A Weak Egypt, an Israelite Window

Photo Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

In the Book of Genesis, the specter of Egypt hangs over many of the stories. Without a major river system traversing the land, Canaan was dependent upon rain for its irrigation, leaving its inhabitants vulnerable to the threat of starvation during periods of drought. It was a desire to survive drought that brought Joseph’s brothers before him in Genesis 44 and which ultimately brought Jacob to Egypt in Genesis 46.

The Late Bronze Age (LBA) Collapse led to the demise of the major kingdoms of the early 12th century BCE. The Mycenaean Greek civilization collapsed, as did the Hittite Kingdom and Kassite Babylonian Kingdom. The Assyrian Kingdom shrunk to become a rump state.

The Egyptian New Kingdom was not impervious to the changes. The LBA Collapse ushered in a period of slow decline in Egypt. Yet even as Egyptian power waned, Egypt still had an influence in the broader region. A cartouche is an oval symbol containing hieroglyphs. A cartouche with the name of Ramesses IX was found in Gezer, roughly between today’s Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, indicating that in the late 12th century BCE, Egypt still remained involved in the southern Levant. Eventually though, a weaker Egypt gradually withdrew from Canaan, until by the late 12th century it seemingly had little to no significant presence there.

Egypt’s New Kingdom 20th Dynasty began with Setnakhte’s ascension to the throne in 1189 BCE. The remaining pharaohs of this dynasty were all name Ramesses. It started out well enough with Ramesses III defeating the Sea Peoples, but presumably difficulties securing food led to a workers strike and later Ramesses III was assassinated. The 20th Dynasty kings Ramesses IV, Ramesses VI and Ramesses VIII were all children of Ramesses III, indicating problems in royal succession.

In this slow winding Egyptian collapse, Libyan tribes such as the Libu, Tehenu, Temehu and Meshwesh attacked Egypt.

The Meshwesh, a Libyan tribe with Berber origins, were speakers of the Afroasiatic language Berber, distantly related to the Semitic and Egyptian languages. The Meshwesh do appear to have been defeated by the Egyptians during Ramesses III’s reign, but they continued to harass the Egyptians throughout the 20th Dynasty.

Eventually, Egypt’s 20th Dynasty could not hold power. The priests of Amun took power in southern, or Upper Egypt, while new rulers emerged in northern, or Lower Egypt. This ushered what has been coined the Third Intermediate Period. At the outset the Egyptian kings were weaker than they had been earlier. As in the Genesis stories, conditions in Egypt in the Iron Age had an impact on the southern Levant. In the Iron IIA period, a diminished Egypt enabled new states such as the Ammonite, Moabite, Aramean and Israelite kingdoms to emerge.

The image above is a statue of Ramesses III, one of the last powerful kings of the 20th Dynasty, on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.