Bible History on the Nile
Egypt stirs in us an enduring fascination: the haunting splendor of the world’s most vivid ancient civilization, the timeless eloquence of its monuments, the beauty and serenity of the Nile culture, and, in Cairo, the exhilarating vitality of one of the world’s greatest cities. In this special collection of articles hand-selected by BAS editors for members of the BAS Library, expand your understanding of Egyptian history and its relationship with the Bible and Biblical history.
Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.
Though we don’t have archaeological remains of the Israelites in Egypt, we do know what life was like for many who labored for the pharaoh. Thousands of paintings, letters, work records, and simple doodles vividly capture everyday life in one typical village, as detailed in “Pharaoh’s Workers: How the Israelites Lived in Egypt” by Leonard Lesko and Barbara Lesko.
With their strict geometric configurations, mysterious burials, and huge dimensions, the Egyptian pyramids have long intrigued scholars and charlatans. What visions of the afterlife inspired these fascinating monuments? Not surprisingly, as Ann Macy Roth explains in “Architecture of the Afterlife,” the pyramids themselves suggest an answer.
In antiquity, thousands of temples dotted the Egyptian landscape. Today only a handful remain, but their ruins provide a map of the ancient cosmos, says David O’Connor in “Architecture of Infinity.” Throughout the millennia, Egypt’s temples followed a single basic plan, in which the temple complex became a microcosm of Egyptian religious beliefs—“a materialized hymn” to the universe.
He was the King of Kings, from a humble family in the Nile Delta. He was the powerful Pharaoh of Exodus, unable to keep his Israelite slaves from escaping. As part of his legacy, he sired scores of children—then outlived them. In the end, he was a red-haired nonagenarian with tooth abscesses and severe arthritis who left images of himself, in the guise of gods, throughout the land. All this, and more, was Ramesses the Great—detailed in “‘Look on My Works’: The many faces of Ramesses the Great” by Jack Meinhardt.
Several decades ago, Egyptologist Alain Zivie excavated a tomb in Saqqara, Egypt, belonging to ‘Abdiel, a high-ranking official with a Semitic name. ‘Abdiel had served as a vizier to two pharaohs: Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Could this vizier from ancient Egypt illuminate the story of Joseph in the Bible? Join Dr. Zivie in “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” as he explores ‘Abdiel’s tomb and identity.
According to the Bible, Shishak, king of Egypt, marched against Jerusalem during the fifth year of the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son and successor. Shishak, actually Pharaoh Sheshonq I, left his own account of this northern campaign carved into the walls of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, but he does not mention Jerusalem among the places he conquered. Yigal Levin examines in “Did Pharaoh Sheshonq Attack Jerusalem?” the historical veracity of both the Biblical account and that of the Egyptian monarch.
First discovered in 1896, the 7.5-foot-high Merneptah Stele contains the earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible. The black granite stele, which was erected in the Egyptian capital of Thebes in about 1207 B.C.E., commemorates the victories of the pharaoh Merneptah over his many enemies, including a people called “Israel.” As detailed in “How Did Israel Become a People?” by Avraham Faust, many of the defining characteristics that distinguished the ancient Israelites from other peoples and led to Israel’s ethnogenesis can be traced back to the historical and social circumstances at the time of the Merneptah Stele, confirming Merneptah’s reference to the people Israel at this time.
In 1897, 50 years before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, a rabbinical scholar named Solomon Schechter carried back to England 140,000 fragments of ancient manuscripts, long-stored in a Cairo synagogue Genizah (a storeroom for worn-out religious books). Among the manuscripts were some pieces called the Damascus Document by later scholars. These fragments were eventually identified as writings of the same Dead Sea sect whose original manuscripts were later found in the Qumran caves. Raphael Levy tells the story of Schechter’s discovery of the Damascus Document in the thousand-year-old Cairo Genizah, in “First ‘Dead Sea Scroll’ Found in Egypt Fifty Years Before Qumran Discoveries.”
Whatever doubts scholars may entertain about the historicity of the Exodus, memories of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt seem too sharply etched to dismiss out of hand. The Biblical account simply contains too many accurate details and bears too many correspondences with Egyptian records to ignore. And although in our current state of […]
Nothing brings together the scholar and the crackpot like a pyramid. Built more than 4,000 years ago, Egypt’s pyramids are among archaeology’s perennial fascinations—huge, geometric structures with mummified bodies inside. Books about the pyramids have a long history, too, going back at least as far as the Pyramid Book, written by the medieval Egyptian […]
Most first-time visitors to Egypt will tell you that many ancient Egyptian temples have survived. But they’re wrong. It only seems that way on a two or three week tour. Although temples were once very common in Egypt, evidence of them today is surprisingly slight. For most of Egypt’s history, thousands of temples […]
You barely notice him in the cacophony of the modern city. Austere, stiffly formal, he is either too large or too small, slightly ridiculous amid Cairo’s dissonant traffic.
Several decades ago, Egyptologist Alain Zivie excavated a tomb in Saqqara, Egypt. Discovering secret passageways and hidden staircases while reinforcing collapsing chambers, he and his team carefully uncovered the tomb level by level—until they came face to face with the tomb’s owner himself: ‘Abdiel. The high-ranking ‘Abdiel, who has a Semitic name, served as a vizier to two pharaohs: Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten. Join Dr. Zivie as he explores ‘Abdiel’s tomb and identity.
“In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem.”
It used to be easy to identify the earliest Israelites. They are referred to in a well-known hieroglyphic stele known as the Merneptah Stele or, sometimes, the Israel Stele. The Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, proclaims in this stele dated to the end of the 13th century B.C.E. that “Israel is […]
Some call it the first Dead Sea Scroll—but it was found in Cairo and not in a cave. It was recovered in 1897 in a Genizah, a synagogue repository for worn-out copies of sacred writings. The gifted scholar who had found it, Solomon Schechter, gave it with a hoard of other ancient Hebrew manuscripts […]