A few days ago, Simcha Jacobovici made the claim that ‘there’s a dramatic scholarly breakthrough linking archeology to the Biblical Exodus.’ Jacobovici is best known for his TV specials, such as the one in which he claimed to have found the family tomb of Jesus—a claim that the vast majority of specialists in the field evaluated and rejected. In this most recent claim about ‘proof’ for the Exodus, Jacobovici points to the following article:
- Robert K. Ritner and Nadine Moeller, ‘The Ahmose ‘Tempest Stela’: Thera and Comparative Chronology,’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Vol. 73, No. 1 [April 2014], pp. 1–19).
In this article, Egyptologists Ritner and Moeller examine afresh an ancient Egyptian stela that has been known for some time: the ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I.
Previously, this stela was interpreted in one of two ways—either as a description of a localised natural disaster during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose I (16th century BC—founder of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty), or as a metaphor for the oppression of Egyptians at the hands of the Asiatic Hyksos rulers. Ritner and Moeller re-examine the evidence and conclude the stela describes a real natural disaster, but on a much bigger scale than previously thought. This disaster consisted of unusual darkness and harsh storms, which affected the entirety of Egypt, not just a small area of it, wreaking widespread death and destruction. Their contention is that this storm was likely the aftermath of the cataclysmic explosion of Thera (Santorini)—the volcanic eruption that triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.
Ritner and Moeller admit a chronological difficulty with their theory: the eruption of Thera can be dated with 95% accuracy to 1627–1600 BC, while Ahmose’s reign probably started sometime between 1570 and 1544 BC—that is, between 30 to 83 years later. But given the instability of absolute markers for certain periods of Egyptian chronology, and the stela’s detailed description of a cataclysmic event, Ritner and Moeller propose shifting Ahmose’s reign back a few decades to overlap with the eruption of Thera. This is a big move! While I can see the possibility of matching the disaster described on the stela to the Thera event, I will leave it to Egyptologists to work out whether it’s plausible.
But how does this relate to the Exodus?
Jacobovici asserts that this new interpretation proves the biblical Exodus because the natural disaster that the ‘Tempest Stela’ describes matches up with the plague of darkness described in the Exodus narrative (Exod 10.21–29). Jacobovici claimed back in 2006 that this stela was a key piece of evidence for finding the Exodus in the archaeological records of Egypt. And now, he says, here is the final proof.
Is he right? Has proof of the Exodus finally be found?
I wish it were true, but I highly doubt it.
Here are some of my reasons:
- The article by Ritner and Moeller is a follow up to a previous article from 1996. They acknowledge that the earlier article was used by some as tentative evidence for the Exodus, but seem dismissive or agnostic at best about this connection in their new article. In fact, in this new article, they make no connection between the events described on the stela and the Exodus at all.
- The ‘Tempest Stela’ makes no mention of slaves, Hebrews, or any other kinds of events that might be identified with any of the other plagues described in the Exodus narrative.
- Jacobovici claims that the storm described on the stela ‘displayed the “wrath” of a “great God”,’ and that ‘this God was “greater” than the “gods” of Egypt.’ However, Ritner and Moeller argue something quite different. They translate the relevant portion of the stela to say ‘Then His Majesty [i.e. Ahmose] said: ‘How much greater this is than the wrath of the great god, [than] the plans of the gods!’ (p.7) In other words, it reads as though Ahmose interprets the natural disaster as something even bigger than the mighty anger of any particular god.
- The stela mentions that darkness accompanied the disaster, such that ‘no torch could be lit in the Two Lands [i.e. Upper and Lower Egypt]’. However, Ritner and Moeller demonstrate that the primary focus was not the darkness, but rather the abnormally harsh rain storm. The darkness ‘is noted secondarily to the rain’ (p.7). In other words, the natural disaster was not darkness, during which it rained, but rather a severe storm, during which it grew dark.
- Ahmose I was the founder of the 18th Dynasty—the period of the New Kingdom. He is credited with the overthrow of the Asiatic Hyksos people who ruled the Nile Delta for a couple of centuries. Jacobovici makes a direct link between the Hyksos and the Israelite slaves of the Exodus narrative. He is not the first to make this link, but it creates a series of other problems. For example, the Hyksos ruled a portion of Egypt, which contradicts the Exodus narrative that states the Israelites were slaves, not rulers. There are also chronological difficulties, including seeming clashes with the archaeological record of a settlement into Canaan.
- Jacobovici talks of Ritner and Moeller now providing ‘proof’ for the biblical Exodus. This seems a rather overstated definition of ‘proof’. When something provides ‘proof’, it means the evidence is so decisive that there is little to no contrary evidence, and little to no way of reading the data in a different way. In other words, ‘proof’ constitutes something being either categorically undeniable or at least beyond reasonable doubt. The analysis Ritner and Moeller provide for the ‘Tempest Stela’ does not, in my opinion, give us such confidence for a connection to the Exodus. In fact, I highly doubt Ritner and Moeller would see any such connection either. We must be careful here to distinguish between ‘evidence’, which is a piece of a puzzle, and ‘proof’ which is the decisive piece that solves the puzzle once for all. I can’t see how the ‘Tempest Stela’ brings us anywhere near ‘proof’ for the Exodus, or even that it provides good ‘evidence’ for it.
So have we found ‘proof’ of the Exodus? No. Have we found any suggestive evidence for it? Probably not.
I’ll be glad the day we do find evidence for the Exodus outside the Bible. But today is not that day.
For another similar opinion, check out Chris Heard’s blog piece.