Michael J. Chan
Egypt (Heb. miṣrayim) casts a long shadow over the books of the Hebrew Bible: References to either the location or the people of Egypt can be found in every book in the Enneateuch (Genesis–2 Kings), all of the "Major" Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), and in seven out of twelve "Minor" Prophets. Egypt also appears numerous times throughout the Psalter. In order to understand the Hebrew Bible and its history, then, one must have some familiarity with Egypt.
This article provides readers with a glimpse into the resources on the Oxford Biblical Studies Online website related to Egypt. Think of this article as a tourist's map, directing you to major sites, but not giving you on a point-by-point tour of the topic. For additional reading, see the bibliography at the end of this article or the bibliographies (when available) in the linked articles.
An outline of the study guide is provided for convenience:
- 1. Geography and History of Egypt
- 2. Egypt and the Bible: Points of Convergence
- a. Egypt and the Origins of Israel
- b. Egypt and Canaan in the Late Bronze Age
- c. Egypt and Israel in the Iron Age: Political History
- d. Judahite Kingship
- e. Israelite Religion
- f. Wisdom Literature
- g. Egypt in the Prophets
- 3. Conclusion
- 4. Bibliography
Geography and History of Egypt
Egypt's civilization was profoundly impacted by the Nile River. Its yearly inundation, for instance, informed Egyptian art, religion, cosmic geography, and conceptions of the afterlife. Egyptian society thrived in two main areas of the Nile: the Delta and the Nile River Valley. The geographical origins of the rivers are to be found in Rwanda/Burundi and the highlands of Ethiopia. Taken as a whole, the Nile travels around 4,200 miles/6,800 kilometers from its origins to the Nile Delta in the north. In Hebrew, this river is typically referred to as yě ʾôr (see, e.g., Gen 41:1; Exod 1:22; Isa 19:7, etc.).
Egypt has a long and rich history that already begins in the Lower Paleolithic Period. The Dynastic Period—the primary concern of this article—began around 3100 BCE, when an important King, called Narmer, unified Upper and Lower Egypt. This was a significant turning point in Egyptian history, not only for scholars, but also for the Egyptians themselves. Pharaohs frequently bore the title, King of Upper and Lower Egypt. And, as a visual representation of this ideal, they wore the "double-crown," which is a combination of the Red and White Crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Egyptologists conveniently divide Egyptian history into "periods" or "kingdoms" and "dynasties." The precise dates fluctuate according to scholarly opinion and available data, but the ordering of the periods, kingdoms, and dynasty numbers is more or less stable:
- The Early Dynastic period (3100 BCE–2700 BCE/First and Second Dynasties)
- Old Kingdom (2700 BCE–2190 BCE/Third-Sixth Dynasties)
- First Intermediate Period (2190 BCE–2033 BCE/Seventh-Mid-Eleventh Dynasties)
- Middle Kingdom and Early Second Intermediate Period (2033 BCE–1648 BCE/Mid-Eleventh-Thirteenth Dynasties)
- Late Second Intermediate Period (1648 BCE–1540 BCE/Fifteenth-Seventeenth Dynasties)
- New Kingdom Period (1550 BCE–1069 BCE/Eighteenth-Twentieth Dynasties)
- Third Intermediate Period (1069 BCE–664 BCE/Twenty First-Twenty Fifth Dynasties)
- Late Period (664 BCE–332 BCE/Twenty Sixth-Thirty First Dynasties)
This chronology replicates the one given in James M. Weinstein's article. For students of the Hebrew Bible, and of ancient Israel more generally, the most relevant periods are the latter part of the New Kingdom, the Third Intermediate Period, and the Late Period.
Egypt and the Bible: Points of Convergence
The study of Egypt can profoundly illuminate the Hebrew Bible. But because biblical scholars are typically trained in the Semitic branch of Afroasiatic languages, which does not include Egyptian, they are often less familiar with Egyptian culture and language. As a result there are fewer resources on the Bible and Egypt as there are on, say, the Bible and Mesopotamia. This is an unfortunate institutional blind spot, however, for Egypt and the Levant have a long history of interaction and exchange. Knowledge of this history will only improve our understanding of the Hebrew Bible.
In what follows, then, I highlight a few areas where scholars have benefited from knowledgeabout Egypt, its history, and its culture: A. Egypt and the Origins of Israel; B. Egypt and Canaan in the Late Bronze Age; C. Egypt and Israel in the Iron Age: Political History and Historiography; D. Egypt in the Prophets; E. Judahite Kingship; F. IsraeliteReligion; and G. Wisdom Literature.. In addition to the resources cited below, I also suggest that readers utilize The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, a fantastic resource with some 600 original articles written by experts in the field of Egyptology.
A. Egypt and the Origins of Israel
When most people think about Egypt and the Bible, the story of the exodus immediately comes to mind. Many aspects of this famous account are familiar: Moses, the burning bush, Aaron, Pharaoh, the plagues, Passover, the crossing of the Re(e)d Sea, etc. Many readers are also familiar with Israel's entry into Egypt, which is embedded within the story of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers (see Genesis 37—50). Through his wisdom and dream-interpretation skills, Joseph is raised up from his lowly status as a prisoner to being second only to Pharaoh (see Genesis 40—41). This fortunate change of events allows the Israelites to thrive in a part of Egypt the Hebrew Bible calls Goshen (see Gen 45:10; 46:28, 34; 47:1, 4, 6, 27, etc.).
But what connection do these narratives have with history? Can they tell us anything about the origins of ancient Israel? The historicity of these events is questioned by many biblical scholars. Some specialists, however, are still convinced that there is some fundamental connection between Israel's origins and the land of the Pharaohs. It has been posited by some scholars, for instance, that the early Israelites may be related to the Shasu bedouin, a semi-nomadic group of wanderers known from New Kingdom art and literature (see "Historical Analogues to the Exodus Events"). In this theory, ancient Israel emerged from the ranks of pastoral nomads like the Shasu and then migrated into the land of Canaan). Another theory posits that the Hyksos—an Asiatic group that migrated into north-eastern Egypt during the 20th-18th centuries and eventually ruled the country—are somehow related to early Israel. Still another group called the Habiru, who are mentioned in the Amarna Letters, are occasionally associated with early Israel.
While most of the scholars who propose these theories do not think that Genesis and Exodus are reliable historical accounts (at least not in their entirety), they all fundamentally agree on one point: Israel's origins, however difficult they are to determine, are somehow intertwined with the history of Egypt. There may be some truth to this assumption, for our earliest extra-biblical evidence for "Israel" comes from an Egyptian source: a late 13th century stele erected by Merneptah—sometimes called the "Israel Stele".
B. Egypt and Canaan in the Late Bronze Age
Related to the last point is the topic of Egyptian-Levantine relations in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BCE). Interaction between these two regions is relatively well-documented. The Late Bronze Age was marked by internationalism, interconnectedness, diplomatic exchange, and the movement of luxury goods. Syro-Palestinian urban centers like Ugarit, Alalakh, Sidon, Tyre, and even Jerusalem were key players in this international drama.
The Amarna Letters are among the most interesting witnesses to this period. Discovered in the short-lived capital city of Akhetaten, the Amarna Letters are largely comprised of diplomatic missives written on clay tablets in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day. These letters provide a rare glimpse into the history of Jerusalem, for several of them record the correspondence between the Pharaoh and his servant, Abdi-Hepa, the ruler of Jerusalem.
C. Egypt and Israel in the Iron Age: Political History and Historiography
But Egypt's interactions with Canaan did not end in the Late Bronze Age. Egypt continued to influence life there, albeit on a much smaller scale, for the Egypt of the Iron Age was much less powerful than the Egypt of the New Kingdom. This period, known as the "Third Intermediate Period" (ca. 1069–664 B.C.E.), was ruled by a series of Libyan kings (Dynasties 21–25), whose power over the land of Canaan was inconsistent.
In spite of a weakened government, Egypt fills the pages of the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that, while it no longer exercised consistent control over Canaan, it nonetheless maintained close contact with the region. Apart from Genesis and Exodus, two other bodies of literature in the Hebrew Bible stand out for their emphasis on Egypt: the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets.
Beginning with the Former Prophets, 1 Kings closely associates Solomon with Egypt. Not only does he have an alliance with a pharaoh, who is unnamed, he also marries an Egyptian princess (1 Kgs 3:1; 7:8). But this relationship quickly took a turn for the worse when Hadad the Edomite, an enemy of Solomon, finds safe haven as a guest in the Egyptian royal court (1 Kgs 11:14–20). Similarly, pharaoh Sheshonq also offered refuge to Jeroboam (see 1 Kgs 11:40). From here on out in the book of Kings, the foundation of Israel's relationship to Egypt would rest on shaky ground.
Not long after Solomon's death, Sheshonq made a military incursion into Judah and Israel's territories. According to the biblical account, he marched against Jerusalem and took away the temple treasures along with the treasures of the palace (see 1 Kgs 14:25–26). This incursion is attested both archaeologically and in Egyptian documentation from the reign of Sheshonq.
At one point, according to 2 Kings 17, the Northern Kingdom under Hoshea courted the favor of the Egyptian pharaoh So while simultaneously refusing to pay tribute to King Shalmaneser V. This dangerous political cocktail resulted in Hoshea's imprisonment (2 Kgs 17:4) and ultimately in the fall of the Northern Kingdom.
According to 2 Kings, Josiah also met his end while entangled in a web of Assyro-Egyptian politics. He was killed at Megiddo while trying to intercept pharaoh Neco, while the latter attempted an assault on Assyria (2 Kgs 23:29).
The death of Josiah signaled another serious downturn in Egyptian-Judahite relations, for during the next king's reign—that of Jehoahaz—pharaoh Neco imposed tribute upon Judah, imprisoned Jehoahaz at Riblah (2 Kgs 23:33), and placed Jehoiakim on the throne (2 Kgs 23:33–35). But Egypt's ambitions in Judah were quickly stifled by the might of the Babylonian empire. Egypt was driven out of Judah so decisively that, at least according to 2 Kings, the king of Egypt "did not venture out of his country again, for the king of Babylon had seized all the land that belonged to the king of Egypt, from the Wadi of Egypt to the River Euphrates" (2 Kgs 24:7, TNK). Egypt did, however, give minimal support to king Zedekiah after he withheld tribute from the Babylonians. Egypt's military assistance, however, proved to be a mere speed bump in the path of the Babylonian dreadnought (see Jeremiah 37).
D. Egypt in the Prophets
Given the significant role played by Egypt in Israel's history and historiography, it comes as no surprise that Egypt also figures prominently in the prophets. In the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), the Hebrew word, miṣrayim ("Egypt," "Egyptians"), occurs well over 150 times, and in the Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi) the term occurs over 25 times. Let me now draw attention to a few areas in the prophets where Egypt figures prominently:
All of the Latter Prophets contain oracles about foreign nations (Isaiah 13–23; Jeremiah 46–51; Ezekiel 25–32). Egypt, not surprisingly, is frequently among the nations addressed (see, e.g., Isaiah 19—20; Ezekiel 29; Jeremiah 46). While these oracles are often negative, this is not always the case. In an astonishing oracle, Isa 19:19–25 claims that "on that day" there will be an altar in the land of Egypt and a pillar to Yhwh at the border (Isa 19:19). These will serve as reminders to the Egyptians that, when they cry out to Yhwh, he will send them a deliverer (see Isa 19:19–25). The prophet further claims that both the Egyptians and the Assyrians will serve Yhwh. And if that were not enough, he makes the astonishing claim that the Lord will say, "Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My very own Israel" (v. 25, TNK)!
The prophets occasionally make reference to Israel's exodus out of Egypt. Amos, in a rhetorically shocking claim, states that Israel's exodus was not unique, but was one of several (Amos 9:7). Second Isaiah, which comprises Isaiah 40—55, makes frequent reference to Israel's exodus out of Egypt, and even proclaims that the return of the exiles to Judah would be like a new exodus (Isa 43:16–17; 51:9–11). In some parts of Jeremiah and Hosea, the exodus and the subsequent period in the wilderness are remembered as a time of tenderness and obedience (see, e.g., Jer 2:2–3, 6–7; Hos 11:1–2, etc.).
And finally, the land of Egypt plays an important role in the "biographical" sections of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 42, a number of citizens of Jerusalem approach Jeremiah and ask him to pray for them to determine where they are supposed to go. Jeremiah tells them to stay in Jerusalem and promises that they will prosper, for Yhwh regrets the punishment he brought upon them (Jer 42:10). Jeremiah's oracle, however is completely ignored, and the entire remnant relocate to Egypt, including Jeremiah (see Jer 43:5–7).
E. Judahite Kingship
At different points in Judah's history, Egyptian notions of kingship may have exerted considerable influence upon the royal court. For instance, on 8th century Judahite royal seals, one often finds the Hebrew phrase, lmlk ("to, for, belonging to the king") accompanied by either the image of a winged solar disc or a four-winged scarab. Both the solar disc and the winged scarab are Egyptian in origin and are associated with the solar aspect of kingship. While one cannot assume that the Judahite court adopted the full religious and ideological weight of these images, the use of Egyptian royal iconography may indicate a certain fascination with Egyptian kingship among the Judahite court elites (see Keel and Uehlinger, 272). At the very least, this interesting art-historical link between 8th century Egypt and Judah should encourage us to explore more deeply the relationship between Egyptian and Judahite concepts of royal identity.
F. Israelite Religion
Two biblical images may have been influenced by Egyptian iconographic prototypes: the image of Yhwh as a lion (see, e.g., Isa 31:4; 38:13; Jer 25:30, 38; 29:19; 50:44, etc) and the image of Yhwh with wings (see, e.g., Pss 17, 36, 57, 61, 63, 91). Concerning the former, the "lion's share" of the work has been done by Brent Strawn (see Strawn 2005, 2009). Strawn tentatively suggests that the leonine aspect of Yhwh may be derived from either Ishtar or Sekhmet (an Egyptian goddess), both of whom were associated with lions. While his conclusions are tentative, his arguments may suggest that other aspects of Israelite religion and theology have their origins in ancient Egypt.
The image of Yhwh with wings has recently been studied by Joel LeMon (LeMon, 2010). In particular, his project focuses on winged divine imagery in the Psalter (see Psalms 17, 36, 57, 61, 63, 91). LeMon shows that both Egyptian and Assyrian iconographic influences can be detected in poetic depictions of Yhwh. While scholars have typically looked to the cherubim above the ark as the source of this imagery, LeMon is able to show the problems with this approach and to determine other more convincing prototypes. Once again, the close correspondences between Yhwh's winged form and the iconographic data from Egypt and Assyria should encourage us to consider this cross-cultural evidence when attempting to understand the Hebrew Bible's representations of Yhwh.
Both of these studies indicate that ancient Israel's religious imaginary was probably filled with cultural influences from Egypt. They also show that what ancient Israelites saw in their environment had a profound effect on how they construed their god.
G. Wisdom Literature
One of the most firmly established theories in biblical studies is that wisdom literature has come under considerable influence from Egypt. For instance, scholars largely agree that Proverbs 22:17—24:34 shows striking resemblances to the Instruction of Amenemope from 12th century Egypt. This connection may suggest that Israelite wisdom circles somehow came into contact with Egyptian wisdom circles—or, at the very least, were aware of Egyptian wisdom literature.
There are many other angles from which the topic of Egypt and the Hebrew Bible could be approached. One could, for example, study the role of Egypt in individual biblical books or in Second Temple Jewish texts like those found at Qumran. The papyri finds from Elephantine, a Jewish military colony on an island across from Aswan in Egypt, also provide an interesting view of Jewish life in Egypt. Egypt (and especially the exodus) profoundly shaped the Christian imaginary as well, giving it language and imagery with which to describe its experience with Jesus of Nazareth (see, e.g., Matt 2:13–23; 1 Cor 10:1–13). This list could easily be expanded. What I have provided here are a few brief glimpses into potential corridors of inquiry.
- Assmann, Jan. The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
- Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Translated by Thomas Trapp. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
- Kitchen, Kenneth A. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt. Warminster: Wiltshire, 1985.
- LeMon, Joel M. Yahweh's Winged Form in the Psalms: Exploring Congruent Iconography and Texts. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 242. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2010.
- O'Connor, David B. and David P. Silverman, eds. Ancient Egyptian Kingship. Probleme der Ägyptologie 9. Leiden: Brill, 1995.
- Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
- ________, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Russell, Stephen C. Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan- Israelite and Judahite Portraits. BZAW 403; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009.
- Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- ________. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Strawn, Brent A. What is Stronger Than a Lion? Leonine Image and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2005.
- idem. "Whence Leonine Yahweh?: Iconography and the History of Israelite Religion." Pages 51-85 in Images and Prophecy in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean. Edited by Martti Nissinen and Charles E. Carter. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 233. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.
- Van de Mieroop, Marc. A History of Ancient Egypt. Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Chichester: West Sussex; Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.