Uncovering the Bible’s Buried Civilizations: The Egyptians

The nation that was both friend, enemy, safe haven and taskmaster to Israel
Illustration of the tomb of Rekhmire showing Semitic slaves making bricks

Egypt is one of the most researched of archaeological societies (thanks in part to the vast array of monuments still preserved in the sandy, dry climate). Yet Egyptian history is difficult to properly document and corroborate next to other national histories, including the Bible. Egyptian chronology is somewhat of a mess—there are so many different proposed, revised, old and new chronologies, that it is hard to fix the dates for (at least the earlier) pharaohs and events in Egypt.

Amid the confusion, though, are many very interesting discoveries in Egyptian archaeology that parallel the biblical record. The ancient Egyptians were among the most significant national players in biblical history, so we can’t afford to miss them in our series. We’ll only touch on the high points of Egypt’s biblical and archaeological history to prevent this article from turning into a multi-volume work.

The Racial Roots

“Egypt” is known in the Hebrew Bible as Mitzraim or Mizraim; the ancestor of the Egyptians was Mizraim, son of Ham, son of Noah (Genesis 10:6). It would make sense that such an early civilization as Egypt should trace its ancestor back to the early post-Flood days. The fact that Mizraim was a son of Ham brings up an interesting point. Ham was the progenitor of the dark-skinned, or black, race. Noah prophesied about the descendants of his sons: Japheth’s descendants would become a massive population, and Shem’s descendants would be worshipers of the true God and would inherit many blessings (Genesis 9:26-27). Ham himself is not mentioned, but his son Canaan is. Canaan, for indulging in a sexually perverse encounter with an unconscious Noah, was cursed with slavery (verses 18-25, 27). No further mention was made of Ham or his sons. Thus it makes full sense that while the descendants of Canaan would experience slavery, this curse would not apply to his brothers, of which Mizraim was one. And as the well-known story of the Exodus goes, it was these Egyptian descendants of Mizraim that were not the slaves but the slave-owners—of the Israelites!

Queen Tiye (mother of King Tut) with dark skin
Miguel Hermosa Cuesta/CC

There is actually a lot of evidence that points toward the early original Egyptians as descending from the black race. Obviously, the land of Egypt bordered with ancient Ethiopia and was surrounded by similar peoples (such as the black Nubians), sharing ties and origins with them. Many ancient writers described the Egyptians as being a black people—Herodotus, for example, described them as black-skinned with wavy hairy. Other classical writers concur, including Apollodorus, Marcellinus, Aeschylus, Strabo and more. Much Egyptian art also depicts early Egyptians as having darker skin and black-African features. Of course, as time progressed throughout Egypt’s history, their features changed as Egypt became a melting pot of different peoples. Today’s Egyptians are nothing like the Egyptians of old—as foretold by the Prophet Ezekiel (e.g. chapter 29).

The nephew of the ancient Egyptian forefather, Mizraim, was a man named Nimrod. He was the first post-Flood city-organizer and despot (Genesis 10:8-12). Alexander Hislop’s book The Two Babylons explains that Nimrod and his wife, Semiramis, became the inspiration for the legends of the chief Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris.

Early Egypt in the Bible

Egypt is mentioned initially as being of help to the early Israelite ancestors. Abraham found refuge there during a famine (Genesis 12). Jacob and his family did the same after Joseph was made second-in-command under the Pharaoh for having interpreted his prophetic dream. This “sojourn” in Egypt of Jacob and his family would have occurred during the 19th century B.C. Joseph had initially been sold by his brothers to Ishmaelite traders, who then brought him to Egypt and sold him to the Egyptian captain Potiphar.

A famous Egyptian painting, known as the Ibscha Relief, depicts a scene dating to around this time. It shows eastern Semitic traders bringing goods or offerings into Egypt. Joseph’s arrival in Egypt at the hand of the eastern Semitic Ishmaelites would have been a near-identical scene—or perhaps this was the very same caravan? We can only speculate.

Ibscha relief showing Semitic traders visiting Egypt

Joseph and his family were given a great deal of favor within Egypt. Joseph, of course, ruled under the Pharaoh. His father Jacob pronounced a blessing on the Pharaoh (Genesis 47:10), and must have been given great honor within Egypt. A number of archaeological excavations have uncovered 27 royal scarabs bearing the name “Yaqub-har,” or “Yacob-har.” These were found most notably in Egypt and Israel (Canaan at that time). There is no “J” sound in the Hebrew language, thus the name “Jacob” is pronounced as “Yacob.” Was this the same figure? It is very possible. The “Yaqub-har” scarabs haven’t been conclusively dated, but could point to Jacob’s time or just after. The “har” part of the title is the Hebrew word for hill, mount, mountain—a word connected with Jacob several times in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 31:25, 54; Isaiah 2:3). The phrase would thus mean “Jacob’s Mount.” These scarabs could have belonged to Jacob, his son Joseph, or extended family. They may even have belonged to non-physically associated Egyptians, considering the fact that Jacob was a highly-respected individual within Egypt (this is evidenced by his funeral—the Egyptians mourned his death for 70 days—Genesis 50:1-4).

Drawing of a scarab of the Egyptian ruler Yaqub-Har, from the Murch Collection

The date of Jacob and his family’s sojourn in Egypt occurs around the time of the 14th Egyptian dynasty—a time known to Egyptologists for immigrants from the land of Canaan arriving in Egypt and beginning to take up leadership over portions of the land. The association with Jacob, Joseph, and the widespread famine and poverty throughout especially Canaan at that time is clear. This original favor shown to the Israelites by the Egyptians, of course, turned into hatred and slavery through the following centuries.

There are far too many archaeological discoveries relating to the biblical sojourn in Egypt than space permits. A run-down of some of them can be found here.

Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus

This is one of the great questions of biblical-Egyptian archaeology—who was the pharaoh of the Exodus? Traditionally, Ramses II is portrayed as being that man. Yet if the Bible is to be our guide, this would be impossible. Ramses II reigned around 200 years too late. The Exodus occurred during the 15th century—specifically, 1446 B.C. One of the difficulties in identifying the right Pharaoh is that no Egyptian leader would be willing to admit the tragedies that befell under his reign—especially not on the level of the plagues or the Exodus. There are other clues we can look at, though, to help identify the pharaoh of the Exodus. A number of names have been put forward—we’ll just give an example of one good candidate in this article, and also look at surrounding events up to and during the Exodus.

“Moses” word-component in hieroglyphs, read from left to right

The baby Moses had been set adrift in the Nile by his Israelite parents, fearing the Egyptian Pharaoh’s command to midwives to kill all Israelite male children. (The name of one of the Israelite midwives, Shiphrah (Exodus 1:15), has actually been found documented on an Egyptian slave list dating to the early period of Israelite slavery in the land.) Moses was rescued by a daughter of Pharaoh, who had come to the river to bathe (Exodus 2:10). It was this Egyptian princess who chose the name “Moses” (or Moshe, in the Hebrew)—and his name, fittingly, parallels typical royal Egyptian names. The names Moses, Mosis, Moshe, Mose are interchangeable. The term means to be “born” or “drawn” (in Moses’s case, born of water, verse 10). And so Moses’s Egyptian name fits right alongside Egyptian royalty of the same general period, like Tuthmose (or Tuthmosis, “born of Tuth”) Ahmose, Ramose, Kamose, Wadjmose.

Regarding the pharaoh himself, there are a couple requirements for finding the correct one. He must not have been a firstborn (for he survived the 10th plague, which killed all the firstborn in Egypt, Exodus 12:30). His successor must not have been a firstborn (for his heir died during this same event). And he must have died in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:5-7, 28; Psalm 106:11), making it impossible for his body to undergo the usual ceremonial mummification process done for the pharaohs. One good possibility is Pharaoh Amenhotep II.

Head of Pharaoh Amenhotep II from a sphinx statue

Amenhotep II, if we adhere to high chronology (see an explanation here), was on the throne during the years up to and including the Exodus. He was not the firstborn son of his father, Tuthmose III. Thus, he would have survived the death of the firstborn. Amenhotep’s own firstborn son died early—the successive pharaoh was a later-born son.

Amenhotep’s great-aunt was a prolific Egyptian princess called Hatshepsut—and strangely (probably during Amenhotep’s reign), statues and engravings of her were extensively defaced, toppled and chiseled out. Could this have been the same princess that rescued and raised Moses—a princess whose historical record now was egregiously vandalized, because of her connections with the man who would lead the Exodus? If this was indeed the princess, she would have had good reason to call her adopted child Moses—for her father’s name was Pharaoh Tuthmose I and her mother’s name was Ahmose.

A question remains though: How could Amenhotep II be the pharaoh of the Exodus, seeing that his body was found mummified alongside other successive pharaohs? According to William Shea, there is at least some material evidence suggesting that a stand-in pharaoh, taking the same name “Amenhotep,” could have taken up the position of the fallen pharaoh of the Exodus. If so, it was thus this man who was buried and mummified as Amenhotep II. Shea’s theory and explanation is given here. Such an action to hide the ignominious fate of the real pharaoh would not be surprising—and it would be intended to maintain a façade of continuous Egyptian power to neighboring countries.

There is an inscription belonging to Amenhotep in which he maliciously denigrates Semites, and warns about magicians. This inscription is linked by Shea to “Amenhotep IIB”—stand-in for a drowned Amenhotep of the Exodus. The inscription would thus have been a show of hatred for what had occurred with the Semitic Israelites, as well as exasperation against the impotent Egyptian magicians and/or the “magic” of the Israelites.

In the tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier of both Amenhotep II and his father before him, a wall painting and inscription shows eastern slaves making bricks—fitting exactly the depiction of the Israelite slaves in the Bible!

Illustration of the tomb of Rekhmire showing Semitic slaves making bricks.
Again, there is much continuing debate as to which Pharaoh reigned during the Exodus. Until more evidence is found, I personally prefer Amenhotep II.

Plagues and Exodus

What about the plagues and the Exodus? Is there anything archaeologically that attests to these events? There is one certain document—and it generates a lot of debate. It is known as the Ipuwer Papyrus. Dating for the text is merely guesswork—the text was a copy of an earlier document, dated loosely from the early 2000s B.C. to the 1500s B.C. (the Exodus, again, occurred c. 1446 B.C.). Yet the connections between the papyrus and the Bible’s description of the 10 plagues makes it necessary to mention.

The Ipuwer Papyrus is a story of utter calamity befalling Egypt. Below are quotes from the papyrus, alongside very similar biblical scriptures of the plagues.

Ipuwer Papyrus
Public Domain

Indeed, poor men have become owners of wealth, and he who could not make sandals for himself is now a possessor of riches …[Exodus 12:35-36: “And the children of Israel … borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment … And they spoiled the Egyptians”]

Indeed, [hearts] are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere, death is not lacking … [Exodus 9:15: “that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence …” Exodus 7:19: “that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt”]

Indeed, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water … [Exodus 7:20, :18: “and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood … the Egyptians shall loathe to drink of the water”]

Indeed, men are few, and he who places his brother in the ground is everywhere … [Exodus 12:30: “and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead”]

Indeed, gold and lapis lazuli, silver and turquoise, carnelian and amethyst, Ibhet-stone and [. . .] are strung on the necks of maidservants … [Exodus 11:2: “every woman (borrowed) of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold”]

Indeed, every dead person is as a well-born man … [Exodus 12:29: “at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt”]

Indeed, all animals, their hearts weep; cattle moan because of the state of the land … [Exodus 9:3, :6: “Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain … and all the cattle of Egypt died”]

Indeed, everywhere barley has perished … [Exodus 9:31: “And the flax and the barley was smitten”]

Behold, the fire has gone up on high, and its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land … [Exodus 9:23-24: “and the fire ran along upon the ground … So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous …”]

The land is without light … [Exodus 10:22: “and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days”]

What a catastrophic disaster this Egyptian laments! Finally, toward the end of the document, he inserts an interesting paragraph:

He brings coolness upon heat; men say: “He is the herdsman of mankind, and there is no evil in his heart.” Though his herds are few, yet he spends a day to collect them, their hearts being on fire. Would that he had perceived their nature in the first generation; then he would have imposed obstacles, he would have stretched out his arm against them, he would have destroyed their herds and their heritage.

This rings very familiar with the initial arrival of Jacob, his 12 sons, and extended family to Egypt. They were welcomed in peacefully, as herdsmen, and were separated out from the other Egyptians in order to raise their livestock (Genesis 46:34—“for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians”). If only our leader, who had allowed them into the country, had imposed obstacles and made it difficult for these people to so freely establish themselves—if only he had destroyed their herds and cattle!

The document matches up so well with the Israelite sojourn and the Exodus that a connection seems almost certain. It is only the dating presented for the document that stands in the way. Yet this dating fluctuates within half a dozen centuries. It cannot be given authoritatively. Even if this did have a pre-Exodus date, to the beginning of the second millennium B.C., there is the possibility that it could have been a prophecyfor at a similarly early date, God foretold to Abraham the future Israelite slavery, Exodus, and judgment of Egypt (Genesis 15:12-15). Perhaps the fact that this document was written twice—and early original, and a late transcription—points to an original prophecy of the Exodus, and then a rewriting just after the fulfillment. We can only speculate, for now. Hopefully future archaeological discoveries will have more to say about this remarkable papyrus.

The Golden Calf

One notable part of the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness was their reversal into paganism by setting up a golden calf to worship while Moses was atop Mount Sinai receiving the commandments from God (Exodus 32). Thousands of Israelites participated in sexually depraved revelry before this god, praising it as their deliverer from Egypt. The question is, why construct a golden calf? Was this just a random creature of worship? Or was it something that was learned from Egypt? Archaeology shows us that cows were a significant part of Egyptian worship.

The bull Apis in the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Creative Commons

From Egypt’s beginnings, the Pharaoh, considered to be a god, was depicted as a bull. There were a number of bull-worship cults in Egypt (it was their most worshiped animal)—the most famous of which was the “Apis bull.” The Apis bull was a specially chosen male calf identified by specific markings, believed to be a manifestation of the gods Ptah and Osiris. Egyptians believed that this calf was conceived by a bolt of lightning striking the mother cow, known as the “Isis cow.” Only one Apis bull could exist at a time—so after one died, the search began for another. When one was found, a seven-day celebration commenced.

The Apis bull would be transported in a golden boat to his royal quarters, and given his own “harem” of cows. His movements would be studied by the Egyptian priesthood, who believed them to be prophetic. Those who smelled the breath of the bull were believed to be able to predict the future. Priests would pose yes-no questions to the bull, and based on whether or not the bull ate food placed before it, would receive their response. Once the bull died, it would be mummified and interred in a massive 60-ton sarcophagus.

Thus the inspiration for the Israelite golden calf is clear. Perhaps their calf was a direct representation of an Apis bull, replete with the traditionally required symbolic markings on its body. The Israelites’ worship of the bull would thus have been, through its connected symbolism, a worship of the gods Ptah and Osiris, for bringing them “up out of the land of Egypt”—an incredibly blasphemous idea.

We can also learn much from what Moses did to the golden calf—he burned it completely (verse 20). Why burn a metal object? This, too, would have had great significance to those familiar with ancient Egyptian customs. The worst form of punishment for a criminal in Egypt was to be burned. This was because of Egypt’s preoccupation with the afterlife, and the preserved state of the human or creature to enter into that afterlife. This was why mummification was such a fad. Burning was terrifying for the criminal, because it ensured that nothing was left to enter into the afterlife. Thus the burning of the golden calf must have been deeply symbolic—issuing the highest form of Egyptian “punishment” on this pagan god.

Statue of Pharaoh Khafre (Khefren), probably from Memphis. Note the pointed beard and shaved sides of the face.
Juan R. Lazaro/CC

The Israelites had learned a number of pagan traditions while in servitude to the Egyptians. This was the reason for their being given a number of seemingly strange-sounding laws in the Torah. Laws were given specifically to address certain pagan behaviors. One of which was the law against boiling a young animal in the milk of its mother (Exodus 23:19; 24:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This law is always referenced next to scriptures about harvesting. Archaeological discovery has shown that rather than being a dietary law about avoiding mixing meat and milk products, this was in fact an ancient ritual performed to elicit blessings upon future crops. Pagans would boil a kid in the milk of its mother, and spread the subsequent formula on their crops. Israel’s contact with these pagan traditions would have necessitated this (nowadays strange) commandment.

Another was the command not to “mar the corners of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). This strange command could likely point back to the beards of the Egyptian pharaohs—clean-shaven on the sides, yet either grown long (or worn as a fake) directly under the chin. Even a female pharaoh is depicted wearing one of these fake beards. They were considered to be an attribute of the gods—thus we can understand why God would not want this style replicated by the Israelites.

Amarna Letters

We next come to the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land and the ensuing battles that took place. Here again, there is a literary connection with the Egyptians, as shown through the mighty Egyptian city Amarna.

The Exodus, as stated above, took place c. 1446 B.C., and after wandering the wilderness for 40 years, it was not until 1406 that the Israelites began to enter the land of Canaan. Years progressed as they moved into and gradually conquered the land. Dating to this same time, the turning of the century, we find some very desperate correspondence from Canaanite rulers to the pharaoh of Egypt. These documents are called the “Amarna Letters,” because they were found stored within the Egyptian city of the same name. The letters describe a fierce group of “nomads” invading Canaan, by the name of Habiru (sometimes called ‘Apiruor Hapiru). These Canaanite rulers, subservient to Egypt, were seeing the land gradually captured by these people, and they were desperate for help. Below are a couple of excerpts.

From the ruler of Gezer to the pharaoh:

Let the king, my lord, be aware that my younger brother has rebelled against me and has … given over his two hands to the leader of the Hapiru. And since [..]anna is at war with me, take care of your land. May my lord write to his representative about this matter.

Amarna letter, Musée du Louvre (letter from Biridiya, written in Megiddo, cuneiform, addressed to the pharaoh)
Claude Valette

From the ruler of Jerusalem to pharaoh:

While the king, my lord, lives, I will say … “Why do you favor the Hapiru and are opposed to the rulers?” And thus I am accused before the king, my Lord. Because it is said: “Lost are the territories of the king, my lord … All the territories of the king have rebelled” … I will say: “Lost are the territories of the king. Do you not hear to me? All the rulers are lost; the king, my lord, does not have a single ruler left.” May the king direct his attention to the archers, and may the king, my lord, send troops of archers, the king has no more lands. The Hapiru sack the territories of the king. If there are archers this year, all the territories of the king will remain; but if there are no archers, the territories of the king, my lord, will be lost!

The terms Habiru, Hapiru and ‘Apiru are very close to the term Hebrew. In fact, at this point in the Bible story, the term Hebrew is used far more than the term Israelite. These Habiru are also mentioned as being present around Canaanite lands as early as c. 1800 B.C.—this matches up with the Hebrew presence in the land before the sojourn in Egypt. And now at the start of the 14th century B.C., as the pleas of the Canaanite kings fell on deaf Egyptian ears, so their territories were gradually overrun until a very different land appeared several hundred years later—one archaeology (particularly a significant Egyptian relic) shows was populated with Israelites.

Egypt’s Continuing History

The Merneptah Stele is the earliest confirmed reference to the name “Israel.” It is an Egyptian victory stone, detailing Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah’s victories throughout the Near East and Africa toward the end of the 13th century B.C. Alongside mentions of other crushed nation-states, the stele declares “Israel is laid waste; its seed is not.” The stele thus confirms that by this point in time (nearly 200 years after the Israelite conquests of Canaan), there was indeed a functioning, fully-fledged nation by the name of Israel.

Merneptah Stele in the Cairo Museum

This Egyptian attack would have been during the time of the judges. While no Egyptian conquests are mentioned specifically during that time (as compared to the well-documented Moabite and Philistine oppression), there were a number of wars and oppressions in the Book of Judges attributed to certain unmentioned powers during that time. On the other hand, the stele could have been referencing the domination of Israel by one of the other powers—it doesn’t specifically state that Egypt itself conquered the land.

The following period saw brief positive relations between Egypt and Israel—under the rule of Solomon. Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1), and the pharaoh captured the then-Canaanite stronghold of Gezer, delivering it as a present for his daughter (1 Kings 9:15-17).

Under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, however, relations soured, and the southern kingdom of Judah and parts of the northern kingdom of Israel were attacked by King Shishak of Egypt (1 Chronicles 12; most identify him with Pharaoh Shoshenq I). A massive hieroglyphic portal at Shoshenq’s Temple of Karnak lists a number of biblical Israelite towns that the pharaoh conquered during his lifetime.

Throughout Egypt’s continuing history, the Bible describes more pharaohs in various verses—So, Tirhakah, Necho, and Hophra. Archaeology has confirmed the existence of all of these pharaohs.

During the eighth century B.C., Isaiah prophesied that Egypt would be conquered by the Assyrians and led away captive (Isaiah 20). Just such an event happened during the seventh century B.C., under the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. After engaging in vicious fighting, Pharaoh Taharqa (Tirhakah) fled to Kush, and Esarhaddon documented heaping up piles of heads, also taking “countless numbers” of Egyptians captive.

We now come to the sixth century B.C.—by this point, Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians and Judah had been taken captive by the Babylonians. The surviving Jews in the land, rejecting the warnings of Jeremiah the prophet, began a “reverse” Exodus, and headed back into the land of Egypt. Jeremiah prophesied that Egypt would be conquered by the Babylonians while the Jews were seeking refuge there (Jeremiah 43)—and history shows that Egypt was subsequently attacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces. Thus we reach the end of Egypt’s chronological mention in the Bible. This article has barely touched on the wealth of biblically related Egyptian artifacts.

Today, of course, the nation has become worlds apart from the Egypt of old. Yet the Bible story for Egypt is not yet finished. As mentioned in the other articles in this series, there is detailed, future, end-time prophecy for the nation of Egypt. You can read more about that here.