No Connection between Ahmose’s ‘Tempest Stela’ and the Exodus

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:

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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14 thoughts on “No Connection between Ahmose’s ‘Tempest Stela’ and the Exodus

  1. I think it is very likely that the Hebrews were among the first Semites to migrate to Lower Egypt, and were later enslaved by the Hyksos because they were allied with the weakened Egyptians. The last Hyksos pharaoh was probably the pharaoh of the Exodus. The events of the Exodus likely contributed to weakening this last Hyksos regime so that the Egyptians were able to regain control of Lower Egypt. The Hebrews were likely a very small group on the move during this time of great migration, (despite what Biblical numbers seem to indicate) so archaeological evidence is not available to confirm the story. It is interesting however, that Kenyon’s dating of the fall of Jericho would support this chronology.

  2. Reblogged this on firstthreequarters and commented:
    A perennial question when we are reading Exodus is the possible connection with natural phenomena. The eruption of Thera (=
    Santorini) in the eastern Mediterranean often comes up in this context, since it was a noteworthy natural disaster occurring in the mid-2nd millennium BC with the potential to affect Egypt and its inhabitants. This forms part of a larger question: do we allow natural explanations to impinge on our interpretation of the marvels described in Exodus at all? Should we on theological grounds prohibit such explanatory reference to natural phenomena? Do they diminish miracle? Are the stories of the plagues and Sinai all that historically grounded anyway? Does finding some local, on the ground connection for something like the ‘manna’ eaten by the Israelites help us to understand the passage, or hinder our appreciation for the power of God? Big questions.
    For my part, I’m a little more open to considering such connections than I think George Athas is in his post, but recognise too the need for care and caution. There is a major study brewing in my mind about tectonic/volcanic phenomena as they affect the Old Testament story broadly, but it isn’t ready to come to birth just yet! For a very recent article on this as it affects Mt. Sinai, i.e. whether it was a volcano, or whether we should even ask this question, see: Dunn, Jacob E. “A God of Volcanoes: Did Yahwism Take Root in Volcanic Ashes?,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 38/4 (2014), 387-424.

  3. I’ve reblogged this, George, with a comment about the interpretive issues involved and indicating that by default I think I’m slightly more open to such connections, without by any stretch talking about ‘proof’ as such. I do suspect that the cataclysmic events of the 1st-2nd millennia BC at times made their mark on the broader metanarrative of Israel in the OT/HB. It’s important to ask about how these events’ reports or echoes were altered in transmission, though.
    My reposting: http://firstthreequarters.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/no-connection-between-ahmoses-tempest-stela-and-the-exodus/
    See also the article just out (which I’ve not yet read): Dunn, Jacob E. “A God of Volcanoes: Did Yahwism Take Root in Volcanic Ashes?,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 38/4 (2014), 387-424.

    • Andrew, I’m with you on the potential influence in a broad way. Such catastrophic events like Thera would undoubtedly have left an indelible mark in the psyche of many and may well have provided a frame of mind for thinking about ‘earth shattering’ events—be they natural phenomena or historical processes. However, I do object to the express identification that Jacobivici makes between the narrative of Exodus and the Tempest Stela. It’s something that the authors of the article do not propose. Indeed, one can infer a tacit rejection of the idea in their article. Furthermore, Jacobovici has overstated the connections on the basis of the article. I do not see sufficient evidence at all for concluding that Ahmose was observing and commenting on the Exodus in the Tempest Stela. I think that’s moving well beyond what the evidence allows.

  4. Didn’t Josephus and Manethos write the Hyksos were Israelites? Wasn’t Joseph a co-ruler with Pharaoh and did he not gradually impoverish the Egyptians during the famine? Quite a few researchers have doubted Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt, including Sigmund Freud. This Exodus could very well be that of the Hebrew Pharaohs as far as I’m concerned.

    • That’s a slightly different issue. A number of people have proposed that the expulsion of the Hyksos is behind the Exodus narrative. That theory has been around, as you point out, for literally ages. However, this is different to arguing that the Tempest Stele is specifically recalling one of the Exodus plagues.

  5. Didn’t Manethos and Josephus write the Hyksos were Israelites? Didn’t Joseph become co-ruler with Pharaoh and systematically impoverish the Egyptians? What reason do we have to believe that Hebrews were ever slaves? Even Sigmund Freud doubted that they were slaves. Here we have evidence that 250,000 Asiatics exited Egypt. What more do we want?

    • Another 350,000 men for starters. Even if we propose that the expulsion of the Hyksos is behind the Exodus narrative, it’s not a straight identification of the two. One (Hyksos) is about a people group holding power but being conquered by natives and, therefore, forced to migrate back to their original homeland. The other (Exodus) is about masses of slaves and their deity overcoming the native king and being permitted to leave and set up a new nation. While there are common threads, they are still different notions in many ways. This is why many reject the expulsion of the Hyksos as being the event behind the Exodus narrative.

  6. No, it’s not a straight identification. But we do have a record in stone for one narrative and no evidence of victimized slaves for the other, a narrative that took about a century to formulate and canonize.

    • Actually, we don’t know how long an ancient narrative like this takes to ‘formulate’. Even so, the nature of the evidence (lots for one, less for the other) doesn’t mean one came from the other. It’s a plausible hypothesis, but that doesn’t mean it’s probable.

  7. I like that there is at least a plausible hypothesis (volcanoes, renegade monotheistic priests and all) and not just empty space anymore. The Bible is a wiki, and full of contradictions, dates all over the place, but, for me, the framework is something real and in plain sight.

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