Evidence of Hebrews in Egypt
Published: 28 April 2020 (GMT+10)
Mathurin M. wrote to CMI as follows with responses from CMI’s Gary Bates interspersed.
I have been studying Ancient Egypt for a few years. I am a Protestant Christian and was happy to find your website in 2017. I have a question which your expert on Egypt, a man by the name of Mr Gary Bates might be able to answer for me.
Is any part of the Egyptian chronology in agreement with the chronology of the Bible?
[GB] Thanks. I’ll do my best but am not an expert. Keeping in mind that on the issue of Ancient Egypt even the ‘experts’ are widely divided. Asking if dates ascribed to Egypt agree with the Bible is a bit of a loaded question, and perhaps the incorrect question to ask. This is because there is widespread consensus that Egyptian chronology is in need of serious revision. Therefore, how can we start to reconcile something that we know is faulty to begin with? Before we start, and particularly for people not too familiar with the history of ancient Egypt, it will be beneficial to refer to table 1 as we go along. Note that these are secular dates that we would not agree with, but at least they should help us to understand the periods and sequences in which Egypt’s history is divided.
A ‘Kingdom’ was a time when all of Egypt was united under a central monarchy. An Intermediate Period was a time when Egypt was fragmented with different rulers, was a time of decline perhaps economically, or was a period when foreigners ruled some parts of the country. For example, the New Kingdom (18–20th dynasties) was a time when Egypt’s wealth and influence reached unprecedented levels.
|Pre 3200 BC||Predynastic/Prehistory|
|3200–2686 BC||Early dynastic Period||1st–2nd|
|2686–2181 BC||Old Kingdom||3rd–6th|
|2181–2055 BC||1st Intermediate Period||7th–10th|
|2055–1650 BC||Middle Kingdom||11th–12th|
|1650–1550 BC||2nd Intermediate Period/Hyksos||13th(?)–17th|
|1550–1069 BC||New Kingdom||18th–20th|
|1069–664 BC||3rd Intermediate Period||21st–25th|
|664–525 BC||Late Period||26th|
|525–332 BC||Achaemenid/Persian Egypt||27th–31st|
|332–30 BC||Ptolemaic/Greek Egypt|
|30 BC–641 AD||Roman & Byzantine Egypt|
Table 1: Standard dating of Egyptian History
To determine any sort of match, Egyptian history itself would have to mention actual biblical events or biblical characters that we recognize, and then we could them match up with the biblical dates. The big ticket items that most want to try to determine are who were the pharaohs of the Exodus, or Joseph and Abraham’s times, for example. However, the Egyptians were unlikely to record any details of a slave group of foreigners on monuments dedicated to their kings and gods. In other words, one would not expect them to be mentioned which is why it is rather duplicitous when an ‘expert’ on Egypt proclaims that Egypt is silent about the Hebrew occupations. However, Egypt does eventually mention the Hebrews and even the nation of Israel (Habiru/Israel) from about the mid-18th dynasty forward (c. 1450 BC). This is after they had most likely departed Egypt, so it might also give us an indication that the Exodus occurred just prior to that time. If we can determine the dates of biblical events, then we might look at Egyptian history to see if we can find any synchronous events or characters.
For example, quite some time after the Exodus, Scripture tells about King Solomon and his son Rehoboam interacting with King Shishak of Egypt. Here are some biblical references to this king. (1 Kings 11:40; 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:2–9).
So all we have to do is identify who Shishak might be. But there is no pharaoh called Shishak mentioned in Egypt itself.
However, the great French archaeologist Champollion (1790–1832—the one who deciphered the Rosetta Stone) deciphered an inscription on a portal in Egypt related to pharaoh Shoshenq who was the first king of the 22nd dynasty in the Third Intermediate Period (IP) of Egypt. The 22nd dynasty was the second non-native Egyptian dynasty of the of the 3rd IP. This period began with the death of the Egyptian king, Ramses XI (20th dynasty) and it left Egypt in turmoil. Along comes Shoshenq to sort it all out. Once done, he embarks on campaigns in the Ancient Near East. On his ‘booty list’—the Bubastite Portal at the Temple of Karnak at Thebes/Luxor, he lists around 180 cities that he conquered in the Jordan region. 43 of these are names of cities and kings that are recognizable as cities in Judah and Israel during the Divided Kingdom. There are also many names that are not legible, so a full picture is unclear. The kings of the 3rd IP had a Libyan origin and were most likely originally generals under former Egyptian rule, and Bubastis itself was a Libyan city. Keep in mind before you read on that there are lots of depictions of towns and cities that cannot be read on Shoshenq’s portal due to their poor condition, so a complete picture is hard to assess.
Champollion deciphered one set of hieroglyphics (y-w-d-h-m-r-k) on Shoshenq’s portal as Ioudahamalek or yehudmalek, and as the kingdom of the Jews or of Judah. Therefore, he believed that Shoshenq of Egypt was also Shishak of the Bible who had plundered cities in the Divided Kingdom. However, Egyptian revisionist (not a Christian believer) David Rohl argues this deciphered interpretation is incorrect and ergo Shoshenq cannot be Shishak because the portal does not mention Jerusalem.
After King Solomon’s reign, his son Rehoboam went on to be the king of Judah in the Divided Kingdom. Jeroboam, a former superintendent for Solomon who became a destructive influence, fled his king’s wrath and sought sanctuary in Egypt with Shishak and there married an Egyptian princess. Scripture indicates he also became familiar with worshipping Egyptian sacred bull deities Apis and Mnevis.
Solomon sought therefore to kill Jeroboam. But Jeroboam arose and fled into Egypt, to Shishak king of Egypt, and was in Egypt until the death of Solomon (1 Kings 11:40).
If Rohl is correct that Jerusalem is not mentioned in Shoshenq’s relief at Karnak it might be for another reason. I believe Scripture indicates that Shishak did not conquer the city but, instead, Rehoboam may have handed over booty to stop it being plundered. The sequence kind of reads, Shishak is coming; he’s still coming to exact God’s judgment on them (God is giving them time to repent, 2 Chronicles 12:2–5). They get together, then repent and humble themselves (12:6). As God often does when His people repent, God lessened the judgment, and instead of being destroyed, they were only subjugated and plundered (12:7–8).
Then Shemaiah the prophet came to Rehoboam and to the princes of Judah, who had gathered at Jerusalem because of Shishak, and said to them, “Thus says the LORD, ‘You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak.’” Then the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The LORD is righteous.” When the LORD saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the LORD came to Shemaiah: “They have humbled themselves. I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance, and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem by the hand of Shishak. Nevertheless, they shall be servants to him, that they may know my service and the service of the kingdoms of the countries.” So Shishak the king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. He took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king's house. He took away everything. He also took away the shields of gold that Solomon had made (2 Chronicles 12:5–9).
I think it is clear that Shishak was given the treasures of Jerusalem and Judah including the gold shields of Solomon etc. as tribute to not destroy the city. Indeed, if the city was not destroyed hence why it might not be mentioned on Shoshenq’s portal, if indeed, yehudmalek is not the correct interpretation of the hieroglyph and is not the city of Judah etc. But maybe we do not need to resort to such speculation.
What does y-w-d-h-m-r-k actually mean?
With the help of CMI’s Gavin Cox, I have been investigating the hieroglyph in question a bit further. The Egyptian language had no vowels and so it intends the reader to ‘force’ the sounds of the images being depicted. We then try to equate those to alphabetic letters that we understand.
To start, we looked up Champollion’s original writings in French and had it interpreted. He did not actually mention the words ‘king’ or ‘Jerusalem’ as some have claimed. But he did cite what I wrote earlier which was ‘the kingdom of the Jews or of Judah’.1 The transliteration of ‘y-w-d-h-m-r-k’ is interesting. In modern times we have verbally rendered the m-r-k as malek or king which is not correct. Gavin notes,
“an Egyptian word pronounced mrk means “offering, to give”, in Egyptian. This is attested in the Egyptian Wörterbuch (Wb 2, 113.3) and the lexicon by Dimitri Meeks (Meeks, AL 78.1800).”
So perhaps a better rendering of the hieroglyph is that y-w-d-h-m-r-k means “Judah gives an offering.” This is outstanding because this is exactly what Rehoboam did. He gave an offering to Shishak to avoid the city of Jerusalem and capital of Judah being plundered. This included the wealth of Solomon. No wonder Shoshenq/Shishak mentioned it!
We need to do more research but at this stage we think Champollion’s original idea and Kitchen (see later) are most likely correct.
Another objection is that Shoshenq also plundered cities in Jeroboam’s Israel. Why would he have destroyed the cities of presumably a former friend who he earlier gave sanctuary to? There are a couple of things to consider. In context Jeroboam sought sanctuary in Egypt because he was part of a revolt that helped divide Solomon’s kingdom. But he returns as king of a now divided kingdom. He may have thumbed his nose at Shoshenq now because he did not need him anymore. After all, he is now a king in his own right. But I think the biblical context helps us see a big picture. Rehoboam’s Judah seems to have been spared by God due to repentance, but Shishak was going to be God’s instrument of judgment on Jeroboam. Israel was ransacked but Rehoboam paid tribute and was spared.
Dating biblical Shishak
But here is the most exciting part. Solomon began the temple in the fourth year of his reign which we agree was 967 BC. We believe this year to be accurate as we have built our 1 Kings 6:1 Exodus date around this as 1446 BC (some creation ministries say 1491 BC). This means he came to power in c. 971 BC. He reigned for 40 years. This puts the end of his reign at about 931 BC. Shishak invaded Judah in the 5th year of Rehoboam’s reign meaning around 926 BC (by conventional Egyptian chronology which I believe to be reasonably accurate to within a few tens of years in some places from the 18th dynasty forward). The conventional date for Shoshenq’s invasion is 925 BC. These dates are very close and this could be a wonderful synchrony with biblical chronology.
The very respected Christian Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has written the seminal work on the 3rd IP of Egypt and he argued that Champollion was also correct in his interpretation. You might also be surprised to know that a large number of secular Egyptologists have accepted the Shishak/Shoshenq synchrony. But David Rohl (who should be admired for advocating a revamp of Egyptian chronology), rejected Shishak and Shoshenq as being one and the same because it did not fit in with his revised chronology of Egypt. He used other events to re-date much of Egyptian history and the Shoshenq/Shishak synchrony did not fill well with this.
I have read his interesting paper, Egyptian chronology and the Bible—framing the issues and find it interesting. Also can I ask if he can read the hieroglyphics and read original Egyptian text for himself. One last difficulty for me is Mr Bates gives three dates for Exodus. Two dates he explains but all I see for 1491 BC date is “some think that … ” Who are the ‘some’ and why do they think 1491 BC is correct? I do not understand this Can you help? Thank you.
[GB] No, I cannot, as yet, read hieroglyphics. But note above how even today experts disagree on an interpretation of one hieroglyph. Egyptologist Gavin Cox in our UK office is reasonably adept at reading them though and helped me out on this as can be seen above. BTW you asked if Egyptian chronology matches the Bible dates, but that article you cited explains exactly why not. I recommend that our readers spend the time going through it.
Also, I don’t believe I advocated three dates. I merely mentioned the other dates that some ascribe to and that 1491 BC is a date that another ministry subscribes to. My/our preferred date is the one that I believe we can reasonably deduce from Scripture and is also known as the early Exodus (compared to the late Exodus with Rameses II being the pharaoh of the Exodus c. 1279–1213). The date is 1446 BC (give or take a year). At the time of writing several CMI staff have been working on a guide book for our upcoming tours of Egypt commencing in August 2020 (all three tours sold out in a matter of weeks but due to COVID-19 they have been postponed to 2021). We have written:
The anchor point for our chronology is 586/7 BC, the year the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. This date is well attested in secular archeology and is a fixed point in biblical history as well. But note that we are already starting with a 1-year discrepancy. Let’s assume 586 is the correct answer. From there, we can work backwards though the divided kingdom, the united monarchy, the period of the Judges, the Exodus, the Sojourn in Egypt, and from Abraham back to Noah. However, it is not possible to know the dates exactly, because the numbers given to us in the Bible are not always that precise. See The biblical minimum and maximum age of the earth.
The kings of Israel and Judah
Scholars debate how long the kings of Judah and Israel reigned. Accounting for all the little details amounts to about 50 years of ambiguity. However, several people have worked out the details to a reasonable level of accuracy. We can safely say that Solomon became king in approximately 970 BC.2
The building of the Temple
1 Kings 6:1 tells us that construction of the Temple began in Solomon’s fourth year as king. More specifically, “…in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.” Thus, it sounds like they were counting carefully. Temple construction began around 966 BC.
1 Kings 6:1 also says that Solomon began to build the Temple, “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt.” This would place the Exodus in 1,446 BC. Some scholars believe that this 480-year figure should be understood symbolically, as 12 × 40, with 40 years equal to a generation. However, there is nothing in the Bible that says a “generation” is 40 years and we feel that these attempts at stylizing the passage in this way are introducing concepts foreign to both the writer and the initial audience. Also, the precision in the immediate context (“in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord. “) is another argument against this.
Furthermore, two other calculations similarly converge on a date for the Exodus in the 15th century BC. First, Judges 11:26 allows us to make a rough calculation. In his taunt to the Ammonite King, Jephthah refers to Israel having occupied the land east of the Jordan for the previous 300 years. Jephthah lived in the latter half of the period of the Judges and prior to David, who became king circa 1,010 BC. Allowing for some time between Jephthah and David (let’s use “100 years” as an estimate), approximately three hundred years between the conquest of Canaan and Jephthah’s statement, and another 40 years for the wandering in the wilderness places the Exodus around 1,440 BC, give or take a wide margin of error. Yet, even with the uncertainties, these numbers cannot be stretched indefinitely. The Exodus had to be close to this date.
Second, if we subtract the 40 years of wilderness wandering from the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 and allow one year for the Israelites to get themselves established in the land, 439 years is exactly nine Jubilee cycles from the year the Israelites were settled in Canaan. It is probably not a coincidence that the Temple construction began in a Jubilee year!
Speaking of Jubilee cycles, there is a very interesting statement in Ezekiel 41:1:“In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was struck down, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me to the city.”
The only time Rosh Hoshana (“the beginning of the year”) falls on the 10th of Tishri is during a Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:9). Outside the Bible, the Talmud and Seder Olam both say this was the 17th Jubilee.3 Thus, 14 years after the destruction of the Temple (572 or 573 BC) was a Jubilee year. Subtracting 17 Jubilees (17 × 49 = 833 years) and adding 40 years of wandering in the desert also gives us an Exodus of 1446 BC.4
Since three different methods of calculating the Exodus gives us the same result, we can take this date as fairly certain, plus or minus a year or two. Please note that there is room for scholarly debate here. Different people advocate for different timelines. We do not have space to present all the arguments, but 1446 BC is the most widely accepted date among evangelicals, and we agree.
[GB]I hope this helps. I believe there is a lot more we could write about in terms of determining who might be the pharaoh of the Exodus and even who Joseph interacted with, but hopefully these will be revealed in future articles.
References and notes
- Letters and Journals of Champollion the Younger, Paris (1909), pp. 160-163, gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k55516z/f195.image, accessed 4 February 2020. Return to text.
- According to Thiel. See Thiele, E.R., The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1951 and Jones, F., Chronology of the Old Testament, King’s Word Press, The Woodlands, TX, 1999. Return to text.
- Young, R.C., Evidence for inerrancy from a second unexpected source: the Jubilee and Sabbatical cycles, Bible and Spade 21(4), 2008; biblearchaeology.org/research/exodus-from-egypt/2662-evidence-for-inerrancy-from-a-second-unexpected-source-the-jubilee-and-sabbatical-cycles. Return to text.
- Petrovich, D., Amenhotep II and the historicity of the Exodus pharaoh, The Master’s Seminary Journal 17(1):81–110, 2006; tms.edu/m/msj17.1.pdf. See also biblearchaeology.org/research/exodus-from-egypt/3147-amenhotep-ii-and-the-historicity-of-the-exodus-pharaoh. Return to text.