In early summer 2003, a Bible class at our church began studying the book of Genesis. I became excited and thrilled as I got into this study of Genesis, and read extensive additional materials on that period and the ancient Middle East in general in 2003-4. I especially liked the culture and history, bringing the ancient events to a vivid real-life perspective.
I taught some of the lessons as a substitute for our regular teacher. One of these was the story of the Hebrews going into Egypt. This involved some good details in the Genesis text about the settlement of Jacob's (Joseph's) family in Goshen (Genesis 46:28-47:26). I thought some background to that period would bring to life the events recorded there. But no time frame is provided by which to clearly relate the stories of Genesis to political texts or archaeological testimonies of the ancient world.
In my search for information on the political and ethnic situation of this period in Egyptian history, I found a good article discussing the Hyksos, thought by some to be the dynasty ruling Egypt at this time. The ancient Egyptian name for them was Hega-khase, meaning "the foreign kings." One scholar reports that the Hyksos were "an ethnically mixed group with Hurrian element" [H W F Saggs, Civilization Before Greece and Rome (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), p 214]. The Hurrians are referred to in the older texts, and perhaps are referred to as the Horites in the Hebrew biblical texts.
Some sources say the Hyksos rose to power in the 18th century BC. Other authorities reckon it was in the 17th century. They formed the 15th Dynasty and probably the 16th. By the latter reckoning, only 6 kings are considered Hyksos, ruling for a period of 108 years, about 1648-1540 BC. Dates are fairly firm in the rules of the various pharaohs. Biblical texts do not provide any clear sequence of events or dating. Dating is done where certain events or references can be incidentally related to external sources scholars can be placed in the historical scenario as now understood in modern historical perspective.
Later we are told that the Hebrews had so increased in population that they covered the whole land. It was helpful to determine what the phrase "the whole land" referred to. This was a factor in the later persecution and slavery that developed. The story indicates the "land" was Goshen, not the whole of the land area of what was called Egypt.
What Size Egypt?
The Hyksos took power in a time of internal conflict and disintegration of the earlier Empire. Various sources deal with this in some detail. How large was the area ruled by the Hyksos? The Hyksos held only a portion of what was sometimes Egypt, and were gradually expanding their territory. The Genesis and Exodus texts are consistent in indicating that the Hebrews lived and were enslaved in the Goshen area. Apparently the projects they were assigned to build were also nearby.
A Slimmer Egypt
At that time, the Hyksos ruled the Delta areas and gradually spread their rule farther west and south. But they apparently never conquered the full upper and lower Egypt. It seems the Hyksos area of direct rule covered the area from the Nile Delta at the Mediterranean to a little south of Cairo.
The Hyksos never gained direct control over Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt was ruled at that time by Theban princes who seem to have recognized the Hyksos as overlords. Various scholars indicate that Avaris was their capital and it was located in the Delta area of Goshen. Dr H W F Saggs [Civilization, p 189] indicates that it was at their capital of Avaris that the Hyksos rulers were finally defeated and expelled from Egyptian territory.
The Hyksos continued to use all the traditional titles of the Dynasty they conquered, which included the claim of the double throne of Upper and Lower Egypt. For a comparative view, it is helpful to note that Roman Egypt, taken over from the Ptolemy Greeks, was also smaller than the land area we know today as Egypt.
The Greeks and Romans likewise never ruled Upper Egypt or Nubia, which was once part of the Great Dynasties and for a few decades ruled the whole of Egypt. The Hyksos had an alliance with the Nubian Cush, which at times was part of Egypt, and later ruled Egypt for a time as a dynasty. At other times, in the combined kingdoms, Egypt included much of what we now know as Sudan, and perhaps northern Ethiopia.
We know the Hyksos capital was not far from the Hebrews' settlement area. The city of Rameses was nearby. It is likely this is the primary work area of the Hebrew slaves. The writer of Exodus says they built Pithom and Rameses. Exodus says their departure point from Egypt was Succoth, which is in that area. If the many details are actually historical, then the people all had to be close and this gathering point had to be close to the meeting headquarters of the King where Moses and Aaron went so often to speak with him.
Many people make extended historical claims from the names and details in the Exodus story. That is not my interest. Details may be heightened for the oral dramatic effect of the original story. Yet the names seems to match much that is known from history and recent studies in various disciplines. I am not concerned with the details of the Exodus or how many Israelites there were, or their particular route. I am discussing here the matters related to the Hyksos and the various Semitic people who seem to have taken refuge in the Delta area around this time.
Even so, in light of all other comments in the Genesis and Exodus text, it seems clear the descendants of Jacob lived and worked in the eastern delta area. It is clear in the story also that Joseph's and Pharaoh's homes and offices were there as well.
All this evidence seems to indicate that the Genesis statement that the Hebrews had filled "all the land" is one of the many instances of the common Semitic narrative style of overstatement for emphasis. Modern readers also tend to impose our concept of the Nation-State of Egypt with the boundaries we know today. The recent rationalist history of western culture unfortunately detracts us with its tendency to reduce phrases into an analytical scientistic perspective that assumes the primary goal or purpose of every word or phrase is only to feed our hunger for bare abstract facts.
On the contrary, this ancient literature is a masterpiece of affect — engaging us in the drama of the story and producing in the hearers (not primarily readers) the power of the personal and ethnic emotions involved! There is no indication that the text meant the Hebrews had filled the whole geographical area that might have been part of the Egyptian Empire at this time. In fact, under the Hyksos and for much of continuing history, even the whole of Palestine was part of Egypt for most of its history.
The Land of Goshen
The Exodus story does appear to mean, however, that the descendants of Jacob were the dominant population in the Goshen area where the Hyksos king settled them. What land did they live in? The Land of Goshen. The story indicates that all the Hebrews were small enough in number and in small enough geographical area that they could inform the whole of the Hebrews and get a response in one day. If that were not enough, the story itself is clear that "Goshen" was their settlement area. Exodus 9:26 specifically says that during the plagues the Hebrews were living only in Goshen.
Check it out on a map. Goshen is not very big. Aside from the story, this was the ideal place for sheep herders, a lush, alluvial plain, apparently unpopulated or lightly populated at that time. This context enables us to see how, even in a real, literal sense, the Hebrews could "fill the whole land."
The Exodus story assumes a tightly-knit and fast-acting group, necessitating a small number. Numerical exaggeration is a key characteristic of Semitic storytelling. The numbers serve other purposes than to simply fulfill the modern information-oriented obsession with facts. The text of the Exodus story was not written to meet the demands of rationalist, analytical literate westerners about 3000 years later.
The Exodus story is a great masterpiece of oral literature, now written down. It appears to be like much of the Old Testament, the written version of an older oral drama, a proclamation of ethnic-religious history and heritage in the corporate ethnic memory. Oral relational cultures have a different worldview and approach to the oral literature, even when it gets written down for later generations. It was not written down to serve as a history textbook for some future generation in an as-yet undeveloped culture in the arena of world history.
The whole Tanakh (Old Testament) is primarily a collection of deeply meaningful and moving stories, comprising a huge historical story. We read it as a story and watch for factors that might be adaptable to our alien worldview. We do not want to co-opt it to become domesticated to our secular scientistic culture or modern rationality. It was not written in that framework. Shouldn't it be allowed to speak on its own terms?
Anyway, back to my point. My comments here do not address the details of the Exodus story itself or any various interpretations of it, but the ethnic character of the situation assumed by the story. Thus I have not addressed the details of military or geographical factors as presented by any particular archaeological or historical viewpoint. I am interested in the ethnic factors that might be indicated by the historical, archaeological or biblical information.
If you are interested in more biblical details, you might also consider the other Exodus story in the Bible. See Numbers 33:1-15.
The King Who Did Not Know Joseph
The king "who did not know Joseph" was likely the indigenous Egyptian who overthrew the Hyksos after about 200 years of their rule. Various time references in Genesis correspond with this, seeming to indicate that the Hebrews were in Egypt for about 200-250 years. Exodus, on the other hand, also reports that only 5 generatons passed between Jacob and Moses (Exodus 6:16-20).
The Exodus writer says it was 430 years, while totaling up years seems to indicate more like 200. Various scholars have commented on this. Some think the 430 years was intended to count the time from Abraham. However, Flavius Josephus quotes the Egyptian historian Manetho as saying the Hyksos ruled Egypt 511 years.
Because the dynasty he had overthrown was Semitic (the Hyksos), and the large population of the Delta area of Goshen were Semitic (the descendants of Jacob), this would further explain Pharaoh's fear of these people. It would have been comparatively early in the 200 years of the Hyksos rule in Egypt when Jacob's family moved into Goshen. (Estimates of the Hyksos Dynasty range from about 110 to almost 200 years.)
The Hyksos were the first successful invaders from the east, largely due to their likely use of chariots, which were never used in Egypt prior to the Hyksos period. The Hyksos are thought to have been Semitic, which explains why they would be so open to Canaanites (like Joseph's family) being in the country. Their records show that the Hyksos had Canaanite names like the Hebrews, and their main gods were Canaanite: Baal and Anath. Their name came to be commonly used in the Egyptian language as a synonym for "Asiatic."
This would mean that the people Joseph dealt with were not even "Egyptians" in the proper sense of the indigenous people of Egypt. The king and ruling class would be Semitic people, likely with a similar speech to his. This also explains why "a pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph" – that is, this new king did not like or feel positive about Semite "foreigners." The Egyptians likely associated all the Semites with their foreign rulers.
These factors suggest that the Hyksos were one group of Canaanites. Of course, the term “Canaanite” is a broad term encompassing several ethnic groups over a long period of history. These vagaries and slippery details are the edges of detail that modern historians and others with their approach try to probe to clarify the uncertainties. The term “Canaanite” was used very imprecisely (by modern perspectives and preferences for clear categories).
One underlying problem is that there is still a difference of opinion among scholars of the era on exactly which dynasties were in fact “Hyksos” or exactly who the “Hyksos” really were. The theory of an internal rebellion and dynastic coup is still strong and gaining strength.
The Book of Jubilees comments that the Hyksos were Canaanites, but seems to use the term in a narrower, probably symbolic sense of the oppressors of the Jews. This book uses the Egyptian slavery and exodus story as a backdrop and symbol for the domination of Judea by the world powers – recently the Syrian Seleucid Greeks and the impending Roman domination.
Jubilees offers some comments on several aspects of Jewish history, and one reason it was not accepted as scripture by the Hebrew scholars as they were considering the collection in the late 1st century and into the 2nd, was that it was written so late in their history (during the 100 years between the Greek and Roman dominations).
Because it speaks to the current pressures Judea was under in that precarious period, this work, as well as other "intertestamental" literature, is very helpful on the period of transition over the 1st century BCE and CE.
Details and stories in Jubilees and other contemporary texts reflect the perspectives of that late era, using the old stories to clarify current political trends pressing the Jews in that era. This was a common format in texts, and the same pattern appears in the book of Revelation drawing on the rich treasure of imagery in some of the prophetic texts from pre-exilic and post-exilic periods. The effect is very much like the TV series "M*A*S*H," set in Korea, but produced during and addressing the Viet Nam War.
The perspectives and assumptions of what moderns call “history” differs from the perspectives of that era and other relational cultures. These differences make for exciting possibilities in determining how the ancient perspectives reflected in the texts can be productively related to a modern analytical mindset while still honoring the integrity of the ancient texts in their cultural context.
Hyksos as Hebrews
A reader referred me to a Youtube video called "The Exodus Decoded," asking if the claim of this video could be true, that the Hyksos of Egypt were, in fact, the Hebrews. Another reader also wrote to ask specifically if I thought the Hyksos were Hebrews.
The simple equation of Hyksos with Hebrews presents problems of several kinds. Simply, the term "Hebrews" is not clearly used in regard to any large definite group of peoples like the Hyksos who took over the lower part of Egypt. The term "Hebrew" (Habiru) is used in some ancient references to refer to a larger broad group of people, not the specific people we later think of as Abraham or Jacob and their descendants or relatives.
In addition, the dates of the Hyksos are considerably earlier than the dates traditionally proposed by biblical scholars for the Exodus as a historcal event. More recent suggestions put it even later around 1200-1250 BCE. There are some indications leading to a proposal by several scholars that the Exodus story is symbolic. The Exodus story as well as other stories in the Hebrew scriptures fit the normal pattern of stories and traditional wisdom among relational cultures worldwide.
There is some evidence that supports the suggestion that the Hyksos were Semitic, though there are also some scholars who think the Hyksos were actually a group of native Egyptians, rather than foreigners. I think the latter is less likely than the possibility that they were Semitic invaders. Exactly who they were and how far they had come from is unclear.
These uses and references are so vague and incidental that they are uncertain. I think it is not safe to assume that any group of people who might have been referred to as "Hebrews" could be the same as the more fully documented ethnic or political group called Hyksos by the Greek historians.
As I have indicated, we can say the weight of information seems to indicate the Hyksos were Semitic invaders who came from the east. It seems unlikely they could have been the same people we know as the Hebrews. Also the dates do not match directly with those preferred by biblical scholars for the dates of the Exodus, if this is meant to be understood as a historical event in the modern sense.
The Hyksos were overthrown and Egyptian rule restored about 1540 BC. This is about three hundred years before the time commonly now accepted by most scholars for the Hebrew Exodus. If the current accepted dates of about 1250 for entry into Canaan are followed, this does not overlap with the Hyksos period as now found in the dates accepted by current scholars. We must be careful about imposing our current understanding of the ancient calendar upon the ancient texts. It is too easy to impose modern expectations on the old sacred texts.
It would put the Exodus much earlier and this might match the Hebrew period in Egypt as reflected in the Exodus text. But the more I read, the less this seems likely. The early idea that the Hyksos were Semitic still seems a good possibility, but the dates are too uncertain to make a positive match with Hebrews. We are left with reflective speculation.
Put another way, there is too much missing in the historical information to indicate fully. It is definite that there was considerable interaction and at one era even open borders to the east. Details of the exact years seem uncertain. So there is much speculation anytime we get too complete a theory. There are even differences between scholars on just which dynasties to consider as Hyksos dynasties.
There is an aspect about this and many other historical mysteries that has a fun mystique similar to science fiction. This is the basis of the Sci Fi TV franchise Stargate. Each theory accounts for some of the factors but not others.
When I originally starting ruminating over the Hyksos, it was as much imaginative as historical investigation. You will notice the "What if" tone I hope. I think the theory that the Hyksos WERE the Hebrews is too simplistic. I am always wary of absolutist or overly definitive theories. They indicate low grasp of the realities.
It is important to honestly acknowledge the limitations of what we know, and learn to live with the thrill and tension of uncertainty. We have to know where facts leave off and imaginative possiblities take up.
It would also make sense, as many scholars suggest, that the Exodus story is symbolic, fitting the pattern of oral-relational societies like all the Middle East at that time. In this case, actual dates are not in focus and present no problem. Thus the period in Egypt could easily match the memories of the Hebrews. But we still have no clear details of their relationship with the Hyksos.
Thus it might be possible they were related to the Hyksos as I suggest, being Semitic, and the new rulers oppressed them as reported in the Hebrew stories in the Torah. But if you follow literal dates that seem correct now to biblical scholars, there is a problem. Dates in the 1200-1250 range are now usually proposed for the time the descendants of Jacob came into Canaan, which is much later than the actual Hyksos period.
The Bible does not attempt to give us any timelines, but focuses on the relationship aspects and the important events in the broad story. The focus in the Torah stories is the relationship with Yahweh (God revealed to Abraham and his descendants, like Jacob/Israel, Ishmael and others).
The Hyksos became indigenized in many respects, however, such as adopting Seth as their favored God. The god On was also still honored at this period. The Exodus story tells us that Joseph was married to a daughter of Potiphera, the High Priest of On.
On was also the name of a holy city in the region of later Cairo-Giza, where the Greeks later also established their capital of Heliopolis. The Hyksos also retained the Egyptian language as the official language of administration. There were continuities of this sort across the various dynasties. Even the Greek (Ptolemaic Dynasty) rulers accepted and claimed the divine Sun-God role of the traditional Egyptian rulers.
The famine was a recurring climatic event, but 7 years was a longer-than-usual period of drought. The number 7 is likely symbolic in this case, as in many other biblical events, because the number 7 is a Hebrew number symbol for divine activity. These cyclical droughts are still the pattern in the African continent. We experienced this during the 25 years we lived in Kenya a bit further south.
During the era of history in focus, Semitic groups from Canaan apparently were used to migrating into the northeastern Delta areas of Egypt to graze and get food during famine times, as portrayed in the story. Genesis mentions Abraham going to Egypt also.
It is clear that the Bible text is not concerned about the historical identity of most peoples, in our idea of history. Since the biblical texts don’t even mention the Hyksos name, the name of this particular king (Pharaoh) or indeed give us any very helpful details about the king or dynasty, it is clear that these details were not important to the purpose and message of the scriptures to the community they were originally written for.
The texts that were collected into what we call the Bible deal with a limited, narrow and specific view of the life and faith of the Hebrew clans. The questions that arise to us in our time, from our great distance away in time and cultural worldview, were not important to that culture and people.
So many of the modern attempts to reconstruct “history” as moderns think of it treat the Bible and other ancients texts as though the purpose was to provide a historical record for later peoples like us.
These texts don’t answer all our questions, partly because the questions we want to ask are not the ones they deal with. It helps to keep in mind that our questions, our needs and interests, our cultural curiosities are not why they were originally written.
The identity of and purpose of these texts arises out of the times and peoples whose lives they discuss, and their relationships and understandings of God. This is their focus and concern so they don’t deal with a lot of the concerns that arise for other peoples in a very different worldview like ours. We must be responsible in how we make application of these factors to our own lives or our understanding of history.
We must adapt to the texts and maintain the integrity of the ancient scriptures, not twist them to our purposes. We can glean applicable information, but Bible students today have to be sure the biblical text, each scroll or passage, is honored in its own context and on its own grounds. These ancient texts are not obligated to answer our alien modern questions.
From the Hyksos period, the eastern border of Egypt was never closed as in the old Egyptian period. Canaan's border was a scene of trade and migration even after the overthrow of the Hyksos and was part of the Egyptian sphere, for better or for worse, into modern times. This was only heightened in the Greek and Roman eras.
We continue to probe the scriptures and other ancient texts, archaeology and the glimpses of history we savor as part of our own common human heritage!
Egyptians and Egyptians – Distinguishing Ethnicity from Nationalality
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
The Subtlety of Assimilation
For more on the Hyksos, and Hebrews in Egypt:
Archaeological Investigations — The Hyksos and Other
Dating the War of the Hyksos
Goshen Map and Discussion: Succoth, Ramases, Pithom
The Hyksos, Kings of Egypt and the land of Edom
The Hyksos — Semites Invade Egypt
Hyksos — Wikipedia
Joseph, Egypt and The Hyksos
Manetho on the Hyksos
Rameses, the Town and the King
Who Were the Hyksos?
Wadi Tumilat Excavations — the Hyksos, Succoth and Pithom
Written 30 November 2004
Rewritten 21 September 2007
Rewritten 23 November 2009
Revised 27 October 2011
Last edited 7 August 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004, 2009
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.