The Hyksos

The historical background we should have in mind when reading the story of Israel’s slavery, revolt, and exodus from Egypt is the following:

In the 17th century BCE, a conglomeration of ethnic groups, among whom Semites predominated, infiltrated the Nile valley. They seized power in Lower Egypt taking over the Egyptian Delta, the age-old capital of Memphis, and a large portion of Middle Egypt upstream. Named “Hyksos,” (= “rulers of foreign lands”) these invaders ruled in Egypt for more than a century.

They “savagely burn the cities, razed the temples of the gods to ground, and treated the whole native population with the utmost cruelty, massacring some and carrying off the wives and children into slavery,” so recorded Manetho, a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest who wrote a history of his country in Greek.

About 1550, the Egyptian elite under Ahmose drove the hated foreigners out of Egypt and marched across Sinai, attacking them at their fortress in Sharuhen in the Negev Desert.

The Hyksos ceased to exist, but their occupation, as Nahum Sarna states, “was a shameful humiliation for the Egyptians that had a profound effect upon the national psychology. […] The danger of foreign invasion, especially from Asia via the eastern Delta, haunted her thereafter.”

University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, Professor George E. Mendenhall points out that it is likely that the Egyptians did not want to see the Hyksos disaster repeated. “Consequently, Egyptian control over […] slaves in the Nile Delta undoubtedly grew increasingly severe as Egyptian political control once again began to unravel […] Thus, the biblical tradition concerning the oppression of Hebrew slaves in Egypt at this time (Exod. 1: 8-14) seems plausibly rooted in this historical context.

The first-century Roman-Jewish scholar, Flavius Josephus, refers to the Hyksos as “our ancestors,” something that is doubtful.

However, University of Chicago professor Gösta W. Ahlström has noted that “…we cannot ignore the possible inclusion of the expulsion of the Hyksos in the source materials which was available for literary activities. One may assume that the Hyksos experience was retold in different ways and in different circles through time.

This is not to say that the Hyksos experience should be identified with the story about the Israelites living Egypt. However, the Hyksos event could have been part of the … common tradition which the biblical narrator used for background […] exodus and the consequent wanderings in the wilderness are part of a historical chain of happening and traditions […]”

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