Of all the ‘great’ men of history who were used by Yahweh in the fulfilment of his purpose, the Pharaoh of the Exodus would have to be one of the most significant and interesting. Centuries after his death the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans was to refer to this man as a classic example of how God uses men to fulfil his will:

Romans 9:17 “I have raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth”(cp Exodus 9:16).

The phrase “raised thee up” is indicative of God’s hand in the life of this significant individual. The Greek meaning of this phrase has the idea of “excited, roused or stirred up”; the Septuagint translates it as “preserved alive”. As we look at the life of this man we will see that both these ideas are aptly descriptive of God’s involvement in the events of his life.

The term “Pharaoh” was, of course, a title used by many and various rulers in Egypt.Volume 11.2 The word originally meant ‘the royal house or palace’ and implied the idea of government. In time it came to be used as a title of the king himself. There is some disagreement amongst Egyptologists as to who the actual Pharaoh of Exodus was. Remember, we are going back thousands of years into ancient history and therefore cannot be totally sure of a lot of things outside of what we are told in Scripture. Recorded Egyptian history goes back beyond 3000BC, covering dozens of dynasties and broken up into at least seven different Kingdom Periods.

A number of different Pharaohs have been put forward as suitable candidates for the Exodus Pharaoh, including, Amenhotep II, Merneptah, Thothmes III and Rameses II.

Remember that there are actually two Pharaohs in the Exodus story. The first Pharaoh Volume 11.2.1dies whilst Moses was in Midian (Exodus 2:23, 4:19). This being the case, we cannot be too dogmatic when trying to reconcile the Biblical story with the historical record.

There appears to be, however, convincing evidence that Rameses II fits the bill.

“Most historians believe that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus in the story with the ten plagues—the one whose oldest son, the crown prince, was killed in the tenth plague. There is no way to know for sure if indeed Rameses II was that Pharaoh, but it’s the consensus between historians and Egyptologists.”

One of the items of evidence put forward in favor of Rameses II is found in Exodus 1:11, “Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Rameses” (see Gen 47:11 s/w Rameses). It was Rameses II who built these defensive store cities as fortresses to protect his borders and characteristically names one of them after himself.

There is an interesting side point relating to these cities which has direct bearing upon the historical veracity of Bible history. We are told in Exodus 5 that the Hebrews who build these cities for Pharaoh used straw to make their bricks. They were later forced to use stubble because no straw was provided for them.

When the city of Pithom was eventually excavated in 1883 and again in 1908, the archaeologists found that the lower wall of the city was made from bricks filled with good chopped straw. The bricks of the middle wall however, had much less straw, and interestingly, the bricks of the upper wall had no straw at all. Again, archaeological discoveries aligned with the Bible story in a way which could not possibly be contrived.

 “A New King… Who Knew Not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8)

We sometimes read these words with amazement. How could such a thing happen? How could a new king not appreciate the contribution that Joseph had made to the nation?

This phenomenon is not so surprising when one considers the distinct and totally separate kingdom periods and the different dynasties that ruled within these particular periods.

Most scholars regard the period of Joseph’s ascendancy to be during the Second Intermediate (Hyksos) Period (1782–570 BC). It was during this period that Egypt came to be ruled over by the Hyksos (Shepherd) dynasties. These kings came from the Syrio-Palestine areas. They brought with them superior technology and military organisation and gained control of the delta and Nile valley. These kings would have related well to the Hebrews and probably felt a closer affinity to them than the native Egyptians over whom they ruled.

A dramatic and complete change comes over Egypt with the dawning of the New Kingdom Period (1550–1070 BC). It was during this period that the native Egyptians ousted the outsiders, captured the Hyksos capital and united the whole land of Egypt. It was during this time that Rameses II came to inherit the throne.

This historical background explains a number of things relating to the Exodus story: firstly, the new Pharaoh and his lack of knowledge regarding Joseph, and the animosity he felt towards the growing number of Hebrews. Indeed, his paranoia in regard to the Hebrews forming some sort of fifth column opposition and joining his enemies is not hard to believe when one considers the cultural and political background of the times (Exodus 1:10).

The animosity that Rameses II felt towards those from Syrio-Palestine is seen in the many battles and military campaigns he undertakes against those areas, particularly against the Hittites.

During his fifth year he led a famous campaign known as the battle of Kadesh, in Syria. This action nearly cost him his life. The Hittites ambushed him when he had been separated from his main army and, with only his immediate bodyguard, Rameses II found himself surrounded by 5000 Hittite chariots. Rameses II charged the Hittite position and attempted to cut his way through. It didn’t look as if he was going to survive. However, during the battle the Hittites stopped to plunder the Egyptian camp, thus giving the Egyptians enough time to regroup and make a strategic withdrawal.

Remember the Septuagint translation of Exodus 9:16 and the phrase “raised thee up” using the term “preserved alive”. It is not unreasonable to imagine that Pharaoh’s narrow escape on that day was the work of the angels of Yahweh as they “preserved alive” this particular man for the purpose of God to “declare his power”.

The vain and arrogant Pharaoh had this battle depicted on monument after monument as a testimony to his great power and military prowess.

Despite this ‘lucky escape’ Rameses II was to attack Palestine fifteen times during his reign.

“Who is Yahweh?” Exodus 5:2

There is another interesting aspect of history that has direct bearing upon the Biblical record. We are aware, of course, that the plagues of Exodus were directly related to the many gods of Egypt.

In Egyptian history, there had been emerging the idea of one god—one god elevated above the other Egyptian gods. This god is referred to in Egyptian literature as “Aten”. There is evidence that belief in the ‘one god’ reached the highest levels of Egyptian life, to even that of the Pharaoh. This occurred particularly during the Second Intermediate Period, and although it is not specifically recorded in history, it is not unreasonable to think that this concept may have been influenced by the Hebrews, particularly Joseph.

The subsequent Dynasties saw this concept as blasphemy and actively destroyed most of the remnant of that religion. The belief in one supreme God was ‘pushed underground’. Who do you think was one of the most ferocious and active opponents of this concept? Yes, of course, it was Rameses II during the New Kingdom Period.

This historical background accentuates the drama and the significance of the Exodus story and presents to us a Pharaoh not only motivated by power and political concerns, but also as a fanatical religious opponent to the Hebrews and their idea of a supreme God.

Rameses II

What do we know then about this man whom Yahweh “raised up” to declare his power?

Because we are going so far back into history we do not have quite as much recorded information as we do with other significant men of history. However, information from a number of sources can be combined to give a picture of this man. Does the information about this man fit the character and demeanour of the Pharaoh presented to us in Exodus?

The Pharaoh of Exodus is recognised by characteristics such as pride, arrogance, paranoia, cruelty, self importance, aggressiveness and as an oppressor. The historical account presents an exact same portrait.

Rameses II was born to Queen Tuy and his father Sety I and was thus the third ruler in this particular dynasty (19th Dynasty). He came to the throne at the age of twenty and ruled for sixty-seven years, making him the second longest-ruling Pharaoh.

When news of his father’s death came to him, he was in the far south of Egypt chasing and fighting Ethiopian marauders who had wandered up from central Africa. He at once made a triumphant military return as a great conqueror and was crowned with much fanfare at Thebes.

Rameses II had many wives, among them some of his own relatives. His best known wife was the famous queen Nefertari. It is recorded that he had 111 sons and fifty-one daughters.

His enormous ego is seen in the amazing amount of buildings and monuments he erected. In fact, he erected more temples and monuments than any other Pharaoh. One historian wrote: “It is evident that Rameses II wanted to leave a mark as a reminder of his great wealth and power.”

In many places in ancient Egypt he had the names of preceding Pharaohs removed and replaced with his own name. These included buildings, statues and monuments. The legend of his great building prowess had been passed down through the centuries, so that the historian Herodotus recorded centuries later that the priest of Egypt, even in his days, declared with awe that Rameses II was the greatest builder in the world.

His vast building projects required large numbers of slave labourers.

One Egyptologist wrote: “He is, in my opinion, unworthy of the title ‘Great’. A show-off, a propagandist, he made his mark by having his name, like a graffiti artist, on every possible stone.”

volume 11.2.2Historians also record that he “ruled with a serious iron fist over vast swaths of very poor people”. He did this by using his court and his military and exercised complete autocratic power.

Despite his power and glory, military prowess and riches, Rameses II remains as a witness to a very important principle outlined by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:16; “So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”

Pharaoh the Proud Meets Moses the Meek

Some knowledge of the historical facts can add life and drama to the Biblical record. Knowing what we do about the proud and arrogant Rameses II, we can really feel for Moses as he confronts this man on behalf of Yahweh.

Consider also the contrast between the characters of these two men: proud Pharaoh who engraves his name on virtually every monument of Egypt, and Moses, described by God as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

The character of Moses had been developed by the trials of life. In Egypt as a young prince, he had had a privileged upbringing. The Scripture records his life and education and also mentions that he was “mighty in deeds” (Acts 7:22). We are not specifically told what these “mighty deeds” were in the Biblical record. However, historical accounts tell us that Moses was a successful Egyptian general and fought many battles for Egypt.

This is recorded by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, 10:2). Also, Iraenaeus, an early Christian writer, states: “When Moses was nourished in the king’s palace, he was appointed general of the army against the Ethiopians and conquered them.”

Despite the success of Moses and his “mighty deeds”, God still required his servant to be tried by fire and his character developed. Indeed it does appear that when Moses took it upon himself to save his people, he is surprised that they do not respond.

“For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not” (Acts 7:25). Moses was to learn that it would not be by “his hand”, but by the mighty hand of God, that the Hebrews would be saved.

Consider the evident change in Moses, displayed in his words when God called him, after he had spent forty years looking after the flocks of Jethro in the desert of Midian (cp Exodus 2:15):

“Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?” (Exod 3:11)

“They will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice” (Exod 4:1)

“O my Lord, I am not eloquent… I am slow of speech” (Exod 4:10)

“O my Lord”, he protested again (Exod 4:13).

In this story the “proud” and the “meek” represent, as it were, the “flesh” and the “spirit”, as they clash again in the continuation of this age-old conflict (cp Gen 3:15) and demonstrate Paul’s point in Romans 9:16: “So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

Consider Their End

The mummy of Rameses II was found in the Dayr al Bahri cache in 1881 and is today on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. On a recent trip to the Middle East we were privileged to visit this Museum, and once again be reminded of the symbol that Egypt and its famous Pharaoh represent. It is a land of Death.

Symbols of death are everywhere, the tombs, the pyramids, the mummies, the art, the literature. They stand to remind us that death is the ultimate reward for all those who oppose the God of Israel. Pharaoh is a symbol of pride, arrogance and opposition to the will of God, and his well-preserved body lies there today as a testimony that such a character will remain forever dead.