Who was the Pharaoh of Exodus?
If you rely on Hollywood to teach you history you would be led to believe that there was only one Pharaoh of the Exodus, namely Rameses.
While the film “The Ten Commandments” may have been good entertainment, it was, nevertheless, very poor history.1 What follows is a look at what actually did happen.
It was during the Old Kingdom (around 2686 BC) that the land of Egypt was unified under a central monarchy and became a wealthy and powerful Kingdom. However, the Nile River began a series of insufficient flooding seasons, which led to widespread hunger and death. As a result, the government fell into chaos, and the country splintered into a dozen chiefdoms.
The kings of the 11th Dynasty restored power back to the monarchy, although the local governors maintained significant power as well. The 11th and 12th Dynasties were the main ruling Dynasties in the Middle Kingdom (it was probably at this time Joseph came into Egypt, 1876 BC). The 13th Dynasty was marked by a significant decline in military power and in large scale building projects. Due to the decline, the state system collapsed, and Egypt entered a dark period of chaos and disruption once again.
As a result of Egypt’s decline, a Semitic people called the Hyksos,2 originating from the northern part of Mesopotamia, invaded lower Egypt and established themselves as the 14th ruling dynasty. Egyptian records tell of an invasion of peoples through the Eastern Delta in northern Egypt bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
These Semitic immigrants had been steadily entering the country for some time and gradually gaining increasing authority in the region. The Hyksos finally sacked the city of Memphis, Egypt around 1720 BC controlling the northern half of Egypt. Meanwhile the Nubians south of Egypt were growing in power. Lastly, the Southern “Native Egyptian“ rulers were establishing the 17th dynasty in Thebes in the South. These Theban kings managed, more or less, to continue with the culture that had prevailed during the Middle Kingdom period. The last two rulers of this native Egyptian dynasty in Thebes, Seqenenre and his son Kamose started rebelling against the Hyksos.
Ahmose I, brother of Kamose, led a successful revolt against the Hyksos and drove them completely out of Egypt. Thus, Ahmose (1521 BC) was the first ruler of the 18th dynasty and established the New Kingdom as a military power. With the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Theban prince Ahmose reigned supreme. The Egyptian army pushed beyond the traditional frontiers of Egypt into Syria-Palestine and brought Nubia under control. The Theban conquerors had thus established the 18th dynasty, creating a great empire under a long succession of rulers. The New Kingdom that Ahmose had inaugurated was the greatest imperial might in Egypt’s long history.
This brings us to the question: What was the actual date of the Exodus? The general opinion of historians is either 1225 BC or 1446-1445 BC. Note the reference to the Hebrews building the city of Ramses in Exodus 1:11 “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Ramses”3 has led many scholars to believe that Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
What was the actual date of the Exodus?
However, if Ramses were the Pharaoh that is mentioned in Exodus 1:11 then he would have had to been reigning over Egypt for over eighty years. However, neither Ramses, nor any other Pharaoh in history reigned for that long. We know this because in verse 11 Moses was not yet born, and Moses did not return to Egypt as deliverer until he was eighty years old. Exodus 7:7: “Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83, when they made their demands to Pharaoh.”
In Exodus 2:23, it records a period a long time after the king of Egypt died. There the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from bondage rose up to God. In Exodus 4:18, Moses went back to his father-in-law Jethro, and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”
Exodus 2:23 states that the Pharaoh that had oppressed Israel is dead, and there is a new Pharaoh when Moses returns to Egypt. This means the Pharaoh of Exodus 1:11 and the Pharaoh of the Exodus could not possibly be the same person! Those who take this view of 1225 BC are not really taking the text seriously. There are possible reasons for the name Ramses being attributed to the city that the Israelite slaves built.
First, Ramses II finished the building of the city during his reign and named it after himself, which he was known for doing. The city of Ramses is the “only” evidence given for the date (i.e., 1225 BC), for the Exodus. This date, is in fact, proven quite unlikely by other Egyptian records.
Some additional historical insight is provided from archeology,4 which shows that Merenptah (1213-1203 BC), the Pharaoh immediately after Ramses II, wrote in his own words that Israel was already in the land of Canaan during his reign. On a stone stele that scholars have named after Pharaoh Merneptah, he detailed his conquests of the lands of Libya and parts of Canaan. On it, he brags about defeating the Israelites in a battle. It is nearly impossible that the Israelites would have left Egypt as slaves in 1225 BC, wandered around in the wilderness for forty years and then entered Canaan to become a people established in the land with a fairly stable government and military less than approximately twenty years later.
Now let’s consider the argument for the earlier 1446-1445 BC view of the Exodus. 1 Kings 6:1 says: “And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year 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 in the second month that he began to build the temple of Yahweh.”
Note that the times for both the Exodus and the beginning of the construction of the Temple have been specifically stated here. Biblical scholars have identified the fourth year of Solomon’s reign as 966 BC (give or take a year). Using this date one finds that the Exodus must have taken place around 1446-1445 BC.
Furthermore, according to Judges 11:26, Israel had occupied Canaan for three hundred years before the Judgeship of Jephthah, which is dated between 1100-1050 BC. This dates Joshua’s conquest between 1400-1350 BC. Adding Israel’s forty years in the wilderness puts the Exodus between 1440-1390 BC.
Finally, Exodus 2:23 and Acts 7:13 both state that Moses lived in Midian forty years while the Pharaoh of the oppression was still alive. The only Pharaohs that ruled forty years, or more, were Thutmose III and Ramses II and we have already shown above that Ramses’s reign makes it unlikely he was the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
In addition to the Biblical references cited, there are also archeological finds that also suggest the 1446-1445 BC dates. John Garstang, who excavated Jericho in the 1930s, dated the destruction of Jericho around 1400 BC. Jericho was the first city the Israelites conquered under Joshua when they entered the land of Canaan. Adding forty years to Garstang’s date (to account for the forty years in the wilderness) puts the exodus shortly before 1440 BC. Garstang also concluded that the walls of the city toppled outward, which is consistent with the Biblical account.
The Amarna Tablets (circa 1440 BC) are a collection of over three hundred diplomatic letters that record correspondence between the Pharaoh of Egypt and Egyptian representatives in the land of Canaan. These letters speak of a period of chaos caused by the “Habiru;” very likely this refers to the Hebrews. This matches up with Joshua leading the Israelites in the conquest of the land in the late 1440’s BC. One can see that there is ample evidence in archeology and history to prove that the exodus happened in 1446-1445 BC, just as the Bible records.5
Now we should be able to answer the questions:
- Who was the Pharaoh who practiced genocide on the Hebrew male babies?
- Who was the daughter of Pharaoh who found and adopted Moses?
- Who was the Pharaoh who tried to kill Moses and forced him to flee to Midian?
- Who was the Pharaoh of the plagues and the Exodus?
Scholars who take the numbers and dates in the Bible at face value place the time of Jacob’s going down to Egypt in about 1876 BC. Joseph’s experience would thus fall in the time prior to when the foreign Hyksos controlled Egypt. Accordingly, everything in the narrative points to a native Egyptian setting, not a Hyksos one. Joseph’s death would have been around 1806 BC, just a few years prior to the end of the 12th Dynasty, which marks the decline of the Middle Kingdom.
Exodus 1:8 tells us that “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” It is difficult to identify the “new King” since the text is vague about how much time passed in Exodus 1. However, the rise of a “new King” makes sense if it is understood as a new dynasty.
Acts 7:18 provides more information: “Until there arose over Egypt another King who did not know Joseph.” When Stephen quotes this passage, he uses the Greek word for a different King, which means something that was not like the previous. This statement “who did not know Joseph” means that this Pharaoh had “no knowledge” of Egyptian history, for it is unlikely that Joseph’s act of saving Egypt and the surrounding nations from starvation would have gone unrecorded and untaught.
This suggests that something of great significance in history has caused Joseph’s acts to be erased and forgotten, or that the current Pharaoh did not come from a native Egyptian lineage. Therefore, this new “new King” was most likely a Hyksos ruler. The Hyksos were a blend of Semitic people from the Northern part of Mesopotamia. As foreigners they would have had no knowledge of Joseph. In about 1570 BC the native Egyptian Ahmose led a full rebellion against the Hyksos and drove them out of Egypt and became Pharaoh after 150 years of Hyksos rule. It is likely that Ahmose would also not have known about Joseph either and thus would have just kept the Hebrews enslaved.
After Ahmose’s death, his son Amenhotep I became Pharaoh. He had military campaigns into Kush, Nubia, and possibly Libya. He was followed by his son Thutmose I (1524-1518) who just may be the start to our solving who was the reigning Pharaoh of the exodus. According to Exodus 1:22, “Then Pharaoh charged all his people [the Hebrews] saying every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
Probably the main reason for this command is found in verse 12, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that they came to dread the Israelites.” It was during his reign that Pharaoh’s daughter happened to go down to the Nile River to bathe.
Continuing with Exodus 2:5-10, the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said: “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” Hence, the girl went and called the child’s mother.
Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay you your wages. So, the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who made him her own son. She called his name Moses, explaining, ‘I drew him out of the water.’”
Pharaoh Thutmose II succeeded his Father Thutmose I on the throne of Egypt (1492 BC) and married his half-sister Hatshepsut (she was most likely the one who adopted Moses). Thutmose II died young, and the throne went to his infant son, born to a secondary wife. According to custom, Hatshepsut began acting as Thutmose III’s regent, until her stepson became of age.
After less than seven years, however, Hatshepsut took the unprecedented step of assuming the full powers of a Pharaoh herself, becoming co-ruler of Egypt with Thutmose III. Knowing her power grab was highly controversial, Hatshepsut fought to defend its legitimacy, pointing to her royal lineage and claiming that her father had appointed her to be his successor. She sought to reinvent her image, and in statues and paintings of that time suggest that she was portrayed as a male Pharaoh, with a beard and large muscles. In other images, she appeared in traditional female regalia.
Hatshepsut surrounded herself with supporters in key positions in government. Her power and influence would explain why Moses had a reasonable amount of security among those ruling Egypt. She may even have had ideas about placing him on the throne! Hapshepsut died around 1458 BC, finally, paving the way for Thutmose III to assume full power.
Pharaoh Thutmose III Forced Moses to Flee to Midian
As the sole ruling Pharaoh of the Kingdom, he created the largest empire Egypt had ever seen. No fewer than seventeen military campaigns were conducted, and he conquered lands from the Niya Kingdom in Northern Syria to the fourth cataract of the Nile in Nubia. He also went on a massive building project in Egypt. Thutmose made it a mission in his life to erase all evidence of Hatshepsut’s rule in Egypt. He removed all her images from temples, monuments and inscriptions that she had made. Historians of ancient Egypt knew little of Hatshepsut until 1822, when they were able to decode and read the hieroglyphics on the walls of Deir-El-Bahri on the banks of the Nile River near Luxor, Egypt.6
We can well imagine what was going through Moses’ mind at this time. Especially seeing he was becoming more and more conscious of his Hebrew origins. Exodus 2:13-15 states that the matter came to a stunning conclusion—when he went out the next day behold, two Hebrew slaves were struggling together. He said to the man in the wrong. “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. Given Moses’ age at the time that he fled, it is fairly certain this coincided with the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III. But this Pharaoh could not have been the ruler at the time of the Exodus!
Pharaoh of the Exodus—Amenhotep II Pharaoh vs Yahweh
Finally, after forty years in the remote regions of Midian, Moses receives his commission from the LORD God to liberate the Hebrews. By that time Pharaoh Thutmose III had died and his son Amenhotep II assumed the throne. When Amenhotep II became Pharaoh, he inherited a large Kingdom from his father. He also began many campaigns to enlarge it, under him more monuments and buildings were built. It began to look as if he would outpace his father. Then it all stopped!
Historical records state that for several years after 1446-1445 BC, Amenhotep II was unable to carry out expensive military campaigns. That would seem very strange behavior by a Pharaoh who hoped to equal his father’s legacy of no less than seventeen military campaigns in nineteen years. But isn’t this what we would expect from a Pharaoh who had lost almost all his cavalry, chariots, and army at the Red Sea? Also, records state that it was only after nine years he mounted a small military campaign into Canaan, just to secure slaves and chariots. He also signed a peace treaty with the Mitanni State as a buffer against the growing Hittite nation.
In the late 19th century, a papyrus was found in Egypt, it was taken to the Leiden Museum in Holland and interpreted by British Egyptologist Sir Alan Henderson Gardner (1879-1963) in 1909. The complete papyrus can be found in the book Admonitions of an Egyptian from the Hieratic Papyrus in Leiden (1183 BC).
The papyrus describes violent upheavals in Egypt, starvation, drought, escape of slaves (with the wealth of Egypt) and death throughout the land. The papyrus was written by an Egyptian named Ipuwer and appears to be the effects of the Exodus plagues from the perspective of an average Egyptian.
Below is a table comparing sections of this Papyrus with what is recorded in Exodus.
Dream Stele of Thutmose IV
The Dream Stele of Thutmose IV, Son of Amenhotep II states that he was not the legitimate successor to the throne. According to the “Dream Stele” the god of the Sphinx Har-Em-Akht, promised the throne to Thutmose IV on the condition he would restore the exposure of the Sphinx, which apparently had been covered by sand. This implies that Thutmose IV was not Amenhotep II’s first born son. This is confirmed by other historical sources, and which would support the final plague of Egypt i.e., the death of all the first born.
Amenhotep IV, great-grandson of Amenhotep II, took the name Akhenaten (Beloved of Aten). He built a new capital and declared that just a single deity should be worshiped. This deity was the Sun disk Aten, which was depicted with its rays extended like arms giving life, peace, and equality to all. It is not so unusual that a people who had been so powerfully impacted by the One True God of Moses would try to worship the God that had convincingly defeated their gods? It is rather interesting that Egypt today is indeed under one god, but the wrong one!
Does it really matter who the Pharaoh of the Exodus was? Probably not! Rahab, the woman who sheltered the two spies said it clearly. “When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the Lord your God is the only God in Heaven above and on earth below!” (Josh 2:11.)
A lowly woman who had faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became greater than any Pharaoh who had ever lived. From her seed came the greatest ruler this world will ever know, the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Ann Arbor Ecclesia, MI)
1 That wasn’t the only historical inaccuracy in the film, but that is a subject for another time.
2 The Hyksos were a people of foreign origin who conquered the Nile Delta and ruled over Egypt from around 1638 BC till 1530 BC.
3 All Scriptural citations are taken from Tanakh: The New Jewish Publication Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society, 1985
4 Merneptah Stele, also known as the Israel Stele, was discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1896 at ancient Thebes. It is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
5 For further study on the Amarna Tablets Google “The Amarna Letters and Tablets 1406-1340.”
6 One of the most well-known structures which survive today is Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Also called “Deir-El-Bahri” located in the Valley of The Kings.