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 (https://www.instagram.com/p/Bp6Vx9hA-Q-/)  or via this link (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shikmona_-_Scarab_-_3.jpg)

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.

When Words Create Worlds

In Genesis 21, Abraham enters into an oral treaty with Abimelek: Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

The use of an oral treaty follows an earlier pattern in Genesis. In Genesis 15, God made an oral covenant with Abram, saying “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 17, God told Abram “this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations…the whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

By contrast, the later Ten Commandments is a written covenant. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses to “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” According to the Bible, this covenant is written in stone.

The presumed setting for the Abraham story is Canaan in the first half of the 2nd millennium. This would have been a time of limited literacy in Canaan. The Phoenician alphabet, the world’s first known alphabet and precursor to the Hebrew alphabet, had yet to be invented. Treaties in Canaan would primarily be oral agreements.

If during this time period Canaan was a backwater, Egypt was a developed state. By the first half of the 2nd millennium Egypt had a fully established writing system.

The invention of writing was driven by the need for recordkeeping in bureaucracy and trade. A thousand years earlier Egypt had already established a kingdom able to unify southern Upper and northern Lower Egypt. Egypt’s trading networks stretched from southern Africa to the region of today’s Afghanistan. These factors drove the adoption of writing.

Egypt’s writing system began with hieroglyphs that were simple images of the items they represented. Eventually hieroglyphic writing evolved to include a mix of images, consonants and individual letters. Hieroglyphs morphed into the simplified forms of the hieratic writing system and later the Demotic writing system.

By the early 1st millennium CE, hieroglyphic writing fell out of use, and with it the ability to read the writings of the ancient Egyptians. Nearly everything we know about ancient Egypt today can be traced back to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

In 1799 a French soldier in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone contained an inscription in three forms: hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek. A brilliant French scholar by the name of Jean-François Champollion successfully deciphered the scripts and in doing so opened up the ancient Egyptian world to us. This has allowed us to learn about ancient Egypt and better understand the backdrop for the stories in the Bible.

The Rosetta Stone itself has its own fascinating history. When the English defeated the French army, the Rosetta Stone was turned over the British as part of the French surrender agreement. It was sent to London where today it still makes its home at the British Museum.

The oral and written covenants in the Bible opened up a new world going forward. The Rosetta Stone opened up the world of the past. 

Whodunit?, Egyptian Royal Edition

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Abram to leave his birthplace and father’s house to go to Canaan. After Abram’s journey from Shechem in the north to the Negev in the south, Canaan was hit by famine. Abram, with his wife Sarai, continued on south to Egypt, where the plentiful waters of the Nile River helped the Egyptians avoid the drought that plagued Canaan. The Egyptians were captivated by Sarai’s beauty. The pharaoh’s officers took Sarai to to the pharaoh. As a punishment for taking Abram’s wife, God afflicted the pharaoh with plagues, so he returned Sarai back to Abram.

The Nile River begins in the highlands of East Africa, and flows northward through Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, southern or Upper Egypt and northern or Lower Egypt were thought of as two distinct regions, and each was home to the capital city of Egypt at one time or another.

Egyptian kingdoms began with the unification of both Upper and Lower Egypt, when a single ruler was able to consolidate power over the Egyptian landmass. Over time, Egypt experienced periods of being ruled by Kingdoms that maintained control over both Upper and Lower Egypt, and Intermediate Periods, when central authority broke down and local rulers dominated. The Old Kingdom was followed by the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom by the Second Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom by the Third Intermediate Period.

Within each of these periods, kings, later to be known as pharaohs, ruled. Kings ruled in dynasties, with power passing from father to son, until there was a break in the chain. In total, twenty-five dynasties ruled from the first kingdom until the end of the Third Intermediate Period.

There are a number of artifacts that list the kings of Egypt. These include the Turin Canon, Palermo Stone and Saqqara Stone. But they do not include a full breakout of kingdoms, varying periods and dynasties.

The concept of Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods is only known from Manetho, a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest who wrote the book Aegyptiaca. The book does not survive today, but is quoted by later writers Julius Africanus, Eusebius and the Roman-era Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his book Against Apion.

The lists are not uniform, which complicates efforts to paint an accurate picture of Egypt’s rulers over time. The Bible also does not mention the name of the Egyptian king who took Sarai. As a result, there is no way to state with confidence who the pharaoh is in the setting for the story of Abram’s trek to Egypt. But the most likely culprit would be a king of the 11th or 12th Dynasty of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, or a king from the Second Intermediate Period.

The relief shown above dates from the Middle Kingdom period. The male figure on the left is wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, the region where a traveler from Canaan would first enter Egypt. This relief can be viewed at the Brooklyn Museum. To protect the innocent, I will refrain from naming the Egyptian king in the photo above, so he will not be accused of improper behavior without a fair trial.

Sounds From the Past

Genesis 10 lists Noah’s sons as Ham, Shem and Japeth. Ham had his own sons, including ‘Mitzrayim’, or Egypt, and Cush.

Genesis 11 begins with everyone on earth speaking the same language. People migrated to the “land of Shinar,” which based on the earlier description of Nimrod’s kingdom, is ancient Babylonia, modern day Iraq.

There the settlers conspired. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” God said “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel (Babylonia) — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.

The languages that are spoken from North Africa thorough West Asia belong to the Afro-Asiatic language group. The Afro-Asiatic language group was originally known as the Hamo-Semitic language group, the moniker borrowed from the names of Noah’s sons. 

There are six divisions of the Afro-Asiatic language group:

  1. Semitic, which includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and a number of Ethiopian languages
  2. Berber, which is spoken in North Africa
  3. Chadic, spoken in West Africa
  4. Cushitic, in East Africa
  5. Omotic, Central Africa
  6. Egyptian, the language spoken by the ancient Egyptians.

Languages tend to evolve over time from an original proto-language. In related languages, a historical kernel can be discerned in similar words or features. Afro-Asiatic languages all use a feminine gender marker -t and the second-person marker -k.

Languages can also fall into disuse. The Egyptian language ceased to be used as a spoken language, replaced by Greek and Arabic. However, the Egyptian language survived as a liturgical language in the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, much as Hebrew survived as the liturgical language for the Jews after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Egyptians call their own country “Misr,” more similar to the Hebrew word for the country, Mitzrayim. The name Egypt comes from the Greek term Aigyptos, a derivation of Hut-ka-Ptah, the Palace of the Spirit of Ptah, Ptah being an Egyptian god. The ka-Ptah forms the term Coptic, the primary church of Egyptian Christians.

Today, the Coptic language is only used in the Coptic Church service, by Coptic priests such as the one in the photo above. To hear the closest facsimile of the language that was spoken by the pharaohs in the biblical stories, one can listen to this well known Christian prayer in Coptic: