The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit A

For his first “exhibit” in The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici presents the Ahmose “Tempest” Stela. According to Jacobovici, the Tempest Stela—not on public display anywhere, according to Jacobovici, but in storage in a Cairo museum—tells a story remarkably similar to the biblical story of the ten plagues. In Jacobovici’s view, this confirms Ahmose himself as the Pharaoh of the exodus.

The Tempest Stela (a better name than “Ahmose Stela,” because Ahmose erected more than one stela) is relatively little-known, and not all that much has been published about it. My quick scan turned up one recent article about it: Malcolm H. Wiener and James P. Allen, “Separate Lives: The Ahmose Tempest Stela and the Theran Eruption,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 57 (1998): 1–28. This “article” is really a juxtaposition of two essays, one by Allen and one by Wiener. We’ll return to Wiener’s contribution later in this series, as appropriate to the structure of The Exodus Decoded, and focus our attention first on the essay by Allen. (By the way, the fact that the essays by Wiener, of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, and Allen, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was published in JNES puts paid to Jacobovici’s assertion that scholars from different disciplines have failed to recognize the clues relevant to verifying the exodus because they “don’t talk to each other.”) Incidentally, the Tempest Stela suffered serious damage over the years, but the curious fact that the Tempest Stela contained the same inscription on both sides bolsters reconstruction efforts.

First, the props—both in the sense of “praise” and in the sense of objects used to enhance a video production. Jacobovici’s production team has done a really attractive job of reconstructing the Tempest Stele. Jacobovici’s version looks like it has some gaps in the wrong places, and is a little disproportionate (height to width), but is nevertheless a very nice-looking and near-accurate piece of work, even if the glowing amber “missing pieces” are a bit cheesy.

Reconstruction of the Tempest Stela from The Exodus Decoded Drawing of the Tempest Stela from Wiener and Allen, JNES 57 (1998)
Jacobovici’s CGI Tempest Stela Drawing of the real Tempest Stela

Unfortunately, Jacobovici’s skill in interpreting the Tempest Stela falls far short of his effects staff’s skill in visually reconstructing the stela. Recall Jacobovici’s thesis: the Tempest Stela describes the biblical ten plagues from an Egyptian point of view, and this enables him to identify Ahmose as the Pharaoh of the exodus. I see numerous problems with this thesis. My own knowledge of the stela derives mainly from Allen’s description of the stela in JNES 57; please attach an implied “according to Allen in JNES 57” to all of my statements about the stela’s condition and contents.

Does the description of the calamity in the Temple Stela really resemble the biblical description of the ten plagues? Jacobovici’s case (as far as it depends on the Tempest Stela) stands or falls with this question alone. Allen translates the description of the calamity as follows (from lines 6–10 on the face of the stela, 8–12 on the reverse):

[Then] the gods [made] the sky come in a storm of r[ain, with dark]ness in the western region and the sky beclouded without [stop, loud]er than [the sound of] the subjects, strong[er than …, howling(?)] on the hills more than the sound of the cavern in Elephantine. Then every house and every habitation they reached [perished and those in them died, their corpses] floating on the water like skiffs of papyrus, (even) in the doorway and the private apartments (of the palace), for a period of up to […] days, while no torch could give light over the Two Lands.

Allen comments on the nature of the tempest:

The main features of the storm were apparently torrential rain; darkness; and loud noise, probably from the thunder or wind, or both. The text does not note the duration of the deluge, but its aftermath is described as lasting for a period of several days or even weeks. It evidently occasioned large-scale flooding, property damage, and loss of life; the mention of “the east and west (banks)” being denuded of “covering” [in later lines than those quoted above—RCH] suggests that it also washed away large sections of cropland.

The Tempest Stele of Ahmose, then, describes a massive thunderstorm that results in darkness (from the cloud cover, I suppose) and a flood that does not abate for several days, or even weeks. How closely does this resemble the biblical description of the ten plagues? The plagues do indeed feature some meteorological phenomena; in particular, the fourth seventh plague consists of hail, lightning, thunder, and rain, and the ninth plague, darkness, may have been meteorological (I think the “tangible darkness” of Exodus 10:22 is meant to evoke thoughts of a terribly thick sandstorm; note that the third and sixth plagues also involve airborne particulate matter, dust and soot). Overtly meteorological phenomena play no role in the other eight (or nine) plagues, taking them outside the range of problems described on the Tempest Stela. Conversely, the Tempest Stele says nothing about water turning to blood (the first plague), swarms of frogs (second plague), gnats (or mosquitoes, third plague), flies (fourth plague), or locusts (eighth plague). The stela’s author (Ahmose’s scribe) says nothing about any diseases on livestock (fifth plague) or humans (sixth plague). Corpses do indeed floating around in the Tempest Stela’s text, but nothing in the stela’s text claims or even hints that these are limited to the firstborn (tenth plague), nor was the cause of their death mysterious—they died in the storm, or drowned in the subsequent flood. Note well that the biblical story says nothing about any flood in connection with the ten plagues, not even the plague of hail, and the Tempest Stela does not mention hail in connection with its own thunderstorm.

Jacobovici claims that Ahmose’s Tempest Stela reports, from an Egyptian perspective, the same events as the biblical ten plagues story, but this claim hangs by the slimmest of threads. The Tempest Stela’s catastrophe could, at most, appear vaguely parallel to the plagues of hail and darkness, but even here enough significant differences arise to cast serious doubt on the suggested parallel. To try to connect the Tempest Stela with the ten plagues story as a whole, one must suppose either that the Tempest Stela (whose inscription dates within Ahmose’s twenty-five-year reign, as does the catastrophe itself) presents an exaggerated version of only one of ten catastrophes, or perhaps a mangled conflation of two of them, or that the biblical version (whose linguistic properties reflect an era hundreds of years later than any proposed time frame for the exodus) presents a vastly expanded list of plagues based on a single, albeit devastating, thunderstorm. Neither of these scenarios, though, matches Jacobovici’s proposal. It boils down to this: the story of a devastating thunderstorm just isn’t the same as the story of the ten plagues, and therefore one cannot draw a compelling link between the text of Ahmose’s Tempest Stela and the biblical story of the exodus.

Even though the foregoing analysis should suffice to debunk any but the vaguest of connections between the Temple Stela and the biblical plagues story, I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t address one other issue. Jacobovici seems unduly impressed by a line in the Tempest Stele that refers to “god” in the singular, rather than “gods” in the plural. The exact phrase that seems to have caught Jacobovici’s attention appears in line 10, “Then His Incarnation said: ‘How much greater is this than the impressive manifestation of the great god, than the plans of the gods!’” (Allen’s translation) Jacobovici seems to want to interpret this as Ahmose attributing the catastrophe to “the great god”—singular—over against the “gods”—plural—of Egypt. But Jacobovici misreads the text. Line 6 (above) makes it clear that Ahmose attributes the storm to “the gods”—plural. Moreover, carefully reread the line just quoted. It reads, “How much greater is this than the impressive manifestation of the great god, than the plans of the gods!” The “impressive manifestation of the great god” (singular) and “the plans of the gods” (plural) go hand in hand. Moreover, another candidate for the title “great god” lies closer to (Ahmose’s) home than the Israelite’s deity. As Allen explains,

The key to the meaning of this clause appears to lie in the parallel theme of “the great god,” on the one hand, and “the gods,” on the other, which is sounded throughout the stela. Ahmose’s explicit response to the storm—”How much greater is this than the impressive manifestation of the great god, than the plans of the gods!” (ll. 10 F, 14 B)—indicates that both “the great god” and “the gods” were considered agents of its occurrence. The description of his subsequent actions follows the same pattern: first he returns to Amun’s presence in Thebes, then—following measures taken for the relief of the country—he orders restoration of “the templest that had fallen to ruin in this entire land.” The pair of clauses in ll. 6 F and 14 B are probably to be understood in the same light: as parallel statements of the theological basis for the storm. In the mind of the Egyptians, the catastrophe was evidently seen as a manifestation of Amun’s desire that Ahmose return to Thebes and of the gods’ demand that he turn his attention to the state of their temples.

Ahmose wasn’t referring to Israel’s God when he marveled at the severity of the storm. To Ahomse, “the great god” was Amun, explicitly mentioned in line 3 of the inscription, if Allen’s reconstruction (following W. Helck, Historische-biographische Texte der 2. Zwischenzeit und neue Texte der 18. Dynastie, 1975) of “A[mun-Re, lord of thrones of the Two Lands] was in Thebes” is correct. Notice again that Ahmose says that the storm’s severity exceed the manifestation of the great god (Amun). Allen comments,

Unusual as it is, the notion of events exceeding the original intent of their divine author has a literary parallel of sorts in the story known as “The Destruction of Mankind,” which describes the sungod’s efforts to stop the slaughter of human beings begun by Hathor on his orders.

In other words, Ahmose doesn’t react in surprise to some great god from out of nowhere (from his point of view, of course) who impressed him more than his own gods. Rather, he seems to think that the catastrophe overran the original divine plan launched by Amun and the other gods. (By the way, the Bible knows of similar themes; see Isaiah 10:5–11.)

In sum, Jacobovici’s thesis of a parallel between the Tempest Stela and the biblical story of the ten plagues doesn’t hold water. Only a willful blurring of vision, or very careless interpretation of the surface sense of both texts, can lead anywhere near such a conclusion.