Question: "Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?"
Answer: Most people associate the Egyptian ruler forced to free enslaved Israelites with the name Ramses, also spelled Ramesses or Rameses. Films such as The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and Exodus: Gods and Kings have all made that assumption regarding the biblical book of Exodus. The Bible itself gives no name for this Pharaoh. Ultimately, his exact identity is irrelevant. The anonymity might even be deliberate: Egyptian monarchs were famously invested in how they would be remembered. Obscurity would be an ironic judgment on a such a ruler (see Psalm 83:3–4; Proverbs 10:7).
Identifying the Egyptian head of state who interacted with Moses is more than challenging. History and archaeology offer a dizzying combination of clues, possibilities, and problems. Simply estimating the date of Israel’s release is easier said than done, and, even then, comparing it to the reigns of Egyptian rulers is not enough. Ancient Egyptian history is notoriously erratic and unreliable. Archaeologists note how Egyptian records often overlap, contain contradictory dates, and leave out major historical events. This is especially true of records of events unflattering to a Pharaoh.
Reliable information from that era is relatively scarce and subject to interpretation. Even determining which dynasty ruled over the Jewish slaves is a thorny puzzle and more complex than simply comparing Egyptian records to non-Egyptian records. To harmonize the book of Exodus, Egyptian history, and secular archaeology, it’s necessary to be open-minded about potential dates for the events recorded in all three sources.
The challenges of ancient historical research make it impossible to say for certain which Pharaohs are described in the book of Exodus. At the same time, available evidence supports the biblical exodus as a real, historical event. That is to say, a literal reading of Exodus is plausible, though specific events are unlikely to be provable. The open questions involve details that are not crucial to either the truth or overall message of what’s recorded in the Bible.
Assumptions used to date the exodus greatly influence theories about which Pharaoh was involved. The two leading theories are c. 1446 BC and c. 1225 BC, known respectively as the “early” and “late” dates. The early date, 1446 BC, derived from a semi-literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26 and is the most-often accepted date among biblical scholars. Minority voices suggest options such as an interim date or even an entirely new approach to Egyptian chronology.
The late date for the exodus, 1225 BC, suggests the timeline of 1 Kings 6:1 is symbolic, perhaps representing generations as a multiple of 12. Some archaeological evidence supports this late view, including the evidence of conquest in the cities of Canaan. The general alignment of these theories implies that Pharaoh Seti I drove Israel into deeper slavery, and Rameses II was the Pharaoh defeated in the days of Moses.
Yet Rameses is recorded in Exodus as the name of a city (Exodus 1:11). Notably, the Pharaoh who ruled in the early chapters of Exodus was dead by the time Moses returned to free Israel (Exodus 2:21–23). Thus, some who hold to a “late” exodus suggest Rameses II may have been Israel’s early oppressor, and his son, Merneptah, would have ruled during the exodus itself.
The 1446 BC date would align Exodus’ early events with the time of Thutmose I or his father Amenhotep I, either of whom are considered capable of issuing a decree to murder infants (Exodus 1:16–21). This dating would place Moses’ life in the same general timeframe as Hatshepsut, effectively a female Pharaoh, who may have been the one to adopt him from the Nile (Exodus 2:5–6). Hatshepsut’s co-regent and eventual rival was Thutmose III, who apparently resented her influence and would have had good reason to banish Moses at the first opportunity (Exodus 2:14–15).
Staying with mainstream Egyptian chronology would make Amenhotep II, seventh Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the ruler who was forced to let God’s people go. Egyptian history indicates a sudden lack of military action by Amenhotep II beginning in 1446 BC, a fact that would be consistent with the loss of nearly the entire army at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:28). Ancient records also claim Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose IV, was not the “true” heir—which would be true if Amenhotep’s firstborn son and “legitimate” heir died during the tenth plague (Exodus 11:4–5; 12:29).
For those reasons, biblical interpreters are most likely to identify Amenhotep II as the Pharaoh of the exodus. That opinion is hardly universal, however, and by no means free of challenges.
Some scholars argue for tweaks in our understanding of Hebrew history, changing the presumed date of the exodus to a time between the “early” and “late” options, such as the 1300s BC. According to one such theory, the infamous Pharaoh Tutankhamun—pop culture’s “King Tut,”—could have been the one confronted by Moses and defeated by God’s miracles.
Some archaeologists have suggested that the mainstream view of Egyptian chronology is greatly inaccurate. They point to various anomalies and inconsistencies, which can be easily explained by adjusting the dates of the Egyptian dynasties by as much as several hundred years. While this view is not accepted by most Egyptologists, it is it not entirely dismissed.
If the dates of the Egyptian dynasties are shifted, Neferhotep I emerges as a possible Pharaoh of the exodus. Neferhotep was a ruler during the Thirteenth Dynasty, and his predecessor, Amenemhat III, had no surviving sons. Amenemhat’s childless daughter, Sobekneferu (possibly the princess of Exodus 2:5–10), marked the sudden end of the Twelfth Dynasty. Neferhotep’s reign is associated with the Ipuwer Papyrus, a record of an era of calamity within Egypt (see Exodus 3:19–20). Further, he was succeeded by his brother, Sobkhotpe IV, rather than by his son, Wahneferhotep (see Exodus 11:4–5; 12:29). Notably, Neferhotep did not leave behind mummified remains, perhaps indicating that he was a victim of the incident at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:28). Soon after his reign, a people group known as the Hyskos conquered much of Egypt, consistent with what would happen to a nation newly weakened by the decimation of its army (see Exodus 12:31–36).
The most popular theory is that Amenhotep II was the Pharaoh of the exodus, but no theory is ironclad. All have their weaknesses and unanswered questions, as well as relative advantages and supportive evidence.
It’s important to note that these varied possibilities are not, themselves, the only extrabiblical evidence supporting the book of Exodus. Dated within the broad sweep of centuries during which the exodus might have occurred, numerous discoveries stand out. Depending on dating assumptions, any or all of these could be directly associated with the exodus of Israel from Egypt:
• Mud-and-straw bricks are featured in some pyramids (Exodus 5:7–18), a fact congruent with writings and other evidence of Asiatic people enslaved in Egypt.
• Objects described as rods or staffs, used by court advisors, which look like snakes, have been discovered (Exodus 7:10–12).
• The Ipuwer Papyrus depicts a time of trouble in Egypt:
“Plague stalks through the land and blood is everywhere… Nay, but the river is blood… gates, columns and walls are consumed with fire… the son of the high-born man is no longer to be recognized…The stranger people from outside are come into Egypt… Nay, but corn has perished everywhere.”
• Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a large slave town, Kahun, which shows evidence of hasty desertion, including the abandonment of household possessions and implements (Exodus 12:30–34, 39).
• This same area, Kahun, is the site of mass infant burials (Exodus 1:16).
• Cities in Canaan show evidence of warfare consistent with the conquests depicted in books such as Joshua.
Who, then, was the Pharaoh of the exodus? It was unlikely to have been Rameses, despite Hollywood’s fondness for that figure. Most likely, it was Amenhotep II, the seventh Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. But it might also have been Neferhotep I of the Thirteenth Dynasty, or, less probably, Tutankhamun. There isn’t enough detail to positively identify that ruler, and that may have been God’s plan all along (see Psalm 9:5–8; 109:15). There is ample evidence, however, to trust what’s depicted in the book of Exodus as truth.