The Exodus Decoded

In 2006, the History Channel aired The Exodus Decoded, a multi-million dollar documentary by award-winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, with additional backing from more famous filmmaker James Cameron. In The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici attempted to forge firm historical and scientific links to the biblical story of the exodus. In my judgment, Jacobovici failed dramatically. I explain why in a series of nineteen analyses of Jacobovici’s evidence and arguments. The Exodus Decoded unfolds with a series of “exhibits,” a word that evokes both a museum tour and a courtroom dispute. I’ve organized my response to The Exodus Decoded using the same outline. In brief, Jacobovici wishes to date the Israelite exodus from Egypt to c. 1500 BC, to identify Ahmose as the pharaoh of the exodus, and to provide scientific explanations for the ten plagues. Jacobovici presents sixteen “exhibits” to support his case.

Exhibit A: Ahmose’s “Tempest Stela.” Jacobovici claims that Ahmose’s Tempest Stela gives an Egyptian version of some of the ten plagues. However, Jacobovici must rewrite both the Tempest Stela’s text and the biblical book of Exodus in order to make the synchronisms work, and the Tempest Stela predates Jacobovici’s date for the exodus by several decades.

Exhibit B: Pharaoh Ahmose. Ahmose’s mummy itself, of course, proves nothing. Jacobovici attempts to connect Ahmose to Moses, but this attempt rests on phonemic coincidences in English and ignores the details of Ahmose’s family tree (Exhibit B1). Jacobovici also attempts to connect the Israelites with the Hyksos, but to accomplish this, Jacobovici must mangle several important dates (Exhibit B2).

Exhibit C: The Beni Hasan tomb paintings. Jacobovici shows viewers some tomb paintings from Beni Hasan in Egypt. These paintings date from c. 1890 BC, and according to the hieroglyphic captions, they depict a group of Canaanite merchants visiting Egypt to trade cosmetics and other goods. Jacobovici, however, assigns the paintings to c. 1700 BC and tries to connect them with Jacob’s migration to Egypt as described in the book of Genesis.

Exhibit D: The Jacob-har royal ring. The name inscribed on this signet ring, better transliterated Yaqub-hor, belonged to a well-attested Hyksos ruler. However, Jacobovici wants viewers to ignore the -har element and its well-known historical connection, and instead to connect only the Yaqub part to Joseph’s father Jacob, from the book of Genesis, as evidence of Joseph’s connection with the Hyksos.

Exhibit E: Inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadim. Jacobovici claims that some early alphabetic graffiti from Egyptian mines at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai peninsula can be identified as Israelite because of a letter sequence that Jacobovici reads as the divine name “El” (as in “Isra-El”). However, Canaanites worshiped El for centuries before and after the emergence of Israel. Moreover, Jacobovici misunderstands or misrepresents the content of the inscriptions, omits inscriptions that speak against his thesis, and ignores the tension between his scenario and the biblical narrative.

Exhibit F: Santorini/Thera pumice in Egypt. The Bronze Age eruption of the volcanic island known to the ancient Greeks as Thera and to modern tourists as Santorini plays such a large role in The Exodus Decoded that it requires four separate installments in this series. Jacobovici tries to use pumice from Thera (in the Aegean), excavated from Avaris (in Egypt), to establish that Thera erupted around 1500 BC. However, volcanologists date Thera’s Bronze Age eruption to c. 1625 BC, and Manfred Bietak, the archaeologist whom Jacobovici interviews on this point in The Exodus Decoded, concludes that the pumice was secondarily brought to Avaris after floating across the Mediterranean to the Egyptian shore (Exhibit F1). Jacobovici claims that an “earthquake storm” accompanied Thera’s eruption, and that this earthquake storm toppled Egyptian idols, as narrated in the Bible and in Ahmose’s Tempest Stela. However, the idols that suffered indignities in Ahmose’s Tempest Stela suffered those indignities before the titular tempest, and the biblical story of the exodus says nothing about idols toppling; moreover, Jacobovici’s has no geophysical or archaeological evidence that any such earthquakes occurred in Egypt c. 1500 BC (Exhibit F2). Jacobovici’s model of an earthquake storm depends heavily on a theoretical model that hypothesizes an earthquake storm propogating in a west-to-east pattern across the Agean, Anatolia, and the Levant in the period 1225–1175 BC. Based on this model, Jacobovici posits a similar earthquake storm around 1500 BC. However, the scientist who proposed the model in the first place calculated that the Mediterranean earthquake storm prior to the 1225–1175 BC storm would have occurred around 1625–1575 BC, much earlier than Jacobovici claims (Exhibit F3). Jacobovici claims that this earthquake storm could release gasses that oxidized the Nile, causing the water essentially to rust; he cites Lake Nyos in the Cameroon as his analogy. For Jacobovici, this explains the first through sixth plagues as a series of natural events. However, Jacobovici’s analogy doesn’t hold up when one considers the differences between lakes and rivers, and the phenomena he describes don’t actually mirror the biblical descriptions of the ten plagues, despite his claims to the contrary (Exhibit F4).

Exhibit G: The Admonitions of Ipuwer. Jacobovici claims that this text describes the seventh plague, which Jacobovici glosses as a hail of both ice and fire. However, the Admonitions of Ipuwer don’t say what Jacobovici claims they say, nor does his scenario fit the biblical description of the seventh plague. Moreover, the Admonitions of Ipuwer probably dates at least 200 years and possibly as much as 680 years or so before Jacobovici’s date for the plagues. Jacobovici’s scenario also requires a dramatically unrealistic spread of ejecta from Thera, but in fact Avaris is much too far away for any of the ejecta from Thera to have fallen in Egypt in sufficient size or quantity to make Jacobovici’s scenario realistic.

Exhibit H: Santorini Ash in the Nile Delta. Jacobovici claims that falling and rising temperatures caused by the plague of hail—temperature variations for which no physical or documentary evidence exists—prompted odd behavior by locust swarms, the eighth plague. He turns again to Thera/Santorini for an explanation of the ninth plague, attributing the plague of darkness to ash from Thera’s eruption. Ash did reach the Nile delta region from Thera’s eruption, but in extremely small quantities, not enough to constitue a plague of tangible darkness.

Exhibit I: Mass graves at Tell el-Daba. Returning to his Lake Nyos analogy, Jacobovici claims that carbon dioxide gas, hanging low to the ground, killed the Egyptian firstborn, who slept on beds; their younger siblings slept higher away from the ground, and therefore escaped. Jacobovici has no evidence for this, only conjecture, and at any rate this cannot explain the exclusion of Goshen and the effect on animals as narrated in the biblical story. For Exhibit I, Jacobovici notes that Manfried Bietak has excavated some mass graves with only male occupants at Tell el-Daba. Jacobovici interprets these bodies as victims of the tenth plague. Of course, a skeleton cannot reveal its birth order, and the biblical story does not limit the plague to firstborn males. Perhaps more importantly, Bietak concludes that the corpses belonged to diseased soldiers who died over a longer period of time than one night.

Exhibit J: Ahmose’s son, Prince Sapir. Sapir, often but inconclusively identified as Ahmose’s son, died young, at about twelve years of age. Jacobovici wants viewers to conclude that Sapir died in the tenth plague, but of course nothing about an early death inherently ties Sapir to a miraculous plague. Many Egyptians died young of natural causes. Moreover, nothing in the biblical story suggests that the tenth plague discriminated by age, making Sapir’s youth even more irrelevant.

Exhibit K: El-Arish granite shrine inscription. This inscription, which dates from over a millennium after Ahmose, bears a hieroglyph that Jacobovici misinterprets as referring to a “divided sea.” He therefore tries to connect the inscription to the parting of the Reed Sea (Hebrew “Yam Suf”) in the exodus story. However, Jacobovici mangles the text and ignores the fact that it comes from a completely different time period.

The Reed Sea or Yam Suf. Jacobovici identifies Lake Ballah as the biblical Yam Suf. In this he may well be correct. However, instead of citing the actual biblical, archaeological, and geographical evidence that points in this direction, Jacobovici offers another misguided linguistic argument.

Exhibit M: Santorini wall paintings. Jacobovici wrongly claims that a particular wall painting from Santorini depicts a Minoan voyage to Avaris. He then locates some of these Minoans among Moses’s followers in the exodus—which, of course, the painting cannot possibly demonstrate.

Exhibit N: Mycenaean grave stelae. According to Jacobovici, the Minoans who followed Moses out of Egypt parted from the Israelites and “returned” to the Greek mainland, specifically Mycenae, where they carved grave stelae illustrating the crossing of the sea. Jacobovici’s interpretations of the stelae depend to a significant degree on distorting the stelae, in particular, on turning lions into horses.

Exhibit O: Mount Sinai (Hashem el-Tarif). As with the Yam Suf, Jacobovici may correctly identify the site of Mt. Sinai as Hashem el-Tarif. This identification remains inconclusive, however, and other contenders remain in the fight. Moreover, Jacobovici’s method of drawing the identification depends on spurious estimates of the Israelites’ travel time in the Sinai peninsula, and finding the actual location that ancient Israelites meant by “Mt. Sinai” doesn’t prove anything about the exodus.

Final Exhibit: Mycenaen bird pendant. For his final exhibit, Jacobovici produces a small Mycenaen pendant with birds perched at either end of a rectangular object. Jacobovici claims this small pendant represents the biblical ark of the covenant. To make this connection, Jacobovici claims that the Israelite tribe of Dan had a special relationship with the ark of the covenant, and that the Danites (or at least a substantial portion of them) were actually Minoans who followed Moses out of Egypt and then sailed for the Greek mainland to become Homer’s Danaoi. Jacobovici must also triple the size of the tabernacle’s altar and reorient various pieces of tabernacle furniture in order to make his scenario work.

For the reasons surveyed briefly above, I consider The Exodus Decoded misguided at best (if Jacobovici doesn’t know better) and deceptive at worst (if Jacobovici does know better). The pages that follow offer much more detail on each point. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from a number of well-meaning Jewish and (more frequently) Christian believers who find themselves attracted to Jacobovici’s thesis because they think his scenario gives them a firm historical basis for the exodus. However, Jacobovici doesn’t succeed in this—not only because he misrepresents (intentionally or ignorantly) his ancient nonbiblical evidence, but also because the story he tells differs noticeably, and sometimes quite dramatically, from the story the Bible tells.