Horemheb, Exodus Pharaoh?

Pharaoh Horemheb with Amun standing beside him.
Pharaoh Horemheb with Amun-Ra, the king of the gods, standing beside him.

After looking into the history that we think we know of the time around Horemheb, it seems to me that a compelling narrative of the Exodus and Horemheb can be constructed consistent with what is known from archaeology and other written historical records including (and especially) the Bible, since it is the one and only record of the Exodus that exists today, I’m told.

So here is my version of events.

Horemheb in hieroglyphs

 The Son of Ra, Amun, Loves Horemheb

After comparing the dates Egyptologists have assigned to the reigns of the pharaohs with the date of Moses’s birth worked out by rabbinical scholars, it seems to me that Horemheb could have been the Exodus pharaoh. But in a search of the Internet and other sources, I found that most historians don’t believe the Exodus happened, and among other researchers, few say the Exodus pharaoh was Horemheb. Some claim he was Ramesses II; some, Thutmosis III; others speculate about other pharaohs; but very few have said, as far as I can tell, that he was Horemheb.

After looking into the history that we think we know of the time around Horemheb, it seems to me that a compelling narrative of the Exodus and Horemheb can be constructed consistent with what is known from archaeology and other written historical records, including (and especially) the Bible, since it is the one and only record of the Exodus that exists today.  

According to most Egyptologists, Horemheb ruled from 1319 to 1292 BCE. Many Rabbis say Moses was born in 1391, and, according to the Bible record, confronted Pharaoh eighty years later in 1311—eight years after Horemheb took power.

Seder Olam 2
Seder Olam (chronology of world events) סדר עולם

Rabbinic Judaism uses the Seder Olam (World Order) from the 2nd century CE to date Biblical events. According to the Seder Olam, 832 BCE is the date Solomon started construction of the first temple. 1311 BCE is the date of the Exodus. The interval agrees closely with the 480 year period described in I Kings, 6:1.  More importantly, the date 1311 BCE places Moses and the Exodus squarely in the reign of Horemheb, if the chronology of modern Egyptologists is accepted.

To be fair, modern fundamentalist millennial Christian sources place the start of temple construction at 1000 BCE, but this date strains credulity, because it was established to fit the theory of millennialism where history is divided into seven one-thousand year “days.”  History is almost never that precise or the calendar that clean, even when written by God.

Historians have established that, before he was pharaoh, Horemheb commanded the Egyptian army under Pharaohs Tutankhamun and Ay.  After he became pharaoh and lost the army (as described in the Exodus story of the Bible) an angry Horemheb enlisted his allies, the polytheistic priests and their cults, to erase the history of the “monotheist” former pharaoh, Akhenaten, his allies and family members. One of those family members was Akhenaten’s adopted cousin, Moses (see next section, The Exodus Story), who Horemheb blamed for bringing Egypt to ruin.

Historians have said that during his reign Horemheb intensified a damnatio memoriae (campaign to strike from memory) against the former pharaoh, Akhenaten. The campaign was initiated by Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamun, and the pharaohs that followed—Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten and Ay.

These pharaohs, during the years 1334-1319 BCE, reversed many—but not all—of Akhenaten’s reforms, because they thought the reforms had created uncertainty and turmoil over the status of the priesthood and the gods, so important to the economy and stability of Egypt. But Horemheb took the reversal to another level—restoring order by turning back all of Akhenaten’s reforms and re-establishing traditional polytheism throughout the whole of Egypt.

ipuwer papyrus
Ipuwer Papyrus

The surviving copy of the Ipuwer Papyrus—housed in the Netherlands at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities and dating to the 19th dynasty (13th century BCE)—may actually describe the conditions in Egypt during the Amarna/post-Amarna period before and after Horemheb took power. It may have been during this period that the Hebrews, led by Moses, lobbied Horemheb to let them leave Egypt for their ancestral lands in Canaan.

The Exodus Story

Pharaoh Thutmosis IV died around 1390 BCE leaving a very young son, Amenhotep III, to become pharaoh. To fashion the story to fit the Bible narrative, that same year a teenage daughter of Thutmosis IV, possibly Princess Tiaa, found Moses floating in a basket on the Nile River. She brought Moses into the palace to be a playmate for her brother, the new pharaoh.

Pharaoh's Daughter Finds Moses Exodus 2:3-6
Pharaoh’s daughter, Princess Tiaa, discovers Moses

The sister of the deceased Thutmosis IV located Moses’ mother, Jochebed, and brought her into the palace to wet-nurse Moses. Soon after, Princess Tiaa adopted Moses and raised him as her son. Through this arrangement Tiaa’s much younger brother, the new Pharaoh Amenhotep III, became Moses’ uncle, though they were about the same age. Perhaps the two grew up together and were close—more like brothers than uncle/nephew.

The influence of religion on the Thutmosis family by Moses’ mother—a monotheistic Jewish woman—might have been considerable. No one can know for sure, but what followed—the eventual embrace of monotheism by Amenhotep III’s son, Amenhotep IV (who later changed his name to Akhenaten)—might be understood as evolving from her influence. Jochebed may have continued to live within the pharaoh’s household for many years assisting Princess Tiaa to raise her own son and, through him, influencing Tiaa’s grandson, Akhenaten, who became the famous founder of Egyptian monotheism. Her influence could make sense out of the history that followed.

According to this version of events, when Moses was forty years old, in 1351 BCE, Amenhotep III died. His son (and very young cousin to Moses), Amenhotep IV, became pharaoh. Moses fled Egypt, according to the Bible, to avoid trial for killing an overseer. But, because he was the adopted son of the prior pharaoh’s older sister, Moses may have worried that his cousin, Amenhotep IV, (or perhaps his aides) considered him a rival to the throne.

A few years later, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his revolutionary belief in a single creator god he called Aten, the Sun Orb. He then suppressed the existing polytheistic cults. He built a new city, Amarna, to honor Aten. This move to a form of monotheism turned Egyptian society upside down and enraged the priestly class who depended on polytheism for their economic well-being.

akhenaten profile
Pharaoh Akhenaten—formerly Amenhotep IV

In 1335 BCE Akhenaten died, and Moses, age 56, returned to Egypt. He found Egypt in chaos and rebellion due to outrage by the priests and population over the move away from polytheism.

During the next 15 years Moses lived among the Hebrews, and by age 70 had become their de-facto leader. Horemheb meanwhile became pharaoh.

By age 80 Moses was challenging Horemheb to let the Hebrews leave Egypt.  Eventually, Horemheb did—issuing a directive, according to the Bible, that the general population provide the Hebrews with gold and silver as they left. Horemheb’s plan may have been to trap Moses and the Hebrews against the marshes in the Sea of Reeds, annihilate them, and recover their newly acquired wealth to stock the Egyptian treasury.

But during the Exodus of 1311 BCE an unexpected inundation (the famous Red Sea flood of the Bible story) cost Horemheb his army and his plans to destroy the fleeing Hebrews. The Hebrews escaped, so Horemheb, with the encouragement of the priesthood, turned his fury against the Amarna cults and ramped up the ongoing damnatio memoriae started by Tutankhamun against his father, the former Pharaoh Akhenaten, his allies and their temples.

It should be said that although the Egyptians closely watched, recorded and forecast the yearly inundations of the Nile, unexpected floods sometimes did occur in the Delta region where the Exodus may have taken place.

Ramesses II
Pharaoh Ramesses II

When Horemheb died leaving no heir, the Ramesses family took over. Ramesses I, Seti I and Ramsesses II spent the next forty years continuing the damnatio by finishing the demolition of the town of Amarna and its temples, destroying steles and grinding down glyphs and cartouches that referred to anyone associated with the heretical Amarna one-god movement. They also sent armies into Canaan to hunt down Moses and the Hebrews in the territory that Moses (and hundreds of years earlier, Joseph) had claimed was the original homeland promised to the Hebrews by God.

Unknown to the pharaohs, Moses and the Hebrews decided to stay out of Canaan and, instead, according to the Bible, hid themselves in the Sinai desert. 

The pharaohs sent at least three armies into Canaan to hunt them down. Unable to find Moses, they marched north to search in Syria, where the Hittites ambushed them. As a result, the Egyptians conducted a number of military campaigns against the Hittites. The most reliably verified and documented occurred in 1274 BCE, led by Pharaoh Rameses II. This war financially exhausted and militarily weakened both sides.

Forty years after the Exodus (and just three years after the Rameses II incursion into Syria), in 1271 BCE, Moses died. Egypt had by then already withdrawn from Syria and Canaan. The time would never be more right. According to the Bible, Joshua (Moses’s successor) walked the Hebrews out of their Sinai desert hiding place and into the land of Canaan. 

Ramesses Battle of Kadesh
Battle of Kadesh

Twelve years later—in 1259 BCE—sixteen years after the end of hostilities between the Syrian Hittites and Egypt and fifty-two years after the Exodus, Egypt signed the famous peace treaty of Kadesh with the Hittites. The peace treaty—concluded between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite King Hattusili III—is the oldest surviving written treaty in existence. It diminished the most important existential threat to the new Israel by making it less likely that Egypt would return to wage war either in Syria or Canaan. Egypt desired a lasting peace in order to rebuild its society and military and to restore its wealth.

The desire for peace didn’t last. By 1208 BCE (fifty years later), Egypt had become fully aware that the hated Hebrews had returned to Canaan, where they were building fortified towns and cities. Ramesses’ son, the aging Merenptah, decided to finish his family’s vendetta against them and go into Canaan to do battle with the fledgling Israel. According to the “Merenptah Stele” (found by Flinders Petrie and housed in the Cairo Museum), he “destroyed Israel’s seed” such that “they were no more.”  History and the Bible both show that Merenptah exaggerated his assessment.

Merneptah Stele
On this stele Merenptah claims that he destroyed Israel. 

It is interesting to note that Merenptah’s inscriptions describing Israel’s destruction were carved on the back of a stelae that once belonged to Amenhotep III, Moses’ “uncle” and childhood companion. Merenptah simply turned it around and used it as his own.

And it is fascinating (maybe macabre) to recall—in light of the Bible account of the Passover and the killing of the first-born by the Angel of Death—that tomb examiners found the fetus of Horemheb’s son and heir-apparent inside his wife’s mummified body. As a result, Horemheb had no heir, and the Ramesses’ family was able to take power.

No records of Moses or the Exodus itself, in hieroglyphs or Egyptian script, have been found.

Billy Lee


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