Were the Israelites in Egypt?

Stephen Rosenberg, Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, writing an article for The Jerusalem Post, asked the following question: “Was there ever an Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt? If so, who was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites and who let them go?”

Rosenberg acknowledges that, outside the Bible, there is no evidence for the presence of Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus ever took place.  However, Rosenberg wrote: “The Torah is full of references to Egyptian geography and religious cults and customs, and it is clear that the compiler was speaking to an audience familiar with Egypt.”

Rosenberg offers the following information to show that the Biblical writer was familiar with Egypt:

When Lot parted from Abraham, he chose the plain of the Jordan because “it was well watered… like the Land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). The Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia was built of brick, because “they used brick for stone” (Gen. 11:3), it being necessary to explain this to the Israelites, who only knew monuments built of stone, as in Egypt.

When Joseph brings his sons to be blessed by his father Jacob, “he brought them out from between his knees” (Gen. 48:12). Egyptian carvings typically show children standing between the legs of their elders. During the seven-year famine, Joseph arranges for all the land to be transferred to Pharaoh, but he cannot do that with the land of the priests (Gen. 47:26) as the temples held their land independent of the state.

As for the identity of the Pharaoh who ruled the land at the time the Israelite left Egypt, Rosenberg believes that Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who established religious reforms in Egypt, was the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites.  Rosenberg wrote:

In that case Akhenaten, who had started his reign under the official name of Amenhotep IV (1350-1334 BCE), was the persecutor of the Israelites, “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). He was the one who ordered the male babies to be drowned, from which fate Moses was saved to become a prince at his court, as Sigmund Freud suggested 80 years ago. When Moses saw his brothers slaving at the building of the city, he reacted as described in the Torah and eventually, on the death of Akhenaten, saw a chance to lead them out of Egypt. That chance soon came.

Rosenberg also argues that Israel entered Egypt at the time the Hyksos conquered the land.  He wrote:

As for the biblical statement that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years (Ex. 12:40), if they left in 1325 BCE, that would imply entry in 1755 BCE, and this could well correlate with the entry of the Hyksos, who had established their own dynasty of kings in Egypt by 1663 BCE, and must have entered well before that. The early Jewish historian Josephus claims that the Israelites came down with the Hyksos, and it could well be that the first wave came with the Semitic Hyksos hordes around 1700 BCE.

Read Rosenberg’s argument by visiting The Jerusalem Post online.

Although Rosenberg presents strong arguments that the compiler of the Torah was writing from the perspective of one who was familiar with Egypt, it seems that he does not believe in the historicity of the events mentioned in the Torah since he declines “to take the biblical figures at face value.”

There are several other factors not mentioned by Rosenberg that affirm that the writer of the Torah was familiar with Egyptian society.  One of them is the mention of several Egyptian names in the Torah.  For instance, in the story of Joseph several Egyptian names are mentioned: Potiphar, Joseph’s master (Genesis 39:1), Asenath, Joseph’s wife (Genesis 41:45), Potipherah, Joseph’s father-in-law, Zaphenath-paneah, Joseph’s new name which was given to him by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45).

In addition, several other Egyptian names appear in the Torah, among them Moses, Aaron, Hori, Hur, Merari, Miriam, Phineas, and many others.  A detailed list of Egyptian names, words, places, and customs are given in the book by James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

As for the Pharaoh of the Exodus, scholars believe that Seti I (1305-1290) was the Pharaoh of the oppression and Rameses II (1290-1224) was the Pharaoh of the Exodus.  This places the Exodus in the 13th century B. C.

Akhenaten (1364-1347 B.C.) ruled Egypt during the Amarna Period.  He was the Pharaoh who established religious reforms in Egypt by promoting the worship of one god, the sun god Aten.  Rosenberg’s date would place the Exodus in the 14th century, a date that few scholars accept.

Most conservative scholars accept a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1 which states that the building of the temple was begun in the 4th year of Solomon’s reign, in 966 B.C., 480 years after the Exodus.  This information would place the Exodus in 1446 B.C., during the reign of Thutmoses III.

Although the date of the Exodus is debated by scholars, and although the Pharaoh of the oppression and the Pharaoh of the Exodus are not named in the Exodus narrative, the weight of the evidence indicates that the Israelites were in Egypt, just as the Bible says they were.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Egypt, Exodus, Hebrew Bible and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Were the Israelites in Egypt?

  1. This is very interesting. There is also abundant evidence for a Semitic presence in the Eastern Delta region beginning in the 12th dynasty and continuing into the 13th. This was the time frame of the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions, one of the earliest precursors of the Semitic alphabet. They served in the Egyptian army, either as mercenaries or manual laborers. A papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum (35.1446) dated to Sobekhotep III (13th dynasty) records a transfer of ownership of slaves with Semitic names in the region of Thebes. Then, apparently a notable portion of the Semitic population seemingly disappeared toward the end of the 13th dynasty. Tell el-Maskhuta (Pithom?), Tell el-Yahudiya, and other Delta cities were apparently emptied of their Semitic populations. Did these former inhabitants seek refuge against the Hyksos in larger settlements like Avaris? Did they simply wander back to Canaan?

    All this to say: It ought to be beyond dispute that there were Semites in Egypt at various points in history. The only question is, Which ones were Israelites?

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    • Darrell,

      Thank you for your comment. You are correct. There is abundant evidence that there were Semites in Egypt, but the question is whether they were Israelites. In his book, James Hoffmeir has a long list of words, names, and customs that show that the writer was familiar with Egyptian language and Egyptian society. Since this information appears in the Torah, the conclusion seems that some of those Semites probably were the same people who we identify as Israelites.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. Mike Wilson says:

    Dr. Mariottini, I am Mike Wilson,a student at Bozeman State Univesity. Is that a very reliable fact, that Moses, Aaron, Hori, Hur, Merari, Miriam, and Phineas are all Egyptian? I am doing a project researching the introduction of YHWH worship and the Moses concept to Ephraim and part of my evidence is based on the high number of Egyptian names in Moses inner circle. I was wondering if you could explain it a little, What do the Egyptian names mean? Is this the exact form in Egyptian of these words? Thank you for your time, Mike Wilson.

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    • Mike,

      Thank you for visiting my blog. The names you mentioned are all Egyptians. If you want to gain a better understanding of the background of Israel in Egypt you must read James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: the evidence for the authenticity of the Exodus.
      In his book, Hoffmeier examines the Egyptological evidence and argues that it supports the biblical record concerning Moses’ and Israel’s presence in Egypt. This book will help you in your research.

      I hope this information is helpful. If not, write again.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  3. Pingback: Israel in Egypt: The Cultural Influence | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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