Decoding the El Arish Stone – blog entry 1
Almost forgotten, in the tiny museum of Isma’ilya, some 125 km northeast of Cairo, is an artifact that corroborates the Biblical Exodus and provides us with the inside story from an Egyptian point of view.
Even the museum curator does not realize the artifact’s significance. It’s known as the “El Arish Stone”. It is a piece of black granite weighing two tons, measuring 4 feet in length, and 2.5 feet in width. It was found in 1887 on a farm at El Arish, lying on its side. At the time, it was being used as a water trough for cattle. When archaeologist Frances Llewellyn Griffith found the slab of granite, his clue to its value was the hieroglyphics. By the writing, he dated the object to the Ptolemaic period, specifically the 30th Dynasty (380-360 BCE), when it was probably used as a shrine. But the inscriptions seem to refer to events some 1200 years earlier (c. 1500 BCE) and appear to tell the story of the Exodus, with a twist: this story is told from Pharaoh’s, not Moses’, perspective.
In the past, I’ve always summarized the findings. Now, what I want to do is treat the hieroglyphics on the stone as a series of posts. I want to decode the 2,300-year-old inscriptions and see what secrets they may reveal.
The first 5 lines of hieroglyphics state (my translation based on Griffith and Goyon):
“1. The majestic Shu was the perfect King of heaven, of the earth, the underworld, of water, of winds, of the primeval waters, of hills and of the sea 2. [He took command] giving orders from the throne of his father, Ra Harmakhis, the Brave One. Now, the majestic Shu went to his royal residence…3. in Memphis. There, his majesty spoke to the great council of [nine] gods which accompanied him; ‘Come now, let us march towards…4. from the East, towards my royal residence of At-Nebes. There we will ‘see’ our father Ra-Harmakhis in the luminous region of Bakhit. We can go ahead taking the river…5. let us organize ourselves at the court in At-Nebes.’ Then they did according to all that his majesty decreed.”
You wouldn’t think that this has anything to do with the Biblical Exodus, but it does. Later, in the text, the stone describes a “parting of the sea”, the Biblical plague of darkness and more. As a result, most people who know about this stone jump to the “exciting part”. But, if we pick up the story from the very beginning we may get a whole different take on the Biblical Exodus.
The Biblical tale of the Exodus recounts the liberation of Israelite slaves – led by Moses – from under Pharaoh’s rule. But if you want to understand the lead up to this event you have to recall that, according to the Bible, originally, the 12 tribes of Israel were living in Egypt in freedom, not slavery. So as to avoid famine in the land of Israel, they had arrived in Egypt as a small clan under the leadership of the patriarch Jacob. In other words, in the beginning, the Israelites flourished. According to the Bible, one Israelite, Jacob’s son, Joseph, rose to the rank of near pharaoh. So how did the upwardly mobile Israelites become slaves? Well, the Book of Exodus states that after Joseph’s death the Egyptian authorities turned against Joseph’s people. That’s the key to understanding this story and now we have the means to unlock its secrets. Here’s the two million dollar question: why did the Egyptians make slaves out of the Israelites?
The Book of Exodus (1:8-11) puts it this way (my translation from the Hebrew):
“A new king rose up over Egypt, that did not know Joseph. And he said to his Free Serfs (Amo): see here, the Israelite Free Serfs (Am) are becoming more numerous and stronger than we are. Let us deal treacherously with them, lest they multiply further. Then, when war breaks out, they too will join our enemies, and do battle against us.”
So what is the Torah saying here? Joseph died and a new “king” – not a new “Pharaoh” – took over in Egypt. Joseph could have been the “king”. He was second in command to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:41-42). The Israelites lived in “Goshen” i.e., Lower Egypt and, in the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s boss is called “Pharaoh, King of Egypt” (Genesis 41:46). At the time, Lower Egypt was represented by the red crown and Upper Egypt by the white crown. Only the most powerful pharaohs wore both crowns. Only the most powerful were called “pharaoh” and “king”. After Joseph’s death, a “new king” arose. Usually this passage is understood as referring to a new pharaoh. Read differently – read accurately – the Biblical passage is referring to the man who replaced Joseph, not pharaoh. To be clear, after Joseph’s death, a new Joseph arose, not a new pharaoh.
The Bible states that, unlike Joseph, this new ruler did not “know” Joseph. Clearly, this doesn’t mean that Joseph was instantly forgotten. What it means is that this new ruler did not follow Joseph’s policies. The new ruler set himself up as a “king”. Basically, whereas Joseph was loyal to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the new ruler wasn’t. He grabbed the red crown for himself. When he did this, he realized that a war would ensue. He knew that the pharaohs, based in Thebes, in Upper Egypt, would come looking for their crown and attempt to reclaim their lost kingdom. In anticipation of this coming war, the usurper decided to enslave the Israelites. He was worried that just as Joseph had been loyal to the pharaohs, so too would be his Israelite brothers.
Finally, now we can understand the plain meaning of the Biblical text. This new “king… said to his Free Serfs…let us deal treacherously with [the Israelites], lest they multiply further [and], when war breaks out, they too will join our enemies, and do battle against us.” In Exodus 1:22 it states that Pharaoh followed the King of Egypt in his anti-Israelite policies. He ordered all the male Israelite babies killed. Basically, in anticipation of the upcoming war neither side trusted the Israelites, thinking they will join the opposition. The Israelites were literally caught in the crossfire.
There’s only one period in Egyptian history which fits this Biblical scenario. Scholars call it the “Hyksos” period. Basically, a Semitic, “Canaanitish” people from the area of Canaan/Israel migrated into Lower Egypt and then grabbed the red crown. Apparently, they introduced the chariot into Egyptian warfare, so they leveraged their technology against the local rulers. For a while, the Egyptians in the south were too weak to fight these invaders. But, then, under Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II, known as “the Brave”, the pharaohs started a liberation war against the Hyksos. Seqenenre “the brave” died in battle. After his defeat his son Kamose took over the throne. He regrouped his army, met with his generals in his palace in the south and then, once again, attacked the Hyksos in Lower Egypt.
The above scenario is exactly what is described in both the Torah and the El Arish stone. The Biblical story is now unfolding from different points of view! In the above quoted passage, the synchronicity between the Biblical text and Egyptian archaeology has been totally overlooked:
The Torah says that in anticipation of war, the Israelites were enslaved by the Hyksos king because he was concerned that the Israelites would join the Egyptians. On the other side of the coin, the El Arish stone relates that Pharaoh, known by his god name “Shu”, son of “the Brave One”, had to suddenly take over his father’s throne. He then regrouped his army, marched it away from the battlefield, met with his 9 “god” councilors at a place called At-Nebes and plotted revenge.
Basically, when you line up the Torah – the beginning of the Book of Exodus – with the first 5 lines of the El Arish stone, you get a glimpse into the back room politics of the Exodus. You literally see the winds of war gaining momentum. With this decoding, for the first time, we get the Egyptian perspective on the Biblical events. From their point of view; they started a war of liberation against the Hyksos, they lost their divine leader and the battle, but the dead Pharaoh’s son saved the day.
From our point of view, Pharaoh Kamose prepared for a counter attack and precipitated the events that would lead to Moses and the Exodus.
As they say…to be continued…we will continue to decode the El Arish stone in my upcoming posts.
Check out my previous blog in the Times of Israel: Biblical Joseph’s ring – found!