The presence of the River Nile, and more particularly the phenomenon of its annual flooding, made it possible for human civilization to develop along a relatively narrow strip of fertile land, surrounded by desert, in north‐east Africa. The annual inundations of the Nile brought down deposits of rich soil, making agriculture possible in a rainless and otherwise desert region. This also accounts for the development of human society, and ultimately the state, in Egypt, because the control of irrigation, the draining of swamps, the construction of dams, drainage channels, and canals required cooperation and an authority to oversee such vital tasks. The Nile also provided the principal means of travel and communication. The vegetation along its banks was the habitat for game and fowl and, particularly noteworthy, included the papyrus reed from which material on which to write was manufactured. Knowledge of the importance of the resources supplied by the Nile is graphically reflected in Isaiah 19: 4–10 . Egypt was divided into Lower Egypt, predominantly the area of the Nile Delta, with its marshes, canals, and channels running into the Mediterranean (see Exod. 7: 19 ), and Upper Egypt which stretched south to the First Cataract of the Nile at Syene.
To some extent Egypt was geographically isolated from the rest of the ancient Near East, with desert on either side, and a land journey across the Sinai peninsula or a sea journey around the coast needed for contact with neighbours to the east. Nevertheless it was essential for Egypt not to become isolated but to maintain access to or control over the land and sea routes along the Levantine coast, for commercial and strategic reasons, so Egyptian armies were often in those regions. But Egypt's control over the Levant fluctuated. Unusual circumstances prevailed from the 18th to 16th centuries BCE when a group known as the Hyksos, probably including Indo‐European and Asiatic elements, moved south along the east Mediterranean coast, and gained control in Egypt, establishing their capital at Avaris; but they were ultimately expelled. Subsequently, Pharaoh Thutmose I (1504–1492) passed through the area and reached as far as the Euphrates where he erected a stele by its banks. Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425) claims to have conquered numerous cities in the area, including Megiddo whose capture was ‘the capture of rooo towns’. The letters discovered at Tell el‐‘Amarna (ancient Akhetaten), dating from the 14th century, include some written from the southern Levant by vassals of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1352–1336), imploring his assistance against trouble‐makers: this suggests that Egyptian control over the area was relatively weak at that time. (See ‘The Setting of the Genesis Stories’ .) It is in a stele recording the victories of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203) that the earliest allusion to a people called Israel is to be found. The stele contains the statement, ‘Israel is laid waste and his seed is not’.
The biblical narrative contains a number of allusions to contacts with Egypt and Egyptians, some of which suggest that the writers were familiar with Egyptian customs and practices (for example, mummification; Gen. 50: 1–3 ), and possibly also Egyptian stories such as the ‘Tale of the Two Brothers’. Abraham is said to have visited Egypt (Gen. 12: 10–20 ), and much of the Joseph story is set there (Gen. 30–50 ). (It has been suggested that the Joseph story may reflect an awareness of the Hyksos period, a time when a non‐Egyptian from Asia might have held a position of authority.) The Israelite bondage is set in Egypt (Exod. 1 ), as is the birth of Moses (Exod. 2: 1–10 ; the biblical writer provides a Hebrew etymology for what is in fact an Egyptian name). Solomon married an Egyptian princess in order to establish an alliance with the Pharaoh (1 Kgs. 3: 1; 9:16 ), and engaged in trade with Egypt (1 Kgs. 10:28–9 ). Before taking the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam fled to Egypt to take refuge with Pharaoh Shishak I (Shoshenq) (1 Kgs. 11: 40 ). There is an allusion to Shishak's campaigns in Judah and Israel in 1 Kings 14: 25 . It is likely that various subsequent revolts by Israel and Judah against the Assyrians were instigated or encouraged by Egypt. 2 Kings 18: 19–25 presents an Assyrian official warning Hezekiah of Judah of the futility of relying on Egypt. Later Pharaoh Neco, seeking to support the Assyrians against the rising power of the Babylonians, marched north and killed King Josiah of Judah, who was attempting to prevent him, at Megiddo in 609 (2 Kgs. 23: 29 ). Neco's subsequent defeat by Nebuchadrezzar at Carchemish is recalled in Jeremiah 46: 2–12 . Neco placed Jehoahaz on the throne of Judah briefly, but then removed him and took him to Egypt, replacing him with Jehoiakim who taxed the land in order to pay tribute to Egypt (2 Kgs. 23: 33–5 ). According to Jeremiah 37: 5–12 , an Egyptian army did try to come to the help of the besieged city of Jerusalem, causing the withdrawal of the Babylonian for a while and making it possible for people to leave the city. (Mention will be made in the section on ‘The Greeks’ of other contacts with Egypt.)
The above outline has concentrated on narrative passages in the Hebrew Bible, but there are also prophetic oracles directed against Egypt in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Did Egypt have any significant religious influence on Israel? A theory which must now be considered very doubtful concerns the possibility that the attempt to inaugurate something approaching monotheism by Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE might have influenced Moses and thence the faith of Israel. But there are a number of difficulties, not least the fundamental fact that Akhenaten's worship was directed to a natural object, the solar disc (the Aten). However, there are some affinities between the famous ‘Hymn to the Aten’, thought by some to have been written by the pharaoh himself, and parts of Psalm 104; these have suggested the possibility that the Hymn was known in Israel, perhaps in translation, but it is also possible that the writers were drawing upon similar traditions rather than there being direct literary dependence. It was perhaps in the area of Wisdom literature that Egypt had an influence, although Wisdom literature is also known from Mesopotamia. (See 1 Kings 4: 30 , where there is an allusion to the wisdom of Egypt but also to the wisdom of the East.) Wisdom books known as ‘Instructions’ were used in Egypt in the training of officials and administrators and, since Israel's court officials seem to have been modelled on those of Egypt, it is not impossible that the accompanying Wisdom literature had an influence. Part of one of these Egyptian documents, the ‘Instruction (or Wisdom) of Amenemope’ seems to be quoted in Proverbs 22: 17–23: 11 .