The Exodus in the history of ancient Egypt

The Exodus is one of the most significant and dramatic events described in the Old Testament. However, making an attempt to find a suitable time frame for placing this event in the course of real history usually ends up in a deadlock. One of the most difficult obstacles to solve this problem is to find a suitable time frame for the huge scale of catastrophic disasters described in the Book of Exodus 14:5-15:21. This entry would like to examine relatively known attempts for placing the Exodus in 1447 B. C. E, in 1250 B. C. E. and in the fall of the Hyksos in circa 1570 B. C. E. If none of these attempts seemed to be successful, it would change the view point and look for a suitable Pharaoh described in the Book of Exodus first.

Firstly, there are a couple of conventional views on when the Exodus took place; circa 1447 B. C. E and circa 1250 B. C. E. It is said that the former is based on biblical chronology whilst the latter comes from ‘certain archaeological data in Israel, which looked more suitable to the Conquest, (which followed the Exodus,) down around 1200 B.C.’ (Ardsma Research & Publishing, 2007; However, putting aside the complicated issues over the biblical chronology, there are various problems to place the Exodus into the known history of Egypt in both of these so-called ‘conventional’ dates . As for the latter, despite the catastrophic disasters described in the book of Exodus, in around 1250 B. C. E., it is said that Pharaoh Merneptah, who ruled Egypt at that time, ‘left a record of his military success in Palestine in which he mentions that he decimated Israel. This single inscription guarantees that Israel was established as a nation in Palestine by the reign of Merneptah, forcing the date of the Exodus into the early part of the reign of Ramesses II at the latest. But… there is no sign of anything which could possibly correspond to the biblical Exodus in the reign of this pharaoh or his immediate predecessors’ (ibid).

As for the former, there are more convincing studies that pick out the year 1447 B. C. E. based on calculations of biblical chronology. However, in Egyptian history, this year seems to fall in to the reign of Amenhotep II, who is ‘generally acknowledged to have taken care of his military duties early on, thereafter establish(ed) a peaceful and prosperous reign suitable to fairly extensive expansion of temple monuments’ (Dunn, 2012). Even though the exact time frames of Amenhotep II’s reign are arguable as Dunn points out that ‘While the Chronicle of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton (ISBN 0-500-05074-0) gives his reign lasting from 1453 until 1419 BC, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (ISBN 0-19-815034-2) provides a reign between 1427 until 1400 BC’ (ibid), this doesn’t break through the obstacle. The year in question, 1447 B. C. E., falls into the sixth year of Amenhotep II’s reign in the former case, whilst twenty years before his reign in the latter. However, his antecedent Pharaoh Tuthmosis III was ‘well recognized as a military leader, sometimes referred to as the “Napoleon of ancient Egypt”’ (ibid). Thus, having looked at every possible candidate for the Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, it became clear that both conventional dates falls into unlikely Pharaohs’ relatively stable and peaceful reigns; Memeptah or Ramesses II for 1250 B. C. E. and Amenhotep II or Tuthmosis III for 1447 B. C. E.

Subsequently, looking for misfortunes of Egyptians in wider time frames in the history inevitably makes researchers focus on the 15th Dynasty, also known as the Hyksos. As the etymology of the word Hyksos clearly shows, they were ‘hekau khoswe, “the rulers of foreign lands”’ (The Gale Group, 2008) and this must have been one of the most humiliating misfortunes for ancient Egyptians. It is said that the Hyksos ‘exercised political control over Egypt between approximately 1655 and 1570 B.C.E.’ (ibid) from Avaris, the capital city they built, which is later identified as ‘Tell el-Dabʿa in the Northeast Delta’ (ibid). The people so-called the Hyksos are usually described as Asiatics, ‘the standard name for the inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean littoral, Canaan and Syria’ (ibid) and it is also known that ‘Most of the Hyksos personal names are west-Semitic, in the same language group as Amorite and the Canaanite and Aramaic dialects’ (ibid). Little more following things are also known relating to the Hyksos; (1) their culture belongs to ‘Middle Bronze Age Palestine and Phoenicia’ (ibid), (2) ‘The horse and chariot made their appearance in Egypt during the rule of the Hyksos, but there is no evidence that they were introduced specifically by the Hyksos’ (ibid) and (3) ‘At the beginning of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1580 B.C.E.) Pharaoh Ahmes expelled the Hyksos from Egypt and pursued them to southern Palestine’ (ibid). Information above may seem to be encouraging for researchers to attempt establishing a hypothesis for identifying the Hyksos with the biblical Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt led in by Joseph and led out by Moses. Actually, Josephus, a famous Jewish historian in the first century A. D., is one of known historians tried to do so, by directly quoting from Manetho, a Ptolemaic Egyptian writer lived during the 30th Dynasty, who had wrongly interpreted the meaning of the word Hyksos as ‘king-shepherds’ (ibid) or ‘captive shepherds’ (ibid). However, even though there is a further fact that ‘some of the Hyksos rulers bore names echoed in the Bible’ (ibid), attempts made by some scholars ‘to set the Exodus within the chronological framework of the 18th Dynasty’ (ibid) achieve little success. It is said that ‘There is no warrant either in the Bible or outside it for simply equating the Hyksos with the later Hebrews’ (ibid) and as far as the biblical account of catastrophic damages allegedly left on Egyptian soil concerns, it would be relatively easier to find a counter argument such as; Egypt would  have eventually benefited ‘considerably from their experience of foreign rule, and it has been suggested that the Hyksos rule of Egypt was far less damaging than later 18th Dynasty records would lead us to believe’ (Dunn, 2012). In other words, through the experience of foreign rule, Egypt rather became ‘a stronger country, with a much more viable military’ (ibid).

So far, every attempt on seeking for a suitable time frame to accommodate the biblical Exodus in the history of ancient Egypt didn’t go well. Does this mean that the biblical account is merely a fiction? Before jumping to a conclusion, it might be worthwhile to change the strategy and look for the suitable Pharaohs first. According to the Book of Exodus, it is the same Pharaoh, ‘whose daughter adopted three-month-old Moses’  (Ardsma Research & Publishing, 2007; and who ‘died when Moses was nearly 80 years old’ (ibid). This means that this Pharaoh must have ruled longer then nearly 80 years. Such a long reign by a mortal human Pharaoh inevitably disqualifies almost all Pharaohs in the real history of Egypt, except for Pepy II, who ‘is traditionally thought to have governed the country for ninety-four years’ (ibid). The name of Pepy (or Pepi) II can be found as the fifth Pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty, who allegedly ruled between 2246 and 2152 B. C. E. The 6th Dynasty has a couple of Pharaohs after the long reign of Pepy II, however, both of them, Merenre II and Nitocris ‘are only known through the (Abydos) king-lists and Manetho (the 30th Dynasty historian). No known monuments give their names and they are not even mentioned in inscriptions of high officials’ (Kinnaer, 2009). As for these successors of the long reigned Pharaoh, following trivial but supplemental information can be found: ‘The Abydos king-list mentions a Merenre II (also called Antiemdjaf)…, who reigned for only a single year’ (Ardsma Research & Publishing, 2007; and he ‘would have been married to Queen Nitocris, who according to Manetho was the last Sixth Dynasty ruler’ (ibid). Now, at least these findings could secure a clue for connecting the history of ancient Egypt and the Book of Exodus, both of which should provide a situation where, ‘an extremely long reign is followed by a very short reign’ (ibid).

The fact that the names of both successors of Pepy II are only known in the Abydos king-lists implies how miserable their reigns would have been. Quoting from Nicholas Grimal (1993), the author(s) of the web site referred above further continues to establish a following strong case:

‘The Biblical account of the ten plagues is quite detailed. It describes the pollution of the water supply, and devastation of the livestock and vegetation of the land. The Israelites left, depriving the land of its slave labor, and they carried away much of the land’s wealth in the form of silver, gold, and clothing [Exodus 12:36]. Also, the army and the Pharaoh were drowned in the “Red Sea,” leaving the country with weakened defences… Grimal says: “The Old Kingdom ended with a period of great confusion… It was the collapse of the whole society, and Egypt itself had become a world in turmoil, exposed to the horrors of chaos which was always waiting for the moment when the personification of the divine being – the Pharaoh – neglected his duties or simply disappeared… This time period was characterized by famine, an expected result of the plagues… This famine was limited to the Nile valley… (Egypt’s foreign trade ceased and Egyptian mining in the Sinai peninsula) also seems to have been abandoned”… The nation of Egypt had obviously suffered a severe blow—as one would expect from what the Bible tells us of the events accompanying the Exodus.Reference: Grimal, Nicolas (1993), A History of Ancient Egypt Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.’ (ibid).

Interestingly, endorsement for the argument above can be found in a short description genuinely written about the 6th Dynasty, which points out a following assumption: ‘It is believed more and more that changes in climate and a lower inundation of the Nile are likely to have played an important part in the downfall of the dynasty’ (Kinnaer, 2009). Furthermore, it says ‘Most kings of the 6th Dynasty also chose to build their funerary monument in Saqqara’ (ibid), which makes sure the geographical match between the 6th Dynasty and the story of the Exodus for Saqqara is less than 20 miles from modern day’s Cairo. It also hints a possible catastrophic power vacuum that might occurred in the end of the Old Kingdom by mentioning the next period that followed the fall of the 6th Dynasty as following: ‘during the 1st Intermediate Period (between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom), the power of… local rulers appears to have increased’ (ibid). Having given these accounts so far, to explain the plausibility over why a widowed wife had to succeed the Dynasty that might have caused a foreseeable result of power shifting to local rulers, it would be quite convenient and helpful to fit the death of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus into the death of Merenre II because this removes not only the Pharaoh, ultimately merely a person, but also the whole army that most likely includes powerful candidates for future successors of Merene II serving as military commanders and generals all together.

Nevertheless, this hypothesis also faces to an obstruction to break through; the biblical chronology, most famously in 1 Kings, says ‘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…’ (1 Kings 6:1). It is usually regarded that Solomon ‘became ruler in approximately 967 B. C. E.’ (Schoenberg, 2013) and this automatically gives the interval between the death of Merenre II in 2152(1) B. C. E. and Solomon’s reign in 967 B. C. E. longer than 1,000 years, far longer than 480 years given from the Bible. To solve this problem, one should prove or insist that what the Bible says is, at least partly, incorrect. However, stepping into this realm of argument far exceeds the main intention of this entry, which should satisfy with only presenting and analysing related information, and therefore it would be appropriate for this entry to end here.

Thus, this entry tried to examine various attempts on placing the Exodus in the real history of ancient Egypt and resulted in to show each attempt ends up in a deadlock. First of all, it looked at relatively known attempts, so-called conventional views, and found a difficulty to place the biblical account in both 1447 B. C. E and 1250 B. C. E. for every possible Pharaoh ruled in these dates was too prosperous. Then it looked at another attempt for placing the Exodus at the fall of Hyksos in circa 1570 B. C. E. and faced to the similar difficulty. It even found that Egypt rather became stronger through the experience of foreign rule. Finally, it looked for the most suitable candidate for the Pharaoh first and found an extraordinary long reign of Pepy II in the end of the 6th Dynasty. By focusing on his successor Merenre II, it discovered some supportive points for identifying him as the Pharaoh, who allegedly faced the catastrophic disasters described in the Book of Exodus. It also speculated that the disaster associated with the Exodus provides a plausible explanation over why his successor was not any other male candidate but his wife, a woman. Nevertheless, it refrained from jumping to a conclusion because the end of the 6th Dynasty doesn’t fit in within the range of the biblical chronology’s requirement.


  • Book

Ivy Books (1991), The Holy Bible, King James Version

Published by Ballantine Books, New York

  • Internet

Ardsma Research & Publishing (2007), Is there evidence of the Exodus from Egypt?, – Topics (electrically accessed 25/02/2013)

Ardsma Research & Publishing (2007), What’s wrong with the conventional dates for the Exodus?, – Topics (electrically accessed 25/02/2013)

Dunn, Jimmy (2012), Egypt: Amenhotep II, 7th Pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, Tour Egypt (electrically accessed 04/03/2013) 

Dunn, Jimmy (2012), Who were the Hyksos?, Tour Egypt (electrically accessed 05/02/2013)

Gale Group, The (2008), Hyksos, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jewish Virtual Library (electrically accessed 04/02/2013) 

Kinnaer, Jacques (2009), 6th Dynasty, The Ancient Egypt Site – History – Old Kingdom (electrically accessed 23/03/2013)

Schoenberg, Shira (2013), Solomon – Biblical Jewish King, Jewish Virtual Library (electrically accessed 02/04/2013)

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One Response to The Exodus in the history of ancient Egypt

  1. thematrixq says:

    Reblogged this on ?verything!.

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