A New Dynasty and the Beginning of the End

In Exodus 1, Joseph and his generation died, and a new king took the throne of Egypt. This king had no history with Joseph, and Joseph’s family lost its favor with Egypt’s rulers.

The idea of new leadership with no ties to earlier kings was a common one in ancient Egypt. Egypt experienced transitional periods of kingdoms with centralized control of the land to intermediate periods of no centralized control, and back to kingdoms again. The Old Kingdom gave way to the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom was followed by the Second Intermediate Period, and the New Kingdom devolved into the Third Intermediate Period.

Within the kingdom periods, leadership could be in flux, and old dynasties could be replaced by new dynasties. The New Kingdom of Egypt included the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties.

The 19th Dynasty of Egypt included a number of powerful and successful kings. Ramesses II was one of Egypt’s longest serving rulers. Merneptah defeated the Libyans and in the southern Levant he claims to have defeated a number of important city-states and an unsettled group named Israel. But after Merneptah’s reign, the 19th Dynasty was disrupted by palace intrigues, powerful advisors and a revolt led by Setnakhte, who took the throne and founded the 20th Dynasty of Egypt. Setnakhte was then followed by rulers named Ramesses, from Ramesses III to Ramesses XI. These gradually weaker kings presided over the demise of Egypt’s New Kingdom.

Signs of the problems emerge during the reign of Ramesses III, towards the end of the Late Bronze Age. A potsherd held in Berlin records that in the 29th year of Ramesses III’s reign, “20 days have elapsed this month and rations have not been given us.”

The Turin Strike Papyrus contains evidence of a food shortage and the oldest known record of a worker’s strike. In the 29th year of Ramesses III’s reign, the skilled laborers working on the royal tombs complained of a lack of food. They threaten to quit working and leave. The papyrus notes that certain workers have engaged in sabotage and are creating civil disturbances. The local authorities step in and provide emergency supplies to assuage the workers.

This papyrus gives a hint of the larger troubles the 20th Dynasty faced during the Late Bronze Age. A weaker Egypt would eventually have to retrench, and withdraw from the southern Levant. Egypt’s withdrawal would allow the proto-Israelites to settle in the central hill country and establish themselves in the region.

The image above is of a statue of Ramesses III unearthed at Beth She’an in the Jordan River Valley, when Egypt had a firmer control of the southern Levant.

To see an image of the Turin Strike Papyrus, see the following link from the Museo Egizio in Turin:


Humpty Dumpty Placed in the Ground

In Genesis 49, Jacob gave his son Joseph instructions for his burial arrangement. “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite.“ In Genesis 50, Joseph had Jacob’s body treated in the Egyptian manner. “So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.” Then Joseph took his father’s body to be buried in Canaan.

In the Late Bronze Age, Egypt seized control of Canaan to dominate trade through the region and to create a buffer zone against foreign invasion. The Egyptians became more entrenched in Canaan during the 19th and 20th Dynasties.

Evidence of the Egyptian presence appears in monumental and cultural forms. The Amarna Letters found at the ancient site of Akhetaten, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s capital, contain correspondences from Canaan rulers of cities asking for Egyptian assistance against the nomadic Habiru raiders. Later, stelae, or monuments, recording the feats of the pharaoh Seti I and his son Ramesses II were unearthed at Beth She’an, in the Jordan Valley.

Timnah is the site of a large ancient copper mine near Eilat, and it appears to have operated under Egyptian control during the Late Bronze Age. An Egyptian temple to the goddess Hathor on site points to Egyptian control.

The Egyptian presence in seen in cultural forms. There is an increase in the amounts of Egyptian pottery, including Egyptian stone vessels and beer jugs. There is evidence of Egyptian influence in building styles and cultic properties.

Another area where Egyptian influence can be seen is in burial practices. In the Middle Bronze Age, bodies were more commonly laid to rest in a fetal position. In the Late Bronze Age, bodies were buried a supine position, lying on its back, more typical of Egyptian practices. Bodies became more likely to be buried outside of the city, in contrast to earlier burials nearer to residences. Coffins became more common. And some coffins had anthropoid, or human-like features, as can be found on Egyptian coffins. One example of this is on display at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, north of the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls, opposite Herod’s Gate, just east of Damascus Gate. The image above is of an anthropomorphic coffin found at Beth She’an, dating to the 12th century BCE. Any resemblance to Humpty Dumpty is purely coincidental.

In the Late Bronze Age, people in Canaan used vessels like Egyptian, prayed like Egyptians, drank like Egyptians, cooked like Egyptians, lived like Egyptians and buried like Egyptians. All that is left is to walk like an Egyptian:


Canaan to Egypt, Egypt to Canaan

In Genesis 46, Jacob took his family to Egypt to meet Joseph. “Then Jacob left Beersheba, and Israel’s sons took their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the carts that Pharaoh had sent to transport him. So Jacob and all his offspring went to Egypt, taking with them their livestock and the possessions they had acquired in Canaan. Jacob brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons and his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.”

In the Bible, Jacob went down to Egypt. But in the Bronze Age, Egypt came to Canaan.

In the 16th century BCE, Egypt was in the midst of the Second Intermediate Period, a period in which there was no centralized control over the entire landmass of Egypt. Lower Egypt, or northern Egypt, was under the control of the Hyksos, a people from Asia who are remembered in Egypt for their cruelty. In the mid-16th century BCE, the rulers of Upper Egypt, southern Egypt, who were based in Thebes successfully attacked and expelled the Hyksos. They unified Egypt and ushered in what became known as Egypt’s New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom would come to include the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties and would last for nearly 500 years. One step its leaders took was to assert control of Canaan, to dominate trade and to create a buffer zone against foreign invaders. The mid-15th century ruler Pharaoh Thutmoses III recorded his campaigns in the Annals of Thutmose III in the Karnak Temple of Amun. He boasts of his great victory at the Battle of Megiddo, in the Lower Galilee, “the capture of Megiddo is the capture of a thousand towns.” This inscription is said to contain the first mention of a body count in recorded history, listing 83 severed hands collected from the dead.

Thutmoses III’s son Amenhotep II extended his father’s domination of Canaan, capturing many people as slaves and deporting them to Egypt.

Egyptian control of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age is in evidence in the archaeological record. There is a decline in the number of cities. Cities that once were surrounded by walls for defense were now left unwalled and vulnerable. There was a decline in population. Egyptian pottery, scarabs and religious forms are found at sites in the southern Levant.

Egyptian domination led to the decline in Canaanite cities and leadership. Eventually, as the Egyptians gradually pulled back from Canaan towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, it opened the door for new entrants such as the early Israelites to settle and grow.

In the book of Joshua and Judges, the Israelite tribes contend with the local nations, the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Jebusites, Hivites, Perizzites and Girgashites. Absent is any mention of the Israelites fighting the Egyptians in Canaan. It is for this reason that scholars who argue in favor of an Israelite exodus from Egypt and entry into Canaan, point to the end of the Late Bronze Age as the likely time period.

The image above is a bust of Thutmose III, the Egyptian king who set this process in motion. The bust is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

For more information about Egyptian pottery, the type found at certain Late Bronze Age sites in Canaan, see this short clip below:

Ancient Animal Husbandry

In Genesis 41, Egypt’s pharaoh had a dream. “He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up.”

Troubled by the dream and with his magicians and wise men unable to interpret the dream, Joseph was summoned from prison. Joseph offered this answer: “Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe.“

The Late Bronze Age Collapse led to drought like conditions in Canaan and eventually the collapse of centralized governmental control in Egypt. In Canaan, which during the Late Bronze Age was under Egyptian control, there is possible evidence that steps were taken to prepare for a dryer climate. That evidence appears in the cows. 

Taurine cattle are a type of domesticated cattle that originated in the Near East, but were suitable for European climates and became known as European cattle.

Zebu are another type of domesticated cattle that descends from the same lineage as taurine cattle, but have unique features. Zebu cattle have a hump just past the neck. They are better able to handle heat than European cattle due to larger sweat glands, and they have greater resistance to bugs and parasites. These features led them to be more popular for ploughing in hot and dry regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

A small number of DNA samples of taurine cattle from the Late Bronze Age through the Iron Age were found at the archaeological sites of Megiddo and Azekah in the region of ancient Canaan. One of the cattle contained DNA that showed it to be a hybrid of a taurine cow and zebu bull. It is unknown exactly when the hybridization occurred. But as the zebu is common in Africa, it likely would have originated in Egypt, which lies closest to Canaan. The most likely time that an Egyptian bull would be transported to Canaan would be in the Late Bronze Age, when the Egyptians ruled Canaan. Thus it is possible that the effort to cross-breed cattle was an attempt to adjust to a changing climate, from a wetter climate better suited to taurine cattle to a drier climate better suited to zebu cattle. If this is the case, it could be another piece in the puzzle demonstrating a changing climate as a cause for the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

The image above is of a zebu. Note the unique feature of a hump behind its neck.

Ugarit, the Next Domino

In Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers conspired to sell Joseph to traders. “As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” The brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt…Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.”

This episode exemplifies the ancient trading networks. On today’s map it would represent traders from Arabia, coming from northern Jordan, passing through the northern part of the central hill country in the southern Levant, on their way to Egypt.

The Late Bronze Collapse in the late 13th and early 12th century led to the demise of the great kingdoms of the ancient Near East. The loss of the great powers opened the door for new states such as Israel to emerge, but it also resulted in a collapse in the wide trading networks.

One of the theories about the collapse is that a change in climate led to a reduction in rainfall and created famines across the region. There is natural and textual evidence of famine spreading in Canaan, in the Hittite Empire, and in inland Syria. These regions were important for trade. Another domino in this chain fell at Ugarit.

Ugarit was an important trading center on the Mediterranean coast, in today’s Syria. It had good harborage for incoming ships and sat along a series of trade routes that crisscrossed the region. The Urtenu tablets were found within the remains of the southern part of Ugarit, and they contain records of trade across the region. However, they also contain a hint of food shortages at Ugarit. A letter found at the site from the Egyptian king Merneptah records the “consignments of grain sent from Egypt to relieve the famine in Ugarit.” In the early 12th century, Ugarit was destroyed, yet another important polity that became a victim of the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

The image above is of the storm god Baal, an important deity at Ugarit who would later play a role in Canaan.

To recall the domino of Ugarit walking off for good, another Domino:

Ugarit to Emar to Gone

In Genesis 33, Jacob left Syria in the north and headed south to his homeland of Canaan. “After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.“

During the Late Bronze Age Collapse, many of the great empires of the ancient Near East either declined or disappeared entirely. One of the effects is that it opened the door for new states such as early Israel to emerge. Another effect is that it resulted in a widespread decline in interregional trade.

One of the culprits of the Late Bronze Age Collapse is believed to be climate change. Cooler temperatures led to a reduction in rainfall. And reduced rainfall led to starvation.

Two important trading centers in the area of Syria during the Late Bronze Age were Ugarit and Emar.

The ancient city of Ugarit is at Ras Shamra, north of Latakia in Syria. The site was accidentally discovered when a farmer plowing his field hit an ancient tomb with his plow. Ugarit was well positioned for trade. It sat along a coastal harbor on the Mediterranean and beside a mountain pass through which goods could be carried to the interior regions. Its importance for trade is evidenced by large archives of trading records.

The city of Emar lies further inland along the Euphrates, and was an important point on the trade route from the west leading to Mesopotamia. It too produced a large collection of cuneiform tablets that relate to trade.

The Urtenu archive is a collection of cuneiform records found at Ugarit in the office of a trading agent named Urtenu. One possible reading of a letter found at the site, Ugarit Text RS 34.152, points to a famine ravaging Emar: “There is famine in your house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.” In the early 12th century, the city of Emar disappeared from the map. Yet another land suffering the broke and hungry blues. 

Pollen, the Hardy Survivors

In Genesis 30, Rachel becomes increasingly jealous of her sister and anxious about her inability to bear children: During the wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some “duda’im,” which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, Please give me some of your son’s “duda’im.” Presumably this was because Rachel believed these plants could aid in reproduction.

There have been a variety of suggestions as to the identification of “duda’im,” but translators have settled on the Mandragora officinalis, also referred to as the mandrake.

Plants such as mandrakes have their own reproductive strategies. In cross-pollination, pollen from one flower can be transferred by insects or by wind to another flower.

In the late 13th century and early 12th century, the great kingdoms of the Ancient Near East either collapsed or were significantly reduced in power and size. It would be between 200 and 300 years before some of them recovered, if they did at all. It was in this power vacuum in the area of Canaan into which new states, such as the Kingdom of Israel, were born. The period between collapse and the emergence of the new states was one of smaller groups and tribal affiliations. It is an archaeologically quieter period in which the evidence suggests that Canaan was free of foreign control. And it correlates well with the description the pre-monarchical society described in the Book of Judges.

One of the possible culprits of the Late Bronze Age Collapse was climate change. A colder climate and colder sea temperatures could have resulted in lower rainfall amounts and caused drought conditions. 

Pollen grain shells are hard and very durable, and pollen grains are unique by species. Pollen’s hard shell allows it to survive for long periods of time, even under adverse conditions. Pollen’s unique forms can also tell us about the plant diversity at a given point in time.  These factors allow pollen to be used to study the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

If pollen settles in a body of water, new sediment can accumulate on top of that pollen. As the process repeats itself, new sediment building on top of older pollen, over time, this can create layers that can be analyzed to determine the type of plants that existed at a particular point in time. To sample these, paleobotanists take mud cores to sample the layers of dirt that settled sequentially over time.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University took sample mud cores from the Sea of Galilee. The results of testing showed that beginning in the 13th century and into the 11th century, there was a decline in the more typical amounts of pollen from carob trees and olive trees. Instead there was an increase in pollen of plants better built to survive desert-like conditions. This would appear to point to a change in climate. The climate change and drought that fueled the demise of Egypt’s New Kingdom and the Hittite Empire, and allowed for nascent Israel to emerge.

In the above image, a bee is shown covered in pollen, a process by which pollen can be spread. For a brief video about pollen, enjoy the link below. 


Egypt As Breadbasket

Sa-Iset the Younger, ca. 1279-1203 B.C.E. Wood, 22 1/2 x 6 x 6 1/2 in. (57.2 x 15.2 x 16.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 47.120.2. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 47.120.2_SL1.jpg)

In Genesis 26, the land of Canaan was hit by yet another drought: Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelek king of the Philistines in Gerar. The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” So Isaac stayed in Gerar.

The land of Canaan was dependent upon rainfall to irrigate its crops and for drinking water, and was subject to variation in annual rainfall amounts. Egypt had the Nile River, which was a more reliable source of water for agriculture. A sensible move during periods of drought in Canaan would be to go to Egypt. In the biblical story, God denies Egypt its traditional role as breadbasket during a time of need.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse of the late 13th and early 12th centuries was a widespread phenomenon, and saw the demise of the major kingdoms and empires of the ancient Near East. In the Aegean, Mycenaean Greece saw its end, ushering in a 300 year dark period. The Hittite Empire was reduced to minor Neo-Hittite states. The Amorites were displaced by the Arameans. The Assyrian kingdom shrunk in size and the Babylonian Kassite dynasty was overthrown.

A cooling in temperatures, which resulted in less sea water evaporation and a reduction in rainfall has been identified as a cause of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. But just as in the Bible, during the Late Bronze Age Collapse, Egypt stepped into its traditional role as the breadbasket of last resort.

Merneptah was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled Egypt for a decade near the end of the 13th century BCE, following his father Ramesses II. In Egyptian records, he is said to have attempted to help the Hitties stave off starvation. “[I] caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive this land of Hatti.”

The chief of his granaries was one Siese the Younger, also referred to as Sa-Iset the Younger. His likeness, in the photo above, can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum. 

For a song of coming to someone’s aid in a time of need, enjoy Irving Berlin’s Operation Vittles at 2:45-4:10 in the link below:


A Matter of Life or Death

In Genesis 23, Abraham conducted a transaction with Hittites: Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.” Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites

With the sale complete, “Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre, which is at Hebron, in the land of Canaan.”

In Joshua 1, the tribes of Israel began their campaign to conquer the land of Canaan. The tribes of Judah and Simeon attacked the Canaanites and captured the southern hill country, including the Canaanites living in Hebron, the land that Abraham was said to have purchased as a burial ground.

To the north, the tribes of Joseph sent spies to scout the city of Bethel. The spies happened upon a man who proceeded to tell them how to enter the city. When the tribes of Joseph attacked Bethel, the man was spared and sent further north to the land of the Hittites.

The Hittite Empire ruled over most of Anatolia, the area of modern Turkey. It was established in the 17th century BCE, with its capital at Hattusa. Over time it grew to rival the Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom. In 1274 BCE, the Hittite king Muwatalli II fought the Egyptian king Ramesses II in the greatest chariot battle in human history at the Battle of Kadesh. Yet within one hundred years the Hittite Empire had disintegrated, a victim of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. In its place were the smaller and weaker Neo-Hittite states.One possible explanation for its demise is the effects of a change in the climate causing a shortage of food.

The Hittites engaged in trade with Ugarit, in coastal Syria. A letter from the Hittite king to Ugarit (RS 20.212 / Ug. 5 N 33) found at Ras Shamra, the modern site of ancient Ugarit, indicates the trouble:

“His Majesty” they asked for food, (and so) 2000 (units of) barley “His Majesty” has allotted for them from Mukish. As for you, one big ship and crew of sailors give to the[m].[May] they convey this barley to their country. Whether they load it once or twice, do not withhold the ship from them.

The Hittite king’s letter finishes, “It is a matter of life or death.”

The photo above is of a column, from the ruins at Hattusa, near today’s Boğazkale, Turkey. Home of a once great empire that was reduced by natural forces, as climate disasters have harmed humans before and since:

Cold Temperatures Frozen in Time

In the late 13th and early 12th centuries the ancient Near East experienced the Late Bronze Age Collapse. This period saw the demise of the major kingdoms of the time. The large kingdoms’ pain was Israel’s gain, as their weakness opened the door for new, smaller states such as Israel to emerge.

There are various theories as to the cause of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. One theory is that it was a result of a change in the climate. This theory can be tested by studying ice cores.

Greenland and Antarctica have large ice sheets created from snowfall that has accumulated over time. The Greenland Ice Sheet covers over 650,000 square miles and over 2 miles thick at its deepest point.

Differences in annual snow give each season’s snow unique properties. As new snow falls, the weight of the snow compacts the snow beneath it, and traps those properties. It creates an annual accounting that is frozen in time.

The thickness of an annual layer can demonstrate the amount of precipitation for a given year. Melting snow eliminated bubbles in the snow, and can be an indicator of warmer summer temperatures. Carbon dioxide and methane are trapped in the ice, and variances can be measured over time. Differences in the air temperature can be reflected in changes in oxygen and hydrogen isotopes.

Ice layers contain also contain particles that were present in the air. In Genesis 19, God rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, enough to destroy all the vegetation. In Judges 15, Samson tied lit torches to foxes’ tails, and set them loose in the Philistines’ grains, burning them. These localized destructions would not be large enough to show in the ice in Greenland, but massive volcanic eruptions have spewed enough ash into the atmosphere and fallen in Greenland to appear in the ice.

The study of this ice over time can be done by looking at ice cores. Ice cores are cylinders of ice taken from the ice sheets. They are created by drilling a vertical hole into the ice, and gradually removing the ice core in sections as the drilling goes deeper.

The Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP2) took ice cores to a depth of over 10,000 feet. And it showed that temperatures were cooler between 1200 though 850 BCE, with a brief warming period between 1050-970 BCE. This correlates well with other studies that have pointed to cooler temperatures and lower rainfall in the eastern Mediterranean during this same period, and a possible explanation for the Late Bronze Age Collapse.

For a photo of an ice core with volcanic ash embedded inside, see the following link:


To see a clip of an ice core being taken, see this short video:

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