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Osarseph and Exodus: Literary Reflections in an Egyptian Mirror
Delivered at the annual meeting of the International Society of
Biblical Literature, Lausanne, Switzerland 1997
The story of Osarseph, preserved by Josephus and attributed by him
to an Egyptian priest named Manetho, tells of the struggles between a
rebellious Egyptian priest named Osarseph and a Pharaoh Amenhotep and
his son Ramesses also called Sethos. Osarseph, according
to the story, seized control of Egypt for thirteen years, instituted
a reign of terror, and destroyed Egypts religious institutions.
The pharaoh fled from Egypt and hid his son away for safety. Later,
the son returned and expelled Osarseph from Egypt. This Osarseph,
says Manetho, was Moses, the biblical hero.
Most Egyptologists and biblical scholars who study this report
easily recognize that it tells of events during the reign of Pharaoh
Akhenaten, but they uniformly reject the identification of Moses with
Osarseph. By concentrating solely on the passage identifying these
two figures as one and the same, however, I submit that scholars have
overlooked many additional passages that have literary parallels in
the biblical Exodus account, but which switch the role of villain and hero.
In this paper I will look at some of these parallel events and
show that Manethos story of Osarseph and the bibles story
of Moses and the Exodus draw upon many of the same Egyptian literary
themes. Among the issues examined are the hiding of the infant from
the cruel ruler, the return of the infant later on to challenge the
cruel ruler, the seeing of god, leprosy, and the city
where the slaves worked. The paper will argue that the Exodus
occurred during the coregency of Ramesses 1 and Sethos, and that the
confrontation between Moses/Osarseph and Ramesses also known as
Sethos arose out of a struggle for possession of the throne at
the death of Pharaoh Horemheb. The Manetho and biblical stories each
represent an attempt to identify the hero with the god Horus and the
villain with the god Set.
The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in his Against Apion,
records a story about an Egyptian priest named Osarseph who leads a
revolution against a pharaoh named Amenophis, takes control of Egypt
for thirteen years, commits horrendous religious abuses, and is
eventually driven out of Egypt by the pharaoh and his son. Josephus
attributed the story to a third century BC Egyptian priest named
Manetho, who had written a history of his native country. Most
scholars familiar with this story have easily recognized that the
Osarseph story provides a disguised account of the events surrounding
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his monotheistic religious revolution. What
makes this story controversial, though, is that, according to
Josephus, Manetho said that Osarseph was Moses and that his followers
were a collection of diseased Egyptians.
Josephus also quotes a second Egyptian historian, named Chaeremon, a
contemporary of his, who tells of the same set of events but with
enough variations in the story to suggest that he relied on a source
different than Manethos. Chaeremon, too, identifies the rebel
leader with Moses, but gives him the Egyptian name of Tisathen.
However, he also says that Moses had a co-revolutionary leader named
Peteseph, and identifies this Peteseph with Joseph, an identification
possibly based on the similar pronunciation of the two names.
Almost all biblical scholars and Egyptologists reject the idea of a
connection between Moses and Akhenaten, and the two Egyptian stories
are simply dismissed as false. Since the portions of the story
identifying Moses with Osarseph or Tisathen consist of a single
sentence easily removable from the larger account, many scholars have
suggested that the insertion resulted from either a forged addition
to the original Manetho or a hateful anti-Jewish slur. Others have
suggested that Manetho relied on a source from Egyptian records but
that the source was erroneous.
The concentration of attack on this one reference has, I believe,
prevented scholars from stepping back and looking at the two stories
as a whole and comparing them to the biblical account of the Exodus.
In this paper, I want to examine both stories and show that together
they present the same story-line as the biblical account of the
Exodus, and that both the biblical and Egyptian stories utilize a
common Egyptian literary motif, which draws upon the Egyptian
political myths concerning the struggles of Horus and Set for the
Egyptian throne. I also suggest that the Egyptian and biblical
stories are describing the same set of political events from a
different political point of view.
Let me begin with a summary of the two stories.
The Manetho Story
The main players in the Manetho story are the pharaoh Amenophis, his
son Sethos, also known as Ramesses, and Osarseph, a
priest from the city of Heliopolis, known as On in the bible.
Amenophis is the Greek transliteration for Amenhotep, the original
throne name of both Akhenaten and his father.
According to Josephus, Amenophis had a desire to see the gods and he
communicated this desire to a famous seer. The wise man told
Amenophis that he could accomplish his goals if he purged Egypt of
all the lepers and polluted people. Delighted with this news, the
king rounded up all such people, to the number of about 80,000, among
whom were several priests afflicted with leprosy, but, strangely,
instead of having them leave Egypt, he enslaved them in the stone
quarries, segregating them from the rest of the Egyptians. When the
seer learned what Amenophis had done, he feared that the
pharaohs actions would bring a violent retaliation from the
gods and predicted that the polluted people would join with allies
and they would take control of Egypt for 13 years.
(As a side note, one should recall that Moses, too, desired to see
God, and his actions also seem to have had some connection to leprosy
and disease. In the one instance, after asking to see God directly,
his face changed in such a way that it frightened the people and he
had to wear a veil, a form of cover identified in Leviticus 13:45
with leprosy. In the other instance, in the presence of the burning
bush, the hand of Moses turned leprous.)
After a long period of misery the slaves petitioned the king, asking
permission to move to the abandoned city of Avaris, the former
capital of the Hyksos kings. There they laid plans for a revolt and
elected Osarseph, a Heliopolitan priest, to be their leader. His
first orders were not to worship the Egyptians gods and to kill off
the sacred animals held in reverence by the Egyptians. He then
fortified the walls of Avaris and prepared for war against Amenophis.
Next, he sent an ambassador to the exiled Hyksos leaders and formed a
military alliance. The Hyksos sent 200,000 soldiers to join with
When Amenophis learned of the coming invasion he remembered the
seers prediction that Egypt would suffer for thirteen years at
the hands of its enemies. He arranged protection for the sacred
animals and icons and then hid his five-year-old son, Sethos,
also called Ramesses with a friend and I note
parenthetically, that Sethos, also called Ramesses is the
name that Josephus uses for the pharaohs son.
After making these security arrangements, Amenophis assembled an army
of 300,000 of Egypts finest soldiers and marched against the
Osarseph-Hyksos alliance. But at the last moment, he had a sudden
fear that his actions would be construed as an attack on the gods
and, rather than engage the enemy, he pulled back his troops and
withdrew to Memphis. There he gathered the sacred animals and
withdrew his forces to Ethiopia, where the king gave him land and protection.
Osarseph ruled the land for 13 years, instituting a reign of terror.
He burned cities, mutilated sacred images, killed the sacred animals
and had his followers eat the sacred beasts. At some point during
Osarsephs reign, according to Josephus, the usurper changed his
name to Moses.
At the end of the prophesied time period, Amenophis and his son (now
confusingly named Rampsesthat is, with a letter p
inserted into the middle of his name) advanced from Ethiopia with a
large army and drove the enemy deep into Syria, killing many of them
along the way. And so the story concludes.
The Chaeremon version of this story contains some interesting
variations. He also refers to the pharaoh as Amenophis but identifies
the son only as Ramesses, omitting the Sethos portion of the
childs name. In Chaeremon, however, there are two rebel
leaders, one named Peteseph, whom he identifies as Joseph, the Hebrew
Patriarch, and the other named Tisathen, whom he identifies as Moses.
In the beginning of this story, Amenophis does not desire to see the
gods. Instead, he had a vision in his sleep of the goddess Isis, who
reproached him for the destruction of her temple during a war.
Worried by his dream, Amenophis seeks advice, and a sacred scribe
tells him that if he purges Egypt of the contaminated people, he
would no longer have to be alarmed.
The king rounded up 250,000 such people and ordered them out of the
country. Tisathen and Peteseph led the polluted ones to the Egyptian
border, but when they got there they found an exiled Egyptian army of
380,000 soldiers belonging to Pharaoh Amenophis. The two forces
joined together and marched against the pharaoh. Not to put too fine
a point on this, but Chaeremons claim here is that Moses was
aided by an army belonging to Akhenaten.
Here, too, Amenophis fled to Ethiopia but in this account he left
behind his pregnant wife, who hid in a cave and gave birth to the
child Ramesses. At some undefined time in the future, when Ramesses
has achieved manhood, he drove the Jews from Egypt into
SyriaJews is the word used by Josephusand
brought his father home from Ethiopia.
The Two Stories Compared
It is quite apparent that both stories are about the same set of
events, but the differences between them suggest more than one source
for the account.
In Manetho, Amenophis desires to see the gods; in Chaeremon he has a
vision of deity. In both stories, though, in response to the
pharaohs concern, a seer advises him to round up the lepers and
polluted ones and banish them from Egypt. In Manetho, Amenophis
disobeys the advice and gathers the polluted ones together in the
stone quarries; in Chaeremon, Amenophis takes the advice and banishes them.
In both stories the polluted ones rebel against the pharaoh. But, in
Manetho, they send for and ally with the Hyksos; in Chaeremon, they
meet an exiled Egyptian army and join with them. In Manetho, there
are 80,000 rebels and 200,000 Hyksos allies; in Chaeremon there are
250,000 rebels and 380,000 Egyptian allies
In Manetho, the child is five years old when his father flees Egypt,
at which time the youth is hidden with a friend. The child is 18
years old when he returns and drives Osarseph out; In Chaeremon,
Ramesses is an infant at the beginning of the rebellion and born in
secret, hidden away by his mother. He returns as an adult of
unspecified age at the time of his victory.
Let us now compare the Osarseph/Peteseph rebellions with the biblical
account of the Exodus. Plot-wise, the Egyptian story has the
1. A pharaoh fears that a large group of people living in Egypt
represent a threat to the throne;
2. He vacillates between letting them leave the country and enslaving them;
3. He also vacillates between confronting them militarily and retreating;
4. He orders them enslaved;
5. After a period of enslavement, they ask permission to journey to
another location of special interest to them;
6. A god is to punish the Egyptians for the pharaohs act of enslavement;
7. The slaves rise up against the pharaoh and bring great devastation
to the land;
8. A cruel ruler comes to the throne and oppresses the people;
9. A child is hidden away from the cruel ruler;
10. The child is raised in the pharaohs household;
11. When the child reaches adulthood, he liberates his people from oppression;
12. The former slaves are chased out of Egypt by the pharaoh.
With just one slight plot twist, this story-line is almost identical
to that of the biblical Exodus. In the Egyptian account, the
child-liberator is the future pharaoh and the cruel tyrant is the
slave leader. Therefore, in the Egyptian story the child is hidden
away after the slave revolt while in the biblical story the child is
hidden away before the slave revolt. In most other respects, however,
the biblical and Egyptian stories are virtually identical.
In both accounts, the pharaoh fears a particular group of Egyptian
residents; he enslaves the people whom he fears; the slaves are
isolated from the rest of the country; the slaves initially ask to go
only to a different location; the pharaoh vacillates between a hard
line and retreat; a god punishes Egypt for the act of enslavement;
the slave leader causes great devastation to befall Egypt; and the
slaves are chased out of Egypt by the pharaoh.
There are also some interesting factual coincidences in the Egyptian
and biblical accounts. The most significant concerns the city of
Avaris. In the bible, the Hebrew slaves are assigned to the city of
Raamses which scholars generally equate with the Egyptian city of
Pi-Ramesses. This Egyptian city received that name during the reign
of Ramesses II. But, the original city name was Avaris. So, in both
the Egyptian and biblical accounts, the slaves are identified with
the same city. Interestingly, neither Josephus nor Manetho seem to be
aware of this coincidence.
In the Manetho account, the slaves number about 80,000. In the Book
of Numbers, the Joseph tribes total about 85,000 members. In the
Chaeremon account, the combined forces of Osarsephs army number
630,000 soldiers. Compare that with the claim in Exodus 12:37-38 of
the Exodus group consisting of 600,000 males plus a mixed multitude.
There is also the matter of Heliopolis. That city has a close
religious link to pharaoh Akhenaten, who worshipped Re-Herakhty, the
chief deity of that city. Biblical Israel also has a close religious
link to Heliopolis because Joseph, upon becoming Prime Minister of
Egypt, married the daughter of Heliopoliss chief priest.
Horus and Set
The several plot parallels and factual coincidences in the Egyptian
and biblical stories suggest a common literary source, but there is
still this difficult matter of the role reversal between the pharaoh
and the slave leader. To explain this anomaly, we must first examine
the chief political myth of Egyptian life.
According to the Egyptians, the god Osiris and his wife Isis ruled
over Egypt in a golden age. Osiris and Isis were brother and sister
as well as husband and wife. They also had a brother named Set, and a
son named Horus. Set wanted to be king so he assassinated Osiris and
seized the throne. But the infant Horus was the legitimate heir and
Isis, fearful that Set would kill her son, hid him away for safety.
When Horus grew to adulthood, he returned to avenge his father.
Defeating Set in battle, he assumed the throne and banished Set to
the desert wilderness. In the Egyptian mind, all legitimate kings
represent the god Horus in a human aspect.
This myth is ancient, its basic structure possibly derived from
events surrounding the unification of Egypt at the beginning of the
First Dynasty by Horus worshippers. In the Second Dynasty, political
conflict between Horus and Set worshippers again reappears, with at
least one king adopting the name Set instead of Horus, and another
adopting the combined name of Horus and Set. And between the Twelfth
and Eighteenth Dynasties, when the Asian Hyksos kings dominated
Egypt, the Hyksos chose Set as their chief deity while the rebellious
native Egyptian royal line continued to identify with Horus.
The political events defining Horus and Set also overlapped in the
area of nature mythology, with Set on the one hand being identified
with the evil serpent that devoured the sun at the end of each day,
and on the other as the mighty warrior that defended the sun against
the evil serpent.
Despite the murder of Osiris, a Set cult remained active in Egypt,
and, the deity retained a relatively positive image down into the
Nineteenth Dynasty. As late as the post-Exodus Twentieth Dynasty, we
find an Egyptian story known as The Contendings of Horus and Set,
in which Horus and Set sue each other for the right to rule Egypt,
with Re-Herakhty, king of the gods, favoring Set over Horus. The
favorable image of Set in New Kingdom times can be seen from the fact
that two Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs were named Sethos after him and
Ramesses I and Ramesses II closely identified with the city of
Avaris, which had been dedicated to Set.
With the expulsion of the Hyksos kings, myth and history combined to
form a literary iconography, one that is reflected in both the
Osarseph and Exodus stories. Set is the cruel usurper who is
subsequently driven into the wilderness; Isis is the mother who hides
her child from the cruel ruler; Horus is the child who returns as an
adult to defeat the usurper and regain the throne.
Amenophis and Sethos
The bible indicates that the pharaoh confronted by Moses had just
taken the throne, but it does not identify the pharaoh or his
predecessor. In the Osarseph story, the pharaoh who confronted the
Moses character was named Sethos, also called Ramesses. I
suggest that the name Sethos, also called Ramesses is a
confused description of the very brief coregency between Ramesses I
and his son/successor Sethos I.
This identification is somewhat problematic though, because the
father is identified as Amenophis, who is either Akhenaten or
Akhenatens father. Akhenaten came to the throne 59 years before
Sethos I, and several other pharaohs ruled in between. But, if we
look at Josephuss somewhat confused rendition of what is
represented as Manethos Eighteenth Dynasty chronology, with
several pharaohs out of chronological sequence, we find the
unusual sequence of Ramesses I, Amenophis, and Sethos I, with Sethos
I being identified as Sethos, also called Ramesses. The
Amenophis in that sequence, placed in the middle of the coregency
between Ramesses I and Sethos I, is obviously Akhenaten, because he
is given a reign of 19 years, the combined length of reign for
Akhenaten and his coregent. Strangely, Josephus totally ignores this
chronological sequence, alleging that the Amenophis in his story is a
fictitious king invented by Manetho.
The Literary Model for Exodus
If I am correct in placing Osarsephs rebellion during the
coregency of Ramesses I and Sethos I, then we can place both the
Osarseph story and the biblical Exodus story within the literary and
political framework of the struggle between Horus and Set.
Ramesses I was the successor to Horemheb. Like Horemheb, he served
originally as a general in the army and had no royal blood. His total
reign lasted about two years, part as coregent with Horemheb and part
as coregent with Sethos I.
The bible makes Moses an adopted member of the royal household. If
the pharaoh of confrontation is either Ramesses I or Sethos I, Moses
would have had an arguable claim to the Egyptian throne. He was a
member of the preceding royal house and neither Ramesses I nor Sethos
I had any royal blood ties.
The confrontation between Moses and the Pharaoh, then, was a
confrontation over the right of succession to the royal throne, Moses
claiming a tie to the royal blood line and Ramesses, also
called Sethos claiming the legitimate right of succession. Such
a conflict would certainly generate an intense propaganda war for the
support of the powers that be.
Each side attempted to identify itself with Horus and the challenger
with Set. Consequently, each side is identified with the royal child
hidden by his mother from a cruel oppressor, and the challenger is
depicted as the illegal usurper.
At the same time, the literary model is placed against a background
of actual political events growing out of the religious/political
feuds between Pharaoh Akhenaten and the Theban establishment.
At first, Akhenaten brought about a hated religious heresy. When he
died, a counter-revolution occured. Under Pharaoh Horemheb, an
intense political persecution of Akhenatens followers took
place. When Horemheb died, Osarseph/Moses returned to Egypt, led his
oppressed followers in rebellion, and challenged Horemhebs
successor for the right to rule. Civil war loomed in the background. Osarseph/Moses
lost the political contest and left Egypt with his followers. Each
of the disputants depicted the Exodus of Osarseph as a victory over
the rival, claiming to have caused great damage to the enemy forces.
For a parallel, one might think of Ramesses II falsely boasting about
how he single-handedly drove the Hittites into the Orontes and
drowned the enemy.
Consistent with the Egyptian desire to suppress all public record of
Akhenatens existence, no monument recorded the Pharaohs
victory over his political rival. But non-public versions of the
story survived in Egyptian records.
Scribes in both camps framed the historical events within Egyptian
literary formats and produced parallel accounts, each portraying
their own hero as child-liberator and depicting their rival as the
usurping villain. Like backward writing, if we hold both texts up to
an Egyptian literary mirror, we can see the true history reflected
back at us.