Q&A – Was Thutmose III the Pharaoh of the Exodus?
Was Thutmoses III the Pharaoh of the Exodus?
Lacking any direct textual or archaeological witness to the Exodus, if we want to situate the biblical account of the Exodus in Egyptian history what we have to do is look for circumstantial evidence to establish a more or less plausible setting. The reign of Thutmose III has something going for it. Thutmose III was an important Pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, during its New Kingdom period, who lived approximately 1475-1425 BC. Dating the Exodus to closer to 1500 BC rather than 1250 BC or later has a certain appeal. It makes some sense of the change in policy toward the Hebrews mentioned in Exodus, since it would correspond with the driving out of the Hyksos from northern Egypt (who were Semites like the Hebrews and unlike the Egyptians) and with the establishment of the 18th dynasty and Egypt’s New Kingdom, the period when Egypt was more powerful than it had ever been and ever would be again. A generally pro-native Egyptian agenda would have driven the early Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty.
Another piece of evidence that would argue for the 18th dynasty is the name “Moses.” Moses is an unusual name in Hebrew, and in reading Exodus its explanation as meaning “drawn out” strikes one as an ex post facto etymology. The name is given Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, and it seems unlikely that her first instinct would have been to give him a name with a Hebrew significance, if she knew Hebrew at all. Instead, Hebrew Moshe very likely conceals an Egyptian name ending in -mose or -moses, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, or Kamose. If Moses was indeed raised in the royal household then we might expect that he would be given a name fitting a child of the royal household, a name that would be shortened and given Hebrew significance later in life. It is extremely interesting to me to note that Egyptian royal names ending in -mose are pretty much found only in the 17th and 18th dynasties, not before and not after. This detail indirectly argues for an Exodus sometime during the 18th dynasty.
A problem, however, with dating the Exodus to the early to mid 18th dynasty is that Egyptian control over Canaan actually grew during the 18th dynasty. Thutmose III, for example, is generally understood as the Pharaoh who extended Egypt’s borders farther than they had ever been – into northern Syria and much deeper into Nubia to the south. The Amarna letters are letters written to the king of Egypt from various other kings around the ancient world, many of which come from pre-Israelite Canaanite kings. These kings were vassals of Egypt, appealing to Pharaoh for arbitration with other Canaanite city-states, offering wives or requesting wives to cement diplomatic ties, etc. There is no indication of the situation described in Judges where Israelites are present en masse throughout the land of Canaan. The earliest Egyptologists believe we can reasonably date the Amarna letters is to the reign of Amenhotep III, the great grandson of Thutmose III. Amenhotep III would have lived roughly 1390-1350 BC. If the Exodus occurred during the reign of Thutmose III (1475-1425 BC), and we account for a literal 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites ought to have been largely in the land and socking it to the Canaanites by no later than 1385 BC – the earliest point when the Amarna letters could have been written. So the Amarna letters probably establish a terminus post quem (a point after which it must have happened) for the Exodus.
This is why many conservative scholars lean toward dating the Exodus later than the 18th dynasty (usually to around 1250 BC, during the reign of Rameses II, third Pharaoh of the 19th dynasty). The point at which Israel must have been in Canaan according to Egyptian records is during the reign of Merneptah, son of Rameses II, because of the mention of Israel on what is known as the “Merneptah Stele”. The way Israel is written, with a determinative that seems to indicate they are not entirely settled or established in a governmental way, fits very well with what we would expect during the time of the Judges and especially early on after the initial military incursions under Joshua. So if the Amarna letters provide a terminus post quem, the Merneptah Stele establishes a terminus ad quem (a point by which it must have happened).
Of course, this could be reconciled with either Thutmose III as Pharaoh of the Exodus, or with Rameses II, or with any Pharaoh in between. After Merneptah, Egypt’s New Kingdom descended into internal struggle and civil war, with the chief exception being the reign of Rameses III (who had his hands full fighting off the Sea Peoples). In other words, after Merneptah, Egyptian influence in Canaan (part of the effect of which would have been political stabilization) would have declined, paving the way for (1) Israel to gain power in the region and (2) multiple invasions to come in to threaten Israel.
So Thutmose III may have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus, but there are good arguments for it to have been later, maybe as late as the reign of Rameses II. At no point do we have clear historical evidence from Egypt that could pinpoint the Exodus.