According to the biblical tradition, the word Israel derived from Jacob-Israel, the grandson of Abraham the Patriarch (Gn. 32.2). During the Second Intermediate Period (1750–1600 BCE), the Hebrews came to the northeast of the Nile Delta. After some centuries there, and a period of servitude in Egypt, they fled under the leadership of Moses. Subsequently, Joshua led them into the land of Canaan in the Levant, along the eastern Mediterranean shore, returning to the land where their Patriarchs had lived.

Reference to Israel is not found in Egyptian records until Merenptah's fifth regnal year (c. 1229 BCE); recorded on the Merenptah (or Israel) Stela is reference to the monarch's invasion of Canaan, in which Israelites were encountered. The grandiose claim “Israel is wasted, his seed is not” must be understood as a hyperbolic statement, since the Israelite tribes were not eradicated at the end of the thirteenth century BCE. Merenptah's Stela is now thought to have a pictorial counterpart at Karnak temple, which includes Israelites who are portrayed as Canaanites.

The period of Israel's United Monarchy (c.1040–970 BCE) coincided with the beginning of Egypt's Third Intermediate Period (c.1100–650 BCE), when Egypt was retrenching and not as concerned with international affairs as was the case during the previous New Kingdom. Relations between Egypt and Israel are not well documented in Egyptian sources, although Egypt is frequently mentioned in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, as well as in some Hebrew prophetic literature. Consequently, sources for Egypt's contacts with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah from about 1040 to 586 BCE largely come from the Bible and from some Assyrian records.

The Egyptian Story of Wen-Amen, which reflects the geopolitics of the Levant during the reigns of Herihor from Thebes and Smendes from Tanis (1075–1050 BCE), does not mention Israel, although some of the Sea Peoples, who settled along the Levantine coast, were cited. The biblical books of Joshua and Judges suggest that Israelite tribes had not yet occupied the coastal area, and this was the area visited in Wen-Amen's maritime travels. Thus Wen-Amen's silence on the Israelites may only mean that his travels did not include areas occupied by them.

While there is no direct evidence from either Egyptian or Hebrew sources, it is thought that there were cordial relations between King David, second ruler of the United Monarchy, and the kings of Tanis. Not until the reign of David's son Solomon (c.970–930 BCE), however, is there evidence for direct contact between the two nations. In 1 Kings 3.1, there is a marriage alliance between Solomon and the daughter of Pharaoh; this is probably the twenty-first dynasty Tanite king Siamun (984–965 BCE). It is uncertain whether the treaty resulted from Egypt's failed attempt to conquer Philistia and Israel, or whether Pharaoh seized Gezer (1 Kings 9.16) from the Philistines to support Solomon, Israel's new king; the latter seems likely. Good relations between the two nations meant the free flow of ideas. As Solomon was familiar with the Egyptian Wisdom Literature (1 Kings 4.29–30), that may account for the verbal correspondence between Proverbs 22 and the Wisdom of Amenemope. Trade also then flourished, as judged from the reference to Solomon facilitating horse-and-chariot exchange between Egypt and the Neo-Hittites of northern Syria (1 Kings 10.28–29).

Toward the end of Solomon's reign, the twenty-second (Libyan) dynasty was established by Sheshonq (the biblical Shishak). The alliance with Israel was over, as reflected in Solomon's political enemy Jeroboam finding sanctuary at the court of Sheshonq (1 Kings 11.40). With Solomon's death (c.931 BCE), Israel split into two kingdoms; David's successors controlled Judah from Jerusalem, and Jeroboam returned from Egypt to become king of the northern state, Israel. In 925 BCE, Sheshonq invaded the Levant. Biblical sources offer only a Judean perspective on that invasion, that King Rehoboam was humbled and his treasury stripped to bride Sheshonq, thereby preventing an attack on Jerusalem (1 Kings 14.25–26; 2 Chron. 12.1–12). Nevertheless, the city name list—the itinerary of Sheshonq's campaign—at Karnak records a large number of Israelite toponyms (e.g., Megiddo, Tanaach, Rehob, Beth Shean), indicating that Jeroboam suffered a serious blow from his erstwhile protector. A fragment of Sheshonq's victory stela was discovered at Megiddo, and a number of Israelite sites show evidence of having been sacked by Egyptian forces, including Stratum VA/IVB at Megiddo and Stratum VII at Tel Mevorakh. Surprisingly, the Karnak topographical list records the names of nearly seventy toponyms in the Negev. Amihai Mazar (1990) suggests that “Shishak's goal may have been to disrupt the Israelite and Phoenician trade with southern Arabia and restore Egyptian hegemony over this trade as it had been during the New Kingdom.”

The next incursion into Judah and Israel was made by Zerah the “Ethiopian (Cushite)” during Asa's reign (910–869 BCE; 2 Chron. 14.9). At that time, the son of Sheshonq, Osorkon I, ruled in Tanis. (In the past, some scholars thought that Zerah was the Hebrew form of writing Osorkon; this, however, is linguistically impossible.) The text of 2 Chronicles 14.9, it must be noted, never refers to Zerah as “king,” and his army consists of Cushites and Libyans (2 Chron. 16.8). More plausibly, Zerah was a mercenary, leading Egypt's army in 897 BCE, when the invasion took place. Kenneth Kitchen has observed (1986) that Osorkon would have been quite old and probably incapable of leading the attack.

In the waning years of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (725–4 BCE), King Hoshea revolted against his Assyrian overlords: “But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 17.4). The identity of “So” is problematic, and different interpretations of the text have been proffered; one emended reading is that Hoshea “sent [to] So, to the King of Egypt,” So being Sais (Sao) in the western Delta. Alternatively, Donald Redford (1981) has proposed that “So” has been equated with the Greco-Egyptian historian Manetho's epithet pso, which is attached to Necho, the name of the twenty-sixth dynasty king. Pso would correspond to Egyptian pa-sau (pʒ sʒw), meaning the Saite.

While this suggestion has merit, it is not without problems, the principal one being geography. Sais is located around 100 kilometers (64 miles) west of Tanis, the closest seat of power to Israel. At that time, there were concurrent kingships at Sais and Tanis, the twenty-third and twenty-fourth dynasties, respectively. The Tanite ruler was Osorkon IV; the Saite king was Tefnakht. It seems likely that Hoshea would have sought help from the closer source, Tanis. Kitchen (1986) suggested that “So” might be an abbreviation for O(so)rkon IV. Regardless of how “So” is understood, the help either did not come or did no good, for Samaria was destroyed in 722 BCE by the troops of Sargon II, king of Assyria. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah took notice of Hoshea's lack of faith in God, and he denounced the trusting of Egypt for military aid rather than trusting God (Isa. 31.1; 19.11–15).

Once Assyria became a real threat to Egypt, the Cushite rulers of the twenty-fifth dynasty had to rethink their relationships with Jerusalem. Taharka came to the aid of Hezekiah of Jerusalem in 701 BCE (2 Kings 19.9; Isa. 37.19), apparently acting on behalf of his elder brother, Shebitku the king. Yet nothing in the biblical text suggests that Hezekiah sought his help. More likely, the twenty-fifth dynasty kings realized that once the kingdom of Judah fell nothing stood in Assyria's way and that Egypt was next to be conquered. So the Cushites apparently acted out of self-interest. No extant sources from Egypt record Taharka's campaign to Judah, although it may be alluded to on the Kawa stela of Taharka; there, Shebitku orders his brother and a military force to leave Napata and join him in Memphis. Sennacherib's Annals do report on Taharka's effort to support Judah, and he claims to have trounced the chariots and infantry of the “king of Ethiopia” at Eltekeh.

The collapse of the Assyrian Empire between 612 and 609 BCE motivated Necho II of the twenty-sixth dynasty (r. 610–595 BCE) to enter the Levant, to influence the geopolitics of the Near East. For a brief period between 609 and 605 BCE, Necho wielded considerable influence on Judah. First, he set off to Charchemish on the Euphrates to aid the remnant of Assyria that was holding up in Haran and to stop the advances of Nebuchadrezzar and his Chaldean armies. The Judean monarch Josiah thought otherwise and tried to stop Necho at Megiddo (near Jerusalem). In a battle that ensued, Josiah was killed. Subsequently, Necho dethroned Josiah's successor, Jehoahaz II, took him to Egypt and replaced him with his brother Eliakim (i.e., Jehoiakim. 2 Kings 23.33–34). In 605 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar drove out Necho's forces stationed at Charchemish, ending a short period of Egyptian dominance in the Levant; again, Egyptian records of Necho's activities there have not survived, but, along with biblical references, the Babylonian Chronicle documents that presence of Egypt in Syria.

The last period of contact between Egypt and Israel occurred when Zedekiah, facing Nebuchadrezzar's invasion, called on Egypt for military help in 591–589 BCE (2 Kings 25.20B; Ezek. 17.15). The prophet Jeremiah then reported on the coming of Pharaoh Hophra (Apries), indicating that they could not help Judah's plight because its doom was sealed (Jer. 37.5–10; 44.30; Ezek. 30.21–22). The ancient historians Herodotus and Diodorus Seculus reported on Apries' failed ventures in the Levant; Egypt's help was futile, Jerusalem fell in 586 BCE and many Jews fled to Egypt for safety—among them were Jeremiah and Baruch, his scribe (Jer. 43.5–44.30). Jeremiah then warned Egypt of Nebuchadrezzar's coming invasion, which occurred in 568 BCE.

Whether friend or foe to Israel, Egypt exerted considerable influence over its Levantine neighbor. Egyptian papyrus was the most important commodity received by the Israelites. Even before the Israelites settled in Canaan during the second half of the second millennium BCE, Egypt had economic interests in that region. Egyptian scarabs found in abundance in Bronze and Iron Age sites throughout the Levant attest to Egypt's commercial interests. Interestingly, Egyptian royal scarabs found in both Israel and Judah are replete with Egyptian motifs— winged discs, Egyptian crowns, and Egyptian hair style. Similarly, the ivories found at Megiddo and Samaria are dominated by Egyptian images.



  • Hoffmeier, James K. “Egypt as an Arm of Flesh: A Prophetic Response.” Israel's Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, edited by Avraham Gileadi, pp. 79–97. Grand Rapids, 1988.
  • Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. New York, 1997.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, Warminster, 1986.
  • Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. New York, 1990.
  • Redford, Donald B. “A Note on II Kings 17:4.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 11 (1981), 75–76.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1993.
  • Yurco, F. “Merenptah's Canaanite Campaign.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 23 (1986), 189–215.

James K. Hoffmeier