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Egyptian Influences on the Biblical Text

Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor

Even though Egypt plays a central role in the Bible, Egyptian influence on the biblical text is not very great. The Bible knows relatively little about Egypt as a state. Only four pharaohs are mentioned, none of whom ruled during the historical period in which the biblical chronology locates the exodus narrative and the Joseph story. All four pharaohs are rulers from the first half of the first millennium B.C.E., and three of them can be dated to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. (Tirhakah, 2Kgs 19:9; Neco II, 2Kgs 23:29; and Hophra, Jer 44:30). Twelve Egyptian cities are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and only one in the New Testament (Alexandria, Acts 18:24).

The exodus narrative offers only general knowledge of Egypt. The Joseph story is more specific, as it mentions three Egyptian names and several Egyptian motifs. The embalming of Jacob (Gen 50:2-3) and Joseph (Gen 50:26) can be compared with Egyptian practice; Joseph dies at the age of 110 years (Gen 50:22), which was an ideal age in ancient Egypt; and the literary motif of the seven years of famine (Gen 41:30) can be found in an Egyptian text as well.

The biblical text demonstrates some knowledge of Egyptian religion. References to Egyptian deities can be found in several personal names: Asenath (from the goddess Neith; Gen 41:45); Harnepher (from the falcon-headed god Horus; 1Chr 7:36); Potiphera (from the sun god Re; Gen 46:20); and Pashhur (from Horus; Jer 20:1-3). The portrayal of a god who provides for humans and animals and who helps and rescues can be found in both biblical Psalms (Ps 65:10-14, Ps 30:2-4) and Egyptian hymns. The concept of the creation of the world by the “divine word” is familiar to both the Bible (Gen 1, Ps 33:6-9) and Egypt. In terms of influence, the biblical Song of Songs shares similarities with Egyptian love songs from the late second millennium B.C.E. Finally, the idea of a “judgment of the heart” can be found in Ps 26:2, and Job 31 alludes to the avowal of innocence at the judgment of the dead, an important concept in Egyptian religion (Book of the Dead, chapter 125). Also in Job, the description of the animals “Behemoth” (Job 40:15-24) and “Leviathan” (Job 41:1-34) can be linked to Egyptian mythology (hippopotamus and crocodile).

Direct literary parallels can be found in only three biblical texts. Psalm 104, a creation psalm, shares a number of motifs with the Great Hymn to the Aten from the Amarna period (14th–13th centuries B.C.E.). In the book of Proverbs, a whole paragraph (Prov 22:17-24:22) draws on an Egyptian wisdom text (the Instruction of Amenemope). And in the prophetic books, one of the oracles against Egypt seems to have been composed using an Egyptian tradition (Isa 19 and the Egyptian Oracle of the Potter).

In sum, the degree of Egyptian influence on the biblical text is remarkably low. The relatively few cases of Egyptian influence most likely occurred through two modes of cultural contact: indirect contact that occurred during the transition from the second to the first millennium B.C.E., when Egypt controlled the southern Levant, and direct contact that began in the late eighth/early seventh centuries B.C.E.

  • Bernd U. Schipper

    Bernd U. Schipper holds the chair in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He edited (with D. Andrew Teeter) the volume Wisdom and Torah: The Reception of Torah in the Wisdom Literature of the Second Temple Period (Brill, 2013).