Before the Waters Turned Away

In Exodus chapter 7, Moses and his brother Aaron begin to deliver God’s plagues upon Egypt. As the backdrop for the plagues is Israel’s slavery, this post will reach back to Exodus 1 and Exodus 5.

In Exodus 1, the Egyptians put the Israelites to hard labor and forced them to build the store cities of Pithom and Ramesses. The cities of Pithom and Ramesses could reasonably be rendered in the ancient Egyptian language as Pi Atum or Per Atum, meaning the House of the god Atum, and as Pi Ramesse or Per Ramesse, the House of Ramesses.

At the end of Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, leaders from southern Egypt expelled the Hyksos, the cruel Asian rulers who controlled northern Egypt. The kings of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty pursued the Hyksos into Canaan and the Levant. They took control of the region, and created a buffer zone to prevent any further attacks on Egypt from the north.

The 19th Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom faced a challenge from the Hittites of Anatolia for control of the Levant. This further pulled Egypt’s center of gravity north into the Delta region of Egypt, where the Nile fanned out and ran to the Mediterranean Sea.

Today the Nile splits into to two main branches that pour into the Mediterranean. But in the ancient times it spread out in seven branches.

The 19th Dynasty king Ramesses II moved his capital to Pi-Ramesse Aa-nakhtu, the “House of Ramesses, Great-of-Victories.” Originally it was thought that the ancient city Pi-Ramesse was buried under modern day Tanis, off the northeasterly Tanitic branch of the Nile, due to the presence of monuments to Ramesses II. But archaeologists realized that the correct location is at Qantir, adjacent to Tell el-Dab’a, the site of Avaris, the Hyksos capital. The challenge in locating Pi-Ramesse was that the Pelusiac branch of the Nile had long since dried up and had to be found. For Pi-Ramesse, what had once been a strategically located city with access to waterborne trade was now placed in a  seemingly random location.

Wadi Tumilat is the 50 km dry river valley to the east of the Nile delta. In ancient times it contained water that ran east off the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. At Tell el-Retabah, in Wadi Tumilat, archaeologists unearthed a block with a large scene representing Ramesses II smiting a Syrian before the god Atum. This indicates that there was a temple to the Atum at the site. This Per Atum, House of Atum, could have given Pithom its name. Temples often contained areas for storage and the site would be positioned for trade with the Sinai.

The archaeology cannot tell us exactly who build Per Atum at Tell el-Retabah or Pi-Ramesse at Qantir but it can affirm that these cities did exist and flourished during the New Kingdom, before the Nile changed course and the waters turned away.

To see an visual reconstruction of Pi-Ramesse, check out the following link:

The image above is of a temple built by Ramesses II at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. This impressive monument in the south combined with his capital in the north demonstrates the reach of this powerful pharaoh. 

Rolling Up the Welcome Mat

At the beginning of Exodus, Jacob’s descendants were living in Egypt. “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. Look, he said to his people, the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. We must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

Egypt fluctuated between periods of centralized and decentralized governments. The periods of centralized rule over southern Upper Egypt and northern Lower Egypt are referred to as Kingdoms and the decentralized periods referred to as Intermediate Periods. With the collapse of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, new dynasties arose during the Second Intermediate Period.

The 14th Dynasty ruled over the northern Lower Egypt and Nile Delta region, and a number of its kings had Semitic names. The 16th Dynasty ruled over the southern Upper Egypt and may have had Semitic rulers as well. But it was the 15th Dynasty of the Asiatic Hyksos that ruled in the 17th and 16th centuries BCE who were most dreaded in Egyptian records.

The term Hyksos was translated to mean “shepherd kings” but more accurately translates to “rulers of foreign lands.”

The Hyksos rulers were from Asia, and not native to Egypt. It is not clear if they were from Canaan or further afield, but signs point to them coming from the Levant, the area that includes Canaan, Syrian and Lebanon. The Hyksos ruled from Avaris in the Nile Delta, closer to the Levant than Egypt’s other capitals. Their material culture was similar to that of Canaan and Lebanon. Some of its rulers such as Khamudi had Semitic names. They worshipped their storm god, Hadad. The southern Egyptian king Kamose fought the Hyksos and referred to the Hyksos king as the “Chieftain of Retjenu.” Retjenu is synonymous with Canaan, further pointing to Hyksos having their origins in Canaan.

The 1st century CE historian Flavius Josephus, in his book Against Apion, quotes an earlier Egyptian historian by the name of Manetho writing about the Hyksos. “From the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land…he found a city very favorably situated on the east of the Bubastite branch of the Nile, and called Avaris…this place he rebuilt and fortified with massive walls, planting there a garrison of as many as 240,000 heavy-armed men to guard his frontier.” Manetho, writing much later than the actual events, claimed that the Hyksos invaded Egypt from the east.

Modern archaeology points not to an invasion but to a gradual infiltration into Egypt by non-Egyptians. At the end of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was weakened by plague and famine. Immigrants arrived from Asia as workers, mercenaries, soldiers, or in other capacities, and gradually established themselves in numbers where they could assume control, eventually rule over much of the Egyptian landmass.

The Hyksos are remembered for their cruelty. Manetho wrote that “they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others.” Sixteen severed right hands were discovered in a Hyksos palace, reflecting a practice that demonstrated victory over an enemy. Monuments of the pharaoh Kamose who fought the Hyksos recorded that “No man can settle down, when despoiled by the taxes of the Asiatics” and refers to them as the “vile Asiatic.”

The archaeology can shed light on two aspects of the Bible’s story. There were periods in which new kingdoms and dynasties arose in which a new king would not know another earlier king. And that Egypt experienced a period in which foreigners became “far too numerous” for them and did seize control of the country. The fear recorded in Exodus, that “they have become far too numerous for us. We must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country,” was not an unfounded fear.

Its a Wrap for Jacob

At the end of the book of Genesis, Jacob’s life has come full circle. His was a life of turmoil from family. His brother wanted to kill him, his father-in-law cheated him and his sons sold his favorite son into slavery. But at the end the family was reunited and he was at peace.

Jacob issued his final request, to be buried with his ancestors in the Cave of Machpelah, and passed away. “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel (Jacob’s other name). 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.”

The ancient Egyptians believed that a human was made up of different component parts. These parts included: the physical body, the person’s shadow, the name, and spiritual parts called the ka, ba and akh. The differences between ka, ba and akh are nuanced, but importantly for the Egyptians, the spirits lived on after death.

These spirits remained connected to the physical body, and the physical body remained their home. The spirits could roam freely but needed to be able to recognize the body so they would not get lost. These spirits also required sustenance.

In order to provide this connection to the spirits, Egyptians preserved dead bodies through mummification. During the ancient Old Kingdom period, the afterlife was the strict reserve of royalty, and only royalty was mummified. Over time the afterlife was opened up to commoners, and the practice of mummification became more widespread.

Mummification was designed to preserve the body without disturbing its form. The goal was to dry the body and prevent decomposition.

The first step in the process was removing the brain. The brain was not viewed as essential after death, though certainly there would have been those in life who would have suggested a certain individual’s brain was not essential when they were alive either.

The internal organs were removed and dried. The heart was viewed as being responsible for functions that we today associate with the brain and was returned to the body. The lungs, intestines, stomach and liver were dried and then stored inside canopic jars.

Each of the jars had covers in the shape of different sons of the god Horus.

The full body was covered in salt to fully remove the moisture. The body was stuffed with linen, sand or sawdust to restore its shape after the various parts had been removed. On day 70 after death, the body was then wrapped and placed in a coffin, and finally placed in its tomb. In the Jacob story, this translates to Jacob being buried on the 70th day, when the embalming and mourning were complete. 

The four canopic jars used in the mummification process and pictured above are on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Where Do the Dead Go?

Towards the end of the book of Genesis, famine in the land of Canaan forced Jacob’s sons to go to Egypt find food. Jacob’s youngest son Benjamin stayed behind in Canaan with his father. Unbeknownst to the brothers, the viceroy of Egypt was none other than their brother Joseph. Joseph insisted that his brother Benjamin be brought down to Egypt if the brothers wanted food again.

Shortly after Benjamin arrived, Joseph had Benjamin arrested. Their brother Judah protested to Joseph that Jacob had said  “If harm comes to Benjamin, you will bring my gray head down to Sheol in misery.”

Sheol is sometimes translated as the grave, but in the Bible it more literally describes the realm of the dead. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul found a spiritual medium to summon the prophet Samuel, and the medium woke Samuel from his slumber in Sheol. In the Book of Job chapter 14, Job asks that God hide him in Sheol until God’s anger has passed.

The simple reading is that Sheol is the dark abode of the dead. The righteous Samuel resided there and Job asked to go to Sheol to avoid God’s wrath. It is later that Talmudic sages associated Sheol with a place of damnation. In the Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 19a, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states that “Gehenna has seven names, and they are as follows: Sheol, Avadon, Be’er Shaḥat, Bor Shaon, Tit HaYaven, Tzalmavet, and Eretz HaTakhtit.” Sheol is associated with Gehenna, or hell, a place of damnation.

The Egyptians had a different concept of the afterlife. During the period of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Pyramid Texts contained spells to help the dead transform into a spirit that could join the gods in the sky. These spells were only found in the tombs of the pharaohs, suggesting that the afterlife was available only to royalty.

Gradually, the afterlife became more democratized, available to the masses and not just to the pharaohs. In the early 2nd millennium Middle Kingdom period, Coffin Texts, spells written on coffins, came into use. These Coffin Texts present a picture of the Egyptian conception of what happens after death.

The Coffin Text spells were written to help the deceased navigate the underworld. The deceased would have to pass through a series of dangers, before appearing in front of the god Osiris for judgment. The deceased would affirm that he or she were righteous, and then the heart was weighed on a scale against a feather. If the heart was heavier than the feather, the soul would be destroyed. But if the heart balanced with the feather, the soul could enter into the afterlife, an eternal life that was a more pleasant version of life in ancient Egypt.

In the later New Kingdom, the Book of the Dead began to be placed in tombs to protect the dead. The Book of the Dead expanded on the spells in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts as a way to further help people achieve eternal life.

The image above is of the Weighing of the Heart, a step on the way to the Egyptian afterlife, part of a larger Book of the Dead scroll on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Feast or Famine Stele

In Genesis 41, Egypt’s pharaoh had two dreams. In his first dream, seven fat cows emerged from the Nile, followed by seven gaunt cows that ate the fat cows. In the second dream, seven healthy heads of grain were devoured by seven thin heads of grain. Joseph was recalled from prison to interpret the pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph explained the dreams to mean that Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. As a result, the pharaoh placed Joseph in charge of Egypt, second only to the pharaoh himself. 

Egypt has an arid climate, and in ancient times was wholly dependent upon the Nile River for sustenance. Under normal conditions, the Nile would flood annually, depositing the water and nutrient rich silt on its banks that supported Egyptian agriculture.

The Nile was so important that even Egypt’s seasons were defined by it. June through September was the flooding season, October-February the growing season and March-May the harvesting season.

The Nile has two primary sources: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile emerges at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, created by July through September rains. The White Nile begins in Lake Victoria at the border region of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The two rivers flow north and meet at Khartoum in Sudan and then continue north through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

The amount of water that fell in the East African highlands determined what the seasons would look like in Egypt. In normal years, the Nile would rise above its banks, depositing water and silt for growing agricultural products. In years in which too much water fell, the Nile would flood the surrounding villages and destroy the farmland. In years of too little rain, the Nile would not exceed its banks, and the result was famine. The fluctuations were so important that it is thought the collapses in Egypt’s centralized government across its history were the result of prolonged droughts.

To predict agricultural output, the Egyptians installed Nilometers, structures that measured the water level of the Nile. The water level measurements would then be used to predict the annual harvest and to determine the amount of tax to be paid. Ancient Nilometers still stand today in various spots along the Nile. 

If it was useful for the Egyptians to project out one year of the Nile’s activity, in the Joseph story, it would be highly valuable to a pharaoh to have someone able to project out fourteen years of flow: seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. The person able to predict future irrigation patterns might be deemed worthy of an important role in government.

There is a record of a seven-year famine in Egypt.

The Famine Stele was discovered on Sehel Island in southern Egypt. The Egyptian language used points to the Famine Stele being inscribed in the late first millennium, well after the presumed setting for the Joseph story. But it describes a much earlier famine during the reign of the Egyptian king Djoser during the Old Kingdom’s 3rd Dynasty in the 3rd millennium BCE. One line is translated as “In a period of seven years, Grain was scant, Kernels were dried up.” It is unknown if the Famine Stele describes an actual event. Some have suggested that the idea of a seven-year famine was borrowed from the biblical story. But it raises the possibility that a seven-year famine did occur during Egypt’s long history.

An image of the Famine Stele can be seen in the following link:


Joseph In Style

The Joseph story and David story contain the richest character development and emotional depth of all the stories in the Bible. Genesis 37 opens with the seventeen year old Joseph the favorite son of Jacob. Jacob made Joseph a “K’tonet Pasim,” an unusual term that is translated as “a coat of many colors.” Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, and they kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. To throw Jacob off the scent of the case, the brothers killed a goat and dipped Joseph’s multi-colored coat into goat’s blood. The brothers presented the coat to Jacob, and Jacob was convinced that an animal killed Joseph, leaving the brothers to be presumed innocent.

Egypt’s vast wealth agricultural wealth helped connect it to the world and brought in many non-Egyptians. Non-Egyptians could settle in Egypt, attracted by the steady food and water supply, especially in times of drought. Traders arrived from as far away as Afghanistan and southern Africa looking to exchange goods that were not available in Egypt, such as lapis lazuli and ivory. Egypt’s powerful army engaged in wars and brought captives back to Egypt.

In Egyptian art, Egyptians and foreigners and depicted differently. Nubians and sub-Saharan Africans are shown with African features. Egyptians are commonly shown to be bald headed, a measure that would have been taken to counter lice. Asians, a term that can refer to Semitic language speaking people of Canaan, are shown to have lighter skin than the Egyptians and the men are depicted with long beards.

Another difference between the groups is in the clothes. The material used for clothing was a function of what was available in each region. Flax grew in abundance around the Nile River, and its fibers could be spun to produce clothing. Flax, which is the material used to produce linen, is not very receptive to dyeing, so in art, Egyptian men often appear wearing white skirts. In the Levant, the region tucked between Anatolia and Egypt, there were many pastoral farmers who raised sheep, and thus they had wool to make clothing.

Beni Hasan is the site of ancient Egyptian tombs that date to the late 3rd millennium and through the 17th century BCE. It is roughly 150 miles south of Cairo. One of the tombs belongs to Khnumhotep II, a 19th century BCE administrator of a region of Egypt.

Painted on the walls of the Tomb of Khnumhotep II is an image of Semitic traders. It is notable because it demonstrates that Semitic people were actively engaged in trade deep into Egypt. The Semitic group members are depicted as having long hair, the men with beards, and most interestingly for the comparison to the Joseph story, they are wearing multi-colored clothing.

In the Joseph story, Joseph does just receive a multi-colored coat. He receives an in style multi-colored coat.

The image above shows two of the traders out of a larger group. This facsimile was painted in 1931 and is displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because the actual Tomb of Khnumhotep II has been open to the elements since its discovery, this painting may today better reflect the original colors than the tomb itself in Egypt.

Gesundheit and Schlechte Gesundheit

In Genesis 36, Jacob returned from Harran with this family to his home country of Canaan after many years away. In Canaan, he was reunited with his brother Esau. Over the years both had accumulated large amounts of livestock and so the land wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Jacob stayed in Canaan while Esau headed to Seir, roughly the region south and east of the Dead Sea.

The Bible presents an image of 2nd millennium BCE pastoral nomadism in Canaan; of shepherds moving their flocks to areas where there is water and land for pasture, and moving around by season to find better grazing land and water resources for their flocks. Hence the need for Jacob and Esau to move so far apart from each other.

Canaan did feature pastoral nomadism during the 2nd millennium, but this was hardly the whole picture. At various times there were shifts to and from urban living across the land.

There is an expression that “When the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold.” The United States has an outsized economic and military impact on the world, and events within the U.S.’ borders have ripple effects outside its borders. In the 2nd millennium BCE, Egypt had a similar effect on Canaan.

Egypt experienced periods when it had a king that was able to maintain centralized control of both southern and northern Egypt, referred to as Kingdoms. Between those times there were periods in which local rulers dominated different regions of Egypt, referred to as Intermediate Periods.

At the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s Old Kingdom had collapsed and Egypt was in the decline of the First Intermediate Period. In Canaan, the urban centers disappeared and there was a return to nomadism.  The establishment of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt in the early 2nd millennium BCE led to a peak for Egypt and with expanded trade Canaan experienced an increase in prosperity and return to more urban living.

Egypt’s Middle Kingdom gave way to the Second Intermediate Period. During this time, a Semitic group from the Levant, the area between Turkey and Egypt, established a dynasty with its capital in northeastern Egypt. The Egyptians referred to these Asians as Hyksos and they appear to have maintained close ties with their ethnic relatives in Canaan. Canaan benefitted in kind, and during the 18th through the mid-16th centuries BCE, there was increased settlement and urban growth, with more fortified cities and a greater level of prosperity.

The New Kingdom of Egypt emerged from southern Egypt. Its army expelled the dreaded Asiatic Hyksos from Egypt and extended its gains by establishing military garrisons in Canaan and giving Egypt de facto control over it. Cities in Canaan were no longer fortified and were subject to exploitation by the Egyptians.

Egypt’s influence on the landmass of Canaan was not limited to the early stories in the Bible. The Books of Maccabees 1 and 2 record the events leading up to and of the revolt that led to the festival of Hanukkah. Antiochus IV Epiphanes successfully invaded Egypt, but was forced out by the Romans. In the aftermath, whether as a means to recoup the cost of the invasion or to side in a local dispute, he imposed his anti-Jewish religious decrees.

The setting for the patriarchal stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Bible are most likely during the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The Hanukkah story occurred towards the end of the 1st millennium BCE. The gesundheit and schlechte gesundheit – the good health or bad health – of Canaan and Israel across 2000 years was a function of whether or not Egypt sneezed.

Gods of Old

In the Jacob narrative of the Book of Genesis, Jacob left his home and headed north to live with his uncle in Harran. There he worked for Laban and married Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. After years of maltreatment, Jacob fled back to his homeland with his expanded family and accumulated wealth in tow. On the way out the door, Rachel stole her father’s gods.

The Bible doesn’t offer any information about which specific gods Rachel pilfered. Archaeology could offer possibilities of which West Asian or Hittite gods they might have been. But continuing on with a theme, here the focus will be on Egyptian gods.

The implication of Rachel stealing her father’s gods is that there was a belief in Harran in a multiplicity of gods. Similarly, the Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods. The role of the gods was not uniform across Egypt, but varied by region. At Hermopolis in central Egypt, there were eight gods at the beginning of time. At Heliopolis, in today’s Cairo, there were nine original gods, and the god Ra came to be elevated in status and identified with the sun. At Memphis, also in the area of today’s Cairo, the god Ptah sat above the nine gods. The god Ptah is the source of the name Egypt, taken from the Greek reading of Het-ka-Ptah, meaning the “House of the Spirit of Ptah,” as Aegyptus.

There were myths around the various gods. Ra, the sun god, was said to travel across the sky during the day and then through the underworld at night before the cycle repeated itself daily. In the Osiris Myth, the goddess Isis hid her baby Horus in the reeds of the Nile delta to protect him from Seth. Gods could be depicted in animal or human form or some combination thereof, connected to an associated myth.

Egyptian religion was not static over time. Gods rose and declined in importance. Ra and Ptah were two of the most prominent gods, and were linked with cities in northern, or Lower Egypt. Prior to the 16th century BCE, Amun was a minor deity linked with the city of Thebes in southern, or Upper Egypt. The leaders of the New Kingdom were originally from Thebes. When they unified Egypt under their rule, the local god Amun was elevated in national importance and blended with Re, to become Amun-Re, the chief god of the pantheon. In the 14th century BCE, a pharaoh known as Akhenaten attempted to eradicate all gods but the Aten, the sun disk, but this ‘monotheistic’ reform did not last beyond his rule.

In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great set his sights on conquering the world. He invaded Egypt, and established himself as ruler. Because of the fluidity of Egyptian beliefs, the Greeks were able to blend Greek and Egyptian gods. Amun-Re was blended with the supreme Greek god Zeus, to become Zeus Ammon.

The fluidity of Egyptian religion lay in contrast to the rigidity of the Jewish monotheistic religion. The Jewish monotheistic God could not adopt the mythology of Zeus or find its place in a broader pantheon of many gods. What could be done in Egypt could not be done in Judah. This came to a head 150 years after Alexander. While a large country like Egypt could adopt Greek culture through Hellenization, it came to a head in the events of the story of Hanukkah, and the Greek attempt to eradicate Jewish religious practices.

The image above is of a king depicted as Zeus Ammon, featuring the ram’s horn formerly associated with Amun-Re. It is on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

King Jacob

In the 2nd millennium BCE, the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, the area of modern day Turkey, and Egypt fought for control over the real estate between the two regions. Coincidentally, the feud between the rival brothers Esau and Jacob can be connected to the Hittite and Egyptian rivalry.

In Genesis 28, Esau married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite.

In the Bible, Jacob began his life in Canaan. In Genesis 27, Jacob’s mother Rebekah warned him that he needed to escape the wrath of his brother Esau and that he should go her brother Laban in Harran. In Genesis 28, Isaac told Jacob to leave Canaan to find a wife from Laban’s daughters. Harran is today identified with a site in Anatolia. In the Bible, Jacob headed north, but eventually made his way back down to Canaan and then to Egypt where his family settled.  

It is from Egypt that a king with the name Jacob is attested.

Scarabs are a type of beetle with a distinct body type and often with very bright colors. The ancient Egyptians carved amulets and created seals in the shape of scarab beetles.

When the early 2nd millennium BCE Middle Kingdom of Egypt could no longer hold power over the entire landmass of Egypt, centralized authority broke down. Different dynasties ruled different parts of Egypt. During this Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the 14th and later 15th dynasties were ruled by West Asian Semitic kings from the Levant, the area between Anatolia and Egypt.

Tel el Yahudiya is a mound in the Delta region of northern, or Lower Egypt. The site gets its name from a Jewish temple that was in operation in the 2nd century BCE. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the temple was built during the Greek persecutions of the Jews and the defilement of the temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

At Tel el Yahudiya, numerous scarab seals were found that date to the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt.  The scarabs contain the names of the Asiatic rulers of the 14th Dynasty and the 15th Dynasty of the Hyksos. One name that appears on scarabs can be alternately read as Yaqub-Har, Yaqub-El or Yaqub-Baal. This Yaqub was likely a king during one of the Asiatic dynasties. An accurate reading is complicated because the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet at the time did not contain the equivalent of the sound ‘L’, but if it is indeed an ‘L’, the name Yaqub would be attached to a Canaanite god.

Demonstrating the Egyptian reach into Canaan, a Yaqub-Har scarab dating to the 18th or 17th century BCE was discovered at Shiqmona, near Haifa.

Thus while in the Bible, Esau is connected to the Hittites, in archaeology, the name Jacob can be connected with Egypt.

A Yaqub-Har scarab can be viewed at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa, Israel. A (blurry) image can be seen on Instagram (  or via this link (

Whose Land Is It Anyway?

In Genesis 23, Abraham approaches the Hittites about purchasing land to bury his wife Sarah, and is introduced to Ephron the Hittite. Abraham discovers haggling in the ancient Middle East: “the land is worth four hundred shekels silver, but what is that between you and me?” Abraham acquired the land and buried Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan.

The Hittites appear in the Bible in a number of places. In Genesis 10, Noah’s son Ham bore Canaan who had his own sons, including Heth. The Hittites are frequently listed as inhabitants of the land of Canaan that Israel is to conquer. King David plotted against Uriah the Hittite to take his wife. In 2 Kings 7, the Hittites are identified as a power. “Behold the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come upon us.”

The people who we label as the Hittites formed an empire in Anatolia, the area of modern day Turkey, around the 17th century BCE. They spoke an Indo-European language, distantly related to the Hellenic (Greek), Italic (Latin), Germanic and Indo-Iranian languages. This is contrast to the inhabitants of the Levant, the area between Anatolia and Egypt, who spoke languages of the Hamo-Semitic language family.

The capital of the Hittite Empire was Hattusa, in Anatolia, roughly 100 miles east of Turkey’s capital city Ankara. The inhabitants of the Hittite Empire referred to their land as Hatti, and to themselves as  “the people of the land of Hatti.”

The Hittite Empire gradually managed to extend its reach into Syria, and ranged from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Euphrates River in the east. This put the Hittites in conflict with Egypt, and culminated in the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, near the northern Lebanese and western Syrian border. The Egyptians were led by Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire by Muwatalli II. The battle is well documented in Egyptian and Hittite records and remains the largest chariot battle in human history.

In the 12th century BCE, the Hittite Empire collapsed. From the wreckage of the Hittite Empire, new Neo-Hittite states emerged in Anatolia and in Syria. It is these Hittites that are likely referenced in the Book of 2 Kings, when it refers to the “kings of the Hittites.”

In the story of Abraham burying his wife, the Hittites are found in the region of Judah, in the southern part of the Levant. If these Hittites are the same as the “the people of the land of Hatti,” it would represent Hittites migrating beyond their home territory. Ephron the Hittite would be selling land that was later within the Egyptian sphere, in a contested region over which the two sides eventually went to war. There is a popular comedy show titled “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” If Ephron the Hittite was selling land the Egyptians’ claimed, whose land is it anyway?

The above image is of a sealed Hittite document on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.