Photograph by Pantheon Studios, Inc.
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In his 19th century painting, Lourens Alma-Tadema depicts the Pharaoh after losing his firstborn son to the final plague described in Exodus.

Photograph by Pantheon Studios, Inc.

We may now know which Egyptian pharaoh challenged Moses

Historians theorize the identity behind one of the Bible’s most vengeful villains.

National Geographic explores notable biblical figures in our ongoing series People in the Bible, as part of our coverage of the history of the Bible and the search for sacred texts.

The Egyptian king is the principal villain of the Exodus story. Unlike the pha­raoh who knew Joseph, the pharaoh of Moses is cruel and vindictive. When Moses asks him to release the Israelites, Pharaoh makes the slaves work harder, depriving them of straw to make sun-dried mud bricks, even though the daily quota of finished bricks must remain the same (Exodus 5:7-8).

The History of the Bible, Animated Time travel in this animation through the history of the Bible. Made with clay, wire, and recycled paper, the characters come to life in frame-by-frame motion.

The identity of Pharaoh in the Moses story has been much debated, but many scholars are inclined to accept that Exodus has King Ramses II in mind. The Bible confirms that the Israelites were to build “supply cities, Pithom and Ramses, for Pharaoh.” Egyptian records confirm that the kings of the 19th dynasty (ca 1293–1185 B.C.E.) launched a major mili­tary program in the Levant. As part of this effort, King Seti I (ca 1290–1279 B.C.E.) built a new garri­son city, which his successor, Ramses II (ca 1279– 1213 B.C.E.), later called Pi-Ramesses. Ramses II also built a second city dedicated to his personal patron, Atum, called Per Atum. These two cities are quite possibly the biblical Ramses and Pithom.

The Egyptian origin of the story is also empha­sized by the name of “Moses.” The Book of Exodus says that his name is derived from the Hebrew verb moshe, which means “to draw out.” However, mose or moses is also a very common Egyptian patronymic, as in Tutmoses, meaning “son of Tut.”

Finally, the very first reference to “Israel” appears on the Victory Stela of Pharaoh Merneptah, one of Ramses’ sons. This monument is dated around 1207 B.C.E., which suggests that the Exodus story must be set in a time period prior to the reign of Merneptah, possibly between 1280 and 1220 B.C.E. No record of the exodus has been found in any Egyptian tablets, but that is not unusual; the new dynasty did not make a habit of recording its defeats. On the other hand, there are ample records of Semitic immigrant workers in Egypt, who may have drifted back to Syria-Canaan in the 13th century for a variety of reasons—including, perhaps, Ramses’ harsh poli­cies of conscripting labor.

Entries in this series are excerpts from the National Geographic special issue 50 Most Influential Figures of the Bible, which was adapted from Who's Who in the Bible: Unforgettable People and Timeless Stories from Genesis to Revelation, published by National Geographic Books.