The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit B1


Photo from G. Elliot Smith, Catalogue of the Museum of Cairo: Royal Mummies, 1912, plate XII. Now in the public domain due to age; obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

As Exhibit B in The Exodus Decoded, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici presents the embalmed corpse of Ahmose, whom Jacobovici regards as the pharaoh of the exodus. Obviously, Ahmose’s corpse does not in itself provide any link whatsoever to biblical events, or to any historical events at all, for that matter. It’s just a dead body, though remarkably well-preserved by Egyptian mummification techniques. Watching on, the viewer soon learns that the mummy really stands in metonymically for two other factors, the name “Ahmose” itself and the connection between Ahmose I and the Hyksos. In this article, I’ll address only the name factor, saving the Hyksos connection for a separate article (“The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit B2″).

Jacobovici seems to put great store by the very name “Ahmose,” but he burdens the name with far more freight than it can bear. His voiceover declares:

Here is the man who confronted Moses. Can it be that Ahmose’s father remembered the Israelite prince he grew up with, and when he gave his son his Egyptian name “Ahmose,” “the moon is born,” he chose the name because of a play on words? In Hebrew, “Ahmose” means “the brother of Moses.”

The suggestion that Ahmose’s name might be a play on Moses’s name falters on several counts.

In the first place, the “play” works only by piping the Egyptian name through English and then into Hebrew. I am not skilled in reading hieroglyphics, and I am therefore dependent on others’ expertise in this matter, but according the Audio Pronunciation Guide for The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (a college world history textbook by Richard W. Bulliet et al., published by Houghton Mifflin) and several dictionaries that I consulted, one properly pronounces this pharaoh’s name as ah-mohs, not akh-moh-se, as Jacobovici consistently pronounces it in The Exodus Decoded. Jacobovici seems to have taken the English spelling Ahmose, “transliterated” it into the Hebrew spelling אַחְמֹשֶׁה, and then proposed an ancient Egyptian word play based on his own mispronunciation of the pharaoh’s name. Obviously, such a roundabout procedure instills minimal confidence at best.

Ahmose's family tree

Ahmose’s family tree, based on data from Michael Rice, Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt (London: Routledge, 1999) and Aidan Dotson and Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2010).

Second, Jacobovici asks, “Can it be that Ahmose’s father remembered the Israelite prince he grew up with …?” The question implies that Ahmose’s father grew up with an “Israelite prince,” such that Moses essentially becomes Ahmose’s adopted uncle, named “brother of Moses” by the man who was Moses’s adoptive brother. This speculation seems prima facie implausible. Why would a man named X, with a brother named Y, name his own son “brother of Y,” when in fact X himself, not X’s son, stood as Y’s brother? But prima facie appearances can often mislead; we need data, not just impressionistic reactions. And as it turns out, the data show that this particular Pharaonic family harbored a particular fondness for the name “Ahmose.” (The name spellings and regnal dates given here follow Michael Rice, Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt [London: Routledge, 1999], except for the name of Senaktenre Ahmose, whose name (previously thought to be Senaktenre Tao) has been clarified by archaeological work done since the original airing of The Exodus Decoded and the original posting of this (now revised) essay, and Ahmose-Inhapi and Ahmose-Henuttamehu, who don’t appear in Who’s Who but can be discovered via Aidan Dotson and Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [London: Thames and Hudson, 2010].) To make the following discussion just a tad clearer, I will refer to the Ahmose of The Exodus Decoded as “Ahmose I,” using the conventional Roman numeral designation. Ahmose I’s grandfather himself bore the name Senaktenre Ahmose. Senaktenre Ahmose’s son, Seqenenre Tao, married at least two of his sisters, one named Ahhotep and another named Ahmose-Inhapi. Ahmose-Inhapi bore Seqenenre at least one daughter, whom they named Ahmose-Henuttamehu, meaning that Ahmose I had both an aunt and a cousin/half-sister named Ahmose. Ahmose I had an older brother named Kamose; Kamose also either a sister or daughter named Ahmose-Nefertiry, whom Ahmose I married. Ahmose I himself named one of his sons Ahmose-Ankh and two of his daughters Ahmose-Meritamun and Ahmose-Sitamun. Ahmose-Meritamun married her brother Amenhotep; they had no sons, but apparently did have a daughter named Ahmose, whose husband became the pharaoh we know as Thutmose I. Clearly, the family had an affinity for the -mose element and specifically for the name “Ahmose.” The fact that members of this family gave the name “Ahmose”—which means “moon’s child”—to both sons and daughters seriously undermines Jacobovici’s proposed pun on “Moses’s brother.” Family tradition (though hardly exclusive to this family), not any imagined connection to the biblical Moses, best accounts for Ahmose I’s name.

Moses's adoptive family tree in the book of Exodus

Schematic representation of Moses’s adoptive family tree in the book of Exodus

Third, the generations of this family don’t comport well with the details that the book of Exodus gives about Moses’s life. Let’s use the label “Pharaoh A” for the pharaoh reigning at the time of Moses’s discovery in the river, and then let’s use “Pharoah B,” “Pharaoh C,” and “Pharaoh D” for the next three generations of pharaohs. Remember, Jacobovici posits that Ahmose I’s father grew up as Moses’s adoptive brother. In order to satisfy Jacobovici’s thesis, then, Ahmose I must actually be Moses’s nephew, Pharaoh D. Ahmose I’s father, Seqenenre Tao, would then be Pharaoh C, growing up as Moses’s brother. Ahmose I’s grandfather, Senaktenre Ahmose, would be Pharaoh B, a brother or half-brother to Moses’s adoptive mother, both of them children of Pharaoh A. Students of Egyptian history know very well, however, that Senaktenre Ahmose famously married Tetisheri, a woman who did not have a royal pedigree.

Fourth, the time frame presents some problems for Jacobovici’s thesis, although not insurmountable problems. The dates that I use here follow the conventional Egyptian chronology, meaning that the specific years could engender debate but the elapsed time cannot fluctuate more than a couple of years. According to Exodus 2:2, custody of Moses passed to the pharaoh’s daughter when Moses was three months old. According to Exodus 7:7, Moses returned to liberate the Hebrew slaves when he was eighty years old. Unfortunately for those of us interested in such details, the biblical narrator doesn’t Moses’s age at the time of the taskmaster incident in Exodus 2:11–15. Whether one takes the “eighty years” of Exodus 7:7 as literal counted years or a schematic number representing two generations depends on a number of factors related to biblical interpretation; for purposes of this analysis, I’ll hold both approaches in view. Sticking with the labels used in the previous paragraph, remember that Jacobovici’s reconstruction puts Ahmose I, the putative pharaoh of the exodus, in the slot labeled Pharaoh D, and Moses would have been drawn from the Nile by Pharaoh A’s daughter. If we take a literal approach to the eighty-year figure in Exodus 7:7, then Pharaoh A’s reign should include some part of the years 1630–1605 BC. However, that range lies several decades too early for Senaktenre Ahmose’s reign. If we instead take a schematic approach to the “eighty years” of Exodus 7:7, we can consider the reference to “eighty years” a very fuzzy figure meant to indicate two “generations,” but then the figure pretty much loses any mathematical usefulness that we might have thought it had. We can’t just arbitrarily replace the biblical “forty years per generation” with our own figure; we might think this gives us greater verisimilitude, but it really just replaces an ancient arbitrary number with a modern arbitrary number. We can argue that the eighty years that pass from Exodus 2:2 to Exodus 7:7 have been unrealistically exaggerated, but we don’t have any basis on which to offer a replacement figure that we can use mathematically. Nor may we equate one of these “generations” with a regnal change, for Ahmose I’s three predecessors (one of whom, his brother, belongs to Ahmose I’s “generation”) reigned for a total of twenty years or fewer, a period shorter than Ahmose I’s own reign. In sum, if Exodus 1–7 tell an historically accurate story about Moses’s life, then Ahmose I cannot have been the pharaoh of the exodus; changing the eighty-year figure in Exodus 7:7 to some other figure but keeping the rest of the details the same is special pleading, a merely arbitrary rewriting of selected details to make the theory fit the data.

On multiple counts, then, Jacobovici’s attempt to coordinate Egyptian history with the biblical exodus story by means of Ahmose I’s family history falls apart. Jacobovici also tries to coordinate Egyptian history with the biblical exodus by means of Ahmose I’s political history, but I’ll save that topic for a different article.