It almost seems like a joke. The author of Exodus 5:2 has Pharaoh tell Moses: “Who is this Yahweh that I should obey him and let Israel go?” But by now, more people have wondered: Who is this pharaoh? The Torah doesn’t bother to say. It’s as if the biblical author wanted future generations to scratch their heads. As if we’re meant to remember God’s name and not some transient earthly king’s.
Some believe that the absence of the Pharaoh’s name demonstrates that the story we read over Passover is not historical in any way—that it’s just an old campfire tale from Canaan. Egyptian records, the skeptics point out, don’t mention any Hebrew escape. But, then again, it would be surprising if they did. “The ancient Egyptians didn’t record defeats; they had a different conception of history than we do,” notes Egyptologist Bob Brier. Smitten foes, not successful slave revolts, made the hieroglyphic headlines.
And despite the missing name, other details in the biblical narrative suggest the author was immersed in Egyptian culture. Take Exodus 8:32, when “Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.” That verse is likely an allusion to the Egyptian theological notion that the heart is made heavy with evil deeds. Ancient papyri and tomb walls depict afterlife scenes wherein the deceased’s heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at (order and justice). Cleverly, the Exodus author is making use of this Egyptian mythology of sin in order to represent the Pharaoh’s twisted inner life.
Or look at the verse from Exodus 2:3, when Moses’s mother “got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch; and she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.” All the italicized words in this single verse in the Hebrew Bible are of Egyptian etymology, according to Egyptologist James Hoffmeier. He further points out that several Israelites of the Exodus generation had Egyptian names: Miriam, Merari, Phineas, Putiel. Moses, too, is Egyptian, meaning “is born,” a fitting appellation for a baby saved from a riverbank.
Some Hebrews even had names derived from Egyptian deities. Assir, for example, is from Osiris. Ahira integrates the name of the sun god Re. And Hur, Hori and Harnepher come from the sky god Horus—a deity that was one of the most revered divinities in the Nile Delta region, where Hebrew slaves were said to have built Egyptian storehouses made of mudbricks with straw. And that, incidentally, is another provocative historical detail: Bricks with straw were not made in Canaan. Those were common in the very area where the Exodus storyteller places the Hebrews.
Other archaeological evidence further attests to the presence of a Levantine slave force in ancient Egypt. The famous scene from the Tomb of Rekhmire, circa 1450 BCE, depicts Semitic and black slaves making and hauling bricks at Karnak. Then there is the Papyrus Brooklyn (17th century BCE) that, according to archaeologist Titus Kennedy, lists domestic servants with feminine Hebrew names such as Ashera (Asher), Menahema (Menahem), ‘Aqoba (Yaqob), as well as Shiphrah, Haya-wr (Chaya) and even Hy’b’rw, which may be an Egyptian rendition of “Hebrew.”
Now, if the above linguistic and archeological evidence lends some historical credence to the Exodus drama, when might it have happened? Hard to say. Scholars are bitterly divided into two or three broad camps. All of them (as far as this layman can tell) examine the same biblical and extra-biblical evidence, but each camp deduces radically different dating schemes because of their differing epistemological and mathematical presuppositions about the Bible narrative.
One prominent camp locates the Hebrew emancipation in the 15th century BCE, which would mean the Exodus Pharaoh is either Thutmose III (1479-1425) or Amenhotep II (1427-1400). Another influential camp of scholars—and pop culture influencers such as the Disney Company, DreamWorks Pictures, and Paramount Pictures—tell us it happened later in the 13th century BCE, thus making Ramses II (1279-1213) the royal villain. Both camps, interestingly, have Bible-believing religious members in their scholarly ranks. But none so far seems to have conclusively revealed the pharaoh’s name.
The Exodus author has therefore left us with an enduring historical mystery. And maybe, just maybe, that was intended—and worth thinking about over Passover.
As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked about the historicity of scripture, “But can’t we say: It is important that this narrative should not have more than quite middling historical plausibility, just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing. So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit should receive its due. In other words, what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best, most accurate historian; therefore, a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told—roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, which distract attention from what matters.”
Jonah Cohen is the communications director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).