The Egyptian Version of the Story
© Charles Chandler
Now we should take a close look at what the Egyptians had to say about the Exodus. The most detailed account was given by Manetho, as preserved by Josephus, and as condensed here by Gary Greenberg:
Amenhotep had a desire to see the gods and he communicated this desire to a famous seer. The wise man told Amenhotep that he could accomplish his goals if he purged Egypt of all the lepers and polluted people. Delighted with this news, the king rounded up all such people, to the number of about 80,000, among whom were several priests afflicted with leprosy, but, strangely, instead of having them leave Egypt, he enslaved them in the stone quarries, segregating them from the rest of the Egyptians. When the seer learned what Amenhotep had done, he feared that the pharaoh's actions would bring a violent retaliation from the gods and predicted that the polluted people would join with allies and they would take control of Egypt for 13 years.
After a long period of misery the slaves petitioned the king, asking permission to move to the abandoned city of Avaris, the former capital of the Hyksos kings. There they laid plans for a revolt and elected Osarseph, a Heliopolitan priest, to be their leader. His first orders were not to worship the Egyptian gods and to kill off the sacred animals held in reverence by the Egyptians. He then fortified the walls of Avaris and prepared for war against Amenhotep. Next, he sent an ambassador to the exiled Hyksos leaders and formed a military alliance. The Hyksos sent 200,000 soldiers to join with Osarseph's people.
When Amenhotep learned of the coming invasion he remembered the seer's prediction that Egypt would suffer for thirteen years at the hands of its enemies. He arranged protection for the sacred animals and icons and then hid his five-year-old son, "Sethos, also called Ramesses" with a friend — and I note parenthetically, that "Sethos, also called Ramesses" is the name that Josephus uses for the pharaoh's son.
After making these security arrangements, Amenhotep assembled an army of 300,000 of Egypt's finest soldiers and marched against the Osarseph-Hyksos alliance. But at the last moment, he had a sudden fear that his actions would be construed as an attack on the gods, and rather than engage the enemy, he pulled back his troops and withdrew to Memphis. There he gathered the sacred animals and withdrew his forces to Ethiopia, where the king gave him land and protection.
Osarseph ruled the land for 13 years, instituting a reign of terror. He burned cities, mutilated sacred images, killed the sacred animals and had his followers eat the sacred beasts. At some point during Osarseph's reign, according to Josephus, the usurper changed his name to Moses.
At the end of the prophesied time period, Amenhotep and his son (now confusingly named Rampses — that is, with a letter "p" inserted into the middle of his name) advanced from Ethiopia with a large army and drove the enemy deep into Syria, killing many of them along the way. And so the story concludes.
The account repeatedly mentions Amenhotep, the last of which was Akhenaten. It also says that his son was Seti or Ramesses, which would be inaccurate — Seti and Ramesses, who were the first pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty, were descended from nobility in the delta, not from 18th Dynasty pharaohs. Still, this collection of names increases our confidence that the period in question was late in the and/or early in the .
The story begins with Akhenaten rounding up ~80,000 people to work in the quarries. Archaeology confirms that there were ~50,000 people at Amarna, and that stones for public works were quarried from the nearby cliffs.1 Manetho doesn't name the city being built, which we should consider a significant omission, since he does mention Memphis, Heliopolis, and even Avaris. The omission suggests that it was Amarna, the name of which was removed from the records by Horemheb's policy of damnatio memoriae against the Amarna heresy — if it was any other city, large enough to support that many people, and with public works projects underway, Manetho would have known the name of the city. So the round-up was by Akhenaten, and it was at Amarna.
It says that Akhenaten rounded up the "lepers and polluted people". This is interesting because the amount of ink in the Torah devoted to the proper diagnosis of leprosy would have been disproportionate except at a leper colony.2 (See the section on The Dark Side of Akhenaten for more detail.) But what did Manetho mean by "polluted"? It could have been ideological, not physiological — the distinction there was unknown in ancient times. In other words, the Egyptians might have thought that the Atenists were sick in the head, and if the affliction was contagious (i.e., potentially popular), the afflicted had to be quarantined. So the Atenists would have been rounded up, along with lepers, and thrown into a quarantine camp. The difference between these groups would have been economic as well as ideological and physiological. Leprosy was more prevalent in the lower classes, where malnutrition, poor sanitation, and hazardous occupations left the population more vulnerable to disorders of the immune system, while the people who participate in religious experiments are more typically intellectuals from the higher classes. If the Atenists were political prisoners thrown into a leper colony, it would make sense that the proper diagnosis of the disease, along with appropriate prophylactic measures, would become part of the Hebrew written tradition, even if the people doing the writing were ordinarily well insulated from such an affliction. It would not make sense for the underfed lower classes to avoid the meat of sick animals, or meat that was left out overnight and could have spoiled.3 So the picture comes into clearer focus with two distinctly different groups of people thrown together.
This is also consistent with the very fact that the Hebrews had a written tradition, which we wouldn't expect in the lower classes. This has been debated, and some scholars maintain that the Hebrews didn't start writing things down until the ,4 when they invented the whole story just because they wanted to believe that at some point in their conveniently distant past, there was actually somebody important in Canaan. But the anti-Jewish sentiment forces such scholars into absurd positions. Are we really to believe that the Hebrews picked up the Proto-Sinaitic script, canonized it into Paleo-Hebrew, and passed it on to the Phoenicians, who then spread it all over the Mediterranean, while the Hebrews themselves didn't actually know what all of those little squigglies did? It's somewhat more likely that the Phoenicians learned how to read and write from the finest scholars in the region, whose faithful transcriptions of their history marked the beginning of continuous chronicles. If it were any other group of people, and if we were not diligently striving to discredit their heritage, and if we were looking directly at the evidence, we'd conclude that the Hebrews revolutionized the use of writing, from an instrument of elitism to a communicative tool that could be used by everyone. That isn't confirmation bias, and it isn't Apologetics — it's history. And the part of it that came from Amarna wasn't from poor people who were quarantined due to contagious diseases — it came from the high priests and intellectuals — the finest that Egypt had.
So there is no reason to believe that the Hebrews were descended from, or inspired by, any lepers, and we should reject Manetho's characterization of the people at Amarna as political propaganda.
The 13 year rule of the "polluted" people would be the 16 year reign of Akhenaten (), and this would be the only time in the entire period when it could be said that the existing power structure was chased all of the way to Ethiopia. It was also the only period in which sacrileges against the traditional Egyptian gods were committed. So the revolt, as described, wasn't later, after the move to Avaris — it was at Amarna, and it wasn't led by a Heliopolitan priest named Osarseph — it was led by a pharaoh whose name was unknown to Manetho. The iconoclasm that swept the nation during the Amarna period simply got credited to a rebel leader whose name was known, thereby conflating two different revolts.
Then we hear that "after a long period of misery the slaves petitioned the king, asking permission to move to the abandoned city of Avaris, the former capital of the Hyksos kings." Amarna was only occupied for 19 years (), which wasn't such a long time, so this might have been Josephus injecting biblical references to Ramesses' long reign into the story.5,6 Still, it would make sense that people from Amarna would have been relocated to Avaris. When Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna and moved the capital back to Thebes, if he didn't want Thebes overrun by "polluted" people, he had to find some other place for them, and the abandoned Hyksos capital would have been perfect for that. So the present thesis incorporates this, concluding that when Tut moved the capital back to Thebes in , the main body of Amarna residents moved to Avaris, while a handful of the most ardent Atenists, such as Ramose, were exiled to Moab.
We should also note that both Manetho & the Torah have the workers enslaved. Since slavery was not common during this period, some scholars have dismissed historicity of the Exodus on the grounds that the premise was false. Yet recent archaeological digs have revealed widespread malnutrition and disease among the workers at Amarna, and there is clear evidence from the skeletons of children that they were put to hard labor at an early age.7 Free citizens don't tolerate such conditions, so this can only be evidence of slavery.
The Torah tells us that Moses originally left Egypt to escape prosecution for killing someone who was beating a slave.8,9,10 Since this was wholly inconsistent with Moses' morals (i.e., a violation of the 7th Commandment), the scribes definitely didn't include this for the object lesson, and it's more likely that it was historical. If all of this can be taken at face value, the workers were being abused, and Moses got himself banished for defending them.
What we do not know is precisely who was doing the abusing. It's easy to blame Akhenaten, who either ordered it, or at the very least, never personally checked on the conditions of the workers. Some scholars have considered this to be just another manifestation of Akhenaten's steadily increasing religious and political powers, and detachment from the political and economic realities surrounding him, to the point of warranting the charge of megalomania.7 There are actually a range of possibilities here. Akhenaten certainly was fighting the Amun priesthood, even before he moved the capital to Amarna. It's easy to imagine him taking advantage of an epidemic to establish a quarantine camp, which he used as an excuse to build a new capital. Then he had a captive audience for his religious experiment, doubting that the Amun priests would care if he taught heresy to people who were not allowed to interact with the rest of society. We can also easily see how a de-mystified, humanized religion would have appealed to the working class. And if we only look at the political maneuvering, we see a strong-willed ruler who could have oppressed the workers. But then we are faced with the contradiction between humanism and oppression at Amarna. Did Akhenaten mean well, but once embattled, did he turn bitter and harsh? Or did the oppression occur despite his best efforts? Or was the oppressor actually Akhenaten's younger sister (i.e., the mummy designated as KV35YL), who we know to have been murdered, and whose murderer would have fled Egypt to escape prosecution if given the chance? Or was Akhenaten actually the false advocate of Atenism, using it to lure the enemies of the Amun priesthood into a leper colony? This we do not know, but all of the accounts agree that Moses was the champion of the oppressed.
The way Manetho tells it, the slaves weren't long at Avaris before they started plotting a(nother) revolt. If they arrived in , the next uprising would have been the backlash to Horemheb's eradication of Atenism, resulting in the 1312-Exodus from Avaris. But over a hundred years later, there was yet another conflict, between Merneptah and the Sea Peoples, which seems to have contributed to the story. There might even have been a slave revolt that the Torah doesn't mention, which is rolled up into the story here.
The leader of the people in the delta was Osarseph. Some scholars equate that person with Joseph, who married the daughter of a priest in Heliopolis,11,12 which is suggestive of Manetho's priest from Heliopolis being elected leader. The present thesis has Joseph being born in , meaning that he would have been only 8 years old in , and therefore not involved. Josephus rather thought that Osarseph was Moses, which is consistent with the present thesis. Josephus also quoted Chaeremon of Alexandria, an Egyptian historian who lived just before Josephus, whose version of the Exodus was different enough from Manetho's to suggest that he had other sources (perhaps Hecataeus). According to Chaeremon, there were two rebel leaders, one named Peteseph, and the other named Tisathen, who he identifies as Moses. Tisathen appears to be an Atenist name, suggesting that the revolt in question was Atenists rising up against Horemheb in , which would have been led by Ramose, and who could easily have had an Atenist nickname. Manetho also puts Moses in this timeframe when he says that Seti banished Hermes,13b1:26 who has been identified with Moses,14 while it actually would have been Horemheb banishing Ramose.
Still there is reason to believe that there actually was some sort of conflict that the Torah doesn't mention in Joseph's time, even if he wasn't a rebel leader. In the Treaty of Kadesh, Ramesses II requests that the Hittite king render assistance in the event that the pharaoh's own people commit another crime against him. The reference could only have been to an insurrection of some sort. We know that in , Bedouins crossed the Jordan and caused a ruckus in northern Canaan, prompting a campaign by Seti I to restore law & order. The terms seem to have included tolerance of the Hebrews on the West Bank, as this is when Hebrew settlements start popping up throughout the Judaean Mountains. Seti also commissioned the construction of a summer palace at Tanis, and there is evidence of Canaanite laborers being put to work there. The present thesis has this as Seti's consolation for anybody in Jacob's clan (i.e., the Israelites) who was displaced by Hebrews on the West Bank. The date would be , when Joseph would have been 35 years old, so he could have been involved. It's possible that concurrent with the ruckus in Canaan, there was another uprising at Avaris, and loyal Canaanites from Jacob's clan were brought to Egypt to ride herd over the rebels. Perhaps Jacob's formula for managing the Atenist counter-culture in Canaan became Seti's plan for bringing the residents of Avaris back into the fold. Joseph marrying the daughter of a pagan priest in Heliopolis would have formed an alliance between the hereditary governors of Canaan, currently practicing Israelism, and sun-worshipers in the delta. Ramesses II also campaigned in the Levant, and commissioned far larger public works in the delta, attracting even more laborers from Canaan. So this could have been a continuation of the same policy, providing jobs for loyal Canaanites, if their presence in the delta made the indigenous sun-worshipers more manageable. The Torah has Joseph rising to a high rank at Ramesses' court,15 so perhaps the formula was still working.
Then we hear that the exiled Hyksos leaders sent 200,000 troops in support of the rebellion. First, this is an exaggeration, since there were less than 50,000 people in all of Canaan at the time, and the involvement of other nations (e.g., Hatti, Mitanni/Assyria, and/or Mesopotamia) would have left records that haven't been found. But there was a conflict that drew forces from Canaan into a fight against Merneptah, which concluded with him driving the rebels deep into Syria. So the account appears to conflate several conflicts, beginning with the Amarna heresy and ending with the war against the Sea Peoples Coalition. Perhaps later historians then lumped all of the sun-worshipers into the category of rebels, and Joseph — the rebel moderator — was recast as a rebel leader, under the name of Osarseph or Peteseph, to be pit directly against the pharaoh.
There is one more interesting thread that must be woven into the literary fabric. The section on the Patriarchs and Judges has the Hebrews and Israelites as uneasy allies in the Levant, the former on the East Bank, and the latter on the West Bank, both practicing sun-worship. The Hebrews were Atenists following Moses, while the Israelites fused the more conventional Ra cult with their existing worship of Elohim. The present thesis has the Hebrews pressing westward in , and the Israelites seeking refuge in Goshen, courtesy of Seti I, and later, of Ramesses II. And there is certainly evidence of Judaeans at Pi-Ramses. Now if we take Manetho at his word, with the residents of Amarna being relocated to Avaris, we see that the Israelites would have gotten a second dose of Atenism during their stay in the delta.
Hypothesized migrations between Egypt and Canaan, , that contributed to the Torah.
And then, on their return to Canaan, the Israelites were exposed again to Atenism, falling in with Bedouins who never left. This means that as of , there were two groups of people in northern Canaan, including those who fled Horemheb in , and those who fled Merneptah in , who had a number of things in common:
  • they had been exposed to Atenism,
  • they had been in the delta,
  • where they had been mistreated,
  • from which they had been set free,
  • though not under such amicable circumstances, and thereafter,
  • they had to conceal their origins, albeit for different reasons:
    • the Amarna heresy was still being suppressed, and
    • Jacob's clan had incurred the wrath of Merneptah.
That's enough commonality that over the next couple hundred years, it would be easy for their stories to get fused into a single legend of an Exodus. This would be especially true for two groups of people trying to survive underground, where they'd benefit from solidarity among themselves. So perhaps it was inevitable that two migrations out of Egypt would get conflated into one story.
Would it be possible to identify the elements in the narrative that came from the Atenist Exodus from Avaris in , versus the Israelite Exodus from Pi-Ramses in ?
The explicit mentions of Jacob, Esau, Aaron, and Miriam can only be from the 1312-Exodus, since none of these people were still around in . Aside from that, there might have been too much redaction to be able to tell which story is which. To fully appreciate the underlying complexity here, we should take logistics into account. The villages & towns that the exiles visited along their way were home to a couple hundred or a couple thousand people at most. Such places could not have hosted more than a couple hundred transients at a time. So the story of one group of people on a trek out of Egypt toward the Promised Land is the story of just a couple hundred people at most — a tribe. Now, does that mean that there was just one tribe involved in the 1312-Exodus, and just one tribe in the 1208-Exodus? There is no reason to think that there had to be just one tribe in either of those migrations. So there might have originally been as many different accounts of the Exodus as there were tribes that left Egypt in , plus the accounts of tribes that left in , each taking a different route, and facing different hardships. The migrations is each period probably involved no more that 1,000 people, but if they broke up into groups of 100, that would be 10 Exodus stories from , and another 10 from , for a total of 20 different versions. One group was given The Law at Mount Sinai, while another got it at Mount Horeb. Perhaps some groups didn't get it at all. One group had to fight a battle with the Egyptians just after crossing the Red Sea, while another passed that point uncontested. But at this point, determining exactly how many groups there were, and which routes they took, would surely take unedited accounts that we just don't have. So while we can identify specific elements in the stories that would have come from specific periods, reconstructing the fine-grain detail is beyond the limits of literary analysis.


1. Harrell, J. A. (2001): Ancient quarries near Amarna. Egyptian Archaeology, 19: 36-38

2. Leviticus 13.

3. Leviticus 22:20-25. (P)

4. Schniedewind, W. M. (2008): Origins of the Written Bible.

5. Genesis 47:27. (J,P)

6. Exodus 2:23. (J,P)

7. Benderitter, T. (2014): Akhenaten and the Religion of the Aten.

8. Exodus 2:11-12. (J)

9. Exodus 2:15. (J)

10. Exodus 3:1-3. (E,J)

11. Genesis 41:50. (E)

12. Cook, D. (ed.) (2017): Joseph & Aseneth.

13. Josephus, F. (105): Against Apion.

14. Salverda, J. R. (2017): Moses, Hermes, and Io.

15. Genesis 41:39-40. (E)

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