Debunking “The Exodus Decoded”

Technical – Sep 20, 2006 – by Bryant G. Wood PhD


Excerpt        The Exodus Decoded made its US debut August 20 on the History Channel. Produced and narrated by Simcha Jacobovici, the film purportedly provides new evidence to demonstrate the Exodus really happened. Some of Jacobovici’s points are old hat… Continue reading

The $3.5 million documentary The Exodus Decoded made its US debut August 20 on the History Channel. Previously it had been broadcast on the Discovery Channel in Canada in April and was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July. Produced and narrated by Simcha Jacobovici, the film purportedly provides new evidence to demonstrate the Exodus really happened. Some of Jacobovici’s points are old hat, having been proposed before, while others are indeed new. But, alas, the presentation suffers from the same fate as other similar “documentaries”—dates are revised willy-nilly to make everything neatly come together to explain the events of the Exodus. In the end, Jacobovici does more harm than good since he mishandles the archaeological evidence, hence providing fuel to skeptics who wish to undermine the Exodus. The information is conveniently organized by “Exhibits.” Let us examine the Exhibits one-by-one to check their credibility.
Bust of Pharaoh Ahmose, Brooklyn Museum of Art. (ABR photo by Michael Luddeni)

Ahmose bust

Exhibit A: The Ahmose Stela. It was under the leadership of Ahmose that the Egyptians drove out the hated foreign Hyksos who had infiltrated Egypt’s eastern Nile delta. The Hyksos, meaning “foreign rulers” in Egyptian, were Canaanite traders who had emigrated from southern Canaan. Ahmose went on to establish the powerful Egyptian 18th Dynasty. The stela tells of a great storm during Ahmose’s rule, ca. 1569–1545 BC. Jacobovici claims that the darkness and storm described in the stela are related to the Biblical plagues. His major premise in the documentary is that the Biblical Exodus is the same event as the expulsion of the Hyksos in Egyptian records. This raises three insurmountable problems. First, the expulsion is dated to the 15th year of Ahmose, ca. 1555 BC (Bietak 1991:48).[1] According to Biblical chronology, on the other hand, the Exodus occurred in 1446 BC (Young 2003), over a century after the expulsion of the Hyksos. Jacobovici overcomes this difficulty by arbitrarily splitting the difference between the two events; he raises the date of the Exodus to 1500 BC and lowers the date of the expulsion to 1500 BC. Voilà, discrepancy resolved! Even with this nifty slight-of-hand, there is not a good correlation between the stela and the Biblical plagues. The stela tells of darkness and a fierce rain storm that caused devastating flooding (Redford 1997: 16). There was no rain or flooding associated with the ninth plague of “darkness that can be felt” (Ex 10:21). The second major problem with the hypothesis is that the Hyksos were not slaves, but wealthy merchants and rulers of Egypt. The Hyksos, in fact, ruled Egypt for 108 years. They built palaces and temples at their capital city of Avaris, and had far-flung commercial operations. Exhibit B: Pharaoh Ahmose. By associating the Exodus event with the expulsion of the Hyksos, Jacobovici maintains that, for the first time, we know who the Pharaoh of the Exodus was—Ahmose. But Jacobovici is not the first to make a connection between the expulsion of the Hyksos and the Israelite Exodus. Associations can be seen as far back as the third-century BC Egyptian priest Manetho (Redford 1992: 412–19). As we have seen, however, more than 100 years separate Ahmose and the Pharaoh of the Exodus, so the identification is invalid. In addition, the third problem with Jacobovici’s thesis is that Ahmose drove the Hyksos out of their capital Avaris by force of arms, whereas the Israelites left peacefully when Pharaoh ordered them out to avoid further calamities.

Wooden sarcophagus of Ahmose, Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (ABR photo by Michael Luddeni)
Ahmose Sarcophagus

Exhibit C: Tomb at Beni Hasan. Jacobovici wishes to connect a Semite caravan depicted in a Middle Kingdom tomb at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt with the migration of Jacob and his family to Egypt. At this point in the narration, he states “we know from the Bible that the Israelites arrived in Egypt some 200 years before their Exodus.” This is incorrect. The length of the Sojourn as recorded in the Bible was 430 years (Ex 12:40). He then goes on to say that the Beni Hasan tomb painting dates to 1700 BC. Wrong again! The painting is clearly dated by an inscription to the sixth year of Sesostris II, ca. 1890 BC (Wilson 1969: 229), 190 years before Jacobovici’s entry date of 1700 BC. Setting the chronological faux pas aside, the association is not a good one. The inscription says there were 37 individuals in the caravan compared with 66 in Jacob’s entourage (Gn 46:26). Jacobovici claims that the Beni Hasan group came from the area of modern Israel, whereas the inscription says they came from Shut, not Retenu or Hurru, the Egyptian names for the area of modern Israel.

Beni Hasan tomb painting

Scene from the tomb of Khnumhotep in Beni Hasan, Middle Egypt, of a group of Semite (Asiatic) traders entering Egypt to sell eye paint, ca. 1890 BC. (ABR photo by Michael Luddeni) Exhibit D: The “Yakov” (Jacob) Royal Ring. Jacobovici contends that Joseph’s royal seal was discovered at Tell el-Daba, the site of the ancient Hyksos capital Avaris. This is also the location of Rameses, the place where the Israelites settled (Gn 47:11) and where they departed from (Ex 12:37). In the 13th century BC, long after the Israelites had left, Rameses II rebuilt the city and named it after himself. It is this later, better-known, name that is used in the Bible since the earlier names of the site (there were several) went out of use. The Austrian team excavating the site found nine scarabs (beetle-shaped amulets) bearing the name of a Hyksos called Jacob-Her dating to ca. 1700 BC. Jacobovici, of course, surmises that this is Joseph’s father Jacob. He further contends that these are “seals worn by Joseph’s court officials.” If the scarabs are connected to the high official Joseph, then why is Jacob’s name on them? Jacobovici does not explain. In reality, Jacob was a common Semitic name and in this case probably belonged to a prominent Hyksos leader or businessman. In addition to the nine examples at Tell el-Daba, three Jacob-Her scarabs were found in Israel: two at Kabri, near Nahariya, and one at Shiqmona, near Haifa (Bietak 1997: 115). Exhibit E: Serabit Slavery Inscriptions. Serabit el-Khadem is an area of turquoise mines in the northwestern part of the southern Sinai Peninsula. Inscriptions in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and early Semitic (Canaanite) alphabetic script written with pictographic signs have been found there. The Semitic inscriptions are assumed to have been written by Asiatic slaves who worked in the mines. Whether or not these inscriptions can be related to the period of Israelite slavery in Egypt is an open question. Specialists are divided as to whether they should be dated to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2061–1665 BC) or New Kingdom (ca. 1569–1081 BC) (Beit-Arieh 1993). Exhibit F: Santorini Pumice in Egypt. The second major premise of The Exodus Decoded is that tectonic activity caused the eruption of the Santorini volcano and triggered earthquakes, bringing about the plagues in Egypt. Jacobovici says the eruption took place in 1500 BC at the time of the Exodus. The date of the eruption is a hotly debated topic. Carbon-14 samples suggest a date of ca. 1625 BC, whereas conventional historical dating places the event at ca. 1525 BC.[2] Pumice from the Santorini eruption was found at Tell el-Daba. Here, we run into another major chronological difficulty. The pumice was found in an archaeological stratum later than the reign of Ahmose (Bietak 1997: 124–25). Thus, there is a chronological disconnect between Jacobovici’s Pharaoh of the Exodus and the eruption of Santorini. Exhibit G: Ipuwer Plagues Papyrus. Jacobovici now calls on the Ipuwer Papyrus, which he believes provides evidence for a plague of “ice and fire mingled together.” The seventh plague of hail, he says, is volcanic hail induced by Santorini as described in the Ipuwer Papyrus. Again, we have a chronological problem. Although Jacobovici states that many scholars date the Ipuwer Papyrus to the Hyksos period, the fact of the matter is that most Egyptologists date it to the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2100 BC) or the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 1700 BC) (Shupak 1997: 93), well before Jacobovici’s Exodus date of 1500 BC.

Ipuwer Papyrus

Ipuwer Papyrus, National Archaeological Museum, Leiden, Netherlands. It tells of ordeals and calamities blamed on an unnamed king, perhaps Pepy II (ca. 2300–2206 BC) of the Sixth Dynasty, and predicts better times under a coming, ideal monarch. (ABR file photo) Exhibit H: Santorini Ash in the Nile Delta. Jacobovici claims that an ash cloud from Santorini caused the darkness of the ninth plague. There is no question but what Santorini ash arrived on the shores of Egypt. But the pumice evidence indicates that this was after the Hyksos period. Exhibit I: Male Plague Victims. Jacobovici asserts that mass burials of males in pit graves at Tell el-Daba are evidence for plague 10, the death of the firstborn. However, he presents only part of the evidence. As usual, there is a chronological problem. The burials are from the early 18th Dynasty, after the expulsion of the Hyksos. In addition, the individuals have a very narrow age range: between 18 and 25. We would expect victims of plague 10 to be younger than 18 and older than 25. Anthropological examination has shown that some of the individuals were Nubians, commonly employed in the Egyptian army in this time period. Since the burials were in the area of a military camp and arrowheads were found in the graves, the most logical explanation is that the burials were soldiers from the Egyptian army. The excavator concludes, “They were probably soldiers who died in the camps from diseases over a period of time” (Bietak 2005: 13). Exhibit J: Ahmose’s Son Prince Sapair. Ahmose’s son died at age 12 and therefore died in the 10th plague according to Jacobovici. The presumed cause of the disaster, touted as “the first scientific explanation of the tenth plague,” was earthquake-dislodged carbon dioxide rising to the surface of the Nile River. Such an event occurred in 1986 at Lake Neos, Cameroon, when carbon dioxide gas was released from the mineral-saturated waters trapped in the lake’s depths. A similar event could not happen in a river, however, because moving water prevents minerals from accumulating at the bottom as in a stationary lake. Exhibit K: el Arish Inscription. The el-Arish Inscription is a text from the Ptolemaic period (305–31 BC) written on a shrine found at el-Arish on the Mediterranean coast in northern Sinai. It is a legendary text concerning the gods Shu, god of air and sunlight, and his son Geb, god of the earth, and has nothing to do with the Exodus. Immanuel Velikovsky related the inscription to the crossing of the sea in his books Worlds in Collision and Ages in Chaos. Jacobovici follows Velikovsky’s interpretations, claiming the text “tells the entire story of the Exodus from Pharaoh’s point of view,” even giving the precise location of the crossing. Velikovsky’s understanding of this text has been thoroughly refuted. Mewhinney writes, “His interpretations of the el-Arish inscription are so obviously, blatantly wrong in so many particulars that it is hard to see why there should have been any controversy over the facts of the case, excepting only minor details. We find names altered and combined, words mistranslated, characters confused with one another or split in two, and events set in the wrong time and place. To permit Velikovsky to make the associations he does, one would have to take a sledgehammer to the shrine, smash it to bits, and reassemble the pieces in a different order. The method­—a sort of ‘free association’ in which a whole complex of ideas is summoned up by an isolated word or phrase—­must be rejected as well” (2006). Exhibit L: Yam Suph (Reed Sea). Based on the el-Arish inscription J. identifies the sea crossing as the Ballah Lake on the northeast Egyptian frontier. On this point, we can agree with Jacobovici. It is not the el-Arish inscription that leads to this identification, however, it is modern archaeological research (Byers 2006a; 2006b).

Suez Canal

View of the Suez Canal looking north from the Qantara Bridge in the northeast Nile delta. This was the area of the northern end of the Ballah Lake prior to the cutting of the canal in 1859–1860. This is possibly the area where the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea. (ABR photo by Michael Luddeni). Exhibit M: Santorini Wall Paintings. Jacobovici claims that the Miniature Frieze found in the West House in the excavations at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini (ancient Thera) depicts a Minoan voyage to Avaris, Egypt. Although this interpretation is undoubtedly wrong,[3] there is ample evidence to indicate that there was contact between the Minoans and Egypt. From this interchange, he contends that some of the followers of Moses in Egypt were Aegeans from Greece and that they returned to Greece shortly after the Exodus. It is necessary to make this connection in order bring in artifacts from Greece that supposedly relate to the Exodus (Exhibit N and Final Exhibit below). Needless to say, there is no evidence to suggest that there were Aegeans enslaved in Egypt when the Israelites were there. Egyptian texts only speak of Asiatic slaves at that time (David 1986: 188–92; Redford 1992: 78–79, 208–209, 221–27).

Santorini wall painting

Minoan wall painting of a naval procession, West House, Akrotiri, Santorini. Rather than depicting a voyage to Avaris in Egypt as claimed in The Exodus Decoded, it is more likely a cultic procession taking place somewhere in the Aegean. (ABR file photo)
Exhibit N: Grave Stelae of Mycenae. Since there is no evidence that there were Greeks among the Israelite tribes that left Egypt, there is no basis for interpreting the images on grave stelae at Mycenae as scenes of the sea crossing as claimed by Jacobovici.

Elim photo

Ayun Musa (Spring of Moses) at the northeast shore of the Gulf of Suez, possibly Elim of Exodus 15:27. (ABR photo by Michael Luddeni)

Exhibit O: Mt. Sinai (Hashem el-Tarif). Jacobovici’s methodology in attempting to locate Mt. Sinai is admirable in that he utilizes Biblical data. Unfortunately, some of his information is incorrect. He bases the location on the distances the Israelites could travel within the Biblical timeframe. He begins by saying it took the Israelites 14 days to travel from Elim to Mt. Sinai. Elim, he suggests, is located at Ayun Musa on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Suez, which is no doubt correct, but his timeline is off. According to Exodus 16:1, after the Israelites left Elim, they “came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the 15th day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.” They then arrived at the Desert of Sinai a month later (Ex 19:1; Nu 33:3). So, the travel time from Elim to the Desert of Sinai was more than 30 days, not 14 days. The daily rate of travel Jacobovici assumes, 15 km (9 mi) is also incorrect. Pastoralists traveling with their flocks can go no more than 10 km (6 mi) per day (Wood 2000). In addition, one cannot simply multiply a rate of travel times the number of days traveled and draw a straight line on a map to locate Mt. Sinai. The ancient routes and the zigs and zags and ups and downs of traveling by foot in a rugged terrain must be taken into account. Although Hashem el-Tarif may be a valid candidate for Mt. Sinai, one cannot arrive at that identification using Jacobovici’s calculations.

Grave stelaGrave stela from Shaft Grave V in Grave Circle A at Mycenae, ca. 1550–1500 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Jacobovici interprets the scene as “an Egyptian charioteer chasing Moses across the parted sea” just before the waters returned. The spirals, which Jacobovici says are waves, are a common Mycenaean motif. (Credit: University of Oklahoma)
Final Exhibit: The Ark of the Covenant. The final exhibit of the presentation is a small gold object from the Bronze Age cemetery at Mycenae. J. claims it represents a composite view of the Ark of the Covenant, ramp of the Tabernacle and altar as seen from the Holy of Holies. Why would the Ark be depicted on an object found in Greece? Jacobovici conjectures that Greeks referred to as Danoi by Homer are Danites who migrated to Greece after the Exodus. Since the Tribe of Dan helped make the Ark it was the Biblical Danites who fashioned the gold object.
There are a number of difficulties with this scenario. First, the Tribe of Dan did not help make the Ark. According to Exodus, Bezalel, a Judahite, was the chief craftsman for the Tabernacle appointed “to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship” (Ex 31:4). It was he who made the Ark (Ex 37:1). A Danite named Oholiab was appointed to help Bezalel (Ex 31:6), but his specialty was embroidery (Ex 38:23) and he was involved in “constructing the sanctuary” (Ex 36:1). Moreover, the Danoi were native Greeks, not immigrants. According to Greek tradition, a legendary figure named Danaus immigrated to Greece from Egypt. He became a ruler and required the native Greeks to be called Danoi (Stabo, Geography 8.6.9). In addition, the two figures depicted on the so-called “ark” are ordinary birds, not cherubim[4] as on the Biblical Ark (Ex 37:6–9).
The Exodus Decoded is similar to The Da Vinci Code in that disparate pieces of information from the past are brought together in a story line. There is a big difference between the two, however. The Exodus Decoded is presented as factual history, whereas The Da Vinci Code is advertised as a novel. The exhibits of The Exodus Decoded do not stand up to scrutiny in the court of objective scholarship. Archaeological data are wrenched from their chronological contexts and forced into a different time frame to fit the filmmaker’s reconstruction. What is more, the film is replete with factual errors. Although the production is offered as a serious and accurate documentary, it is not accurate and it cannot be taken seriously. There is little of substance in The Exodus Decoded for those seeking valid historical and archaeological information on the Exodus.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

Bible and Spade CD-ROM Archaeology and the Old Testament Moses and the Gods of Egypt

[1] Egyptian dates in this article are from the Egyptian King List in Redford 2001. [2] For a summary of the issue, see Balter 2006. [3] The Miniature Frieze probably depicts a cultic procession taking place in the Aegean. See Wachsmann 1998: 105–22. [4] Although it is not known exactly what cherubim looked like, it was a composite beast, no doubt similar to composite beasts depicted in Ancient Near Eastern art (Harrison 1979)
Beit-Arieh, Itzhaq 1993 Serabit el-Khadem. Pp. 1335–38 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land 3, ed. Ephraim Stern. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society & Carta.
Bietak, Manfred 1991 Egypt and Canaan During the Middle Bronze Age. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 281: 27–72. 1997 The Center of Hyksos Rule: Avaris (Tell el-Dab‘a). Pp. 87–139 in The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Eliezer D. Oren. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. 2005 The Tuthmoside Stronghold of Perunefer. Egyptian Archaeology 26: 13–17.
Balter, Michael 2006 New Carbon Dates Support Revised History of Ancient Mediterranean. Science 312 (April 28): 508–509.
Byers, Gary A. 2006a New Evidence from Egypt on the Location of the Exodus Crossing, Part 1. Bible and Spade 19: 14–22. 2006b New Evidence from Egypt on the Location of the Exodus Crossing, Part 2. Bible and Spade 19: 34–40.
David, A. Rosalie 1986 The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Harrison, Roland K. 1979 Cherubim. Pp. 642–43 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 1, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.
Mewhinney, Sean 2006 El-Arish Revisited,, accessed August 30. Originally published in Kronos 11.2 (1986).
Redford, Donald B. 1992 Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton NJ: Princeton University. 1997 Textual Sources for the Hyksos Period. Pp. 1–44 in The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Eliezer D. Oren. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. 2001 The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University.
Shupak, Nili 1997 The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage: The Admonitions of Ipuwer. Pp. 93–98 in The Context of Scripture 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Wachsmann, Shelley 1998 Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. London: Chatham.
Wilson, John A. 1969 Egyptian Historical Texts. Pp. 228–64 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with supplement, ed. James B. Pritchard. Princeton NJ: Princeton University.
Wood, Bryant G. 2000 An Editorial Comment. Bible and Spade 13: 98–99. Young, Rodger C. 2003 When Did Solomon Die? Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46: 589–603.


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