The Egyptian at the heart of the story of the Exodus is Moses, no matter who tells it. So who was he?
The Torah says that his mother put him in a basket to drift down the Nile, starting just upstream of where the pharaoh's daughter was bathing, who found and adopted him.1 This was probably a renewal of the far older legend of Sargon the Great, who ruled Mesopotamia, . But regardless of how Moses came to be raised at court, Josephus tells us that he rose to the rank of general in the Egyptian army.2:239 Later he fled to Midian (at the west end of the Arabian Peninsula, directly across the Gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai) to escape prosecution for killing an Egyptian who was beating a slave.3,4,5 When the plight of his followers in Egypt became desperate, Moses returned to negotiate on their behalf.6
If there is any truth to this at all, Moses would have been important enough to show up in the secular records. The name "Moses" has never been found in any Egyptian document, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. In Egyptian this would have been "-mose", which was simply a suffix meaning "son", and which followed the name of the parent god. Since the Hebrews preferred not to name the object of their worship, the omission is to be expected. But what was his full name in Egyptian, before the Hebrews sanitized it?
The most interesting candidate is a general named "Ramose", who was the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army under Akhenaten, and whose tomb was found at Amarna (AST11). Some authorities believe that this was the same person as one of the viziers to Amenhotep III and Akhenaten,7:385,8 whose unfinished tomb at Thebes (TT55) is among the finest in the Valley of the Nobles. It's also the earliest tomb done in the Amarna style. In Figure 1 he is shown wearing an elaborate wig, a heavy heart necklace and a small bead necklace, the gold collar of a nobleman, and the white vizier's smock, which seems to be loose-fitting here and may have been worn over other clothing. He is holding the staff of a senior official. The text reads: "Justified before Ra, the Overseer of the City (i.e., Mayor of Thebes), the Vizier Ramose, true of voice."9 The sudden disappearance of this Ramose, and the emergence of a commander-in-chief of the same name at Amarna, without prior mention in any records, is explained as the same person, whose role changed with the times.7:390 It would certainly be odd if somebody in Thebes who had commissioned a tomb to be done in the style later to dominate the artwork at Amarna wouldn't have followed Akhenaten there. In fact, this suggests that Ramose was the earliest and most ardent supporter of the cultural changes during the Amarna period, and perhaps was one of the driving forces behind it.
If this vizier/general was Moses, and if the Exodus began in , he was roughly the right age. As vizier, he was thought to have been born in , just because he was also tutor to Akhenaten (born ), and thus probably older (though not necessarily 10 years older). Since even Akhenaten's birth-date is approximate, we can't make precise calculations of ages, but we can at least check to see if they were in the right range. So if Moses was born in , he would have been 78 years old in . While this is certainly possible, it's definitely near the biological limits. It's also possible that Akhenaten and Ramose were both born later, and/or that Ramose was closer to Akhenaten's age.
Sigmund Freud suggested that Moses was actually Akhenaten himself,10,11 in which case we'd say that he was born in , and was thus 68 years old in . But if Akhenaten was, indeed, included in the Exodus, there is another possibility for his identity in the Torah: he might have been Moses' older brother Aaron (whose name meant lofty or exalted, which would have been appropriate for an ex-pharaoh). The Midrash puts both Aaron and Moses on an equal footing, and in some respects, puts Aaron first. For example, Aaron is said to have begun his ministry before Moses. Aaron was better-spoken than Moses,12 and thus was the one who did the talking when they met with the pharaoh,13 and in other situations later.14 And Aaron was the origin of the Cohan lineage, which would make sense if he was royalty, outranking even the nobility of Moses. The Torah states that Aaron was 3 years older than Moses.15 If Aaron was Akhenaten, born , Moses would have been born in , making him 65 years old when the Exodus began. Thus we can set the limits for Moses' birth-date in the range of , and his age at the beginning of the Exodus in the range of 78~65. For our purposes, is a workable average, making him 70 years old at the beginning of the Exodus. (Jewish legend has him being born in .16) And Aaron would have been born in , still within biological limits to at least embark on the Exodus at the age of 73, though he died shortly into the journey, at Mount Seir.17
Another (perhaps better) candidate for the original identity of Aaron is Prince Thutmose, Akhenaten's older brother. There is no record of Thutmose's death, which is odd in that it would have legitimized Akhenaten's succession to Amenhotep III in the minds of the Egyptian populace. So there should have been an elaborate funeral procession, and the event should have been well-noted in public records (such as at Karnak). The fact that it wasn't opens the possibility that he didn't actually die, and everybody knew it, which could only mean that he simply deferred the throne to his younger brother, perhaps preferring his role as the high priest of Memphis,18:88 instead of having to deal with the politics in Thebes. If so, Thutmose/Aaron did begin his ministry before Ramose/Moses. He would have been the one to do the talking when meeting with Tutankhamun and/or Horemheb, and his descendants would have been hereditary priests (i.e., kohanim), as well as possible heirs to the throne. And Ramose could have been older than Akhenaten, but 3 years younger than Thutmose. We just don't know when Thutmose was born, so this doesn't help fix Ramose's age.
We know very little from the secular records about Ramose the vizier. We know that he was the son of the mayor of Memphis, the son-in-law of the commander of the chariotry, and the distant relative of a very prominent Amun priest in Thebes.19:203,20:76 We know even less about Ramose the general. And we know nothing at all about Thutmose after Akhenaten became pharaoh. But we know a lot about Akhenaten, so this will be our way of learning about their ministry.
Akhenaten is perhaps best known for his attempt to convert Egypt to monotheism. He made the worship of the Sun-god Aten the only legal religion, and forbade even the writing of the names of any of the lesser gods.21:363 Thus he changed his name from Amenhotep IV ("Amun is pleased") to Akhenaten ("living spirit of Aten"). Ramose ("son of Ra") would have changed his name also, since "Ra" was the pagan name for the Sun god. The most conservative change would have been simply to drop the "Ra", leaving "Mose". (In Hebrew, it's "Moshe", while in Greek, it becomes "Moses".)
Atenism was distinctly different from the Ra cult that preceded it. As more than just the sum of the lesser cults, Atenism was more abstract. Previous gods were distinct entities, sometimes human-like, and sometimes part human and part lesser animal. The Aten wasn't a physical entity in the same sense. Rather, it was an indescribable creator force, whose manifestation could be found in all things. In other words, if Akhenaten had been Greek, he wouldn't have said that Helios was more powerful than Poseidon. Nor would he have said that Zeus was the king of the lesser gods. He would have said that all of the powers of Helios, Poseidon, and Zeus emanated from a central source, which could not be reduced to any personification. Akhenaten forbade idolatry as a vain attempt to demote Aten to something that could be conceptualized in a physical sense. He even insisted that "Aten" no longer be written in hieroglyphic form as the obvious sun-rays, but rather, that it be spelled out phonetically.
In the more general sense, Atenism was an attack on superstition, and was the first clear statement of what is now called pantheism — that there is but one God, who is all things at all times, and who is synonymous simply with nature itself. In the words of Sir Flinders Petrie,
If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe.
The humanism of this new religion is unmistakable in the art found at Amarna. Unlike previous pharaohs, who had their family members depicted as much smaller than themselves, Akhenaten had his family rendered realistically relative to himself. And rather than presenting an imposing countenance, they were relaxed, and even sometimes showing affection for each other.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti with 3 of their daughters.
Unfortunately, the Egyptians didn't hold onto this kinder, gentler, more rational world view. Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun moved the capital back to Thebes in , surrendering control back to the Amun cult. But Egypt's loss was Canaan's gain, because the Atenists started a new life elsewhere, founding a new culture that would one day be known as Judaism.
The Deuteronomist History preserves a record of a new Atenist influence in Canaan at precisely this time. The following chronology begins with Joshua's "conquest" in , which agrees with the Egyptian records, and coincides with the earthquake known by archaeology. It correctly marks the destruction of Israel in (by Merneptah), which coincides with the devastation recorded in Deborah's time.22,23:26 There is scant archaeological evidence of the Kings Saul and David, but based on synchronisms with Assyrian and Babylonian accounts, Solomon would have been crowned around the year .24:20 So this time-line is anchored to secular history in three places. It then fits the judges within that framework, to get specific dates for each tenure. And all of this was done independent of the present thesis.
Interestingly, in (i.e., just when Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna), a new judge named Othniel (in the English spelling, or Othoniel in Latin,25 or Otni'el in Hebrew) was appointed. The Tanakh tells us very little about Otni'el, except that he was (supposedly) the son of Kenaz, that he was given Caleb's daughter in marriage for capturing Kiriath Sepher (near Hebron),26,27 and that he delivered the Israelites from the control of the Mitannis.28 This is sparse information for a central figure at a crucial turning point for the Israelites. There are also significant disagreements on the identities of Otni'el, Kenaz, and Caleb, in the way the story was told in the Tanakh, the Talmud,29 Philo,30:26 Josephus,2:33,31:ch3 and the Qu'ran.32 (Analogously, it would be odd if there were conflicting opinions on the true identity of the 1st president of the US.) This suggests that they were all wrestling with an awkward cover-up. So who was the real Otni'el?
"Otni" is the combinatorial form of "Aten", so Otni'el = Aten-El.23:90 Note that Elohim actually wasn't a god per se, but rather, just a generic term for "the god(s)". In combination with another name, "El" was more of a title than a name. For example, "El Shaddai" translates roughly to "Shad's god". So Otni'el simply meant "the Atenist god". And for somebody with an Atenist name to be put in charge, precisely when Atenist high priests were exiled from Amarna, probably isn't a coincidence — the inescapable inference is that Otni'el was one of those priests, perhaps Ramose himself, being the most notable member of the troop. So the Deuteronomist History preserves the actual record of Ramose's arrival on the East Bank in .
Then the rest of the events fall neatly into place. Otni'el delivered the Israelites from the control of the Mitannis, but not as the son of Kenaz, son of Jephunneh, son of Judah, son of Jacob — somebody of Mitanni descent couldn't deliver anybody from Mitanni control — Otni'el had to have been from outside of that clan, which Ramose the Egyptian was. And it would have taken the will of somebody who was very powerful to over-ride the hereditary rights of the Patriarchs. Tutankhamun had such power, and could have made such an arrangement, if he wanted to abandon Amarna, and not have the Atenist high priests follow his court back to Thebes. So we can easily see how Tut might have granted Ramose some land on the East Bank. The total number of Atenist priests exiled in might have been just 70, since that number of elders is mentioned several times.33,34,35,36 This migration will hereafter be called the 1329-Exodus, to disguish it from the others. Next, the 1312-Exodus due to Horemheb's attack on Atenism would have contributed more people — perhaps a couple hundred or maybe even a couple thousand. They would have simply joined Ramose on the East Bank. But by , Ramose would have been ~76 years old, and either deceased or retired. This is when the timeline shows Eglon rising to power. So Ramose's effective tenure on the East Bank would have been in the range of . Eglon then took Jericho,37 and perhaps other towns in Canaan, remaining in power for 18 years. Then secular records show an unruly bunch of Bedouins crossing the Jordan in ,21:409 prompting Seti I's campaign, followed by Hebrew settlements in Canaan throughout the . Thus the "conquest" of Canaan after Ramose wasn't by Joshua, and it wasn't by Eglon either — it rather seems to have been a flight from Eglon, and the establishment of the Hebrew nation in the was rather just a police action on the part of Seti I. And Ehud would have been the judge installed by Seti I in .
Thus the Deuteronomist History appears to give a detailed account of the rise of Hebrew culture, starting with their favorite conqueror Joshua, who yielded to Otni'el, and continuing on into the First Temple Period. But why would the identification of Otni'el as Ramose have been dropped? This could have been forced by the simplifications made in later redactions. There were 3 major westward advances of Habirus in the period of interest, including:
by Joshua in ,
by Eglon in , and
in a disorderly flight from Eglon in .
Eglon wasn't so popular, so he wasn't the redactor's first choice for "the" conqueror. And it wouldn't have made sense to say that Canaan had been conquered by a leaderless flight from Eglon. So they settled on Joshua as the sole conqueror. But this meant that Ramose had to be shifted back in time, so that he would arrive on the East Bank, convert a bunch of Habirus to Atenism, and then after he had passed, the newly formed Hebrew culture would press westward, completing the Exodus under the command of Joshua "the" Conqueror. Perhaps they didn't know that they were forfeiting historicity by dropping the correlation between Ramose & Akhenaten, or they didn't care, or that was the intent, after Atenism had been suppressed. Regardless, Egyptian pharaohs are no longer suppressing Atenism, and we can now restore the historicity. We can thank the Deuteronomists for leaving Otni'el in place, if only as a placeholder, enabling us to put the puzzle back together again. And they left it up to the Jahwist & Elohist sources to give detailed accounts of Ramose's actions. So we aren't really missing anything. But to resolve the discrepancies, we have to reject the conventional chronology of Ramose coming before Joshua — rather, Ramose had to come after Joshua, and before the leaderless "conquest" of Canaan in that concluded the 1312-Exodus.