Akhenaten, Egypt’s eccentric “monotheistic” pharaoh of the New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty. (Credit: David Rohl, ©2012)

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” – Exodus 1:22 (ESV)

Last time, we reported on the recent finds of a large slave force buried at the city of Amarna, Egypt during the I8th Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom. Examination of the remains suggest that the slaves had been ruthlessly oppressed in the drive to quickly create Pharaoh Akhenaten’s new capital city. It is understandable that some (including news headlines) have latched onto this find as potential evidence for the oppression of Israelite slaves before their exodus out of Egypt under Moses. This certainly is a remarkable discovery, but does this evidence really warrant a jump to the conclusion that these were Israelite slaves? How do these finds fit into the whole picture of the Exodus debate? Part 2 of this post will work to answer those questions by applying a “Patterns” approach. As usual, chronology (the dates of historical events) plays a central role in finding answers.

The reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten is conventionally dated to about 1352-1335 BC. Because of a variety of factors, there have been many attempts to connect him to the Exodus story even before the recent finds of slavery. The kind of shift to monotheism taken by Akhenaten is almost completely unique. Apart from the Hebrews, his may have been the only theology to come close to monotheism in the ancient world, certainly the only time in Egypt’s history. This unusual turn has prompted some scholars to suggest that Akhenaten’s theology strongly influenced the beliefs of Moses (this would suggest an Exodus at the end of Akhenaten’s reign or later). Others propose that Akhenaten’s shift may have been a reaction to the momentous events of the Exodus (which would mean an Exodus before Akhenaten).

One of the Arman tablets from the late 18th Dynasty. (Public Domain)

Another clue connecting Akhenaten with the Exodus Period, according to some views, is the use of the term “Hapiru” or “Apiru” found in a body of letters stored at Amarna. These letters written on stone tablets documented correspondence between Egypt and their vassals in Canaan that was part of Egypt’s empire during most of the New Kingdom. Many of the letters from Canaan speak of troubles with peoples termed “Hapiru” and many have connected this term linguistically with the name “Hebrew.” Akhenaten was not very responsive to these calls for help. Could these troubles be connected to the Conquest of the Israelites, which the Bible says occurred 40 years after the Exodus? Might Akhenaten’s reluctance to forcefully respond indicate that Egypt had been weakened by the momentous calamities of the Exodus?

One other point that has been raised is that the city of Amarna is said to have been named after a tribe of Arabs named Beni Amran (or “sons of Amran”) that lived in the area. The name “Amran” is very close to “Amram” the father of Moses. Were these the descendants of Moses’ father that Akhenaten honored by naming his capital after.

While these lines of evidence seem to connect Akhenaten with the Exodus, the same can be said for dozens of pharaohs in Egypt’s history that have been put forward as possible candidates. Whole books have been written showing why Ramesses II (conventionally dated 1279-1213 BC) was the one, with the primary point being the Bible’s reference to the Israelites building the store city of Ramesses. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II (conventionally around 1450 BC) are also popular suspects. 1 Kings 6:1 says that the Exodus was 480 years before Solomon, which would put it into the 1400s BC, long before the time of Ramesses and Akhenaten. Others contend that evidence near the end of the Middle Kingdom and Middle Bronze Age (conventionally around 1650 BC) seems to fit the events of the Exodus best.

With each view containing at least some evidence, which one is the real Exodus – and why is there so much skepticism among scholars about the Exodus? This is where the “patterns” approach comes in. Most of these proposals pull in disconnected fragments of evidence that can be made to look like good connections to the Exodus account. What is needed, however, is tool that lays out the entire sequence of major events from the Exodus, which then can be laid against the events of ancient history to see if all the main aspects are seen in the right order and right timespans.

Filmmaker Timothy Mahoney and cameraman Ramy Romany during filming of Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus. (©2014 Patterns of Evidence. LLC)

The film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus looked for six major steps of the biblical sequence. Of these, three rise to the top as the biggest factors that should most easily be seen in the archaeological record if the Exodus really happened. The absence of these three factors at the expected time, is the source of most of the skeptical criticism about the Exodus seen today. In the case of Akhenaten, he fails every aspect of the “Big Three” for the Exodus:

1. No sign of massive numbers of Israelites or Semites living in Egypt during his time, especially centered around the city of Avaris/Ramesses in the Nile Delta area of Goshen. Some Semitic presence exists in all periods, but to fit the Bible’s account, there needs to be signs of the exceedingly great Multiplication.

2. No sign of a major society-wide collapse of Egypt around his time, as would be expected from the effects of the Exodus. There is political turmoil at the time of Akhenaten, but such dynastic fluctuations were not rare, and Egypt itself remained relatively prosperous throughout the New Kingdom. (See Psalm 78:42-52 for a taste of what Egypt experienced in the Exodus).

3. No sign of the biblical Conquest in Canaan 40 years later. Finding the right historical context for the Exodus starts with finding a set of high-walled city destructions in Canaan. Several specifically-named cities in Canaan that the Bible claims had high walls and were destroyed as part of the Israelite conquest were empty burned-out ruins during the time of Akhenaten, and had been that way for more than two centuries.

The Wall of Time showing the biblical steps of the Exodus Period depicted on the middle level, and a corresponding pattern of evidence of evidence seen in the archaeology of Egypt and Canaan on the top and bottom levels. The matching evidence is apparently centuries too early to connect with the Exodus. (©2017 Patterns of Evidence)

The only place on the timeline that fits the entire sequence is near the end of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (not in its New Kingdom). If this strong pattern of evidence is, in fact, the Exodus, then either the date for the Exodus is actually at least a century prior to the 1400s BC or wrong dates have been assigned to Egypt’s history. Multiple lines of evidence favor the second option.

Establishing the big picture first is necessary to avoid an endless maze of details that may or may not fit the general conditions of the Exodus in dozens of different periods. Focusing on the details first would be something like looking at a street map to plot a course from a location on Elm street to a location on Oak street. After initially seeing these familiar streets, you become frustrated as things just don’t seem to be working out as you try to navigate the route. Then you realize that you have been looking at a map of the wrong city the whole time. You need to get the big picture right first, before dealing with the details.

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. – Exodus 1:22 (ESV)

What about the potential Exodus links at the time of Akhenaten? Slavery (even Semitic slaves) was present at many times of Egypt’s history, so there is nothing uniquely “Israelite” about these slaves late in the 18th Dynasty. Some have tried to link the killing of the Hebrew infant boys with these finds, but that only reinterprets what the Bible records to mean something different. The Bible says nothing about the Egyptians singling out a group aged 7-25. The Bible does say the Israelites built the store cities of Pithom and Raamses – if they had made Amarna (the capital of Egypt) as well, would not the Bible have mentioned it? To fit the Exodus, these findings of slavery would need to fit the larger pattern (which they don’t).

The term “Hapiru” is not just found in the Amarna tablets, it is seen in many documents from different times in history, and in different lands. Many scholars say that it referred to a stateless class of people. It may have been applied to Hebrews, but does not seem to have exclusively meant Hebrew people. Even if these Amarna references to Hapiru were to Israelites, why couldn’t this refer to the time of the judges or kings of Israel, rather than the time of the Conquest?

Even if the tribe Amarna was named after Moses’ father Amram, how long before the building of the city had they lived in the area? If the name had originated hundreds of years before the time of Akhenaten, then the Hebrews would have been long gone by the time Akhenaten’s city was built. Without more information, this is not a strong time indicator. The same could be said of Akhenaten’s shift to monotheism. Even if this was influenced by the Israelites, why must this influence been from the time of the Exodus and not some later point in Israel’s history?

If David Rohl’s theories bear out (as to how much the dates for Egypt’s Kingdom period need to come down), then Akhenaten might have been a contemporary of Israel’s King David. This would explain why Psalm 104, which is attributed to David, is so similar to Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Sun. Psalm 104:20-30 has so many similarities to Akhenaten’s hymn that scholars often maintain that King David copied it from Egypt. However, if you shift Egypt’s New Kingdom by 300-350 years, it could mean that the two were actually contemporaries and the influence may have went in the opposite direction. There are other examples of discrepancies that would be explained by shifting Egypt’s timeline. So, King David may possibly have been the inspiration for Akhenaten’s shift to monotheism, not the Exodus.

The bottom line is that, regardless of how remarkable this find may be, the patterns approach shows the three largest and most distinct indicators of the Exodus and Conquest are missing at the time of Akhenaten. The same can be said of the other New Kingdom pharaohs. None of the fragmented evidence in these times has been strong enough to dent the skepticism among most of the world’s top scholars. The detailed points claimed as possible Exodus links are either not unique or too inconclusive to counteract the reality that this era does not fit the Exodus. Leaping at every possible connection to the Exodus without considering chronology and the main pattern only results in muddying the water and hinders progress toward recognizing evidence (which exists several centuries earlier) that does fit the pattern. To find the true setting of the Exodus, one must get the big picture right first. Keep Thinking!