The term Ramesses, alternatively spelled Raamses, appears in two different usages in the Bible. First, we are told that Joseph settled his family in “the land of Ramesses” (Gen. 47:6, 11). The second usage occurs in Exodus 1:11, where we learn that Israelite slaves helped build “store cities” called Pithom and Raamses. Presumably reflecting the former verse, when the Israelites departed Egypt they are said to have first journeyed “from Ramesses to Succoth” (Exod. 12:37; Num. 33:3). If these references to Ramesses/Raamses do not identify the Exodus Pharaoh, as this author has proposed in previous columns, what is their meaning and purpose?
We should analyze the two terms separately, for two reasons. First, their historical settings are a century or more apart. Ramesses appears in connection with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt in the 17th or 16th century BCE. Raamses was a store-city built with Israelite slave labor a century or more later. Second, each of these terms is vocalized differently: in Ramesses the letter ayin takes the vowel schwa, whereas in Raamses the vowel under the ayin is a patach. Ibn Ezra, known among other things for his comments on biblical grammar, holds that the two usages are not the same.
The term Ramesses first appears when Joseph told his brothers that he will settle them in “the land of Ramesses.” The term is attributed to him only once; elsewhere he consistently referred to the area of settlement as “[the land of] Goshen.” Pharaoh’s order (Gen. 47:6) refers to Goshen as well, not to the Land of Ramesses. Virtually all scholars assert that there is no evidence of a Ramesses family, powerful or otherwise, that far back in Egyptian history. Thus, it seems almost certain that Joseph did not refer to the location as Ramesses but that the term was added to that part of the Torah narrative later.
The dating we posited in a previous column in this series would have Moses composing the Torah, or compiling it from pre-existing scrolls (as Rabbi Yochanan maintained), around 1334 BCE. This was only four decades before Ramesses I took the throne. He was in his 50s at the time. His birth-name was Pramesse, given to him by his father Sety, who may have already become a rising star in Egypt’s military corps at about the time Moses completed the Pentateuch. Thus, the eastern Delta may have become associated with the Ramesses family, or Moses may have foreseen that it was destined to. Alternatively, if Moses did not insert the references to “the Land of Ramesses” into the Joseph/Jacob narrative, it is possible that it should be added to the very limited number of Torah insertions that Ibn Ezra believes may have been made after Moses’s death (see his commentary to Deut. 1:2).
The next question is: why was the reference to Ramesses inserted? Two possibilities occur to this author. The first possibility flows from the view held by a number of highly regarded scholars that King Solomon’s division of Israel into tax districts (1 Kings 4:7-19) replicated a system of taxation by district borrowed from Egypt. If so, Ramesses may refer to a tax district; the word Ramesses combines Ra—denoting Egypt’s predominant deity whose main cult center was at Heliopolis—with massas, Hebrew for the imposition of tax or labor. In other words, the Israelites may have owned “temple estates” in the tax district of the temple of Ra, i.e., the Heliopolis nome (province) and enjoyed tax (and labor?) exemptions that Pharaohs granted from time to time to priests and other such landowners in temple precincts. This would help explain why the “new king” launched the oppression of the Israelites by appointing sarei missim over them (Exod. 1:11). Also, it would add credence to Egyptologist Hans Goedicke’s translation of the Hatshepsut inscription, which I wrote about previously, by providing a biblical basis for his belief that she was boasting of having annulled privileges formerly enjoyed by the Israelites. Finally, it would explain why the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that priestly lands were exempt from confiscation (Gen. 47:22, 26), and how the Israelites were able to acquire property and prosper (Gen. 47:27) (even as Pharaoh was acquiring all but priestly property).
A second possibility is that Ramesses was inserted in order to give us more certainty about the location of the Israelite community—namely, in the Delta basin in northern Egypt. This was, in fact, the choicest part of Egypt, as the Torah calls it (Gen. 45:18, 47:11). Certainly, when the Torah tells us that the Israelites first traveled from Ramesses to Succoth (Exod. 12:37, Num. 33:3), Ramesses connotes a location. Yet, strictly speaking, there was no Egyptian city or region called “Ramesses”; the city scholars identify as Ramesses was actually called Pi-Ramesse, and some scholars argue that the absence of the “Pi-” prefix means that the biblical Ramesses was not Pi-Ramesse. By contrast, Pithom in the same verse appears to have the “Pi-” prefix (house/domain of the god Atum), as does Pi-Beset (Ezek. 30:17), and possibly Pi Hachirot (Exod. 14:2), which may be an anagram referring to a temple of Horakhti/Horus, a solar deity.
Turning to the store-city Raamses, the letter ayin in Raamses is vocalized with the active vowel patach. Perhaps this may hint at a combination of three words: Ra im (with) ses,” syncretizing the names of northern Egypt’s two major deities, Ra and Seth, in order to confirm that Israelite slaves labored at their cult centers. It was not uncommon for the ancient Egyptians to syncretize names of major deities, usually when their worship was unified in some way. Thus, for example, “Amun-Re” marked a fusion of the sun gods worshipped in Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively. Even though the deity Seth’s name is spelled samech tav in Hebrew, the transmission of foreign names into another language does not consistently follow a strict set of rules. The spelling samech samech could have been a variant spelling or a “correction” made by a scribal who thought that the biblical term was intended to refer to Ramesses. It is also possible that Raamses in Exodus 1:11 was another post-Mosaic insertion added in a well-intentioned attempt to fill in more of the historical picture. (The Septuagint translators of the Torah may have had the same purpose in mind when they included a reference to Heliopolis in that verse as a third example of the store cities in which Israelite slaves labored.)
Thus, if Ramesses/Raamses do not identify a Pharaoh associated with the enslavement of the Israelites or the Exodus, we face the challenge of explaining their presence in the Torah. We have explored several more-or-less plausible possibilities, but a convincing explanation will have to await further scholarly findings that shed greater light on the passages in which they appear.
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.