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Egypt, often referred to as Mizraim (Mits·raʹyim) in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a pivotal location mentioned over 700 times in the Bible. This name traces back to Ham’s son, Mizraim, indicating the significant role his descendants played in the region. Today, Egypt still goes by the name Misr among Arabs. Some Psalms refer to it as “the land of Ham.”
Geography has been central to Egypt’s identity, both historically and contemporarily. The country owes its existence to the life-giving Nile River. The river, with its fertile valley, streaks across the arid desert regions of northeastern Africa like a lengthy, narrow stretch of verdant greenery. “Lower Egypt” is the expansive Delta area where the Nile’s waters spread before merging into the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, the Nile split into five branches at this point, but currently, only two remain. The point of divergence is approximately 160 kilometers (or 100 miles) from the seacoast, near modern Cairo.
In the vicinity of Cairo, you’ll find the site of ancient Heliopolis (also called On in the Bible). A short distance south of Cairo is Memphis, usually referred to as Noph in the Bible. The region south of Memphis, extending up the valley to Aswan’s first cataract of the Nile (ancient Syene), is “Upper Egypt,” covering a distance of around 960 kilometers (or 600 miles). Some scholars divide this region into “Middle Egypt” (the northern part) and “Upper Egypt.” Here, the flat Nile Valley rarely extends beyond 20 kilometers (or 12 miles) in width, with the desert’s limestone and sandstone cliffs bordering on both sides.
Beyond the first cataract lies ancient Ethiopia. Consequently, Egypt is said to stretch “from Migdol [likely in northeast Egypt] to Syene and to the boundary of Ethiopia.” Scholars often consider the Hebrew term Mits·raʹyim to stand for the entire land of Egypt, but in certain contexts, it may represent Lower Egypt, possibly even Middle Egypt, with Upper Egypt indicated by “Pathros.”
Egypt’s borders are defined by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Nile’s first cataract and Nubia-Ethiopia to the south, the Libyan Desert to the west, and the Red Sea Desert to the east. These natural barriers largely insulated Egypt from external influences and invasions. However, the northeastern Sinai isthmus provided a connection to the Asiatic continent, used for commercial caravans, migrations, and, eventually, invading armies. “The torrent valley of Egypt,” typically identified as the Wadi el-ʽArish in the Sinai Peninsula, seemingly marked the northeastern boundary of Egypt’s domain. Canaan was located beyond this. To the west of the Nile, there were at least five desert oases, including the large Faiyum oasis, which were part of the Egyptian kingdom.
Oxyrhynchus and Fayum (Faiyum) Egypt Papyrus Manuscript Discovery
The Oxyrhynchus and Fayum regions of Egypt were both important centers of papyrus production and trade in the ancient world. As a result, these regions have yielded a significant number of papyrus manuscripts, including New Testament manuscripts.
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are a collection of over 500,000 fragments of papyrus manuscripts that were found in Oxyrhynchus between 1896 and 1962. The Fayum Papyri are a smaller collection of papyrus manuscripts that were found in Fayum between 1880 and 1940.
The New Testament manuscripts found in Oxyrhynchus and Fayum date from the 2nd to the 7th centuries C.E. They include fragments of all four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline epistles, the General Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. These manuscripts are some of the earliest and most important witnesses to the text of the New Testament.
The discovery of the Oxyrhynchus and Fayum Papyri has provided scholars with a wealth of information about the early Christian church. These manuscripts have helped to shed light on the development of the New Testament text, the spread of Christianity in Egypt, and the everyday life of Christians in the Roman Empire.
In addition to the New Testament manuscripts, the Oxyrhynchus and Fayum Papyri also contain a wide variety of other texts, including philosophical treatises, scientific works, literary works, and legal documents. These manuscripts provide a valuable glimpse into the intellectual and cultural life of Egypt in the Roman period.
The discovery of the Oxyrhynchus and Fayum Papyri has been a major event in the history of biblical scholarship. These manuscripts have helped to shed new light on the text of the New Testament and have provided valuable insights into the early Christian church. The discovery of these manuscripts is a testament to the importance of archaeological research and the power of ancient texts to reveal the past.
Economy Dependent on Nile
The economy of Egypt, both in ancient times and today, has been largely reliant on the Nile River. Previously, the desert regions along the Nile Valley hosted a myriad of game animals hunted by the Egyptians within the wadis or torrent valleys. However, rainfall has always been sparse, and today is nearly negligible, with Cairo receiving only about 5 centimeters (2 inches) annually. Thus, the Nile’s waters became indispensable for sustaining life in Egypt.
The sources of the Nile are nestled in the mountains of Ethiopia and surrounding lands, where seasonal rainfall increases the river’s flow, causing annual flooding in Egypt from July to September. This natural event doesn’t just supply water for irrigation canals and basins; it also deposits nutrient-rich silt to nourish the soil. Such fertility in the Nile Valley and Delta made it comparable to “the garden of Jehovah, like the land of Egypt.” Nevertheless, this annual flooding could be inconsistent, resulting in poor production and famine during low inundation years. If the Nile failed to flood entirely, it would prove catastrophic, transforming Egypt into a barren wasteland.
Given its agricultural richness, Egypt’s primary crops included barley, wheat, spelt, and flax, the latter of which was used to produce fine linen exported globally. Vineyards and trees producing dates, figs, and pomegranates thrived, and a diverse array of vegetables was cultivated, including cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic. The biblical reference to ‘irrigating the land with one’s foot’ could allude to the use of a foot-powered waterwheel or the manipulation of irrigation channels using one’s foot.
During famines, neighboring populations often sought refuge in Egypt, much like Abraham in the early second millennium B.C.E. Consequently, Egypt evolved into a significant granary for the Mediterranean region, evident in the grain ship Apostle Paul boarded from Alexandria, Egypt, bound for Italy.
Another major export of Egypt was papyrus, derived from reeds growing abundantly in the Delta’s marshes. However, Egypt’s scarcity of forests necessitated the import of lumber, especially cedar, from Phoenician cities such as Tyre, where Egyptian linens were highly valued. The construction of Egyptian temples and monuments relied on abundant local supplies of granite and softer stones, like limestone. Homes and palaces were typically built from mud brick. Mines along the Red Sea and in the Sinai Peninsula provided gold and copper, leading to the production and export of bronze products.
Stock raising was integral to the Egyptian economy. Abraham, for instance, procured sheep, cattle, as well as beasts of burden such as asses and camels from Egypt. Horses, likely introduced from Asia, are first mentioned during Joseph’s administration in Egypt and later became significant trade commodities during Solomon’s reign.
Wildlife was abundant in Egypt, from birds of prey like vultures, kites, eagles, and falcons, to water birds including the ibis and crane. The Nile was rich with fish, while hippopotamuses and crocodiles were commonplace. Desert regions housed jackals, wolves, hyenas, and lions, alongside a variety of snakes and other reptiles.
The inhabitants of Egypt were primarily Hamites, believed to be descendants of Ham’s son, Mizraim, according to the Genesis account (10:6). After the dispersion at Babel (Genesis 11:8-9), many of Mizraim’s offspring, including the Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, and Pathrusim, are presumed to have migrated to North Africa (Genesis 10:6, 13, 14). Pathros, the singular form of Pathrusim, is associated with Upper Egypt, and there are indications that Naphtuhim may have settled in Egypt’s Delta region.
The notion of a composite population composed of various tribal families is substantiated by the country’s division into several sections, known later as nomes, from early antiquity. These divisions persisted and were incorporated into the governmental structure even after Egypt’s unification under one primary leader, enduring until the empire’s decline. Typically, 42 nomes were recognized, 20 in Lower Egypt and 22 in Upper Egypt. The persistent distinction between Upper and Lower Egypt throughout the nation’s history, though possibly related to geographical differences, may also indicate an initial tribal partition. When central authority waned, the nation often fragmented into these two primary segments or neared disintegration into numerous minor kingdoms within the different nomes.
Based on ancient artwork and mummified remains, early Egyptians are typically depicted as small in stature, slender, and dark-skinned, though not Negroid. However, a wide range of appearances is apparent in the variety of ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures.
Modern linguists tend to categorize the Egyptian language as “Semito-Hamitic.” Although fundamentally Hamitic, it reportedly shares several grammatical and lexical similarities with Semitic languages. Yet, the divergence between Egyptian and all Semitic tongues is more substantial than the differences within the Semitic group itself. Thus, until the relationships with African languages are more explicitly defined, Egyptian should primarily be classified as outside the Semitic grouping (Egyptian Grammar, A. Gardiner, London, 1957, p. 3). When Joseph concealed his identity from his brothers, he conversed with them through an Egyptian interpreter (Genesis 42:23).
Several factors render it exceedingly difficult to definitively determine the earliest forms of language utilized in Egypt. The Egyptian writing system is one such factor. Ancient inscriptions employed pictographic signs (depictions of animals, birds, plants, or other objects) in addition to specific geometric shapes, a method of writing the Greeks called hieroglyphics. Though certain symbols eventually came to denote syllables, they supplemented rather than supplanted hieroglyphics, and the precise sounds those syllables represented are unknown today. Some insights can be gleaned from Egypt’s references in cuneiform writings dating back to the mid-second millennium BCE, Greek transcriptions of Egyptian names and other words from around the sixth century CE, and Aramaic transcriptions from about a century later. Still, the reconstruction of the phonetics or sound system of ancient Egyptian chiefly relies on Coptic, the variant of Egyptian spoken from the third century CE onwards. Thus, the initial structure of the ancient lexicon, especially prior to the Israelite’s stay in Egypt, can only be approximated.
Moreover, our understanding of other ancient Hamitic languages in Africa is quite limited today, making it challenging to ascertain the relationship between Egyptian and these languages. No inscriptions of non-Egyptian African languages have been found predating the Common Era. These facts align with the biblical account of language confusion, implying that early Egyptians, as descendants of Ham through Mizraim, spoke a unique language distinct from Semitic tongues.
Hieroglyphic writing was primarily used for inscriptions on monuments and murals, with symbols executed in extensive detail. While hieroglyphics persisted until the Common Era, especially for religious texts, a less complex script utilizing simplified, cursive forms was developed early on by scribes writing with ink on leather and papyrus. Known as hieratic, it was superseded by an even more cursive script, demotic, particularly from the “Twenty-sixth Dynasty” (seventh and sixth centuries BCE) onwards. The decipherment of Egyptian texts only became possible after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. This inscription, housed in the British Museum, contains a decree honoring Ptolemy V (Epiphanes) dating back to 196 BCE. The writing is in Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, and the Greek text served as the key to decrypting Egyptian.
Egypt was a profoundly religious society marked by rampant polytheism. Each city and town honored its local deity as the “Lord of the City.” One account from Thutmose III’s tomb mentions approximately 740 gods (Exodus 12:12). Often, a god was depicted as having a goddess spouse and a divine son, thus forming a divine triad. The father deity was not always the primary figure, sometimes taking on a secondary role to the principal goddess of the locality (New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, 1968, p. 10). Each major god resided in a temple inaccessible to the public, served by priests who performed daily rituals of awakening, bathing, dressing, feeding, and other services. This devotion was perceived as an extension of the Pharaoh’s role, who was himself considered a living deity, the son of the god Ra. The courage of Moses and Aaron in challenging the Pharaoh with the decree of the true God is underscored by this context, as is the significance of Pharaoh’s dismissive response, “Who is Jehovah, that I should obey his voice?” (Exodus 5:2).
In spite of the vast amount of archaeological materials unearthed in Egypt – temples, statues, religious paintings, and texts – relatively little is known about the Egyptians’ actual religious beliefs. Religious texts offer an incomplete picture, often omitting more than they reveal. Our understanding of their gods and practices primarily relies on deductions or on information provided by Greek writers like Herodotus and Plutarch.
However, it is evident that religious beliefs lacked unity, with regional differences enduring throughout Egyptian history, resulting in a plethora of often contradictory legends and myths. The god Ra, for instance, was recognized in 75 different names and forms. Only a small proportion of the hundreds of deities seemed to receive nationwide worship. The most widely venerated was the triad of Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus. There were also the “cosmic” gods led by Ra, the sun-god, including deities of the moon, sky, air, earth, the river Nile, etc. In Thebes (Biblical No), the god Amon was prominent and eventually hailed as the “king of the gods” under the name Amon-Ra (Jeremiah 46:25). During festivals (Jeremiah 46:17), gods were paraded through the city streets. The Egyptians believed that simply being present during these processions fulfilled their religious obligations, obligating Ra to prosper them. They appealed to him solely for material blessings and prosperity, never for spiritual guidance. Numerous parallels can be drawn between the primary gods of Egypt and those of Babylon, with evidence suggesting that Egypt borrowed from Babylon’s pantheon.
However, this polytheistic worship did not contribute positively to the Egyptians’ moral or spiritual development. As the Encyclopædia Britannica (1959, Vol. 8, p. 53) observes, the Egyptians’ religious mysteries were not profound spiritual truths but primitive superstitions. Magic played a crucial role in their worship, being used to ward off diseases. Spiritism was also prevalent, with numerous charmers, spirit mediums, and professional soothsayers (Isaiah 19:3). Amulets, good-luck charms, and magic spells inscribed on papyrus pieces were common practices (Deuteronomy 18:10, 11). When Moses and Aaron performed miracles by divine power, the Pharaoh’s court magicians and sorcerers attempted to replicate these feats using their magical arts until they were forced to concede defeat (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7).
This superstitious devotion drove Egyptians towards a form of idolatry that included the worship of animals, demonstrating an extreme degradation of spiritual practices (Romans 1:22, 23). Many of the primary gods were customarily portrayed as having a human body but the head of an animal or bird. For instance, the god Horus was depicted with a falcon’s head, while Thoth was presented with the head of an ibis or an ape. In certain instances, the god was believed to incarnate within the animal’s body, as was the case with the Apis bulls. The living Apis bull, considered the embodiment of the god Osiris, was housed in a temple and upon death, was given a ceremonious funeral and burial. The belief that some animals – including cats, baboons, crocodiles, jackals, and various birds – were sacred due to their connection with specific gods led Egyptians to mummify hundreds of thousands of these creatures, interring them in designated animal cemeteries.
The Gods of Egypt
Again, Egyptian mythology, with its pantheon of deities, bears distinct traces of a heritage rooted in ancient Babylonian religion. This pantheon includes a variety of triads and even groupings of three triads, known as “enneads.” The most notable of them comprised Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus.
Osiris, the most revered of the Egyptian deities, was thought to be the offspring of the earth deity Geb and sky deity Nut. Legends state that Osiris married Isis and became the ruler of Egypt. Subsequently, Osiris was slain by his brother Set, after which he was resurrected to become the ruler and judge of the underworld. The striking similarities between Osiris and Isis’ characteristics and their relationship with that of the Babylonian deities Tammuz and Ishtar have led many scholars to consider them as identical.
In Egypt, the worship of mother-and-child was quite common. Isis is often depicted cradling the infant Horus, a portrayal that strongly resembles the depictions of Madonna and Child in Christian art, leading to instances of inadvertent veneration by some followers of Catholicism. Horus is also depicted crushing crocodiles or holding snakes and scorpions, possibly alluding to the Edenic prophecy about the seed bruising the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
Frequently appearing in Egyptian art and sculpture is the sacred symbol, the crux ansata, or “sign of life,” which is a cross-like figure with a loop on top. This symbol is likely a representation of the male and female reproductive organs. The Egyptian deities are often shown holding this symbol.
The Egyptians revered a wide range of animals as sacred, with different regions of Egypt assigning sanctity to different animals, sometimes leading to civil conflicts. Animals like the bull, the cat, the cow, the crocodile, and more were associated with specific gods or even viewed as the gods’ incarnations.
The Apis bull, for instance, was considered an incarnation of Osiris and an emanation of Ptah. Killing a sacred animal was punished severely, even with death in some cases, according to the historian Herodotus. If a cat died, the entire household would shave their eyebrows as a sign of mourning, and for a dog, they would shave their whole body.
The Egyptian gods were ascribed human flaws and frailties. For instance, Osiris was killed, Horus experienced illnesses and died from a scorpion sting before being resurrected, and Isis suffered from a breast abscess. The strength of the sun god Ra was believed to decline with age, and Ra even faced danger from a magical serpent created by Isis.
Interestingly, even amid such a spiritual landscape marked by the worship of false gods, Joseph, the Biblical figure, was elevated to the rank of second-in-command in Egypt by the Pharaoh, thus taking precedence over all the devotees of these deities (Genesis 41:37-44).
This expansive polytheism created contradictions within the religious system itself. For instance, multiple deities claimed to be ‘the sole god.’ Yet, the Egyptian religious thinkers found no issue in accepting the notion of one god simultaneously manifesting in a multitude of forms. This “pleasant inconsistency,” as author B. Mertz describes it, was characteristic of the Egyptian religion.
Moreover, the Egyptians believed in embodying divine attributes or even gods themselves through animal representations. As Fernand Hazan explains, these creatures were more than mere symbols; they were revered as physical embodiments of divine powers, either beneficial or harmful. This reverence was so profound that any harm inflicted upon these animals could incur serious societal penalties.
Ritualism, mystery cults, and magic practices were ingrained in the fabric of the Egyptian religion, along with religious images and symbols such as the crux ansata, the symbol of life. The New Encyclopædia Britannica posits that personal piety or individual faith was not of primary importance in this context. The emphasis was on the collective and symbolic aspects of religion, as reflected in images like Isis with Horus on her lap, a motif that later found resonance in depictions of the Madonna and Child in Christian iconography.
Lastly, the Egyptians had a profound belief in the afterlife, as demonstrated by their meticulous mummification process and the grand pyramids that served as eternal resting places for their pharaohs. Their graves often contained everyday items, such as cosmetics, beads, and food vessels, a testament to their belief in a continuing existence after death.
The ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs, marked by contradictions and yet a harmonious synthesis of diverse elements. The deep cultural and spiritual ties between Egypt and Babylon, as well as the characteristic elements of Egyptian religious practices, shed light on the distinctive trajectory of religious evolution in this ancient civilization.
Israel’s Sacrifices Abhorrent to the Egyptians
The question of why Moses emphasized that Israel’s sacrifices would be “repugnant to the Egyptians” can be traced back to the broad spectrum of animal veneration in various parts of Egypt. This reality underscored Moses’ insistence on requesting Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to retreat into the wilderness for their sacrificial rites. Moses argued, “If we were to perform an act that is revolting to the Egyptians in front of their eyes, would they not stone us?” (Ex 8:26, 27) It seems that most of the sacrifices the Israelites later performed would have been exceedingly repugnant to the Egyptians, whose sun-god Ra was occasionally symbolized as a calf born from the heavenly cow. Conversely, Jehovah brought severe humiliation upon all of Egypt’s deities, thereby propagating his name across the land (Ex 12:12).
Jehovah, by imposing the Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians, humiliated and passed judgment on their gods (Ex 12:12; Nu 33:4). Each plague was designed to disgrace a specific deity: the first plague, turning the Nile into blood, humiliated the Nile-god Hapi. The death of fish was a blow to those who venerated certain fish species. The plague of frogs insulted the frog-goddess Heqt, as frogs symbolized fertility and the Egyptian concept of resurrection. The third plague exposed the defeat of the magic-practicing priests, who failed to turn dust into gnats despite their god Thoth being credited with the invention of magic.
The distinction between Egyptians and worshipers of the true God became more apparent from the fourth plague onwards. The plague of boils, for instance, humiliated gods such as Thoth, Isis, and Ptah, who were believed to possess healing abilities. Each subsequent plague targeted specific deities, such as the fertility god Min, discredited by the plague of locusts, and sun-gods like Ra and Horus, shamed by the plague of darkness.
The most significant humiliation for the Egyptian deities was the death of the firstborn, as the rulers of Egypt styled themselves as gods, the sons of Ra or Amon-Ra. The death of Pharaoh’s firstborn, essentially meant the death of a god, striking a major blow to Egypt’s religion and demonstrating the utter helplessness of the deities in protecting their firstborn from death.
In contrast, extra-biblical sources suggest that the Canaanite god El was considered to be the creator and sovereign. El is depicted as a rebellious son who dethrones and castrates his father, and also as a murderous and adulterous tyrant. Among other Canaanite deities, Baal, the sky, rain, and storm god, stood prominent.
Despite Jehovah’s explicit instructions for the Israelites to abandon the “detestable idols of Egypt” (Eze 20:7, 8; 23:3, 4, 8), the Israelites’ worship of a golden calf in the wilderness seems to reflect the Egyptian animal worship that had influenced some of them (Ex 32:1-8; Ac 7:39-41). Later on, the worship of animal forms resurfaced when Jeroboam, who had recently returned from Egypt, made two golden calves for worship upon his ascension to the throne in the northern kingdom of Israel (1Ki 12:2, 28, 29). However, it’s noteworthy that the Scriptures recorded by Moses remain entirely uncorrupted by such Egyptian idolatry and superstition.
Spiritual and Moral Qualities Absent
Certain scholars posit that any traces of sin found in specific Egyptian religious texts are likely a product of later Semitic influence. Nevertheless, these confessions of sin were always framed negatively. As pointed out by the Encyclopædia Britannica (Vol. 8, p. 56), the Egyptian approach to confession was to assert innocence rather than guilt, stating, “I am not guilty,” instead of, “I am guilty.” The burden of proof was placed on the judges, who, according to funerary papyri, invariably ruled in the confessor’s favor, or at least it was hoped and expected they would (contrast this with Ps 51:1-5). The predominant features of ancient Egypt’s religion appear to be rituals and incantations, engineered to invoke the favor of one or several of their abundant gods to achieve desired outcomes.
Although some argue that a type of monotheism emerged during the reigns of Pharaohs Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton), when worship of the sun-god Aton became almost exclusive, this monotheism was not genuine. The Pharaoh himself remained a deity, and even in this era, there was an absence of ethical substance in the Egyptian religious texts. The hymns dedicated to the sun-god Aton primarily extolled him for his life-giving warmth but lacked any acknowledgments or praises for any spiritual or moral qualities. Thus, any claims that the monotheism presented in Moses’ writings was influenced by Egyptian beliefs lack any solid foundation.
Beliefs about the Dead
Egyptian religion was heavily centered on concerns for the deceased and preoccupations with securing one’s well-being and contentment after the transformation brought about by death. The notion of reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul was a ubiquitous doctrine. While the soul was perceived as immortal, the Egyptians also held the belief that the human body needed to be conserved, allowing the soul to periodically return and inhabit it. This conviction led to the Egyptian practice of embalming their dead.
The tomb, the final resting place of the mummified body, was considered the “home” of the departed. Pyramids were essentially monumental dwellings for the royal deceased. A plethora of life’s essentials and luxuries, encompassing jewelry, clothes, furniture, and food provisions, were accumulated in the tombs for the deceased’s future use. Additionally, inscribed spells and charms, such as those in the “Book of the Dead,” were stored in the tombs to protect the deceased from malevolent spirits. However, these protective measures didn’t shield the tombs from human plunderers, who ultimately desecrated almost every major tomb.
Notably, the bodies of Jacob and Joseph were embalmed. However, in Jacob’s case, the embalming was likely performed primarily to preserve his body until it could be moved to a burial place in the Promised Land, symbolizing their faith. In Joseph’s case, the Egyptians might have undertaken the embalming as a gesture of respect and honor. — Ge 47:29-31; 50:2-14, 24-26.
Egyptian Life and Culture
Egyptian Life and Culture: Historically, Egypt has been hailed as the ‘oldest civilization,’ credited for many of humanity’s earliest advancements and innovations. However, recent evidence has begun to shift this ‘cradle of civilization’ narrative towards Mesopotamia. Various aspects of Egyptian culture, including certain architectural techniques, the application of the wheel, possible rudimentary principles of their pictographic writing, and especially the fundamental aspects of Egyptian religion, all seem to trace back to Mesopotamian origins. This corroborates with the biblical account of people’s dispersion following the Flood.
The most celebrated achievements in Egyptian architecture are the Giza pyramids, constructed by Pharaohs Khufu (Cheops), Khafre, and Menkaure of the so-called “Fourth Dynasty.” Khufu’s pyramid, the largest of these, encompasses about 13 acres at the base and reaches a peak of approximately 450 feet (equivalent to a 40-story modern building). It is estimated that this colossal structure used around 2.3 million carefully fitted stone blocks, each weighing an average of 2.3 metric tons. Additionally, the Egyptians built monumental temples, one of which, at Karnak in Thebes (biblical No), is the largest columnar structure ever erected by man.
Circumcision was a standard practice in ancient Egypt, and the Bible counts the Egyptians among other circumcised peoples. Education primarily consisted of scribe schools managed by priests. In addition to their proficiency in Egyptian writing, royal scribes were also well-versed in Aramaic cuneiform. Their mathematics was advanced enough to facilitate their remarkable construction feats. Moses, notably, was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” implying the existence of valuable practical knowledge amidst much false wisdom.
The Egyptian political and legal system revolved around the Pharaoh, who was considered a god in human form. Subordinates or ministers, as well as feudal chiefs, helped the Pharaoh administer the land. There isn’t any known legal code from ancient Egypt. Laws existed but were likely established via royal decrees, like Pharaoh’s directives on Israelite brickmaking labor and the command to drown all newborn Israelite males.
Egyptian marriage customs permitted polygamy and marriages between siblings. Some Pharaohs married their sisters, believing no other women were sacred enough for such a “living god.” However, Israel’s law, established after leaving Egypt, prohibited incestuous marriages.
Although ancient Egyptian medical knowledge is often considered scientific and advanced, many misconceptions and superstitious practices also existed. For instance, while an Egyptian papyrus text speaks of the heart as being connected by vessels to every part of the body, it wrongly states that these vessels carry air, water, semen, and mucus, rather than blood.
Egyptian crafts spanned a wide range: pottery making, weaving, metalworking, jewelry and charm crafting, among others. By the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., Egypt was a hub for glass manufacturing. Internal transportation was mostly facilitated by the Nile River, while international trade was conducted with other African nations via caravans and Red Sea vessels.
Egyptian dress was simple, with men typically wearing an apron-like garment and women wearing long, close-fitting chemises often made of fine linen. Homes ranged from simple huts for the poor to spacious villas for the wealthy. Egyptian military personnel wielded standard weapons of the time and used horse-drawn chariots extensively in warfare. The army seems to have comprised mostly conscripts from the people; later, mercenary troops from other nations were regularly employed.
Abraham’s Visit to Egypt
The Visit of Abraham. After the Great Flood, estimated to have taken place around 2346 BCE, and following the subsequent dispersion of peoples at Babel, descendants of Ham found their way to Egypt. During the period between 1918 and 1907 BCE, a severe famine led Abraham (then known as Abram) to leave Canaan and venture into Egypt, which by then was already established under the rule of a Pharaoh, albeit one who remains unnamed in Biblical accounts.—Gen 12:4, 14, 15; 16:16.
Seemingly, Egypt was a land open to foreigners, and no signs of hostility were directed towards the nomadic Abraham, who was a dweller of tents. However, Abraham’s anxiety about the potential threat to his life due to his wife’s beauty suggests a rather questionable state of morality in Egypt at the time. (Gen 12:11-13) The series of plagues that fell upon the Pharaoh after he took Sarah into his house were effective, ultimately leading to Abraham’s expulsion from the country. Notably, when he left, he departed with more than he came with, including his wife and a wealth of possessions. (Gen 12:15-20; 13:1, 2) It is probable that Sarah’s maidservant Hagar was acquired during Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt. (Gen 16:1) Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael in 1907 BCE, and Ishmael subsequently married an Egyptian woman, his mother’s countrywoman. (Gen 16:3, 4, 15, 16; 21:21) Consequently, the Ishmaelite race was initially majorly Egyptian, with their encampments often bordering Egypt. — Gen 25:13-18.
Following another severe famine, Egypt once again seemed like a potential refuge. However, this time, sometime after Abraham’s death in 1820 BCE, Jehovah explicitly instructed Isaac not to move into Egypt.— Gen 26:1, 2.
Sale of Joseph into Slavery
Joseph’s Sojourn in Egypt. Roughly two hundred years subsequent to Abraham’s stay in Egypt, Jacob’s young son Joseph found himself in Egypt, having been sold by Midianite-Ishmaelite traders to a high-ranking official of the Pharaoh’s court in 1728 BCE. (Gen 37:25-28, 36) As Joseph later revealed to his brothers, God allowed these circumstances to unfold as part of a divine plan to ensure the survival of Jacob’s family during a time of devastating famine. (Gen 45:5-8) The narratives surrounding major events of Joseph’s life in Egypt present an indubitable depiction of the Egyptian civilization of the time. The positions of officials, cultural practices, clothing, magical traditions, and numerous other intricate details correspond with findings from Egyptian monuments, artistic depictions, and historical documents. For instance, the ceremony in which Joseph was installed as the viceroy of Egypt (Gen 41:42) is consistent with procedures recorded in Egyptian inscriptions and murals.— Gen chapters 45-47.
The Egyptians’ aversion to dining with Hebrews, as illustrated by the meal that Joseph arranged for his brothers, could be attributed to religious or racial superiority and bias, or it might be associated with their contempt for shepherds. (Gen 43:31, 32; 46:31-34) This latter sentiment could have been a consequence of the hierarchical Egyptian caste system, where shepherds were perceived as occupying a lower rung; alternatively, it could stem from the Egyptians’ resentment towards those seeking pastures for their flocks due to the limited cultivatable land available.
The Hyksos Period
Many historians position the entrance of Joseph and his family into Egypt within the widely recognized Hyksos Era. Yet, as highlighted by Merrill Unger (Archaeology and the Old Testament, 1964, p. 134), this period remains shrouded in uncertainty, with the Hyksos conquest itself being poorly understood.
Scholars’ views diverge on the Hyksos reign. Some propose their rule spanned the “Thirteenth to the Seventeenth Dynasties” over two centuries, while others restrict it to the “Fifteenth and Sixteenth Dynasties” during a shorter period of one to one and a half centuries. Interpretations of the term “Hyksos” also vary, ranging from “Shepherd Kings” to “Rulers of Foreign Countries.” Speculations about their racial or ethnic origins are even more diverse, with propositions including Indo-Europeans from the Caucasus or Central Asia, Hittites, Syrian-Palestinian rulers (Canaanites or Amorites), and Arabian tribes.
Depictions of the “Hyksos conquest” of Egypt fluctuate, with some portraying it as a swift invasion by northern hordes through Palestine and Egypt, while others propose a slow, insidious conquest. The latter theory suggests an incremental infiltration by migrating nomads or seminomads who gradually seized control or usurped the existing government in a swift coup d’état. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, in The World of the Past (Part V, 1963, p. 444), posits a peaceful interaction, arguing that the Hyksos rulers were roaming groups of Semites who frequented Egypt for peaceful trade. This view, though currently prevalent, fails to convincingly explain how such nomadic groups could overtake Egypt, particularly given its peak of power during the preceding “Twelfth Dynasty.”
As stated in The Encyclopedia Americana (1956, Vol. 14, p. 595), our primary source about the Hyksos is an unreliable fragment of a lost work by Manetho, quoted by Josephus in his rebuttal to Apion. Josephus attributes the name Hyksos to this source and seems to link the Hyksos with the Israelites, although he disputes many details of the account. He seems to interpret Hyksos as “captive shepherds” rather than “king-shepherds.” Manetho’s narrative, as quoted by Josephus, paints the Hyksos as conquerors who razed cities, wreaked havoc, and desecrated “the temples of the gods.” They were depicted as settling in the Delta region before a revolt led by the Egyptians, culminating in a siege of the Hyksos’ primary city, Avaris. Interestingly, they were allowed to exit Egypt unscathed with their families and belongings, following which they moved to Judea and established Jerusalem.
Contemporary writings label these rulers with prefixes such as “Good God,” “Son of Re,” or Hik-khoswet, “Ruler of Foreign Lands,” from which the term “Hyksos” likely originates. C. E. DeVries suggests that scholars’ attempts to equate the Hyksos’ expulsion from Egypt with the Israelite Exodus fail to align chronologically and are undermined by other factors.
Given the divine providence behind Joseph’s rise to power and its subsequent benefits to Israel, there is no need to attribute these events to the benevolent “Shepherd Kings.” (Gen 45:7-9) It is plausible that Manetho’s narrative, the basis of the “Hyksos” concept, merely represents a distorted tradition stemming from early Egyptian attempts to rationalize what transpired during the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt.
The profound impacts brought about by Joseph’s ascendancy to the acting ruler of Egypt (Gen 41:39-46; 45:26), the socio-economic transformations his administration catalyzed (Gen 47:13-20), the imposition of a 20-percent tax on the Egyptian populace (Gen 47:21-26), and the 215 years of Israelite habitation in Goshen (Ex 1:7-10, 12, 20) undeniably left deep imprints on Egyptian society. Coupled with the devastation brought by the Ten Plagues and the Exodus of Israel following the death of all Egyptian firstborns (Ex 12:2-38; 14:1-28), these developments certainly necessitated some form of explanatory narrative from the Egyptian authorities.
It’s crucial to remember that the recording of history in Egypt, like in many Middle Eastern countries, was closely tied to the priesthood, who instructed the scribes. Given the catastrophic failures of the Egyptian gods to prevent the disasters inflicted by Jehovah God, it would not be unusual for the priesthood to fabricate propagandistic accounts of these events. This type of distortion, where oppressed parties are painted as oppressors, and innocent victims depicted as aggressive instigators, is not an uncommon phenomenon in historical records. Manetho’s account, as preserved by Josephus, might simply reflect the skewed traditions propagated by successive generations of Egyptians attempting to reconcile the biblical account of Israel’s stay in Egypt.
The Enslavement of Israel
The Bible does not explicitly name the Pharaoh who instituted the oppression of the Israelites (Ex 1:8-22), nor the Pharaoh during whose reign Moses and Aaron confronted him, leading to the Exodus (Ex 2:23; 5:1). Owing to either deliberate omission from Egyptian records or the records’ destruction, it remains impossible to attribute these events to a specific dynasty or the reign of a particular Pharaoh in secular history. Ramses II, of the “Nineteenth Dynasty,” is often proposed as the Pharaoh of the oppression based on references to the Israelite laborers building the cities of Pithom and Raamses (Ex 1:11). These cities are believed to have been built during Ramses II’s reign. However, Merrill Unger, in “Archaeology and the Old Testament,” cautions that given Ramses II’s notorious habit of claiming his predecessors’ accomplishments, it is more likely he only rebuilt or expanded these cities. Notably, the name “Rameses” appears to have already referred to an entire district during Joseph’s time—Ge 47:11.
The triad showing Ramses II between the god Amon and the goddess Mut is a well-known example of this type of representation. The statue depicts Ramses II as the living Horus, the son of Amun and Mut. He is shown wearing the double crown of Egypt, and he holds the crook and flail, which are the symbols of kingship. Amun is shown on the left side of the statue, and Mut is shown on the right side. Both gods are wearing the crowns of their respective deities.
This statue is a powerful symbol of the divine kingship of Ramses II. It shows that he was not only the ruler of Egypt, but also a god in his own right. The triad was likely placed in a temple or other sacred place, where it would have reminded people of the divine authority of the pharaoh.
The statue is also a reminder of the close relationship between the Egyptian gods and the pharaohs. The pharaohs were believed to be the living embodiment of Horus, and they were often depicted with the gods in art and sculpture. This helped to legitimize the pharaohs’ rule and to ensure the support of the gods.
God’s liberation of Israel through Moses emancipated the nation from “the house of slaves” and “the iron furnace,” terms the Bible continues to use for Egypt (Ex 13:3; De 4:20; Jer 11:4; Mic 6:4). Forty years later, Israel commenced the conquest of Canaan. Attempts have been made to associate this Biblical event with the situation depicted in the Amarna Tablets—letters from various Canaanite and Syrian rulers, including those of Hebron, Jerusalem, and Lachish, which were discovered at Tell el-Amarna on the Nile. These letters mostly contain complaints about the incursions and depredations of the “Habiru” (ʽapiru). While some scholars have tried to equate the “Habiru” with the Hebrews or Israelites, the letters themselves do not support this claim. They depict the Habiru as raiders, occasionally aligned with certain Canaanite rulers in intercity and regional rivalries, a description that does not align with the major battles and victories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan after the Exodus.
The “Habiru.” This term appears in numerous cuneiform records from the start of the second millennium B.C.E. The Habiru were active in southern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, as well as in the Haran and Mari regions. Additionally, the Amarna Tablets, found in Egypt, include about 60 instances where vassal Canaanite rulers writing to their Egyptian overlord (the Pharaoh) complained of attacks against their cities by rulers allied with the “Habiru.”
The “Habiru” in Mesopotamia comprised agricultural workers, mercenary soldiers, marauders, slaves, and more. Although some scholars have tried to associate the Habiru with the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the evidence does not back this connection. The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology asserts that the “Habiru” and the biblical “ʽibrim” or “Hebrews” cannot be directly linked due to philological difficulties, the likely appellative nature of “Habiru” versus the ethnic term “ʽibri,” and the considerable differences in distribution, activity, and character between the two groups.
The “Habiru” are referenced in Egyptian documents as ʽapiru, performing roles like quarry workers, wine pressers, and stone haulers. Linguistically, it’s unfeasible to link the Egyptian term ʽapiru with the Hebrew word ʽIv·riʹ. Moreover, records cite the “Habiru” as being in Egypt long after the Hebrews had departed.
Israel’s sojourn in Egypt is deeply imprinted on the nation’s memory, and their miraculous escape from the land regularly serves as a testament to Jehovah’s Godship (Ex 19:4; Le 22:32, 33; De 4:32-36; 2Ki 17:36; Heb 11:23-29). No single event or circumstance surpassed this until their release from Babylon, which further highlighted Jehovah’s power to deliver (Jer 16:14, 15). The law incorporated their experience in Egypt (Ex 20:2, 3; De 5:12-15); it laid the foundation for the Passover festival (Ex 12:1-27; De 16:1-3); it guided their interactions with foreigners (Ex 22:21; Le 19:33, 34) and the poor who sold themselves into servitude (Le 25:39-43, 55; De 15:12-15); it provided a legal basis for selecting and sanctifying the Levi tribe for sanctuary service (Nu 3:11-13). The presence of the Israelites in Egypt also provided the basis for admitting Egyptians who met certain criteria into the Israelite congregation (De 23:7, 8). The Canaanite kingdoms and neighboring peoples were struck with awe and fear upon hearing reports of God’s power demonstrated against Egypt, paving the way for Israel’s conquest (Ex 18:1, 10, 11; De 7:17-20; Jos 2:10, 11; 9:9) and being remembered for centuries thereafter (1Sa 4:7, 8). Throughout their history, the Israelite nation memorialized these events in their songs (Ps 78:43-51; Ps 105 and 106; 136:10-15).
A Clash of Spiritual Forces and Deities—A Divine Power Showdown
The confrontation that took place in Egypt in the late 18th century B.C.E. represented more than just a struggle for freedom for the enslaved Israelites; it was a clash of spiritual forces and deities—a divine power showdown. The Israelites, descendants of Abraham, had moved to Egypt to escape a severe famine (Genesis 12:10; 46:6, 7). Their presence and subsequent enslavement set the stage for a monumental contest between Jehovah, the God of the Israelites, and the multitude of Egyptian deities.
The epicenter of this struggle became apparent when the Israelites requested permission to leave Egypt to worship Jehovah in 1446 B.C.E. Pharaoh, whose title emanates from the Egyptian term for “great house,” refused their request, sparking a chain of divine interventions (Exodus 7:1-6; 9:13-16). Jehovah brought ten devastating blows upon Egypt, effectively challenging its gods and making His power manifest (Exodus 12:12).
The first blow struck at the heart of Egypt—the Nile River. The lifeline of the nation turned into blood, killing its fish and forcing the people to dig wells for drinkable water (Exodus 7:19-24). This event was a resounding affront to Hapi, the god of the Nile, whose realm had been radically disrupted.
The second blow saw a plague of frogs—an ironic symbol of fertility within Egyptian mythology—infest the nation (Exodus 8:1-6). This not only humiliated such fertility gods as Osiris, Ptah, and Sebek, but it also undermined the supposed authority of the Egyptian gods of creation.
The third blow, a plague of gnats, further discredited the Egyptian deities. The Egyptian magicians, supposedly guided by Thoth, lord of magic, could not replicate this plague as they had done with the previous two. Furthermore, Geb, god of the earth, could not prevent the dust from turning into gnats (Exodus 8:16-18).
The fourth blow drew a line between Goshen, the area where the Israelites resided, and the rest of Egypt. Gadflies infested the land, causing destruction and havoc everywhere except Goshen (Exodus 8:20-24). This proved a significant defeat for the tutelary goddess Buto and the god Horus, both believed to oversee Lower Egypt’s affairs.
The fifth blow was a pestilence that decimated Egypt’s livestock (Exodus 9:6), a direct challenge to Hathor, the cow-headed goddess, and Nut, another cow goddess depicted as the sky’s embodiment. Their inability to prevent the loss of sacred animals was an embarrassment.
The sixth blow brought a painful boil plague on both men and beasts (Exodus 9:10, 11). Despite the reputed healing prowess of Thoth and Amon-Ra, they could not prevent or heal these painful afflictions, further underscoring their impotence.
The seventh and eighth blows—thunderstorms of hail and locusts—decimated Egypt’s vegetation and harvests (Exodus 9:25; 10:12-15). This was a clear indictment against Shu, Reshpu, Tefnut—gods associated with weather control—and Min, the god of the harvest.
The ninth blow brought a crippling darkness over Egypt for three days (Exodus 10:21, 22). This effectively ‘switched off’ Ra, the sun god; Sekhmet, the goddess who wore the solar disk; and Thoth, the moon god.
Finally, the tenth and most devastating blow was the sudden death of all Egyptian firstborns (Exodus 12:29, 30). Pharaoh, seen as an offspring of the sun god Ra, lost his firstborn in a personal and visceral demonstration of his impotence and the futility of his gods, such as Bes and Buto, protectors of the royal household.
The divine showdown culminated in the spectacular deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea, where the pursuing Egyptian forces, led by Pharaoh, were drowned (Exodus 14:19-28; Psalm 136:15). The culmination of these events marked a crushing defeat for Egypt and its gods, underlining the supremacy of Jehovah—the God of Israel.
This series of events underscores the omnipotence of Jehovah, His unwavering commitment to His people, and the futility of false gods. It serves as a timeless testament to Jehovah’s supremacy, His deliverance, and His love for His people.
The Authenticity of the Exodus Account
Critics of the Exodus narrative often argue that Egyptian Pharaohs never documented the event. However, it’s essential to note that monarchs, even in contemporary times, generally only document their triumphs, not their losses. Often, they attempt to remove anything from the historical record that contradicts their personal image, national pride, or the ideology they wish to foster among their people. Modern leaders have been known to try and obliterate the works and reputations of their predecessors. Any information perceived as awkward or offensive would be omitted from Egyptian records or removed as soon as possible. A prime example is the removal of Queen Hatshepsut’s name and representation by her successor, Thutmose III, on a stone monument found at Deir al-Bahri in Egypt, as referenced in J.P. Free’s “Archaeology and Bible History” (1964).
Manetho, an Egyptian priest who seemingly held anti-Jewish sentiments, wrote in Greek around 280 B.C.E. Josephus, the Jewish historian, cites Manetho as asserting that the precursors of the Jews “invaded Egypt in large numbers and subdued the inhabitants”. Subsequently, Manetho “concedes that they were eventually expelled from the country, settled in what is currently known as Judaea, founded Jerusalem, and constructed the temple”, according to Josephus’s “Against Apion” (Book I, 228 ).
While Manetho’s account overall lacks historical accuracy, the crucial point is his reference to the Jews residing in Egypt and their eventual departure. Moreover, in his further writings as quoted by Josephus, he links Moses with Osarsiph, an Egyptian priest. This suggests that despite the absence of this fact from Egyptian monuments, the Jews were indeed in Egypt, and Moses was their leader. Josephus also refers to another Egyptian historian, Chaeremon, who argues that Joseph and Moses were expelled from Egypt simultaneously. Additionally, Josephus cites Lysimachus, who echoes a similar narrative.—Against Apion, I, 228, 238 (26); 288, 290 (32); 299 (33); 304-311 (34).