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SBL e-journal

Israel Knohl





Exodus: The History Behind the Story





APA e-journal

Israel Knohl





Exodus: The History Behind the Story








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Exodus: The History Behind the Story

The Elephantine Stele and the Great Harris Papyrus both describe Pharaoh Setnakhte’s war against the Levantine usurper Irsu in 1186 B.C.E. Reading these accounts together with Manetho’s story of the war against Osarseph offers us a possible historical context for what eventually became the Bible’s story of the exodus of Israel from Egypt.


Exodus: The History Behind the Story

Tomb KV14 is a joint tomb, used originally by Twosret and then reused and extended by Setnakhte. Credit Francesco Gasparetti /Flickr – Wikimedia. See a virtual tour of Tomb KV14

Manetho’s Exodus Story

The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt is told in detail in the book of Exodus.[1] The salient features of the story are that the Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians and forced to work as builders. Eventually, a leader named Moses, sent by his god, YHWH, brought the Egyptians to their knees with a series of plagues, left Egypt with his people, and headed for Canaan.

A very different version of this story can be found in the writings of a 3rd cent. B.C.E. Egyptian priest named Manetho.[2] Manetho’s story has two parts.

First, he tells of a group called the Hyksos, who came from Canaan. They overran Egypt, were driven out, went back to Canaan, and ultimately settled in Jerusalem. In other words, the Hyksos are the Israelites/Jews in Manetho’s thinking.[3]

Next, he tells that years later, a Pharaoh named Amenophis wanted to come face to face with the gods.[4] His counselor told him that only if Egypt is cleansed of lepers would he be able to see the gods. Amenophis collected all the lepers in Egypt and settled them together in a remote city, Avaris, which had previously been the Hyksos’ capital.

The lepers rebelled against Amenophis and appointed a leper priest called Osarseph as their leader. Osarseph had previously served at the temple of the sun god in Heliopolis (the biblical “On”), and he gave the lepers a new religion that was hostile to the Egyptian religion. They despised the Egyptian gods and sacred animals, which they slaughtered, roasted, and ate.

When the lepers were attacked by the Egyptians, Osarseph sent messengers abroad to conscript a militia. He approached the Hyksos in Jerusalem, and they arrived in thousands from Canaan to help Osarseph and the lepers, at which point Osarseph changed his name to Moses.

Together the lepers and the Jerusalemites formed a military power that took over Egypt, looted the Egyptian temples, profaned the idols, and slaughtered and ate the sacred animals. Eventually, Amenophis left Kush, where he had been hiding from Osarseph, with a huge army, and returned to Egypt. Together with his son Rameses, he fought the joint forces of the lepers and the Jerusalemites and pursued them into the Syrian mountains. (Josephus, Against Apion, 1:26-7).

What We Learn from Manetho

Manetho’s story cannot be taken as a simple historical account. He mixes Hyksos with Israelites, brings together Amenophis (IV) and Ramses (III) who were not related (Egypt never had a father and son pharaoh pair with those names), and makes a number of other historical errors. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a step back and summarizing the contours of his story.

According to Manetho, a group of Levantines in Egypt took power under a leader who gave himself the name Moses. This leader threatened the indigenous Egyptian religion and objected to the worship of Egyptian gods and sacred animals. This group was reinforced by people arriving from the north, from the direction of Canaan, and together they held power over Egypt, until Pharaoh Amenophis, aided by his son Rameses, drove them out.

Joining with Enemies from the Outside

The biblical story seems very different from that of Manetho: Manetho describes a failed Levantine military campaign against Egypt whereas the dominant image of Israel in the exodus story is of miserable slaves coerced into forced building labor in Egypt who manage to escape (see, e.g., Exod 14:5). Nevertheless, a number of verses in Exodus paint a picture that is resonant with Manetho’s story:

Invading Army—As the Bible scholar, Thomas Römer, has noted,[5] the idea of dissident elements in Egypt joining with outsiders and attacking Egypt is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s words at the beginning of the book of Exodus:

שמות א:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. א:יהָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.
Exod 1:9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 1:10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (NRSV)

Exactly what Pharaoh is afraid they will do—literally “go up from the land”—is unclear.[6] Whatever the phrase means, Pharaoh is afraid that the Hebrews living in Egypt will join with an outside group in a military campaign against Egypt. This is just what Manetho describes as having happened.[7]

Great Leader—Moses is described as being an important and respected man in Egypt:

שמות א:ג וַיִּתֵּן יְ־הוָה אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
Exod 11:3 YHWH gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials and in the sight of the people.

Egyptians Afraid— Scripture describes how the Egyptians were afraid of the Israelites and hoped they would leave:

שמות יב:לג וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל הָעָם לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן הָאָרֶץ כִּי אָמְרוּ כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים.
Exod 12:33 The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, “We shall all be dead.”

Gold and Silver—In three different places, the text emphasizes how the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver:

שמות יב:לה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת. יב:לווַיהוָה נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 12:35 The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, 12:36 and YHWH had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.[8]

Armed—The Israelites are said to have left Egypt as an army,

שמות יג:יח וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:8 And the people of Israel went up armed[9] out of the land of Egypt.

Allies—The Israelites are joined by a large force of allies, who, following the Akkadian parallel urbi, are likely mercenary soldiers:[10]

שמות יב:לח וְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם וְצֹאן וּבָקָר מִקְנֶה כָּבֵד מְאֹד.
Exod 12:38 A large group of mercenaries also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds.

Judging the Gods—YHWH makes clear to Moses that he is not only going to hurt the Egyptians, but their gods as well:

שמות יב:יב וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Exod 12:12 And against all the gods of Egypt I shall execute judgments; I am YHWH.

Slaughtering a Ram—A key part of the biblical story is the slaughtering of the ram, sacred to the Egyptian gods Amun and Khnum. Moses notes the problematic nature of Israelites slaughtering a sheep after Pharaoh suggests they worship YHWH in Egypt:

שמות ח:כב וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לֹא נָכוֹן לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן כִּי תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם נִזְבַּח לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ הֵן נִזְבַּח אֶת תּוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם וְלֹא יִסְקְלֻנוּ.
Exod 8:22 (26) But Moses replied, “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to YHWH our God is untouchable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice that which is untouchable to the Egyptians before their very eyes, will they not stone us!

The combined picture from these verses paints a portrait that overlaps with Manetho’s account; the Israelites are the very opposite of a downtrodden, enslaved people. We have all the elements of a battle here: arms, booty, foreign allies, fear and respect for the adversary, a clash of religions, and a powerful leader.

Moreover, any story about escaped slaves has no clear parallel in Egyptian sources, while what is described here, a rebuffed hostile takeover of Egypt from a Levantine group, has more than one. Significantly, one of these incidents happened in the 12th century B.C.E., the very time for which we have archaeological evidence for the appearance of Israelite settlers in Israel.

Locating the Story in History

Towards the end of the 19th dynasty of Egypt, after the death of Seti II (grandson of the famous Rameses II), a boy named Siptah (we do not know for sure if he was the son of Seti II or some other relative), was chosen as the next Pharaoh and placed on the throne by the powerful, Levantine chancellor, Bay.

Siptah reigned five or six years (1197–1191), dying while he was still a teenager. After this, Tausert, the wife (and sister) of Seti II, assumed the throne for two or three years, (ca. 1190–1188 B.C.E.). Upon her death, the dynasty came to an end, and a new pharaoh named Setnakhte, who was not part of the previous royal family, took the throne, establishing the 20thdynasty.

Like many regime changes, this dynastic change included conflict. This is described in two Egyptian documents that narrate the dramatic ascent of Setnakhte and his dynasty.

The Setnakhte Monument

Pharaoh Setnakhte set up a stele in the southern city of Yabe, or Elephantine, the same city where many years later Jewish Israelite soldiers lived under Persian rule. The stele was discovered in 1971, and it describes how Setnakhte saved Egypt from turmoil and cleansed it of enemies:

This country was in turmoil, Egypt had fallen into neglect of god ///[11]…. The troublemakers before him, after his fear had taken their hearts, they fled away like flocks of small birds with a falcon behind them; leaving behind the gold, silver and ///… They had those paid to the Levantines of the leaders of Egypt to attract them as combatants. Their plans failed and their promises were stranded….[12]

We see from this that the “troublemakers,” who lived in Egypt, hired outsiders to invade, in order to support their rule over Egypt, and that Setnakhte even recovered the silver and gold they were using for payment. The stele further claims that by his second year, Setnakhte had emptied Egypt of its enemies and restored proper worship:

Year 2, second month of Shomu, day 10, there were no opponents against His Majesty in any country, their masters came to say to His Majesty: “Your heart is joyful, Lord of this country! That what god foretold happened! Your enemies, they are no longer on earth. There is no power of an army or chariots except that of your father Seth!’” …All the temples are open, and offerings are prepared to enter the warehouses.

This text emphasizes how, during the rule of the troublemakers and their Levantine allies, worship of Egyptian gods was cancelled, and that Sethnakhte frames his war or rebellion as a campaign to restore the offerings to the gods. This is reminiscent of both Manetho’s claim and the biblical description of YHWH’s war on the Egyptian gods.

The document does not clarify who these troublemakers were and why they felt comfortable joining together with Levantine outsiders to conquer Egypt. Luckily, we can fill this out with another document that describes this same campaign.

The Great Harris Papyrus

At forty meters long, the Great Harris Papyrus is the largest papyrus in existence today. It is a propagandistic document written during the time of Rameses III, Setnakhte’s son, and a very powerful pharaoh in his own right. The papyrus tells of Setnakhte’s establishment of a new dynasty at a time when Egypt was in a bad state (398–399):

Hear ye, that I may make you aware of my benefactions which I accomplished while I was king of the people. The land of Egypt had been cast aside, with every man being his (own standard of) right. They had no chief spokesman for many years previously up to other times. The land of Egypt was officials and mayors, one slaying his fellow, both exalted and lowly (ANET, 260).

The state of Egypt only gets worse, and eventually an unnamed Levantine man takes power:

Other times came afterwards in the empty years, and a Levantine (kharru) with them, a self-made (Irsw) prince. He set the entire land as tributary before him. One joined his companion that their property might be plundered.[13]

This group, under the aegis of a man describe as the Irsu (the self-made man),[14] acts with contempt toward the Egyptian gods:

They treated the gods like the people, and no offerings were presented in the temples.

Into this void stepped Setnakhte, who is described as the son of the gods, to right the wrongs of Egypt and reestablish the worship of the Egyptian gods:

But when the gods reversed themselves to show mercy and to set the land right as was its normal state, they established their son, who had come forth from their body, to be Ruler-life, prosperity, health!-of every land, upon their great throne… the Son of Re: Set-nakht Merer-Re Meri-Amon-life, prosperity, health! He was Khepri-Seth when he was enraged. He brought to order the entire land, which had been rebellious. He slew the disaffected of heart who had been in Egypt. He cleansed the great throne of Egypt.

If we combine what is written in these two Egyptian sources, the first of which was literally composed the year after the events allegedly occurred, and factor in what else we know about this period, we can offer a sketch of what happened at the end of the nineteenth dynasty and the beginning of the twentieth dynasty.

Combining the Two Stories

Starting with the reign of Seti II, and through the reigns of Siptah and Tausert, Egypt was in decline. When Tausert died without a clear heir, around 1188 B.C.E., Egypt fell into internal conflict. Then someone of Levantine origin (kharru), referred to only as Irsu “the self-made man,” took over rule in Egypt.

This man despised Egyptian rituals and prohibited offerings to the Egyptian gods. He imported allies from the Levant—i.e., from somewhere in Syria, Lebanon,[15] or Canaan—whom he paid with silver and gold. Setnakhte, founder of the twentieth dynasty, fought against the foreigner and his Levantine allies who had taken over the country, and succeeded in driving them out and reestablishing the worship of Egyptian gods.

The Identity of Irsu

Who, then is Irsu? Scholars long assumed the Irsu must have been Bay, the powerful Levantine chancellor who installed Siptah on the throne. The theory went that once Siptah and then Tausret died, Bay, who was the most powerful man in Egypt, decided to take the throne himself and began to make reforms in line with his own religious preferences.

We now know that this is impossible, since Siptah, in the 5th year of his rule, had Bay executed as a traitor.[16] Thus, Bay could not have been Irsu, who usurped the throne a few years after Bay’s death. Instead, I suggest that Irsu should be identified with Moses, and that the biblical story contains the missing piece explaining Irsu’s rise to power.[17]

The Torah’s Moses and Setnakht’s Irsu

According to Exodus 2, Moses is an Israelite leader, but was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in the palace. The figure of Pharaoh’s daughter is likely based upon Tausert, who was, probably, the daughter of Pharaoh Merenptah before she became the wife of her half-brother, Pharaoh Seti II. Seti II and Tausert apparently had one daughter who died in her childhood, and no other offspring.

Moses is an Egyptian name, and according to Exodus, it was given him by his adopted mother. The name means “son” and is unusual since it is not preceded by the name of an Egyptian God as illustrated in names such as Rameses (son of Ra, the sun god), Thutmose (son of Thoth, god of wisdom), Ahmose (son of Iaḥ, the moon god) etc.[18] Moses is thus, a son of nobody. This fits well with Papyrus Harris calling the usurper “the self-made man,” i.e., a son of nobody.

Although Moses is raised in the palace, he is a Levantine (Hebrew/Israelite) foreigner, as is Irsu the Kharru. This dual identity would help explain the rise of Irsu.

When Tausert died without an heir, Moses/Irsu saw himself as the appropriate person to take over and ascend the throne of the pharaohs. To do this, he conscripted his people who were living as dominated foreigners in Egypt, and brought in reinforcements from abroad, whom he paid with gold and silver.

A struggle for power between opposing forces in Egypt followed. Moses and his men lost, were expelled from Egypt, and left for Canaan. This also gives us a specific year for this exodus, 1186 B.C.E., the second year of Pharaoh Setnakhte’s reign.

Two Versions of the Story

The war of Irsu and Setnakhte was traumatic for all involved, and each group remembered it in very different ways. From the Egyptian perspective, a group of foreigners living among them, who were contemptuous of their gods and slaughtered their sacred animals, tried to take over the country, and even paid outsiders to invade Egypt. They were successful for a short time, but a powerful Egyptian general led a counterattack and ultimately pushed Irsu and his Kharru out the land, restoring order and proper worship, and becoming the next pharaoh.

The Israelites also remembered the story. From their perspective, the Egyptians had dominated and mistreated them, taking advantage of their status as foreigners. Eventually a champion arose, Moses, who had been brought up in the palace; he wreaked havoc upon the Egyptians and their gods for how they treated his people.

He commanded his people to slaughter a ram, which is sacred to the Egyptians. By this, he reestablished proper worship of their own god, YHWH, and marched the Israelites and their allies out of the land with gold, silver, weapons, and prestige. From this event, the story of the exodus was born.


April 15, 2019


Last Updated

July 14, 2024


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Prof. Israel Knohl is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Hebrew University. Knohl’s numerous publications include: The Sanctuary of Silence, which won the Z. Shkopp Prize for Biblical Studies and The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.