Semitic Slaves in Egypt

On the holiday of Passover, Jews celebrate their ancestors’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Passover seder ritual follows the order laid out in the Haggadah. A central theme of the Hagaddah is about Israel’s bondage in Egypt, and it is repeated numerous times in the ‘Magid’ section. 

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And God took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would all be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

“What does the innocent son say? What is this? And you will say to him, With the strength of his hand did God take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves.”

“Blessed is the One who keeps his promise to Israel, blessed be he…and he said to Abraham, your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. And also that nation for which they shall toil will I judge, and afterwards they will go out with much property.”

Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 is a seven foot long papyrus from the 12th or 13th Dynasty era of the Middle Kingdom period in Egypt, in the late 19th or 18th century BCE. The papyrus is written in the ancient Egyptian language in hieratic script.

The text discusses a woman by the name of Senebtisi and her efforts to secure ownership of 95 servants. It also relays that a number of servants failed to complete their assigned tasks and it gives instructions for how to handle them.

Most of the servants are female, and they are assigned to a variety of roles including hairdresser, fieldhand, gardener, cook, brewer, and weaver. Roughly half of the servants are identified as being ‘Asian,’ likely from the Levant, the area of Syria and Canaan. The Asiatics are listed with their original name and they are also given an Egyptian name.

Roughly a third of the total number of servants have identifiable Semitic names, Semitic being the language family to which Hebrew belongs. The names listed include: Baaltuya, Aduna, Isibtu, Shamashtu, Ayyabum, Dawidi-huat, and Esebtw. Some of the names can be readily identified as being female forms of known Hebrew names: Menahema, Ashera, and Aqaba, which is comparable to Ya’aqob.

The Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 dates to the early part of the 2nd millennium BCE, earlier than the generally understood timeline for any potential Israelite enslavement in Egypt. This likely eliminates the possibility that these servants or slaves are connected to the Israelite bondage in Egypt that is discussed at the Passover seder. However, it does demonstrate that at this earlier time, the Egyptians were using Asiatics, from the Levant, with Semitic names, as servants in their homes.

A fragment of the Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446, shown in the image above, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Egyptian Galleries. Parking is generally available on Flatbush Avenue near the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens if you want to see it for yourself.