Brook of Egypt
The Brook of Egypt is the name used in some English translations of the Bible for the Hebrew Nachal Mitzrayim ("River of Egypt") used for the river defining the westernmost border of the Land of Israel. Popular Bible commentaries identify it with Wadi El-Arish although the identification is problematic. Early Aramaic translations and Jewish commentaries identify it with the Nile or more precisely the Pelusian arm of the Nile — a no longer extant branch of the Nile lying on the border of Ancient Egypt. Modern archaeological surveys have shown that the course of the Nile changed over time and that the Nachal Mitzrayim was an ancient easternmost branch of the Nile whose course differed from that of the later Pelusian branch. The related phrase is Nahar Mitzrayim, used in Genesis 15:18. This also means "river of Egypt", and is generally recognized as referring to the Nile, or its eastern branch (2 Chr. 9:26).
Traditional interpretation as the Nile
The traditional Jewish understanding of the term Nachal Mitzrayim is that it refers to the Nile. This view is made explicit in the Jerusalem Targum, the Targum Jonathan, the Targum Neofiti and the Fragment Targums (where in all cases the term is translated Nilus) as well as in the commentaries of Rashi and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Rashi explicitly states in his commentary on Joshua 13:3
"From the Shihor: that is the Nile the same as Nachal Mizraim."
Nevertheless, the term Nachal Mitzrayim is only used when discussing the border of the Land of Israel whereas Ye'or is typically used for the main body of the Nile. This suggests that there is indeed some difference in meaning. Since the Land of Israel did not extend into the Nile Delta the most probable interpretation of the term is that it refers specifically to the Delta or the Pelusian arm of the Nile. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explicitly identified it with the Pelusian arm.
Earlier interpretations as Wadi El-Arish
The disappearance of the Pelusian arm of the Nile led to much confusion regarding the Biblical geography of Sinai.
According to Exodus 13:18-20 the locality from which the Israelites journeyed after departing Egypt was Sukkot. The name Sukkot means "palm huts" in Hebrew and was translated El-Arish in Arabic. It lies in the vicinity of Fayyum, the hometown of the Jewish commentator Saadia Gaon who identified Nachal Mitzrayim with the wadi of El-Arish. Later Jewish commentators from Egypt, Radbaz and Kaftor Vaferech followed suit.[need quotation to verify] This description did not refer to the modern locality known as El-Arish as is seen from the fact that Kaftor Vaferach places it approximately 180 km from Gaza. This is in the vicinity of the former Pelusian arm of the Nile and is thus still consistent with the traditional interpretation. The modern El-Arish in contrast lies only 77 km from Gaza.
The Septuagint translates Nachal Mitzrayim in Isaiah 27:12 as Rhinocorura. This name and its variant Rhinocolura were used for the region in Sinai containing Pelusium and this translation is thus also consistent with the traditional interpretation. However the name was also used for a coastal town in the region lying on the road to Egypt further east. The disappearance of the Pelusian arm of the Nile led to the interpretation of the Rhinocorura of the Septuagint as the wadi providing water to this town. Pilgrims subsequently misidentified the Arab settlement at the mouth of this wadi (either identical to or near the town) with the Biblical Sukkot and the names El-Arish and Wadi El-Arish were applied to the settlement and wadi respectively.
The translation of the term nachal as "brook" in English, a word implying a small stream, also influenced the interpretation amongst later commentators.[who?] This translation is generally regarded as erroneous however,[by whom?] for although in later Hebrew the term nachal tended to be used for small rivers, in Biblical Hebrew, the word could be used for any flowing stream. Its usage, even in modern Hebrew, does not match that of the Arabic wadi.
The identification with the Wadi El-Arish is still widely accepted in popular literature but has been generally rejected by archaeologists.
Identification based on archaeological and geographical evidence
While Rhinocolura (a variant of Rhinocorura) in the writings of Pliny and Josephus apparently refers to El-Arish, archaeologists have found no evidence of occupation at the site prior to the Hellenistic period suggesting that this was not identical to the locality Rhinocorura mentioned by Strabo and Diodorus Siculus which had been settled by Ethiopians. Thus the Rhinocorura mentioned in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 27:12 cannot be assumed to be the Wadi El-Arish. The name was also used for an entire district in the vicinity of Pelusium.
The account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is also consistent with the identification of Nachal Mitzarayim with the Pelusian arm and not the Wadi El-Arish. The crossing of the Red Sea is the departure from Egypt according to Exodus 13:18 and is understood to have taken place at the section of the Red Sea which lay south of the Pelusian arm (known today as the Gulf of Suez). The Red Sea, like the Nachal Mitzrayim is described as part of the border of the Land of Israel (Exodus 23:31). Following the crossing, the Israelites were in the wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15:22) which is identified as lying west of the Wadi El-Arish.
Assyrian texts describing Sennacherib's invasion of the region of Pelusium mention Nahal Musri (a cognate of Nachal Mitzrayim). Egyptian inscriptions from the 19th Dynasty show that the Pelusian arm of the Nile was considered to be the eastern border of Egypt.
Identification based on textual analysis
Nachal Mitzrayim in Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:47 and 2 Kings 24:7 are translated Cheimarros Aigyptou ("Torrent of Egypt") in the Septuagint. This translation sheds no light on the identity of Nachal Mitzrayim being applicable to both the seasonally flooding Nile and seasonal wadis. The translation Pharangos Aigyptou ("Channel of Egypt") in Joshua 15:4 is similarly inconclusive. However, Nachal Mitzrayim in 1 Kings 8:65, together with Nahar Mitzrayim in Genesis 15:18 and Ye'or Mitzrayim in Amos 8:8, 9:5 are all translated Potamos Aigyptou ("River of Egypt") indicating that they were all understood to be the same. As mentioned Ye'or undisputedly refers to the Nile and in addition, potamos is only used for larger rivers not wadis, whence Potamos Aigyptou conclusively refers to the Nile. The proper noun Rhinokoroura (Rhinocorura) in the translation of Isaiah 27:12 can thus be understood as the designation of the Pelusian arm of the Nile.
(Ye'or in Genesis 41:1-18; Exodus 1:22, 2:3-5, 4:9, 7:15-25, 8:3-11, 17:5; Ezekiel 29:3-9; Daniel 12:5-7; Isaiah 19:7-8; Jeremiah 46:7-8 and Zechariah 10:11 are all translated potomos ("river"). Isaiah 23:3-10 is not translated verbatim in the Septuagint which contains no direct translation of the occurrence of Ye'or in these verses. Similarly it contains no direct translation of the occurrences of Nachal in Ezekiel 47:19.)
In Joshua 13:3, Shichor is translated asikēton ("muddy [river]") corresponding to the Hebrew meaning of "dark (i.e. muddy) [river]". Similarly in Jeremiah 2:18 it is translated geon ("earthy [river]"). These words are synonyms of the name Pelousion (Pelusium) derived from pelos meaning "mud" or "silt". In other occurrences Shichor is not translated verbatim. The translation of I Chronicles 13:5 speaks instead of orion Aigyptou ("border of Egypt") which nevertheless confirms that the Shichor was understood to be identical to Nachal Mitzrayim and Nahar Miztrayim which are explicitly mentioned as the border with Egypt. Similarly in Isaiah 23:3 it is represented by metabolē ("[border] crossing").
- Na'aman, N., The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian policy on the border of Egypt, Tel Aviv 6, 68-90 (1979)
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) p. 549-550.