Newly discovered Egyptian relic witnesses to biblical king
A large slab of sandstone covered in superbly preserved hieroglyphic inscriptions was recently unearthed by an Egyptian farmer working in his fields.1 The slab is 230 cm (91 in) long, 103 cm (41 in) wide, and 45 cm (18 in) thick.2 It was discovered near the town of Ismailia (which, incidentally, I visited in 1999, during my time in the seismic industry in Egypt) on the west bank of the Suez Canal.
The stone slab, technically known as a stele or stela, is dedicated to a 26th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh called Wahibre Haaibre (see box on ‘Pharaonic names’). This ruler is recognized by scholars as none other than the Egyptian king mentioned in Jeremiah 44:30 as Hophra.3 He was also known as Apries by the Greeks, notably by the historians Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC) and Diodorus (c. 90–c. 30 BC). Alternate Greek and Egyptian spellings of Uaphris and Waḥibprê are attributed to the Egyptian historian Manetho (c. early third century bc).4
How do scholars know these different names refer to the same person? For one thing, the names don’t look the same; or do they? Egyptologists recognize that the biblical writers often used abbreviated forms of pharaonic names, leaving out the various lengthy formal titles. This was done for Hophra, whereby his personal Egyptian name was transliterated into Hebrew letters, but with minor changes (see box again). This may have been deliberately done to make a pun on his name, which in Hebrew sounds like a combination of two words: 1) ḥepha ‘to cover/veil one’s head in sorrow, particularly before execution’5 and 2) ra` ‘evil’.6 The combined words mean something like ‘to have one’s head covered by evil before execution.’ This suits the context of what Jeremiah prophesied would happen to Hophra. Another wordplay involves the fact that the ra` in Hophra’s name, which happens to sound, as indicated above, just like Hebrew for ‘evil’, denotes the Egyptian sun god.
Biblical narrative and history
Judah’s King Zedekiah was contemporaneous with Hophra, who likely reigned from 589–570 BC.7 Zedekiah reigned during the closing days of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, before the Jews were exiled into Babylonian captivity and Jerusalem was sacked.
Hophra is mentioned by name in Jeremiah’s prophecy
“Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will give Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt into the hand of his enemies and into the hand of those who seek his life, as I gave Zedekiah king of Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who was his enemy and sought his life” (Jeremiah 44:30 cf. 37:5).
The prophet Jeremiah narrates how Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylonian forces withdrew from their siege of Jerusalem when Hophra’s forces came to defend the city.
“The army of Pharaoh had come out of Egypt. And when the Chaldeans who were besieging Jerusalem heard news about them, they withdrew from Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 37:5).
However, according to God’s Word to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar II’s withdrawal would only be temporary, as he would return to destroy Jerusalem.
“Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Thus shall you say to the king of Judah who sent you to me to inquire of me, ‘Behold, Pharaoh’s army that came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city. They shall capture it and burn it with fire’” (Jeremiah 37:7–8).
God would also “make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant” (34:2–22). Babylonian chronicles record that following an 18-month-long siege, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in either 587 or 586 BC.8
However, Nebuchadnezzar II didn’t kill Hophra; rather, according to Jeremiah’s prophecy, Hophra’s internal enemies would. Evidence from Egyptian and Greek sources indicate there was a civil war in Egypt, during which time Hophra and his Greek mercenary army fled abroad, only to return later to Egypt and be killed by the hand of Amasis (Ahmose II), who then took over (reigned 570–526 BC).9 Thus, Jeremiah’s prophecy corroborates the extrabiblical sources and fills in the details of part of Hophra’s ill-fated itinerary to Israel (Jeremiah 37:7–8).
This newly discovered stela from Ismailia, dedicated to the biblical pharaoh Hophra, is an important piece of extrabiblical evidence that corroborates his existence. According to Greek and Egyptian sources, Hophra was killed by the hand of his enemies, yet not by the Babylonian king. These extra-biblical sources confirm the truth of God’s Word to Jeremiah.
Scholars are still working on a translation of the stela. If this effort adds information about his interactions with Jerusalem’s king Zedekiah, about Nebuchadnezzar II, or about Hophra’s death at the hands of Amasis, it will make even bigger news in the world of biblical archaeology—so watch this space!
Pharaonic names (Semi-Technical)
Egyptian pharaonic names were made up of five royal titles. The first was the ‘Horus name’, which was the oldest of the Pharaoh’s titles, dating back to the Predynastic period (the beginning of Egypt, probably under Ham, Noah’s son, and/or Ham’s son Mizraim, the Hebrew name for Egypt). Hophra’s Horus name was Wahib which meant ‘He whose heart is constant.’ The personal/birth name for Hophra was Wahibre, meaning ‘Constant is the heart of Re.’10 In hieroglyphics, the personal name is written inside an ovoid symbol called the cartouche:
The duck symbol means ‘son’ and the dotted circle represents the sun god, Ra. Together it is pronounced sa ra and means ‘son of Ra.’
Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen recognizes that the Egyptian name of Wahibre is the same as biblical Hebrew Hophra (חָפְרַע). He refers to “the omission of the initial Wa from Wahibre in the Hebrew and Greek forms Hophra and Apries.”11 The difference in sounds between /b/ and /ph/ can be explained by the Egyptian tendency to ‘coalesce’ (bring together) certain consonants over the years, so that /b/ was sometimes pronounced /p/ and [ph].12
References and notes
- Steinmeyer, N., New Stele of Biblical Pharaoh Found, biblicalarchaeology.org, 1 Jul 2021. Return to text.
- Jarus, O., Farmer discovers 2,600-year-old stone slab from Egyptian pharaoh, livescience.com, 18 Jun 2021. Return to text.
- Kitchen, K., On the Reliability of the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans, Michigan, pp. 16, 24, 66, 2003. Return to text.
- Waddell, W.G., Manetho, Harvard University Press, London, pp. 170–171, 1964. Return to text.
- This word also occurs in II Samuel 15:30; Jeremiah 14:3–4; Esther 7:8. Return to text.
- Koehler, L., et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament, Vols. 1–5, Brill, Leiden, 2000, nos. 3079, 8868. Return to text.
- Kitchen, ref. 3, pp. 24. Return to text.
- Kitchen, ref. 3, p. 66. Return to text.
- Leahy, A., The Earliest Dated Monument of Amasis and the End of the Reign of Apries, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 74:183-199, 1988. Greek historians Herodotus (II, 162–9) and Diodorus Siculus (I, 68, 2–5) give differing accounts of the location of Hophra’s death. A stela of Amasis from Elephantine (BM 952) indicates the Egyptians went over to Amasis en masse from Hophra. A fragment of a Babylonian royal text (BM 33041) gives corroborating dates for Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign into the Levant. Return to text.
- Clayton, P.A., Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 195–197, 2001. Return to text.
- Kitchen, main text ref. 3, p. 16. Return to text.
- Loprieno, A., Ancient Egyptian: a linguistic introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 24, 1996. Return to text.