The Bible’s First Name with a Face

Sphinx of King Sheshenq, ca. 945-712 B.C.E. Bronze, 1 15/16 x 13/16 x 2 7/8 in. (4.9 x 2.1 x 7.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.586. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 33.586_SL1.jpg)

In Exodus 6, God gives Moses instructions. “So the LORD said to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” But in the LORD’s presence Moses replied, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, then why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I am unskilled in speech? Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them a charge concerning both the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt.”

One of the challenges in pinning down the timing of the exodus story is that the pharaoh is not named. A proper name might have helped scholars isolate the story in a particular period. Instead, for most it requires guesswork.

The term pharaoh comes from the Egyptian “per aa” meaning ‘great house.’ During Old Kingdom Egypt in the 3rd millennium BCE, the term referred to the royal household. During the New Kingdom, in the 14th century BCE, the term pharaoh is used in reference to Akhenaten, but without revealing the associated king’s proper name. Only later is the title pharaoh attached to the king’s name. Thus when a king is referred to by the title Pharaoh in Exodus, it fits this early usage of the term.

The Dakhla Oasis is one of the larger oases in Egypt’s western desert. It lies roughly 250 miles directly west of Luxor in Upper Egypt. The oasis is large, stretching across an area over 50 miles east to west and 15 miles north to south. At the site, archaeologists uncovered the Large Dakhla stela. The monument it is dated to Year 5 of ‘Pharaoh Shoshenk.’ This Shoshenq is the first ruler of Egypt’s Egypt’s 22nd Dynasty in the 10th century BCE. But this is not the only time Shoshenq’s name is significant.

In 1 Kings 11, God begins to penalize Solomon for his worship of other gods. First Solomon faced challenges from Edom and then from Aram. Then Jeroboam son of Nebat, from the tribe of Ephraim, rebelled against the king. Solomon attempted to eliminate the threat, but Jeroboam escaped. “Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt, to Shishak the king, and stayed there until Solomon’s death.”

A seemingly minor part in this affair, the Egyptian king, is an important detail for the archaeological study of the Bible. Most scholars of the Bible believe the Egyptian king Shishak in 1 Kings 11 and the Egyptian king “Pharaoh Shoshenq” to be one and the same. This would make Shoshenq the first figure in the Bible whose name is proven by a record outside of the Bible. The image above is of a sphinx with the face of Shoshenq, the first human biblical character for whom we have an image. It is kept at the Brooklyn Museum.

Its better to be first: