Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

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October 27, 2017

3 min read

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I always had the impression that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Ramesses II, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Does the Torah or Talmud shed any light on his identity?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

You are right that the consensus today is that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was not Ramesses the Great, who lived 100-200 years after the Exodus was believed to have occurred. (According to the Jewish dating system, the Exodus occurred in 1313 B.C.E. (2448 from Creation), while according to the secular calendar it would have occurred at around 1478 B.C.E.) Perhaps it was just assumed that Moses took on one of the most powerful Pharaohs we know from history, but there is no historical evidence supporting this.

Likewise, the common picture of the Israelites slaving away constructing the pyramids has no historical basis. The Torah describes the Jews as constructing store cities and doing field labor (Exodus 1:11,14). The pyramids served as burial castles for deceased Pharaohs and nobility and were built approximately 1000 years earlier (c. 2700-2500 B.C.E.).

So who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus? The Torah and commentators give us almost no clue. Although the Torah’s depiction of Egyptian life is completely consistent with our historical knowledge of the time (see here), it gives us no indication of the precise identity of the Pharaoh who drowned in the sea. Pharaohs – either in Joseph’s time or in Moses’s – are never identified by anything more than their title, or other generic titles such as the king of Egypt. (Some of the later ones, such as Pharaohs Necho and Taharqa, are mentioned by name by later prophets. See for example II Kings 19:9 and 23:29.) In fact, the Pharaohs considered themselves gods themselves, and so very little distinction was made historically between one Pharaoh and the next.

Absent of rabbinical sources, historians have put forth many theories as to the Pharaoh of the Exodus. (None of the Pharaohs known to us today were known to have ruled precisely at the time the Exodus was believed to have occurred.) One of the more interesting theories is Thutmose II, who according to Wikipedia “had a brief, prosperous reign and then a sudden collapse with no son to succeed him.” (“Behold, I will kill your firstborn son” (Exodus 4:23)). Also, his mummy is the only one discovered which contains cysts, which may have been the result of the plagues of lice or of boils.

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