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).7:390 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.7:386 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 Nebi, the mayor of Memphis. His wife (#1) Merit-Ptah was the daughter of May, the commander of the chariotry. And Ramose was the distant relative of a very prominent Amun priest in Thebes.19:203,20:76 As vizier, he was junior to the older and more powerful Amenhotep-Huy. We know even less about Ramose the general. Titles in his tomb at Amarna include "royal scribe, commander of the soldiers of the Lord of the Two Lands, and steward of the estate of Nebmaatra (Amenhotep III)". Elsewhere we hear that he was the wearer of the royal seal, chief prophet or sage, supervisor of public buildings, chief justice, and "sole companion to the king" on matters of state.7:385 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.21:363,22 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. The ankh symbols at the tips of the sun-rays signified that the Sun was the source of life here on Earth. After Akhenaten repositioned himself as the sole instance of the Aten, the rays would emanate from him. Less figuratively, his emissaries would be the ordained projection of his life force. In Canaan, these would be known as "ankh-els" (i.e., godly life forces), which in Greek becomes "angels".23:35 Thus angels were just representatives of the pharaoh. They got their wings from Ma'at (see the section on Atenism & Early Judaism).
While Akhenaten was alive, and during the reign of his immediate successor Smenkhare, Atenism was the only legal religion in Egypt. Then came Tutankhamun, who moved the capital back to Thebes, reinstating Amunism as the dominant religion, though still tolerating Atenism. In other words, the Aten was demoted to just a lesser member of the Egyptian pantheon of gods (even if the Atenists didn't see it that way). The pharaoh Ay continued that policy. Then Horemheb came to power in , who outlawed Atenism. In that context, a flight from Egypt in as recorded in the Seder would have been Horemheb exiling the most ardent & influential Atenists, to reduce the risk of an insurrection — those willing to take their chances in the desert could continue practicing Atenism, while everyone else would have to go back to the old ways.
Where was Ramose while all of this was happening? As mentioned earlier, he was the earliest and perhaps the most ardent supporter of Atenism. At Amarna, he was the senior vizier, and commander-in-chief of the military. After Akhenaten died, he might have continued on as vizier to Smenkhare and Tutankhamun, or even as co-regent. Manetho's kings list (as preserved by Africanus) has "Rathose" as the pharaoh after Akhenaten and before Tutankhamun, with a tenure of 6 years.24,25 This could have been Ramose acting as the de facto ruler of Egypt during the 4-year reign of Smenkhare, and a couple of years into Tut's reign.
If this was Moses, the Torah fills in many more details. He got on the bad side of Akhenaten, by killing somebody who was beating a slave.3,4,5 Ramose had to flee to Midian, where he married Zipporah, and had a few kids. Then comes the story in Exodus 4 of his return to Egypt to deliver his followers from oppression, culminating in "the" Exodus. Most of the story is a good fit for the situation under Horemheb that motivated the 1312-Exodus. But there are a couple of Jahwist insertions into an otherwise Elohist narrative that are out of place, which might be from Ramose's earlier return to Egypt in to accept the position of co-regent with Smenkhare. In Exodus 4, the dominant premise for his return was that his followers were being oppressed. But then the Jahwist insertions give an entirely different reason:
18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, "Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive." And Jethro said to Moses, "Go in peace." 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, "Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead." 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.
Why would he pack up his wife & kids, to go negotiate the release of his followers, so that he could lead them back through Midian on their way to the Promised Land — why didn't he just leave the wife & kids in Midian while he was on errand in Egypt? This rather sounds like he was moving back to Egypt. This couldn't have happened after the 1312-Exodus, so it had to happen before. If the enabling factor was the death of the pharaoh who wanted to kill him, the pharaoh would have been Akhenaten, and the date would have been . For Manetho to credit Ramose with the power of a regent, he was returning because he got his old job back, and then some. So he grabbed the staff of God (i.e., the kind that senior officials carried, such as in Figure 1), packed up his family, and off he went.
The other Jahwist insertion is consistent with Ramose returning to become regent. On the way back, "God" was going to kill Moses, which Zipporah prevented by circumcising one of her sons.26 Since circumcision was an Egyptian custom,27,28:34 this was an act of loyalty to the pharaoh, who the Egyptians considered to be a living god. So the god Smenkhare was going to kill Ramose if he tried to accept a powerful position without dedicating his heir to Egypt, which only would have been an issue if the position was hereditary, such as the regency.
As the events unfolded, heredity didn't come into play — after just 6 years, Ramose was replaced by Horemheb as senior vizier, who was no friend of the Atenists. Under Horemheb's direction, Tutankhamun moved the capital back to Thebes in , and reinstated the power of the Amun priesthood. Then came of the question of what to do with the Atenist priests. Horemheb wouldn't have wanted them to follow the royal court back to Thebes. And he wouldn't have wanted them to relocate to Memphis, where surely they'd mount on insurrection that would have costed the pharaoh control of the delta. If they were too popular to murder, the only other choice would have been to exile them.
The Deuteronomic 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 to archaeologists. It correctly marks the destruction of Israel in (by Merneptah), which coincides with the devastation recorded in Deborah's time.29,23:26 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 .30:20 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,31 or Otni'el in Hebrew) was appointed. The Tanakh tells us 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),32,33 and that he delivered the Israelites from the control of the Mitannians.34 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,35 Philo,36:26 Josephus,2:33,37:ch3 and the Qu'ran.38 (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 wasn't a coincidence — the inescapable inference is that Otni'el was one of those priests. Since Ramose was the most notable member of the troop, he was the likeliest candidate for the position of judge.
Then the rest of the details fall neatly into place. Otni'el delivered the Israelites from the control of the Mitannians, 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 a very powerful person to over-ride the hereditary rights of the Patriarchs. Tutankhamun had such power, and would 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 Tut granted the Atenists some land on the East Bank. If only the high priests from Amarna were exiled in , we might even know how many were involved — a total of 70 "elders" is mentioned several times.39,40,41,42 Then, in , Tutankhamun died, and his wife Ankhesenamun disappeared shortly thereafter. By this time in Judges, Otni'el was taking Hebron, for which he was given Aksah's hand in marriage. Perhaps this was Ankhesenamun, who had decided that she wasn't interested in Ay, and who opted to fall in with Ramose instead, thereafter being known by her nickname Aksah. If so, the mention of "upper and lower springs" would have been references to the Upper and Lower Nile,43 inserted to identify her as a former queen of Egypt. Perhaps this was the Cushite marriage that Aaron & Miriam criticized,44 not the marriage to Zipporah, who was a Midianite (or a Mitannian — see the section on More Names for the Patriarchs), nor to Merit-Ptah, who seems to have been from Memphis.45:42
The 1312-Exodus contributed more people — perhaps a couple hundred or maybe even a couple thousand — to Ramose's camp in Moab. But in , the time-line has Eglon gaining control in Moab. Ramose would have been ~76 years old, and hardly relinquishing power except by expiring. So we can infer that Ramose's life-span was , with his tenure on the East Bank being . Eglon took Jericho,46 and perhaps other towns in Canaan, remaining in power for 18 years. Then the time-line shows Ehud deposing Eglon in , and this is precisely when secular records show Hebrews gaining a foothold in Canaan,21:409 as confirmed by archaeology.47:35 So the "conquest" of Canaan, after Ramose and all of that generation had passed,48,49 was begun by Eglon in , and completed by Ehud in . If we count the total number of years the Atenists spent wandering in the desert starting in , it comes out to 41 years.50 The same length of time was also given for the tenure of Otni'el,34 though in the present thesis, and in Figure 3, Eglon's 18 years in power are subtracted, leaving Otni'el (Ramose) as a judge for just 23 of those 41 years.
All in all, the Book of Judges gives a pretty detailed account of the rise of Hebrew culture. To restore the historicity, we just have to replace the brief mention of Otni'el with the entire Book of Deuteronomy. In other words, the crucial details of the establishment & organization of the emerging Hebrew nation under Ramose were not deleted — they were simply moved to their own book, while Otni'el was left as a placeholder in the timeline.
Milestones in the Life of Ramose/Moses/Otni'el
born Ramose, the son of the mayor of Memphis
appointed tutor to Akhenaten
married the daughter of the commander of the chariotry
became the mayor of Thebes
became a junior vizier to Amenhotep III
changed his name to Mose, because "Ra" was pagan in Atenism
moved to Amarna, became senior vizier, and commander-in-chief of army
fled Egypt after killing someone (KV35YL?) who was beating a slave
married Zipporah, who bore for him two sons, Gershom & Eliezar
returned to Egypt to become co-regent with Smenkhare
on the way, circumcised Gershom to prove the family's loyalty to Egypt
continued on as co-regent with Tutankhamun
demoted to junior vizier when Horemheb became the senior vizier
moved to Moab with 70 Atenist priests when Tut abandoned Amarna
changed his name to Otni'el and assumed the position of judge
married Ankhesenamun when Tutankhamun died
returned to Egypt again, this time to negotiate the release of his followers
led his followers to Moab in the "Main Exodus"
gave the Book of the Law (Deuteronomy) to his followers
died in Moab, to be succeeded by Eglon
The other key point is that Joshua came before Moses, preserved in Judges as Joshua being succeeded by Otni'el. The actual conquest of Canaan after Ramose and all of that generation had died was by Ramose's successors Eglon & Ehud.