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Most biblical references to Egypt relate to the exodus tradition, which describes Moses leading the people to the promised land. That period of captivity is the basis for the biblical view of Egypt as a place of banishment and bondage.

Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor

Egypt is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible almost seven hundred times, and it is referred to another 25 times in the New Testament, making it the most frequently mentioned place outside Canaan in the Bible. In biblical times, Egypt was already an ancient civilization and the pyramids were thousands of years old. Israel’s status as a relative newcomer can be seen in the fact that many of the events described in the Hebrew Bible are set in an era now known as the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.E.), which was the most recent of the major periods of ancient Egyptian history. Egypt and Israel shared a border in antiquity as they do today, and this led to occasional contact and interaction between the peoples of the two lands. Certain biblical passages allow us to get some sense of the nature of that relationship, but Egyptian texts are less helpful in that regard.

Was Egypt enemy territory for people in the Bible?

The relationship between Egypt and the Israelites is complicated. According to several biblical passages, the Israelites spent about four hundred years of enslavement in Egypt (Gen 15:13, Exod 12:40-41, Acts 7:6). That was their longest sojourn away from Israel, and Exod 14 describes it coming to an end in dramatic fashion when the Red Sea is parted and the Israelites are able to escape to freedom. The great majority of the biblical references to Egypt are related to the exodus tradition, which describes Moses leading the people through the waters and on the road to the promised land. That period of captivity is the basis for the biblical view of Egypt as a place of banishment and bondage.

But that is only part of the story. The land of the pharaohs is also sometimes the Bible’s go-to place, and on occasion it was a destination for people leaving Israel either on their own or because they were forced to flee. In a reversal of the exodus journey, they headed south to seek asylum or refuge from oppression and tough times. Among the biblical notables who travel to Egypt in order to escape hardship are Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12:10-20), King Jeroboam of Israel (1Kgs 11:40), a group of people fleeing the Babylonians (2Kgs 25:26), the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 43:5-7), and the newborn Jesus and his family (Matt 2:13-15). There are even some passages in the prophetic books that refute the notion that Egypt is a place of enslavement by advising Israelites to relocate there to avoid exile in Babylon. The biblical view of Egypt is therefore a mixed one, both an arrival point and a departure point, an ally and an adversary. So the answer to the question of whether or not Egypt was enemy territory depends on which part of the Bible you happen to be reading.

Is Israel mentioned in Egyptian sources?

Egypt is commonly referred to in the Bible, but the favor is not returned in the Egyptian written material. The Egyptians were meticulous record keepers, but in all of their annals there is not one reference to the exodus or the events and individuals associated with it in the Bible. That includes Moses, whose name is of Egyptian origin despite the attempt to connect it to Hebrew in Exod 2:10. (It comes from an Egyptian word that means “to give birth to a child” that is also found in the names of the pharaohs Thutmose and Ramesses). Another biblical figure who had an extended stay in Egypt is Joseph, but he too is not mentioned in Egyptian sources even though the Bible reports that he rose to a position of great authority there (Gen 37-50). That lack of attestation has raised questions in the minds of many scholars about the historicity of these biblical traditions.

The lone mention of Israel in an Egyptian text is found on a stela, or stone slab, that commemorates a military campaign of a pharaoh named Merneptah, who ruled from 1213 to 1203 B.C.E. This stela dates to approximately 1208 B.C.E., and it is important because it contains the earliest reference to Israel outside the Bible. Merneptah’s campaign took him to Canaan, and the inscription lists the various enemies he encountered and defeated along the way. Among those listed is one referred to as Israel, and what is particularly interesting is that the name is identified as a group of people and not, as the others on the list, a place. This tells us that by that time there was an entity in Canaan that was known as Israel. It sheds no light on how they got there or how long they had been there, but this Egyptian evidence provides the earliest clue we have that is related to the origin of the people who would go on to produce the Bible.

  • John Kaltner

    John Kaltner is the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations at Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee), where he teaches courses on the Bible, Islam, and Arabic.