Every Passover, Jews retell the story about the Hebrews’ flight from slavery in Egypt and their miraculous escape across the Red Sea, giving birth to the nation of Israel. The colorful story has also been retold by Hollywood time and again, shaping the modern generation’s understanding of the Israelite bondage in Egypt.
But if ancient Egypt had slaves from the region known today as Israel, were they really “Israelites”?
There is no direct evidence that people worshipping Yahweh sojourned in ancient Egypt, let alone during the time the Exodus is believed to have happened. There is indirect evidence that at least some did. What’s for sure is that thousands of years ago, Egypt was crawling with Semitic-speaking peoples.
Throughout antiquity, Egypt was known as the breadbasket of the world. The annual flooding of the Nile produced rich harvests, and when famine hit neighboring lands, starving peoples often made their way to the fruitful soils of Egypt. The archaeological record clearly shows that at least some of these peoples were of Semitic origin, coming from Canaan specifically and the Levant in general.
In fact, the histories of both the Egyptian upper kingdom (ruled from Thebes in southern Egypt) and the lower kingdom (ruled from Avaris in the north), and Canaan were intimately tied together.
Starting over 4,000 years ago, Semites began crossing the deserts from Palestine into Egypt. The tomb of the high priest Khnumhotep II of the 20th century BCE even shows a scene of Semitic traders bringing offerings to the dead (top picture).
Some of these Semites came to Egypt as traders and immigrants. Others were prisoners of war, and yet others were sold into slavery by their own people. A papyrus mentions a wealthy Egyptian lord whose 77 slaves included 48 of Semitic origin.
In fact, by the late Middle Kingdom era, around 3700 years ago, Canaanites had actually achieved absolute power, in the form of a line of Canaanite pharaohs ruling the Lower Kingdom, coexisting with the Egyptian-ruled Upper Kingdom. (These Canaanite pharaohs included the mysterious “Yaqub,” whose existence is attested by 27 scarabs found in Egypt, Canaan and Nubia and a famous one found at Shikmona, by Haifa.) The biblical tradition of the patriarch Jacob settling in Egypt could well derive from this time.
The Coming of the Hyksos
In time, the Canaanite leaders were themselves ousted by the Hyksos, a mysterious group who settled in Egypt some time before 1650 BCE, and who came to rule the Lower Kingdom from the city of Avaris. Controversy remains, but it is increasingly agreed that the Hyksos originated from northern Levant – Lebanon or Syria.
Some scholars believe the Semitic traders shown in the mural on Khnumhotep II’s tomb are actually Hyksos.
Under the Hyksos’ wing, the Canaanite population in the delta grew and waxed stronger, as shown by findings in ancient Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a). The Canaanite presence is attested by pottery that was Canaanite in form and chemically derived from Palestine. The dominant religious burial practices in Avaris at the time were also Canaanite.
Eventually, the Hyksos in their turn would be vanquished. After a 30-year blood feud, the kings of Thebe, led by Ahmose I (1539 BCE–1514 BCE) prevailed, capturing Avaris and uniting the Lower and Upper kingdoms into a single polity, the “New Kingdom”. The Hyksos were driven out of Egypt through the Sinai into southern Canaan. The Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus for one identifies the Hyksos with the Israelites. He cites the 3rd-century Egyptian scribe and priest Manetho, who wrote that after their expulsion, the Hyksos wandered in the desert before establishing Jerusalem. Some scholars suspect that Exodus is based on distant Semitic memories of the expulsion of the Hyksos. Others are dubious about Manethos’ history, which was penned centuries after the actual event. Also, the Hyksos were expelled monarchs of Egypt, not slaves. Ultimately, they are not a very likely source for the Haggadah story. Yet another school thinks the Exodus happened hundreds of years later, during the time of the New Kingdom – and some suspect there were multiple expulsions and events that merged, over the millennia, into the Passover story.
Enslaved by war
Ahmose not only expelled the Hyksos. He united ancient Egypt and began the process of expanding its empire to stretch over Canaan and Syria too.
Egyptian scribes of Ahmose I and Thutmoses III wrote boastfully of campaigns in the Levant, resulting in captured prisoners being enslaved in Egypt. Various descriptions perfectly match scenes in the Passover Haggadah.
The setting described in Exodus could be Egypt’s East Delta, where the Nile floods every year. The area has no source of stone, and mud-brick structures repeatedly “melted” back into the mud and silt. Even stone temples have hardly survived here. Physical evidence of slaves working there isn’t likely to have survived. But a leather scroll dating to the time of Ramesses II (1303 BCE-1213 BCE) describes a close account of brick-making apparently by enslaved prisoners of the wars in Canaan and Syria, which sounds very much like the biblical account. The scroll describes 40 taskmasters, each with a daily target of 2,000 bricks (see Exodus 5:6).
Other Egyptian papyruses (Anastasi III & IV) discuss using straws in mud bricks, as mentioned in Exodus 5:7:
“You must not gather straw to give to the people to make bricks as formerly. Let themsleves go and gather straw for themselves”.
The tomb of vizier Rekhmire, ca. 1450 BCE, famously shows foreign slaves “making bricks for the workshop-storeplace of the Temple of Amun at Karnak in Thebes” and for a building ramp. They are labeled “captures brought-off by His Majesty for work at the Temple of Amun”. Semites and Nubians are shown fetching and mixing mud and water, striking out bricks from molds, leaving them to dry and measuring their amount, under the watchful eyes of Egyptian overseers, each with a rod. The images bear out descriptions in Ex. 1:11-14; 5:1-21.
(“They made their life bitter with hard labor, as they worked with clay mortar and bricks and in very form of slavery in the field” – Exodus 1:14a)
Also, the biblical description of how Hebrew slaves suffered under the lash is borne out by the Egyptian papyrus Bologna 1094, telling how two workers fled their taskmaster “because he beat them”. So it seems the biblical descriptions of Egyptian slavery are accurate.
Clues to Israelite Presence in Egypt
Conclusively, Semitic slaves there were. However, critics argue there’s no archaeological evidence of a Semitic tribe worshiping Yahweh in Egypt.
Because of the muddy conditions of the East Delta, almost no papyri have survived – but those that did, may provide further clues in the search for the lost Israelites.
The papyrus Anastasi VI from around 3200 years ago describes how the Egyptian authorities allowed a group of Semitic nomads from Edom who worshiped Yahweh to pass the border-fortress in the region of Tjeku (Wadi Tumilat) and proceed with their livestock to the lakes of Pithom.
Shortly afterwards, the Israelites enter world history with the Merenptah stele, which bears the first mention of an entity called Israel in Canaan. It is robustly dated at is 1210 BCE, i.e., as of writing, 3226 years ago.
These Yahweh worshippers were in ancient Egypt well after the Exodus is supposed to have happened. Members of the Yahweh cult may have existed there earlier, but there is no solid evidence for that. There are, however, indications.
According to the scribe Manetho, the founder of monotheism was Osarisph, who later adopted name Moses, and led his followers out of Egypt in Akhenaten’s reign. Akhenaten was the heretic Pharaoh who abolished polytheism and replaced it with monotheism, worshiping only the sun disc, Aten.In 1987, a team of French archaeologists discovered the tomb of a man named Aper-el or Aperia (his name is spelled both ways in Egyptian inscriptions), commander of the charioteers and vizier to Ahmenotep II and to his son Akhenaten.
The vizier’s name ending in -el could well be related to the Hebraic god Elohim; and the ending Aper-Ia could be indicative of Ya, short for Yahweh. This interpretation supports the argument that Hebrews were present in Egypt during the 18th dynasty starting 3600 years ago (1543-1292 BCE).
The famed British Egyptologist Sir Matthew Flinders Petrie holds the reverse view: that Akhenaten was the catalysis for the monotheistic views of the Hebrews, and that the Exodus happened in the 19th dynasty (1292-1189, around 3300 years ago).
So did the Exodus happen? Ask Hatshepsut
Ex. 12:37 says “600,000 men on foot, beside children” went out from Egypt. That extrapolates to around two million people making the exodus (extrapolated from Numbers 1:46) .
If around 2 million people left Egypt, when the entire population has been estimated at around 3 to 4.5 million, it would have been noticed, and would have resounded in Egyptian records.
Note that Herodotus claims that a million Persians invaded Greece in 480 BCE. The numbers were undoubtedly exaggerated, as in most ancient records. But nobody claims the invasion of Greece never happened.
That said, as the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen points out, the Hebrew word for thousand, eleph, can mean different things depending upon context. It can even denote a group/clan or a leader/chief. Elsewhere in the bible, “eleph” could not possibly mean “a thousand”. For example: 1 Kings 20:30 mentions a wall falling in Aphek that killed 27,000 men. If we translate eleph as leader, the text more sensibly says that 27 officers were killed by the falling wall. Bv that logic, some scholars propose that the Exodus actually consisted of about 20,000 people.
The absence of evidence of a sojourn in the wilderness proves nothing. A Semitic group in flight wouldn’t have left direct evidence: They would not have built cities, built monuments or done anything but leave footprints in the desert sand.
Yet more support for the Haggadah may lie in an interesting poem copied onto a papyrus dating to the 13th century BCE (although original is believed to be much older), called the “Admonitions of Impuwer or the Lord of All”).
River of Blood
It portrays a devastated Egypt haunted by plagues, droughts, violent uprisings – culminating in the escape of slaves with Egypt’s wealth. In short, the Impuwer papyrus seems to be telling the story of Exodus from the Egyptian point of view, from a river of blood to the devastation of the livestock to darkness.
Also, the Egyptians were not above altering historical records when the truth proved to be embarrassing or went against their political interests. It was not the praxis of the pharaohs to advertise their failures on temple walls for all to see. When Thutmose III came to power, he tried to obliterate the memory of his predecessor, Hatshepsut. Her inscriptions were erased, her obelisks surrounded by a wall, and her monuments were forgotten. Her name does not appear in later annals.
Moreover, records of administration in the east Delta seem entirely gone.
Generally, the biblical writers interpreted actual history, rather than invent it. The ancients knew that propaganda based on real events was more effective than fairy tales. A chronicler might record that King A conquered a city and King B was defeated. A royal scribe might claim that King B offended a God and therefore was punished by the God, who allowed King A to seize his city. To the ancients, both versions would be equally true.
However many Egyptologists or archaeologists dance on the head of a pin, each will have his own perspective on the Exodus story. None will have any evidence beyond contextual evidence to support their theories.
The Exodus could be a distant Semitic memory of the expulsion of Hyksos, or small-scale exoduses by different tribes and groups of Semitic origin during various periods. Or it could be a fable.
Psychologically, though, why would scribes invent a tale about such a humble and humiliating beginning such as slavery? Nobody but the Jews describe their community’s beginning in such lowly terms. Most people prefer to connect their leaders to heroic deeds or even to claim a direct lineage to Gods.
At the end of the day it the story of the Exodus is all matter of faith. This article does not aspire to prove the historicity of the Passover Haggadah, or that the Land of Israel was promised to slaves coming out of Egypt. It just proves that there were historical figures and events that could have inspired the Exodus account. So as we lift our cups and recite the “The coming out of Egypt,” let us think about the story that has captured the imagination for millennia and remember that sometimes, truth is stranger then fiction; and think back on Aper-el, a Hebrew slave who did not disappear in the mud along with the Yahweh-worshiping nomads who settled in Egypt.