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The Discovery Channel on the Exodus: A Review of “Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?”

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The Discovery Channel on the Exodus: A Review of “Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?”

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The Discovery Channel documentary entitled Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? challenges the historical accuracy of the biblical account of the plagues that led up to the Exodus. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the program focuses on the work of Kent Weeks, an American archaeologist who in 1995 rediscovered KV5, the largest of the “lost tombs” in the Valley of the Kings (near Thebes). In one of the tomb’s many chambers, he found a broken inscription with the words “Amun-her.” A few days later, he found a skull in the chamber. Weeks observed that the shape of the skull matched those he had seen on other pharaohs. He concluded that the skull belonged to Amun-her-khepeshef, the firstborn son of Rameses II (also called Rameses the Great). He had the skull examined by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, a scientist at Manchester University specializing in craniometrics. Wilkinson concluded that the skull was similar enough to the face of Rameses II (already discovered in mummified form and kept at the Cairo Museum) to support the identification of the skull as that of his firstborn son.

Many biblical scholars identify Rameses II as the “Pharaoh of the Exodus.” If this identification is correct, and if the skull that Weeks found was that of the firstborn son of Rameses II, then the skull belongs to someone whom the book of Exodus says was struck down by the tenth plague (Ex. 11:5; 12:12, 29). However, in a kind of ultimate “Cold Case,” Weeks and the Discovery Channel documentary suggest that the son of Rameses II was killed by human hands—possibly in battle. The skull has a fracture on the left side consistent with the victim having sustained a blow to the head. The conclusion: the firstborn son of the Pharaoh did not die in a plague, as Exodus states, but was killed by another human being. The documentary serves up the speculation that Moses was really an Egyptian prince who led a revolt inspired by the “monotheism” of an earlier Pharaoh named Akhenaton. Instead of a miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites entered into a marshy “Sea of Reeds” near the Nile Delta, where they ambushed the Egyptian chariots and killed the Egyptian soldiers—including Amun-her-khepeshef, who as the firstborn son of Rameses II would have been the commander-in-chief of the army. The documentary even imagines Moses himself killing the firstborn son of Rameses in this Battle at the Sea of Reeds!

Is the Skull that of the Firstborn of Rameses?

The reasoning leading to this conclusion is, however, riddled with supposition and error. KV5 has over 140 chambers serving as burial chambers for some twenty sons of Rameses II (who had more than a hundred children by perhaps as many wives!). The skull in question is one of four discovered in the same burial pit in Chamber 2. The craniometric analysis, taken at face value, at most could identify the skull as belonging to a relative of Rameses II; it cannot determine that it belonged to the firstborn son. (Indeed, the craniometric data was not nearly as encouraging as Weeks might have hoped. Wilkinson noted in her report that the skull showed a much shorter face, particularly below the mouth line, than the mummified face identified as Rameses II.) The basis for identifying the skull as coming from Amun-her-khepeshef, the firstborn son, is the fact that at the entrance to the chamber there is a relief that Weeks says pictures Rameses II leading his firstborn to the afterlife. But his conclusion depends on the accuracy of this interpretation of the relief and the assumption that he has picked the correct skull out of the four that he found in the pit. Indeed, one might wonder if Rameses would not have reserved a burial chamber (particularly in such a large labyrinth of a tomb) exclusively for his firstborn son. Likewise, the discovery of an inscription inside the chamber with the words “Amun-her” does not help identify which of the skulls belonged to Amun-her-khepeshef. Thus, the claim that the skull belonged to the firstborn son of Rameses II is far from certain. Even if Weeks had been permitted to perform DNA testing on the skulls and even if such testing could have verified the “paternity” of Rameses II, it would not have been able to prove to which of his many sons the skull in question belonged.

How Did the Victim Die?

The forensic evidence regarding the cause of death for the victim to whom the skull in question belonged is really inconclusive. The most that Wilkinson’s forensics consultant could determine was that the blow to the head was probably sustained about the time of death. (The documentary is clear on why it could not have occurred long before the time of death, since the skull showed no signs of healing. It gave no explanation for ruling out a postmortem blow to the head or skull.) The documentary acknowledges at least three scenarios to explain the fatal injury: the victim was murdered (possibly in a bit of palace intrigue), killed in battle, or suffered the blow to the head from a fall or other injury while riding in a chariot. (They found no evidence of drowning, so that militates against death during the chase across the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds.) Further precision as to the activity that led to the man’s death is probably unattainable.

We should note that the documentary makes much of the fact that the skull belonged to a man in his 30s, not to a child, as the Pharaoh’s firstborn son is typically imagined. However, this is really irrelevant. Exodus says absolutely nothing about the age of Pharaoh’s firstborn son. He might have been three or thirty; the text gives no indication either way. We also know nothing of the age of Pharaoh at the time. A lot of people confuse the Pharaoh of the Exodus with the Pharaoh of Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments (though in all fairness, DeMille got a lot more right than the Discovery Channel).

Was Rameses the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

Another, more vexed problem is the question of whether Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Kent Weeks assumes that he was, and he is hardly alone. Many scholars over the years have inferred that Rameses II was that pharaoh based on Exodus 1:11, which states that the Israelite slaves built cities for Pharaoh, “Pithom and Raamses.” However, there are some serious difficulties with identifying Rameses II as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

For one thing, Rameses II apparently lived and ruled as Pharaoh a couple of centuries too late. 1 Kings 6:1 reports that Solomon began work on the temple 480 years after the Exodus. Even assuming that this is a round number, it would date the Exodus to the 1400s BC, whereas Rameses II, according to the usual chronology, ruled in the 1200s BC. Some biblical scholars, including conservatives like Kenneth A. Kitchen (shown briefly a few times in the documentary) and James Hoffmeier, think the 480 years represent twelve generations (treating them as 12 multiples of 40 years) and that twelve generations might have covered a period closer to 300 years. If this explanation is accepted, it is possible to reconcile 1 Kings 6:1 with identifying Ramses II as the Pharaoh. Other scholars, though, doubt that a biblical writer would have said 480 years if what he meant was something like 300 years. Moreover, in Judges11:26, Jephthah states thatIsraelhad been living in the land for 300 years. Since on almost any plausible reading of the Old Testament Jephthah would have predated Solomon by at least a century, Judges 11:26 coheres well with the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1. One need not (and probably should not) treat these numbers as exact, but on balance it seems unlikely that the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 can be translated into 300 actual years.

There are other problems, beyond these bare chronological references, for a thirteenth-century date for the Exodus. According to Egyptologists, Rameses II ruled for 66 or 67 years, had (as we mentioned) something like a hundred children, and by all accounts enjoyed a long, prosperous, militarily successful reign—and then died peacefully in his old age. It is difficult if not impossible to square this picture with the biblical account of an Egypt devastated by several disastrous plagues and the destruction of its army. The issue here is not the lack of any acknowledgment of the devastation in Egyptian records. Even assuming Rameses II would have tried to cover up a defeat, the plagues recorded in Exodus would have crippled the Egyptian economy and political base for a generation. Yet Egypt flourished under Rameses and after him as well.

Within a few years of the death of Rameses II, his successor Merneptah had a stele (monument) erected commemorating one of his military campaigns and mentioning “Israel” as one of the peoples he fought in Canaan. Conventional chronology dates the death of Rameses II in about 1213 BC and the Merneptah Stele to about 1208 BC. This does not leave much time for Israel to have become an identifiable people in the land of Canaan following their exodus from Egypt, even assuming that the Israelites left Egypt some unknown number of years prior to Rameses’ death.

Furthermore, if one assumes that the Exodus took place in the 1200s, it becomes very difficult to reconcile the conquest of the land described in the book of Joshua with the archaeological record. Archaeologists have found evidence of the destruction of whole cities in the land of Canaan, including Jericho, but date these events to centuries earlier than the time of Rameses II. There is something suspicious about redating the Exodus and Conquest and then announcing that there is no archaeological evidence in their newly designated time frame to support them!

The main biblical evidence for dating the Exodus to the time of Rameses II is the reference to Israelites building the city of Ramesesin Exodus 1:11. However, the name Rameses was in use long before the two pharaohs that bore that name (its stem is the name of the ever-popular Egyptian god Ra), and it is possible that the city in an earlier form had the name before the pharaohs. It is also possible that later scribes or editors of the book of Exodus used the more familiar name Rameses in place of the city’s name at the actual time of the Exodus (akin to someone referring to the founding of “New York” when at the time the city was called New Amsterdam).

A variety of theories are actually on the table to correlate the Exodus with the history of ancient Egypt. Some scholars have proposed a moderate recalibration of Egyptian chronology with the archaeological data that would allow a date for the Exodus in the 1400s or even a bit earlier. A few scholars, such as the Italian archaeologist Emmanuel Anati, have proposed that the standard Egyptian chronology is several centuries off and that the Exodus actually took place toward the end of theOld Kingdom. Egyptologists generally date the end of the Old Kingdom to roughly 2000 BC, but on this revisionist theory that date should be moved to around 1500-1400 BC. If this theory is correct, the end of the Old Kingdom may have been precipitated by the Exodus. Archaeologists actually have found some Egyptian texts, such as the Admonitions of Ipuwer, that report ecological disasters dating to that period that match the biblical account of the plagues.

Admittedly, most Old Testament scholars, including evangelicals, presently work with the conventional chronology of Egypt. Yet severe problems remain, and alternative theories deserve to be given more serious consideration. Clearly, there is room for further light to be shed on the issue. In the meantime, it is debatable that the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Rameses has been established as fact.

Debunking the Debunking 

Woven into the Discovery Channel documentary are a number of claims that appear to discredit the biblical account. Ironically, some of these claims are based on supposedly superior readings of the biblical account. A good example is the point made that the Hebrew name for the body of water miraculously parted to allow the Israelites to escape was actually “Sea of Reeds,” not “Red Sea.” From this premise (which is factually correct as far as it goes) the documentary jumps first to the conclusion that the Sea of Reeds was merely a marshy section of land outside the Nile Delta, and from there jumps again to the conclusion that the “miracle” was a later mythical retelling of a battle in which the Israelites ambushed and slaughtered the Egyptian charioteers. However, both the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) and the New Testament translate the Hebrew name as “Red Sea” (see Acts 7:36; Heb.11:29). 1 Kings 9:26 locates the “Sea of Reeds” along Edom, implying that it is the Gulf of Aqaba—one of the two thin gulfs at the north end of the Red Sea. So the crossing would have required some sort of dramatic phenomenon, whether overtly supernatural or amazingly providential. Of course, the speculation that the Sea of Reeds was really the site of an ambush of Pharaoh’s chariots by the plucky Israelite rebels is just that—imaginative speculation, not historically grounded in any fact or report.

The theory that the tenth plague was a later “metaphor” introduced by the biblical writers to express their belief that the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn son in the Battle at the Sea of Reeds was a divine judgment has another, rather large inconvenient fact in its way. Scientists have determined that the first nine plagues almost certainly happened just as the Bible describes. For almost fifty years now, scientists have recognized that a lethal pollution of the Nile would have led to other disastrous events one after another in a cascade effect. The pollution of the river would have forced sick frogs ashore, leading to swarms of insects, death of livestock, and the affliction of boils. Moreover, the book of Exodus gets the order of these plagues correct and even places them in the right seasons. For example, the severe hailstorm would have been most likely to occur in late winter, and the thick darkness was probably the result of a severe sandstorm, such as still occurs in Egypt in the early spring. The documentary touches on this scenario, presumably because its creators view it as disproving any miracle, yet failing to recognize that it substantiates the historical accuracy of the Exodus account. It is no longer credible to claim that the Exodus narrative originated in Canaan centuries after Moses. And if the first nine plagues are historically accurate, it is unreasonable to deny the historicity of the tenth plague.

Finally, the documentary’s speculation that Moses was an Egyptian prince who picked up monotheism from the remnants of the Egyptian “heresy” of Akhenaton is baseless. It depends, clearly, on the assumption that Moses lived after Akhenaton; but if one accepts the biblical indications as to when the Exodus took place, then Moses would have lived some time before Akhenaton. Furthermore, the religion of Akhenaton was essentially monolatry (worship of one deity), not genuine monotheism (belief in one transcendent Creator God). The fact is that the “one god” of Akhenaton was the sun (“Aton” was the name of the sun god). The documentary portrays Moses as a young man, zealously worshiping the sun, chanting “Aton! Aton!” Yet there is no evidence that the Israelites ever regarded the sun as the God of Moses. Thus, even if it turns out that Moses lived after Akhenaton, it is extremely unlikely that he derived his monotheism from that form of Egyptian sun-worship.

Here and there in the documentary, a couple of evangelicals—Kitchen and the British theologian Alister McGrath—are given out-of-context soundbites. In some instances, these soundbites make it appear that Kitchen and McGrath support the revisionist theories being presented. They do not, although Kitchen is well known for his support of the late date of the Exodus. Unfortunately, one might have expected that they would be misused in this way. Evangelical scholars need to be very cautious about agreeing to appear in such documentaries. The “face time” on the Discovery Channel may not be worth it.


Resources on Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?

Byers, Gary. “Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?” Associates for Biblical Research, May 3, 2005. Good review of the documentary.

Pollack, Tom, director. Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? DVD. Discovery Channel, 2005. DVD of the documentary that aired in 2004.

Pharaoh’s Firstborn, Proof of the Plagues?” An interview with James Hoffmeier by Rob Moll. Christianity Today, posted Nov. 1, 2004.

Sennott, Charles M. “Tomb may shed light on 10th plague.” Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 2004. Article by the journalist featured alongside Weeks throughout the Discovery Channel documentary.

Recommended Books on the Exodus and the Old Testament

Anati, Emmanuel.  The Mountain of God. New York: Rizzoli, 1986.  Sinai archaeologist argues that the Exodus and Sinai journey did take place, but earlier in the archaeological record than conventionally thought.

Arnold, Bill T., and Richard S. Hess. Ancient Israel's History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. Good, recent study of the reliability of Old Testament history.

Hitching, Francis.  The Mysterious World: An Atlas of the Unexplained. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979. Surprising source with a chapter explaining the Exodus problem and arguing for something along the lines of theOld Kingdom proposal.

Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1997. Best defense of the 13th-century BC date of the Exodus; useful whatever date one prefers.

Humphreys, Colin J. The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 2003. Some of his explanations are far-fetched, but overall, Humphreys tends to confirm the historical accuracy of the Exodus account.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Culmination of a lifetime of research by this evangelical Old Testament scholar; also favors the 13th-century BC date of the Exodus.

Provan, Iaian, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III. A Biblical History of Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Judicious, cautious assessment by evangelical scholars of the contemporary scholarly debates over the historical accuracy of the Old Testament.

Rohl, David M.  Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest.  New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.  Elsewhere entitled A Test of Time: The Bible from Myth to History.  Detailed, scholarly defense of the early date for the Exodus, with numerous photographs, maps, charts.