We know him as the tyrant who governed Egypt
and who enslaved the Jewish People – Pharaoh. He’s the evil ruler who refused
to free the Jewish slaves, and saw his country lying in ruins after God
unleashed the Ten Plagues.
While every Pharaoh had a personal name, in addition to the generic title
“Pharaoh,” the Pharaoh of the Exodus story is simply known in the Bible as
“Pharaoh.” That has left some modern scholars, academics and archeologists
wondering, which of the Pharaohs is the one of whom we read in the Bible?
This puzzle becomes more easily solvable if we can determine the precise
time frame of the Exodus. With that information, naming the Pharaoh is as easy
as tracing Egyptian
history using a combination of carvings, tombs, and papyrus (ancient paper)
– and, most importantly, using the Bible as our guide.
The problem? Three and a half millennia ago, people’s lifespans weren’t as
long as they are today. Due to illnesses, malnutrition, and unsanitary
conditions, the ancients generally died at younger ages than people do in our
day and age. And thus even a slight 20-year miscalculation could mean the
difference between two different Pharaohs in charge.
So is there a way for us to find who the real Pharaoh was?
Professor Kent R. Weeks,
an Egyptologist from Washington State,
recently said that the chronology of Egypt
is “still ambiguous.”
According to Weeks, and many other scholars, it is “appealing” to identify
the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Rameses
II, who ruled Egypt
about 3,250 years ago, and is credited for a significant amount of building in
Others, however, disagree, and proof against this theory may be drawn from
the Bible itself. The
Book of Kings I (6:1) gives a date for the Exodus – 480 years before the
building of the first Jewish Temple
That would place the last plague approximately at 1,446 BCE
– 200 years before Rameses II.
This theory is also disproved by archeological evidence – specifically,
hieroglyphics on a stone pedestal found near the Egyptian city of Luxor.
The pedestal, which was erected just a few years after Rameses’ death, is
called the Berlin
Statue Pedestal Relief, and it was only in 2012 that its text was deciphered.
The glyphs, dated around 1,360 BCE – around
the time of Pharaoh Mernepta –
list all the nations conquered by Egypt,
as well as the nations with whom the kingdom enjoyed peace.
At the bottom, the word “Israel”
appears, marking the only mention of Israel
on an Egyptian monument.
The text reads, “Israel
is laid to waste... their seed defeated.” It seems clear that this monument
refers not to a wandering tribe, but to a sovereign nation of Israel.
By the time this text was written – again, just several years after Rameses’
was an established nation in Canaan, apparently fighting
other nations and suffering defeat.
Whatever Pharaoh Mernepta thought of the Jews at the time, 30 years later
they apparently were a force to be reckoned with.
Carvings from what’s known as the
Amarna Tablets contained desperate pleas to Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled
from 1319 to 1336 BCE, to defend Egyptian
inhabitants against invaders. The invaders were called by the pejorative term Habiru–
“the stateless ones” – and sounds astonishingly like “Hebrew,” a play on words
which was by no means a coincidence.
The dates of these tablets reveal that the ancient Israelites already
developed armies by the time Pharaoh Akhenaten ruled. Sure enough, the initial
conquest of Canaan took place 40 years after the Exodus
– in 1,406 BCE – about 70 years before the
rule of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
By the time he ascended the throne, the Jews had established themselves as a
nation in Canaan waging fierce battles against the other
nations in the region.
In any event, as this monument was erected shortly after the death of
Rameses II, it seems clear that he could not have been Pharaoh at the time of
the Exodus, before Israelites conquered Canaan.
Who, then, was Moses’ Pharaoh?
Let us begin by exploring some of the fascinating archeological findings
that correspond to the Bible’s account of the story of the Israelites’
enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt.
David Rohl, an
Egyptologist based in Britain,
and former director of the Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary
Sciences, says there’s hard evidence of early Hebrews in Egypt.
The time of the Exodus that emerges from the aforementioned verse in Kings –
1406 BCE – coincides with what Egyptian
writings refer to as the “Hyksos Expulsion,” when huge numbers of people –
Hyksos [hik’sahwz] – fled Egypt.
Who were the Hyksos?
In the 1960s, the ancient town of the Hyksos, known as Avaris, was
discovered north of Cairo by Manfred Bietak, an
archeologist at the University of Vienna.
Avaris, which is today known
as Tell el-Dab’a, a town near the Nile Delta, was located beneath the excavated
City of Rameses, a place identified
by name in the Bible. Archeologists believe that this town was a fully
functional living area, populated by many tens of thousands of former
Canaanites. The site measures about a mile in every direction, and it was built
over the course of hundreds of years.
The city’s name – Avaris– bears strong resemblance to the word Ivarit –
“Hebrew.” The word means nothing in Egyptian, but could also be broken down to
Avar-Ish, meaning, “Hebrew Man.”
Signs of Joseph
If this is where Jews settled in Egypt, and from where they eventually fled,
it stands to reason that this is the city of Goshen given by Pharaoh
to the sons (and families) of Jacob who came to live in Egypt during the time
Joseph served as viceroy.
Recall that Jacob’s family headed to the Egyptian Delta to find food during
the great famine, while Joseph served as a Pharaoh’s second-in-command and
presided over the distribution of food to the drought-ravaged region.
Among the many famous ancient carvings, hieroglyphs, monuments, pyramids and
writings, we would have expected to find
some allusion to Joseph, the second-in-command, who single-handedly rescued
the nation of Egypt
from great famine. And there is – in Avaris.
It’d be simple enough to point out the Canaanite-Syriatic architecture of
the homes. But it’s another thing entirely to see the excavations through the
prism of the Bible.
In a garden area, lie 12 graves with memorial chapels on each – one for each
son of Jacob.
One of those graves was particularly special, a larger pyramid tomb, similar
to those in which Pharaohs and queens of the time were buried. This wasn’t a
king, though, but a high-ranking official who earned a king’s burial.
And in this official’s tomb
was found a statue of a man twice the size of a normal human. Professor
Charles Aling, an Egyptologist at University
of Northwestern in Minneapolis,
has noted that it is unusual for a tomb to have a statue this large, suggesting
that it was made for a person of high stature who was not a Pharaoh.
The statue had a mushroom-cut hairstyle, like the Canaanites, and was
painted with yellow skin color, as the Egyptians had perceived those of Semitic
background. But there was something else.
He was depicted as wearing a coat with multicolored stripes – commemorating
the incident that began it all, the brothers’ jealousy fueled by Joseph’s
special coat. Nothing similar has been found in any other Egyptian excavation.
What is also telling is that the tomb was empty – no coffin, no wood, no
bones, no mementos of the ancients. One explanation would be grave robbers. But
what grave robbers remove bones? The more logical explanation is outlined in
the Torah: Joseph, before his death, instructed his brothers to take his body
to the Promised Land. As we know, Moses made sure to take Joseph’s body out of
the tomb and bring it out of Egypt
at the time of the Exodus.
Moreover, in the late 1990s, just 20 years ago, the aforementioned Manfred
Bietak discovered in Avaris nine signet rings worn by Joseph’s court officials,
which bore the inscription, “Yakov” – the name of Josephs’s father.
This discovery marks the only time a Hebrew name was found on an Egyptian
royal seal. That, in addition to other evidence, confirms that the excavation
site was formerly the Land of Goshen,
the area given by Joseph’s Pharaoh to Jacob’s sons and their families.
Archeological evidence shows an association between Joseph and Amenemhat III, who ruled
Egypt from 1860 BCE to 1814 BCE, and seems to have been Joseph’s Pharoah.
Monuments of Amenemhat III uniquely depict him with worry lines, and with
ears turned out to listen to his people. In his time, Egypt
experienced severe food shortages, but Joseph, in his wisdom and foresight,
built new routes for the Nile to ensure a steady flow of
water through villages so agriculture could thrive.
Indeed, canals and waterways were found attaching to what is called the Fayum Basin,
or “Waterway of Joseph.” This system diverted half of the water from the Nile
to the basin, to ensure the best conditions for growing crops. In homage to
Joseph, Amenemhat III built his pyramid next to the “Waterway of Joseph.”
The Israelite Slaves
In addition to the archeological
evidence of Jospeh,
there is also evidence of the period of the Israelites’ enslavement, and the
event of the Exodus.
Some 300 miles south of Avaris lies a tomb at Beni Hassan, which has been
dated to around 1,700 BCE. The carvings
show a migration of a band of tribal
people from Canaan to Egypt, depicting them as wearing multi-colored
tunics, clearly marking them as a Semitic people.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions call these people “Amo.” The Bible speaks of
God’s people as “Amo Yisrael – His People, Israel.”
The carvings show that approximately 200 years after this mass migration,
the Amo underwent a drastic transformation: the people who willingly came to Egypt
were now its prisoners and slaves.
Likewise, an Egyptian papyrus dating back 3,300 years ago, dubbed today as
the Brooklyn Papyrus,
lists “domestic servants” from one estate, three quarters of which had Semitic
names such as Menachem, Issachar, Asher and Shifra – further evidence of the
Israelites’ enslavement during that era.
Various sites at Avaris show buried bones suffering severe lack of
nutrients, and people dying young – quite likely as a result of harsh
And in the Town of Kahun,
Egypt, researchers found a Semitic settlement that
had housed slaves, all of whom disappeared seemingly overnight. Their villas
were built in the architectural form of Canaanites, as opposed to the Egyptian
Significantly, the researchers found that more than half of the infants born
in this village died in their first three months of life; in some instances,
the remains of several infants were discovered in a single box. Could they have
been victims of Pharaoh’s decree that all the newborn Israelite boys be killed?
Rosalie David, an Egyptian specialist at the University
of Manchester, observed that goods
were found to have been dropped all over the streets, and houses were suddenly
abandoned, as if hordes of people frantically fled.
Another telltale sign is a pit found in Avaris containing a pile of dead
bodies that had not been given a proper burial. Some archaeologists believe a
plague – or some dramatic event – suddenly killed a large number of people, who
had to be quickly buried. That dramatic event could very well have been the
plague that struck Egypt
on the night of the Exodus.
Yet another relevant artifact is pieces of a broken stone monument
discovered in 1947 by archeologist Henri Chevrier, which contained
a reference to a Pharaoh called “AhkMoshe,” which in ancient Egyptian means
“the moon is born,” carved in hieroglyphic.
AhkMoshe is believed to have ruled Egypt
during the years 1539-1514 BCE.
Intriguingly, in Hebrew, “AhkMoshe” means “the brother of Moses.” Could this
name have been intended as a play on words in both languages? Did AhkMoshe have
a brother named Moses?
Sitting in the Cairo museum,
this stone artifact explains in detail how Egypt
was enveloped in darkness, and suffered storms of epic proportions. It sounds
eerily familiar to the plagues – the likes of which have only occurred once in
The stone also mentions how “God” displayed His power – yes, one God
recognized by Jewish monotheism, as opposed to the pagan deities worshipped by
other peoples in the ancient world.
Returning to our original question, King ThutMoshe III is believed to have
from 1479 BCE to 1425 BCE.
As mentioned, the Book of Kings indicates that the Exodus took place 3,440
years ago, during this Pharaoh’s reign, and it would thus appear that he was
the Pharaoh whom Moses confronted, and who stubbornly refused to allow the
Israelite slaves to leave Egypt.
ThutMoshe III was only about 35 years old when the last plague is believed
to have struck his nation. Moses, at the time, was 80.
This leads us to one of the great ironies – and lessons – of the Exodus
While most people have never even heard of ThutMoshe III, the powerful,
arrogant ruler of the mighty Egyptian Empire, the entire world has heard of his
adversary, Moses, who has inspired billions of people for more than three
The ruler who stubbornly refused to bow his head in submission to God has
been all but forgotten, while the legacy of the man representing the slaves he
so brutally oppressed continues to live on.