The Pharaoh of the Exodus – Rameses III
Pharaohs without Names in the Bible
Genesis and Exodus mention various Egyptian kings, or Pharaohs (derived from ancient Egyptian pr ʿ3 ‘great house’), but never mention their names. It is for this reason that scholars must debate under whom Joseph served, who instituted the slavery, and who was the pharaoh of the Exodus.
By contrast, Shoshenq I (943-922), founder of the 22nd Dynasty is the first Egyptian pharaoh mentioned by name in the Bible, under the Hebrew form שִׁישַׁק šišaq, appearing as “Shishak” in most English Bibles. The earlier material from Genesis and Exodus is based on epic storytelling, with an eye to aesthetic narration, whereas the later material from Kings is based on royal annals, with an eye towards historical accuracy; this explains the lack of specific names in Genesis and Exodus.
Hyksos for Genesis and Rameses for Exodus – Both Can’t Be True
There is a wide range of scholarly opinion concerning the pharaoh associated with Joseph and Moses. For those scholars who posit an essential historicity to the biblical narrative, most connect Joseph with the Hyksos, and Rameses II with the Slavery. But both of these cannot be correct based on biblical chronology. The entire biblical narrative, including the Exodus and the Wandering, spans only four to six generations. This implies that the entire narrative from Eisodus (entry) to Exodus and Wandering occurred within a century or so, a century and a half at the most.
Genealogy Versus Chronological Time
Too many scholars and certainly too many lay people take the figure of 430 years of residency in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41) literally. But as the study of the ancient Near East demonstrates, ancient “chronists” and “historians” typically exaggerated the passage of time.
Furthermore, anthropological fieldwork in the contemporary Middle East demonstrates that members of many of the societies, especially those untouched by modernity, such as Bedouin tribes, are able to recite their genealogies with remarkable accuracy, but have no concept of historical and chronological time – and in many cases are unable to answer even the simple question enquiring about their age.
This evidence suggests that we should consider the years mentioned in the early biblical books as unreliable, but instead should be guided more by the genealogies to construct a reliable, albeit relative, chronology.
The 19th - 20th Dynasty Fit
Many aspects of the account presented in the Bible fit into the period of 1250 – 1175 B.C.E. These include:
- The arrival and settlement of Shasu-bedouin from the land of Edom in the city of Per-Atum [= Pithom];
- Rameses II’s use of foreign residents to construct the city of Rameses;
- The mention of “Israel” in the Merneptah Stele;
- The tracking down of two slaves in the desert who escaped via Migdol;
- The mention of the Philistines in the Sea Peoples invasion during year 8 of the reign of Rameses III (1182-1155 B.C.E.), that is c. 1175 B.C.E.
All of these find echoes in the Bible, whether they be true reflexes of the biblical account or serve as good parallels to recorded episodes.
Given the accumulation of relevant material from the 19th and early 20th Dynasties, whatever history may underlie the Bible’s narrative should be placed in this general time frame.
The Biblical Pharaohs
Joseph’s Pharaoh: Seti I
In light of the genealogies and the unreliability of the 430-year figure, I would nominate Seti I (1294-1279 B.C.E.) as the pharaoh under whom Joseph served. The capital of Egypt must be in the eastern Delta, as it was throughout the 19th Dynasty (and not in Thebes, for example, as was the case during the 18th Dynasty), for the Bible reflects the close proximity of the Israelite settlement and the royal palace (Genesis 45:16, 47:11, Exodus 2:3-10, etc.).
The Enslaver: Rameses II
Seti I’s son and successor, the powerful ruler Rameses II (1279-1213 B.C.E.), is almost undoubtedly the king who instituted the Slavery – and then this situation remained under his son Merneptah (1213-1203 B.C.E.) and various successor kings. The mention of “Israel” in Merneptah’s famous victory stele, to my mind, refers to Israel still resident in Egypt.
Pharaoh of the Exodus: Rameses III
According to my reconstruction of affairs, the Exodus occurred during the reign of Rameses III, c. 1175 B.C.E., during the Sea Peoples invasion. The one thing that is plainly evident from the inscriptions of this pharaoh’s reign is the major threat to Egypt posed by the coalition of maritime nations, with the Philistines at their head. The biblical narrative coheres with these events in Exodus 13:17,
וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֘ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה:
And it was, when Pharaoh sent-forth the people, and God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “Lest the people change-their-mind when they see war and return to Egypt.”
The Hebrew term דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, “the way of the land of the Philistines” refers to the coastal route, where military action was under way, a situation to be associated with the Sea Peoples invasion.
I recognize, of course, that other scholars have different reconstructions of the events described in the Bible, but I believe the one presented here works best with the evidence at hand.
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April 18, 2016
September 12, 2020
Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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