When we read the first four chapters of the Exodus we keep hearing about this dysfunctional Pharaoh. He first forgets about what Joseph did for Egypt during the famine. He then becomes threaten by the Israelites growing in numbers. As a cruel solution, he orders the Hebrew boys murdered. Finally, it appears that Moses understandably confronts this inflexible Emperor to have the Israelites released from Egypt. This Ruler is not a pleasant fella. Yet, what if I said this was not correct, and that we are talking about several Pharaohs here not just one. Likewise, we are not only talking over a period but a span of 400-years in history where the context of each statement isn’t as straight forward as it seems. So, lets grab our Torah, a history book and some physical evidence so that we can triangulate some worthy answers.
Genesis 41 – 50, Joseph Saves Egypt, (1886 – 1806 BCE)
For saving Egypt during the famine, Joseph was promoted to a position second only Pharaoh. The Pharaoh that promoted him was more than likely King Senusret III. This would have been during Egypt’s golden age, the 12th Dynasty (C. 2055-1786 B.C.). Despite a seven year worldwide famine, Egypt would excel underneath Joseph’s charge. This was due to the Abrahamic covenant gained through Joseph (Genesis 12:3).
Exodus 1, Israelites Multiply in Egypt, (1800 – 1700 BCE)
At the time of Joseph’s death, Egypt moved into their 13 Dynasty. It was almost like the death of Joseph ushered in Egypt’s dark age. Within the Egyptian government there was much end fighting and jockeying for power that created an instability. Additionally, since the end of the 12th Dynasty there had been an influx of foreigners entering Egypt due to famine. Many, like the Israelites, came from Canaan. The Hyksos, which was a group of refugees from the middle east began to settle Egypt’s Nile Delta. Remember, this was where the Israelites lived in Goshen. The Hyksos population appear to have come into Egypt after the Israelites between 50 and 100 years.
Exodus 1:8, Israelites Oppressed by New King, (1600 BCE)
The Hyksos gained in power and began to rule Egypt in the mid-1600 BCE. This was the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt. The Hyksos kings were “Egyptianized,” assuming the title of Pharaoh 1. Now let’s read this Torah passage from this time frame:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt. He knew nothing about Yosef but said to his people, “Look, the descendants of Isra’el have become a people too numerous and powerful for us. Come, let’s use wisdom in dealing with them. Otherwise, they’ll continue to multiply; and in the event of war they might ally themselves with our enemies, fight against us and leave the land altogether.” – Exodus 1:8-10
The new King referred to in the passage might have been a Hyksos King, since they were the ruling class at this time. Therefore, he said, “He knew nothing about Yosef”. As a foreign people why should they care about what Joseph did for Egypt over 200 years earlier. Also, this King seems threatened by Israel’s numbers. We need to be aware that the Egyptian were continually clashing with the Hyksos to regain power. The enemy the King was afraid the Israelites would unite with may have been the Egyptians (Exodus 1:8-10). Why not, the Egyptians up to this were possibly still amicable with the Israelites.
Exodus 1:22, Pharaoh’s Order to Kill Firstborn, (1539 BCE)
When we read Exodus 1, it appears to be the same Pharaoh, but it is probably not. There are decades and much history that spans Exodus 1:8 and 22. During the time frame that the Pharaoh ordered the first born Israelite babies killed, the ruler was probably an Egyptian Pharaoh after the Hyksos were defeated. This would have been during 18th Dynasty and a time in Egypt known as the “New Kingdom”. Many of these first Kings in the beginning of the 18th Dynasty would have had a distrust and grunge against any foreigners in their land. Granted, the Israelites were probably not Hyksos but there was guilt by association. Both groups were from Canaan, both groups settled in Goshen generally during the same time and both groups were foreigners. So, the Pharaoh ordered “Every boy that is born, throw in the river; but let all the girls live.” This may have been an order towards all foreigners.
Exodus 2, The Birth and Adoption of Moses (1525 BCE)
Thutmose I is a good fit for the Pharaoh whose daughter adopted Moses. The reason we finger him is because his son was more than likely the Pharaoh that would not release the Israelites. So, why can’t these be the same Pharaohs? Simple, in Exodus 2:23 we find out that the Pharaoh dies while Moses is in Median, so the Pharaoh that ordered the Hebrew boys killed and the Pharaoh who Moses argues with are two different Pharaohs.
Exodus 3, Moses Sent to Deliver Israel (1446 BCE)
Thutmose II is the best candidate to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Firstly, he had a brief yet productive reign. Secondly, history records his collapse with no son to succeed him2. This supports Exodus 11:5 that states the Pharaoh’s son will die. Additionally, a recent CAT scan of Thutmose II reveals a boil scar3 possibly evidence of the plague of the boils (Exodus 9:8-35). Not only does Thutmose II corpse show boil scares but many of the Egyptian corps from this time do.
It is interesting that Pharaoh says he does not know God (Exodus 5:2). Yet, today we know God, but history does not know Pharaoh. Maybe this is because the important piece here is that these four Pharaohs that are confused for one are just an amalgamation. Knowing who they were just isn’t important to the narrative of the Torah. Thus, knowing the history of a pagan nation gives us a contrasting backdrop to the struggle of God’s people. You see at the end of the day there is really on one that is important – the victory secured for us by God.
- “Hyksos Egyptian dynasty.” Encyclopedia Britannica. November 08, 2017. Accessed December 31, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hyksos-Egyptian-dynasty.
- Edersheim, Alfred. Bible history: Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
- Kaspar, Ed, Evidence of the Exodus: Scars from the plague of the boils, firstname.lastname@example.org, 2009