed nearly 100 articles on Bible places to a magazine published by some of my friends. Normally I do not repeat the material here for several years. The typesetter made a mistake in the July, 2009, issue of Biblical Insights using the title from the previous issue. Because of this I decided to run the article here with the correct title.
For many years scholars identified Rameses with Tanis (San el Hagar). Tanis is often identified with the Zoan which was built seven years after Hebron (Numbers 13:22). As a result of recent excavations in the eastern Nile Delta by Austrian archaeologists under the direction of Manfred Bietak, Rameses is now identified with Tell el-Daba. Tell el-Daba is situated on the eastern side of the ancient Pelusiac branch of the Nile River in the biblical land of Goshen (Gen. 45:10) which is also called the land of Rameses (Genesis 47:11). Rameses was the starting point of the exodus (Ex. 12:37; Num. 33:3,5).
Scholars posit four main proposals for the date of the exodus. (1) Before 2000 B.C. (Anati); (2) 1477 B.C. (Goedicke); (3) about 1450 B.C. (Bimson); (4) 1280 B.C. (popular view). If we believe that 1 Kings 6:1 should be taken seriously, as I do, the date of the exodus would have been about 1446 B.C. Conservative scholars disagree over whether there was a long bondage (430 years), or a short bondage (215 years).
The history of this area should be divided into three periods: pre-Hyksos, Hyksos, and post-Hyksos. The Hyksos were foreign (Canaanite or Asiatic) rulers who lived in the eastern Nile Delta and eventually ruled northern Egypt for some 108 years (c. 1663-1555 B.C.; 15th dynasty). In the pre-Hyksos period the town was known as Rowaty (“the door of the two roads”). During the 15th Dynasty the name was changed to Avaris. The Hyksos made their capital there and retained the name. When the Egyptians ran the Hyksos out of Egypt the name was likely changed to Peru-nefer (“happy journey”). Pharaoh Rameses built a new city at the same location and named it Rameses.
During their stay in the land of Egypt the Israelites built the storage cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). Pharaoh Rameses II ruled Egypt about 1304 to 1227 B.C. How could the Israelites have built the city of Rameses prior to 1446 B.C. if Pharaoh Rameses was not the ruler of Egypt until nearly 200 years later? Some have suggested that the name Rameses was given to the city by the Hyksos in the 17th century B.C. Perhaps the city was named for a private individual by that name. The most common explanation is that Rameses is the modernization of an obsolete place name. We might say that Caesar crossed the English Channel though it was not known by that name at the time. We say St. Nicholas of Myra was a Turkish bishop, but Turkey did not exist at the time.
Earlier this year I spent two days in the land of Goshen. My guide gained access to a field in the Tell el-Daba area where we saw remnants of a colossal statue of Pharaoh Rameses II estimated to have been more than 30 feet high. The royal precinct of the city at the time of Moses has also been uncovered at Ezbet Helmi on the bank of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile.
It is incorrect to say that there was no Egyptian building in the delta during the time of Rameses II. The storage city constructed by the Israelites was not known as Rameses when they built it, but by one of the earlier names.