Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

King Tut Centennial (November 4) and American Indians

If you don't recognize this, where have you been the last century?

On November 4, 1922, the world of Egyptology changed forever. On that date Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, the boy-king. Egyptology hasn’t been the same since. The discovery of an intact tomb from the 14tth century BCE has provided splendors which continue to dazzle the general public to this very day. Tours of his artifacts are box-office bonanzas and now Tut is becoming part of the digital age. Every American school kid seems to know who he is.

But there is more to this Pharaoh than what dazzles the eye. Egyptologists are learning that he is not quite the two-dimensional figure he appears to be in the popular mind. Therein lies the tale. Two-dimensional human figures in the real world always end up being three-dimensional unless you choose not to look.


The first major chink in the image of the boy-king may be dated to the publication of Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest during Egypt’s Late 18th Dynasty by John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa (2007).

A new book, “Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World” by Bob Brier (2022) has a section “Reimagining Tutankhamun as a Warrior” just published online by Smithsonian. Bob (whom I know) will be speaking in-person later this month to the American Research Center in Egypt, New York (I am Vice President), so there will be more opportunity to hear about how this beloved frail, sickly, boy-king, was not that figure at all.

The larger issue raised here is that Pharaohs were not, in fact, two-dimensional beings. They were at their core political leaders who maintained their position of political leadership through the death of others. Violence was a critical component of their rule even though it can be glossed over as maintaining maat or cosmic order. The act of maintaining such order involves the (ritual) killing of those who would disrupt it. It is as if all the people rebelling in Iran today were summarily executed in the name of Allah with the fig leaf of a trial.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney called her discipline to task in a publication last year, The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World.

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.

The beloved maat of ancient Egypt and modern Egyptologists ignores the fact that its practical application was as an authoritarian tool of control, a power to oppress. This self-admitted “recovering Egyptologist” has pulled back the curtain on the smoke and mirrors of Pharaonic violence. She faults Egyptologists for having bought into the Egyptian propaganda machine.

Although the parallels are not exact, it turns out that American Indians are not two-dimensional Disney beings either.


Indians were just as capable of exercising power as Pharaoh even if the means and scale differed. I became aware of this through some on-line lectures and book reviews I read during COVID and acknowledge that I am not a scholar in this area. Fortunately the people I listen to and read are. Although these examples are separate from each other, collectively they paint a pretty persuasive picture that Indians are people, too.

Example 1 Seceding from the Sachemship: Coercion, Ethnology, and Colonial Failure in Early Historic New England
Author: Peter Jakob Olsen-Harbich, The New American Antiquarian
Comment: Linford Fisher, Brown University

This paper considers coercive political practices among early historic southern New England Algonquians and their historical function in the success of early English colonies. In the spring of 1623, the [English] settlement of Wessagusset, a rag-tag band of starving would-be fur traders perched on the precarious northern edge of England’s nascent American empire, collapsed in a bloody struggle with its Indigenous neighbors, the Massachusett. This paper asserts that the failure of Wessagusset occurred partially because its inhabitants, unlike those residing in Plymouth Colony, neglected to observe, understand, and diplomatically engage with the coercive political practices of the Algonquian sachemship they abutted. The majority of this paper serves to explain this coercive characterization politics of Algonquian through a reexamination of early historic evidence of corporal and capital punishment practices.

According to my notes from this on-line presentation at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the dissertation contextualizes Algonquian practices at the time of the European arrival. Olsen-Habrich argues that coercion and not consensus lay at the center of the 17th center polities. He suggests that scholars have minimized the coercive practices employed by the sachems. He used archaeology, observation, ethnological data on the 1623 case study to arrive at this conclusion stating that people in the field need to think big and rethink old orthodoxies.

There was some discussion as to whether the graduate student was cherry picking the scholars who already actually were aware of the coercive side of the story. The question was raised if it was really true that the field has ignored coercive aspects. Such comments simply solidify the point that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, coercive action was a standard part of tool-kit for the maintenance in power. The problem then occurred with the new arrivals into the game of power. The people in the settlement at Plymouth had a better understanding of how the game of power was played than did the ones at Wesagusset.

Example 2 Redating the Iroquoian Histories through Archaeology, Jennifer Birch, University of Georgia

This on-line presentation to the Archaeological Institute of America, Westchester Society (I am the President), showed how a change in chronology can lead to change in identifying the participants involved in the conflict.

Chronologies fundamentally underpin all other aspects of archaeological thought. When our timeframes shift, so to does the historical interpretive framework or scaffolding upon which we build our explanations for how past events unfolded. In this talk, I will briefly summarize work completed to date by the Dating Iroquoia project. Our aim has been to construct a more refined regional chronologies for select Northern Iroquoian sites and community relocation sequences through radiocarbon dating and Bayesian chronological modelling. Our focus is the ca. AD 1480-1610 period and the beginning of European contact. We use novel approaches for clarifying the calibration curve from the radiocarbon dates. The development of enhanced date estimates for specific sites in this period has allowed us to re-plot the date of events. The results have shifted our thinking about Northern Iroquois polity development and population movement. This includes rethinking the nature and timing of the historic enmity between the Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee nations and processes of population movement between ancestral Huron-Wendat communities in south-central Ontario.

The shift in chronology due to the redating of the archaeology means a change in the traditional narrative of conflict due to the Europeans. The lessons to be learned here are that conflict existed both within the Wendat and Iroquois peoples individually and then between them prior to the arrival of the Europeans. When the Europeans arrived, initially in small numbers, they did so as new players in an existing game of power and then took sides.

Example 3 The Mohawk

Both examples of the Mohawk come from book reviews. The first is by Laurence Hauptman of Iroquois in the West by Jean Barman (I have not read the book) (American Historical Review 125 October 2020). The book examines the impact of the Mohawk and the Iroquois in general who migrated west and influenced a vast region from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific.

Hauptman criticizes Barman for not mentioning that some Mohawk ended up in a reserve “that included a sizable number of Algonquian refuges and Indian and non-Indian captives from New England and New York.” In other words, rivalries and hostilities among people from New York and New England had been transported west. Hauptman writes, “It might be suggested that the Mohawk ability to deal with Indigenous peoples in the West was based on their long relationship with and at times domination over others in the East, a factor that might have contributed to their sense of self-confidence, superiority, and nationalism.”

Mohawk violence back east where they earned the sobriquet “man-eaters” was the subject of two blogs on a book review by David Silverman of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Lisa Brooks [Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode (September 20, 2020) and Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) (September 23, 2020)], particularly the second one.

The point of these examples is not to single out the Mohawk for their warrior proclivities. It is not unusual to find Klingons who are more closely associated with violence within a larger cultural group than other segments. The Prussians in Germany, Spartans in Greece, and Benjaminites in ancient Israel all gained reputations as warrior peoples within their respective cultures.

The intent instead here is to reject the clichéd two-dimensional Disney racial stereotype that white people have applied to Indians in the 21st century. Many scholars know better whether it is about the American Indians or Pharaohs like King Tut. We are better off if recognize the humanity of both groups which includes the place of power and violence in these societies.

The issue of division within the non-two-dimensional people was raised by Rebecca Kugel in “Factional Alignment among the Minnesota Ojibwe, 1850-1880” (American Indian Culture and Research Journal 1985). She challenged the view that pre-contact “factionalism” was minor to Indian history, that it was a post-contact development. She questioned the failure by scholars to examine the internal political workings of Indian societies [an equivalent to ignoring the War of the Roses].

Kugel observed the longstanding political division between the civil leaders and the warriors. Such leadership division was common to Woodlands peoples. When I read about her separating the civil leaders who tended to counsel peace and the warriors or “young men” who advocated war, I couldn’t help but think of the same situation Gilgamesh faced in Uruk thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia or the older councilors who advised King Rehoboam to listen to the people regarding the heavy yoke Solomon had laid upon them while the younger ones supported doubling down. These examples reflect the danger in thinking a situation is unique to a given people when it may, in fact, to reflect a universal constant in human life.

Kugel’s description of the “young, rash, hot-headed, and inclined to be combative and coercive in interpersonal relations” bears an eerie resemblance to the very people Tut and the other Egyptian leaders killed for disrupting the social order.

We have now come full circle. Once we pull back the curtain of smoke and mirrors, we see the humanity of the people involved. With Pharaoh, it means liberating ourselves from one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in human history to recognize the violence that was essential to their rule. With the American Indian, it means not letting the two-dimensional image of people living in peace and harmony with each other and in nature cloud our understanding because culturally we are a people who left the Garden of Eden and want to go back.

Exodus and Egypt: Biblical Minimalist Battlefield

The current issue of Biblische Notizen (193, 2022) contains a series of articles about the confrontation in biblical scholarship between the biblical “minimalists” and the “maximalists.” The opening article by Lester Grabbe is entitled “How the Minimalists Won! A Discussion of Historical Method in Biblical Studies.” In it he claims not be a minimalist himself but declares in the opening paragraph:

Some will be surprised to hear that the Minimalists have won the battle in the struggle over history and the Bible….This paper discusses how, and especially why we are presently (almost) all minimalist, and why they should now cease to fight that battle.

In this article, Grabbe mentions two historical events to illustrate his points: the Mesha Stele and Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 BCE.

In his own work, the Exodus that has been a topic of great interest to him. A partial list includes:

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 Shosheng: 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

In the first publication, Grabbe (2000) has a great deal of fun imagining what would have happened if an Exodus of 600,000 men had occurred. He continually mocks the biblical story by presenting the absurdities which would have resulted in an Exodus of millions of people, their animals, and the loot from despoiling the Egyptians. How could tiny Edom think of refusing such an enormous force passage through the land? How could the Canaanites have resisted such an occupying army? Think of the mighty empire, Israel could have created long before Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Alexander, and Rome with a population of that size!

What if Grabbe had decided to be a scholar instead of being content to ridicule the physically-literal interpretation of the biblical text? For example, Grabbe writes about the reputation this massive force of 600,000 would have had. It would have overwhelmed any who dared to stand it its way.  Suppose instead, he had mentioned:

And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of Yahweh had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and acquit yourselves like men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; acquit yourselves like men and fight” (I Sam. 4:6-9).

Then he might have pursued the issue of how did this reputation arise and what is the (military) meaning of the word Hebrew in this context.

He might have explored the violence of Levi and Simeon and inquired as to the origin of that tradition.

He might have explored the more reasonably-sized military forces of Gideon and David.

He might have explored the use of numbers and what the “thousands” mean in non-Exodus stories.

But Grabbe does not pursue these avenues of scholarship. Instead he just had fun at the expense of the physically-literal interpretation of the biblical text.

Even when the opportunity to investigate the Exodus is staring him right in the face, he is Balaam and cannot see it. Grabbe writes that if Israel had been as strong as implied by the numbers of fighting men, it could have taken control of at least Lower Egypt? Isn’t that what the Hyksos did? Grabbe’s comment that nothing in the Hyksos account by Josephus evokes Israel omits an analysis of the Hyksos in the 19th Dynasty (2014:81). If Grabbe had realized that there was a connection between the Hyksos and the Exodus, he also would have realized that there were references in the Egyptian records from the time of Ramses and Merneptah that should be explored in an historical reconstruction of the Exodus.

Grabbe (2014) subsequently 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. He neglects to mention that it is unlikely that a bellowing hippopotamus in Thebes disturbed the sleep of Apophis in Avaris hundreds of miles away and that therefore the story of it happening also is of zero historical value. Disproving the physically-literal interpretation of biblical texts is irrelevant to determining if Moses led people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses and constituted them in the wilderness as Israel or not. Grabbe 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?

Grabbe considers it strange that there is not even a hint in Egyptian literature, iconography or legend of the Egypt stories in the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This is the precise dilemma I avoided in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Story. Any attempt to create a historical reconstruction of the Exodus as an event of people leaving Egypt in open defiance of Ramses or any other Pharaoh inevitably leads to issues of biblical exegesis – when were texts written? By whom? For what purpose? Grabbe brings his biblical preconceptions to his analysis that undermines his effort to reconstruct the historical Exodus without his being aware of it. For example, to continue with his plague example, what are the cosmological plague traditions in Egypt, meaning what message did the Egyptians deliver through their plague myths? Based on that analysis one would then try to understand what message Israel sought to deliver through its version of the plague myths in rebuttal to the Egyptian cultural construct. The physical historicity of the ten plagues (except the last one) is not the issue. Grabbe’s search for the physical plagues in the Egypt record is comparable to the search for them by evangelicals. He is as much a literalist in disproving the Exodus as they are in proving it.

Grabbe (2016) here spends 46 pages 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 like nomads and tribes 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?

Grabbe opines that no event of the size and extent to the Exodus could have failed to leave significant archaeological remains. One might also ask what are the archaeological remains in Canaan and Syria of Ramses’s army of 20,000? What is the archaeological evidence of the Shasu in the wilderness for centuries beyond Egyptian Pharaoh’s mentioning their existence? Without the texts, how would know that the Shasu existed or the large-scale Battle of Kadesh had been fought?

He concludes his analysis by organizing the data into the following sections:

Biblical data confirmed
Biblical data not confirmed though they may be correct
Biblical picture incorrect
Biblical picture omits/has gaps.

Grabbe employs a similar schematic in other publications as well as an illustration of his thoroughness and fairness in dealing with the question of the Exodus and biblical texts. His analyses always led him to believe based on the evidence that an historical Exodus did not occur: people did not leave Egypt in defiance of Pharaoh.

One critical question is given the assumption of no historical Exodus, how did it come to be that there is such an extensive story of the Exodus in the biblical narrative? How come it shows signs of being revised on multiple occasions delivering multiple messages?

Grabbe is enamored of the speculative hypothesis that Merneptah took Israelites captives in his 1207 BCE campaign. These slaves in Egypt were the source of the Exodus story whenever they returned to Canaan after Egyptian imperial rule collapsed or in the Iron Age. This speculative historical reconstruction is based on the premise that the Exodus did not occur, the biblical story does, therefore there has to be an explanation for how that happened.

A more popular explanation is a speculative historical reconstruction by Nadav Na’aman, “The Exodus Story: Between Historical Memory and Historiographical Composition” (JANER 11 2011:39-69). His theory, later supported by Ron Hendel, posits a reverse exodus. Instead of Israel going forth from Egypt, Egypt left Canaan. Na’aman is referring to the departure of Egypt after centuries of rule in the New Kingdom generally ending somewhere around 1139 BCE in the reign of Ramses VI. During that time people in the land of Canaan thought of themselves as slaves of Egypt and not slaves in Egypt. After Egypt withdrew, the people left in the land transformed the memory of that occurrence into the story of the Exodus from Egypt we know today.

Here is an example of another speculative historical reconstruction from a different perspective: the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15) was not composed as a single song. Instead it grew by stanza in response to different encounters between Israel and Egypt

Stanza 1 the Exodus showdown in the time of Moses and Ramses also known as the Song of Miriam
Stanza 2 Merneptah’s failure to destroy the seed of Israel in the time of Joshua and added at Mt. Ebal
Stanza 3 the defeat of the forces of Ramses III (Se-sera, Sisera) in the time of Deborah probably added at Mt. Ebal
Stanza 4 celebrating the withdrawal of Egypt by Ramses VI added at Shiloh.

This composite song was part of the Book/Scroll of the Wars of Yahweh (against Egypt) which served as a source document when the alphabet narrative prose account was written.

I submit that this speculative historical reconstruction is more plausible, more reasonable, more comprehensive, and more coherent than the reverse exodus hypothesis of Na’aman. It also addresses some on the concerns raised by Grabbe about the maintenance of the memory of the Exodus and the continuity of the Israel/Egypt relationship from the end of the Late Bronze Age into the Iron I period before becoming part of a prose narrative in Iron II.

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.

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 relevance is in the use of the Egyptian literary texts and reliefs as part of the discussion about the historicity of the Exodus which Grabbe does not do. The typical approach to examining the archaeology 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: did Ramses borrow from or respond to the Exodus in his portrayal of the Battle of Kadesh?

I submit the following 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.

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 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? Why should scholars assume this event occurred?

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 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 install loyalty as was his 400 Year Stela. He was not deserted at Kadesh, he was deserted at Goshen when the charismatic, popular, and superior military-leader Moses led people out of Egypt and the army stood down and did not interfere.

3. he prayed to Amun – his lengthy well-crafted prayer to his father deity did not occur on the field of battle; this expression 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).

4. 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?

Muwatillis knew where the battle would be fought. He arrived there first.
Muwatillis knew where the waters were.
Muwatillis knew the route Ramses would take.
Muwatillis baited Ramses to charge into a trap.

The same strategy would work when leaving Egypt in defiance of the king.

Ramses’s versions of the Battle of Kadesh is a prime example where an ancient source should not be taken as gospel. I submit, it is possible not only to examine the Song of the Sea based on the Battle of Kadesh poems, bulletins, and reliefs, but possible to examine them as part Ramses’s response to a second failure following shortly after his first failure. In fact that is the speculative historical reconstruction I propose in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Story.

Grabbe 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; also used 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,” Grabbe 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?

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 in during the Late Bronze Age when Palestine (meaning 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 of 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 “strong” Pharaoh 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 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 forthcoming book. 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.

Here are some questions Grabbe might have asked if he was seriously interested in pursuing the possibility of an historical Exodus in the time of Ramses.

Why did the adult Ramses insert himself as child accompanying his father on his campaigns? Why did he erase or “cancel” the person who actually had? This action was not standard operating procedure. It was personal.

What happened to the person Ramses erased? Did he disappear from history or discover a God in history?

Why did Ramses need to create so many portrayals of his battle at Kadesh? How many duplicate copies did Thutmose III, Seti, and Ramses III make of their battles? Is there anyone in the ancient world who made a greater effort to make his name great than did Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh? Archaeologists love it when kings make their names great, but that was not the religion Moses created as part of his rejection of the Egyptian cultural construct.

Why did Ramses add the non-historical elements to his Battle of Kadesh reports noted above?

Why did Ramses need to gain the loyalty of the Hyksos who remained in the land of Goshen with the 400 Year Stele?

Grabbe should follow his own advice here.

The biblical text is indeed often unreliable, but so are primary sources in many cases.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney in The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World (2021), takes Egyptologists to task for succumbing to the hype, spin, and propaganda of Egyptian rulers. 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…. I, myself, have been co-opted, unable to recognize the propaganda that the ancient Egyptians were creating.

She asserts that Ramses tried to convince the populace that he was truly what he said he was. Ramses appears to have successful not only with Egyptologists but with biblical scholars.

Cooney’s chapter about Ramses is subtitled “The Grand Illusion.” A subsection is entitled “Ramses the Gaslighter.” She describes him as a figure of optics not substance, of spin not achievement, of hyperbole and not accomplishment except to gaslight Egyptologists and biblical scholars. She asks: “What kinds of insecurities was this king hiding?” The answer is the Sun King lived in the shadow of the man Moses all his life.

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.

The histories of Israel need to be rewritten.

The commentaries on the origin of the Hebrew Bible need to be rewritten.

That is the minimum of what needs to be done.

See previous blogs:

Passover and Pharaoh Smites the Enemy February 19, 2022

Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus March 10, 2022

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.