Biblical Egypt (Hebrew: מִצְרַיִם; miṣ-rā-yim), or Mizraim, is a theological term used by historians and scholars to differentiate between Ancient Egypt as it is portrayed in Judeo-Christian texts and what is known about the region based on archaeological evidence. Along with Canaan, Egypt is one of the most commonly mentioned locations in the Bible, and its people, the Egyptians (or Mitsri), play important roles in the story of the Israelites. No historical evidence corroborates the existence of Jewish slaves in Egypt or the depiction of Egypt as told in the Bible.
The Book of Genesis and Book of Exodus describe a period of Hebrew slavery in Egypt, from their settlement in the Land of Goshen until their escape and the journey through the wilderness to Sinai. Based on the internal chronology of the Hebrew Bible, this would correspond roughly to the New Kingdom of Egypt during the Late Bronze Age.
In the Bible, a number of Jews took refuge in Egypt after the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 597 BC, and the subsequent assassination of the Jewish governor, Gedaliah (2 Kings 2 Kings 25:22-24, Book of Jeremiah Jeremiah 40:6-8). On hearing of the appointment, the Jewish population fled to Moab, Ammon, Edom and in other countries returned to Judah (Jeremiah 40:11-12). In Egypt, they settled in Migdol, Tahpanhes, Noph, and Pathros (Jeremiah 44:1).
The Egyptian race
The Egyptian race, or Mitsri (Hebrew: מצרי, romanized: mitsrí, lit. 'from Mizraim'), are among the major ethnic groups mentioned in the Bible. They are considered a distinct race from their neighbors, the Amazigh (Hebrew: לוּבִ֥ים, romanized: lū-ḇîm, lit. 'Berbers; Libyans'), the Sudanese (Hebrew: סֻכִּיִּ֖ים, romanized: suk-kî-yîm, lit. 'Sukkiites'), and the Ethiopians (Hebrew: כּוּשִׁי, romanized: ḵū-šîm, lit. 'Kushites; descendants of Cush'). While ancient Egyptians, in both Biblical and historical narratives, considered themselves to be a distinct people, there was nothing taboo about a relationship between an Egyptian and a member of another race or faith, and they were open to the idea of accepting a foreigner as an Egyptian, even allowing them to hold leadership roles within their nation. Notable Biblical and historical examples of such are Joseph, an Israelite vizier second only to the Pharaoh himself, and Shoshenq I, a Libyan Pharaoh who is believed to be the historical counterpart of the Biblical Shishak.
As to their physical appearance, historians believe Egyptians, both ancient and modern, to be genetically similar to other Levantine peoples, such as Palestinians and Syrians. DNA analysis of mummies show that present day Egyptians possess a slightly higher incidence of sub-Saharan African DNA than they did in Biblical times. Also, while hieroglyphics and artwork frequently portray them as bald or their heads covered by wigs or ornate headpieces, DNA analysis of mummies show that, in addition to brown and black hair, some Egyptians possessed blonde and red hair, and that henna was used as a hair dye, though blonde hair may have only surfaced after Greeks and Romans established themselves as a sizable minority in Egypt. It is presumed that black and brown were the dominant eye colors, though some artwork depicts individuals with blue eyes, and, possessing an olive skin tone. A mural found in the tomb of Seti I, the Book of Gates, shows that Egyptians saw the Libyans (themesu) as having beige skin, the Nubians as having black skin (nehesu), and the Mesopotamians (aamu), who would've been related to the Israelites as Abraham is said to have been from Mesopotamia, also called Shinar in the Bible, as being of similar color to them, though with significantly more facial hair. Historical evidence also supports the Egyptians practiced skin whitening, though the reasons for it are uncertain. There is additional support for being of similar appearance to the Israelites could be implied in the story of Joseph, when it is said his brothers do not recognize him when they visit Egypt, which could be taken to mean he easily passed for Egyptian.
In Jewish law
In the Book of Leviticus, it is said by the Lord to the Israelites that they are not to follow the ways of Egypt, especially in concern to forbidden relationships. Wording is vague in some areas, and aimed at male Israelites as opposed to female ones, and so, there is some room for interpretation as it would appear men are held to different standards than women are. Most take the scriptures as opposing incest and homosexuality. While historians have plenty of evidence that incest was widely practiced among Egyptians, at least among the ruling class, there is limited evidence to support the acceptance, or widespread acceptance, of homosexual relationships, whether sexual or romantic in nature.
After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.— KJV, Leviticus 18:3
In the Book of Genesis
In the Book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah, along with their nephew Lot, are living in Canaan when a famine strikes the area and so, the group travels to Egypt, where Pharaoh, betaken by Sarah's beauty, makes her his concubine, unaware that she is married because Abraham introduces himself as her brother, not her husband. Pharaoh gives number of gifts to Abraham in exchange for Sarah, in the form of livestock and slaves, one of whom is Hagar, who would later become Abraham's concubine and the mother of his firstborn son, Ishmael. For how long Sarah lives in Pharaoh's palace isn't clear, though it is known that the LORD strikes Pharaoh and members of his household, save for Sarah, with plague, and Pharaoh deduces that Sarah is somehow the cause. Once learning that Sarah is Abraham's wife, not only his sister, he releases her to him and does not ask that Abraham return to him any of the livestock or slaves, and they leave Egypt without interruption, with significant wealth.
"And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land."
Later in the Book of Genesis is the story of Abraham and Sarah's great-grandson, Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob and his first son with his second wife, Rachel. It is said that Jacob prefers Joseph over all of his other sons, causing tension between Joseph and his brothers, and so, they sell him into slavery, to a group of traveling Midianites headed for Egypt, where he's purchased by Potiphar, the captain of the guard. Joseph does well as a member of Potiphar's household, highly respected by his master, until Potipher's wife, scorned by Joseph, falsely accuses him of attempting to rape her and Joseph is imprisoned as a result. During his imprisonment, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, both servants of Pharaoh, one of whom is sentenced to death and the other who returns to Pharaoh's graces. Joseph begs of Pharaoh's cup-bearer, the prisoner who returns to Pharaoh's graces, to tell Pharaoh of him but he doesn't for some time, not until Pharaoh is troubled by dreams as the cup-bearer once was. Joseph reveals to Pharaoh that his dreams are signs of a great famine to come, and for his service, Pharaoh makes Joseph the vizier of Egypt and gives to him an Egyptian wife, Asenath. When famine strikes much of the region, not only Egypt, the Egyptians are so well prepared for it that they have a surplus of grain, which foreigners come to buy, among them, Joseph's brothers, who do not recognize him. Later, Joseph calls for all of Jacob's household, numbering seventy individuals, to come and live in Egypt with him, in the land of Goshen.
Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.— KJV, Genesis 37:28
In the Book of Exodus
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, descendants of Joseph and his brothers, are still living in the land of Goshen, and are now slaves, beaten, raped, and overworked by the Egyptian overlords under the reign of a new, tyrannical pharaoh. A great-great grandson of Joseph's brother Levi, Moses, is born in a time when Pharaoh has decreed all newborn Hebrew males be slain and he is saved from Pharaoh's orders by Pharaoh's daughter, who rescues him from the Nile River and raises him as her own son. For a time, Moses leaves Egypt, to escape punishment in the death of an Egyptian man who'd beaten an Israelite man, and goes into Midian, and makes a new life there, but returns to Egypt to free his brethren, chosen by the LORD to do so. There, with his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, Moses demands the release of his people but Pharaoh refuses and for his stubbornness, he and his people suffer the Plagues of Egypt, famine, insect swarms, and notably, the deaths of the all the firstborn Egyptians, save for the firstborn of Pharaoh's daughter, by then called Bat-Yah, or the daughter of Yahweh, who had joined the Israelites by then. Pharaoh is ultimately defeated by the LORD and the Israelites, along with liberated slaves of other nations kept by Pharaoh, cross the Red Sea, to go into the Promised Land.
And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.— KJV, Exodus: 4:19
In the Books of Kings
In the Books of Kings, Solomon, the king of Israel and the son of David, is said to have married Pharaoh's daughter, whose name is not provided, and received the city of Gezer as part of her dowry. Nothing else is written as to the personal nature of Pharaoh's daughter or about her relationship with Solomon. However, their relationship, and Solomon's willingness to take wives from other nations, in violation of laws against intermarriage in the Book of Deuteronomy, is thought to contributed to his downfall. Solomon is said to have obliged his foreign wives and built temples for their gods in the land of Israel, and after his death at age sixty, relatively young for a Biblical character, the tribes of Israel would not accept his heir, Rehoboam, son of the Ammonite woman Naamah, as ruler and so, the united monarchy of Israel failed.
And Solomon made affinity with Pharaoh king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh's daughter, and brought her into the city of David, until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about.— KJV, 1 Kings 3:1
Also in the Books of Kings is the story of Jeroboam, a former servant of Solomon who later conspired against him and, when his plotting was revealed, fled to Egypt, where Pharaoh Shishak protected him until Solomon's death. Though he is not identified in the Hebrew Bible, in the Septuagint, Jeroboam is said to have married a close female relative of Shishak, named Ano, who was the older sister of Tahpenes.
Solomon sought therefore to kill Jeroboam. And Jeroboam arose, and fled into Egypt, unto Shishak king of Egypt, and was in Egypt until the death of Solomon.— KVJ, 1 Kings 11:40
In the Books of Chronicles
In the Books of Chronicles, Rehoboam, son of Solomon and the first king of Judah, is attacked in the fifth year of his reign by an Egyptian pharaoh, whose personal name is given as Shishak, whom some historians have identified with Shoshenq I. It written that Rehoboam may have expected an attack, as he fortified fifteen major cities, among them Bethlehem and Hebron, but his efforts were not enough, as Shishak came with 1,200 chariots and 60,000 soldiers, not only Egyptians but also Lubims, Sukkites, and Kushites. As a result of his defeat, Judah became a vassal state, subordinate to Egypt. Shishak's invasion of Judah is portrayed as the wrath of the LORD, for the Israelites had forsaken the LORD and so, the LORD left them to the hands of Shishak. The Israelites humble themselves and the LORD prevents further destruction of their people but still orders that the Israelites become servants of Shishak.
And it came to pass, that in the fifth year of king Rehoboam Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, because they had transgressed against the Lord.— KJV, 2 Chronicles 12:2
In the Gospel of Matthew
In the Gospel of Matthew, part of the New Testament, it is said in Matthew 2:13-23 that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus of Nazareth, is visited by an angel in a dream, who tells him to take Mary and Jesus and go to Egypt, to avoid Jesus being slain by King Herod I, called the Flight into Egypt. After Herod's death, they return to Nazareth.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.— KJV, Matthew 2:13
Notable Egyptians in the Bible
- Bithiah, the adoptive mother of Moses
- Hagar, the second wife of Abraham, former servant to Sarah, and mother of Ishmael
- Potiphar, the master of Joseph
- Potipherah, the father of Asenath, the wife of Joseph and mother of Manasseh and Ephraim
- Asenath, the wife of Joseph
- Pharaoh's daughter, the wife of Solomon
- Shishak, a pharaoh of Egypt
- History of the Jews in Egypt
- Joseph (Genesis)
- Merneptah Stele
- Pharaohs in the Bible
- Plagues of Egypt
- James Weinstein, "Exodus and the Archaeological Reality", in Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence, ed. Ernest S. Frerichs and Leonard H. Lesko (Eisenbrauns, 1997), p.87
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- "DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies reveals their ancestry". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
- "Were the ancient Egyptians black or white? Scientists now know". Big Think. 2017-06-11. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
- Smith, Bridie (2016-05-01). "Some ancient Egyptians were natural blondes". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
- Nivenus. "No, Egyptians Aren't White... But They Aren't Black Either". Observation Deck. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
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- "Genesis 42:8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
- C. A. Redmount in Coogan (ed.), The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford University Press, 2001, 58–89.
- Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian, Jewish Publication Society, 1995
- Franz V. Greifenhagen, Egypt on the Pentateuch's Ideological Map: Constructing Biblical Israel's Identity, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003
- S. C. Russell, Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan-Israelite, and Judahite Portrayals, New York University. Hebrew and Judaic Studies, ProQuest, 2008