In this column, I will discuss elements of the Exodus narrative that appear in parshiyot Vayigash and Shemot: when the Israelites came to Egypt, what may have caused the famine that drove them there, the possible location of the Land of Goshen, and who the “new king” who enslaved them may have been.
The Israelites’ journey to redemption in the Exodus began with Jacob’s immigration into Egypt 210 years earlier. This was around 1584 BCE, if the Exodus occurred in 1374 BCE as we posited previously. At that time, the foreign (“Asiatic”) Hyksos kings ruled much of Egypt, as Rabbis Yehuda Henkin and J.H. Hertz, historian Nahum Sarna, and many others suspect. The Torah hints as much. For example: In the Genesis 43:32 dining scene, Joseph, his brothers and the native Egyptians each ate separately. Joseph later told his brothers that shepherds are abominated by the Egyptians (Gen. 46:34), which is not to be taken literally since many Egyptians were shepherds. Rather, Joseph was likely cautioning his brothers that the Egyptians hated the Hyksos rulers, as we know to be true. And Gen. 39:1 makes a point of identifying Potiphar as a native Egyptian.
Josephus, the first-century CE Jewish historian, reported that the Israelites were settled in the precinct of Heliopolis, location of the great temple of Ra. Most Bible-believing scholars disagree, identifying the biblical Land of Goshen as the region around Avaris, the Hyksos’ capital city in the northeastern Delta. Yet, there are Biblical and historical reasons to conclude that Josephus was correct. By way of background, Joseph was likely based in or near a major temple, since the large temples had massive storehouses where grain was stored for distribution in the event of a famine. Indeed, we can infer that Pharaoh arranged for Joseph to marry into temple royalty (Gen. 41:45) so that his work would have the backing of influential priests. But Pharaoh’s choice is telling: the daughter of a Heliopolitan priest. This was an odd choice for a Hyksos Pharaoh, whose main deity was the storm-god Seth serviced by the priests of his main temple in Avaris. Pharaoh’s choice makes sense when we consider Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “You will be settled near to me, where I will sustain you” (Gen. 45:10-11). He added in the words of the Torah pen ti’oreish. Ibn Ezra interprets this phrase as “lest you be ousted,” and Onkelos translates it as dilmah tismaskayn, which could mean “lest you be in danger.” Knowing the native Egyptians hated the Hyksos, Joseph likely foresaw that they would overthrow their foreign rulers; indeed, in the 1520s BCE the Egyptians did just that! They sacked Avaris and killed or expelled the Hyksos and their friends. The Torah does not mention this cataclysmic event at all; to the contrary, it tells us that the Israelites flourished (Gen. 47:27). The likely explanation: the Israelites were in Heliopolis, far to the south.
The place-name Goshen, whose etymology stymies scholars, may event hint at Heliopolis. The Hebrew gosh can mean “at the approach to.” Goshen may have as its suffix on, Hebrew for Heliopolis. If you think this is far-fetched, keep in mind that the eminent biblical archaeologist William F. Albright took a similar approach to define Goshen when he suggested that the gush prefix in Goshen referred to the soil in the area.
Turning now to the circumstances that drove Jacob and his family to Egypt, the Torah tells us there was famine in all the lands (e.g., Gen. 41:54). The Midrash adds that this famine struck up and down the Near Eastern Mediterranean coast, in Phoenicia, Arabia and Palestine (Gen. Rabbah 90:6). A famine of this extraordinary reach and magnitude almost certainly had to be caused by an unusual climatic event. We have a candidate: the Thera volcano eruption on the Greek island of Santorini, one of the most powerful eruptions ever. Many date it to around 1600 BCE, based on carbon-14 testing, which seems close enough to when we date Jacob’s migration (1584, two years after the famine began [Gen. 45:6]). According to K. Jan Oosthoek, a specialist in environmental history, the Thera eruption likely depressed temperatures for several years. He believes that the combination of tsunamis, ash deposits and depressed temperatures must have led to harvest failure and famine. Thus, Thera’s potential climatic impact would certainly account for the dramatic famine portrayed in the Torah.
After telling us of the Israelites’ arrival in Egypt, Jacobs’ message to each of his children, his death and those of Joseph and his brothers, the Torah in Parshat Shemot recounts how the Israelites became enslaved (Exod. 1:7-14). A “new king” arose, took note of the Israelites’ growth in population and power, and accused them of aiding a foreign enemy. Using this fabrication as a pretext, Pharaoh tried first to have all newborn Jewish boys drowned and then enslaved our ancestors.
In his Hagadah, Rabbi Marcus Lehmann asserted that this Pharaoh was truly a new king, noting that the Torah’s word for the new Pharaoh’s ascension, vayakam, is a unique usage and indicates usurpation. If the Exodus occurred in 1374 BCE, and Seder Olam correctly estimates that the Israelites were enslaved 86-116 years earlier, this brings us to roughly 1479 BCE. Indeed, according to most scholars, a usurper did take the throne that year. Her name was Hatshepsut.
The notion that the “new king” was a female Pharaoh may be startling at first. But think about this. This Pharaoh met in person with the midwives who were to be the instruments of death. Pharaoh was even familiar with the ancient birthing process, referring to the avna’im, the specially shaped stool that ancient Egyptians used in the delivery of a baby (Exod. 1:16). And if this Pharaoh was a usurper, we can understand how the midwives escaped punishment for disobeying a direct order from Pharaoh. If the royal court was in disarray over Hatshepsut’s ascension, it is conceivable that her order of punishment was disobeyed or countermanded by a powerful opposing faction.
We may have proof of Hatshepsut’s enslavement of the Israelites in her own words. One of her most famous inscriptions, found in the Speos Artemidos grotto not far from Memphis, boasted that she expelled the Hyksos. This would have been a patently false boast. Clearly, Ahmose I rid Egypt of the Hyksos a half-century before Hatshepsut ruled. But the late Egyptologist Hans Goedicke proposed an alternative reading of the inscription: Hatshepsut was boasting of having rid Egypt of the Israelites! Goedicke believed that she was the Pharaoh of the Exodus itself, because the relevant passage in her inscription ends by declaring that “the earth swallowed their [per Goedicke, the Israelites’] footprints”—i.e., they were gone from Egypt. However, it was fairly common for Pharaohs and other rulers at the time to exaggerate their victories by claiming that the defeated enemy was completely vanquished without a remnant left. Thus, it is possible that Hatshepsut was boasting of having “rid” Egypt of the Israelites by enslaving them.
My next column will explain why the 10th plague may have been a syndemic in which deaths of the Egyptian firstborn resulted from diseases inflicted by earlier plagues, and I will set forth the reasons to believe that the Exodus occurred in the early part of the 14th century BCE during the reign of Amenhotep III.
By Ira Friedman
Ira Friedman, a retired attorney, is an independent researcher with an interest in the intersection of the Torah and ancient Egyptian history. The matters he writes about are discussed in further detail in three articles: “Amenhotep III and the Exodus: Echoes of the Biblical Narrative from Egypt’s Golden Age” (Jewish Bible Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 2017 (scheduled)); “The Exodus Syndemic: The Epidemiology of the Tenth Plague” (Jewish Bible Quarterly, Jan.-Mar. 2017); and “‘And Upon all the Gods of Egypt I Will Execute Judgment:’ The Egyptian Deity in the Ten Plagues,” (Tradition (Spring 2015)).