Guest Columnist: Who was the pharaoh of the Exodus?

There is not much historical evidence for the founding narrative of the Jewish liberation story.

pyramids 224 88 (photo credit: )
pyramids 224 88
(photo credit: )
The Exodus story is deeply embedded in Jewish literature and the Jewish psyche. We would not be a people without it. It is the historical core of the Seder night ceremony - "all who speak much of the going-out from Egypt are to be praised." It is the basis of many of our prayers which tell us that we have to teach it to our youngsters so that they will in turn pass it on to the next generation. In spite of our forefather Joseph having saved their people through seven years of famine, the Egyptians enslaved and mistreated the Hebrews with "mortar and bricks" and it took the relentless intervention of divinely inspired plagues, initiated by Moses and Aaron, to induce their pharaoh to "let my people go" to serve their God in the wilderness. BUT THERE is practically no external evidence of this cataclysmic event besides the national belief that it must have happened. So, we should ask - as many have done before - who was the pharaoh of the Exodus? Today, Rameses the Great is the favorite for pharaoh of the Exodus, though his choice raises as many problems as it solves. He reigned from about 1280 to 1210 BCE, a reign of 70 years, longer than that of Britain's Queen Victoria. He is reported to have had more than 100 sons, though not all from one wife. His chief consort was the beautiful Nefetari, and her tomb in the Valley of the Queens is one of the most splendid of all, though so badly attacked by corrosion that today only the select few are allowed to visit her renovated shrine. Besides being a sexual athlete, Rameses II was a great soldier and a great builder. He went north to head off the Hittite challenge, fought them to a stalemate at the battle of Kadesh, in Syria, and cemented the shaky cease-fire by marrying the Hittite princess, daughter of their king, Hattusili. That secured his northern front. To the south, he built the gigantic rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel to scare away any attack from the Nubians. Its enormous statues of himself and his queen told them in no uncertain terms, "Advance against us at your peril!" The message was reinforced with internal carvings showing the piled-up foreskins of previous enemies. Rameses's masterpiece was the colonnaded hall at Karnak, whose lofty pillars and sun-screened but light-giving clerestory could not be built today without the use of specialist cranes. Rameses did it with massive manpower, but the idea of slave labor should be discounted. The Egyptian pharaohs used peasant labor during the period of the Nile inundation when it was not possible to work on the land. This was the summer season, when the fellahin would be contracted to build the pyramids or enlisted to go to war. To this local labor would be attached foreigners and other immigrants seeking work. They were paid in kind with accommodation and food, the Egyptians supplying salted fish, cucumbers, leeks, melons and onions (as Numbers 11:5) and no doubt gallons of beer, the national tipple. One group whom Rameses employed to build the large entrance pylons of the Karnak temple, according to a well-known papyrus now in Leiden, Holland was the Hapiru and their soldiers. Who were the Hapiru, were they the Hebrews? THAT IS A linguistic problem that has vexed the scholarly world for a 100 years or more. The Hapiru are recorded in the Egyptian Amarna letters of the 14th century BCE as groups of dissidents, outlaws or gypsies, that would roam the countryside gaining their livelihood by fair means and foul. Sometimes they were unwelcome visitors, threatening the stability of the cities of the Levant, at other times they were employed as mercenaries, helping to defend one city against another. Their loyalties were not bound to any particular tribe or people, except their own class. It may be that the Egyptians had captured some of them in the wars defending their dependent cities, or it may be that the Hapiru infiltrated into Egypt in search of a living, when things got tough in Canaan. There they were press-ganged into the monumental building industry. Some scholars believe that these Hapiru were connected with the Hebrews, some would even say they were the Hebrews, and this papyrus record then gives us a connection between the Hebrews, albeit a smallish group, and their arch-employer Rameses the Great. THIS WOULD be rather convenient for those who look for Egyptian evidence for the Exodus and those who support Rameses as its pharaoh. He has of course got other support, particularly from the Torah's mention of the two store-cities built by the Hebrews, Pithom and Raamses. No other dynasty, except the Ramesside one (which ruled for about 100 years from 1290 BCE), would call a city Raamses, and of that dynasty Rameses II is the favorite choice. The two pharaohs before him reigned for only short periods, and the one after him, Merneptah, actually has a monument claiming that he defeated Israel in its own land, so if it is a Rameses, Rameses the Great it must be. But then doubt begins to form. The Torah tells us that 600,000 males of military age left Egypt, with the addition of women and children that looks like 2.5 million people. That may be an estimate, but another estimate tells us that the total population of Egypt at the time was about four million, including the workers and the Hapiru. For five-eighths of the population to suddenly depart the land seems quite improbable. And there are other problems. The Bible says that the Israelites conquered Jericho on their way to Canaan. That city has been dug over by one expedition after another, once by the Germans, twice by the British, today by the Italians, and the general consensus is that the walls came tumbling down about 1550 BCE, 300 years before the time of Rameses. There are other explanations and other views, but on the face of it the Rameside date does not conform. Nor does it work with the statement in the First Book of Kings (6:1) that Solomon started the Temple 480 years after the Exodus, which would place it nearly 200 years before Rameses. Nor does it agree with the idea promoted by Josephus, based on an earlier Egyptian writer Manetho, that the Hebrews came in with the Hyksos, the horse-riding Syrian invaders, and were expelled with them, which would have been in about 1550 BCE, so that again is too early for our anti-hero Rameses. That leaves us where we started. Rameses the Great may be one candidate for pharaoh of the Exodus, but the evidence for the Exodus, though firmly in our psyche, firmly in the Haggada and firmly in the Torah, is not so firmly, at least to date, anywhere else. The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.