Subscribe to the BASNY Newsletter

The Battle of Kadesh: Meaning for Israel and the Bible

Ramses: Moses showdown in The Ten Commandments

The Battle of Kadesh:
Meaning for Israel and the Bible
Paper presented November 16, 2023
Annual Conference of ASOR

The Battle of Kadesh in year 5 of Ramses II between Egypt and the Hittites is one of the best documented battles in the ancient Near East. Records of the battle exist in multiple copies and formats throughout the land of Egypt including in giant billboard color. By now Egyptologists know that these accounts should not be taken as gospel. Instead they are royal propaganda by a king who did not win the confrontation.

This paper takes the position that there are specific elements in the Kadesh battle report that can be identified as contributing to the royal spin. These elements do not reflect historical events even though they give appearance of doing so. By examining these incidents and motifs, it is possible to determine if there is a pattern to them or their message. In other words, they do not exist by chance. Quite the contrary, they reflect a conscious decision by Ramses and are directed towards the audience who would read, see, and hear, about the battle in these reliefs distributed nationwide. They reveal the historical context not in which the battle was fought in year 5, but the subsequent context in which that battle was spun. Some of the incidents and motifs in these versions have direct bearing on both the history of Israel and the writing of the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE Question #1: How Do We Know the Battle of Kadesh Occurred?

(Battlefield in modern Syria, courtesy Steven Weingartner)

What is the archaeological evidence that proves that the Battle of Kadesh occurred?

Is there a destruction level at Kadesh that can be definitively attributed to this confrontation between these two ancient superpowers, the Hittites and the Egyptians?

Are there battlefield artifacts that can be assigned to both sides? A mound of chariots?

The Way of Horus connecting Egypt to Asia (Courtesy Jim Hoffmeier)

There is archaeological evidence for a campaign route from Egypt part of the way to Kadesh, the Way of Horus, but not the entire way. Is there evidence of a comparable route for the Hittites and their presumed allies? Let’s put this in context. Suppose over three thousand years from now there was proof of an airport in this city and an Interstate highway with rest stops to this location. Would that prove that on a specific date, you travelled it to attend this specific conference?

The general answer is “No.” There is no archaeological proof that a battle occurred in Ramses Year 5 between Egypt and the Hittites at Kadesh. Somehow an armed force of 20,000 plus support people and including horse and chariot marched hundreds of miles across Sinai and Canaan into Syria where it confronted a roughly comparably sized Hittite foe with both sides leaving no artefactual trace for archaeologists to discover. Good thing the only record of the battle wasn’t in the Hebrew Bible otherwise who would believe it happened.

SLIDE Question #2: Why Are there so many textual and relief records of the battle in Egypt?

No incident in Egyptian history is so impressed upon the mind of the traveler in Egypt as this battle between the forces of Ramses II and those of the Hittites at Kadesh on the Orontes, in the fourteenth century before Christ [now dated to the thirteenth century]. The young king’s supreme effort to save himself and his army from destruction is so often depicted and in such graph pictures upon the walls of the great temples, that no visitor, not even the most blasé “globe-trotter” can ever forget it (James Henry Breasted, The Battle of Kadesh: A Study in the Earliest Known Military Strategy, 1903 4).

The main source of information for the Battle of Kadesh consists of texts and reliefs found in Egypt. There are a plethora of such sources to be found throughout the country. These locations include: Abu Simbel, Abydos, Karnak, Luxor, and the Ramesseum. There are so many records that Egyptologists differentiate them into the Poem and the Bulletin, two sources about the same event with the relief captions providing another source. Egyptologists examine these different versions the way Biblical scholars investigate different textual versions of the same passage.

Instead of wrestling with the multiple versions of the Battle of Kadesh to create an historical reconstruction, let’s pause, take a deep breath and stand back and ask why are there so many versions of precisely the same battle?

For example, how many records of Thutmose III at the Battle of Megiddo in the 15th century BCE are there?

Thutmose III at Megiddo boldly choosing the middle route and catching the Canaanites by surprise. A role model for Ramses II.

The legacy of battle reliefs can be pushed back to Pharaoh Ahmose against the Hyksos in the 16th century BCE from the excavations at Abydos by Steve Harvey.

Excavations by Steve Harvey showing the similarity of fragments he found at Abydos from the 16th century with those from Thutmose III in the 15th century BCE.

Almost all the great warrior kings of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties, are consistent in the campaign reliefs they created for their battles – one set of reliefs at one location. Ramses is the anomaly. So even without delving into the weeds to historically recreate the Battle of Kadesh based on multiple texts and reliefs in the first place, it is legitimate to wonder why there are so many versions of the one battle and why are scattered throughout the land?

Question #3: What Does It Mean to Call the Ramses II record royal propaganda?

The classic image of Pharaoh smites the enemy from Narmer, c. 3100 BCE, showing the king restoring order and preserving ma’at

Given this abundance of textual and visual evidence, what does it mean to call it royal propaganda? What are the elements, motifs, and portions of the record that would cause one to identify the record as propaganda? I am using the term in the sense of spin. Spoiler alert. I hope I am not disclosing any information not already known to you.

Thutmose III, the Napoleon of Egypt who fought campaigns 17 of his 21 years often in Canaan and brought back many captives

 The crux of the matter appears to be in a society of Pharaoh smites the enemy, when an Egyptian king actually did fight an enemy king, and not just some mayor of a Canaanite city, he did not smite the enemy. In fact, Ramses did not even win the confrontation with the Hittites.

Furthermore everyone who participated in the battle knew that Ramses did not smite the enemy. I suggest, based on the nationwide distribution of reliefs, that knowledge of this failure by Ramses similarly was widespread as well. Hence the need to spin the story and to ensure the spin was made known throughout the kingdom.

In this paper, I wish to suggest three ways in which Ramses spun the story. There are three events in the Battle of Kadesh inscriptions that look like they could be historical but which never happened. They are:

1. he was led astray by the Yahweh-worshipping Shasu – Thutmose III made a bold decision at Megiddo and was successful. He was a great leader. By contrast, Ramses’s bold decision before he arrived at Kadesh did not work out so well. But he was not responsible for the failure. How better to explain his failure than to blame a wilderness people of chaos? Isn’t the failure to restore or maintain ma’at normally attributed to these forces of chaos? Why should scholars even assume this event occurred? Would you with a biblical spy story? When Seti fought the Shasu were they in Syria? Shouldn’t the Shasu be in wilderness east of Egypt?

2. he was deserted by his troops – Seriously!!!! People who had fought under the command of Seti and in his own earlier campaigns, now deserted Ramses after marching with him for hundreds of miles away from home! Why take this claim seriously? This charge raises a topic typically ignored by biblical scholars: the role of the military in Egypt during the 19th Dynasty particularly in the time of Ramses.

His capital city was a military one. Power had shifted from the priests in Thebes to the generals in Avaris. The military was in ascendancy. The capital culture was mixed or hybrid. The 19th Dynasty royal family was from the northeast Delta; its precise connection to the Hyksos whom Seti honored at an event and Ramses later commemorated remains unknown. The armed forces were multi-racial and multi-ethnic. The young king needed to earn their loyalty especially if there was an alternative to his leadership. The military knew it had not deserted the king in battle, yet he publicly claimed they had. Ramses’s accusation of a great crime by the military was a post-Kadesh effort to assign blame later offset by his attempt instill loyalty in them with his 400 Year Stela. He was not deserted at Kadesh. Perhaps he had been deserted later somewhere later when the army stood down and did not interfere with a challenge to him.

3. he prayed to Amun – his lengthy well-crafted prayer to his father deity did not occur on the field of battle; this expression of personal piety would have been well-known to the audience he was trying to con. Ramses stood alone, triumphing over the enemy while his supposed supporters watched. One can almost hear him saying:

Stand still, and see the salvation of the Amun, which he will shew to you to day: for the Hittites whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever (based on Ex. 14:13).

Neither Thutmose III nor Seti I ever seemed to have needed such a prayer when in combat.

One may add, how did the naar feel after rescuing their king and not getting the recognition they deserved since Ramses triumphed on the battle field all by himself?

I suggest that these items are not historical from the Battle of Kadesh inscriptions. Nor are they simply spin conjured up out of thin air. Instead they reflect the needs of the king in the aftermath of the Battle he had lost. They derive from another confrontation where he had to explain his defeat where the military did not support him, where his foe was allied with Yahweh-worshiping wilderness people, and his foe had prayed for his father deity to divinely intervene in history.

Question #4 The Song of the Sea and the Battle of Kadesh

Speaking of the Song of the Sea, now consider Joshua Berman’s scholarship on it in relation to Ramses II at Kadesh. Berman has carved out a niche for himself over the years in asserting the interrelationship between Ramses and the Song of the Sea as shown here.

2014 SBL Conference “The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II and the Song of the Sea”
2015 SBL Conference “Juxtaposed Conflicting Compositions: A New Kingdom Egyptian Parallel”
2015 Mosaic article “Was there an Exodus?”
2016 JNSL article “Juxtapose Conflicting Compositions: A New Kingdom Egyptian Parallel”
2016 Book chapter “The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II and the Song of the Sea Account (Exodus 13:17-15:19) in “Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?”: Biblical, Archaeological, and Egyptological Perspectives on the Exodus Narratives (James K. Hoffmeier, Alan R. Millard, and Gary A. Rendsburg, ed.)
2017 Book chapter “The Exodus Sea Account (Exod 13:17-15:19) in Light of the Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II” in his book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism
2017 Book chapter “Diverging Accounts within the Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II” in his book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism.

The details of this proposed relationship between the Song of the Sea and the Kadesh Inscriptions are not the issue here. The methodology is. The relevance is in the use of the Egyptian literary texts and reliefs as part of the discussion about the historicity of the Exodus. The typical approach to examining the archaeology of the Exodus omits this area of study. If minimalists wish to deny a connection by postulating a late date for the composition of the Song of Sea that somehow by chance is consistent with imagery and motifs used by Ramses II, they are, of course, free to do so. They also can reject the alleged parallelisms proposed by Berman.

Suppose now one were to take Berman’s analysis one step further. Suppose instead of simply postulating a borrowing from Ramses by Israel, consider applying a “Na’aman” reversal to the process. He among others have proposed that Canaanites in Canaan experiencing Egyptian imperialism and slavery celebrated the Egyptian departure from Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age which subsequently was transformed into the Exodus story. Israel didn’t go forth, Egypt did. Let’s try a similar reversal here. Did Ramses borrow from or respond to the Exodus in his portrayal of the Battle of Kadesh? The question at least deserves to be explored as a legitimate alternative explanation for the Exodus.

I submit these portions of Ramses’s song of victory at the waters of Kadesh derive from his recent failure in the Exodus following shortly after his failure at Kadesh. Knowing that helps resolve the conundrum of determining of when a purported Exodus could have occurred given the Egyptian timeline.

Question #5 When Could the Exodus Have Occurred?

One approach to rejecting the validity of an historical Exodus is to document that there is no place in Egyptian history where it could have happened. This effort to demonstrate the absence of any such time has been critical to the work of Lester L. Grabbe.

2000 “Adde Praeputium Praeputio Magnes Acervus Erit: If the Exodus and Conquest Had Really Happened…” in Virtual History and the Bible, ed. J. Cheryl Exum
2010 “From Merneptah to Shoshenq: If We Had Only the Bible…” in Israel in transition: From Late Bronze II to Iron IIA (C. 1250-850 BCE) Volume 2 The Text which he edited along with Volume 1 The Archaeology (2008)
2014 “The Exodus and Historicity” in The Book of Exodus: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation, eds. Thomas Dozeman, Craig Evans, and Joel Lohr
2016 “Late Bronze Age Palestine: If we had only the Bible…” and “Canaan under the Rule of the Egyptian New Kingdom: From the Hyksos to the Sea Peoples” in The Land of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age, ed. Lester Grabbe

First he (2014) states that there is nothing in the Egyptian texts that could be related to the story of the Exodus. Nothing in the second millennium BCE suggests a series of plagues, death of children, physical disruption of the country, and loss of huge numbers of its inhabitants. By his reasoning since it is unlikely that a bellowing hippopotamus in Thebes disturbed the sleep of Apophis in Avaris hundreds of miles away that therefore the Quarrel Story of it happening must also be of zero historical value. Disproving the physically-literal interpretation of biblical texts is irrelevant to determining if the Exodus occurred. He knows that the search for naturalistic explanations for the plagues misses the point because he says so himself (2010:67). He knows the plague stories are to deliver a message. So why raise that point that plagues can’t be found in Egypt as part of a proof that the Exodus could not have occurred if you know they are symbolic?

Sekhmet, the goddess of plagues especially in the New Year effort to restore cosmos or ma’at. How did her legacy live on in the Israelite story of the Exodus?

Better to try to understand what message Sekhmet and the plagues delivered within the Egyptian cultural context than to debate the historicity of the goddess or the occurrence of the plagues.

He spends 46 pages (2016) on an analysis of the Exodus as an event in history. He covers a great deal of ground both physically and topically. Many peoples, places, (time)periods, scholars, and definition of terms are included. His effort suggests a person who is trying to be fair, comprehensive, and thorough into his investigation into whether or not an historical Exodus occurred. Still one does wonder how many people would have to have left Egypt in open defiance of Ramses or any other Pharaoh to constitute an Exodus. More than two? Less than 600,000?

He is dismissive of an historical Exodus in the time of Ramses. His analysis of the reign of Ramses itself is his comment that identifying him as the Pharaoh of the exodus “is rather strange considering that far from being destroyed, Egypt was at its height under his reign!” (2016:55) He had said the same in Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? 2007:59).  In a table of Egyptian kings at the end of his chapter “Canaan under the Rule of the Egyptian New Kingdom,” he lists Ramses with the description “one of the greatest Pharaohs; an unlikely ruler for the exodus! (2016:101)” But does that perception accurately reflect the conditions which existed after the young ruler failed at Kadesh? He, like many Egyptologists, is a victim of the Ramses spin.

Consider this alternate view of Ramses II by the Egyptologist Kara Cooney.

Her chapter about Ramses is : “The Grand Illusion.” A subsection is entitled “Ramses the Gaslighter.” She asks: “What kinds of insecurities was this king hiding?”

Strangely, Grabbe himself provides the information for an Exodus in the time of Ramses without realizing it. He writes that there were very few periods during the Late Bronze Age when Canaan was not firmly under Egyptian control (2016:99). He claims his survey indicates one of the main difficulties with the concept of an historical Exodus: “THERE IS NO ROOM FOR SUCH AN EVENT DURING THIS TIME” (2016:99; capitalization added). Furthermore, as he stated the page before:

Strangely, though, it is often proposed that the exodus and/or conquest of Canaan by the Israelites took place under his reign – apparently overlooking that he was one of the strongest of the Pharaohs who had firm hold of the whole region well into the Syria and reigned for so much of the thirteenth century (2016:98).

Yet a few sentences earlier he had written that following the failure at Kadesh by the strong Pharaoh, the “result was that Palestine (meaning Canaan) rebelled against Egyptian rule” (2016:98).

Why didn’t red lights blare, sirens shriek, and bells ring when he wrote that? Canaanites in the land of Canaan saw the weakness of the “strong” Pharaoh after Kadesh and rebelled while Canaanites in the land of Goshen remained silent! Egyptologists recognize that the very people who fought at Kadesh knew the truth of the battle. Ramses could not deceive them with his account. Canaanites in the military including Hyksos knew what Canaanites in the land of Canaan knew. This was the moment to rebel. This was the moment for a charismatic military leader popular with the troops to seize the opportunity to confront Ramses the failure Pharaoh and lead the Exodus.

Ramses after the Battle of Kadesh was not yet the ultimate Pharaoh, to borrow the title of Egyptologist Peter Brand’s new book.

Not yet after Year 5!!

The time between his failure at Kadesh in year 5 and his royal proclamations of Kadesh glory and his crackdown in Canaan beginning in year 8 provided a window of opportunity for a military figure to challenge the vulnerable and exposed king. That’s when the Exodus occurred. There is room in the Egyptian timeline for an Exodus in the time of Ramses. Is there room in biblical scholarship?


Ramses’s versions of the Battle of Kadesh is a prime example where an ancient source should not be taken as gospel.

Grabbe writes, “Historicity can be determined only when all possibilities have been considered” (2014). I submit that he has not considered them all. To answer the question of whether or not an historical Exodus occurred, one needs to engage the reign of Ramses II especially following his failure at Kadesh.

Grabbe writes “The Moses story shows ‘growth rings’ which indicate a development that drew on the Jeroboam tradition in order to develop the biblical like of Moses” (2010:228). The truth is the other way of around. The tree of the Exodus story began in the Exodus and it is the attempt to portray Jeroboam as a new Moses that drew on it.

“Moses led people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC) on the seventh hour of New Year’s Eve at the end of Ramses’s seventh year of ruling. It is an Egyptian story.”

That is the speculative historical reconstruction I propose in the opening sentences to my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Story.

To understand Ramses’s records of the Battle of Kadesh, one must recognize that his failure there provided the opening for the Exodus to occur.

“Exodus, Conquest, and the Alchemy of Memory” by Ron Hendel

The contribution “Exodus, Conquest, and the Alchemy of Memory” by Ron Hendel to the new book Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter obviously is about the Exodus. Ron and I were contributors to the recent book of Five Views the Exodus (Jamzen, 2021). Much of what he and I wrote there also is in his contribution here and in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Experience.

The format of that book was unusual. Each contributor submitted at 10,000-word article. Then each of the other four contributors wrote a 2,000-word response to each of the other four contributions. Finally, the original author wrote a 1500 word rejoinder. So each contribution consisted of a 10,000 article, four 2,000-word comments, and a 1,500 word response for 19,500 words in total. I think the attempt was for teachers to have a single book with multiple views with authors in conversation with each other. Naturally, no one changed anyone else’s mind.

Here, Hendel opens with a critique of William Foxwell Albright’s biblical methodology (107-110). The criticisms are of Albright’s conflation of literary realism of his reconstituted Bible with historical referentiality. One should note that Albright is better known for his analysis on the historicity of the Patriarchs and the Conquest than he is for the Exodus.

Hendel then shifts to the concept of cultural memory (110-113), a favorite of his for several years which he has written about in multiple studies as he acknowledges. He refers to how a people chose to remember something in terms of present relevance. The term “memnohistory” is critical here. Cultural memories are always being contested, negotiated, and revised. Instead of seeking what actually happened, the effort is to understand how the past is remembered. The work of Jan Assmann is cited here.

I note in passing the current brouhaha in the field of American history over the column in the summer newsletter by the president of the American Historical Association on the topic of “presentism.”

Hendel states:

I will argue that biblical traditions of exodus and conquest emerged in the context of the crystallization of Israel as a polity in the wake of the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. In historical terms, Israel was a successor state to Egyptian colonial rule (112).

Apparently a transformation of people from the abject condition of slavery to a new political-theological identity as the people of Yahweh did occur. The challenge, then, is to disentangle the folklore and history within the reconfigured memories of Egyptian bondage and deliverance.

Hendel engages specific biblical verses and traditions to illustrate the poetics of memory (113-117). These include:

1. The hardening of the heart (Ex.10:1-2) – “Yahweh’s deep motive for the dramatic sequence of heart, is to produce the material for a great story of deliverance from Egypt, which will become a cultural memory for all the generations of Israel” (114). True, but what is missing is how the memory of the mythic confrontation between Yahweh the Destroyer and Sekhmet, the goddess of plagues from the historical Exodus became part of the legacy through which J could craft this new tradition about the knowledge of Yahweh and Israel as the people of Yahweh (see the earlier blog on “Yahweh, the Destroyer” and the Exodus by Heath Dewrell).

2. What Rahab Knew (Josh. 2:9-11) – Hendel observes that the language of Rahab draws on the Song of the Sea (Ex.15). “The Canaanites’ collective response to the exodus and the intertextual quality of Rahab’s speech are striking features of poetic memory” (115). He recognizes that Rahab rightly perceives the conquest about to unfold in the Book of Joshua replicates what already has transpired in the exodus with the Jordan River replacing the Exodus Sea: “It is a collective memory whose fearsome power effects its own renewal and re-representation in the events of the conquest” (117).

Hendel stops his analysis there. Who is the person who made these connections? Who is the person who made this new collective memory? Who is the person who linked the going forth from Egypt with the conquest of the land of Canaan? Since Hendel rejects a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses, it is no surprise that he does not venture to speculate on the identity of who (meaning what king) renegotiated the memory of the Exodus and presented himself as fulfilling at Zion what Moses had envisioned at Sinai. How many choices are there?

Instead, Hendel turns to examining the meaning of the house of bondage (117-125). He is trying to thread the needle between the secular reality of a memory of the Exodus with the archaeological reality that no such event occurred. His solution is there was no Exodus from Egypt because the local Canaanites who would become Israelites already were in the land. Hence the movement going forth is not the key but the bondage is.

In this case, the answer is simple. The Egyptians ruled the land of Canaan throughout the Late Bronze Age. That rule “is the menohistorical background for the biblical depiction of the Egyptian house of bondage” (119). Hendel describes Egyptian imperialism based on Egyptian values where all Canaanites were abject slaves of Pharaoh. He provides examples from the Egyptian archaeological record attesting this perception by the people ruled in Canaan. He shows that the Canaanites endured forced labor on behalf of Pharaohs both in Egypt and in the land of Canaan.

Here is where Dan Fleming’s contribution to the McCarter book and Hendel’s work well together. Hendel has shown why the family of Jacob in the land of Canaan identified by Fleming naturally would ally with the people Israel of the Exodus from Egypt. At various times various scholars have proposed that there was a teeny-tiny exodus from Egypt and somehow those people managed to establish themselves in a leadership position in an expanded Israel including people in the land of Canaan who had not gone forth. Hendel has shown that the Canaanites who were slaves in Egypt (Manasseh) were connected to the slaves in Canaan in the family of Jacob. They probably were kin. But this avenue is not pursued by Hendel since he rejects the idea of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses.

Skipping head, Hendel declares the exodus and conquest stories were one of the ways that ancient Israel constituted its ethnic boundaries and fashioned itself as the people of Yahweh. The Israelites were the people who remembered the exodus as the narrative par excellence of their formation as a people and a polity. In the new cultural memory of the exodus-conquest, the Israelites entered the land together already a cohesive polity. He allows that some of this entity may even have been former slaves returning home as the Egyptian Empire collapsed. And then by “the magic of social alchemy” this mixed multitude of peoples, all of them, became slaves in Egypt who went forth in the Exodus (where did Moses come from?), wandered in the wilderness and participated in the conquest.

How did all this happen? My preference is to look for human agency. Pieces of a puzzle do not miraculously come together. There are people who unite or who attempt to unite disparate peoples. Narmer, Alexander the Great, the Founding Fathers. Such efforts are not always successful. Moses in the Exodus begins the story, David first at Hebron and then at Zion continues it. The Israel of Moses expanded in the land of Canaan. It now included the family of Jacob with its memory of slavery under Egyptian imperialism going to Hebron to join Israel. It now included the anti-Egyptian Shasu Calebites already at Hebron as part of the kingdom of Judah. It would soon include the Canaanite cities David conquered. The Jericho Hendel mentions story symbolized Yahweh’s rule over Canaan now the Kingdom of Israel through the collapse of walled cities and his walking the ark of Yahweh around the city of Jerusalem in a procession. Hendel is right to point out the occurrence of a revised memory of the Exodus. The next step is to realize that David is the first one who revised the memory when he was faced with the challenge of ruling as king over a multitude of people as the first person born in the land of Canaan to rule the land of Canaan.

“Yahweh the Destroyer: on the Meaning of יהוה” by Heath D. Dewrell and the Exodus

In the new book Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Setting in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter Jr., the opening contribution is by Heath D. Dewrell entitled  “Yahweh the Destroyer: on the Meaning of יהוה”. In his contribution Dewell examines the etymology of the national god of ancient Israel and Judah which he calls “a topic of perennial interest.” In the opening paragraph, he identifies the two most prominent understandings of Yahweh both of which are not the one expressed in Ex. 3:14.  They are “he causes to be” or from the Arabic “he blows” as in a storm god.

In so far as the Exodus is concerned, Dewrell draws a line in sand he will not cross: “Without going too far afield into questions concerning the historicity of Moses and the exodus…” His analysis of the national god of Israel and Judah proceeds by ignoring the very biblical event that causes those entities to be. It is certainly understandable why Dewrell, presumably limited by deadline and word count considerations for his contribution, would not want to venture forth into the issue of the historicity of the Exodus. Ironically, though, the historicity of the Exodus strengthens the very case he makes in this contribution. And that will be the subject of this blog.


In his first section, Dewrell addresses the issue of the spelling of the name of the deity (6-11). He begins by noting that the majority of scholars hold that yhwh represents the original form of the name of Israel’s god. He reviews the scholarship of those of have questioned this spelling. The Mesha Stele, a non-biblical attestation of the deity by a foreign people in the ninth century BCE of yhwh carries a great deal of weight for him.

Therefore, both our earliest evidence for the name and what one would expect historico-linguistically point to the longer form as having been the older one and the shorter forms as being secondary. Freedman and O’Connor’s assertion that “the longer form is obviously original” thus remains persuasive.


Speaking of Freedman, Dewrell next turns to the dominant theory most closely associated with William F. Albright, Frank Moore Cross Jr. and David Noel Freedman (12-17). In a footnote, Dewrell even pushes the interpretation back an academic generation to Paul Haupt, Albright’s teacher.

Here Dewrell takes exception to the epithets which have been added to “he causes to be.” Specifically, the effort to link Yahweh to El and to make the true name in its fullest form “He who creates (heavenly) armies.” This El-Yahweh deity then is enthroned on the cherubim just as El alone is in both Ugaritic and Punic iconography. This expansion thereby enables these scholars to connect the deity to the Ark Narrative.

Dewrell’s objection to this scenario is the absence of the title “Yahweh who creates the heavenly army” from the archaeological evidence. The title is an academic construct not supported by the evidence. He questions whether “Yahweh was originally a deity in the mold of El as depicted in the literature from Ugarit. Dewell cites the archaic poetry of the Bible, specifically the Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah as expressing a deity who is a warrior. Yahweh marches to battle against his enemies on behalf of his people, and when he marches he comes from the southeast according to McCarter. Such behavior contrasts with Canaanite El who is a non-militaristic pantheon patriarch deity. Instead, Yahweh and El originally were two different deities with different characteristics.

Dewrell uses a couple of footnotes over two pages in length in smaller font to source these assertions. He then summarizes his position contra Cross, that:

Yahweh does not appear originally to have been linked to Canaanite El, which makes it unlikely that the origin of Yahweh’s name is to be found in an El epithet.

I agree with Dewrell but would take the analysis one step further. My interest is in biblical history. Therefore the question I would ask is related to human agency. Who is the person who linked these two deities of different characteristics and locations together? Who named the people after El and the deity worshipped as Yahweh? I do not address these questions in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Experience, since I too drew a line in the sand as to what I would include in the book. But once you accept an historical Exodus, then it becomes easier to ask why Moses sought to link these deities at a time when Ramses was so closely connected to Baal. The question then becomes one not of theology, literature, or abstract forces of long duration but of power politics.


In this section Dewrell addresses the familiar purported Midianite-Kenite thesis (18-23). This thesis derives from the apparent home of Yahweh the warrior god identified in the previous section. Dewrell notes the wide support for the notion that Yahweh originally was venerated among the Kenites, Midianites, and/or Edomites. The connection derives from the biblical evidence that (i) depicts both Moses and Yahweh being in this area, (ii) identifies Cain the Kenite, and (iii) the Egyptian archaeological evidence of the Land of the Shasu, YHW. Dewrell concludes:

While none of these pieces of evidence is conclusive, the fact that several independent bits of circumstantial evidence all point to the idea that Yahweh was somehow associated with the area south of Israel may indicate a cultural memory with possible roots in historical reality.

The historical reality is the Exodus and the missing ingredient is human agency provided by Moses. In an earlier blog this year (Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus

March 10, 2022), I wrote:

When Moses flees to the wilderness he does so as one who previously had organized, planned, and participated in a campaign against the Shasu. He is no Sinuhe. He already knows the name “Yahweh” but “led thee out of the land of Egypt” is his new hope, vision, and political goal.

Moses does not encounter the Kenites by chance. These smiths are the one neutral or protected people among the various Shasu tribes. [An idea I picked up from Kyle years ago.] They offer him a sanctuary or safe haven. Moses marries into/is inducted into the Kenite tribe. He now has the mark of Cain which renders him safe from those he had fought as a Hyksos Egyptian under Seti. At this point Moses does not expect to be wandering in the wilderness when he leads people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses. Some of the Shasu decide to assist Moses in his effort against Egypt. Later they will become Calebites and be included in the Exodus narrative alongside those who did depart from Egypt. The kingdom of Judah under David thus will be an odd combination of Canaanite Jebusites (Elyon) who had been allies of Egypt, Amorite Benjaminites (Shaddai) who had been part of the Exodus from Egypt and had a Mesopotamian orientation, and Shasu Calebites (Yahweh) who became allies of Israel during the Exodus.

This scenario was not in my book. That study was limited to Egyptian sources. This reconstruction partakes of biblical exegesis which would have added a whole new dimension to the book and made it much longer. However it does reveal the opportunity available to a biblical scholar if one should abandon one of the accepted Exodus paradigms listed above [multiple explanations for the Exodus].

Here one may trace the origin of Dewrell’s “cultural memory with possible roots in historical reality” to an actual historical reality.

For the remainder of this section, Dewrell dismisses the proposed storm god proposition of Knauf leading to the definition of “to blow.” He concludes that the linkage of a storm god based on the Arabic root “to blow” in an area bereft of rain to be invalid on both accounts. Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age inhabitants of Midian/Edom were as likely to have spoken an Edomite-related language with its affinities to Hebrew as Arabic.

Dewrell combines these sections about the meaning of Yahweh with the observation:

As with the thesis of Albright, Freedman, and Cross, there is no evidence to disprove this reconstruction. It does, however, rely on several suppositions for which we have no real evidence. If one were able to produce a cogent explanation that required fewer unverifiable assumptions, then one might appeal to Occam’s razor and prefer it to those that require more involved reconstructions. Here I will attempt to provide such a solution.


Dewrell now proposes his own “cogent explanation for the meaning of Yahweh (23-27). His starting point is:

1. Yahweh was a deity worshiped primarily if not exclusively by people who spoke Hebrew
2. the earliest literature portrays him as a warrior god
3. the most natural place to begin the etymological search is in the language of the people who venerated him.

He observes that the overarching depiction of Yahweh in archaic biblical poetry is as an agent of destruction. Yahweh annihilates enemies of Israel. This leads him to examine Hebrew terms for destruction and disaster like הוה. After reviewing the relevant biblical texts, Dewrell concludes that the Hebrew root and the character of Yahweh “both support tracing the etymology of Yahweh’s name to “destruction.” He also notes that Holzinger had made a similar suggestion years ago in 1893. Unfortunately, in the passing years there was some confusion over whether HWY (destruction) or ḤWY had been printed. This led to a misunderstanding in the subsequent scholarship including a footnote where a ח is used instead of a ה perpetuating the problem.

It thus appears that a minor typographical error is responsible for the [destruction] proposal’s having lain in obscurity ever since!

Imagine scribal error in the 20th century carrying forward into the 21st!

Dewrell concludes by situating Yahweh the destroyer with other Late Bronze and Iron Age Northwest Semitic deities of conquest and destruction: Anat (to be violent/subdue), Chemosh (to conquer/subdue), Reshep (to burn), and Deber (plague).  One can’t help but notice in this litany of deities that he ignored Egypt.


There is an Egyptian goddess who deserves consideration in the defining of Yahweh, the destroyer. She is Sekhmet who figures prominently in the Egyptian myth involving the destruction of man. Here are some excerpts about her from my book, The Exodus: An Egyptian Story.

The final aspect of Ra to be discussed concerns Sekhmet, the “Powerful One.” In The Book of the Cow of Heaven, there is an episode about The Destruction of Mankind….. The story tells of the old and weary sun-god Ra seeking to destroy the human race because of suspected rebellions plotted by people against him….

Hathor then commences slaughtering the people in the desert in the form of the goddess Sekhmet, a ferocious leonine deity, the “Powerful One.” Sekhmet provided a counterpart to the nurturing female goddess. This goddess was the bringer of plague and disease who breathed fire against her enemies. In the Egyptian tradition, the annual inundation and the corresponding annual mortal epidemic from pathogenic agents were attributed to the destructive force of the goddess Sekhmet. Consequently, the Egyptians developed rituals to protect themselves from this death.

            The Egyptians attributed other natural phenomena to her. The hot desert winds were an expression of her breath. She was a military patroness to kings and a symbol of their power. She exulted in her bloodlust, triumphant in her massacre of humans. One is left with the image of a raging lioness wading in the blood of killed humans in all her glory. In the myth, Sekhmet commenced her destruction of mankind in the form of the Eye of Ra, one of her most important manifestations. She was an excellent destroyer.

Sekhmet certainly is worthy of inclusion into the pantheon of destructive deities listed by Dewrell. When the people went forth from Egypt, they brought with them these Egyptian motifs of plagues, diseases, flowing red water/blood, magic, and New Year executions to restore cosmos/maat as part of their cultural memory. It was a story of Yahweh the destroyer prevailing against Sekhmet the would-be destroyer of humanity who once again had been thwarted by humans.

The challenge then for biblical scholars is to trace the Egyptian-based motifs into the written biblical texts via oral tradition. Perhaps when the covenant renewal ceremonies were performed at Mount Ebal, it included a reenactment of the triumph of Yahweh, the destroyer, and the Egyptians who served Ramses who had been tasked with the executing Moses and his supporters to begin the New Year. I wonder who acted in the role of the “destroyer” in the performance. I wonder who the destroyer at Passover actually was. In any event, the concept of Yahweh the destroyer perfectly complements the historical reconstruction of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Mount Ebal Curse Inscription: Response to Scott Stripling

Mount Ebal is in the news. The site of a biblical altar built by Joshua and a physical altar discovered by Adam Zertal is now the site of a proposed 40-letter inscription of curses and the name Yahweh (Yhw). The announcement was made by Scott Stripling on March 24, 2022, at the Lanier Theological Seminary. As one might expect, the notice caused a disturbance in the force as the sensational claims rippled through the world of biblical scholarship.

The purpose of this blog is not to address the inscription itself. Instead it is to follow up on Stripling’s answers to some of the questions raised by the audience. They referred to the Exodus, its occurrence and its dating. In his response, Stripling stated the discovery “tips the scale in favor of an earlier date” by which he means the 15th century BCE and not the more commonly used 13th century BCE date of Ramses II. He also mentioned that his views on the Exodus were recently published in the book Five Views of the Exodus.

As you can see from the image of the book, Scott and I were two of the contributors to the book. Since the publication in 2021, he has a new inscription and I have another Exodus-related book, The Exodus: An Egyptian Story. Two of the remaining contributors, Jim Hoffmeier and Gary Rendsburg, have just published a co-authored article on the route of the Exodus. So far, only the fifth contributor, Ron Hendel, seems resistant to the allure of the Exodus!

The format of the book deserves notice. Each of us wrote a 10,000-word article for the book. Once that was edited by Mark Janzen, we each then received copies of the contributions of the other four writers. Then we wrote up to 2,000-word responses on each one or 8,000 words in total. Finally, we then responded to the responses in a 1,000 word rejoinder increased to 1,500 words. So when you read a chapter, you see the original contribution, the responses of the other four writers, and your response to them for 19,500 words in total. This allows the reader (student) to encounter five different views (and they were different!) in dialog with each other in a single book, a clever format. Naturally none of us convinced the others of the merits of our own view. When it comes to the Exodus, no one ever changes their mind although Jim has shifted between early (Stripling) and late (me) datings for the Exodus.

Below is a slightly emended version of my “Response to the Scot Stripling” in the book Five Views of the Exodus.

Stripling takes the position that an historical Exodus occurred in the 15th century BC. He is aware that his position is at variance with the other contributors to this book as well as with most biblical scholars, especially those who completely reject an historical Exodus. In his contribution, Stripling takes great pains to substantiate the 15th century claim both archaeologically and biblically.

There is a problem in his intentions as expressed in the final paragraph entitled “Theological Implications.” He claims that the archaeological truth of an historical Exodus suggests other biblical stories also should be considered historical: they “deserve a presuppositional expectation of accuracy.” In other words, the Bible is true. This truth is not simply limited to the historical act of human beings leaving Egypt, but true in a theological sense. His concluding sentences reveal the truth of this contribution: “Ultimately, if the Bible is true, then the God of the Bible holds a moral claim on all of humanity.  Nothing could have more far-reaching implications.”

That’s the problem. Consider another historical conundrum involving text and archaeology: the Trojan War as told in the Iliad. Suppose archaeologists definitively proved that a war between the Mycenaeans and Trojans really did occur and in the 12th century BC. Actually, such a claim is hardly farfetched. It is quite reasonable now for classical scholars to accept the historicity of such a confrontation. Does that prove anything about Zeus? If one accepts the historicity of the Trojan War, is one then obligated to accept the existence of the gods of the Mycenaeans and be guided by their moral claims?

If the American Revolution really occurred in history, does that mean the United States is a city on a hill and God’s New Israel?

If the Russian Revolution really occurred in history, does that mean that the Soviet Union really was the “wave of the future”?

Similarly Stripling is wrong to suggest that a 1446 BC historical Exodus means “the God of the Bible holds a moral claim on all of humanity.”

In my own contribution to this book, I, too, claim there was an historical Exodus. However, I make no religious or theological conclusions based on that historicity.  I am quite willing to accept that Ramesses II really did pray to his father Amun-Ra at the battle of Kadesh shortly before the Exodus without accepting or even commenting on the existence of that deity or any claims that deity has on all humanity. Similarly, I am quite willing to accept that Moses prayed to the God of Israel before and during the historical Exodus without it meaning that such a deity exists, chose Israel, or intervened in history. So even if Stripling and I agreed on the date, our understandings of the meaning of the historicity of the Exodus are substantially different.

These differences carryover into the proof itself. Suppose archaeologists not only could confirm the historicity of the Iliad but the existence of individuals like Achilles, Hector, and Agamemnon. What would that prove about their dialog, motives, and actions? Not much. Suppose one excavated Valley Forge, Saratoga, and Yorktown and proved that there really had been a war between England and the United States. What would that prove about what the human characters who participated in the war actually said, did, and their motives? Even with voluminous correspondence and documents authentically dated to specific people on specific dates about specific events there is still much room for debate. What exactly does the Declaration of Independence mean? Now eliminate all those texts and try to write a history of the American Revolution based on the archaeology alone.

In response, you may say, we have the equivalent texts from the Exodus, we have the biblical texts. Stripling is aware of this problem. He writes: “The Pentateuch is clearly of ancient origin.” He cites some example from the eighth century BC to suggest that a biblical account of the Exodus is much older. That still leaves centuries between the 15th century date and the earliest Israelite writing about the foundational of event of their own history. By contrast, I subscribe to the view that the Song of Miriam among other brief writings and names originated as part of the 13th century BC Exodus. Israel did not exist in silence for centuries after its creation in the midst a world that had writing and songs.

Turning to the biblical evidence, Stripling places great emphasis on I Kgs 6:1 to calculate his historical Exodus in 1446 BC. Other contributors to this book have raised questions regarding this supposition in their own original contributions even before the responses. They apparently anticipated the citation of this verse [by Stripling] and launched a preemptive strike. Therefore there is no need for me to repeat here what they already have said.

I do wish to elaborate on two points raised in Rendsburg’s contribution. He notes that Babylonian king Nabonidus in the sixth century BC claimed that an Akkadian named Naram-Sin ruled 3200 years earlier. This archaeologically authentic text from the sixth century postulates a date based on the formula of 40 years x 8 x 10 periods. The number “40” will be familiar to biblical readers and from the Mesha Stele which Rendsburg does not site. The point here is not to attempt to understand what these and similar numbers in other texts meant to the Babylonians or Moabites or Egyptians; instead the intention is to recognize that numbers convey non-literal messages. Regardless of what the precise message was, it was not a literal message. It was not a literal message in Moab. It was not a literal message in Babylon. It was not a literal message in Egypt. And it was not a literal message in Israel. The recognition that I Kgs 6:1 should not be taken as a literal number invalidates the basis of Stripling’s approach. He starts with an inappropriate interpretation of the biblical text to determine his date of the Exodus and then turns to the archaeology to prove it.

There are additional issues with the dating. How exactly did Israel maintain such a detailed and precise chronological measurement for all those years? If the Egyptian and Mesopotamian states with their vast bureaucracies employed round numbers that delivered messages and little Moab did too, the likelihood is that Israel did as well. Furthermore, the biblical texts have a very extensive chronological framework. How does this date fit within the larger scope? One might think that its placement is part of a larger message. Did a biblical writer seek to proclaim that not only was the temple in Jerusalem the cosmic geographic center, its creation also was at the cosmic chronological center of the universe? Stripling extracts a verse from the Bible without providing any context or explanation for it.

The same considerations apply to Stripling’s use of Judges 11:26. I agree with him that Jephthah is an historical figure. I also agree that 1100 BC is a reasonable date for him. I disagree with the implication that the written story dates to the same time. I disagree that the writer of this verse had any access to the actual words historical Jephthah spoke just as Homer did not have access to the actual words of any of the figures in the Iliad. His judgment may also be questioned.

The 300 years cited in this verse also is likely to have been a symbolic figure delivering a message even if we can’t quite decipher it. In a separate publication on time, I focused on the number “40” [Peter Feinman, “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories,” in Beal, Richard and Scurlock, Joann, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019), 136-151]. I noted in passing the usage of numbers based on 3 (30, 300) without offering any explanation for it. In Rendsburg’s contribution to this book, he suggests that the average generation may have been 30 years. Typically, scholars consider 25 years to be the biological generation and, perhaps, 40 to be the symbolic duration. Rendsburg’s observations raises the possibility that perhaps different writers employed different numerical schemes, one based on 3 and the other based on 4. I don’t know if this is so but in reading these contributions, I think it is an idea worth exploring. The point here is that Stripling simply accepts numbers on face value as literally true. While that may be valid for an economic document when someone is buying sheep or goats, it does not seem to be accurate in the official narratives in the ancient Near East. And I haven’t even mentioned the issue of body counts!

Another historical question concerning the 15th century BC date for an historical Exodus, is where’s Israel? In other words, where is Israel prior to Ramesses II and the 13th century BC Exodus? Stripling is aware of this issue. He attempts to fill the gap by citing the work of Douglas Petrovich on early alphabet inscriptions including “three of which purport to document the exodus and associated people and events.” “Purport” is not the strongest of affirmations available to use. This uncertainty is reinforced further on when Stripling writes “If Petrovich is correct…” Stripling is aware that Petrovich’s interpretations have not met with wide acceptance. I suspect it is limited to those who already accept a 15th century BC date for the Exodus and are wrestling with the challenge of filling the gap.

It isn’t as if there were no Egyptian records during this period from 1446 BC to the documented appearance of Israel in the Merneptah Stele c. 1207 BC.  No Pharaoh mentioned Israel during this time despite the various campaigns to Canaan with their lists? Instead, Israel is mentioned precisely when one would expect it to be identified by name: after its creation in the time of Ramesses II.

As for the Habiru/Hebrew connection, the best that can be said is that it is one of the great false leads in biblical scholarship. Stripling presents them as “nomadic marauders in the Late Bronze Age.” They are better described as displaced people who at times served as warriors or mercenaries. There is no archaeological connection between the biblical Hebrews and the archaeological Habiru. The basis for the purported connection is the need to find Israel in history prior to Ramesses II.

Stripling is right to mention the Shasu and their god Yhw. These intriguing people and deity are a necessary part of the attempt to reconstruct the historical context in which Israel emerged. However one should not overstate the case. Stripling’s comment that “Yhw is broadly understood to refer to Yahweh, the God of the Israelites” is slightly deceptive. Yes, Yhw is broadly understood to refer to Yahweh. The questions then to be raised are, first, how Israel, a people named after El, became connected with that word, and second, how that Shasu deity Yhw became defined as the deity who led Israel out of Egypt. Stripling states that the “Bible refers to the nomads or semi-nomads in fourteenth-century Palestine Yahweh as Hebrews or Israelites” but provides no verses to substantiate this assertion. Personally, I lean towards the Midianite or Kenite hypotheses [I actually revised this hypothesis in a previous blog (Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus) to account for the contact between Moses and the Shasu during Seti’s campaign against them in Year 1.] In this scenario, Moses allies with anti-Egyptian nomads. He then redefines the Shasu deity into an Israelite one who acts in history in what becomes the Exodus. Regardless of whether or not one accepts my view, more is needed than Stripling provides to explain how Israel shared a deity name with the Shasu.

These ruminations lead to my last point. At some point an historical Exodus in 1446 BC requires real human beings to have decided to act against Pharaoh, the mightiest human in their known world. There is no such consideration in Stripling’s contribution. The implicit assumption that the biblical text provides the explanation for the human motivations should be made explicit and justified. The issue of “where is the man Moses?” arises with other contributors as well and will be elaborated on in my final comments.

This response was written while I was working on The Exodus: A Egyptian Story published six months later. Some of the points raised can be raised again in regard to the Mount Ebal curse inscription. Chris Rollston has touched on some of them in his own post on it. I am sure there is more to come when the inscription is made available to the public.

The Mount Ebal inscription reminds me of déjà vu all over again as Yogi Berra once said. Think back to the discovery of the Tel Dan Stela. Remember how it could be anything except a mention of David? There was no explanation that couldn’t be accepted as long as it did not accept the name David. The same applies to the altar at Mount Ebal itself. Once again, it could be anything except an altar. As it turns out, that altar routinely is dated to the Iron I period which is later than Stripling dates the inscription. He offered no explanation for that gap. So at this point it is probably correct to say: “More to come.”

Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus

Egyptologists and Biblical scholars treat the Exodus differently. They approach the idea of an historical Exodus from different assumptions and perspectives and they respond differently to new information about the Exodus. In this blog, I present a speculative case study on how the two disciplines will react differently to the same information drawing on my own book, The Exodus, An Egyptian Story.

The information for this comparison derives from the life of Moses as an Egyptian before he fled from Ramses into the wilderness (in the book) and encountered the Kenites (not in the book). Specifically,

1. Moses helped plan and organize Seti’s campaigns against the Shasu and the Canaanites.
2. Moses was popular with the Egyptian military.
3. Moses was probably 10 to 15 years older than Ramses (not mentioned in the book).

Based on this information derived from Egyptian sources, how would Egyptologists and Biblical scholars react?


As previously stated, Egyptologists avoid the Exodus like plague. No Egyptologist wants to jeopardize their academic careers by delving into the historicity of the Exodus. They can accept based on Manetho and Donald Redford, that it has something to do with the Hyksos, but beyond that tidbit, they do not wish to get involved.

In the previous blog (Passover and Pharaoh Smites the Enemy), I presented information from Kara Cooney in her new book The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World. She expresses the normally academically taboo of having changed her mind about a fundamental truth in her discipline. She refers to herself as a recovering Egyptologist from an abusive relationship. In Egyptology, she is referring to the traditional acceptance of the concept of maat in a positive sense while overlooking or being blind to the violence it legitimizes by Pharaoh in the real world.

Ramses and the Exodus figure in her study. She asserts that Ramses tried to convince the populace that he was truly what he said he was. At the Battle of Kadesh, we are to understand that if it had not been for the heroics of Ramses combined with the blessings of Amun [whom Ramses beseeched], that Egypt would have lost. Cooney claims that Ramses compared himself to Seth, the god of violence who the Egyptians believed could vanish Apophis, the force of chaos, every night in the seventh hour [when as it turns out, the historical Passover occurred]. Cooney adds that we can be sure that some of the military knew the complicated truth, particularly the ones who were there at the battle. [In my book, I cite other Egyptologists making that same claim and would have included her if her book had been published earlier. The military people who knew the truth were the ones who either participated in the Exodus or who allowed it to occur without interfering.]

According to Cooney, Ramses portrayed himself in innovative ways not previously seen before in a Pharaoh. He appeared in the company of his men, driving his horses into the maelstrom of battle, even getting off his chariot and fighting hand-to-hand with his sword. Strategically, this Ramses positioned himself as the direct patron of Egypt’s mercenaries. This depiction is part of new development within Egyptology where the Delta in general and the military in particular are described as “diverse,” an equivalent of “mixed multitude.”

Finally Cooney daringly states that “This zeitgeist is an origination point for the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible….I am not saying that Ramses II was the pharaoh of the Exodus or that such a series of events actually happened in reality, supernaturally aided or not. But I am saying that the biblical narrative holds kernels of truth” (243-244). To the best of my knowledge Cooney is neither an evangelical Christian nor an Orthodox Jew and she still is in good standing as an Egyptologist despite situating a possible historical Exodus in a real-world Egyptian context.

Now Cooney has the opportunity to take the next step as an Egyptologist and incorporate new information/interpretations. She writes of Ramses excelling in the art of spin and hyperbole (211). Her Ramses seeks to be like Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator (239). She asks “What kinds of insecurities was this king hiding?” (212). Now she has the answer. As suggested in the three points above, Moses was Maximus while the younger Ramses was Commodus. The Sun God lived in the shadow of the man Moses his entire life. Ramses acted exactly the way Cooney describes and had the exact insecurities she asked about and the Exodus did occur precisely in the zeitgeist she portrays at the hour she mentions without realizing it. The missing ingredient that pulls the pieces together into a coherent narrative is Moses. With Moses, she can build on her presentation to tell a fuller story about Ramses than she does without him. The existence of Moses does not threaten her paradigms or standing as an Egyptologist; it enables her to be a better one by applying this new information/interpretation from a book she has read and for which she has written a recommendation.


The situation is quite different for biblical scholars. Consider the following interpretations which are legitimate in scholarship today:

1. The Israelites were Shasu.
2. The Israelites were nomads.
3. The Israelites were revolting Canaanites.
4. The Israelites were Canaanites of long duration filling a void.
5. Israel did not leave Egypt, Egypt left Canaan.
6. There was not one Exodus but multiple teeny-weeny exodii.
7. A teeny-weeny “Pilgrim” exodus group spread its experience to all Canaan.
8. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Exilic times.
9. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Post-Exilic times.
10. The Exodus story was (piously) concocted in Hellenistic times.

Has anyone suggested Roman or Byzantine times yet?

All these legitimate interpretations within biblical scholarship share one trait in common – they reject the very notion of “Yahweh led thee out of the land of Egypt.” It’s as if any explanation for the American Revolution is acceptable as long as it does not include the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” except as something concocted centuries later.

Now consider the opportunity available to biblical scholarship following the same information available to Cooney. When Moses flees to the wilderness he does so as one who previously had organized, planned, and participated in a campaign against the Shasu. He is no Sinuhe. He already knows the name “Yahweh” but “led thee out of the land of Egypt” is his new hope, vision, and political goal.

Moses does not encounter the Kenites by chance. These smiths are the one neutral or protected people among the various Shasu tribes. They offer him a sanctuary or safe haven. Moses marries into/is inducted into the Kenite tribe. He now has the mark of Cain which renders him safe from those he had fought as a Hyksos Egyptian under Seti. At this point Moses does not expect to be wandering in the wilderness when he leads people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses.  Some of the Shasu decide to assist Moses in his effort against Egypt. Later they will become Calebites and be included in the Exodus narrative alongside those who did depart from Egypt. The kingdom of Judah under David thus will be an odd combination of Canaanite Jebusites (Elyon) who had been allies of Egypt, Amorite Benjaminites (Shaddai) who had been part of the Exodus from Egypt and had a Mesopotamian orientation, and Shasu Calebites (Yahweh) who became allies of Israel during the Exodus.

This scenario was not in my book. That study was limited to Egyptian sources. This reconstruction partakes of biblical exegesis which would have added a whole new dimension to the book and made it much longer. However it does reveal the opportunity available to a biblical scholar if one should abandon one of the accepted Exodus paradigms listed above.

A recent article “Was King David a Nomad. New Theory Sparks Storm Among Israeli Archaeologists” by Ariel David (Haaretz), highlights the challenge. He writes: “Most scholars agree that the preceding stories [to David] in the Bible, such as the Patriarchs cycle and the Exodus are not historical events and are essentially foundation myths.” Exactly. That is the paradigm from which one must not deviate if one is to be taken seriously within biblical scholarship.

An example of this restriction may be seen in the current issue of Biblical Archaeological Review. Daniel Master, Wheaton College, has an article “Piece by Piece: Exploring the Origins of the Philistines. The article is not about the Exodus but is reflective of biblical scholarship towards the Exodus. Master makes three claims in the article.

1. based on the archaeology, the Philistines came from Crete.
2. based on archaeology, the Philistines remembered their Cretan origin centuries later even after they had assimilated with the 12th century BCE population.
3. based on textual information, Israel also remembered the Philistine origin in Crete.

The unstated implication of the analysis is that is that if both the Philistines and the Israelites could remember the Philistine migration from Crete, why couldn’t Israel similarly remember its departure from Egypt? Of course, Israel could and did. So while Egyptologist Cooney can directly posit an historical Exodus in the zeitgeist of Ramses II, Master only implies that one occurred.


An anomalous situation may develop. Theoretically, Egyptologists can accept as legitimate an historical reconstruction of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses based on Egyptian evidence that is not trying to prove the Bible true because it does not threaten any deeply held Egyptological attitudes towards the event. By contrast, biblical scholars cannot accept as legitimate an historical reconstruction of a Moses-led Exodus against the will of Ramses based on Egyptian evidence that is not trying to prove the Bible true because it does threaten deeply held biblical scholar attitudes towards the event as listed above.

As long as Egyptologists continue to avoid the Exodus like the plague, there is no problem for biblical scholars. The more Egyptologists are willing to accept as legitimate an Egyptian based historical reconstruction of the Exodus, the more the onus shifts to biblical scholars as to why they cannot. Obviously the disruption to the timeline of Israelite history and writing of the Hebrew Bible would be significantly affected if an historical reconstruction of the Exodus in the time of Ramses is accepted as legitimate. The revised “Kenite Hypothesis” described above is just the tip of the iceberg of the potential changes which would follow. So the question becomes not whether this historical construction is correct, but if it is even legitimate based on the Egyptian, not biblical, evidence.

Passover and Pharaoh Smites the Enemy

Narmer's Palette

To understand historical Passover it must be placed in the context of Egyptian violence. Egyptologists who avoid the Exodus like the plague do not do this. Biblical scholars who know that there was no historical Passover do not do this either. They confine themselves to literary and/or ritual studies. However to understand historical Yahweh smites the Pharaoh’s men, one must understand the ideology and action of Pharaoh smites the enemy which Passover turns topsy turvy.


In her new book The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World (Washington D.C., National Geographic, 2021), Egyptologist Kara Cooney refers to herself as a recovering Egyptologist from an abusive relationship. She does so in her opening chapter entitled “We Are all Pharaoh’s Groupies.” She states, “I work in a field of apologists who believe in an Egypt of truth, beauty, and power—and in many ways, I am still an adherent to my chosen faith.”

Now her eyes have been opened to the truth of ancient Egypt… or so she claims. One example she cites is the treatment of ma’at. Generally, Egyptologists understand this term positively. By this perception, Cooney is referring to the traditional view that posits ma’at as an expression of the best of Egyptian culture. It reflects understanding of the harmonious and ordered universe in contrast to the ever-present chaos which threatens it. After all, who wouldn’t favor the ordered sense of well-being of a society governed by the rules of ma’at to the disorganized world of chaos?

Cooney’s concern is for the always-overlooked flip side of ma’at in the real world. For Pharaoh, ma’at a tool of control. It is an authoritarian political ideology that justifies the power to oppress. In other words, it provides the ruler with carte blanche to act against those who disrupt ma’at as the forces of chaos. Specifically, smiting the enemy is “a necessary cruelty against those who harm the king’s people.” She sees Narmer’s Palette as celebrating the horrific subject matter while the moment of carnage itself is not displayed by the artisans. Cooney concludes that “ancient Egypt seemed better at hiding how cruel they could be, masking the viciousness with a morality that communicated a necessity for pain in search of what was right.”

Cooney focuses on the practical application of the doctrine of ma’at by a ruling king. She observes that in “ancient Egypt the most violent rhetoric occurred in textual form and not in visual imagery.” She refers to the laudatory hymns and dramatic reenactments of battles. In my book, The Exodus: An Egyptian Story, I present the skull of Seqenenre as a striking example of the physical reality of “Pharaoh strikes the enemy.” The (racist) failure to recognize the skull as such derives from the refusal of Egyptologists to accept the kings of the 15th Dynasty as real Pharaohs.

Pharaoh himself does not of course do the smiting in Egypt. He has people to do the dirty deed. Cooney claims “the elites were the ones actually tasked with creating the blood and gore.” Without intending to, Cooney has identified the people who died in the historical Passover. The very people tasked by Pharaoh with the responsibility for smiting Moses and his supporters were the ones who were smited first instead.

Cooney concludes, “I, myself, have been co-opted, unable to recognize the propaganda that the ancient Egyptians were creating.” And all this is just chapter one. The rest of the book describes the violence perpetrated by leading royal figures—Khufu, Senwosret III, Akhnaton, Ramses II, and Piankhy. Her observations about Ramses II are particularly relevant to understanding the historical Exodus but outside the scope of this blog.

After this review of the savage brutal, and violent reigns of these kings, Cooney closes with some devastating comments about her field and her complicity in it.

           We Egyptologists are members of the ancient Egyptian law-and-order party.

            We Egyptologists often become apologists for a return to good kingship as the only thing that can save people from themselves.

            In effect, the ancient Egyptians have hoodwinked us into believing that those periods of monarchical centralization were exactly the times when most ancient Egyptians themselves would have preferred to live … [because] the ideology of authoritarianism is seductive.

            The Book of Gates incantation connects the patriarch’s [Pharaoh] use of violence to maintain a cosmic purpose.

She tells her grad students that Egyptology is dead. She herself is a “recovering Egyptologist. She acknowledges how the clever ideology of Egyptian Pharaohs worked on her mind and now recognizes how Egyptologists acquiesce to these ancient spin doctors. “[A]lmost all our scholarship is uncritically supportive of authoritarian policies. Unfortunately her book was published the same month as mine and I was unable to incorporate her comments especially on Ramses and the use of the term “Intermediate” by Egyptologists into it. Fortunately she was willing to write an endorsement of the book (see below).


The very question of the existence of sanctioned murder in ancient Egyptian is a contentious one. Egyptologists who have studied this aspect of Egyptian life have expressed obstacles against this recognition that Egyptians ceremonially killed other Egyptians in public. The very idea touches a raw nerve – the sacrifice of humans is abhorrent so how could the civilized ancient Egyptians have done it?

… the more a topic touches on the scholars’ religious and political viewpoints, the less they are able or willing to evaluate the evidence as objectively as possible. The same is true of topics that touch on subjects to which we have strong emotional reactions (Kerry Muhlestein, Violence in the service of order: The religious framework for sanctioned killing in ancient Egypt, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2299, Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011).

Muhlestein is referring here not to the Exodus but to the perception among scholars that they, the cultured educated intellectuals of Western Civilization view themselves as the “cultural inheritors of Egypt.” They therefore put on “intellectual blinders” so as not to see their cultural ancestors engaged in such repellent behavior. The challenge then, according to Muhlestein, is to confront the historical reality that ancient Egypt engaged in public human sacrifice and to understand it in the Egyptian context. Laurel Bestock cautions that one should resist the temptation to interpret Egyptian imagery of violence as a direct report of actual events. The imagery is part of a larger ideologically driven narrative and not true to history (Violence and Power in Ancient Egypt: Images and Ideology before the New Kingdom (Routledge: New York, 2018).

However, even as Bestock cautions us she lays the groundwork for royal violence. The king is the figure of power. She declares that everyone else is, at least potentially, violently subject to him. The Egyptian values of kingship require a king to be violently physically dominant. The very right to smash heads was an exclusive power of the king. She wonders if smiting scenes were part of a royal ceremony, a drama that included named characters with set roles. Still, this definition of kingship certainly is suggestive that such violence occurred in the physical world and not just metaphorically or theatrically.

The smiting scenes demand careful scrutiny. Related to these scenes of sanctioned murder are the scenes of brutality and pain preceding the act. Mark Janzen refers to these scenes as the “iconography of humiliation.” The king communicated his dominance over foreign captives often through degrading imagery. The victims are shown in tortuous poses of humiliating helplessness (The Iconography of Humiliation: The Depiction and Treatment of Bound Foreigners in New Kingdom Egypt, The University of Memphis, PhD Thesis, 2013). Janzen has collected examples of these bound foreigners. We know that horror movies still draw today. The famous smiting scene from “Psycho” has become part of American mythology. But for the ancient Egyptian such images of cruel pain and horrible death were sanctioned … and by the king!

Instruction to Merikare (Middle Kingdom)

The hothead is an inciter of citizens,
He creates factions among the young;
If you find that citizens adhere to him,

Denounce him before the councilors,
Suppress [him], he is a rebel,
The talker is a troublemaker for the city,
Curb the multitude, suppress its heat,
… (Miriam Lichtheim, Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975).

These instructions to a king warn of the danger of the hotheaded rebel who can rouse the multitude. One presumes the warning to the king was offered because such situations had arisen in Egypt. Those occurrences are not likely to have been part of the official records of the king.

The focus then shifts to the punishment of disrupters of ma’at. After the text specifies what the king must do maintain ma’at, the Instructions states:

Thus will the land be well-ordered;
Except for the rebel whose plans are found out,
For god knows the treason plotters,
God smites the rebels in blood.
 He who is silent toward violence diminishes the offerings.
God will attack the rebel for the sake of the temple,
He will be overcome for what he has done

One hardly needs to be an Egyptologist to recognize that in this world it is the king who is called upon in these Instructions to the king to be the one to implement the punishment against the rebels. To rebel against the king is to pay for it with your life.

I speculate that within the Egyptian context, Moses was the heated man. He was the hothead. He was the rebel. He was an inciter of citizens. He created factions. He violated ma’at. Therefore, one should expect Pharaoh to seek to respond to this heated man in accordance with Egyptian rules.

I speculate that Ramses correctly regarded Moses as an Apophis, a disrupter of ma’at. Therefore he decided to treat the hot headed rebel in accordance with Egyptian customs.

I speculate that Ramses intended to act at dawn of New Year against Moses and his followers when Sekhmet/Mut, the goddess of plagues and disease, acted as the destroyer of humanity. Moses knew this and did not wait to die before the face of Pharaoh (sunrise) would appear again.

Historical Passover where Yahweh smites Pharaoh’s tasked killers should be understood within this context of Pharaoh smites the enemy who disrupts ma’at.

What Do Egyptologists Think of the Exodus?

What do Egyptologists think of the Exodus? In The Exodus, An Egyptian Story, I examined leading (English) histories of Egypt from 1905 to 2010 to determine what these prominent Egyptologists thought about the Exodus. Later in the book, I repeated the process to see what these same people or co-authors if a multi-authored book, thought about the Hyksos. Only then did I offer my own historical reconstruction.

Below are 8 examples. I have excluded some well-known Egyptian books which had nothing to say about the Exodus.

1905 A History of Egypt: From the XIXth to the XXXth Dynasties by W. M. Flinders Petrie. He appears to take the position that the mention of Israel in the recently-discovered Merneptah Stela complicates rather than elucidates the question of the Exodus.

The name of the people of Israel here is very surprising in every way: it is the only instance of the name Israel on any monument, and it is four centuries before any mention of the race in cuneiform: it is clearly outside of our literary information, which has led to the belief that there were no Israelites in Palestine between the going into Egypt and the entry at Jericho; whereas here are Israelites mentioned with Ynuamu in North Palestine, at a time which must be while the historic Israel was outside of Palestine. The only likely conclusion is that there were others of the tribe left behind, or immediately returning, at the time of the famine; and that these kept up the family traditions about sites which were known in later times (114).

According to this view, not all the Israelites sojourned to Egypt or else some returned fairly quickly. Merneptah then attacked these Israelites already in the land of Canaan and not those who left in the Exodus. Petrie recognized that this view created a problem. He attempted to resolve his dilemma through reconciling biblical chronologies and Egyptian texts on Semitic people entering Egypt in the time of Merneptah.

Some objection may be raised to accepting the periods stated in the early Israelite history; but if their residence in Egypt is granted, we must suppose that they had an educated class which could keep the necessary accounts and records which were an incessant feature of Egyptian life. The known character of the Egyptian and Syrian civilisation of the time must cause a great difficulty to those who would deny all use of writing to the Israelites. The details of the course followed by the Israelites at the Exodus have been much disputed, owing to the insufficiency of data; but the result of Naville’s discussion of it is reasonable and generally accepted [N(aville). P(ithom). 27] (115).

He appears to be citing The Store City of Pithom and the Route of the Exodus but I am not sure about the page reference (Naville 1885).

1912 A History of Egypt, from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest by James Henry Breasted: He had written about the discovery of the Merneptah Stela with its mention of Israel as soon as the discovery had been made. Certainly he was current with the archaeological work that might touch on the Exodus. In his own history of Egypt, Breasted wrote:

There is probably little question of the correctness of the Hebrew tradition in attributing the oppression of some tribe of their ancestors to the builder of Pithom (Fig. 162) and Ramses; that a tribe of their forefathers should have fled the country to escape such labour is quite in accord with what we know of the time (1912, 446-447).

Breasted even posited a route for the Israelites to take in their departure.

Although there was never a continuous fortification of any length across the Isthmus of Suez, there was a line of strongholds, of which Tharu was one and probably Ramses another, stretching well across the zone along which Egypt might be entered from Asia. This zone did not extend to the southern half of the isthmus, but was confined to the territory between Lake Timsah and the Mediterranean, whence the line of fortresses extended southward, passed the lake and bent westward into the Wadi Tumilat. Hence Hebrew tradition depicts the escape of the Israelites across the southern half of the isthmus south of the line of defences, which might have stopped them (1912, 447)

Breasted finally referred to a dilemma caused by the Merneptah Stele. It seemed to verify the Exodus event while simultaneously casting doubt on the biblical account.

After a reign of at least ten years Merneptah passed away (1215 B.C.) and was buried at Thebes in the valley with his ancestors. His body has recently been found there, quite discomfiting the adherents of the theory that, as the undoubted Pharaoh of the Hebrew exodus, he must have been drowned in the Red Sea! (1912, 472).

1924 The Cambridge Ancient History with contributions by James Henry Breasted on “The Age of Ramses” and S. A. Cook on “The Rise of Israel.” Breasted’s chapter repeats what he had written in his own history of Egypt.

Foreign intercourse, especially with Palestine and Syria, was now more intimate than ever….Although there was never a continuous fortification of any length across the Isthmus of Suez, there was a line of strongholds, of which Tharu was one and Per-Ramses another, stretching well across the zone along which Egypt might be entered from Asia. This zone did not extend to the southern side of the isthmus, but was confined to the territory between Lake Timsah and the Mediterranean, whence the line of fortresses extended southward, passed the lake and bent westward into the Wadi Tumilat. Hence it is that Hebrew tradition depicts the escape of the Israelites across the southern half of the isthmus south of the line of defences, which might have stopped them (1924, 153)….

The country swarmed with Semitic and other Asiatic slaves. It is quite plausible that Ramses II, probably the builder of Pithom and Raamses, store-cities of the eastern Delta, should have been the Pharaoh who figured in the tradition of the Israelites, and that a group of their ancestors, after a friendly reception, were subjected to slave labour in the building of the two places mentioned (1924, 154).

Merneptah passed away (1215 B.C.) after a reign of at least ten years and was buried at Thebes in the valley with his ancestors. His body has been found there —a discovery somewhat disconcerting to those who held that, as the Pharaoh of the Israelite exodus, he must have been drowned in the Red Sea (see p. 356,n. 2) (1912, 170).

The implication is that an Exodus did occur.

Cook devotes approximately 25 pages to the topics of the biblical text and the Exodus. His interests are more textual than archaeological. He summarizes the biblical account of the Exodus and Conquest. He refers to the literary process of the creation of the textual record which concluded centuries after the date of Ramses or Merneptah. There is no evidence for either event. He spends a great deal of time examining the biblical text in the land of Canaan (and the wilderness) and less so in Egypt itself. The clearest expression of his views appears in two footnotes:

1. While the strongest arguments against the ‘critical’ position have indicated the weakness of elaborate ‘reconstructions’ based upon data which prove to be much more complicated than was thought, no alternative position and no other fruitful lines of enquiry have attracted serious attention.
2. Four groups of theories have prevailed as to the Exodus. Broadly speaking, they associate themselves with (i) the Hyksos (i.e. before the XVIIIth Dynasty), (2) the age of Thutmose III and Amenhotep III and IV (the ‘Amarna Age,’XVIIIth Dynasty); (3) the age of Ramses II and Merneptah (XIXth Dynasty); and (4) a later period (XXth Dynasty). Each of the groups has points in its favour, but deals so drastically with the biblical evidence that should any one of them be justified (through fresh external evidence), the very secondary character of the biblical narratives will only be more unmistakable. Most can be said in favour of (2) and (3); cf. p. 153 sq. [referring to Breasted’s contribution above] (1924, 356).

All in all, Cook does not give much credence to the Exodus account.

1951 The Burden of Egypt by John A. Wilson: The revised title, The Culture of Ancient Egypt, for this edition probably reflects an editorial decision to reduce the judgmental harshness of the original title. However, his antithetical views towards Egypt shine through especially when he was contrasting Egypt with Israel. Wilson included references to Hebrews at scattered moments in his telling of the Egyptian story and delivered a powerful message through them. He concluded his chapter on the First Intermediate Period entitled “The First Illness” with the observation that the “disciplined unity of the state became more important than the rights and opportunities of individuals, the concept of equality and social justice was finally swallowed up. This was the story of a people who once caught a clear but distant view of the Promised Land who ended up wandering in the wilderness” (1951, 124). Here Wilson was disparaging Egypt for having discovered the value of the individual man and then abandoning it. The implication is that Israel succeeded where Egypt failed.

Wilson rejected the notion that Atonism, the religion of Akhnaton was ancestral to Hebrew monotheism (1951, 225-229). He concluded this section with the comment that “The fuller realization of the meaning of God’s cherishing care was to be made by other and later peoples”(1951, 229).

Wilson declared that the Merneptah Stela mentioning Israel means the “Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt” had to have occurred earlier (1951, 255). He stated his own thesis that the Hebrews took little from Egypt and expressed his obligation to present his own view of the Exodus. For Wilson, the biblical account “is a simple and honest attempt to tell the tale of Jahweh’s preservation of His people and is given simplicity and directness for the purposes of national cohesion by making the climax the deliverance of the people from the mighty Egyptian nation” (1951, 255).

Wilson provided some details on how this happened. His Israel truly was a mixed multitude. It consisted of people who had had an exodus from Egypt under the Hyksos, were subjects of the Egyptian Empire in Palestine, were captives taken to Egypt, were Habiru, and were a small group who succeeded in making the Exodus from Egypt. That Egyptianized group outwitted some Pharaoh and escaped into the Sinai wilderness. This group is the tribe of Levi and they were missionaries of a new cult. That cult “struck a responsive chord in every heart which had suffered under Egyptian domination” (1951, 256). The Levites brought unity to the diverse peoples of Canaan.

Wilson expressed scant regard for the people these Israelites left. As slave troops on building projects, they were in no position to learn the ways of Egypt nor should they have wanted to. “Their simple desert souls would see and shrink from some of the abominations of the effete civilization and long to escape dreary enslavement rather than admire the cultural triumphs of the land of bondage … By the time the Hebrews were intellectually mature enough to seek for models of expression from neighbors, Egypt was a senile and repetitive culture, which had nothing dynamic to give” (1951, 256; see also 251). Wilson concluded his book with additional denunciations of the Egyptian way of life compared to the Hebrews and the Greeks (1951, 314-318).

1961 Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction by Sir Alan Gardiner – Gardiner alluded to the Exodus without taking a stand. He mentioned the Merneptah Stela and various wilderness-related inscriptions proponents of an historical Exodus cite but never definitively offered his own opinion despite his earlier supposition about the Hyksos. (See previous post The Egyptian Exploration Fund and the Exodus for Hoffmeier’s comment on the impact of Gardiner on separating Egyptology from Exodus studies.)

1975 “Egypt: From the Inception of the Nineteenth Dynasty to the Death of Ramesses III,” in The Cambridge Ancient History by Raymond Faulkner – Faulkner has little to say except to dismiss the Exodus as an event in history

The second point that arises is the mention of Israel, the only instance known from any Egyptian text. Until the discovery of this stela in 1896 the general belief was that Merneptah was the pharaoh of the Exodus, yet here in the middle of his reign we find Israel already settled in Palestine. Discussion of this problem has been endless, but the fact remains that there is no positive evidence relating to the date of the Exodus (1975, 234).

1988 A History of Ancient Egypt by Nicolas Grimal (1992 English translation) – “It is considered possible that the Jewish Exodus may have taken place during the reign of Ramesses II” (1988, 258). Grimal then mentioned the “Apiru” implying they might be a source for the people of the Exodus without stating it. He noted that there is no surviving record of the Exodus in Egyptian sources which he did not think was surprising: “the Egyptians had no reason to attach any importance to the Hebrews” (1992, 258). Grimal deemed it “possible to reconstruct the course of events leading up to the Exodus…” (1992, 258). He did so through the Egyptian education Moses would have received as a member of the court in the time of Horemheb (1323-1295 BCE). He posited that Seti I then would have sent this trained person back to his people to assist in the building of the fortifications in the eastern Delta and the future city of Piramesse. He dated Moses’s murder of the Egyptian guard, flight to Midian, marriage, acceptance of the Burning Bush revelation, and return to Egypt to the first years of the reign of Ramses II. Grimal treated Pharaoh’s objection to allowing the Hebrews to depart into the wilderness as understandable given that this territory was a constant threat during years two to eight of his reign (1988, 258-259).

2010 The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson – He accepted that the building activities at Per-Ramesses, the capital under Seti and Ramses II, provided a background for the biblical building stories. He characterized the likely Semitic-speaking laborers on the building projects as migrant workers rather than slaves. The sources are silent on any Exodus of the Hebrews. He opined that the biblical story may be a conflation of multiple unrelated historical events. However, he acknowledged that “Ramses was not one to let the truth stand in the way of his news agenda” (2010, 313).

None of these Egyptologists seem to have considered the possibility that Ramses claimed success in the Exodus just as he had at Kadesh … or to recognize that portions of his claim of victory at Kadesh were composed after his failure in the Exodus as well. Come to think of it, neither do biblical scholars.

This half-page ad will appear in the forthcoming issue of KMT

The Egyptian Exploration Fund and the Exodus

When I was researching The Exodus: An Egyptian Story, I learned to my surprise that when the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF), now the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES) was founded in 1882, the Exodus was a foundational goal. The Fund sought to find the route of the Exodus.

This interest in the Exodus can be traced to the concerns of the two founders, Amelia B. Edwards, author of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, and Reginald Stuart Poole of the British Museum. Edwards’s story is a remarkable one in its own right. As a woman of no money and no formal training in Egyptology who had spent decades of her life in totally unrelated activities, her formidable presence in the world of Egyptology would have been a surprise to those who had known her.

Equally surprising would have been her commitment to find the route of the Exodus. From my own admittedly limited research, there is nothing in her earlier life to indicate this effort that would dominate the last decade of her life.

With Poole, the quest is not as surprising. At age 17, Poole had published Horae Aegyptiacae, or the Chronology of Ancient Egypt (1851). He supported an Egyptian chronology that was consistent with the biblical chronology of a 4004 BCE creation date. Poole became part of a vigorous debate in England in the 1850s about the antiquity of man. The debate initially was spurred by the geology of Charles Lyell. Biblical commentaries from the time include extremely lengthy small-print reconcilement of geology and Genesis.

Related to the date debate was the race one. The 1850s also was a time of pre-Adamite hypotheses. Part of the debate revolved around the separation of the Caucasian people in the Bible from the pre-Adamite people who had originated in the Nile Valley and spread throughout Asia and Africa. This information was not included in my book. However the whole topic of race and the antiquity of the human race or races was part of the intellectual background of one of the founders of the EEF. Egypt and the Bible were battlegrounds in the fight.

At that time, archaeology was seen as a weapon that would prove the Bible. The discoveries by Austen Henry Layard, Hendrich Schliemann, and George Smith all were examples of how archaeology could substantiate ancient texts. Then in 1882, there was an opening for the position of Professorship of Hebrew at Oxford. Samuel Rolles Driver who was more receptive to German Higher Criticism received the position. Archibald H. Sayce who would become a prolific writer on behalf of the monuments and the Bible did not. Sayce did however join a new organization.

Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF)
March 30, 1882

A society has been formed for the purpose of excavating the ancient sites of the Egyptian Delta…The general plan drawn out has received the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Bath and Wells, Durham and Lincoln, the Chief Rabbi, Archdeacon Arson… (Egyptian Exploration Fund, “Egyptian Antiquities,” The Times, 30 March 1882, 8).

The religious affiliations of some the founders of the organization attest that the EEF was not simply an archaeological organization. Biblical religion was at the core of its identity.

Yet here [at Zoan-Tanis] must undoubtedly lie concealed the documents of a lost period of Bible history⸺documents which we may confidently hope will furnish the key to a whole series of perplexing problems.

The position of the Land of Goshen is now ascertained. The site of its capital, Goshen, is indicated only by a lofty mound; but under this mound, if anywhere, are to be found the missing records of those four centuries of the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt which are passed over in a few verses of the Bible, so that the history of the Israelites during that age is almost blank (Egyptian Exploration Fund, “Egyptian Antiquities,” The Times, 30 March 1882, 8).

Edwards took a leading role in promoting the biblical connection of the new organization. Indeed, Knowledge, a new popular science magazine first published in 1881, marketed the Exodus as a lure to potential readers.

Was Rameses II. The Pharaoh of the Oppression

In an early number, probably the next, an important series of papers by Miss Amelia B. Edwards, the eminent authoress and Egyptologist, on the question, “Was Rameses II. the Oppressor of the Hebrews” will be commenced. (Knowledge, May 12, 1882, 583)

A second promo appeared two weeks later.

In the next volume will appear the first of a most interesting series of papers by Miss Amelia B. Edwards placing beyond dispute or cavil the identity of the Pharaoh of the Oppression. (Knowledge, May 26, 1882, 617)

The discovery of the mummy of Ramses II in 1881 may have triggered the series.

Edwards authored a 16-part series from June 2, 1882, to Jan 19, 1883, on Ramses as the Pharaoh of oppression. She started with Joseph possibly under Pharaoh Apophis in the attempt to fill the story of the 430 year sojourn. I vaguely recall one of the sources also vaguely recalling that the series had been consolidated into a single pamphlet by someone. Regardless of the accuracy of Edwards’s analysis, it is an important historiographical source on the state of Exodus scholarship in England at the time, especially one based on Egyptian archaeology and not simply on biblical exegesis.

We have, at all events, the evidence of the Book of Exodus, and the testimony of several Egyptian documents, to show that, from the time of Ramesses II, when the new “treasure-city” was built and Goshen city ceased to be the chief town of the province, the old name of the Nome fell into either partial or complete disuse and the “land” or county of Goshen came to be called after its new capital, “the land of Ramesses.” (Knowledge, September 15, 1882, 260)

This quotation comes from “IX.- The Land of Goshen.” The area included the Wadi Tumilat which was the focus of the effort to locate the route of the Exodus. The first excavation authorized by the EEF was to find that route in that wadi. The excavation seemed to strike pay dirt for the fledging organization. The excavations quickly led to the publication of The Store City of Pithom and the Route of the Exodus by Edouard Naville (1885), the excavator.

Poole celebrated the discovery of “the very walls on which the enslaved Hebrews worked … It is the first step towards delineating the route of the Exodus” (“The Progress of Discovery in Egypt,” The Academy 23:563 1883:140). The bricks might even be for sale until he realized how big they were. (David Gange, Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013: 187)

In the meantime, Poole had published Cities of Egypt also in 1882. Edwards’s review of the book reveals the intentions of the founders of the EEF

Remembering the enthusiasm excited by the discovery of the Chaldaean Deluge-tablets [Gilgamesh Epic], one asks with wonder how that enthusiasm is compatible with our indifference to the far more momentous discoveries which await the Egyptian explorer…Such records are more vitally important than all the Deluge legends recently collected from every corner of the globe… (The Academy, December 2, 1882, 389)

In the review, Edwards was quite vigorous in calling the English flock to the task at hand.

[I]t is first of all needful to wake the Bible-loving, church- and chapel-going English people from their long sloth, and to make them see that now, if ever, it is a serious duty, and not a mere archaeological pastime, to contribute funds for the purpose of conducting excavations on a foreign soil. (The Academy, December 2, 1882, 390)

This quest for the route of the Exodus in Egyptology proved to be short lived. Just as Assyriology had been heavily indebted to biblical studies before becoming an independent discipline, so too with Egyptology. Now the Exodus is practically a taboo subject within the field.

With the work of these early Egyptologists, the search for the biblical cities associated with the exodus was on. But it seems that [Alan] Gardiner’s strong condemnation of those whom we might call biblical Egyptologists, continues to cast a pall over serious investigation of biblical history with the aid of Egyptology. Since the 1930s there have been only a few Egyptologists who have integrated their work with biblical studies, in particular as it relates to the exodus tradition. (James Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 52).

This one-quarter page ad will appear in the next issue of BAR

400 Years a Slave

400 Hundred Year Stele Line Drawing (Wikipedia)

400 years is in the news. The time period has been the topic of some tweets and interviews by Kanye West in relation to slavery in the United States. Putting aside the Emancipation Proclamation, the 400 year time period of Middle-Passage blacks in America calls to mind other 400 year periods in American history.

  • In 1893, America celebrated the Columbus quadricentennial one year late in a famous exposition in Chicago
  • In 2007, Jamestown celebrated its quadricentennial including a royal visit from England
  • In 2009, New York, Vermont, and Canada celebrated the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson and Samuel Champlain including a royal visit from the Netherlands
  • In 2011, Protestants especially in the United States and the United Kingdom celebrated the quadricentennial of the publication off the King James Version of the Bible.


400 year anniversaries are a big deal. They involve long memories and cultural continuity.

In biblical terms, the 400 year time period is well known and for its connection to slavery:

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).

But is not the only 400-year period known from ancient times. As it turns out there is another memory of a 400-year period and from Pharaoh Ramses II, the traditional pharaoh of the Exodus. Ramses II honored the legacy of the Hyksos in Egypt commemorating their sojourn in the land in year 400, month 4, season 3, day 4 on an artifact appropriately called the Four Hundred Year Stele. The idea that there is a connection between these two 400-year traditions from the 17th to 13th centuries BCE involving West Semites in the Delta in the time of Ramses is not new. The connection between the two cultural memories was the subject of my paper last November at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research (to be published as “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories,” in Richard Beal and Joann Scurlock, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns]).

Let’s examine the significance of the number and then turn to the issue of connections. To begin with there is the number four. Assyriologist Piotr Michalowski observes:

Not to be content to be kings of Sumer and Akkad, these [Akkadian] rulers added still another forceful epithet, “king of the four corners of the universe,” or, in Sumerian, “kings of the heaven’s four corners,” in a sense driving home the notion of “everything.”1

This sense of “everything” through the use of “four” continued across the millennia in Mesopotamian times from Akkadians to Assyrians.

Four certainly is known in the biblical tradition and in the same cosmic sense. There are the four rivers of the garden encompassing the world (Gen. 2:10). There are the four cities Nimrod rules encompassing the empires from in the beginning to the present of the author if one dismisses Egypt (Gen. 10:8-10). There are the four kingdoms of chaos who are defeated by the warrior-shepherd(/king) of Hebron in this version of the cosmos and chaos tradition (Gen. 14). And there are the four kingdoms in the Daniel tradition (Daniel 7:2-7) thereby raising the perennial question of who would be the fifth kingdom. These examples all attest to the cosmic dimension of the number 4 and its sense of completeness.

Raising the number four by a factor of ten continues the metaphorical not literal dimension of numbers. Forty also is number well-known from the biblical tradition in a variety of examples and settings. It rains for forty nights and forty days (Gen. 7:4, 12, and 17; 8:6). Israel wanders in the wilderness for forty years (Ex. 16:35; Num. 14:33-34; 32:13; Deut. 2:7; 8:2, 4; 29:5; Josh. 5:6; Neh. 9:21; Ps. 95;10; Amos 5:25; Acts 13:18; Heb. 3:9, 17). Moses and Elijah were on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 11, 18; 10:10; I Kings 19:8). There are additional examples of the use of forty as well.

The extensive use of the number 40 across a wide range of times, people, and circumstances suggests some intrinsic value was associated with the number 40 beyond a literal meaning. My sense of the usage is that 4 x 10 also implies a totality, the completion or fulfillment of a measure of time, a way of marking periods or cycles, and is not to be taken literally. It signifies the right amount in time or for an action. God forbid Hazael should have brought 41 camel loads (II Kings 8:9) or Moses and Elijah should have remained on the mountain top for only 39 days and nights. Those actions would have disrupted the cosmic order. The audience expected 40.

The number 40 also is attested outside the biblical narrative. In the Mesha Stele, Mesha, the king of Moab, declares that Israel had ruled over the land of Moab for forty years.

Omri had taken possession of the land of Medeba, and dwelled there his days and much of his son’s days, forty years.

The more challenging question is to determine how it came to be that Mesha used the same number used so frequently in biblical accounts. In this regard, the task is similar to that between the two usages of 400 by Ramses and the story of oppression in Egypt ending with Ramses. The idea that there is no connection between the biblical 40 and 400 and the non-biblical usages by Mesha and Ramses would be considered farfetched in any discipline other than biblical studies.

Ramses didn’t only use 400 years in the appropriately named “Four Hundred Year Stele.” He also used 4 for the day and the month. He probably would have used four for the season too except Egypt only had three. Egyptologist James Hoffmeier characterizes this dating as “odd, raising the possibility of some sort of symbolism.”2 The stele commemorates the action of his father Seti I infusing the Baal-Seth identity in the new Egyptian capital at Avaris at the birth of the new dynasty. In a sense, the action officially demarcated the cessation of the Amarna Era (chaos) and the primacy of the Baal-Seth deity at Avaris (order) over the Amun-Re deity at Thebes in the 18th Dynasty. All these machinations automatically have political overtones. While the politics of the birth of the 19th Dynasty are beyond the scope of this post, one should remain cognizant that those developments form the backdrop to the Four Hundred Year Stele.

Again my sense is this higher factor of 4 and 102 signifies a unit of completion or perfection. In this case, Ramses is referring to a period of time or cycle that presumably has now concluded. I propose that in the Four Hundred Stele, Ramses sought to merge the two traditions as his father had. The time of the onset of the new Egyptian dynasty was the time of the completion of a period in history. He integrated the Hyksos timeline into the Egyptian one. Instead of the Hyksos ruling during an “intermediate period” as in Egyptology today, the Hyksos were the beginning of a cycle which concluded with the post-Amarna restoration. What had been separate now became one. Baal began both periods in history. From this point forward, the two peoples were chronologically merged into a single timeline in Egyptian history. It was morning in Egypt. Here comes the sun on a new day in Egyptian history. Ramses had delivered a political message in his present through the metaphorical values of the numbers he chose to publicly proclaim in the organization of temporal epochs.

Egyptologist Hans Goedicke dates the Four Hundred Year stele to shortly after year 34 in the reign of Ramses. He asks:

Why should Ramses in the second half of his reign suddenly have an urge to foster the legitimacy of his rule and that of his family, after they had occupied the throne for more than fifty years?3

I propose that the origins of the stele are to be found in the aftermath of the Battle of Kadesh during the reign of Ramses II.

This famous battle between Egypt and the Hittites in Year 5 of the reign of Ramses II is famous for important reasons:

  1. the size of the armed forces in a Bronze Age battle was huge and rare
  2. the numerous descriptions of the battle in image and text by Ramses II
  3. the existence of an alternate vision of the battle by the Hittites
  4. the ineptitude of the new Pharaoh in falling into a trap
  5. the rescue of Ramses by a Semitic military contingent
  6. the motifs used by Egypt which could be appropriated by others for their own purposes.


Just as Waterloo and D-Day live on in the cultural memory of western civilization so too Egypt’s two main battles in the Levant, Thutmose III at Megiddo and Ramses II at Kadesh lived on in the cultural memory of the Canaanites.

There were geopolitical consequences to the battle. Egyptologist Donald Redford claims that after the battle of Kadesh:

Headmen of Canaanite towns, vassals of Egypt, were impressed by what they divined as inherent weaknesses in Pharaoh’s forces: poor intelligence and a tendency to panic. Rebellion was possible; Egypt could be beaten….In the wake of the retreating Egyptians, all Canaan flared into open revolt….It was Ramesses’s darkest hour.4

Redford limits this awareness to Canaanites in the land of Canaan. Redford is correct about Canaanites revolting in the land of Canaan following Ramses’s poor performance as commander in chief.  The destruction in Hazor is simply the most prominent example of the “Canaanite spring,” the unrest Ramses now had to face in land of Canaan.

Meanwhile, all was not quiet on the home front either. As Thomas Thompson astutely comments on the significance of the battle of Kadesh beyond the battle itself.

After this defeat, Ramses II’s army was racked with revolts. It had borne the brunt of the cost of his expensive misadventure….Civil unrest and religious opposition at home was doubly encouraged….A series of plots and intrigues by court factions bitter over the military failure at Kadesh effectively paralyzed royal authority and its control of import groups within the army.5

One might take issue to the extent to which unrest and intrigue occurred, but the basic thrust of the observation appears valid. Kadesh exposed the shortcomings the leader of the country and people responded to that weakness. Thompson has honed in on the precise time when the potential for disruption of ma’at in the political arena had occurred.

I propose that that it was this very disruption which led to the two 400-year traditions in Egypt and Israel. Baruch Halpern suggests that if the Israelites scribes knew the 400 Year stele, that such knowledge is evidence of the portrayal of Israel as Hyksos and the identification of Ramses as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. He asserts the Israelites linked themselves to the memory of the Hyksos in Egypt probably during the time of Solomon when relationships between the two countries were good and monuments were being relocated from Goshen/Avaris to Tanis where the 400-year stele ultimately was found.6 He does not appear to consider the possibility that the some Hyksos actually led the people who left Egypt in the time of Ramses II and that therefore these linkages were always part of the Israelite cultural heritage right from the start. After his failure at Kadesh and the departure of Hyksos Levites and others to liberate the land of Canaan from Egyptian hegemony, Ramses sought to shore up his support with the Hyksos who had remained in the land with the Four Hundred Year Stele. The Hyksos Levites who had left Egypt after the Battle of Kadesh and then became Israelite later incorporated that event into their own cultural memory. After all, they too had been in the land of Egypt for 400 years before they left. Once you realize that the Levites were Hyksos all the pieces fall into place.



  1. Piotr Michalowski, “Masters of the Four Corners of the Heavens: Views of the Universe in Early Mesopotamian Writings,” in Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J.A. Talbert., ed., Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-modern Societies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 147-168, here 153.
  2. James K. Hoffmeier, “What Is the Biblical Date for the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood,” JETS 50 2007:225-247, here 238n.74.
  3. Hans Goedicke, “Some Remarks on the 400-Year Stela,” CdE 41 1966:23-37, here 24.
  4. Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 185.
  5. Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 153.
  6. Baruch Halpern, The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality,” in Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern, P. Kyle McCarter, The Rise of Ancient Israel: Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution, October 26, 1991 (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeological Society, 1992), 86-117, here 98-101; and Baruch Halpern, “Fracturing the Exodus, as Told by Edward Everett Horton,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, and William H. C. Propp, ed. Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (New York: Springer, 2015), 293-304,  here 299.

Were the Levites Hyksos? – No! That Would Mean Having to Take the Exodus Seriously as a Secular Event in History

Was he a Hyksos?

Were the Levites Hyksos? Both the Levites and the Hyksos garner their fair share of attention in their respective disciplines, biblical scholarship for the former and Egyptology for the latter, but never the twain shall met. The association with the Hyksos, the West Semitic warriors from across the river with a 400-year tradition of being in Egypt at the time of Ramses II, with the Exodus is millennia old. As recounted by 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus, the Egyptians already had a centuries-old tradition linking the Hyksos to the Exodus. The idea of their being some relationship between at least some Hyksos and the Israelites is more acceptable in Egyptology than in biblical studies. It would mean real people in the real world in a real political context of some kind left Egypt and settled in Canaan, ideas that are unacceptable to biblical scholars.1

The Levites are better known the Hyksos and their role in Israelite history and the writing of the Hebrew Bible is much more acceptable. Tracing their involvement over time in the writing by biblical scholars is considered a valid and legitimate academic undertaking. But even given this connection between the writing of the Hebrew Bible and the Levites, there is still something which doesn’t quite sit right with biblical scholars. 2

One would be remiss in this investigation of the Levites to Israelite history and biblical writing if one ignored that sometimes the Levites themselves were the subject of stories that portray a distinctly non-priestly picture of them. Typically one thinks of priests in ritualistic settings. They offer sacrifices, maintain the holiness of the sanctuary, and perform rituals at the sacred times. But with the Levites, there is a legacy of violence associated with them as well. The verses typically cited to illustrate that aspect of their identity are:

Genesis 34:25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males.

Genesis 49:5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 O my soul, come not into their council; O my spirit, be not joined to their company; for in their anger they slay men, and in their wantonness they hamstring oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

Exodus 32:27 And he [Moses] said to them, “Thus says Yahweh God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

Deuteronomy 33:8 And of Levi he said, “Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 9 who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed thy word, and kept thy covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt offering upon thy altar. 11 Bless, O Yahweh, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, that they rise not again.’”

Exactly how it came to be that the Levites and violence are so closely linked is not clear. 3

Biblical scholars have endeavored to plumb this facet of this violent attribute of the Levites, priests of Moses or Mushites. For example, in Mark Leuchter’s oral presentation on “The Fightin’ Mushites” two years prior to his published paper, he stated in his abstract:

The priestly line founded by Moses (the “Mushites” following [biblical scholar Frank M.] Cross and others) stands out most prominently in this regard in premonarchic tradition and, subsequently in the northern kingdom…But how did the Mushites establish themselves as a dominant priestly house, and at what point did Moses himself become a typological symbol of the Levites more broadly. 4

Leuchter finds his answers in the violent Mushite legacy of Moses slaying the Egyptian taskmaster who beat a Hebrew:

One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Ex.2:11-12).

Following that event, Moses flees to Midian where he marries Zipporah and they have a son Gershom. Leuchter dismisses the biblical “stranger in a strange land” explanation for the name of Gershom as its true meaning. Citing various scholars, Leuchter links the shared root GRSH (גרש) to the action of the shepherds who “drove away” the women watering at the well before Moses turned the table on them. Thus the son was named after the action whereby his parents met. Leuchter then suggests that term Gershom was less a name than a title signifying a Mushite who acts to defend the weak be it the Hebrew man in Egypt or the Midianite women in the wilderness. In the remainder of the article, Leuchter elaborates on the continuity of this marital prowess tradition. 5

Richard Elliott Friedman, author of the recent The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, pushed the Levite identity back to the origin of Israel into Egypt itself. In his earlier book Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman suggests that perhaps of the people who became Israel only the Levites had been slaves in Egypt. He cites the Egyptian names of key Israelites such as Moses and Aaron=s grandson Phinehas as part of this Egyptian heritage. Since the Levites in Egypt were mere slaves, Friedman does not address the writing or literacy skills of these marginalized people. Nor does he speculate on how these Levites acquired their violent image if they were slaves in Egypt. Years after that 1987 publication he returned to that subject online and promised a forthcoming book about it now published. But even though he has identified the Levites as critical to the writing of the Hebrew Bible, the now-published book does not address the writing legacy these Levites brought with them when they crossed over the river Nile to the promised land or the origin of their violent heritage. 6

It is possible to put these pieces together to suggest the critical role of the Levites in the origin of Israel and the writing of the Hebrew Bible. For violent Semites in the land of Egypt there are two realistic choices: the Hyksos and the n’rn. N’rn is a Semitic word. In Egypt, they were the soldiers who rescued Ramses II when he marched headstrong into a Hittite trap on the Orontes in Syria in Year 5 (1274 BCE). They appear out of nowhere without explanation and are depicted as Egyptians in a battle relief. Even more amazingly, Ramses credits them for the “victory” at Kadesh, a battle he also claimed to have won all by himself! The n’rn also appear in the Karnak Inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son and successor to Ramses who claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. Generally, the n’rn are considered to be Canaanites from multiple locations now fighting on behalf of Egypt, but their ethnicity is under debate among Egyptologists. However, the Karnak Inscription clearly differentiates the n’rn from the victorious Egyptian troops even as they are likened to each other. One might even inquire why Merneptah chose to compare his Egyptian troops to the n’rn in the first place. Evidently their fighting reputation was well-known. 7

The Hyksos are an intriguing piece in the puzzle. There is no inherent reason why Hyksos could not have been included in the n’rn who rescued Ramses or their commanding officers. According to Manfred Bietak, the excavator Avaris/Pi-Ramesse, the capital city of both the Hyksos and Ramses:

The end of Hyksos rule in Egypt from the historical point of view is a subject rarely addressed in Egyptology….In Egyptology, the impact of Hyksos rule on Egypt has been largely neglected in research if not ignored….[I]t is only logical to postulate that the presence of several ten thousands people of Western Asiatic people in north-eastern Egypt over a period of over 300 years (c. 1830-1530 BCE) must have had an impact on successive New Kingdom culture. 8

Levite n’rn would have a military heritage but not the writing and cultural experience of the Hyksos who had once ruled Egypt and remained a more elite and educated group. Either way, Friedman’s violent slave Levites make more sense if they had a military background.

I suggest that the missing link in all these musings is the recognition that the Levites were Hyksos. I am not claiming that all the Hyksos became Israelites nor I am claiming that all Israelites were Levite. I am claiming that the Levites who left Egypt provided the leadership for the people who became Israel. They were literate. They were warriors. They were aware of the world picture. They were known to Ramses who honored the Hyksos collectively for their 400-years in Egypt in the appropriately named 400 Year Stela. 9  They were the right people in the right place at the right time to contemplate leaving Egypt to liberate the land of Canaan from Egyptian hegemony under the leadership of the Levite Moses. Recognizing that Levites were Hyksos who became Israelites in opposition to Ramses means the Exodus occurred in the real world. By contrast biblical scholarship takes pride in having freed itself some such myths as an historical Exodus. Ironically, it will be easier for Egyptologists to deal with a real world Exodus than for biblical scholars.


1. For the Hyksos, see Bietak, Manfred, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” in Rakefet Sela-Sheffy and Gideon Toury, ed., Culture Contacts and the Making of Cultures: Papers in Homage to Itamar Even-Zohar (Tel Aviv: Unit of Culture Research Tel Aviv University, 2011), 19-65; Bietak, Manfed, “On the Historicity of the Exodus: What Egyptology Today Can Contribute to Assessing the Sojourn in Egypt,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider and William H.C. Propp, ed., Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (Heidelberg-New York- Dordrecht-London 2015), 17-36; Marée, Marcel, ed., The Second Intermediate Period (Thirteenth-Seventeenth Dynasties): Current Research, Future Prospects (OLA 192; Leuven: Peters, 2010); Oren, Eliezer D., ed., The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Philadelphia, 1997); Redford, Donald B., “The Hyksos Invasion in History and Tradition,” Orientalia 39 1970: 1-51; Redford, Donald B., and Weinstein, James, “Hyksos,” Anchor Bible Dictionary III: 341-348; Ryholt, K. S. B., The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period c. 1800-1550 B.C. (Copenhagen: K.S.B. Ryholt and Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997); Van Seters, John, The Hyksos: A New Investigation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

2. For the Levites, see Cohen, Martin A., “The Role of the Shilonite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 36 1965:39-98; Frolov, Serge, “’Days of Shiloh’ in the Kingdom of Israel,” Biblica 76 1995:210-218; Halpern, Baruch, “Levitic Participation in the Reform Cult of Jeroboam I,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 1976:31-42; Polk, Timothy, The Levites in the Davidic-Solomonic Empire,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 9 1979:3-22; Rehm, Merlin, “Levites and Priests,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary IV:297-310; Robinson, Robert B., “The Levites in the Pre-Monarchic Period,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 8 1978:3-24.

3. Joel Baden, “The Violent Origins of the Levites: Text and Tradition,” in Mark A. Leuchter and Jeremy M. Hutton, ed., Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 103-116; Richard Elliott Friedman, “Levites and Priests in History and Tradition,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, San Diego, November 24, 2014; Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” Vetus Testamentum 62 2012:479-500.

4. Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” paper presented at the Columbia Hebrew Bible Seminar, March 17, 2010. The published article dates the presentation to February, 2010.

5. Leucheter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” 492-494.

6. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: Harper, 2017); Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?,(New York: Summit Books, 1987), 82; Richard Elliott Friedman, “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, undated,‑historical‑exodus/ and “The Exodus Is not Fiction: An Interview with Richard Elliot Friedman” Reform Judaism, undated,‑not‑fiction. See also Richard Elliott Friedman, “Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?,” BAR 40/5 2014:48-52.

7. For the role of these Semitic soldiers in the showdown with the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, see Goedicke, Hans, “Considerations of the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52 1966:71-80; Kitchen, Kenneth A., Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1982), 60; Manassa, Colleen, The Great Karnak Inscriptions of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century BC (YES 5; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 53; Morris, Ellen, The Architecture of Imperialism: Military Bases and the Evolution of Foreign Policy in Egypt’s New Kingdom (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 362-366; Obsomer, Claude, “La Bataille de Qadech de Ramsès: Les n’arin, sekou tepy et questions d’itinéraires,” in Christina Karlshausen and Claude Obsomer, ed., De la Nubie à Qadech: La Guerre dans l’Égypte/From Nubia to Kadesh: War in Ancient Egypt (Brussels: Safran Publishers, 2016), 81-168; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1 1962:47-52; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at Kadesh Once Again,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 11 1981:7-19; Spalinger, Anthony, “Notes on the Reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh,” in Hans Goedicke, ed., Perspectives on the Battle of Kadesh (Baltimore: Halgo Inc., 1985), 1-42, here 3; Zudhi, Omar, “Benteshina and the N’rn Division,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 1977-1978: 141-142.

8. Bietak, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” 20-21.

9. Peter Feinman, “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research, November 16, 2017, publication forthcoming Beal, Richard and Scurlock, JoAnn, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming).

Portions excerpted from Jerusalem Throne Games by Peter Feinman