April 14, 2024
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Miketz and Vayigash: The Israelites Arrive in Egypt

The story of the Exodus begins with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt, as Ramban observes (Exod. 1:1). According to our Sages, this occurred 210 years prior to the Exodus. Having posited an Exodus in 1374 BCE, we now consider when the Israelites came to Egypt, where Pharaoh and Joseph settled them, and what might have caused the great famine that drove them to Egypt.

Rabbis Yehuda Henkin and J.H. Hertz, as well as historian Nahum Sarna, are among the many scholars who hold that the Israelites arrived when much of Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos, foreigners originally from nearby Asia (“Asiatics”). Our posited Exodus date would mean that Jacob settled in Egypt in 1584 BCE, indeed when the Hyksos ruled. In a letter to the journal Ḥakirah in 2013, Rabbi Henkin cites various Torah verses that he believes hint at the Hyksos era. Among them: Gen. 39:1 seems to be distinguishing Potiphar from the ethnicity of others in the royal court when it identifies him as a native Egyptian; Gen. 42:8 records that Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him, perhaps because he had Asiatic features similar to those of the other Hyksos officials they saw; and Gen. 47:6 reports that Pharaoh received Joseph’s family warmly and invited them to settle in the choicest of the land, all of which can best be explained if he was a Hyksos king and not a native Egyptian. To these we can add the following: In the Gen. 43:32 dining scene, Joseph, his brothers and the native Egyptians each ate separately: Joseph, presumably because it would have been unusual for someone of his stature to sit with the Asiatics (and supposed spies); and the Egyptians, because eating with Asiatics would have been an abomination to the Egyptians. But why did the Egyptians not sit with the powerful minister Joseph? Perhaps the answer lies in Joseph’s statement to his brothers in Gen. 46:34: shepherds are abominated by the Egyptians. This should not be taken literally, since many Egyptians were shepherds, a lower-class occupation but not an abominated one. Rather, it may have reflected the hatred that native Egyptians bore for the Hyksos. Indeed, one of our sources for this information about the Egyptians’ attitude, third-century BCE priest/historian Manetho, implied that native Egyptians referred to the Hyksos derogatorily as “shepherds.”

Joseph’s keen assessment of the Egyptians’ attitude toward their Hyksos rulers may also have had a bearing on where he settled his family. By way of background, scholars who associate the Exodus with one of the Ramesside Pharaohs think it almost certain that the Land of Ramesses (Gen 47:11)—which they consider more or less synonymous with the far more frequently used Land of Goshen—was near the Hyksos capital Avaris (Tell el-Dab’a) in the northeastern Delta. Native Egyptian rulers based in Thebes eventually laid siege to Avaris and its environs and then sacked it in the 1520s BCE, killing or expelling its Asiatic residents. If the Israelites lived in that region, it is surprising that there is no hint in the Torah of anxiety or calamity within the Israelite community. Quite the opposite: the Israelites thrived (Gen. 47:27, Exod. 1:7), they acquired property even as the Egyptians were selling theirs to Pharaoh (Gen. 47:20), and their booming success was used a century later by a “new king” (Exod. 1:9) as a pretext for enslaving them.

Where, then, did the Israelites live, if not near Avaris? Josephus, the first-century CE Jewish historian, tells us they lived in the Heliopolis precinct, well to the south of the Hyksos capital. He may have been correct, and the Torah may hint at this. Joseph married the daughter of an influential Heliopolitan priest (Gen. 41:45), a choice made by Pharaoh himself. Heliopolis was not the obvious choice for a Hyksos king. His principal deity was the storm-god Seth, whose worship was based in Avaris, as were the Hyksos rulers themselves. Since Egypt’s largest temples maintained vast warehouses where grain was stored for emergencies, Seth’s cult center would have made sense as Joseph’s base of operations, and it likely would have been advantageous for him to be near the seat of government. Or so it may have seemed. But Joseph certainly was highly intuitive, if not prophetic, and would likely have foreseen the danger of his family being caught in the crossfire decades later when the troops of Ahmose I sacked Avaris. Moreover, if Joseph used Heliopolis his base, he would have had the protection of a powerful Heliopolitan family—something the Hyksos Pharaoh may have had in mind—and been able to protect his family by keeping them far away from Avaris. Indeed, when Joseph told his family that they would be settled close to him (45:10-11), the reason he gave was pen tivoresh. Ibn Ezra interprets this phrase as “lest you be ousted,” and Onkelos translates it as dilmah tismaskayn, usually rendered as “lest you become impoverished” but also susceptible of meaning “lest you be in danger.” So, perhaps Joseph was not looking only to his family’s short-term needs for sustenance, but also to their need sooner or later for protection from the revenge of the native Egyptians.

The word Goshen itself, which still puzzles scholars, may hint at Heliopolis. The Hebrew gosh can mean “at the approach to.” Goshen may have as its suffix on, Hebrew for Heliopolis. The eminent Biblical archaeologist William F. Albright took a similar approach to defining Goshen when he suggested that the prefix in Goshen is gush, referring to the soil in the area.

All this points to an intriguing possibility. A few miles from Heliopolis is a site called Tell el-Yehudiyeh (Arabic for “mound of the Jew”). The origin of its name is unknown. It is thought to have been occupied by Asiatics during the Hyksos period, and remains of “a poor community of shepherds” have been found there. Around 160 B.C.E., Onias IV built a Jewish temple at this site, known then as “Leontopolis.” Scholars remain uncertain about his reasons for choosing this remote site. Perhaps Onias IV knew of a connection between Leontopolis and the Israelite community in biblical times.

Turning now to the circumstances that drove Jacob and his family to Egypt, the Torah tells us that they were short of food due to an extraordinarily severe and extensive famine: There was famine in all the lands (e.g., Gen. 41:54). The Midrash adds that this famine struck up and down the Near Eastern Mediterranean coast, in Phoenicia, Arabia and Palestine (Gen. Rabbah 90:6). A famine of this reach and magnitude almost certainly had to be caused by an extraordinary climatic event. We have a candidate: the Thera volcano eruption on the Greek island of Santorini, one of the most powerful eruptions ever. Many date it to around 1600 BCE, based on radiocarbon testing, which seems close enough to when we date Jacob’s migration (two years after the famine began [Gen. 45:6]).

According to K. Jan Oosthoek, a specialist in environmental history, the Thera eruption likely depressed temperatures for several years. He believes that the combination of tsunamis, ash deposits and depressed temperatures must have led to harvest failure and famine. Thus, Thera’s potential climatic impact would certainly account for the dramatic terms with which the Torah paints Jacob’s famine.

In our next column, we will use our Exodus date to approximate the year in which the Israelites were enslaved and suggest who the “new king” may have been. In fact, that Pharaoh may have claimed credit for putting the Israelites to hard labor in one of her best-known inscriptions.

By Ira Friedman

 Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history.

 

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