The Israelites in Egypt

Ex 1:1-11    It is now c.1530BC. Many generations have lived during the hundred and thirty years since Joseph was joined by his brothers and their families at Avaris in Egypt in c.1660BC (see 1 on Map 43). The Israelites (the descendants of Jacob or ‘Israel’) are now living in slavery under a pharaoh “who did not know who Joseph was” (Exodus 1:8) – probably Neferhotep I (or possibly his immediate predecessor Sobekhotep III).

They are forced to build store cities for the Egyptians in the Eastern Nile Delta area of Lower Egypt at Pithom and Raamses (see 1 on Map 43). Raamses (or Rameses) is the later name for the Israelite settlement at Avaris – where the new Egyptian capital of Pharaoh Ramesses II (Pi-Ramesses) was built some seven hundred years after Joseph’s death. Raamses was situated at Quantir on the Pelusaic branch of the Nile. Pithom (Pi-Atum, meaning ‘Mansion of the sun-god Atum’) was located south of Raamses in the Wadi Tumilat, probably on the site of Tell al-Maskutah.


Moses' early life

Map 43    Moses' early life


Avaris / Piramesse

When Jacob and his extended family settled in Egypt in c.1660BC, they were given fertile pastureland and property near the Vizier’s residence at Avaris in the north east of the Nile Delta (near Quantir, just north of modern-day Fakur - see 1 on Map 43). Extensive excavations at the village of Tell ed-Daba by Manfred Bietak since the 1960s have revealed a settlement of small mudbrick houses built by people of Palestinian or Syrian origin at around this time. A large Syrian-style mansion (possibly the home of Jacob) was later replaced by an Egyptian palace (built, perhaps for Joseph, the Vizier of Egypt, after Jacob’s death).

Bietak’s excavations revealed that, a hundred years later (during the Israelites’ ‘bondage’ period), Avaris was densely populated with large Egyptian-occupied houses containing servants’ quarters. The remains of numerous tiny graves were found all over the city – innocent victims of a vicious slaughter. While infant graves normally make up around a quarter of all graves, here in Avaris, they represent about two thirds of all deaths. Furthermore, for every five adult female burials, the archaeologists found only three adult males – which corresponds vividly to the Biblical account of the slaughter of the Hebrew baby boys around the time of Moses’ birth in c.1528 BC. Avaris was abandoned shortly after 1447 BC.







A figurine from Egypt depicting
a semitic slave
(Hecht Museum, Haifa)




Some five hundred years later, Avaris was re-built, extended and re-named Rameses (or Raamses) after its new founder, Pharaoh Ramesses II  - who marched out of Egypt in 939 BC to fight the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. Pi-Ramesses or Piramesse means ‘Mansion of Ramesses’ and is the name used in the Old Testament when referring to the much earlier settlement of Avaris. But this later city vanished some two hundred years after Ramesses II, and the exact location of Piramesse remained a mystery until recently.

In the 1920s, the explorer Pierre Monté discovered hundreds of statues of Ramesses II and the remains of a huge temple dedicated to Amun at Tanis (Biblical Zoan) in the north east of the Nile Delta. It looked as if the site of the long-lost city of Piramesse had been discovered.

But all was not as it seemed. In 1966, by careful analysis of pottery fragments, Manfred Bietak proved that the city discovered at Tanis was not founded until two hundred years after Ramesses II – yet it appeared to be Piramesse. In the 1990s, he teamed up with Edgar Pusch, who discovered the remains of extensive chariot stables and a huge temple alongside the abandoned course of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile at Quantir, some 18 miles / 30 km south of Tanis. This proved that Piramesse – the home of Ramesses’ charioteers – was located originally at Quantir on the Pelusiac Nile. But two hundred years later, this branch of the Nile silted up, so the city of Piramesse was demolished and moved – stone by stone – to Tanis on the navigable Tanitic branch of the Nile, where Monté discovered the temple of Amun in the 1920s.

The Victorians’ mistaken identification of the Biblical Raamses with the later Rameses of Pharaoh Ramesses II (instead of with the earlier Avaris of Amenemhat III) also led them to incorrectly identify Ramesses II as the traditional pharaoh of the Exodus. In reality, Ramesses II lived some five hundred years after the Exodus, and the pharaoh who refused to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt under the leadership of Moses was a much earlier pharaoh – probably Pharaoh Djedneferre Dudimose (1450-1446BC).


Ex 1:11-22    The Egyptians are fearful of the increasing number of Israelites, so the Hebrew baby boys are drowned in the River Nile.


River Nile near Luxor

The River Nile near Luxor


Ex 2:1-3    In c.1528BC a Hebrew baby boy is floated in the shallows by his sister Miriam in an attempt to save his life. He is placed in a basket of reeds, covered with tar. Miriam may well have known the fabled story of Sargon, King of Akkadia, who had also been conceived secretly and saved from death by being floated in an ‘ark’ made of bulrushes waterproofed with pitch.

Ex 2:4-10    The baby is discovered by the pharaoh’s wife, daughter of the previous pharaoh, who adopts the baby boy and brings him up in the Egyptian court. The Bible calls him 'Moses' (Hebrew ‘Moshe’ meaning ‘drawn out of the water’) – a shorter form of his Egyptian name ‘Hapimose’ meaning ‘offspring of the floods’.

Prince Moses is raised in the pharaoh's household - probably that of Pharaoh Khaneferre Sobekhotep IV (c.1532-1508BC) at the royal palace in Avaris (Raamses). As part of his royal training, he learns to read Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian cuneiform. He studies the Babylonian Law Code recently established by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, and is trained to lead the pharaoh’s armies. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Prince Moses also sees active service defeating the Kushites who invaded from the south in c.1510BC (see 2 on Map 43).

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