Sura Jeselsohn
Author of "A Habit of Seeing: Journeys in Natural Science""

Israelites in Egypt – An Historical Review

Anyone who has been to a Seder or grown up on Bible stories has formed some mental image of ancient Egypt. As a teenager, I had the great fortune to run across the book Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. While she was a prolific writer and wrote an abundance of stories set in many different eras and locations, I think Mara was easily her most gripping book.

Set in Egypt of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-c.1077 BCE) which covered the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties, it revolves around Hatshepsut, the famous female Pharaoh. The book claims Hatshepsut usurped the throne of Egypt and the book follows the intrigue  restoring Thutmosis III to the throne. Regardless of its accuracy, it is a great read and I have enjoyed immensely passing it along.

With the approach of Pesach, I find myself focusing on the Israelite story in Egypt. Fortunately, we no longer hear too many people saying any more that “the Jews built the pyramids”. The great pyramids of Giza were built during the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE) encompassing the 3rd-6th Dynasties. The Great Pyramid itself was built by Khufu (Cheops) of the 4th Dynasty whose reign lasted from 2589-2566 BCE.

There are additional periods into which Egyptian history is divided. After the Old Kingdom there was the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE) covering dynasties 7-10. Then arose the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) with dynasties 11 and 12.

However, just a casual glance at Egyptian history leads one to focus on the mysterious group known as the Hyksos who reigned in Egypt from 1650-1542 BCE, a unstable period lasting approximately108 years known as the Second Intermediate Period (dynasties 13-17). Seemingly, the instability was caused by repeated famines which seems familiar to us through the story of Yoseph (Joseph) in the Torah and his rise to power as an architect of food sufficiency for Egypt.

The name Hyksos has been mistranslated as “The Shepherd Kings”. Apparently it actually means “Desert Princes” or “Rulers of Foreign Lands.” The Hyksos seemed to have been Semites. This is based on the clear way that the Egyptians designated various surrounding peoples by ethnicity. Nubians, Asiatics, Libyans and Semites were represented pictorially in specific ways. Their hair, clothing and the colors used to denote skin tone made it clear who was being represented on the various monuments. Names are also indicative of cultural origin and there is much evidence of the presence of Semites from names listed on papyrus and stone. The birth name of the second king of the Hyksos 15th Dynasty was Yakubher ( a variant of Yaakov) although he took the Egyptian name Meruserre when he ascended the throne.

Semites came to Egypt continuously for the same reason that people migrate generally. They came in search of employment, food, perhaps even grazing. However, about 150 years before the Hyksos dynasties, around 1782 BCE, there was a significant influx of peoples considered to be western Asiatics, i.e. Semites (Syro-Palestinians) into the Delta settling in the future capital of the Hyksos, Avaris. There is every evidence that they were part of the Egyptian mix of peoples in the Delta and worked as sailors, soldiers and craftsmen. There was extensive trade by sea with Lebanon and Syria as well. Egypt would then have been a natural place for Avraham (Abraham) as well as Yaakov (Jacob) to have journeyed in the face of a famine. In addition, Yoseph (Joseph), whose sudden rise to greatness is an inspirational story, might have been partially welcomed because of the cultural comfort of  a Hyksos ruler.

Manfred Bietak, from the Department of Egyptology, at the University of Vienna, Austria, has been excavating Avaris over a period of decades. He tells us that Semitic peoples of the Middle Bronze Age culture constituted a large and growing number of the residents of Avaris. (Videos of his talks and some of his papers are available on the Internet). Despite earlier assumptions that the Hyksos must have wrested power from the native Egyptian dynasty through conquest, the modern consensus is that the takeover was far more benign. One interesting nugget of information is that the city of Avaris and Pi-Ramesse (the city of Raamsses later mentioned in the Torah as a city that the Jews were required to build), are cities built almost entirely of mud-brick. Considering, the amount of emphasis placed on the subject of brick-making as an onerous aspect of Israelite slavery, the fact that these two cities were constructed entirely of mud brick is a significant clue.

During the Hyksos period Egypt was divided into three larger political units. The Hyksos controlled the north, there was a native dynasty (Dynasty 17) ruling from Thebes, while Nubia which was in northern Sudan was a separate political unit. This was unacceptable state of affairs in the view of the Theban kings. The battle to reclaim northern Egypt lasted through three reigns: Seqenenre Tao (c. 1574 BCE) whose mummy shows that he died violently, one of his sons Kamose (1573-1570 BCE) and another son Ahmose I whose reign began the 18th Dynasty (1570-1546 BCE). It was Ahmose I who finally conquered the Hyksos and expelled them. The historical evidence then indicates that some people left Egypt and moved up the coast to Canaan. (The number of exiles has been popularly stated as 250,000 but that is probably a misreading of Egyptian material). The trail ends at the town of Saruhen, also mentioned in the Bible(Joshua 19:6), located in the Negev area where Ahmose I laid siege for three years after the expulsion and finally razed the town. This story is eerily reminiscent of the Midrash relating to the book of Yehezkel (Ezekiel 37:1-14) quoted in M’Tzudos Dovid (37:1) concerning the Valley of Dried Bones. The Midrash says that the dried bones were those of a group of members of the tribe of Efraim who tried to hurry the redemption (by leaving Egypt earlier than the Divine Plan) and were killed by the people of Gat.

Given the conflict between the Theban kings and the Hyksos, the line ”v’nosaf gam hu l soneinu” (and they will join with our enemies) has enormous resonance and would make Ahmose I the Pharaoh of the enslavement. Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) has just finished the reconquest of the Hyksos territories in the Delta and he is deeply suspicious of the remaining Semitic population. It might also explain why the Israelite population became easily enslaved. They had just experienced the expulsion of their overlords and probably felt themselves extremely vulnerable to violence expected by the vanquished. Being expected to contribute forced labor to new pharaonic projects could well have seemed very benign. It could also establish them as vassals of the crown who could expect a certain amount of protection from the new overlord who would be benefiting from their labor.

There have been linguistic criticisms of the Exodus period as told in the Torah. The word “Pharaoh” is a term that was not used in Egypt before the 18th Dynasty. The earlier Egyptian term used for the king was “nisut bity”, which is often translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt. However, in the beginning of the Exodus story (Exodus 1:8), the term for the new ruler is “melekh chadash” literally a new king who “did not know Yoseph (Joseph). I readily acknowledge that the term Pharaoh was already being used, in Breishit (Genesis) as well as throughout the Exodus story.

To continue the linguistic mysteries, let us examine the name Moshe (Moses). This name appears first in the 18th Dynasty list of kings, usually linked with a second name thereby creating a compound name. So Thutmose means “Thoth (an Egyptian deity) is born (mesu)”, possibly translated to “son of Thoth.” We could posit that Moshe was given a name that implies a relationship between his adoptive mother (an Egyptian princess) and himself.

Today, it is fashionable among the academic elite to disregard much of Jewish narrative as folklore and fiction. Aspects of that attitude are the result of chronologies that do not seem to link up well with archeological dating. However, if we are looking in the wrong places and have made false assumptions, chronologies will never link. Also, it is fair to recognize that academics have continuing controversies among themselves as to correct chronologies.

It is my contention that Abraham came to Egypt in the pre-Hyksos period. Yaakov’s family later came to Egypt during the Hyksos period and they remained there for an unknown period of time. When the Hyksos rulers were expelled by Ahmose I, he then enslaved the remaining Canaanite population who were the Israelites. If you accept that those Amarna letters (diplomatic communication to Pharaoh Akhenaten and found in his city of Amarna) written from Canaanite rulers to Akhenaten (1350-1334 BCE) complaining  of depredations by the “Habiru”, then you can shift the chronology of the Exodus to a point much earlier than Ramesses II ( a chronology based largely on the use of the name  which could have vast consequences for the presently accepted chronologies.








About the Author
Sura Jeselsohn has a background in science and is an avid gardener and quilter. Her weekly column, Green Scene, is published in the Riverdale Press. She has published a book, "A Habit of Seeing: Journeys in Natural Science" , available in paperback and Kindle at
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