The Exodus

Kings 6:1 dates the Exodus to 480 years before the founding of Jerusalem’s temple by King Solomon. According to the orthodox chronology this gives a date of around 1450 BC. However, Exodus 1:11 states that Pharaoh put the Hebrews to work on the cities of Pithom and Raamses.

The location of Pithom is in doubt, but the city of Raamses is thought to be Pi-Ramesses built by Ramesses II (orthodox dates 1279-1212BC). As a result, it is usually suggested that the Israelites actually worked on a settlement in the same location as Pi-Ramesses which predated it.

A stele from the reign of Merenptah (the successor of Ramesses II) notes that “Israel is laid waste, bare of seed,” confirming that the exodus must have taken place before his reign (given the forty year sojourn in the desert), dated as 1212-1202 BC (orthodox chronology).

The name “Moses” may be the Egyptian name “Moses” or “Messes” meaning born of. This was usually combined with the name of a god (e.g. Thuth-moses or Ra-messes). However, the name may also come from the Hebrew verb “Masha” (to draw out) and be translated as “he draws out”. In Exodus 2:10, Pharaoh’s daughter states that she gave him his name “Because I drew him out of the water”, perhaps she chose an Egyptian pun on a Hebrew name to reflect his origin.

Moses apparently belonged to a group of Semitic settlers whose ancestors had arrived in Egypt from the land of Canaan. People from Canaan had settled the delta since the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty (the Middle Kingdom). Remains from the settlement at Tell el-Dab’a in the Delta, confirm that the settlers were Semitic nomads and pastoralists, like the Hebrews. This settlement grew and developed into the Hyksos capital of Avaris, and was later swallowed up by Piramesse.

Route of the israelites during the exodus from Egypt
  1. Raameses (Pi-Ramesses)
  2. Succoth
  3. Bal Zephon
  4. Alternative route
  5. Mount Sinai
  6. Jericho

According to the modern translation of the Bible, Moses prophesied the advent of the “ten plagues of Egypt” and then escaped with the Israelites via the Red Sea. Pharaoh gave chase and God saved the Israelites by parting the waters to allow them safe passage. Pharaoh’s charioteers were all lost.

There are a bewildering number of theories regarding this biblical tale, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Even if the basic events of the Exodus are accepted (and many strongly believe the tale is purely fictional), the identity of the Pharaoh is open to debate.

Who was the pharaoh of the Exodus?

Ahmose I

The Tempest Stele was erected by the Pharaoh Ahmose I (orthodox dates 1570-1546 BC) the founder of dynasty Eighteen and the New Kingdom. The stele describes the great storm that struck Egypt during his reign. ‘now then … the gods declared their discontent. The gods [caused] the sky to come in a tempest of r[ain], with darkness in the western region and the sky being unleashed without [cessation, louder than] the cries of the masses, more powerful than […], [while the rain raged] on the mountains louder than the noise of the cataract which is at Elephantine.’

Proponents further suggest that the phrase “his Majesty began …to provide them with silver, with gold, with copper, with oil, and of every bolt [of cloth] that could be desired. Then his majesty made himself comfortable inside the palace” refers to Pharaoh giving Moses the material to build the ark. Thus, Moses becomes a Hyksos leader accepting goods from the Egyptian Pharaoh as part of a deal which would result in the Hyksos leaving Egypt. Manetho alleges that the Theban Pharaoh laid siege to Avaris (the Hyksos capital) and the outcome was a treaty by which the Hyksos agreed to leave Egypt. Manetho also claims that the Hyksos settled in Jerusalem!

This puts a rather different slant on the biblical description of “bondage in Egypt”. The Hyksos invaded Egypt and held power in northern (lower) Egypt for over a hundred years (according to Manetho) and even sacked Memphis around 1720BC (orthodox dates). They were eventually forced from the country by a rival line of Kings from Thebes. Thus, the put upon “slaves” become an invading power and any monuments they built were for their own kingdom. Furthermore, the Hyksos kings placed their names in cartouche and adopted Seth as their pre-eminent god. While his warlike attributes have something in common with the bloodthirsty god of Moses, worship of the Egyptian god Seth could hardly be considered Monotheistic.

The biblical plagues have often been dismissed as being far too late to name Ahmose I as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, but proponents argue that the dates currently accepted for the Exodus are too late in any case. Some commentators have argued that there was in fact 585 years from the founding of Solomon’s Temple back to the Exodus, giving a date of 1552.


Manetho tells the story of Osarseph, a rebellious Egyptian priest, Pharaoh Amenhotep and his son “Ramesses also called Sethos” (of the New Kingdom). Apparently, Osarseph took control of Egypt for thirteen years. He defiled the temples and terrorised the people. Pharaoh fled from Egypt to protect his infant son, but the son returned to Egypt and threw Osarseph out of Egypt. According to Josephus, Manetho believed that Osarseph was Moses, and many have pointed to the similarity between these events and the rule of Akhenaten. Akhenaten certainly rejected the gods and imposed a form of Monotheism.

However, Josephus also quotes an alternative Egyptian historian, Chaeremon. He identifies the rebel priest with Moses, but names him ‘Tisathen’. He also claims that there was a co-conspirator named Peteseph who he considered to be Joseph! This doesn’t sound much like Akhenaten who only really shared power with his wife. In any case, there is plenty of evidence that the beginning of Akhenaten’s rule was fairly normal and that he was the direct successor of his father, the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Furthermore, neither account refers to Smenkhare, or Tutankhamun and the return to Thebes.

Ramesses I

Some commentators have argued that to the story of Osarseph’s rebellion should be placed during the co-regency of Ramesses I and Seti I during the New Kingdom. They propose that there was a counter-revolution when Akhenaten died. Horemheb persecuted the followers of Akhenaten and destroyed his monuments. When Horemheb died, Osarseph/Moses returned to Egypt, to lead the rebellion, against Horemheb’s successor Ramesses I. Like Horemheb, Ramesses was general in the army and had no royal blood. He ruled for only two years before passing power to his son Seti I.

If the bible is correct to state that Moses was an adopted member of the royal household, then he may have had a tenuous claim to the throne. The fact that Akhenaten has been written out of Egyptian history (he is notably absent from the kings lists written during the reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II) seems consistent with this view, but little else from the reign of Ramesses I would support this tale which does seem rather unlikely. The story is probably based almost entirely on the view that Akhenaten was the first known monotheist, but that view is to simplify both the theology of Akhenaten and to stretch the facts to their limit as there is no evidence for any counter rebellion.

Tuthmosis III or Hatshepsut

When Thera exploded it effectively destroyed the Minoan civilisation and caused huge tidal waves and a huge pillar of black smoke. Many commentators have noted that the ten plagues of Egypt can be explained with reference to the environmental effects of such a huge volcanic eruption. The eruption is estimated (by carbon dating and supporting environmental evidence from a number of sites around the world) to have occurred around 1640 BC. So who was the pharaoh when Thera exploded?

Some have suggested that the New Kingdom Tuthmosis III may have been in control of Egypt at this time (or may have still been sharing power with Hatshepsut). It is noted that he led armies between the Bitter Lakes into Canaan (possibly the route taken by Moses) and a section of text carved on the outside of Hatshepsut’s temple of Speos Artemidos has been reinterpreted by one Egyptologist to contain a reference to the eruption of Thera. However, the campaigns of Tuthmosis III in Caanan were highly successful. Furthermore, there was no sucessional difficulty with his son who maintained Egyptian power in that area. It is hard to see the Israelites escaping him as he plundered the area (unless this is the reason for hiding in the desert for forty years).

The Minoans imported a copper-calcium-silicate pigment called Egyptian blue to paint frescoes. Therefore we know that the two cultures had trading links. In the tomb of Senemut (architect and vizier to Hatshepsut) there is a scene depicting men wearing short patterned kilts carrying Late Minoan 1A pottery vases. While, in the tomb of Rekhmire (a viziers of Thuthmosis III) a man carries a piece of Late Minoan 1B pottery. The figure is wearing a longer kilt, associated with the later phase of Minoan culture. It is during this phase that Thera erupted.

This causes a major problems for the dating system as Thuthmosis is general considered to have reigned between about 1504 and 1450 BC, not 1640BC.

Even if the date could be reconciled, the details of his reign don’t really fit too well. Queen Hatshepsut ruled Egypt after the death of her husband, Tuthmose II. Her step-son, Thutmose III was her co-regent for some time, and took the throne on her death. At some point in his rule, he seems to have ordered her name to be purged from all her monuments. Despite the apparent acrimony between them, Hatshepsut was a powerful and able ruler, and Tuthmosis inherited a prosperous nation from her. He became famous as a strong warrior-pharaoh who plundered the very area that the Israelites were fleeing to.

There is some limited classical support linking Tuthmosis and Moses. According to Josephus, Moses was his general in a campaign against the Ethiopians. It is argued by some that Tuthmose took the credit for these victories. However, this is not historically accurate. Tuthmose takes credit for his extensive campaigns in Asia (including Megiddio, Kadesh, and Gaza). Moses apparently returned from the military campaign, took an Ethiopian wife, and then demanded that his people be freed.

Seti II

The route chosen by the escaping Israelites, from Piramesse to Tjeku (biblical Succoth: Exodus 12:37) and eastwards, was precisely the same that was used by two escaping slaves of the late 13th century BC, during the reign of Seti II as reported in Papyrus Anastasi V.

Egyptian mythology

Osiris and his wife Isis ruled over Egypt during the golden age in prehistory. His brother Set was jealous of him, so he hatches an elaborate plot to kill him and steal the throne. Isis raised her son Horus in secret, and he returned to take back the throne from Set. The echoes in the tale of Moses are so clear it is tempting to doubt that any of the details in the bible are more than an Egyptian inspired creation myth. Moses performed Egyptian magic tricks (such as turning a snake into a rod and back again) and the parting of the sea is highly reminiscent of a similar trick recorded during the reign of the pharaoh Sneferu.

The Israelites needed a story of great deeds proving the power of their faith and enshrining the idea that they were chosen. However, while they may have rejected Egyptian gods, both the Israelites and later the Christians borrowed heavily from Egyptian mythology.

Maybe all that can be said with certainty is that a large number of Semitic peoples lived in Egypt from the Twelfth Dynasty onward, and that at some point some of them could have left Egypt to established Israel. Perhaps there was no “great escape'”, just the story of a hard trek across the desert followed by the military conquest of the peoples of Palestine.

Copyright J Hill 2010