Ancient Egypt in the Bible – from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

Rabbi Joseph Reinman has been kind enough to allow us to post selections from his forthcoming book – The Bible Trial. The following is the third in a series of excerpts that we will be posting. Stay posted!

The rebuttal witness for the plaintiff on the issues of archaeology was a rotund little man with round rimless glasses and darting eyes. He wore a gray jacket and a black turtleneck sweater.

“Can you give us your name and occupation, sir?” said Dexter.

“My name is Dr. Kyle Webster. I am professor of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania.”

“Dr. Webster,” said Dexter, “let us start with the Joseph story. Do you consider it plausible?”

“Oh, yes. Very plausible. There are numerous indications of its authenticity. Scholars with specialized training in Egyptology have long recognized the powerful Egyptian elements of the story. I refer you to Dr. Kenneth Kitchen, one of the greatest scholars in the world, head and shoulders above everyone else in Egyptology and comparative Near Eastern studies. Specifically, I recommend his latest book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. It is totally authoritative.”

“Any others?”

“Many. I would also recommend Dr. James K. Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt, an excellent piece of scholarship. Dr. Alan R. Schulman, quoted by Hoffmeier, claims that the writer of the Joseph story must have had an exceedingly intimate knowledge of Egyptian life, literature and culture.”

“Can you give us details of this intimate knowledge?”

“Oh, there are many. I’ll try not to overload you. First, there is the average price of slaves. At the time of the Joseph story it was indeed twenty shekels, as the Bible reports, but it rose sharply after that. It’s unlikely that a later writer could guess the correct price of a slave hundreds of years before.”

Dexter looked at the jury and saw that the point had struck home.

“When Joseph is purchased by Potiphar,” the witness continued, “the Bible states that he is appointed ‘over the house.’ This expression – ‘over the house’ – is found on ancient papyri as a phrase referring to domestic servants. Then it supplies names – Potiphar, Potiphera, Asnath, Tzafnath-paane’ah –all genuine Egyptian names. Potiphera, whose name incorporates the name of the Egyptian sun god, is described as the priest of On, which was the cult center of the sun god at exactly the time the Joseph story purportedly took place. The word hartumim, meaning dream interpreters or magicians, is an ancient Egyptian word. There are also many other linguistic connections. And of course, there is the use of the name Pharaoh.”

“What about the name Pharaoh?”

“Scholars are frustrated that the Bible does not mention the name of the Pharaoh of the enslavement or the exodus, as the Bible does during the later periods when we read about Pharaoh Necho or Hofra or Shishak. But not in the Books of Genesis and Exodus. Why the omission?”

“Why indeed?”

“There’s a good reason. Pharaoh means ‘the great house’ in Egyptian. It was not used as a title for the king until the middle of the second millennium b.c.e., about 1450 b.c.e. For the next five hundred years or so, the king was known just by the name Pharaoh without the addition of a personal name. Afterward, the personal name began to be added. If the Books of Genesis and Exodus were written during these five hundred years, they would not have identified an Egyptian king by any name other than Pharaoh, which was the accepted Egyptian custom.”

“Very interesting. Anything else?”

“There is the investiture ceremony when Joseph is appointed to high office. The Bible states that Joseph was arrayed in fine linen, a golden chain was placed on his neck, and he was transported in the royal chariot. Once again, we know from ancient inscriptions that this is an accurate description of the ceremony. A writer composing a story hundreds of years later could not have known any of this.”

“I see.”

“And listen to this detail! Joseph was also given the royal signet ring during this ceremony. You would expect the ring to be placed al yado, on his hand, or his finger to be more specific. But the Bible says it was placed biyado, in his hand. Since when do you place a ring in someone’s hand? Strange, isn’t it? But lo and behold, if you look at Plate XXXVIII, Figure 45, in Kitchen’s book, that is exactly what you see! They are placing the ring into the hand of the person being invested with high office.”

“Fascinating,” said Dexter.

The witness smiled with pleasure. “You already mentioned during your cross-examination that Semites did reach high office in Egypt. That’s an important piece of evidence, because how would a later writer have known such a thing? There is much more evidence, if you would like me to go on.”

“I think you have made a powerful case for the authenticity of the Joseph story, Dr. Webster. Let’s move on to the exodus.”

“As you pointed out during cross-examination, the archives in the Nile Delta have not survived, but we do have a lot of indirect evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus, some of which you have already covered yesterday during cross-examination. Take for instance the Bible’s statement that the Israelites asked for permission to go into the desert to worship their God. Strange request, wouldn’t you say? Yet there is plenty of evidence that it was customary for laborers in Egypt to be given time off for religious observances. How would someone writing centuries later know this?”

“How, indeed.”

“I would also like to point out a very interesting piece of information. The Bible says that the Israelites turned back to Pi-ha-hiroth and encamped before Migdol. Scholars always wondered about the etymology of Pi-ha-hiroth, which they thought was an Egyptian term, like Pithom or Pi-Ramesse. But it turns out it isn’t. There have long been hints that Egypt was protected by a frontier canal, which ran north to south. Satellite imaging has confirmed the existence of this ancient canal. Pi-ha-hiroth is a Semitic term for the mouth of the canal. The Israelites had to turn back and go around the canal!”

“Fascinating. All right, let’s talk about the desert travels of the Israelites. Dr. Potemkin seemed to feel that there should have been some remnant left over, at least a few broken pieces of pottery. How come there is no trace of any habitation at any of those places at that time?”

Dr. Webster bristled at the mention of Potemkin. “Well, much as I would like to make Dr. Potemkin happy, he really should not have been expecting to find traces of pottery. People on the move, even if they are traveling at a very leisurely pace, are not likely to bring along heavy ceramic pottery. You only go shopping for ceramics after you settle down. As long as you are on the road, you make do with leatherwork or skins. You see?”

“I do.”

“Kitchen points out that there was a major Egyptian mining site at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai at about that time, and there must have been a lot of traffic back and forth with periodic stopping places, yet no trace has ever been found. You wouldn’t expect to find traces of desert travelers after three thousand years. From recent experience, we know that all traces of nomadic encampments usually disappear after about fifty years.”

“So you’re not disturbed by the absence of evidence of habitation at these sites?”

“Not at all. On the contrary, I believe the absence of habitation is actually strong proof of the authenticity of the desert itinerary.”

“Really?” said Dexter. “How is that?”

“Look, it’s just common sense. The Israelites traveling through the desert would not have encamped at a spot that was already occupied by other people. They needed empty, uninhabited spots. That’s obvious. Now if archaeologists had found that some of these purported sites of encampment had houses and pottery at the time, it would really raise questions about the itinerary. But as it is, everything works out perfectly. All these forty-two places were uninhabited at the time, so the Israelites had plenty of room to encamp. Now, could a writer living hundreds of years later have guessed that every single one of the forty-two places he picked out of a hat would be uninhabited back then, especially since some of them were inhabited during his own time?”

“So you’re saying that the mention of forty-two uninhabited places is actually proof of the antiquity of the Bible?”

“Exactly,” said the witness.

“How about the lack of destruction of the Canaanite cities mentioned in the conquest list of the Book of Joshua?”

“The Bible does not say they were destroyed but that they were smitten. Smitten, does not mean destroyed. Why would they destroy the Canaanite cities? They weren’t some foreign invaders who would burn, pillage and go back home. They were invaders, immigrants. They intended to live in this land. Moses had promised them they would live in houses other people had built. So they weren’t about to destroy their future homes. That’s why the conquest took so long. They couldn’t just attack and destroy. They had to fight house to house, door to door, so that they wouldn’t destroy the valuable property. Only a couple of cities, such as Hazor, had to be destroyed to break the resistance.”

“How about there being no signs of habitation in Jericho at that time?”

“According to archaeological evidence, Jericho was destroyed by fire about 1550 b.c.e. and then was uninhabited for two hundred years. As Kitchen explains, when a new city is built on the ruins of the old, the ruins are preserved. But when the site is left uninhabited, the remains are destroyed by erosion. During these two hundred years, erosion wiped out almost all traces of the old Jericho. What we know of the old settlement is based on a few fragments. Then the city was resettled in 1350 b.c.e. When the Israelites destroyed the city again about a hundred years later, they made a taboo against rebuilding the city. As a result, it was uninhabited for another four hundred years. During that time, erosion wiped out every trace of the city, as expected.”

“Let’s talk about the increase in population in Canaan during the thirteenth century b.c.e. What do you think of Dr. Potemkin’s theories?”

The witness’s nostrils quivered with indignation. “Plain unadulterated poppycock,” he said. “The archaeological evidence is very clear that this is when the Israelites arrived on the scene. The archeological evidence also shows that they were different from the indigenous population. They had different implements and ceramics, different architectural styles and different dietary customs. Twist it as hard as you may, you cannot make a reasonable case for them coming out of the local woodwork.”

“What do you mean by architectural styles?”

“Their villages were oval, patterned after desert encampments.”

“What does this prove?” said Dexter. “Why couldn’t they have been nomads who were settling down, as Finkelstein claims?”

“Because this theory is ridiculous. Dr. William Dever takes him to pieces in Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come from? He points out that Finkelstein himself admits that nomads in Palestine in all periods up until the present comprise no more than ten to fifteen percent of the population. Yet during the thirteenth century b.c.e., the population of the hill country of Judah tripled. If all the nomads settled down and became farmers and villages, you still wouldn’t come close to accounting for the tremendous increase in population. If you don’t accept the historical authenticity of the Bible, it’s an insoluble mystery.”

The witness was on a roll, and Dexter wanted him to keep firing. “Dr. Webster, I would like to talk to you about population,” he said. “Yesterday, Dr. Potemkin testified, based once again on Finkelstein, that the population of the hill country of Judah in the thirteenth century was about 45,000 and that there were about 160,000 people in Judah in the eighth century. Do you agree?”

“No, I most emphatically do not. Let’s just look at extra-biblical sources. According to the Sennaherib Stela, King Sennaherib of Assyria claimed to have exiled over two hundred thousand people from Judah to Assyria. According to Finkelstein, that’s more than the total number of people who lived in Judah during that time. So not only does he disregard the information in the Bible, he also disregards the ancient inscription record.”

“Well, Finkelstein didn’t just make up those figures, did he?” said Dexter. “How did he arrive at those figures, and where did he go wrong?”

“Finkelstein arrives at his figures,” the witness snapped, “by using something called the Population Density Coefficient. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. They measure the population density in modern-day settlements that live in primitive conditions without the benefits of modern technology. Life hasn’t changed so much for these people in the last few thousand years. The population density in Jerusalem in 1918, as in Aleppo and Tripoli, was 51 people per dunam, which is about a quarter of an acre. But Finkelstein uses the figure of 25 people per dunam. Dr. Isaac Maitlis, an Israeli archaeologist, disputes these figures on the basis of population density figures for the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem in 1870, which was 157 people per dunam, six times Finkelstein’s number.”

“Do you have any population density data a little further back in time than the last couple of centuries?”

“Oh yes, we most definitely have. The Book of Nehemiah lists 2,872 heads of households returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. If we use the very conservative figure of four people per family, that means about 12,000 people. The archaeological data shows that Jerusalem at the time measured about 120 dunams, which give us a density of about 100 people per dunam. So let’s work with the conservative figure of 100 people per dunam for ancient Israel and Judah.”

“So can we use this to get an idea of the total population?”

“Yes, we can,” said the witness. “I’ll make a long story short. Archaeological studies have shown that in ancient times between three and seven percent of a country’s population lived in cities, settlements that measure fifty dunams or more. This means that about ninety-five percent of the population lived in small villages in the countryside. So let’s say it’s only ninety percent, just to be on the safe side. According to Dr. Yigal Shilo, there were sixty settlements of fifty dunams or more west of the Jordan River during the time of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. At the density coefficient of one hundred per dunam, that means that each of these settlements had at least five thousand, for a total city population of at least three hundred thousand people. Since cities held only ten percent of the population, that means a total population of at least three million people and probably more, not even counting the settlements east of the Jordan River.”

“And this is in keeping with the figures in the Bible?”

“Very much so. It also fits perfectly with the information on the inscriptions of the Sennaherib Stela in Assyria.”

“This is very illuminating, Dr. Webster. Perhaps you can help us clear up another matter as well. Yesterday, Dr. Potemkin testified that there are no inscriptions on stelae and monuments in Israel and Judah such as are found in all the neighboring countries. He said that this raised questions about the sophistication of these kingdoms. Can you enlighten us about this matter?”

“My pleasure, sir. You know, archaeologists love inscriptions. As much as you can potter about in the pottery, you’re really just groping in the dark. But inscriptions! Ah, what a pleasure. Names and places! Stories! The ancient world opens up. But in Israel … no inscriptions. The problem is not that we haven’t found any yet. Apparently, no Jewish kings, not even Herod the Great, who lived in 30 b.c.e., left inscriptions. If it wasn’t for Josephus, we wouldn’t know who built Caesarea.”

“Why didn’t they leave inscriptions?”

“The Bible mentions two individuals,” said the witness, “who erected monuments in their own honor – Saul and Absalom. The Bible looks askance at both of these. You have to understand the Biblical culture of ancient Israel, their world view. The ancient Israelite kings ascribed their successes to God and would have considered raising monuments to their own glorification presumptuous. This attitude of royal humility became so ingrained in the Israelite culture that no kings, not even the idolatrous ones, dared raise monuments to their own glorification.”

“Extraordinary,” said Dexter. “The Bible actually demands humility of the king, doesn’t it?”

“It certainly does,” said the witness. “The Bible forbids the king to take too many wives, accumulate too much money or have too many horses. And it commands him to carry a scroll of the Law with him at all times.”

“Very interesting, Dr. Webster,” said Dexter. “Thank you. No more questions.”

Calabrese got up and approached the witness slowly.

“Dr. Webster, have you really explained why there is no trace of Jericho?” he said. “Do you really expect us to believe that a whole city with massive walls would vanish without a trace through natural erosion?”

The witness was unruffled. “You can believe what you choose, sir. Four hundred years is a long time. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that erosion removed all traces. You have to understand that people must have scavenged the stones and the bricks for use in their own homes and buildings. They were right there for the taking. Over hundreds of years of exposure every stone and brick would have been removed by people in the area. As for the scraps left over, erosion would easily take care of it.”

“I will not debate the point with you. But it must certainly seem a far-fetched scenario to any reasonable person. Let’s talk about population.”

“By all means.”

“You manipulate the figures –”

“Your honor,” Dexter called out, “I object. Counsel is frustrated by the obvious expertise of the witness so he keeps making nasty remarks. How about a little common decency?”

“Objection overruled,” said the judge, “but the court does request that counsel for the defense maintain better decorum.”

“Of course, your honor,” said Calabrese. “My apologies to the witness if he was offended. Dr. Webster, according to your … ah … calculations, you arrive at a population in the millions in ancient Israel. How could the land support so many people?”

“Where’s the problem?” said the witness. “According to a census taken by the Roman Empire, eight million people lived in ancient Israel in the first century b.c.e. They were eating and living a fairly decent life.”

“But seven or eight centuries earlier?”

“Customs didn’t change so fast in agriculture in the ancient world.”

Calabrese was making no headway with the witness, and he finally gave up. “I have no more questions for this witness, your honor.”

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4 Responses to Ancient Egypt in the Bible – from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

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