Egypt and Israel, Bible Archaeology


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Asenath of Egypt

Asenath of Egypt

Statue of an Egyptian man

Joseph of Egypt

Manicured feet with foot jewelry and anklets

Potiphar's Wife

Bracelet belonging to Queen Ahhotep, 18th dynasty of Egypt

Bible Archaeology: Jewellery

Map of the lands of the Bible

Where it happened






When the nomadic tribesmen  Abraham and Jacob  travelled with their flocks over the grasslands of the land of Canaan, Egypt was already old. It could look back on some 1500 years of history. 

Moreover, the two countries would live cheek by jowl for more than 5,000 years, from the 4th millenium BC until late Roman times - through good times and bad. 

This was lucky for archaeologists, because Egypt's custom of interring items of everyday use with the dead and putting biographical inscriptions on their tombs, meant that many facts about the archaeology of Palestine could be dated by comparing it with Egypt's history. 


The Land

Egypt was called 'the gift of the Nile'. It is true geologically and economically. The country was always divided between Upper and Lower Egypt, both of them equally dependent on the waters of the Nile. Lower Egypt is the fertile delta area, its rich alluvial soil renewed yearly by the flooding river, whose water was the main factor in Egypt‘s economic and social life. 

Map of ancient EgyptThe power of a central organization was essential for irrigating the desert lands to the south or controlling the floodwaters of the Delta. The empire of Egypt was, therefore, a gift of the Nile, no less than the land itself.


Egypt’s prehistory and early dynastic history (beginning about 3200 BC) has no bearing on biblical history. 

All that can be said is that ln the days when the pyramids were built (28th to 23rd centuries BC), Egypt maintained certain trade connections with Palestine and Byblos in northern Canaan. 

Military expeditions against that area are also on record, as well as several attacks or migrations of Asiatics into Egypt. 


The Middle Kingdom and Canaan

The Middle Kingdom - the 11th to 12th dynasties (2155-1780 BC) saw the strengthening of the central state power, and confirmation of Egyptian rule over the south (Nubia, Cush). 

  • Expeditions to Sinai were more regular and the frontier with Palestine was fortified.

  • Relations with Canaan are illustrated by the story of Sinuhet (Sinuhe), a courtier of Amenuhet I who fled there on the death of his master (1961 BC), and left a description of his adventures and life in Canaan. 

  • At Abydos, a stele was found giving an account of a campaign in Canaan at the time of Sesostris lll (1878-1840 BC). 

  • A town mentioned as plotting against Egypt with 'Retenu' (a general term for Canaan) may be 'Sichem' (Shechem) but the name is not certain. 

Execration TextsSmall execration figure found at Sakkara

Better evidence about Middle Kingdom relations with Canaan are the Execration Texts (20th-l9th centuries BC), on magic bowls and figurines inscribed with the names of Egypt’s enemies. The little bowls were smashed as part of a ritual intended to make the curse effective on the person or group named. The small figurine at right, found in Sakkara (19th century BC), was kept by the Egyptians to promote a similar victory over their enemies. They mention many cities in Canaan.

Egyptian-Canaanite relations are also illustrated by a variety of objects of Middle Kingdom Egypt found in Canaan. Among them are jar handles with a seal impression from Jerusalem, and the base of a statue of a high official found at Megiddo. These two finds show that Egypt was not merely trading in Canaan but ruled it directly. 

The New Empire

Thutmosis lll (1490-1436 BC) was perhaps Egypt’s greatest conqueror. His campaigns carried him to the banks of the Euphrates, but his most significant victory was gained near Megiddo, where he broke the resistance of a Canaanite alliance. The victory established Egyptian domination over Canaan (for 500 years), until after the time of Shoshenk (Shishak). 

Once the coastland, ports and roads of Canaan became available to Egypt and she could lay ambitious plans with regard to the north, the court officials were ousted by professional soldiers. Thutmosis‘ successor, Amenophis ll, also waged war in Palestine and among the many records he has left of his prowess as a sportsman, is a reference to the Habiru prisoners he took in Palestine. His son Thutmosis IV decorated his chariot with scenes of his victories over Asiatics. Akhenaton worshipping the sun disc Aten

There were many attempts to weaken the Egyptian hold on Canaan, especially from the north, and these were beginning to gain ground. Moreover the court faced pressures at home. To escape an upsurge of a long standing conflict between Temple and throne, the king moved his court away from Thebes with its troublesome priests, to Memphis. There the court turned from the traditional gods to the worship of the sun-disc, Aton.


When Amenophis lll passed on the throne to his son, the new cult became the oflicial exclusive religion. The king adopted it with enthusiasm, changing his name to Akhenaton and giving his full support to the new philosophy of life based on “maat”, the principle of truth. He faced the fierce opposition of the priests of the traditional gods who could hardly have been expected to accept the change with equanimity. To escape them, the king founded a new city, Akh-et-Aton to serve as his capital. ln modern times, the site, now known as Tel el Amarna has been excavated and has yielded one of the richest stores of knowledge about the life and art of the time.

 Akhenaton, Pharaoh of Egypt; the face of a visionary

Akhenaton, Pharaoh of Egypta; the face of a visionary

The new philosophy had a great effect on art. Emphasis on truth meant a freer, more realistic representation of nature and man, with the odd side-effect that because the king suffered from certain deformities, the artists of his court showed all mankind as similarly deformed. In Tel el Amarna, exceptionally in Egypt, not only tombs and temples, but the homes of ordinary people were excavated. From these, and especially from the workshops of a sculptor, a large collection of the art of the period was discovered. Among so much else was the famous head of Nefertiti, Akhenaton’s queen, one of the world’s most beautiful portraits of a beautiful woman. 

The Amarna Letters

Outstanding among the discoveries were the Amarna Letters, part of the royal archive. These were letters to king Akhenaton and his father, Amenophis lll, from their agents abroad. 

Many of the letters were sent from Palestine, complaining about difficulties in Syria and Palestine: about the inroads of the Habiru and attacks from the Amorite cities of Syria, at the instigation of the Hittites, whose example was followed by their southern neighbours. 

This series of disturbances was in fact the beginning of the break-up of the Asiatic empire established by Thutmosis Ill; but the Pharaohs never seem to have reacted. ln fact, the whole of the new philosophy and the political system which grew out of it, were short- lived. With the death of Akhenaton, the Amarna Age came to an end. 

Thut-Ankh-Amon and Haremhab

Akhenaton’s children were all daughters and he was succeeded by his son-in-law who rejected the worship of Aton and returned to the old gods. Deliberately taking a name that included that of 'Amun', he was to become, after some 3,000 years, perhaps the best~known of all Egyptian kings. 

The face of Haremhab

The face of Haremhab

The excitement of the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamon and the fabulous riches which it contained seemed to illuminate a whole era of Egyptian history. ln fact, he reigned for only eight years, and at the time his achievements were far outshone by those of Haremhab who succeeded to the throne two years after his death. 

Haremhab had also belonged to the circle .of worshippers of Aton and had also abandoned the religion upon the death of its founder. He was a strong and vigorous king who did much to restore the power of Egypt and to prepare the way for the glories of the following 19th and 20th dynasties, the period of the Ramesides.

Egypt and the Sea People

Philistine warriorThe famous 'Sea People' seem to have come from the north by way of Crete. They were a migratory people, seeking a foothold in the Delta. One large group, the Pelast, seized and settled the coastline between Joppa and Gaza. The region subsequently took its name, Philistia, from them and, from Roman times, this was applied to the whole country, Palestine.
Ramses recorded his victories against them in the wall reliefs of his temple at Medinet Habu, where the Philistines are recognizable by their feathered helmets. After their defeat in Egypt, many of the Sea People settled in the south of Palestine, where some of them, the Philistines, became important in biblical history.

Shishak and Solomon

The 22nd dynasty was of Libyan origin, founded by a brilliant Libyan professional soldier in the Egyptian army who had been absorbed into Egyptian society. He rose through the ranks to displace the weak rulers of the divided kingdom. This king was Shoshenk I, called Shishak in the Bible, which gives an account of his relations with Solomon. 

The policy he followed can be traced to one of the last Pharaohs of the 2Ist dynasty in the days of King David. At the time of a massacre by David’s General Joab, Hadad, the prince of Edom, escaped to Egypt where he was received by the Pharaoh (unnamed, probably Siamun). On the death of David, Hadad returned to his native land to 'do mischief', which probably reflects Egyptian intrigues against the royal court at Jerusalem. 

Shishak of Egypt When Shoshenk came to the Egyptian throne (945 BC) during the second half of Solomon‘s reign, he encouraged the separatist tendencies of Jeroboam, an official of Solomon, but an avowed enemy of the united monarchy, and gave him shelter from Solomon. It seems that his encouragement was not especially aimed at the establishment of a new state in the north but was part of a 'divide and rule' policy. When Solomon died and the kingdom split into two, Shoshenk invaded. 

Shoshenk (Shishak) in Israel

The Bible relates only a campaign in the south aiming at Jerusalem. A record of this campaign, which appears on the southern wall of the Temple of Amon at Karnak, does not, however, include Jerusalem in the list of places stormed or destroyed. The list consists of three sections: 

  • towns in Judah and Edom 

  • Jewish towns in the west and northwest, as well as towns of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the hills west of the Jordan, the Valley of Jezreel and the Sharon Plain 

  • towns in Transjordania. 

Fragments of a stele uncovered at Megiddo (below)record the occupation of that town by the Egyptians. 

Fragment of a stele found at Megiddo

Fragment of the stele found at Megiddo. 
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From Megiddo, Shoshenk turned south to Samaria and from there back to Egypt. At the same time a column of his army went through the Negeb and Edom. This itinerary suggests that Shoshenk‘s forces went mainly through the Northern Kingdom and Edom, giving Judah a wide berth. Possibly the young Kingdom of Israel could not buy him off, and thus by encouraging him to attack Judah, had invited their own disaster. The wealthy Judah was able to offer a substantial bribe, which may explain the absence of Jerusalem from the list of besieged towns. The Megiddo stele fragment, together with evidence of destruction in northern Israel at the appropriate period, confirm Shoshenk’s own account. His list of victories, once regarded as an empty boast, is now believed to reflect his actual behavior. 

Nubian and Ethiopian Dynasties

For the next two centuries, Egypt's policy was to send as few troops abroad as possible and to harass the Assyrians by stirring up trouble for them in their dependencies of Palestine and its neighbours. Egypt’s troops were no help to Hoshea of Israel. The Assyrians, jeering, wrote: Behold you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. (ll Kings l8:2l). They were right. After a prolonged siege, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722-2l BC

Assyrian soldiers flaying (tearing the skin off) Israelite prisoners after the fall of a city, possibly Lachish

Assyrian soldiers flaying (tearing the skin off) Israelite prisoners 
after the fall of a city, possibly Lachish

Josiah and Necho

The 26th dynasty, the beginning of the Saitic period in Egypt, was founded by Psammetik who used the gathering conflict between Assyria and Babylon to establish himself in Egypt and even to extend Egyptian influence over Palestine. 

His son, Necho, continued this policy but with a difference. Assyria was threatened by the alliance of the Medes and the Babylonians against it. While their success would mean the end of Egyptian influence in Asia, a weakened Assyria, gladly allying itself with Egypt against the Babylonian/Median threat, would allow Egypt to strengthen its Asiatic position. 

The Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II

Accordingly, Necho marched through Palestine on his way to join forces with Assyria. At Megiddo, he came face to face with the Jewish army. King Josiah was allied to Babylon against Assyria and was determined not to let the Egyptians pass, but he was powerless to prevent them. At the end of the battle, Josiah lay dead, a disaster which the spiritual and political life of Israel reflected for a long time. An Egyptian Pharaoh once again dominated Judah and Jerusalem. 

But Egyptian domination was short-lived. Necho installed Jehoiakim, a son of Josiah, as his vassal but in 605BC the Egyptians were beaten at Carchemish and forced to withdraw from Palestine. The borders of Egypt became the limit of the Babylonian empire which now included Judah. The former Egyptian policy of stirring up unrest against Babylon was continued, one result being the revolt of Zedekiah against the Babylonian yoke (Jeremiah 37:5), encouraged by the promise of help from the Pharaoh Hophra and the enthusiasm of his nobles. Jerusalem was besieged and although the appearance of Hophra’s armies from Egypt relieved it for a time, he was beaten, his armies forced back to Egypt and the siege resumed. A year later (586 BC) Jerusalem fell. 

Graeco-Roman Period

During this time, the Jewish immigrants who had fled to Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem and whose descendants had greatly increased throughout the Persian period (Isaiah l9:l8 ff), were followed by a large number of Jews who settled in Lower Egypt. Some came voluntarily, some as deportees. Although we know little of the fortunes of the Jews in general at this time, it is clear that the flow of immigration from Palestine during the reign of the Ptolemies, made Egypt a centre of world Jewry. 

Dedication stone from one of 
the ancient synagogues in Alexandria

The focus of Jewish life there was in Alexandria, where a specifically Hellenistic-Jewish civilization developed. In addition there were many other lesser centres. Evidence exists to show that there were synagogues in the country as early as the 3rd century BC, while before Maccabaean days, the refugee High Priest Onias founded a Temple in Heliopolis. It was also during this period that the Septuagint translation of the Torah was made with the co-operation of the Hellenist king Ptolemy ll Philadelphus (285-247 BC). By then, it is estimated, Egyptian Jewry numbered around one million. 


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Bible Study Resource Archaeology: Egyptian and Canaanite history, Solomon, Pharaohs and Israel

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher