The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit F2

The first third of The Exodus Decoded is devoted to establishing—quite unsuccessfully—1500 BC as the common date for the catastrophe commemorated in Ahmose’s Tempest Stela, the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt, the Israelite exodus from Egypt (remember that filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici claims that the Hyksos expulsion and the Israelite exodus are the same thing, even though this requires that part of this group wields power in Avaris while part of this group works as slaves at Serabit el-Khadim), and the eruption of the Santorini (Thera) volcano. Mashing all of these items together strains credulity, as do some of Jacobovici’s specific interpretations of the data, especially his cavalier treatment of consensus dates (like his audacious redating of the Beni Hasan wall paintings from c. 1890 BC to c. 1700 BC).

As the second half-hour of The Exodus Decoded begins, James Cameron reappears on camera to tell viewers that they are about to learn “the science underlying the biblical story.” Exit Cameron; enter Jacobovici, who claims that “Until now, no one has come up with a comprehensive scientific explanation for all ten plagues.” Take that, producers of Rameses: Wrath of God or Man! Take that, Discovery Channel! The really important question, though, is not whether Jacobovici got there first, but whether Jacobovici’s explanation succeeds. By the way, I’m not going to take time here to get into the metaphysical and theological question of whether looking for a scientific explanation for miraculous events is a good idea. This is the project that Jacobovici undertakes, and my question isn’t whether it should be undertaken at all. I’m asking a more specific question: whether Jacobovici’s attempt succeeds.

You’ve undoubtedly already anticipated that Jacobovici’s scientific explanation of the ten plagues will somehow involve the Santorini volcano. However, Jacobovici still needs to forge one intermediate link. Claiming an “amazing synchronicity” between the Ahmose Tempest Stela and the Bible, Jacobovici explains:

  1. “The Bible says that the God of Israel passed judgment on the gods of Egypt.”
  2. “And the stela confirms that the statues of the gods of Egypt were toppled to the ground.”
  3. “Earthquakes are known to accompany volcanic eruptions like Santorini.”
  4. Therefore, “[i]t seems that the stela and the Bible are describing the results of an earthquake, or more precisely, what scientists now call an ‘earthquake storm.’”

The numbered sentences come directly from Jacobovici in The Exodus Decoded. Jacobovici states them in precisely this sequence; I have not left anything out. This is the entirety of the “argument” that Jacobovici presents in favor of his thesis that earthquake activity links the Santorini eruption to the biblical plagues. I have broken Jacobovici’s paragraph into numbered sentences just for clarity and ease of reference in the rest of this post.

Relief carving of the Egyptian god Bes, from Dendera

Relief carving of the Egyptian god Bes, from Dendera (photo by Wikimedia Commons contributor Hajor, used under a Creative Commons license)

Claim 1 is based on Exodus 12:12, where God is quoted as telling Moses, “On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments; I am Yahweh.” Coordinating claim 1 with claim 2, though, is quite problematic. Jacobovici implies that “passing judgment” on the Egyptian gods involved knocking down their statues. While readers familiar with the story in 1 Samuel 5 might think this a reasonable interpretation, nothing in the actual biblical story of the exodus (Exodus 1–15) would lead us in this direction. In fact, the line I just quoted is the only place in the entire exodus story where the Egyptian gods are mentioned, and nothing is said there of their statues. The word “idol” (a statue of a god) doesn’t appear at all in the biblical exodus story, and only appears twice in the whole book of Exodus (in the Decalogue or Ten Commandments and the Ritual Decalogue or “Second” Ten Commandments). Since the exodus story does not even mention the statues of the gods—unless you assume that the very mention of “gods” must refer to their statues, which is an invalid and unsustainable assumption—it is hard to believe that the biblical narrator meant to say that God was planning to knock over the statues of the Egyptian gods. In fact, the biblical narrator states precisely how God was planning to execute judgments on the gods of Egypt. The full quotation from Exodus 12:12 reads, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh.” The death of the firstborn is the judgment on the gods of Egypt. There’s nothing here about the toppling of statues. Similarly, with regard to claim 4, the exodus story says nothing about an earthquake being associated with the plagues. The “amazing synchronicity” disappears when the actual biblical account is considered, rather than Jacobovici’s revised version.

Claim 2 sends us back to Ahmose’s Tempest Stela. According to Jacobovici, the Tempest Stela says that the statues of the gods “were toppled to the ground.” In fact, the Tempest Stela does focus its attention on Ahmose’s restoration of temples that have been damaged in some way, and that damage includes fallen statues. That’s entirely clear, and to that extent Jacobovici seems on track. But Jacobovici goes off track by failing to realize that, according to the Tempest Stela, the catastrophe itself was at most an effect of the damage to the temples—because the gods “were asking for all their cult-services” (Tempest Stela, line 6 front // line 8 back)—not the cause of that damage. Also, consider James Allen’s arguments (from 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) for dating the Tempest Stela to the first year of Ahmose’s reign. If Allen is right (and his reasons are indeed sound), Ahmose inherited rulership over these damaged temples. Moreover, since the Hyksos expulsion occurred no earlier than the fourth year of Ahmose’s reign, and possibly as late as his sixteenth year according to some Egyptologists, the damage to the temples would be more than half a decade in the past at that time. Once again, the dates just don’t line up, not even in a relative sequence. If the plagues happened at the time of the Hyksos expulsion, as Jacobovici posits, then they happened some five to 15 years after Ahmose begain repairing the pre-existing damage to the temples mentioned.

Leaving aside for a moment the chronological problems, we should look at the confluence of claims 2 and 4 ask whether the Tempest Stela attributes the toppling of idols to an earthquake. As translated by Allen, the relevant section of the Tempest Stela—lines 14–18 on the front and lines 16–21 on the back—reads as follows (note that “His Incarnation” is Ahmose):

What His Incarnation did was to rest in the palace, Iph. Then one was reminding His Incarnation of the entering of the sacred estates, the dismantling of tombs, the hacking up of mortuary enclosures, and the toppling of pyramids—how what had never been done (before) had been done. Then His Incarnation commanded to make firm the temples that had fallen to ruin in this entire land; to make functional the monuments of the gods, to erect their enclosure walls, to put the sacred things in the special room, to hide the secret places, to cause the processional images that were fallen to the ground to enter their shrines, to set up the braziers, to erect the altars and fix their offering-loaves, to double the income of office-holders—to put the land like its original situation. Then it was done like everything that His Incarnation commanded to do.

Readers should notice several important things about this text. First, Ahmose has to be “reminded” of the architectural damage, hardly the situation one would expect if the damage were caused by a major (super)natural catastrophe like an earthquake that Ahomse himself experienced. Second, and much more important, the inscription actually makes it clear that tomb robbing, vandalism, and neglect were the causes of the damage to the sacred estates, tombs, mortuary enclosures, pyramids, and monuments of the gods. With regard to the line about the “hacking up of mortuary enclosures,” Allen writes that the verb “is regularly used for the willful destruction of buildings or lands” (15). Allen interprets the lines quoted above to the effect that tombs had been vandalized and temples had been neglected.

Ahmose Stela drawing by J. Allen

Ahmose Stela drawing by J. Allen, from 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

Note further how the quotation above from lines 14–18 (front; 16–21 back) of the Tempest Stela begins: “What His Incarnation did was to rest in the palace, Iph.” Why would Ahmose be resting in his palace before restoring the temples, if the damage to the temples, including the the toppling of their idols, was part of the results of the catastrophe? In fact, Ahmose’s immediate reaction to the catastrophe is given in the previous lines, lines 10–14 (front; 12–16 back), as follows:

Then His incarnation said: “How much greater is this than the impressive manifestation of the great god, than the plans of the gods!” What His Incarnation did was to go down to his launch, with his council behind him and [his] army on the east and west (banks) providing cover, there being no covering on them after the occurrence of the god’s impressive manifestation. What His Incarnation did was to arrive at the interior of Thebes, and gold encountered the gold of this processional image, so that he received what he had desired. Then His Incarnation was stabilizing the Two Lands and guiding the flooded areas. He did not stop, feeding them with silver, with gold, with copper, with oils and clothing, with every need that could be desired.

What His Incarnation did was to rest in the palace …

When you actually read the text of the Tempest Stela, it becomes quite evident that Ahmose’s response to the tempest was to pay homage and tribute to “the great god,” that is, Amun-Re in Thebes (line 2 of the stela) and to “the gods” who were in Karnak, and possibly (depending on who “them” is in line 18) providing aid to the affected areas within Egypt. Once he did this, he thought he was finished and “rest[ed] in the palace” until he was reminded of the condition of tombs and temples. Allen summarizes (my apologies for the limitations of web fonts for transliteration purposes):

Vandersleyen has argued that the devastation of these monuments was caused by the rains, while Foster and Ritner have suggested the additional agency of an earthquake. In the case of the tombs and mortuary monuments, however, the verbs used in the text connote purposeful destruction: “entering (‘q) … dismantling (whn) … hacking up (hb3), … toppling (w’) … doing what had not been done (jryt tmmt jr).” Since these are regularly used with human agents, the normal implication here is one of willful wreckage—in that case, presumably a reference to the ravages wrought by the conflict between Ahmose’s predecessors and the Hyksos. The verbs referring to the ruin of the temples, in contrast, imply agentless neglect rather than destruction: “fallen to ruin (w3 r w3s) … fallen to the ground (pth r t3).” In both cases, therefore, the text seems to indicate that the state of these monuments was not due to to the storm but, rather, existed before it. This makes excellent sense both in view of the statement that “the gods were asking for their cult-services” and in light of the wording of the introductory statement “then one was reminding His Incarnation.” The text seems to draw a deliberate parallel between the situation caused by the storm and that which existed before it. In the first case, the need for restorative measures was immediate and obvious; in the second, the need was no less serious but was evidently inconspicuous enough, or of long enough standing, that the king needed to be reminded of its necessity—a reminder no doubt prompted by the parallel offered by the more recent devastation. (20; boldface added; ellipses in the original)

I have quoted Allen in such length here to make it perfectly clear that Jacobovici has missed the point. The Ahmose Tempest Stela does not say that the statues of the Egyptian gods were toppled during the catastrophe that occasioned the stela, as Jacobovici claims. Rather, the stela’s inscription reports that after dealing with the situation caused by the tempest, Ahmose was reminded by his courtiers to turn his attention to the pre-existing condition of looted tombs and neglected temples.

The sequence of events here is quite critical, for if the tombs had been robbed and the temples neglected before the tempest, then there is no plausible connection between the toppling of those statues and the tenth plague’s “judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Since the Tempest Stela is the only “evidence” adduced for the idea that these “judgments” involved the toppling of idols, then if the toppling of the idols cannot be connected to the tempest, the whole house of cards falls apart.