Friday, August 27, 2010

The Pharaoh of the Exodus

By Anthony Holmes

The Biblical story of the trials and tribulations of the children of Israel that eventually led to their departure from Egypt is documented in Jewish history, but singularly uncorroborated in Egyptian records. This situation is not entirely surprising because the Egyptians seldom made any reference to their defeats or misfortunes. Some students of ancient history accept that a migration did take place basically as described in the Bible despite the absence of Egyptian reports, while some commentators suggest that the Exodus never took place. They suggest the story is merely an allegory for the escape from physical torment through religious practice. Other writers have proposed that the story of the Exodus was subsequently contaminated by accounts of the Jewish experience of bondage in Babylon many centuries later and that it should not be considered to be a realistic account of events in the Nile delta.

The reference in the Bible to the interaction between Moses and the Pharaoh does not specify which Pharaoh was on the throne at the time of the Exodus and this has led to considerable speculation. In this article we will do a little chronological sleuthing, and using the Biblical report as a baseline, we will try to place the events described in the Book of Exodus against a possible time frame that takes account of events in Egypt.

We have very few clues to guide us, but we are told the following:

Exodus 12.40

Now the sojourning of the children of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was 430 years.

In order to make use of this statement we need to deduce when the period of 430 years began. We know that the title “children of Israel” can only have started after Jacob had received the name “Israel”, and that the sojourn may have commenced when Jacob came to Egypt with his family of 76 persons or sometime later (but not before). The saga of the Exodus of the Israelites therefore has to begin with Jacob (called Israel) and his favourite son Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. Joseph was 17 when he was sold to the Midianites by his jealous brothers and taken to Egypt. He was sold on to Potiphar an Egyptian officer of the pharaoh. Joseph did well and was made overseer of the house of Potiphar. When Potiphar’s wife’s advances were spurned by Joseph, she framed him for rape and he was imprisoned.

Joseph was a model prisoner and developed a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. When the pharaoh wanted his own dream interpreted he was advised of Joseph’s talent. The pharaoh called for Joseph.

Joseph gave the seven years of plenty/seven years of famine interpretation and advised the pharaoh to place a wise man over the land to ensure the collection and storage of the surplus grain during the good years. The pharaoh appointed Joseph, the 30 year old Hebrew ex-convict to the highest position in the land other than the king.

Seven years of plenty came as predicted. Joseph arranged for the accumulation of the surplus grain. Seven years of famine began and Joseph was in charge of selling the accumulated grain reserve. Joseph was about 40 years of age.

Joseph’s brothers came from drought-stricken Canaan to buy grain. Joseph made himself known to his brothers and it was sometime later that Jacob came to Egypt with his family. The pharaoh told Joseph to give his father and brethren the best land in the country in the land of Goshen.

Genesis 47.11

And Joseph placed his father and his brethren, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ram’-e-ses as Pharaoh had commanded.

This verse indicates that the land of Ram-e-ses existed at the time of Joseph, centuries before the accession of Rameses I (the first pharaoh to carry that name). Jacob lived for 17 years in Egypt before he died, at which time Joseph would have been +/- 60 years of age. Joseph lived on to 110 years of age.


1.8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

1.9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

1.10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

1.11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for the Pharaoh treasure cities, Pi-thom and Ra-am-ses.

It is this reference to Ra-am-ses that many commentators use to state that the exodus cannot have taken place before the reign of Pharaoh Rameses, ignoring the previous, much earlier references to the ‘land of Rameses’.

To limit the population growth of the Israelites, the pharaoh gave instructions to the Hebrew midwives to kill all new born sons, but to let the daughters live. The midwives ignored his instruction, using the excuse that by the time they came to deliver, the babies had already been born and smuggled away. The Pharaoh then gave the order that all new born sons should be cast into the river.

It was into these circumstances that Moses was born. His story of being placed in a basket on the river and being found and raised as the son of the pharaoh’s daughter is well known. Moses grew up as an Egyptian and probably only spoke Egyptian. (Later, when instructed by God to speak to the Israelites, Moses tells God in Exodus 4.10 of his lack of eloquence – presumably in the Hebrew language). After slaying an Egyptian and being in fear of his life he hid from the pharaoh in Midian. He fathered a son with Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. He then heard that the pharaoh had died.

Exodus 2.23

And it came to pass in process of time that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage,…

Moses returned to Egypt with Aaron by his side and after the ten plagues had been visited on Egypt he eventually persuaded the newly enthroned pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses died at the age of 120 years after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. By subtraction he had been a man of about 80 when he led the Exodus out of Egypt.

Another piece of information that might help us in our quest relates to the number of people involved.

Exodus 12.37

And the children of Israel journeyed from Ram-e-ses to Suc-coth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, besides children.

Check the arithmetic:

Start with 76 persons at a birth rate of 2% after 430 years there would be 380,000. It would take 455 years for the population to reach approx. 600,000. With all the assumptions I think we might as well accept this number (455 years from the time Jacob came to Egypt).

We know of a single reference to the Israelites in ancient Egyptian records, dating to the fifth year of the ten year reign of Pharaoh Merenptah, the successor to Rameses the Great. On a stone stele Merenptah records the victories of his campaigns against Libya to the west and Canaan and other countries to the east. This would have been about 1210BC. Merenptah claims

“Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more”.

Two interesting notions arise from the hieroglyphic inscription.

The first is that, unlike the Bible, the Egyptians did not use the term ‘seed’ to refer to the seed or progeny of man. The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is often used of defeated nations. It implies that the store of grain of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.

The second interesting point is the way in which the Israelites are described in the hieroglyphs. While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed beside the Israelites in this stele such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam were given the determinative for a city-state—the hieroglyphs that refer to the Israelites employ the determinative sign used for a foreign people (not a foreign land). It appears that the Israelites at this stage were a semi-nomadic people still seeking their home land. This most likely took place in the time of Joshua.

Joshua battled with the many nations that resented the arrival of the Israelites and it was only after his leadership that the Israelites became a landed nation. Joshua’s activities as the leader of the tribe may have lasted at least 40 years. (He was 110 years old when he died). Add this 40 years of fighting to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and deduct the total of 80 years from 1210BC (the date of Merenptah’s stele) one comes to a date for the Exodus of 1290BC.

Who was on the throne at that time? Let us assume the margin for error is plus or minus 10 years (i.e 1300 to 1280BC). On that basis we can not get any closer than one of the following:-

Horemheb 1319 to 1292BC

Rameses I 1292 to 1290BC

Seti I 1290 to 1279BC

A further consideration might help our search. It is clear from the Biblical account that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a vacillator. On several occasions he agreed to the departure of the Israelites, only to renege on the deal when “his heart was hardened”. Looking at the three candidates above we know from records that Horemheb was a hard pharaoh who brought Egypt back from the disasters of the Amarna Period. We also know that Seti 1 fought and won many battles and must have been a decisive ruler. What do we know of Rameses I? He was an old man of 60 when he ascended the throne. He may have been of poor health because he only reigned for 17 months. He was named as Horemheb’s successor because Horemheb had no children, but Rameses I (called Paramessu before his coronation) had several sons and grandsons. If anyone is a candidate for being described as a vacillator it is more likely to be Rameses I than the other two.

We have another reference to the date of the Exodus in the Bible:

1 Kings 6.1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.

According to secular historians, Solomon’s Temple would have been started 971BC. Traditional rabbinic sources however state that construction started in 843BC. The two dates differ by 128 years. One places the Exodus in 1451BC, while the rabbinic source places the Exodus in 1323BC, close to our deduced date of 1290BC. The date of 1290BC would put Joseph’s intervention (in the 7 plenty and 7 famine years) in the time of the 12th Dynasty.

Is there any indication of this?

It has been established [refer Bell, Barbara (1975) - "Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom"] that the mid-12th Dynasty suffered erratic (high and low) Nile River levels which caused crop failure and the resultant social disruption. It is understandable that low floods would be detrimental to crops, but one might ask why an unusually high flood would hurt crops; Bell's answer is that under such conditions it would take longer for the water to drain off the fields, and would thus impede the year's planting.

In conclusion I suggest the following:

Joseph came to Egypt in 1745BC in the 12th Dynasty

Jacob (Israel) arrived in Egypt in 1715BC (Second Intermediate Period)

Moses was born about 1370BC in the reign of Amunhotep III

The Exodus took place in 1290BC in the reign of Rameses I

who is therefore The Pharaoh of the Exodus

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