What the Israelites left in Egypt

Two of the most significant events in the formation of the Hebrew nation took place in Egypt.

Narmer plate 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Narmer plate 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
With the passing of Pessah, now is the ideal time to look back on ancient Egypt, a nation whose history is inextricably linked to ours.
Two of the most significant events in the formation of the Hebrew nation took place in Egypt. The first was the exodus from Egypt: Wandering in the desert that served as a national rite of passage, the group disassociated itself from one territory and transferred itself to another through a tribal journey. The second was the Mount Sinai address, during which the tribe (nation) accepted a moral and theological code that defined its uniqueness as a people and its religious distinction from other peoples.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in ancient times Egypt served as a cultural, religious and economic point of reference for the Israelites. Indeed, the biblical scribe deems it fit to invoke the name “Egypt” almost as often as he did “Jerusalem,” about 600 times.
Both the Bible and Egyptian writings describe the arrival of Semitic people in Egypt; the sources provide varied reasons for this immigration. Some Semites brought their herds to the Nile valley due to severe drought, as did Abraham (Genesis 12:10), additionally, many Semitic tribesmen were brought to Egypt forcibly, having fallen captive and sold as slaves to noble households.
The extent of this phenomenon can be learned from the testimony of Pharaoh Amenhotep II (reigned 1427 to 1400 BCE) who, upon returning from a war, brought with him 3,600 Habiru (commonly identified as Hebrews), 15,200 Shosu (migrating tribes from Edom and the Negev) and 36,000 Khorim (people from Canaan). The story of Joseph as it is related in the Book of Genesis bears witness to this phenomenon as well.
The relations between Egypt and its neighbors led to intercultural influences, still echoing in contemporary Judaism and in the Hebrew language, a reminder of our stay in Egypt. I would like to suggest possible explanations to three puzzling biblical idioms, based on my knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture.
The first involves the reason for which the Israelites came to Egypt in the first place; the second describes Pharaoh’s stubborn character that prevented him from letting the Israelites out of his land; and the third regards the manner in which God rescued them from Egypt.
“And he said, I have had news that there is grain [shever] in Egypt: go down there and get grain for us, so that life and not death may be ours” (Gen. 42:2). According to the Bible, the Israelites made their way down to Egypt to get food, yet the biblical text describes the purpose of their journey as lishbor shever, literally meaning “to break a piece.” Why? Wh t does it mean?
In ancient Egypt grain was a form of currency so the silos functioned as a bank and a food source. The grain silos were cone-shaped, mud-brick structures, in walled enclosures, carefully plaster-coated on the inside and whitewashed on the outside. In order to store the grain, the worker had to climb stairs to a small window near the top of the cone, carrying baskets. Through a little door at the bottom the grain could be taken out. Once the silo was full, the two openings were sealed with mud to prevent birds and vermin from getting to the grain. Later in the year, at a time of grain shortage or due to an agriculture crisis, the mud that sealed the door had to be broken (lishbor shever) in order to extract the grains. It is now clear that breaking a piece (of the mud) and giving out food were synonyms.
“But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn [kaved, heavy] and he did not let the people go” (Exodus 9:7). The ancient Egyptians believed that after death, at the end of his journey to the land of eternal life, the deceased would make his way to the Hall of Judgment – “Hall of the Two Truths.” There he would stand alone in front of the judges, to defend his deeds on earth and prove his soul was pure. This was to be done by testifying the “negative confession” such as: I have not belittled a god; I have not oppressed the members of my family; I have made no man suffer hunger. The recording of this testimony was done by Thoth, god of wisdom and reason, who had an ibis head and a human body.
At the end of this part, he would turn to Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the underworld, to execute the final test: weighing the heart of the deceased against an ostrich feather, symbol of Ma’at (or Mayet), goddess of morality, truth and justice. If the heart weighed the same it meant the person was good and honest, and the nine great judges would confirm the decision that the deceased was worthy. If it was not balanced, due to the heavy heart, the deceased was considered a liar and evil, and would therefore be thrown to Amemait the devourer, who was a hybrid monster, part hippopotamus, part lion, part crocodile. Describing Pharaoh as a person with “a heavy heart” is to say he was a wicked king.
(From the papyrus of Ani, between 1500 and 1400 BCE.)
“And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched [inclined] arm” (Deuteronomy 26:8) This description of God’s might freeing the Israelites from Egypt’s yoke is better understood when one considers the classical iconic description of a victorious Pharaoh, as it appears on the walls and gates of so many temples throughout Egypt. The king is depicted stepping over a group of his enemies, while clasping others by the hair with one arm and swinging a bat with the other – “with a mighty hand and an inclined arm.”
The Narmer Plate (first Pharaoh, 31st century BCE)
Though Egyptian religious terminology and wisdom books have found their way into Hebrew language and culture, only a few everyday Egyptian words made it through. For example: asam (or Osem) which means granary; the name Pa Nechsi (Pinchas in Hebrew) which means “the black man.” The name Moses may be a derivative of the Egyptian “Mes” or “Msses” which means “born of” or “son of” and is used as a suffix to a name, the beginning of which denotes a god. For example: Ra-Msses; Tchut- Mes (Tuthmosis) etc. Yeor (the Nile) is “Yaru,” the Nile’s underground parallel, the largest river flowing in the afterlife, forever watering Egyptian gardens.
On the other hand, many Semitic words were adopted by Ramsesian Egyptian. For example: shevet (tribe, rod), merkava (chariot), herev (sword), kemah (flour), migdal (tower) etc. Especially interesting was the adoption of the Semitic word shalom. In demotic Egyptian it became sharem or shalem, the borrowed meaning of which denotes a sheathed sword. Sir Alan Gardner, a leading Egyptologist, suggested that the term shalof (draw) was its antonym. Therefore, reaching the hand for peace was a sign that the sword remain sheathed and expressed the hope that war be taught no more.
Dr. Mooli Brog is the author of Egypt Land.