Who was the Exodus Pharaoh? The simple answer: we do not know for sure, but there are quite a few plausible possibilities. From among them, Ramesses II is the heavy favorite of Bible-believing scholars, bolstered by the Torah’s explicit mention of the place-names Ramesses (Gen. 47:11) and Raamses (Exod. 1:11), confirmation that Ramesses II did indeed have a palatial city called Pi-Ramesses, and a dramatic upsurge, starting at the end of his century, in Israelite settlements across the Canaanite hill country and Transjordan. Recently, however, scholars made a discovery that could add another name to the list: Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE). His was a golden age for Egypt; peace prevailed throughout its empire, and riches were flowing in from Egypt’s vassal states. Or so it seemed. Careful review of his heavy documentation has surfaced a gap of roughly eight years, from his 12th year to his 19th. Among the documents that broke the silence were records of appointments to various offices, replacing former incumbents whose names have been scratched out along with the cause of their departure. According to Egyptologist Arielle Kozloff, this and other factors add up to emerging evidence that epidemics caused this Pharaoh’s scribes to fall silent (she suspects the black plague). Kozloff writes that other known events indicative of a national health crisis probably occurred during these “lost years”: the death of this Pharaoh’s oldest son, the deaths of his in-laws (both known to have died from malaria), and Amenhotep III’s order that as many as 700 statues of Sekhmet, ancient Egypt’s goddess of war and plague, be cast and prayed to daily. More statues of Sekhmet were made at this Pharaoh’s command than of all other subjects combined, including likenesses of Pharaoh himself.
No doubt, epidemics struck ancient Egypt from time to time. But even Kozloff notes the similarity between the scenario she draws and the Exodus story, although she defers to the view that a 13th-entury BCE Pharaoh let the Israelites leave Egypt. We can add Amenhotep III’s feverish Sekhmet worship to the list of possible reasons to associate him with the Exodus. As I wrote in a Jewish Link column in 2015, Sekhmet became known as “the destroyer by plague” from the “Destruction of Humanity” myth, which told of her killing Egyptians for disrespecting her father, the sun-god Ra; their blood, or a blood-like substance used to subdue her, flowed into the Nile. So, in the first plague, God may have led the Egyptians to focus their prayers for relief from that and later plagues on Sekhmet, setting them up for the last plague, in which God repudiated Sekhmet (and the other Egyptian deities) when He prevented “the Destroyer” from attacking Israelite houses (Exod. 12:13, 23). There is more.
- Amenhotep III’s son Akhenaten brought on the Amarna Revolution, the theological civil war that violently pitted Egyptian god against god, priest against priest, which would certainly qualify as the ultimate manifestation of God’s “judgment against the Egyptian deities” (Exod. 12:12).
- During the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, the Egyptian army remained inexplicably quiescent even as strife was tearing apart Egypt’s Canaanite city-state vassals and diminishing the tribute they paid to Egypt. This sounds very much like confirmation of Moses’ remark that the army was still disabled years after the Israelites left Egypt (Deut. 11:4).
- Amenhotep III proclaimed himself a deity while he was still alive, something no pharaoh before him had done. If the 10 plagues did occur during his reign, Amenhotep may have felt responsible for failing to maintain cosmic order and stability (ma’at). His self-deification may have been an act of personal and theological re-assertion, and his defeat at the hands of a monotheistic deity might be tied in some way to the turn he took toward the elevation of the sun-disk Aten to supreme god.
- The Bible prohibits Israelite kings from owning many horses, having many women and accumulating much gold (Deut. 17:16-17). While pharaohs in general were self-indulgent—self-promoting inscriptions, extensive building projects, wall paintings and the like testifying to extravagant lifestyles—Amenhotep III seems to stand out for these particular indulgences. He had an unprecedented accumulation of wealth, he was “rich in horses” and he was evidently a womanizer.
It would be nice if we had more persuasive evidence of the 10 plagues and the Exodus, regardless of which Pharaoh it points to. But that may be too much to expect. The Israelites may not have become an ethically identifiable group until after the Exodus. So far, Pharaoh Merneptah’s stela from around 1209 BCE is the first mention we have found of a people called “Israel.” Until then, Egypt and other powers may have thought of the Israelites as just another group of Apiru or Shasu—nomadic or semi-nomadic groups that attacked the Canaanite city-states. Moreover, it is possible that evidence of any of the first nine “plagues” will never be found. For one thing, the Egyptians usually avoided recording bad events. For another, the trauma of the last plague (see Ex. 12:30 and Num. 33:4) may have overwritten memory of the first nine plagues. Moreover, the Egyptians had experienced events similar to the first nine plagues before. When the Nile’s water turned to blood or a blood-like substance in the first plague, the Egyptians may have assumed that Sekhmet was attacking Egyptians again, as she did in the myth. Frogs frequently came on land after Nile inundations—as they did in the second plague—so much so that the Egyptians considered them an omen of fertility. An ancient inscription records an Egyptian officer’s complaints about bites from swarms of insects, reminiscent of the fourth plague. Violent storms such as the seventh plague, though rare, occurred from time to time, as testified by the Ahmose tempest stela. Locust infestations occurred from time to time in the Near and Middle East, as they did most recently in 2013. Finally, the darkness of the ninth plague is reminiscent of the Ipuwer’s report in “Admonitions of a Sage,” dated to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom or Hyksos times, that the sun was obscured during a violent period.
In my next column, I will discuss two Exodus-like accounts written by a non-biblical source, the controversial priest/historian Manetho from the third century BCE. I will explain why his writings should be regarded as remnants of ancient Egyptian records and oral traditions that testify to the historical records. I admit to a motive here: he attributes these Exodus-like events to Amenhotep III and one of the Thutmosides (not Hatshepsut, but she may be the Pharaoh he means).
By Ira Friedman
Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history.