Moses and Exodus According to the Egyptian Priest Manetho

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to set out some of the many variants of the Exodus story as told in non-biblical sources . . .

At the conclusion of these I will tie them together with Jan Assmann’s argument that they reflect memories of traumatic events in Egypt’s past.

The Egyptian priest Manetho in the early third century B.C.E. wrote a history of Egypt in which he gives us two versions of an Exodus-like historical event. The following extracts are from the Jewish historian Josephus.

Here is the first one:

14. I shall begin with the writings of the Egyptians . . . . Now this Manetho, in the second book of his Egyptian History, writes concerning us in the following manner. I will set down his very words, as if I were to bring the very man himself into a court for a witness:

“There was a king of ours whose name was Timaus. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us,

and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without our hazarding a battle with them.

So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery.

At length they made one of themselves king, whose name was Salatis; he also lived at Memphis, and made both the upper and lower regions pay tribute, and left garrisons in places that were the most proper for them. He chiefly aimed to secure the eastern parts, as fore-seeing that the Assyrians, who had then the greatest power, would be desirous of that kingdom, and invade them; and as he found in the Saite Nomos, [Sethroite,] a city very proper for this purpose, and which lay upon the Bubastic channel, but with regard to a certain theologic notion was called Avaris, this he rebuilt, and made very strong by the walls he built about it, and by a most numerous garrison of two hundred and forty thousand armed men whom he put into it to keep it.

Thither Salatis came in summer time, partly to gather his corn, and pay his soldiers their wages, and partly to exercise his armed men, and thereby to terrify foreigners. When this man had reigned thirteen years,

after him reigned another, whose name was Beon, for forty-four years;

after him reigned another, called Apachnas, thirty-six years and seven months;

after him Apophis reigned sixty-one years,

and then Janins fifty years and one month;

after all these reigned Assis forty-nine years and two months.

And these six were the first rulers among them, who were all along making war with the Egyptians, and were very desirous gradually to destroy them to the very roots.

This whole nation was styled HYKSOS, that is, Shepherd-kings: for the first syllable HYK, according to the sacred dialect, denotes a king, as is SOS a shepherd; but this according to the ordinary dialect; and of these is compounded HYKSOS: but some say that these people were Arabians.”

Now in another copy it is said that this word does not denote Kings, but, on the contrary, denotes Captive Shepherds, and this on account of the particle HYK; for that HYK, with the aspiration, in the Egyptian tongue again denotes Shepherds, and that expressly also; and this to me seems the more probable opinion, and more agreeable to ancient history.

[But Manetho goes on]:

These people, whom we have before named kings, and called shepherds also, and their descendants . . . kept possession of Egypt five hundred and eleven years.”

After these, he says,

“That the kings of Thebes and the other parts of Egypt made an insurrection against the shepherds, and that there a terrible and long war was made between them.”

He says further,

“That under a king, whose name was Alisphragmuthosis, the shepherds were subdued by him, and were indeed driven out of other parts of Egypt, but were shut up in a place that contained ten thousand acres; this place was named Avaris.”

Manetho says,

“That the shepherds built a wall round all this place, which was a large and a strong wall, and this in order to keep all their possessions and their prey within a place of strength, but that Thummosis the son of Alisphragmuthosis made an attempt to take them by force and by siege, with four hundred and eighty thousand men to lie rotund about them, but that, upon his despair of taking the place by that siege, they came to a composition with them, that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm to be done to them, whithersoever they would;

and that, after this composition was made, they went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand, and took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria;

but that as they were in fear of the Assyrians, who had then the dominion over Asia, they built a city in that country which is now called Judea, and that large enough to contain this great number of men, and called it Jerusalem. 

Josephus claims that the above account by Manetho was derived from Egypt’s “sacred writings” but later he sets out a second version by Manetho that he accuses of being based on wildly exaggerated popular rumours and tales. (I have changed the form of some of the names to match their more common modern transcriptions and removed some of the archaisms from the translation.)

So here is the second account from the more popular sources:

26. . . . Now thus far he followed his ancient records;

but after this he permits himself, in order to appear to have written what rumors and reports passed abroad about the Jews . . . as if he would have the Egyptian multitude, that had the leprosy and other distempers, to have been mixed with us, as he says they were, and that they were condemned to fly out of Egypt together;

for he mentions [King] Amenophis . . . 

This king was desirous to see the gods . . . he also communicated his desire to his namesake the sage Amenophis, who was the son of Hapu, that seemed to partake of a divine nature, both as to wisdom and the knowledge of the future.”

Manetho adds,

“how this [sage] namesake of his told him that he might see the gods, if he would clear the whole country of the lepers and of the other impure people;

that the king was pleased with this injunction, and got together all that had any defect in their bodies out of Egypt; and that their number was eighty thousand; whom he sent to those quarries which are on the east side of the Nile, that they might work in them, and might be separated from the rest of the Egyptians.

He says further, that

“there were some of the learned priests that were polluted with the leprosy; but that still this [sage] Amenophis, the wise man and the prophet, was afraid that the gods would be angry at him and at the king, if there should appear to have been violence offered them;

who also added this further, [out of knowledge of the future,] that certain people would come to the assistance of these polluted wretches, and would conquer Egypt, and keep it in their possession thirteen years;

that, however, he durst not tell the king of these things, but that he left a writing behind him about all those matters, and then slew himself, which made the king disconsolate.”

After which he writes thus verbatim:

“After those that were sent to work in the quarries had continued in that miserable state for a long while, the king was desired that he would set apart the city Avaris, which was then left desolate of the shepherds [= the Hyksos], for their habitation and protection; which desire he granted them.

Now this city, according to the ancient theology, was Typho’s city. But when these men were gotten into it, and found the place fit for a revolt, they appointed themselves a ruler out of the priests of Heliopolis, whose name was Osarsiph, and they took their oaths that they would be obedient to him in all things.

He then, in the first place, made this law for them,

    1. That they should neither worship the Egyptian gods, nor should abstain from any one of those sacred animals which they have in the highest esteem, but kill and destroy them all;
    2. that they should join themselves to nobody but to those that were of this confederacy.

When he had made such laws as these, and many more such as were mainly opposite to the customs of the Egyptians, he gave order that they should use the multitude of the hands they had in building walls about their City, and make themselves ready for a war with king Amenophis, while he did himself take into his friendship the other priests, and those that were polluted with them, and sent ambassadors to those shepherds [Hyksos] who had been driven out of the land [some two or three hundred years earlier] to the city called Jerusalem;

whereby he informed them of his own affairs, and of the state of those others that had been treated after such an ignominious manner, and desired that they would come with one consent to his assistance in this war against Egypt.

He also promised that he would, in the first place, bring them back to their ancient city and country Avaris, and provide a plentiful maintenance for their multitude; that he would protect them and fight for them as occasion should require, and would easily reduce the country under their dominion. These shepherds were all very glad of this message, and came away with alacrity all together, being in number two hundred thousand men; and in a little time they came to Avaris.

And now Amenophis the king of Egypt, upon his being informed of their invasion, was in great confusion, as calling to mind what Amenophis, the son of Hapu, had foretold him; and, in the first place, he assembled the multitude of the Egyptians, and took counsel with their leaders, and sent for their sacred animals to him, especially for those that were principally worshipped in their temples, and gave a particular charge to the priests distinctly, that they should hide the images of their gods with the utmost care.

He also sent his son Sethos, who was also named Ramesses, from his father Rhampses, being but five years old, to a friend of his.

He then passed on with the rest of the Egyptians, being three hundred thousand of the most warlike of them, against the enemy, who met them. Yet did he not join battle with them; but thinking that would be to fight against the gods, he returned back and came to Memphis, where he took Apis and the other sacred animals which he had sent for to him, and presently marched into Ethiopia, together with his whole army and multitude of Egyptians;

for the king of Ethiopia was under an obligation to him, on which account he received him, and took care of all the multitude that was with him, while the country supplied all that was necessary for the food of the men. He also allotted cities and villages for this exile, that was to be from its beginning during those fatally determined thirteen years. Moreover, he pitched a camp for his Ethiopian army, as a guard to king Amenophis, upon the borders of Egypt. And this was the state of things in Ethiopia.

But for the people of Jerusalem, when they came down together with the polluted Egyptians, they treated the men in such a barbarous manner, that those who saw how they subdued the forementioned country, and the horrid wickedness they were guilty of, thought it a most dreadful thing; for they did not only set the cities and villages on fire but were not satisfied till they had been guilty of sacrilege, and destroyed the images of the gods, and used them in roasting those sacred animals that used to be worshipped, and forced the priests and prophets to be the executioners and murderers of those animals, and then ejected them naked out of the country.

It was also reported that the priest, who ordained their polity and their laws, was by birth of Hellopolls, and his name Osarsiph, from Osiris, who was the god of Hellopolls; but that when he was gone over to these people, his name was changed, and he was called Moses.

27. This is what the Egyptians relate about the Jews, with much more, which I omit for the sake of brevity. But still Manetho goes on, that

“after this, Amenophis returned back from Ethiopia with a great army, as did his [grandson Ramses] with another army also, and that both of them joined battle with the shepherds and the polluted people, and beat them, and slew a great many of them, and pursued them to the bounds of Syria.

Jan Assmann breaks the above story down into five main episodes (p. 33 of Moses the Egyptian):

  1. The original state of lack or distress: the invisibility of the gods, which prompted the king to want to see them.
  2. The steps taken by the king to overcome this situation: concentration and enslavement of the lepers in the quarries, then their ghettoization in Avaris.
  3. The organization of the lepers under the leadership of Osarsiph and his legislation, which inverted the customs and laws of Egypt, especially the laws forbidding the worship of the (Egyptian) gods and consorting with other people.
  4. The thirteen years of reign of terror by the Hyksos and the lepers, and their war against the temples, cults, images, and animals.
  5. The liberation of Egypt, and the expulsion of the lepers and the Hyksos.



  • Scot Griffin
    2015-05-26 17:01:23 UTC - 17:01 | Permalink

    If the identification of Jews with lepers and/or the Hyksos was not made by Manetho but by later Jewish detractors and/or apologists engaged in a war of words, do these passages capture any type of memory at all?

    • Bee
      2015-05-28 00:31:07 UTC - 00:31 | Permalink

      Big if. Note especially that the Hyksos language was Semitic. Proving a significant relation to the Jews.

      • Scot Griffin
        2015-05-28 02:51:24 UTC - 02:51 | Permalink

        “Big if. ”

        Not really an “if,” big or little. Josephus himself states that he was aware of two versions of the Manetho history, one that referred to Hyksos (shepherd kings), one that referred to Haksos (captive shepherds). This indicates interpolation, which is only underscored by Eusebius’ indication that the version of Manetho’s history that he had contained no identification of the Jews with Hyksos or Haksos. On top of that, you have scholars who identify that passage as a forgery.

        All told, which of the three versions of Manetho do you believe to be true and why?

        “Note especially that the Hyksos language was Semitic. Proving a significant relation to the Jews.”

        And that is relevant how?

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-05-28 12:46:52 UTC - 12:46 | Permalink

    Just to repeat briefly here a point I made in another thread on a related post, it makes no dfference to Assmann’s thesis whether Manetho or pseudo-Manetho or both were being used by Josephus. (Nor do contradictory versions necessarily imply interpolation: Herodotus and others regularly cited opposing variant tales.)

    • Scot Griffin
      2015-06-15 00:01:04 UTC - 00:01 | Permalink

      “Just to repeat briefly here a point I made in another thread on a related post, it makes no dfference to Assmann’s thesis whether Manetho or pseudo-Manetho or both were being used by Josephus. ”

      So, I want to be clear, are you saying that Assmann’s thesis remains valid even if all of the evidence upon which Assmann relies (1) dates to no earlier than the Hasmonean period and (2) reflects and responds to the politics arising from Hasmonean aggression in Palestine? That evidence would still prove a repressed cultural memory about 15 century BCE Egypt?

      “Nor do contradictory versions necessarily imply interpolation: Herodotus and others regularly cited opposing variant tales.”

      But Herodotus and others typically would include both, usually one after the other to compare and contrast. Josephus does not observe that this alleged other version says “Shepherd Captives” in addition to “Shepherd Kings,” he says that the other version says “Shepherd Captives” instead of “Shepherd Kings.” Big difference. Think about it.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2015-06-15 01:00:45 UTC - 01:00 | Permalink

        I don’t know if we’re addressing the same question, sorry. You may have missed another comment of mine earlier asking you what you consider Assmann’s point/thesis here to be.

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