Egypt during the Biblical Period—Exodus 1

The ancient Egyptian civilization was one of the most powerful and influential kingdoms in the Near East for 3,000 years. Its history begins with the introduction of writing ca. 3200 BC and continues until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The nation’s traditional borders stretched from the first cataract in the south (see Nile River) to the Mediterranean Sea in the north and included the western Libyan desert, the eastern desert, and the Sinai Peninsula. At its peak, its territory included most of Nubia as far south as the second cataract and most of the Levant as far north as Qadesh on the Orantes (see Qadesh). An extensive trading network brought in luxury goods from as far away as modern-day Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia, Yemen, Turkey, Cyprus, and Spain.

Egypt was one of the most important regional neighbors of ancient Israel. The word mitzraim (Egypt/Egyptians) appears more than that of any other country or kingdom in the Old Testament, a total of 682 times, with בבל (Babylon) 262 times, ןﬠנכּ (Canaan) only 93 times, and רּושּא (Assyria/Assyrians) 151 times. Egyptian literature had an important influence on the literary style of some biblical stories, psalms, and wisdom material. However, the relationship between Israel and Egypt was extremely complicated. Some biblical stories describe Egypt as an oppressor (memories of the Exodus) or evil influence. (The latter prophets; Jeremiah told the survivors of the Babylonian conquest not to flee there [Jer. 42] and Ezekiel called Egypt a weak staff that splintered and wounded the hand of anyone who tried to lean on it [Ezek. 29:6, 7]). Other stories showed that it served as a refuge or haven from droughts, famine, and persecutors (Abram and the famine, Jacob and the famine, the family of Jesus flees Herod). Thus, it could be both a negative influence in some ways and a dependable ally at other times.

Early Egypt

The earliest evidence of ancient Egyptians occurs in the rock art of the Western Desert near the Dkhla and Kharga oasis. Such grafitto shows a very different environment than exists today, with such abundant wildlife as elephants, antelopes, wildebeests, and lions typically found in the southern region of Africa. When the climate changed and dried out the grasslands of the Sahara, the cattle culture that grazed there migrated to the central Nile valley. It merged with the river people who settled there to form the beginnings of Egyptian civilization. Conflicts inevitably arose as each group tried to control the resource along the river until, eventually, a series of tribal leaders unified large portions of Egypt into one single kingdom. The Narmer palette and macehead and the Gebel el-Araq knife show the conflict between both sides and the efforts made to unify the opposing factions into one coherent kingdom.

Predynastic Egypt

During the proto or pre-dynastic periods, many of the symbols and motifs associated with Egyptian iconography emerged. Traditional weapons such as the mace and the bow, hunting scenes, battle scenes, and elaborate and rituals ceremonies depicted in the artwork of this period would become stylized in later periods. The falcon and the seth creature became particularly important as symbols of kingship.

A Greco-Roman Egyptian priest named Manetho initially organized Egypt’s remaining history into dynasties that mostly follow the families that ruled the kingdom through the centuries. Later, historians grouped the dynasties into the familiar Kingdoms, Intermediate, and Later periods found in most history books. Kingdom periods usually represent times of political and economic stability, while relative instability involving political rivalries and economic decline characterized the Intermediate periods. In general, Egyptian history does not directly intersect with biblical history until the Middle Kingdom and reaches its peak during the Third Intermediate Period.

Old Kingdom (2686–2125 BC)

The “age of the pyramid builders” began with King Djoser and his architect, Imhotep. Together they developed a large-scale royal funerary complex that included the first pyramid, one incorporating a step pattern. The first true pyramid, with its familiar-sloped sides. did not appear until the reign of Sneferu. Its initial failure with the overly steep, rhomboidal-shaped bent pyramid resulted in a second more traditional pyramid at Dashur. Egyptian architects changed the stepped-shape of Djoser to accommodate new beliefs about the king in the afterlife and his relationship to the sun god. The kings Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura built the famous pyramids on the Giza plateau, and Khafra’s mortuary temple included the Sphinx, a monumental guardian figure at the entrance. Paid craftsmen who spent several months at a time working on the project built the pyramids. The construction did not involve slave labor. Hebrew slaves did not exist in Egypt at the time. Eventually, pyramids became too expensive to build and manage, and those erected during later periods grew increasingly smaller. Such expense, as well as other factors, contributed to the collapse of the Old Kingdom.

First Intermediate Period (2160–2055 BC)

During the first major period of political decline and economic instability, Egypt shattered into smaller rival kingdoms. The loss of a centralized government, famine, and the resulting anarchy created great hardship for the people of Egypt. Asiatic nomads settled in the Delta, and other refugees swept up from Nubia. Egyptian monuments and tombs fell into decline or were looted, and artistic styles became more simplistic and cruder. Eventually, a Theban king, Montuhotep, defeated rival kingdoms in the north, ushering in a new period of national stability.

Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 BC)

The “Egyptian Renaissance” brought back the glory of Egypt. A strong centralized government beginning with Amenehet, I rebuilt the kingdom and reestablished order. This period became the apex of Egyptian art, literature, and architecture, and the model or inspiration for all successive dynasties. Amenehet I transferred the capital closer to the delta to monitor the Asiatic incursion and raised the standard of living for the middle class. Later he subdued the Asiatics and built a wall, canal, and fortress to guard the eastern border. Sesostris II began a public works project that constructed an irrigation canal along the Nile River to the Faiyum, reclaiming hundreds of hectares of land for agriculture. It was during this period that Abram first visited Egypt, and when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to serve the Egyptian official Pa-ta-re (“given by Ra”). The Faiyum agricultural project created a surplus of grain under the control of the Pharaoh, attracting immigrants such as Abram during times of famine. When famine struck Egypt while Joseph was vizier, the control of the grain crop allowed the king to feed the country, increase royal estates, and reduce the power of the local nobility. Military expansion into Nubia and especially into the Levant brought an influx of Asiatic prisoners of war to serve as slaves and as immigrants settling near the eastern Delta or “Land of Goshen.”

Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC)

Just as the Asiatic population began increasing in the Nile Delta, the centralized Egyptian government started to collapse. To ensure its safety, the Egyptian government shifted its capital from the Faiyum to the security of Thebes. The Asiatic kings known as the Hyksos (foreign ruler) seized Memphis and set up their capital at Avaris. It is uncertain whether the Hebrews continued to prosper under the Hyksos kings or became enslaved by them. Eventually, the Theban kings Kamose and Ahmose drove the Hyksos from Memphis and then out of Egypt itself.

New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC)

The “golden age of Egypt” followed the expulsion of the Hyksos. With the reunification of Egypt, it is probably the period of Hebrew slavery, the pharaohs that “did not know Joseph,” and the story of Moses. On the other hand, it was an era of great prosperity in ancient Egypt. For 400 years, Egypt was the wealthiest country in the region and invested in elaborate tombs and temples to continue seeking favor with its gods. Egyptian trade networks were active throughout the Mediterranean world and included Nubian and Mesopotamia, importing exotic goods such as scented oil, perfumes, ivories, spices, and other luxury goods. The religion of Egypt also went through changes as the god Amun, which had gained prominence at the beginning of the dynasty, was abandoned by Akhenaten in favor of the Aten or solar disc. The king also ignored his responsibilities to his vassal states in the Levant. Desperate local kings begged for assistance in the face of marauding tribes, as described in the Amarna letters. For a short time, Egypt flirted with a type of monotheism centered around the Aten cult at Amarna. When Akhenaten died, his son Tutankhamen (King Tut) returned the worship of Amun-Re to its original prominence.

The New Kingdom was also a period of great military expansion both in Nubia and the Levant. The introduction of the fast-moving chariot by the Hyksos had given the Egyptians the advantage on the battlefield, allowing them to dominate the region. The main challenges to Egypt’s military might came in the Nineteenth Dynasty when the Anatolian Hittites sought to expand their empire farther south. The Egyptians responded in force at the Battle of Qedesh on the Orantes, but Ramses II nearly lost his life, and a military draw forced both armies to retreat. Eventually, a treaty between the two countries established a mutually agreed-upon boundary, and Egypt regained its influence in the region. Later in the Nineteenth Dynasty, the Sea Peoples who had invaded much of the Levant attacked Egypt both by land and sea. Ramses III forced the invaders back into Palestine, but the struggle further weakened the country until it split apart as large numbers of Libyans moved in from the west.

Third Intermediate Period (1070–712 BC)

The “age of foreign rulers” followed the collapse of the native Egyptian dynasties. With the nation split into northern and southern kingdoms, Egypt was unable to resist the numerous military and political crisis that would follow. The political instability in Egypt allowed other small regional kingdoms such as Ammon, Moab, and Edom to develop in the power vacuum. This period also corresponds to most of the history of the biblical kings of Judah and Israel. However, the Libyan dynasty invaded the Levant and attacked Jerusalem, leading Rehoboam to give tribute to Sheshonq I from the Temple of Jerusalem. A hieroglyphic name ring in the Amun-Re temple in Thebes inscribed by Sheshonq I shows one of the captured towns as the “heights of DWD” and probably refers to the Judean hill country of David around Jerusalem. During a later Nubian dynasty, Taharqa, the king of Kush under his brother Shabako, the king of Egypt, tried to aid King Hezekiah when attacked by Sennacherib, the ruler of Assyria. The Taylor Prism tells the story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and how Assyria defeated Taharqa at the Battle of Elteka.

Late Period (712–332 BC)

When the Nubians withdrew from Egypt, Ashurbanipal sacked Thebes and set up the twenty-sixth dynasty puppet, Psammetichus. Not long afterward, the Assyrians fell to the Babylonians who would go on to defeat the Egyptian ruler Necho II (610-595 BC) at the Battle of Carcamesh in 605 BC. Unfortunately, Josiah (640-609 BC), king of Judah, had a few years before thought to stop Necho from reinforcing the Assyrians and consequently lost his life in the attempt. Then the Persians defeated the Babylonians and captured Egypt. The nation next came under the control of the Greeks, resulting in the Hellenistic dynasty that would last until Cleopatra VII committed suicide, handing the kingdom over to Cesar Augustus in 30 BC.


Baines and Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt.

Kitchen, “Has King David Been Found?”.

Van Pelt and Pratico, The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew.

Meyers, “Egypt” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Near East, 191-207.

Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.

Wengrow, The Archaeology of Early Egypt: Social Transformations in North-East Africa, 10,000 to 2650 BC.