Biblical Egypt by R. David Pogge

Chapter 5

Moses and the New Kingdom Pharaohs

Exodus 1 – 14

Section 5.1 - Previously, in the Second Intermediate Period …

As we saw in the last chapter, Joseph brought his family to Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, and was probably one of the 16th Dynasty pharaohs. Despite the fact that they brought great wealth to Egypt, they were Semitic foreigners, who were hated because they were not Egyptians. We know very little about the Second Intermediate Period pharaohs because later Egyptians tried to remove all traces of them from the historical record.

The Bible says the New Kingdom pharaohs “knew not Joseph” 1. If the Egyptians during the 18th Dynasty actually did remember Joseph, they did not remember him fondly because he was one of the despised foreign rulers during the Second Intermediate Period. It is easy to understand why the 18th Dynasty pharaohs would enslave members of the race of that hated regime. The New Kingdom years would not have been a good time to be a Hebrew, or a member of any of the other Semitic tribes. It isn’t hard to understand why the Hebrews became slaves, despite the prosperity Joseph had brought to Egypt 217 years earlier.

You’ve probably seen movies which say the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramesses was the pharaoh during the Exodus. He wasn’t. That myth began a hundred years ago, or so, based on primitive Egyptian sources. We now know a lot more about the New Kingdom pharaohs, their wives, and their children than they did 100 years ago. Modern Egyptologists agree, the Exodus happened during the 18th Dynasty (but disagree upon which 18th Dynasty pharaoh was on the throne at the time.). Forget what you have seen in the movies.

Section 5.2 - Moses’ Birth

Moses was born 137 years after Joseph brought the Israelites to Egypt, 80 years before the Exodus. This means he was born about 2 years before the death of Tuthmosis III.

Some movies suggest that Moses could have been in line for the throne, and this would have caused sibling rivalry of potentially deadly proportion. Aidan Dodson's excellent book, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, contains detailed geneaological charts showing why Moses could not have been a political rival to any pharoah.

Tuthmosis III was married to his sister, Meryetre, who was the daughter of Tuthmosis II. (Incest was common in Egypt in New Kingdom times.) Their son, Amenhotep II, had a royal bloodline back to Thutmose II through both his mother and father which is why he became pharaoh after Tuthmosis III. Amenhotep II also had four sisters and one brother, Menkheperre A, who were the only other remotely possible successors.

Tuthmosis III had six other wives besides Meryetre. Three of them, Menwi, Merti, and Menhet, were probably Syrian. Perhaps these were diplomatic marriages to assure peace with Syria. Since they weren’t really Egyptian, and had no royal blood, they weren’t as important as Meryetre. Little is known about them. Nothing is known about their children, if they had any. Any of these three Syrian wives of Tuthmosis III could have had a daughter who might have been inclined to adopt a Hebrew baby because her Syrian heritage might have produced some kind of Semitic kinship.

If so, Moses was in a minor branch of the royal family, not directly in the line of succession. When Amenhotep II became pharaoh, two-year-old Moses was not a serious contender for the throne. There would have been no jealousy or sibling rivalry, despite what you’ve seen in the movies.

Amenhotep II reigned for about 30 years, making Moses about 32 when Thutmosis IV came to power. Thutmosis IV had eight brothers born to the same royal wife (Tiaa A) who had far more claim to the throne than Moses had. Moses was just the adopted son of a non-royal daughter of Thutmosis’ grandfather. So, even then, Moses was not the rival to the throne that Hollywood movies would suggest.

About eight years later, when Moses was 40 years old, he killed an Egyptian and fled to the desert (Midian) for 40 years.

Thutmosis IV reigned for just 10 years, so he would have died two years after Moses fled to Midian. He was succeeded by Amenhotep III, who reigned for 38 years before dying in the "Red Sea" (see Section 5.7) chasing the Israelites.

When Moses returned to set God’s people free he was 80 years old.

Amenhotep III is generally regarded to have been barely into his teens when he ascended the throne of his ancestors. 2

That means Amenhotep III was about 11 years old when Moses fled Egypt.

So, Amenhotep III was about 50 years old, and had been pharaoh for about 38 years, when an 80-year-old man (an obscure dubiously royal cousin, who left Egypt in disgrace when Amenhotep was 11 years old) came to set his people free. It is easy to understand why Amenhotep would not take Moses seriously.

One would think that any one of the first nine plagues on Egypt would have gotten Amenhotep’s attention—but they didn’t. It was the tenth plague—the plague on the firstborn that finally forced Amenhotep to let the people go.

Amenhotep III had two sons. The firstborn son, Thutmose B, was not passed over by the Angel of Death because there was no blood on his doorpost to protect him. The death of pharaoh’s firstborn son left his younger brother, Amenhotep IV, as the only heir to the throne.

Section 5.3 - Amenhotep III—the Exodus Pharaoh

How do I know Amenhotep III was the pharaoh who refused to let the Israelites go? Is there an inscription in his tomb telling how God devastated Egypt with ten terrible plagues during his reign? No, there isn’t any such inscription, and one would not expect there to be. If all we knew about the pharaohs came from tomb inscriptions, we would think no pharaoh ever lost a battle. Tomb inscriptions always paint pharaohs in the best light, portraying them to be rich and powerful rulers.

There are two reasons for this. First of all, very few people want their shortcomings to be widely remembered after their deaths—but there was a more important reason to an Egyptian. The tomb paintings were believed to be magical. What was painted on the wall was believed to come true in the afterlife. The walls were painted showing the deceased person enjoying wealth and pleasure in order to assure that the deceased person would enjoy wealth and pleasure in the afterlife. What pharaoh would want to immortalize any of his military defeats, causing him to be an eternal loser in the afterlife?

So, there are no tomb paintings showing the God of Abraham sending plagues upon Amenhotep III, devastating Egypt, and we should not expect there to be. But there is other compelling evidence that Amenhotep III was that unfortunate pharaoh.

Comparison of Biblical chronology with Egyptian chronology puts the date of the Exodus sometime during the Eighteenth Dynasty. Scholars differ about the exact date for reasons that are explained in Section 3.3, so chronology alone cannot be used to identify the pharaoh in question—but it does get us in the ballpark. It remains to examine facts about the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs to narrow it down to Amenhotep III.

The fact most widely known about the Exodus pharaoh is that his firstborn son died before ascending to the throne.

Most Egyptian scholars think that Amenhotep IV was ill-prepared to take the reins of government. This makes sense if Thutmose B, the firstborn son, was being groomed for the position and died suddenly and unexpectedly during the Tenth Plague.

Egypt had a strong military influence during the reign of Amenhotep III, but was terribly weak during the reign of Amenhotep IV. What could explain such a decline in world dominance? As previously mentioned, some scholars think that it was because Amenhotep IV was weak and unprepared for the job—and that may be part of the reason. But if nearly all of Amenhotep III’s army was drowned in the Red Sea, it certainly would have weakened Egypt’s military capability. It takes time to recruit and train a new army. It takes time to build chariots and weapons to replace those lost in the Red Sea. If Amenhotep IV did not have experienced military leaders and didn't have many weapons, he would not have been anxious to make war against neighboring nations.

Section 5.4 - Amenhotep’s Conversion

Amenhotep IV is better known as “Akhenaten, The Heretic Pharaoh.” He is the pharaoh who closed all the temples of the traditional Egyptian gods, and worshiped only Aten. Secular historians, who don’t believe the Exodus really happened, have a difficult time trying to explain this radical shift in religious belief; but it makes perfect sense if the Biblical account is true.

Imagine that you are the pharaoh’s younger son. Your father has refused to let the Israelites leave, and their god has sent ten terrible plagues on Egypt in response. The last plague killed your brother. After 70 days of mourning and embalming your older brother, your father has taken the whole Egyptian army out to chase down the Israelites. He finally corners them at the Red Sea, which is miraculously parted by the Israelite god, allowing the Israelites to escape. Your father and his army charge after them, only to be drowned when the God of Abraham lets the water flow back where it belongs, drowning your father and nearly the entire Egyptian army. You might be inclined to believe that the God of Abraham is mightier than all the Egyptian gods combined!

Amenhotep IV, or his advisors, must certainly have known what the Israelites believed. After all, there were 600,000 Israelite men who followed Moses out of Egypt. Not all of them could have kept their faith a secret! The Israelites believed there is one almighty god who demands to be worshiped alone. This one true god is the light of the world, who created all things.

The closest Egyptian equivalent to the Israelite god is Aten. Aten was not the same as Amun (or Amun-re), who was the Egyptian god of the Sun. Aten was pictured in Egyptian art as beams of life-giving light coming from the Sun, not the Sun itself.

About 3 or 4 years into his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, which means, “Servant of the Aten.” He declared Aten to be the One True God. He closed all the temples of the other traditional Egyptian gods.

Unlike all previous Egyptian gods, Aten did not have a human form. He was depicted as rays of light ending with hands or ankhs (the Egyptian symbol for life). He was described as the creator god who made everything with his own hands, and gave life to every living thing. Where did Akhenaten get the idea that there is just one almighty god, who wants to be the only god worshipped, who is the light of the world, creator of everything animate and inanimate, and the giver of life? Do you suppose he might have heard one of those 600,000 Israelite men talking about God?

Section 5.5 - The Unbeliever’s Explanation

Dr. James K. Hoffmeier wrote an excellent book titled Akhenaten & the Origins of Monotheism. It is filled with an abundance of data about archaeological discoveries related to Akhenaten and his religious beliefs; but he takes the unbeliever’s view that Judaism is a man-made religion that developed during (or shortly after) the Babylonian captivity. He tries to make the data fit his view that the Bible is just a myth written after the fall of the New Kingdom. He suggests that some of Akhenaton’s monotheistic views survived a couple of centuries and influenced the invention of Judaism.

I, on the other hand, see that Dr. Hoffmeir’s data is much more compatible with the Biblical narrative. The Hebrew beliefs gave rise to Akhenaton’s monotheism—not vice versa.

Dr. Hoffmeier, coming from this secular perspective, is puzzled by how Akhenaten could have so suddenly made such a radical change in his religious beliefs. This is a great mystery shared by many Egyptologists. He concludes that Akhenaten must have had some life-changing mystical experience, like the Apostle Paul did on the Damascus Road. Hoffmeier believes that Paul had an imaginary encounter with Jesus that seemed so real that it caused him to radically change his religious beliefs. Hoffmeier believes that Akhenaten must have had a similarly convincing delusion.

I believe that just as Paul had an authentic, life-altering experience, Akhenaten did, too. I believe that life-altering experience consisted of ten plagues and a military disaster. How could anyone witness such a display of the power of the God of Israel and not be influenced?

Section 5.6 - Explaining the Unexplainable

Knowing the connection between the Bible and the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egyptian history makes a lot more sense. The "unexplained" reason behind the brief period of monotheism and Egypt’s temporary abdication of world power is perfectly explained.

Section 5.7 - The Red Sea

Earlier, I mentioned the "Red Sea" several times. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not say that God parted the Red Sea so that Moses could lead the Israelites through it to safety. The Bible says they passed through Yam Suph, which is Hebrew for “Sea of Reeds,” not “Red Sea.” That’s why none of possible routes of the Exodus shown on the maps in study Bibles go through the Red Sea.

If you look for the Sea of Reeds on a modern map, you won’t find it. What you will find are three bodies of water near the Sinai Peninsula form a distorted letter Y. The small upper left part of the Y, along the west side of the Sinai Peninsula, is the Gulf of Suez. The small upper right part of the Y, along the east side of the Sinai Peninsula, is the Gulf of Aqaba. The huge base of the Y, going south from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, is the Red Sea separating Africa from Arabia.

Map from The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Tyndale, Volume 3, "Red Sea", page 1322

Which of these three bodies of water is Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds? And why is Yam Suph always incorrectly translated as “Red Sea” in most English Bibles. Some verses give us a clue.

And the Lord changed the wind to a very strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea. 3

The 18th Dynasty pharaohs ruled from Memphis (near modern Cairo), about 90 miles southwest of the land of Goshen where the Hebrews lived. Memphis is presumably where Moses had his confrontation with the pharaoh, and that is where the plague of locusts happened. A west wind could have carried the locusts 80 miles into the Gulf of Suez. It would have taken a really strong west wind to blow the locusts all the way over the Gulf of Suez and over the Sinai Peninsula, into the Gulf of Aqaba, 230 miles away. Noboldy in Memphis would have known that the locusts had blown all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba. Exodus 10:19 could not be referring to the Gulf of Aqaba.

The modern Red Sea is generally south of Memphis. It would have taken a very strong north wind to blow the locusts 240 miles into the modern Red Sea. This means that Yam Suph in Exodus 10:19 could not refer to the Red Sea because not only is it too far away, it is the wrong direction.

There is another clue in Exodus 23. God tells Moses where the land He promises to give to the Israelites will be.

I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. 4

This geographic prophecy regarding the boundaries of the Promised Land was accurately fulfilled. Under King David, the kingdom was bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Syrian Desert on the east. Solomon expanded the kingdom as far north as the Euphrates River. The southernmost part of David’s kingdom stretch to the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. It never got anywhere near the Gulf of Aqaba or the Red Sea.

That would seem to be conclusive evidence that the Sea of Reeds is actually the Gulf of Suez—but wait!

King Solomon also built ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea. 5

Since Ezion Geber is on the shore of Yam Suph, that will tell us where the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a. the Red Sea) is.

Ezion-geber. This place is at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, a seaport of Edom on an arm of the Arabian Gulf. 6

Biblical maps clearly show Ezion Geber at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is nowhere near the Gulf of Suez or the Red Sea.

This seems to be a Biblical contradiction—but it is not. There is a simple explanation. The Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba are two parts of the Red Sea.

The Gulf [of Aqaba] is one of two gulfs created by the Sinai Peninsula's bifurcation of the northern Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez lying to the west of the peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba to its east. 7

Names change over time. Imagine reading something written in 1950 describing cities in the Soviet Union, including Kiev, Stalingrad, and Riga. You can’t find the Soviet Union on the map today—but you can find Kiev in Ukraine and Riga in Latvia—but they aren't in a place called the USSR. And Stalingrad isn’t anywhere to be found! A skeptic might think Stalingrad is a fictional place; but you’ve heard about the Battle of Stalingrad, so you might think it isn’t on the map because it must have been destroyed in World War II and no longer exists. Actually, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961, and is a thriving, modern city. Its name was changed because its Russian residents no longer want to live in “Stalin City.”

Here’s the point. Today, we make a distinction between Ukraine, Russia, and Latvia. In 1950, they were all part of the Soviet Union, which Americans commonly (incorrectly) referred to as “Russia.” In the same way, today we make a distinction between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Gulf of Suez—but that apparently was not true when the Bible was translated into Greek. All three bodies of water must have been called Yam Suph at the time.

Because the common usage is to refer to the waters the Hebrews passed though as the "Red Sea," that's what I called it earlier in this book. I didn't want to confuse you by calling it the Sea of Reeds or Gulf of Aqaba.

Numbers 33 gives an exact itinerary for the route of the Exodus. The problem is, the ancient names have been lost to history, so scholars can’t trace the route. That’s why scholars have proposed several different routes for the Exodus. None of them involve crossing the body of water we call the Red Sea. They cross the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, or the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez, or one of the Bitter Lakes (or marshes) just north of the Gulf of Suez. I favor the Gulf of Aqaba route simply because pharaoh would have mourned the death of his first born son for seventy days. Given their two month head start, the Israelites would have been far past the Gulf of Suez and the Bitter Lakes by the time pharaoh caught up with them.

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1 Exodus 1:8
2 Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton, 2004, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, page 142
3 Exodus 10:19
4 Exodus 23:31
5 1 Kings 9:26
6 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Volume 2, page 777