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D'var Torah: Shemot

As we start a new book of the Torah this week, we see in the narration the setting up of the story of the Exodus. Our portion is named “Shemot,” “names,” and that’s what this d’rash is all about—lots of names. But our portion is itself strangely devoid of names: True, we learn the names of the two midwives, but we are never told Pharaoh’s name nor that of his daughter. We don't learn the names of Moses’ parents and sister until later in Exodus, and of Yitro’s seven daughters we only told Zipporah’s name. Strangely, however, Moses’ father-in-law appears to have a number of names—Reuel, Yeter, and Yitro! Despite not knowing the names of many of the principals in the story, however, the story moves quickly so that by the end of the parashah Moses and Aaron are challenging Pharaoh. But I want to concentrate on the “silent” part of the parashah. As many music lovers know, the silences between the notes can be just as significant as the notes themselves. I want to explore one of the silences in this parashah: the silence between verses 7 and 8. What happened during the period between Joseph’s death and the opening of Shemot?

The period between Joseph and Moses corresponds to Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. The more well known rulers of the mid- to late Eighteenth Dynasty1 were Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV (who took the name Akhenaton), Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemhab. Those of the early Nineteenth Dynasty2 were Ramses I, Seti I, Ramses II, and Merneptah. The pharaohs under whom Joseph served might well have been Thutmose III or Amenhotep II, since the customs, proper names, titles, and other language indicators used in the Bible so accurately reflect what is known of the mid-Eighteenth to early Nineteenth Dynasties that the biblical description likely represents a reliable tradition. Note the presence of the “-mose” suffix in some pharaonic names; this is an Egyptian suffix meaning “child of,” and yes, the name “Moses” is indeed Egyptian in origin.

For hundreds of years biblical scholars and archeologists have searched for evidence independent of the Bible that a population of enslaved people who lived apart from the Egyptians (in “Goshen” or “Sukkot”) existed and eventually escaped. To no avail—we have no information about the Hebrews of the period between Joseph’s death and the beginning of Exodus in the Bible or anywhere else. It’s been conjectured that Joseph served in Egypt during the Hyksos period (ca. 1648–1540 bce); the Hyksos were expelled by Ahmose,1 the founding ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, but most recent scholarship has discounted this theory. The Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot to Egypt; the earliest Egyptian text that speaks of a king riding in a chariot mentions Ahmose. Genesis 41:43 reports that the pharaoh gave Joseph a chariot to use.

So what can we deduce about the Hebrews of the pre-Exodus period? First, the issue of the number of years between Joseph’s service and the “king… who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) must be considered. All kinds of suggestions have been advanced attempting to explain the “400 years”3 (and 430 years in one place4) that the Bible gives for the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt. Other passages in the Bible5 and the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch disagree with this number,6 as does Josephus.7 Since the use of numbers in the Bible is frequently figurative and not literal, I believe that the “400” number can be safely be regarded as figurative, meaning “a long time.” The “king… who did not know Joseph” may very well refer to the rulers from the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty when the Egyptian political situation changed dramatically. Horemhab, the last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, was a powerful general before becoming pharaoh, but he was mainly concerned with internal state politics; however, his grandson, Seti I (his son Ramses I only ruled two years), and great-grandson, Ramses II, engaged in widespread military campaigns in Asia and large building projects in the Nile delta. Of course, a non-assimilated foreign population in a sensitive region of Egypt (Goshen, in the eastern delta, was the gateway to Asia) would pose a security threat to a militarily active country, so a political solution would need to be devised to eliminate this threat.

Next, how do we account for large numbers of foreigners in Egypt? There is ample archeological evidence that Egypt played host to groups of foreign refugees during periods of famine or warfare. For example, carvings from the tomb of Horemhab illustrate Egyptian officials bowing before the throne. The inscription states that they are seeking guidance about how to handle the case of certain Asians who had come to Egypt because their town had been destroyed and their country was starving. The immigrants have requested that Pharaoh allow them to make their home in Egypt “after the manner of your father’s fathers since the beginning.” A further inscription makes it evident that their request was granted.

We also have a document8 dated to about 1230 bce (late Nineteenth Dynasty) that contains the report of a frontier official to his superior. “We have finished letting the Bedouin tribes of Edom pass the fortress [of] Merneptah which is [in] Tjeku, to the pools of Per-Atum…, to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive…” A very similar report might have been sent when Jacob and his household crossed the Egyptian frontier. The geographical citation is interesting; some scholars believe that a region in Wadi Tumilat (in the Nile eastern delta), called in Egyptian “Tjeku,” might be Sukkot, since the Egyptian “tj” can be transliterated into Hebrew as “s” (samech). So it is clear from archeological evidence that Egypt was hospitable to transients and refugees from areas of famine or warfare.

Generally immigrants to ancient countries adopted local customs and cultures and eventually became assimilated. Obviously the Hebrews did not, and thus their continuing to live apart could have been viewed as a threat to their Egyptian hosts. Did the Egyptians recall how the Hebrews’ ancestor, Joseph, dealt with them by nationalizing the country’s land ownership? So when Exodus opens, we find the Hebrews living near Pithom and Ramses, where they were building “garrison cities.” Pithom (“House of Tum”) is plainly the same as Per-Atum (“House of Atum”) mentioned by the frontier official above, and a vestige of this name remains in its current Arabic name, Tumilat, “Valley of Tum.”

The reference to “Ramses” is clearly made in Gen. 47:11, “…the land of Ramses,” which is almost certainly an anachronism, as Ramses I was the first ruler of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

The origin of the name “Goshen” is not as clear. An ancient capital of Lower Egypt was likely at Saft el-Hineh at the eastern edge of the delta. Excavations here have found remains of a city called Per-Sopd, “House of Sopd.” The stela of Piye (Twenty-fifth Dynasty, 752–721 bce) identifies this city as the residence of a Nile delta prince, and excavations there uncovered an immense statue of Ramses II in black granite and a great shrine, probably built by Nectanebo II (Thirtieth Dynasty, r. 360–343 bce), having numerous inscriptions to the god Sopd. Two inscriptions on this shrine refer to the site as “Kes.” The Egyptian determinative for “the land” or “the city” is “-em,” and earlier inscriptions using the name “Kesem” or “Qesem” have been found referring to an eastern delta region. If the Egyptian name for this region was indeed “Kesem” it could account for the Hebrew “Goshen” and Greek “Gesem” name.

Finally, looking at the archeological record for evidence of a foreign population in Egypt during the early Nineteenth Dynasty, we note that Egyptian manuscripts mention a people called ‘Apiru, which is not an Egyptian word. The term was used to refer to foreigners in Egypt, immigrants, and was used in that context beginning in the fifteenth century bce; this usage continued in Egyptian records for at least the next six hundred years. The records of Ramses II mention of the ‘Apiru that they “haul stones for the god Re of Ramses,… in the southern quarter of Memphis,” they “haul stones for the great fortress of the city of Ramses.”9 The “city of Ramses” referred to the new capital city Ramses II built in the northeastern Nile delta, indeed, the “Ramses” of the Bible might be the very same place. Furthermore, noting that slave labor was used in the construction projects of Ramses II, a Greek historian, Diodorus (49 bce), wrote: “The most difficult of these works were executed by captives and he [Ramses] took care that the lapidary inscriptions should remind the reader that ‘no Egyptian had a hand in them.’”

Perhaps this evidence is purely circumstantial and that there was never any major involvement between the Hebrew people and Egypt. It is also quite possible that the tradition of Egyptian enslavement was limited to a small group of people who were eventually able to emigrate when the Egyptian empire began to weaken after the rule of Seti II. Even if only a small number of people were involved in this servitude, its effect on the memories of descendants of the enslaved people must have been powerful. Such memories are perhaps good reason why the Torah should refer to Egypt as “the house of bondage.”

I told you that this d’rash would be all about shemot—in every sense.

Shabbat shalom.

January 2010


1. Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty

Amenhotep I
Thutmose I
Thutmose II
Thutmose III
Amenhotep II
Thutmose IV
1550–1525 BCE
Amenhotep III
Amenhotep IV/


2. Pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty

Ramses I
Seti I
Ramses II
Seti II

3. Gen. 15:13.

4. Ex. 12:40–41.

5. Ex. 6:16–20, 1 Chron. 6:1 and 23:6–13 imply an absolute upper limit of 352 years.

6. In these texts, Ex. 12:40–41 reads in part, “...lived in Egypt and Canaan,” rather than the masoretic “...lived in Egypt.”

7. Josephus mentions 215 years in Antiquities of the Jews.

8. Papyrus Anastasi VI.

9. Martin Noth, The History of Israel, 1960.

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