Did Israelites ever live in Egypt?

By Mikel Del Rosario

Engaging Skeptical Challenges to the Exodus

When I was growing up, a lot of people I knew believed the Biblical narrative of the Exodus was at least based on a true story. Even skeptics accepted basic details like the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt.

Did Israelites ever live in Egypt?

Today, not so much. Skeptics now challenge the possibility of the Exodus even happening. And since many people get their views on the Bible from popular articles that try to undermine the truth of Scripture, there’s a big question mark in some people’s minds when it comes to even the basic details of the Old Testament: Did the Israelites really live in ancient Egypt?

Shlomo Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People, is one that challenges the historicity of the Exodus. He says Egyptian records don’t mention Israelites ever living in Egypt in all (p. 118). But should we really expect to find ancient Egyptian texts saying there was a huge Hebrew presence in Egypt? Would Egyptian scribes want to preserve any memories of the Exodus?

In this post, I’ll share one reason why clear evidence for Israelites in Egypt is tough to find and what one little-known piece of data suggests about the possibility that Hebrews ever lived in Egypt.

Egyptian Scribes Wrote to Serve the King

Some skeptics say we should have overwhelming evidence of Israelites living in Egypt if they really ever lived there. Why? Because, supposedly, Egyptians kept detailed records of everything. But the rest of the story is that Egyptian scribes weren’t historians trying to document everything for posterity. In fact, they were royal scribes who worked for the king. What was the point of their job? To make the king look good!

So they weren’t trying to document absolutely everything that went on in Egypt. A lot of their time was spent bragging about Pharaoh’s victories. They put inscriptions about the great things that he did on temples and other public buildings where everyone could see them. Recording his failures, defeats, or most embarrassing stories wasn’t part of their job description!

The point of their job was to record the Pharaoh’s victories. Some of the reports were probably spun for the public. Some of the reports were outright propaganda. Why expect the Egyptian records to mention the Exodus? It’s no surprise we haven’t discovered texts or inscriptions that talk about Pharaoh losing a huge number of Hebrew slaves. No one gets paid to make their boss look bad!

Egyptians rarely mentioned other groups by name

Most ancient Egyptian texts seem to tell us there was a lot of racial pride going on. A lot of them looked down on non-Egyptians. In fact, ancient Egyptians called themselves “the humans!” No joke. And they called everyone else “tent-dwellers” or “foot-walkers.” The fact that Egyptian texts don’t mention the Israelites as a people group isn’t a surprise because they don’t mention Canaanites, Israelites, Syrians, or nomads, or anyone else by name either.

But interestingly, some Egyptian texts have been found that actually do mention slaves in Egypt who seems to have Hebrew-sounding names. Could these people be Israelites living in Egypt? I invited Gordon Johnston to talk about this and other historical issues for a chapel at Dallas Theological Seminary. He explained what we can learn from the discovery of a list of runaway slaves, now called the Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446:

We’ve got a papyrus from the northeast delta region of Egypt, where the Hebrews would’ve been. It dates to 1700 BC around the time that Joseph came down to Egypt, the time that the Hebrews would’ve been in Egypt. This papyrus has a list of 95 names of runaway household slaves. The Egyptians had foreign slaves, and when they ran away, they put their names out there on the docket to try to find them. Of those 95 names, 45 are Semitic names… 10 of these names are Hebrew names or Hebrew-like names. So we’ve got the right [people] in the right place: You’ve got the feminine form of Jacob, ’Aqoba…the feminine form of Asher, ’Ashera…the feminine form of Job, ’Ayuvung. And you have the compound name for David…Dawidi-huat.”

Some skeptics insist that Egyptian records don’t mention Hebrews in Egypt. But in light of the fact that ancient Egyptians didn’t usually refer to foreigners with specific ethnic designations, it isn’t surprising that we don’t find explicit mention of the Hebrews in Egyptian texts. It’s also unlikely that Egyptian scribes would want to preserve embarrassing memories like the Exodus event. But the evidence shows that some slaves at least had names that sounded like Hebrew names. That makes it tough to insist that no Israelites were ever enslaved in Egypt.

Note: This conversation also included a discussion of potentially positive evidence for the Exodus. Watch this cultural engagement chapel hosted by the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Conclusion

Today, historical skepticism has cast doubt not only the general reliability of the Bible but even on the plausibility of ordinary details surrounding biblical stories. While some interpretations of the historical data can seem to challenge the details of the Old Testament, knowing about some of these discoveries can help us see the plausibility of the story. The data fits what Scripture says even if we haven’t found conclusive proof of Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt. The evidence suggesting the presence of Hebrew-like names in ancient Egypt are only the beginning.

We, as Christian apologists, must help believers better understand and respond to these kinds of public square issues in order to engage the culture as ambassadors of Christ. Knowing some things about the background and cultural context of the Old Testament can help us deal with many skeptical challenges that people hear. Keeping in touch with some of these archaeological findings can also help the church in encouraging faith in the Scriptures.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

The New Testament: Too Embarrassing to Be False by Frank Turek (DVD, Mp3, and Mp4)

Why We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth by Frank Turek (DVD, Mp3 and Mp4)

The Top Ten Reasons We Know the NT Writers Told the Truth by Frank Turek (Mp3)

Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace (Book)

 


Mikel Del Rosario helps Christians explain their faith with courage and compassion. He is a doctoral student in the New Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary. Mikel teaches Christian Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. He is the author of Accessible Apologetics and has published over 20 journal articles on apologetics and cultural engagement with his mentor, Dr. Darrell Bock. Mikel holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics with highest honors from Biola University and a Master of Theology (Th.M) from Dallas Theological Seminary, where he serves as Cultural Engagement Manager at the Hendricks Center and a host of the Table Podcast. Visit his Web site at ApologeticsGuy.com.

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