I recently watched the Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings. It was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. I found some things odd. The main actors mostly look and talk like northern Europeans. Christian Bale as Moses can’t help but sound English-Welsh. Then there was the geography. The Egyptian scenes take place in Upper Egypt around Memphis, rather than near Pi-Ramesses in the Nile Delta. The Red Sea crossing is at the Gulf of Aqaba. But most movie-goers probably didn’t care.
The reason I mention the movie is because once again Hollywood portrays Ramses II as the pharaoh of the Exodus. This was also the case in The Ten Commandments (1956). The cinematic reason to do this is that we have all kinds of spectacular stuff from his tomb, so set designers and costume designers have much to work with. They did a great job in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
It is still true that many scholars agree that Ramses II is the most historically likely candidate for the pharaoh of the Exodus.
The reason for this is the mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele. Pharaoh Merneptah boasted of a military campaign into Canaan in which he subdued, among others, Israel. It is the first clear mention of Israel in any ancient document. But if Israel had come into Canaan in force by the time of Merneptah, then the Exodus must have taken place during the long reign of his predecessor, Ramses II. Also the Israelite slaves in Egypt worked on the building projects of Ramses, according to Exodus 1:11.
The identification of Ramses II as the let-my-people-go pharaoh depends on the assumption that the twelve tribes were all in Egypt as slaves at the same time and that none of them had previously left. Yet we know that a bunch of Western Semites left Egypt at the time of the Hyksos expulsion three hundred years before Ramses II. The Bible itself occasionally lets slip a reference to Israel outside of Egypt during that period (Judges 11:26).
This is why Igor Lipovsky, in Early Israelites, can make the proposal that the exodus of Moses took place after the time of Merneptah. The Israel Merneptah speaks of consisted of the house of Joseph and allied tribes who had left Egypt long before the time of Moses. But others (the house of Jacob) remained in Egypt.
During the time of Ramses II Egypt was near the pinnacle of its power both in Egypt and in Canaan. Merneptah sought to maintain this power. But after the death of Merneptah, the 19th dynasty went into a swift decline characterized by political chaos. Lipovsky judges that this set the stage for Moses to bring about his exodus.
He put the exodus right at the change of leadership from Queen Tausret and the new pharaoh, Setnakht, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th dynasty. This seems to have happened sometime between 1192 and 1182 BCE.
Lipovsky speculates that Moses returned to Egypt several years before the Exodus and there prepared and bided his time until a civil war (the plagues were natural disasters mixed with the civil disasters described in the Harris Papyrus) gave him leverage to negotiate with the endangered regime. However, when Setnakht first began to take power and restore order, Moses moved quickly and led the Jacob tribes out of Egypt.
The source that Lipovsky uses for this period is the Harris Papyrus. He does not seem to be aware of some archeological finds that both help and hurt his case. I will deal with strengths and weaknesses I see in his detailed scenario in another post.
For now, though, I want to stress the geopolitical reality that makes his date for the exodus appealing. Egypt was very powerful throughout 13th century. Seti I, Ramses II, and Merneptah all asserted Egyptian power in Canaan. They did not occupy most of Canaan, but through vassals they received revenue and kept the trade routes open. When these things were under threat, they sent the army. The Israelite conquest of Canaan could not have happened then.
At the same time, Egypt maintained a series of fortresses that controlled both entry and exit from Egypt proper. While this system was operating, the exodus is problematic. However, even if the Harris Papyrus exaggerates the chaos at the beginning of the 12th century, it seems likely that parts of the system broke down. Ramses III, the second king of the 20th dynasty, restored it somewhat. But there was an opportune period of Egyptian confusion and weakness right at the end of the 19th dynasty.