A review of Dr. Douglas Petrovich’s book Origins of the Hebrews: New Evidence of Israelites in Egypt from Joseph to the Exodus. Nashville: New Creation, 2021. Hardcover, 314 pages, $40, available at the ABR online bookstore: https://store.biblearchaeology.org/products/origins-of-the-hebrews. Kindle version currently available on Amazon.
This important book by Douglas Petrovich on the archaeological evidence of Joseph’s political role in Egypt, the existence of the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt is the most significant that has ever been written on these topics. Petrovich has combed through nearly all of the relevant archaeological reports, articles in scholarly journals, and books written that deal with these issues. Incidentally, before continuing with this review, I do not have any financial connections to this book, its author, or its publisher. There are nine chapters in this book and they are entitled as follows:
1. Background Matters for the Origins of the Hebrews
2. Chronology and Synchronization
3. Avaris as the Site of Biblical Ramesses
4. Evidence of Israelites in Egypt/Sinai during Dynasty 12
5. Signs of Joseph’s Administration in Egypt and Nubia
6. Signs of Israelites at Avaris between Dynasties 12 and 18
7. Evidence of Israelites in Egypt/Sinai during Dynasty 18
8. Evidence for Amenhotep II as Pharaoh of the Exodus
9. Concluding Thoughts
The “References” listed in this book are 29 pages long and include over 500 excavation reports, scholarly articles, and books which deal in one way or another with Joseph, the Israelites in Egypt, and the Exodus. Petrovich’s list of references is alone nearly worth the price of his book. In addition, there are five useful appendices in his book, and there are also 39 “Figures,” which include pictures, archaeological drawings, and maps.
Petrovich has especially gone through all of the archaeological reports, articles, and books written by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak, who has excavated at Tell el-Dab’a for about four decades. Tell el-Dab’a is the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Avaris, which is referred to in the Old Testament by its other name of Ramses/Ramesses. It was from the city of Ramses that Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The discoveries made by Bietak and his team of archaeologists at Tell el-Dab’a are some of the most significant that have ever been made in biblical archaeology. This does not mean that Bietak and his team have always recognized the significance of their discoveries for biblical archaeology.
The first four chapters in Petrovich’s book are foundational and argue that the archaeological evidence and the synchronization of Egyptian and biblical chronologies prove that the Israelites were in Egypt for a total of 430 years and that they lived in or near the site of Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris/Ramses in the northeast Delta area, where they were settled by Pharaoh Sesostris II, for whom Joseph served as vizier.
For one example of the archaeological evidence of the existence of Israelites in Egypt—an example Petrovich cites—Bietak has excavated four-room houses at Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris/Ramses dating to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and only Israelites are known to have built four-room houses. Incidentally, many four-room houses dating to the Iron Age have also been found in archaeological excavations in Israel. No other ethnic group is known to have built four-room houses. The presence of four-room houses in Egypt argues conclusively for the presence of Israelites in Egypt during the Middle and Late Bronze periods.
Bietak and his archaeological team have also excavated a large, non-Egyptian palatial house at Tell el-Dab’a, and under it they found an earlier, four-room house. Bietak also found a large, intentionally smashed statue in conjunction with this palatial house. This male statue is clearly of an “Asiatic” (i.e., from Canaan) since he has a “mushroom hairdo” and yellow skin. The size of this statue clearly indicates that this “Asiatic” once held some sort of very high office in the Egyptian government.
Some conservative Bible scholars have suggested that this statue was of Joseph, and that the palatial house near where it was found was his retirement home. However, Petrovich argues that the statue was not of Joseph but rather of his father Jacob. Petrovich also argues that the four-room house under this palatial house once belonged to Jacob. In addition, he also argues that it was Ephraim and Manasseh who built the palatial house over the site of their grandfather Jacob’s earlier home.
Petrovich points out that this non-Egyptian palatial house strangely has two “master bedrooms,” which he believes were used by Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. As Petrovich suggests, since Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of the wealthy vizier Joseph, they could have easily afforded to build this palatial house.
Petrovich also believes that Pharaoh Sesostris II made Jacob a provincial ruler in the Delta, and that when Jacob died, he was replaced as governor by Ephraim, with his older brother Manasseh playing a secondary role. Incidentally, Ephraim and Manasseh were Joseph’s sons born of an Egyptian mother, and they would have spoken both Hebrew and Egyptian and would have also been trained in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is likely, as Petrovich suggested in his earlier book The World’s Oldest Alphabet, that Ephraim and Manasseh played key roles in the development of the Hebrew/Canaanite alphabet.
In chapter five, Petrovich begins dealing in great detail with Joseph and the role that he played in Egyptian history. He identifies Joseph with the Middle Kingdom vizier Sobekemhat, who served as vizier for both Sesostris II and his son Sesostris III. As would be expected, the pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name which contained the name of an Egyptian god. It should be recalled that more than a thousand years later, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar gave Babylonian names to Daniel and his three friends, and their new names contained elements of the names of Babylonian gods.
Petrovich argues that it was the pharaoh, most likely Sesostris II, who named Joseph “Sobekemhat” after the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek. The name Sobekemhat translates as “Sobek is Preeminent.” In Egyptian religion, the god Sobek was associated with the Nile River and especially with the Fayum/Fayyum area in western Egypt. Sobek was not seen by the ancient Egyptians as a bad god but rather as a god of wisdom and as a god of the fertility of the Nile River and especially of the Fayum area. It appears very likely that Joseph was named after the god Sobek, because he played a major role in developing the Fayum area as the breadbasket of Egypt during the seven years of plenty. Incidentally, the Fayum also served as a breadbasket for centuries later and even provided grain for the city of Rome after Julius Caesar captured Egypt in 47 BC.
The highest official in Egypt after the pharaoh was the vizier, and Joseph undoubtedly held this position, but the Bible relates that he also held the high position of chief steward at the same time. It is highly unusual for one man to hold both of these positions at the same time, but Pharaoh Sesostris II apparently wanted Joseph not only to rule Egypt as his vizier / prime minister, but also to be in charge of all of the agricultural production in Egypt, and hence he also made Joseph chief steward. According to Egyptologist Charles Aling, an inscription in the mastaba tomb of Sobekemhat states that he, too, held both of these two high positions at the same time. Petrovich’s identification of Joseph with the vizier Sobekemhat is almost certainly correct.
There are three mastaba tombs of viziers located just to the north of the pyramid of Sesostris III at Dahshur. The largest mastaba, which is also the one located nearest to the pyramid of Sesostris III, is that of Sobekemhat. According to the Bible, the mummy of Joseph was taken to Canaan by the Israelites when they left Egypt in the Exodus. As Petrovich notes, no mummy was found in the tomb of Sobekemhat.
In chapters 6–7, Petrovich uses archaeological evidence to argue for the existence of Israelites in the northeast Delta area in the period from Dynasty 12 to Dynasty 18. There is a great deal of excellent archaeological information in these chapters that supports the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. However, because of size constraints for this book review, this evidence will not be reviewed here. It is mainly in chapter 8 that Petrovich provides a great deal of information supporting the historical accuracy of the Exodus story, and this review will focus on this archaeological evidence.
In chapter 8, mainly using Bietak’s archeological reports and the chronological information provided in the Old Testament, Petrovich argues that the Exodus of the Israelites took place in 1446 BC during the 18th Dynasty and under the rule of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. As Petrovich states, only Amenhotep II meets all of the biblical requirements for the pharaoh of the Exodus. For example, as Petrovich notes, Moses spent 40 years in exile in Midian because a pharaoh was seeking to kill him for having killed an Egyptian slave-foreman who had beaten an Israelite slave to death.
There are only two pharaohs in the entire New Kingdom period who served as pharaoh for 40 or more years: Thutmosis III (ca. 1504–1450 BC) and Ramses II (ca. 1279–1212 BC). Therefore, one of these two must be the pharaoh who sought to kill Moses, because Moses remained in Midian for 40 years until the pharaoh who was seeking his life died. In Exodus 2:23, Moses is told by Yahweh that the pharaoh who sought to kill him had died and that he, Moses, was to return in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
Moses returned to Egypt during the reign of this dead Pharaoh’s heir, who had to have been either Amenhotep II (son of Thutmosis III) or Merneptah (son of Ramses II). However, as Petrovich correctly notes, Merneptah cannot be the pharaoh of the Exodus, because on his “Israel Stele” (ca. 1210 BC) he unquestionably states that the Israelites were already in Canaan when he undertook a military campaign there. Incidentally, Merneptah falsely claims on this same stele to have totally destroyed the Israelites during his military raid into Canaan. Consequently, only Amenhotep II fits as the pharaoh of the Exodus.
Petrovich provides a great deal of archaeological evidence proving that the Israelites left Egypt in 1446 BC during the reign of Amenhotep II. For example, he notes that Bietak found solid archaeological evidence that proves that Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris/Ramses was suddenly abandoned during the 18th Dynasty. Even though Bietak reports the sudden abandonment of Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris/Ramses, he does not provide a good reason for it.
Petrovich argues that the abandonment of Tell el-Dab’a/Avaris/Ramses, which happened rapidly and which lasted for several decades, can only be explained as the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. He also argues that the archaeological evidence indicates that this Exodus-connected abandonment took place during the reign of Amenhotep II.
As additional proof of the historical reality of the Exodus, Petrovich also cites Bietak’s discovery of the intact skeletons of over 30 lambs that were all killed at the same time and that were all buried inside of the area of the Palatial Complex at Tell el-Dab’a. Bietak’s explanation—that they all died at the same time from some disease—is a statistical impossibility since all were lambs under one year of age. Incidentally, while the Palatial Complex has been mostly excavated, the massive residential areas at Tell el-Dab’a have had very little archaeological work. It is likely that the skeletons of more Passover lambs will be found in these residential areas.
Since the lamb skeletons excavated in the Palatial Complex were all of lambs of under one year of age—required for Passover—and since they were not cut into pieces—another Passover requirement—these lambs must have been Passover lambs that were killed by Israelite slaves who worked in the palace complex. Petrovich also argues that the archaeological evidence proves that the deaths of these lambs must date to 1446 BC at the time of the Exodus.
Petrovich also points out in his book that Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in his Second Military Campaign in Canaan, which took place about seven months after the Exodus, captured over 100,000 slaves (men, women, and children), and that he also captured and brought back to Egypt over 1,000 chariots and also tens of thousands of confiscated weapons. It appears that the main reason for Amenhotep II’s Second Campaign was to restock his supply of slaves and to rebuild his army after the disastrous Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. There is even more evidence in Petrovich’s book supporting the historical accuracy of the Bible on the Sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus under Moses, but the examples given above must suffice for this brief review of his book.
This is a well-written and well-researched scholarly book, and it is highly recommended for those interested in the archaeological evidence now available on Joseph, the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus. Because of its archaeological terminology and its scholarly nature, this book is somewhat technical, and it is intended primarily for biblical archaeologists, academics, religious leaders, and well-read laypeople. This is an excellent book, and it is certain to become a classic, but I do have a few suggestions for Dr. Petrovich for the second printing of his book.
First, Petrovich should make mention of the Soleb inscription from the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III—the grandson of Amenhotep II—in which “the land of the Shasu of Yahweh” is mentioned. This inscription is the oldest reference ever found outside of the Bible to Yahweh. It dates to ca. 1385 BC, and it provides strong support for the early date of the Exodus in 1446 BC. It is highly likely that the Shasu (migrant herdsmen) mentioned in this Soleb inscription were Israelites who had already settled in the land of Canaan by ca. 1385 BC.
Second, he should also deal with the Mitanni king Cushan of the Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim, who was defeated by the Judge Othniel. It is highly likely that the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Exodus and Othniel’s defeat of the kingdom of Mitanni’s army necessitated the later Egyptian-Mitanni peace treaties and the subsequent political marriages between the Mitanni and Egyptian royal families. Earlier, the kingdom of Mitanni had been the main enemy against whom Thutmosis III fought in his 18 military campaigns, and yet only about 70 years after his death, the Egyptian and Mitanni royal families were making peace treaties and intermarrying.
The defeat of the Egyptian army in the Exodus and the defeat of the kingdom of Mitanni by Othniel explain this drastic change in Egypt’s international politics. Incidentally, it is highly likely that Cushan (probably a title and not a name) saw the military weakness of Egypt, which was caused by the Exodus, as an opportunity to expand into Canaan. Hence, he invaded Canaan and ruled the Israelites for eight years, but unfortunately for him, he clashed with and was defeated by an Israelite army led by the Judge Othniel.
Third, Petrovich should rewrite the portion of his book dealing with the age of Amenhotep II when he ascended to the throne of Egypt. Petrovich and several other Egyptologists accept a superficial interpretation of Ronald Leprohon’s translation of the Sphinx Stele, which appears to state that Amenhotep II was only 18 years old when he ascended to the throne as the sole ruler of Egypt when his father Thutmosis III died ca. 1450 BC (Petrovich 2021: 157; Leprohon 2010: 26). If true, this would mean that Amenhotep II was born ca. 1468 BC. Incidentally, the Bible indicates that the pharaoh of the Exodus himself did not die as a firstborn son; hence Amenhotep II was not the firstborn son of Thutmosis III.
Amenhotep II is known to have had an older brother named Amenemhet who died before the death of their father Thutmosis III. Amenemhet was born ca. 1495–1490 BC and died sometime before ca. 1453 BC. If Amenhotep II was only 18 years old when he ascended to the throne, then he would have been born ca. 1468 BC. However, if Amenhotep II was only 18 years old when he ascended to the throne of Egypt, then there would have been at least a 20-year gap between the births of Amenemhet and Amenhotep II. During this period of 20+ years, Thutmosis III supposedly had no other surviving male children who would have been the heir before the “18-year-old” Amenhotep II. This is a highly unlikely scenario.
The Sphinx Stele is almost certainly being misinterpreted by Petrovich and some other Egyptologists. It is highly likely that the Sphinx Stele records Amenhotep II claiming to have the body of an 18-year-old when he ascended to the throne. If the Sphinx Stele is read carefully, it does not say specifically that Amenhotep II was only 18 when he ascended to the throne of Egypt, but rather it says that he had “completed 18 years upon his thighs” (Leprohon 2010: 26; Petrovich 2021: 157).
It is highly likely that Amenhotep II was only bragging that he had the body of an 18-year-old when he ascended to the throne of Egypt ca. 1450 BC, and bragging about his physical strength is found in some of his other inscriptions and matches well with his known personality. His father Thutmosis III, who ruled Egypt for nearly 55 years, must have been at least 60 years old, and probably about 65, when he died in 1450 BC. Thus, it is probable that Amenhotep II was born ca. 1490–1485 BC when his father was still a young man. It is also highly likely that Amenhotep II was actually about 40 years old, and not 18, when he ascended to the throne as the sole ruler of Egypt in 1450 BC.
Fourth, Petrovich assumes that Amenhotep II, during his Second Military Campaign in Canaan, captured 3,600 Israelites who were stragglers from Moses and the main body of Israelites who were escaping from Egypt during the Exodus (Petrovich 2021: 160–62). As Petrovich notes, Amenhotep II’s Second Campaign took place in southern Canaan about seven months after the Exodus. Petrovich’s hypothetical capture of these “straggler” Israelites by Pharaoh Amenhotep II is not mentioned in the Bible, and it is highly unlikely that he actually captured Israelites. Amenhotep II does state that he captured 3,600 “Apiru”/Hebrews in Canaan during his Second Campaign (see Helck 1955: 1308–9, as quoted in Petrovich 2021: 186). However, while all Israelites were Hebrews, not all Hebrews were Israelites.
It is highly likely that these 3,600 “Apiru”/Hebrews were Edomites, who were the close relatives of the Israelites. It should be noted that Amenhotep II also claimed to have captured 36,300 “Kharu,” or Horites/Hurrians, in southern Canaan (Helck 1955: 1308–9, as quoted in Petrovich 2021: 186). This matches well with Genesis 36:20–29, which indicates that there was indeed a large group of Kharu/Horites/Hurrians living in the land of Edom in the patriarchal period, some of whom intermarried with the Edomites. One of Esau’s wives was a Horite/Hurrian.
Amenhotep II’s Kharu/Horite/Hurrian captives almost certainly came from the general area of Edom where they then lived near the Edomites. The presence of Kharu people, who were enslaved by Amenhotep II, strongly suggests that the “Apiru”/“Hebrews” whom he captured were their neighbors, the Edomites, and not Israelites. Incidentally, it appears that it was Amenhotep II who ended the presence in Edom of the Horites/Hurrians, who are mentioned in Genesis as having lived there during the patriarchal period. The Old Testament does not mention any Horites as being in Edom after the time of the Exodus.
Fifth, Petrovich should include some reference to the ruler of the Delta area of Egypt who was named Jacob. It appears that in the 14th Dynasty, either one or two rulers of the Delta area were non-Egyptian and were named “Ja‘qob-har” (Van Seters 2010: 159). While this Ja‘qob-har was probably not the patriarch Jacob, the appearance of the name Jacob as some sort of a ruler in the Delta area of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period is highly significant.
While the little-known kings of the Delta area during the 14th Dynasty are frequently grouped with the Hyksos invaders who ruled Egypt during the 15th Dynasty, they were not true Hyksos. Israelites, Canaanites, and a “mixed multitude” of other ethnic peoples were living in the Delta area long before the arrival of the Hyksos. Since Petrovich argues in his book that Pharaoh Sesostris III made Jacob a provincial ruler in the Delta area, he should include a reference to this Delta ruler named Jacob/Ja’qob-har in the second edition of his book.
And sixth, Petrovich should also include some sort of a discussion on Amenhotep II’s missing son Webensenu, who was almost certainly his firstborn son who died at the time of the Exodus. For some unknown reason, Webensenu has been overlooked not only by Petrovich but also by almost all other scholars writing about the firstborn son of Pharaoh who died in the Exodus. As can be seen in my article in the Spring 2022 issue of Artifax (see bibliography), there is strong evidence indicating that Webensenu was the firstborn son of Pharaoh Amenhotep II and that it was he who died at the time of the Exodus.
Now for a few predictions. Petrovich’s outstanding book will at first be ignored by critical scholars who deny the Exodus, and also by late-date evangelical scholars who believe that the Exodus occurred ca. 1275–1265 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II rather than in 1446 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. Eventually, however, after trying to ignore the significance of Petrovich’s pivotal book, most of these critical scholars and late-date evangelicals will be forced to recognize the significance of his book for biblical archaeology. These rejectionist scholars will still not accept it, but rather than dealing with its archaeological and biblical evidence, they will begin nitpicking his book and also begin making personal ad hominem attacks on Petrovich.
Let me encourage those scholars who will reject Petrovich’s book to first read it carefully and then deal with the actual archaeological, historical, and biblical evidence that he presents. They should not engage in unscholarly and dishonest ad hominem attacks on his person. It is my experience that those scholars who engage in ad hominem attacks on their opponents do so because they cannot win on the archaeological-historical evidence and/or on the merits of their scholarly arguments. Incidentally, there is an old saying that should be kept in mind in any scholarly dispute: “When you are throwing dirt, you are losing ground.”
One of the arguments that has in the past been used by critical scholars against the historical reliability of the Bible is that there supposedly is no archaeological evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt or for their exodus from Egypt. Petrovich’s book destroys that argument. I highly recommend Douglas Petrovich’s outstanding book Origins of the Hebrews: New Evidence of Israelites in Egypt from Joseph to the Exodus. It will almost certainly become one of the great classics of all time in biblical archaeology.
Billington, Clyde E. 2022. "Is the Screaming Mummy the First-Born Son of Pharaoh?," Artifax 38, no. 2 (Spring): 14–18.
Helck, Wolfgang. 1955. Urkunden der 18. Dynastie. Heft 17, Historische Inschriften Thutmosis' III. und Amenophis' II. Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums 4. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
Leprohon, Ronald J. 2010. “The Royal Titulary in the 18th Dynasty: Change and Continuity.” Journal of Egyptian History 3, no. 1: 7–45.
Petrovich, Douglas. 2021. Origins of the Hebrews: New Evidence of Israelites in Egypt from Joseph to the Exodus. Nashville: New Creation.
Van Seters, John. 2010. The Hyksos: A New Investigation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.