The connection between Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BCE) and the Passover seder (“Pharaonic Foursome,” March 28) may be far more significant than people realize.
The commonly held view is that Rameses II (1279-1213 BCE) was the pharaoh of the Exodus. But observations in a recent biography of Amenhotep III, and the possible connection between that pharaoh’s favorite deity, Sekhmet, and the 10 plagues narrative in the Book of Exodus, point to the possibility that he was the Exodus pharaoh.
According to Egyptologist Arielle Kozloff, Amenhotep III was obsessed with memorializing his life in great detail. Yet there is a surprising eight-year gap in the documentation of his reign. Dr. Kozloff’s theory is that Egypt must have been in the throes of a major national trauma. She cites reasons to believe that one or more plagues, possibly including bubonic plague, struck Egypt at that time. Although she shares the view that the Exodus occurred around the time of Rameses II, Dr. Kozloff acknowledges that her theory about this eight-year period bears a striking similarity to the Exodus story that we retell at every seder.
Amenhotep III is known to have ordered as many as 700 statues of Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of war, plague and pestilence, to be made and prayed to twice daily. His motive remains obscure, but scholars note that Sekhmet was also looked to for protection and healing, and for revenge on the Egyptians’ enemies.
The Book of Exodus hints in several places at a link between Sekhmet worship and the 10 plagues, particularly in the narrative of the first and tenth plagues. The first plague, the blood-filled Nile, echoes a foundational Egyptian myth in which Sekhmet slaughters humans at the command of her father, the sun god Ra. Before the last plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn, God says He will not allow “the Destroyer” to smite the houses of Israelites who comply with His directive to smear the blood of the Paschal lamb on their doorposts (Exodus 12:23). The ancient Egyptians referred to Sekhmet as “the Destroyer.” So, perhaps God used Sekhmet worship as the focal point for “executing judgment on the Egyptian deities” (Exodus 12:12) when He demonstrated that the Egyptians’ gods could neither protect them from the plagues nor wreak vengeance on the Jews.
The identity of the Exodus pharaoh may continue to elude clear proof. But if there is a connection between Amenhotep III and the Exodus story, the pharaoh whose four colossal statues are found in Luxor may well have been the Exodus pharaoh himself. This would give fresh reason to believe that the event we celebrate on Passover as a cornerstone of our faith did, in fact, occur.