Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Egypt. One of the two oldest civilizations of history (the other one centered in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.) Egypt had a great influence on O.T. history. The center of Egypt was the land along the Nile River in Africa, but at times the Egyptian empire extended into Asia. Duriiing the time of the patriarchs, Egypt controlled Canaan. Jacob's family went there to live in a time of famine. His descendants were enslaved by the Pharaohs and escaped under the leadership of Moses. In later times, Egyptian forces often threatened or invaded the Israelites. One of the factors that made David's kingdom possible was the weakness of Egypt at that time. Gen 12:10; 46:6-7; Ex. 1:8-14; 14:5-31; 2 Chron. 12:2-3; 2 Kings 23:29-30; Matt. 2:13; Acts 2:10.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Egypt, one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, centered along the Nile River in northeast Africa. Egypt was already an ancient civilization by the time of the biblical patriarchs, and its delta settlements reached to within two hundred miles of Israel’s territory, yet Egyptian cultural influence on Palestine was modest. The Egyptians were not very interested in settlement abroad, partly because there were many possibilities for expansion at home, though Egypt did dominate Palestine politically during many periods. Egypt’s influence was greater in the Phoenician coastal cities, with which it had important cultural and commercial ties. This article emphasizes Egypt’s relationships with biblical history.

Geographical Setting: As the ‘gift of the Nile,’ Egypt is geographically somewhat isolated. The Nile has no tributaries in Egypt proper and the land receives little rain. Even the delta has at best 8 inches of rainfall annually, whereas the Nile Valley has virtually none. The settled area of Egypt therefore resembles a flower bending in the breeze. The delta (Lower Egypt), which spreads out north of Cairo for a hundred miles to the Mediterranean and is more than a hundred and fifty miles wide, is the blossom, and the Nile Valley (Upper Egypt) is the long, slender stalk, between six and nine miles wide and extending five hundred and seventy-five miles from Cairo to Aswan. The one exception to this picture is the Faiyum, a well-watered area about fifty miles south of Cairo that reaches fifty miles into the desert west of the Nile.

Egypt had a strong sense of duality: there were ‘Two Lands,’ the delta and the valley, and together they constituted the ‘Black Land,’ in contrast to the neighboring desert, the ‘Red Land.’ Bordered by the Mediterranean on the north with desert on the remaining sides, Egypt was fairly secure from major movements of people. The overland route to Palestine led through the Sinai wilderness and along the Mediterranean coast before moving up into the hill country and cities such as Hebron and Jerusalem (ca. two hundred and fifteen miles from the easternmost settlements of the delta). Accordingly, only small groups of people from Syro-Palestine were continuously going into Egypt, prompted by drought, commerce, and other concerns (cf. Gen. 12:10; 42-43; Matt. 2:14). Asiatics and Libyans came into the delta, usually peacefully, and Nubians into the Nile Valley.

Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods: Predynastic Egypt (ca. 3400-3100 b.c.) featured regional cultures and village society. Constellations were forming in Upper and Lower Egypt, but with considerable conflict. In dynasties I-II (ca. 3000-2686), the ‘Two Lands’ experienced the formation and consolidation of a unified government, centered at Memphis. Key elements were the development of court culture and royal bureaucracy. An enduring pattern of division into provinces (nomes) was established.

Old Kingdom Period: Dynasties III-VI (ca. 2686-2181 b.c.) represented a period of immense cultural and political achievement. Building on the accomplishments of the Early Dynastic period, a remarkable level of culture and organization was reached. The third dynasty (ca. 2686-2613) was still a period of some innovation, leading up to the climactic development of the fourth dynasty (ca. 2613-2498 b.c.), whose impressive scale was symbolized by the great pyramids. A pattern of rule developed that served with variations and adaptation for over two thousand years. The divine king had absolute power filtered through an efficient civil service. In dynasties V and VI (ca. 2498-2181) the king’s power was more widely dispersed. The royal center remained in the Memphis area, where the ‘Two Lands’ joined. During the Old Kingdom Egypt engaged in extensive commercial interchange with Phoenicia, especially Byblos, and also sent many expeditions to Sinai in search of raw materials like copper and turquoise.

First Intermediate and Middle Kingdom Periods: When the system of the Old Kingdom broke down, it was followed by about a hundred and fifty years of civil war and assertiveness by local provinces (dynasties VII-XI, ca. 2181-2060 b.c.). The last kings of dynasty XI (ca. 2060-1991) managed to unify Egypt again, and during the twelfth dynasty (ca. 1991-1782) the central organization was furthered, though the king was less absolute than in the Old Kingdom. Southern Egypt, with its center in Thebes, became more prominent, though the kings still ruled from the Memphis area. During the Middle Kingdom Egypt asserted itself in southern Syro-Palestine in more than a commercial relationship. The term ‘empire’ is probably inappropriate, but there was at least a claim to hegemony. The ‘Execration’ Texts list princes and peoples of the area, many specifically from Palestine, Transjordan, and Phoenicia, who owed some kind of allegiance to Egypt. The names of many Palestinian locations first appear in these texts. The earlier patriarchal traditions concerning Egypt may relate to this period.

Second Intermediate (Hyksos) Period: The forces for decentralization again triumphed (dynasties XIV-XVII, ca. 1782-1570), and there were various separatist movements. For the first time pharaonic Egypt experienced a major influx of foreigners, as the Asiatic Hyksos, with superior military technology and organization in spite of their varied backgrounds, gained control of the delta (dynasty XV, ca. 1663-1555). Also, Nubia broke away, so native Egyptian rulers were restricted to the Nile Valley and at that were under Hyksos domination. This was a period of considerable interchange between Egyptian and Syro-Palestinian culture, though it is not well documented. Many scholars regard this period as the time of Joseph’s rise in Egypt. The native traditions endured most effectively in Thebes. Eventually the Theban rulers prevailed against the Nubian-Hyksos tandem and their Egyptian allies.

New Kingdom Period: Theban success against the outsiders ushered in the New Kingdom (dynasties XVIII-XX, ca. 1550-1070 b.c.). Ahmose I (ca. 1550-1525) captured the Hyksos capital of Avaris, drove the Hyksos back into Syro-Palestine, and unified again the ‘Two Lands.’ Indeed, from the time of Thutmose I (ca. 1504-1492) to Ramesses II (ca. 1279-1213) Egypt was politically powerful also in much of Syro-Palestine as well as Nubia and it is possible to refer to an Egyptian Empire. In Egypt, an effective administration endured during the whole of the New Kingdom, surviving crises such as the Amarna ‘revolution’ and the changes in dynasties. Noteworthy was the power conflict between the royal court and the evergrowing priesthoods, especially that of Amun-Re (Thebes), which reached a climax during Akhenaton’s reign. Noteworthy also was the level of cultural interchange with Syro-Palestine. Many Semitic gods had a following in Egypt, and the Asiatic population in Egypt continued to be significant, especially in Lower Egypt. In the time of the long-lived and powerful Ramesses II a group of oppressed Hebrew slaves working on building projects in the delta staged a mass escape into the Sinai wilderness under the leadership of Moses. The pursuing Egyptian forces were miraculously stopped. In the ‘Victory Stele’ of Pharaoh Merneptah, the immediate successor of Ramesses II, there occurs the first extrabiblical reference to Israel. Nonetheless Egypt’s power was waning. Though Ramesses III (ca. 1185-1154) could still repel the Sea Peoples and Libyans, the effort was the last sign of real strength and Egypt began a period of depression and disorder.

Third Intermediate Period: By this period (dynasties XXI-XXV, ca. 1100-664) Egypt’s political and cultural greatness now was in the past. In this period Egypt was weakened by regionalism and factionalism. One of the pharaohs of this period even gave a daughter in marriage to Solomon, something formerly unheard of. At times descendants of former Libyan prisoners and mercenaries were in power. One Libyan ruler, Shishak (Shoshenq I, ca. 945-924), gave refuge to the future king of Israel Jeroboam I and even campaigned successfully against Jerusalem and other Palestinian cities. Nubian princes succeeded in extending control into Upper Egypt. In the twenty-fifth dynasty (ca. 772-664 b.c.), Nubian pharaohs came to control a united Nubia and Egypt, partly by allowing Thebes practical independence. But the Nubian kings were not able to restrain Assyria, and again, in the early seventh century b.c., Asiatic forces controlled much of Egypt. The Assyrians sacked Memphis and Thebes but had only temporary power.

Late Period: This period covers dynasties XXVI-XXXI, ca. 664-332. The twenty-sixth, Saite Dynasty (ca. 664-525), based in the western delta and aided by Greek and Carian mercenaries, led Egypt in its last period of independence and unity. Neco II even campaigned in north Syria—Josiah of Judah died in opposing him—and dominated Palestine for four years. The Saite period formally imitated the artistic style of the Old Kingdom, but not its grandeur. The Saites did enlarge Egypt’s commercial contacts and absorbed sizable foreign colonies, including many Greeks. They managed to stop the Babylonian army short of Egypt proper, but subsequently Persian strength proved too great. The invasion of Cambyses (525 b.c.) brought Egypt into the Persian domain. Although Egypt regained some independence between 404 and 342, it was precariously involved with Greek mercenaries. The Persians enjoyed a brief but troubled period of power again (342-332) prior to their collapse in the face of Alexander’s armies.

Hellenistic-Roman Period (332 b.c.-a.d. 324): Alexander stayed only a short while in Egypt. He assigned Ptolemy Soter, one of his generals, to rule Egypt, thus founding the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30). He also founded the port city of Alexandria, which became one of the major cities of the Mediterranean world, but much more a Hellenistic than an Egyptian center. (Alexandria had a prominent Jewish population within a few decades.) The Ptolemies hellenized the Egyptian administration and exploited the country while also identifying with the pharaonic tradition and sponsoring major building projects. For much of the period the Ptolemies contended with the Seleucid rulers of Syria for control of Palestine. The Ptolemies ruled Palestine throughout the third century b.c., but little is known of Jewish history under them. In Egypt the Ptolemies had much internal strife and became increasingly subordinate to Rome. Rome assumed direct rule from 30 b.c. to a.d. 324 but continued the Ptolemaic administration. Many Egyptian cults, such as that of the goddess Isis, gained a wide following in the Hellenistic-Roman world. The Christian community in Egypt, which began quite early, developed into the Coptic church.

Egypt and the Bible: Egypt’s influence on the people of Palestine involved serving as a refuge area or place of exile, military and political domination, and cultural influence. As the great granary of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt attracted many people to its abundant agricultural resources. The biblical patriarchs, from Abraham to Jacob and his sons, are described as going to Egypt for survival. Similarly, following the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, a group from Judah took refuge in Egypt. The great Exodus from Egypt under Moses of Hebrews who had become oppressed was a continuing model for liberation and a return to Egypt was a commonly threatened punishment.

In the few centuries prior to Moses, Egypt had been a dominant power in Palestine, ruling basically through local princes. During the Israelite monarchy and the subsequent periods of foreign control, Egypt was generally restricted to brief raids and involvements in various alliances against the great Asiatic powers. Significant control by Egypt occurred again only in the time of the Ptolemies. In connection with the military campaigns, many people from Palestine were taken as captives to Egypt, basically to work for the king and the gods. During the fifth century b.c. there was a Jewish military colony at the southern border of Egypt (Elephantine), and in Ptolemaic times there were many Jewish settlers. From ca. 163 b.c. until a.d. 73 there was even a Jewish temple at Leontopolis in the eastern delta.

Egypt’s cultural influence in Palestine was modest, considering the proximity. Egypt sought raw materials, especially metals and wood, from Syro-Palestine and was not bent on cultural dominance. There is a modest number of Egyptian loan words in the Hebrew Bible (Egyptian is a distantly related language). Moses was ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7:22), and indeed he and many of the priestly class in Israel bore Egyptian names. Yet although Akhenaton’s ‘monotheism’ antedated Moses by a century, the contrast is considerable and Egyptian religion had little, if any, specific influence on that of Israel. The most direct sign of literary borrowing is in Prov. 22:17-24:22, which apparently utilized the Egyptian ‘Instruction of Amenemope.’ Other literary influence is found in novellas and love poetry. The political organization under David and Solomon seemed to draw upon Egyptian models, but presumably through Phoenician intermediaries. Above all, Egypt served as a model of idolatry and arrogant power, Israel’s redemption from which in the Exodus proved to be a lasting, central motif.

Bibliography Morenz, S. Egyptian Religion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973. Trigger, B. G., B. J. Kemp, D. O’Connor, and A. B. Lloyd. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Wilson, J. A. The Culture of Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

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