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Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

Dave Gordon - Sunday, 26 April, 2015

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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 the country.

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 in Jerusalem.

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’ death –Israel 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?

The Hyksos

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 oppression.

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 style.

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?

Professor 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 Egyptian history.

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.

Moses’s Pharaoh

Returning to our original question, King ThutMoshe III is believed to have ruled Egypt 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.

Remarkably, King 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 story.

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 millennia.

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.


All Contents © 2018 Dave Gordon | Lichtman Consulting