The Exodus as Egyptian History

Sifting Ancient Records for the Bible Story

A growing number of academics hold that the disasters described in the Book of Exodus, which dissolved royal authority, were not normal climatic events but were part of a cosmic catastrophe that affected the whole earth; a catastrophe that rained meteor showers on the world (the hail mixed with fire) and darkened the skies with the ash of hundreds of erupting volcanoes.

Whether or not we accept this catastrophist view, all can agree that the story recorded in the Old Testament describes the Exodus as a defining moment in Egyptian history. If there is any truth at all in this account, historians should not therefore be looking for vague references to the departure from the Nile Valley of an obscure band of Semitic

shepherds; they should be looking for something of central importance to Egyptian religious tradition; something whose signature is glaringly obvious, and which has probably been staring us in the face all the time.

In my book, Genesis of Israel and Egypt (2008), I have shown in detail how the Patriarch period of the Hebrews—the age between Abraham and Moses—should be placed alongside Egypt’s Early Dynastic Age. I identified Imhotep, the wise vizier of pharaoh Djoser, with Joseph of the long-sleeved coat. Joseph, reputedly the greatest seer who ever lived, saved Egypt from a devastating seven-year famine after interpreting the pharaoh’s dream, while Imhotep, Egypt’s greatest seer, saved the country from a devastating seven-year famine after interpreting pharaoh Djoser’s dream. Four generations later, the Book of Genesis informs us, there came a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Israelites. Four generations after Imhotep, according to Egyptian history, the Third Dynasty came to a mysterious end with the reign of a pharaoh named Huni. The new dynasty, the Fourth, it is believed, launched what we now call the Pyramid Age, perhaps the most extraordinary epoch of artistic endeavor and architectural achievement in history. If we are on the right track, the Pyramid Age must have come immediately after the Exodus; and most likely, it would seem, pyramid-building was inspired in some way or other by the cosmic events so recently witnessed by the inhabitants of Egypt.

Ancient authors, such as Herodotus and Diodorus, claimed that the Giza pyramids were never used as tombs, and this is an opinion increasingly accepted by modern scholars. Most recent theories suggest that they were in some way or other connected with the cult of the sun god Ra-Atum. The Great Pyramid was originally surmounted by a capstone covered in gold leaf, so that the first rays of Ra-Atum, as he rose in the morning, would have struck the top of the monument and sent beams of light throughout the semi-dark countryside, much like a giant lighthouse. Could it be that the pyramids were built to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun after the terrible days of darkness of the Exodus?

The Pyramid Texts, a collection of incantations and prayers inscribed on the inner chambers of the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, give pride of place to the sun-god Ra-Atum, who is praised in almost monotheistic terms. Some of the language used is strongly reminiscent of that found in Genesis and Exodus. Atum is described as the “one alone,” who “brought himself into being.” We are reminded here of Yahweh’s statement to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am.”

The Pyramid Texts are concerned with a mythical battle between the forces of light and darkness. We hear of a terrible struggle ending in an eventual triumph of the light. Although, owing to the dictates of accepted chronology, the idea that these texts could refer to events described in Exodus has not been widely explored, scholars have been struck by the parallels between the two bodies of literature. An explicit attempt to link the Texts to the Exodus was made in the 1980s by Walter Warshawsky. (“The Exodus in the Pyramid Texts?” Society for Interdisciplinary Studies; Workshop, 4: 4 (1983)) Warshawsky held that there “seem to be many references to the Exodus” in the Pyramid Texts. One Text, the so-called Cannibal Hymn of King Unas, seems to mention the death of the first-born. A sentence of the Cannibal Hymn reads: “For it is the King who will give judgment in company with him whose name is hidden on that day of slaying the Oldest Ones” (Faulkner’s translation). Other translations have those being slain as “the eldest” or “the elder one.” Budge, however, translated: “He weighs words with Him of the hidden name [on] the day of the slaughtering of the first born.” The ntr smsw, according to Budge, may mean either “eldest” or “first born” god. The first-born are slain, according to another passage, when “The sky is overcast, the stars are darkened, the celestial expanses quiver, the bones of the earth tremble, the planets [?] are stilled … ” (Hymn 393). Warshawsky interpreted these phrases as meaning that “the sky is filled with dust and clouds so that the stars cannot be seen, the world shakes, the mountains quake, the world stands still.”

Warshawsky noted that in the Pyramid Texts the killing of the “first-born” is primarily a reference to the slaying of the child Horus by Set. Nevertheless, he guessed, it may have been the killing of the first-born in heaven (some type of catastrophic cosmic event) that brought about the plague associated in the biblical passage with the death of Egypt’s first-born. Velikovsky, he noted, took great pains to rewrite bechor as bekhor, “first-born” as “chosen.” Warshawsky suggested that the term actually derived from the Egyptian b’ik hor (the Child Horus) and that it had both meanings. In other words, the Hebrew term found in the Book of Exodus was actually influenced by the Egyptian name of the child Horus, slain by Set. Warshawsky also saw other events of the Exodus as identical to, or influenced by, events from Egyptian myth. Thus, “The ‘Judgement of Thoth’ the Hebrews saw as the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the punishment of Seth being ridden by Osiris as the story of Balaam and his donkey.” (Ibid.)

Warshawsky concluded that “the [Cannibal] Hymn was written after the Exodus and this would imply that also most of the Pyramid texts were written after the Exodus.”

If this is correct, then, I believe, the obsessional building of pyramids may indeed have been a direct response to the great events of nature so recently witnessed. Most likely the Giza pyramids were an offering to the gods in thanksgiving for the “rebirth” of the sun after the days of darkness. Thus it would appear that the Exodus occurred right at the end of the Third Dynasty and probably terminated that dynasty. As such, there should be evidence linking Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, with the Exodus.

Interestingly, one of Huni’s royal titles was Ka-nefer-ra (Kenephres); and strikingly, according to one tradition quoted by Artapanus of Alexandria, the pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites was named Khenephres.

Of Huni/Kenephres’ son-in-law Sneferu we know a great deal more: He lived in a time of disturbance and repelled desert tribes who threatened Egypt from the east. The famous Prophecy of Neferty, reputedly dating from Sneferu’s time, speaks of chaos, of darkness and plague, and a general disintegration of society. The Prophecy of Neferty is a classic example of what has come to be called the “Pessimistic Texts,” a body of literature dealing with a period of lawlessness and natural calamity. These speak (as does the Neferty Prophecy) of darkness over the earth, of slave rebellion, of famine and plague, and of (in the case of Neferty) the death of the pharaoh. Immanuel Velikovsky held that the Pessimistic Texts referred to the events of the Exodus; and indeed the parallels between the two bodies of literature are striking—a fact admitted even by Velikovsky’s critics. The claim made in the Prophecy of Neferty—that this text dated to the time of Sneferu indicates that most of the Pessimistic Texts were composed in this king’s reign or shortly thereafter.

As a contemporary of the Exodus, Sneferu cannot have been ruler of the quiescent and placid land so often portrayed in the textbooks. We are told that, “The founder of the Fourth Dynasty was … a considerable warrior,” (A.H. Gardiner “New Literary Works from Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1 (1914) 100-16) and his martial exploits saw him engage the enemies of Egypt on all three frontiers.

According to Velikovsky, the departure of the Hebrew slaves coincided with the arrival in Egypt of a horde of Amalekites from the Arabian Desert, uprooted by the same catastrophe. The Book of Exodus tells us how shortly after their departure from the Land of the Nile, the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites at Rephidim. (Exodus, 17:8). The attack upon the traumatized Israelites gave rise to an enduring animosity between the two peoples.

Velikovsky believed the Amalekites, an Arab tribe, to be the notorious and feared Hyksos, whose conquest of Egypt was long told and lamented. But these tribes did not conquer the Nile Kingdom. They may well have entered Egypt to plunder, but their sojourn there was short-lived. They were quickly driven from the Delta by the new pharaoh and pushed eastwards. Sneferu records his victory on an inscription at Wadi Maghara, in the Sinai Peninsula, where the nomad foes are known simply as the “sand-dwellers.” (W. Stevenson Smith, “The Old Kingdom in Egypt and the Beginning of the First Intermediate Period,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 1, part 2 [3rd ed.] p. 167). Attempts by Nubians and Libyans to take advantage of Egypt’s weakness (mentioned also by Neferty) were met with equal vigor.

The epoch that began with Sneferu was afterwards regarded as a Golden Age, the classical period of Egyptian civilization, the epoch that all later generations sought to emulate. Sneferu was seen as a paragon, a veritable Messiah (not unlike the Jewish opinion of Moses). His exalted status was reflected in his royal titles: the name Sneferu means ‘the Gladdener,’ while his Horus name Neb­maat implies “Lord in Truth.” Sneferu “was revered throughout the length of Egyptian history; his reign was always regarded as one of the high points of the Egyptian Golden Age. Virtually unique amongst the Kings of Egypt he was remembered by a sobriquet; he was ‘the Beneficent King’ and his cult was sustained down to Ptolemaic time .…” (Michael Rice, Egypt’s Making [London, 1990] p. 197). Why Sneferu should have been recalled with such fondness is a mystery to conventional historians, though for us it would be a mystery were he not.

The events at the Sea of Passage, when the pharaoh and his army were drowned, is generally regarded as little more than a myth. Yet a similar tale is told in the Westcar Papyrus. This describes how a bored King Sneferu seeks some diversion by sailing on the lake in the palace gardens. A crew of servant-girls (goddesses?) row for the king, and one of these loses her hair ornament in the water. Before the voyage can continue, therefore, the magician Djadjaemankh is required to “turn back” or “part” the waters to reveal the ornament, which is found lying on a potsherd at the bottom of the lake (W. Stevenson Smith, lac. cit. p. 168).

The above was obviously not a precise equivalent of the story of the parting waters of Yam Suf, as found in the Book of Exodus. Nevertheless, it is clear that the wondrous event of the sea waters parting could not have but been incorporated into Egyptian legend. Though the Egyptians did not benefit from the incident, as an unprecedented divine miracle, it could scarcely be ignored. The boat that Sneferu used is evidently symbolic of the vessel employed by Egypt’s great gods; and the connection with the ship-like Ark of the Covenant, which the fleeing Israelites carried before them on their journeys after traversing the Sea of Passage, should not be ignored.

Finally, the Invasion of the Hyksos, which Velikovksy believed immediately followed the Exodus, actually took place long after Sneferu’s death. The Hyksos, a mighty and cultured nation, who brought the two-wheeled chariot and bronze weaponry to Egypt, originated in Mesopotamia, rather than Arabia, and they are not to be identified with the nomad Amalekites. I leave it to another place (see also my Pyramid Age, 2007) to show that the Sixth Dynasty, whose two most important kings were named Pepi I and Pepi II, were an Asiatic line and are to be identified with the so-called Fifteenth Dynasty, whose two most important kings were named Apepi (or Apopi) I and Apepi II. It is, I believe, the greatly exaggerated length of Egypt’s history which has placed Imhotep of the Third Dynasty a thousand years before Joseph, son of Jacob, and is hereby revealed to have been achieved by the duplication of an entire lines of kings.


The Genesis of Israel and Egypt (2006) and The Pyramid Age (2007) are published by Algora, New York.

By Emmett Sweeney