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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Historical Analogues to the Exodus Events

Given the lack of extrabiblical witness to any part of the Exodus account, a second step toward placing the Exodus events in history has been to seek general historical parallels to the biblical data. Such analogues are most commonly invoked in three discrete categories reflecting the major components of the biblical narrative: “descent into Egypt,” “sojourn in Egypt,” and “Exodus from Egypt.”

Virtually any movement into Egypt by Asiatics prior to the time of Merneptah can be considered a potential parallel for the biblical descent into Egypt by Joseph and Jacob and his entourage. Contacts between Egypt and Canaan can be charted at least intermittently throughout the late fourth and third millennia BCE and fairly regularly during the first half of the second millennium. These contacts become continuous during the second half of the second millennium, when Egypt ruled an empire that included most of ancient Syria-Palestine.

A variety of sources—tomb and temple paintings and reliefs, inscriptions, and papyri—indicate that during the second millennium BCE, large numbers of Asiatics found their way into Egypt. Many came as slaves: spoils of conquest from Egypt's numerous sorties into Syria-Palestine; tribute imposed on the vanquished by a victorious Egyptian state; or victims of the ancient slave trade. Demand for slaves in Egypt was considerable, from individual Egyptians as well as palace and temple estates. Slave ownership was not confined to the wealthiest elite; we know of one Syrian girl who was peddled door-to-door by a private trader in a village in western Thebes.

Trade was another reason for Asiatics to enter Egypt. A nineteenth-century BCE (Dynasty 12) tomb painting at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt depicts an Asiatic donkey caravan. New Kingdom Theban tombs portray Syrian merchants. Major ports maintained foreign quarters that housed traders and trade missions. It is also suggested that the expression “to speak Syrian” became synonymous with “to bargain” in late New Kingdom times.

We know from later biblical sources that Egypt provided refuge for those fleeing political strife or persecution in ancient Syria-Palestine. In 1 Kings 11.16–18 , Hadad and a small group of Edomites evaded David and Joab by escaping to Egypt, where the pharaoh gave them asylum. Similarly, in 1 Kings 11.40 , Jeroboam fled to Egypt after his abortive revolt against Solomon and wisely remained there until Solomon's death. In 2 Kings 25.26 , a remnant of those left behind after Nebuchadrezzar's capture and sack of Jerusalem fled to Egypt. Finally, in Matthew 2.13–15 , an angel told Joseph to descend into Egypt with Jesus and Mary in order to avoid Herod's deadly search for the infant Jesus; there they remained until Herod's death.

Egypt also seems to have served as a haven for the less fortunate, particularly during times of famine or other hardship. Certainly the fertile, well-watered delta would have been an attractive destination, permanent or temporary, for a variety of groups from Syria-Palestine. There was probably a more or less constant flow of Asiatic and bedouin elements through Egypt's permeable northeastern border, as people sought pasturage, sanctuary, or a better life in Egypt's wealthier and more sophisticated civilization. At times of strong central government and strict border control this infiltration was probably a trickle; when the government was weak, foreign movement into the delta might become a flood. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of hard data for reconstructing delta history in detail, particularly for periods prior to the first millennium BCE.

Physical proximity to Asia made the delta, especially the northeastern delta, the main overland entry into Egypt for Asiatics. Goshen, the territory of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt according to the Bible, is traditionally located in precisely this area. The delta was also home to the two major routes connecting Egypt and Syria-Palestine: the principal northern artery—the Ways of Horus and the Way of the Sea—along the Mediterranean coast; and the peripheral southern route through the Wadi Tumilat to the middle of the Sinai Peninsula.

Occasional written sources also provide glimpses into delta affairs. The “Instructions for Merikare,” a literary work dating to the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2160–1963 BCE), speaks briefly and generally of Asiatic infiltration into the eastern delta. A late Dynasty 19 (ca. 1295–1186 BCE) papyrus contains a short scribal report concerning a group of Shasu bedouin whom the Egyptian government allowed to pass the Fortress of Merneptah-Content-with-Truth, located in Tjeku (probably the Wadi Tumilat). These Shasu wanted to water their flocks at the pools of Per Atum of Merneptah-Content-with-Truth in Tjeku. The Shasu, a seminomadic group known only from New Kingdom Egyptian documents and reliefs, apparently occupied southern Palestine east of the Jordan River and frequented much if not all of Canaan. Egyptian texts refer to a “land of the Shasu,” and reliefs depict the Shasu in a distinctive garb clearly differentiated from that worn by Canaanites. Like the Apiru, the Shasu are often invoked in discussions of Israelite origins, and a number of scholars think that elements of the Shasu were among the proto-Israelites who formed the core of the settlers of the hill country of Canaan during the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries.

Historical sources identify only one group of Asiatics that migrated into and occupied the delta: the Hyksos. The Hyksos were a succession of foreign kings, based in the eastern delta, which comprised Egypt's Dynasty 15 (ca. 1648–1540 BCE) during the confused Second Intermediate Period. They were booted out of the country at the beginning of the New Kingdom by a line of native Egyptian rulers from Thebes. The Canaanite origin of the Hyksos has been established by archaeological connections.

Potential counterparts thus exist for a “descent into Egypt” like that recorded in the Bible. Such an event in principle would be far from unique. These analogues, however, are only possibilities, and cannot be construed as hard evidence for a particular movement of Israelites into Egypt under specific circumstances. At most, they tell us that a movement by Israelites into Egypt sometime during the second millennium BCE was neither impossible nor unlikely, and would have been compatible with the tenor of the times.

Similar parallels exist for an Israelite “sojourn in Egypt.” Diverse second-millennium BCE Egyptian records attest to Asiatics, particularly individual Asiatics, living in Egypt and functioning in a wide variety of capacities ranging from the most menial of slaves to the highest of officials. From the Middle Kingdom (Dynasty 12) comes a papyrus mentioning an “officer in charge of the Asiatics.” Foreigners, whether captives or mercenaries, were common in the Egyptian military from Old Kingdom times on. The New Kingdom army, larger, more permanent, and more professional than any before, utilized correspondingly larger numbers of mercenaries. A Dynasty 13 papyrus lists, individually, seventy-nine slaves belonging to a private household in Upper Egypt; of these, forty-eight had foreign names, mostly Semitic. Middle Kingdom stelas in general often mention Semitic domestic slaves who apparently functioned as trusted family retainers. Indeed, so many household slaves in Egypt were of Asiatic origin that the generic word for “Asiatic,” ‘amw, became synonymous in some contexts with “slave.”

Information about Asiatics becomes particularly copious and varied during the New Kingdom, reflecting both a larger number of preserved texts and depictions and increased contact resulting from Egypt's conquest of southern Syria-Palestine. Children or other close relatives of local potentates in areas conquered by Egypt were commonly sent to Egypt as hostages to guarantee the good behavior of the conquered potentates. While in Egypt, these hostages were well treated and carefully acculturated into Egyptian thought modes and lifestyles. Children were raised with the children of the Egyptian elite; males often served in the Egyptian army. This policy was a shrewd component of Egypt's colonial regime, forging a powerful bond between Egypt and hostage, and enhancing vassal loyalty if and when the hostages returned home to positions of power. Hostages who did not return home often rose to positions of importance within Egypt.

At or near the bottom of the Egyptian social ladder were the many slaves tied to state and temple endowments. They were forced to toil on agricultural, industrial, and construction projects, engaging in such tasks as weaving, cultivation, wine making, quarrying, and public works. Thutmose III (Dynasty 18, ca. 1479–1425) put Syrian captives to work as “clothmakers” for the state temple of Amun at Karnak; the same king also gave 150 Asiatic weavers to one of his favored officials. Generally more fortunate were domestic slaves, particularly in the royal household, where they might become trusted servants. Some Canaanite slaves held the royal sunshades; other Asiatics served among the king's personal entourage, rising even to the high position of chamberlain.

Within the Egyptian bureaucracy, some Asiatics attained positions of prominence as priests and officials. Some achieved the lowest grade of the priesthood; a few rose to higher ranks. A Canaanite named Pas-Baal became chief draftsman in the temple of Amun; six generations later his descendants held the same office. Syrian scribes were numerous, especially in the treasury; Canaanite butlers were commonplace among palace officials, especially in Ramesside times. One Asiatic became superintendent of all the king's construction work; another, named Ben-Anath, became a chief physician. A Canaanite from Bashan, Ben-Ozen, took the Egyptian name Ramses-em-Per-Re and served as chief royal herald, fan bearer on the right of the king, and first royal butler under Rameses II. Successful Asiatics in Egypt assimilated totally. They adopted Egyptian names and portrayed themselves in Egyptian style and dress. Often the only hint of their foreign origin was their Semitic name.

Most powerful of all were two Asiatics who rose to unprecedented heights in Egyptian society. One, named Bay, has been known for many years. At the end of Dynasty 19, a period of dynastic struggle ended in the brief rule of a queen, Tewosret (ca. 1188–1186). During this time of strife, Bay, a high official probably of Syrian extraction, apparently held the reins of power in Egypt. Bay seems to have been not only Egypt's chancellor, but also the power behind the throne. A second high-ranking Asiatic has only recently come to light. At Saqqarah, a major burial ground associated with the Egyptian capital and administrative center of Memphis, a French mission has excavated the family tomb of an otherwise unknown man named Aper-El. From the inscriptions found in his tomb, our only source of information about this individual, it appears that Aper-El was a vizier, the most powerful secular official in the bureaucracy, under both Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten of Dynasty 18 (ca. 1390–1336 BCE).

On occasion, captured foreigners might be settled as a group in Egypt because they originated from the same place or because of some shared skill or ability. A military unit might be kept together, for example. Thutmose IV relocated captives from Gezer as a group; enclaves of foreigners were settled in both the delta and Middle Egypt in Ramesside times. The Egyptians especially welcomed individuals or groups of foreigners with specialized skills useful to the Egyptian crown and temples, particularly in crafts. Asiatic goldsmiths, coppersmiths, and shipwrights all appear in Egyptian records.

We can thus cite numerous parallels for Asiatics dwelling in Egypt and assimilating into Egyptian society. We know the names of a number of them, and we know that a few rose to positions of power. Only occasional analogues exist, however, for the settling of Asiatics as groups in particular locations in Egypt.

Counterparts, general or specific, to the Israelite “Exodus from Egypt” are more difficult to establish. Rarely do we hear of Asiatics fleeing from Egypt. The Tale of Sinuhe, sometimes cited in this context, is inappropriate because the fleeing protagonist is Egyptian, not Asiatic, although the first person Sinuhe encounters in Asia is a local sheikh who had been in Egypt. A papyrus from late Dynasty 19 describes a Tjeku troop commander's pursuit of two escaped slaves. The commander, sent by the palace, failed to recapture the slaves, who may have escaped into Asia. The closest historical parallel to the Israelite departure from Egypt, and the only known comparatively large-scale exodus of Asiatics from Egypt, is the expulsion of the Hyksos that marked the end of the Second Intermediate Period and the beginning of the New Kingdom. In fact, the Hyksos provide the only historical parallel that incorporates all three major elements of the biblical Exodus narrative—descent, sojourn, and departure—a parallel to which we will turn shortly.

In general, surprisingly numerous analogues exist for the Hebrew descent into and sojourn in Egypt. In the latter case we even have examples of individual Asiatics rising to Joseph-like positions of power. What is most striking about these parallels is the ease with which they can be established over a comparatively long time range. Asiatics were common in Egypt, and wide-ranging contacts between Egypt and Syria-Palestine were the norm, throughout the second millennium BCE, especially during the New Kingdom, when a cosmopolitan Egypt ruled its Asiatic empire.

Such counterparts to elements of the Exodus narrative, unfortunately, provide no hard evidence for a biblical movement of Hebrews into Egypt, nor do they prove that a particular group of Hebrews ever resided in or exited from Egypt. No direct connection can be established between the Exodus events and any of the historically attested Asiatics in Egypt. Analogues provide only general evidence of Asiatics moving into and living within Egyptian society; at most, they suggest that movement by biblical Hebrews into and out of Egypt sometime during the second millennium BCE was entirely possible. On its own, analogous evidence can neither confirm nor deny the historicity of the Exodus saga, nor can it definitively place the Exodus in time.

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