Israelites Found in Egypt
Four-Room House Identified in Medinet Habu
The history behind the biblical tradition of Israel in Egypt has always excited scholars and laymen alike. The subject may seem somewhat worn out, however, especially in view of the current “minimalist” tendencies in scholarship. I do not claim to be a Bible scholar myself—I am an Egyptologist. But sometimes an outsider can shed new light on an important subject. I hope that will be the case here.
Reed huts more than 3,000 years old belonging to workers—perhaps slaves—and with the same floor plan as ancient Israelite four-room houses have been identified at Medinet Habu, opposite Luxor in Egypt.1 These reed huts may represent extra-Biblical evidence of Israel in Egypt.
If true, Israelite—or proto-Israelite—workers were in Egypt in the second half of the 12th century B.C.E., more than a half century later than has previously been thought. This evidence, in turn, would have important implications for the historicity of the Biblical narrative.
Our story begins in the 1930s on the west bank of the Nile, where the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute was carrying out excavations at Medinet Habu, the area at the southern end of the Theban necropolis. The most conspicuous standing monument at Medinet Habu is the so-called “House of a Million Years,” a memorial temple of Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153 B.C.E.), but numerous other temples pepper the site, designed for worship of the state gods connected to the Pharaoh’s divinity and his mortuary cult. One of these is the Temple of Ay and Horemheb. Ay (1327–1323 B.C.E.) was an important figure in the court of Akhenaten, the heretic king who tried to limit Egyptian worship to the single god Aten. Ay also played a leading role in the court of Akhenaten’s successors, especially Tutankhamun (c.1336–1327 B.C.E.); Ay may have figured prominently in Tutankhamun’s rejection of the Aten heresy and the restoration of the cults of all the other gods. In any event, on Tutankhamun’s death, Ay became the ruler of Egypt, even though he was not born into the main royal line. And Ay promptly began the construction of a memorial temple for himself at Medinet Habu.
Ay’s reign lasted only three years—not long enough to complete his temple. He was succeeded by Horemheb, who was not of royal blood. Horemheb started out as a mere scribe and, after a successful military career, rose to the top rank. When Ay died, Horemheb assumed the throne. He was the last ruler of the XVIIIth Dynasty.
During his reign, Horemheb usurped the not-yet-finished memorial temple of Ay. (That is why it is called the Temple of Ay and Horemheb.) At the time of Ay’s death, only the temple rooms and some subsidiary buildings had been completed. The decoration, however, was of the very highest artistic quality. Extraordinarily fine relief carvings—of which, unfortunately, only fragments have survived—lined the walls. The temple was also embellished with fine statuary, including colossal seated figures of Ay himself. The courts in front of the temple, however, were completed only by Horemheb, who enclosed the temple in a magnificent colonnade of papyrus-cluster columns and reconstructed the forecourts with three imposing sets of pylons. In addition, he was careful to obliterate all references to Ay, simply replacing them with his own name. It was this temple of Ay and Horemheb that was excavated by the Oriental Institute in the 1930s.
In the course of this excavation, the archaeologists discovered evidence of some rude makeshift huts, whose dates I shall discuss later. The evidence for the huts consisted of narrow trenches chiseled out of the bedrock, from 6 to 8 inches wide and only 4 to 8 inches deep. In these small trenches were postholes, apparently for wooden poles or reed bundles bound together with ropes to be used as posts. The trenches and postholes still held evidence of the mortar or plaster used to secure the posts and the reed-walls. At two spots, postholes were found in pairs at ends of trenches, showing breaks. Here doorposts could be reconstructed. The excavators interpreted all this as evidence of workers’ huts, the walls of which were made of reeds plastered with mud or desert clay stamped around them and supported by intermittent posts in grooves in the bedrock. Similarly constructed huts can still be found in Egypt even today.
But what was the date of these ancient huts? Although some mud-brick domestic buildings were older than the temple at Medinet Habu, the huts we are talking about are, as the excavators recognized, later than the temple. They are actually situated in the temenos (courtyard) of the temple and are built parallel to the temple wall—leading the excavators to suggest that the temple was still there when the huts were built and belonged to workmen assigned to demolish the temple. When was the temple demolished? We know that it was still standing in the time of Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153 B.C.E.). We know this because he built his temple adjacent to the temple complex of Ay and Horemheb; the girdle wall of the Temple of Ramesses III is slightly deflected from its course in order to avoid the nearby complex of the Temple of Ay and Horemheb. (That is actually how the excavators happened to find the Temple of Ay and Horemheb: They saw the deflection of the girdle wall of the Temple of Ramesses III and suspected it made this curve to avoid another temple complex.)
So the Temple of Ay and Horemheb was demolished no earlier than the time of Ramesses III’s successor, Ramesses IV, who reigned from approximately 1153 to 1147 B.C.E. Indeed, Ramesses IV is the most likely candidate to have begun the demolition since he erected a temple immediately adjacent to the north and found it necessary to move some of the perimeter wall of the Temple of Ay and Horemheb. Moreover, Ramesses IV demolished several temples in the Theban west bank; the spoils were found in the remains of another of his temples, in an area known as Asasif.2
From the evidence of postholes and trenches, the excavators were able to draw a careful plan of one entire workmen’s hut and part of another. The plan of the huts is actually marked in the bedrock. In vain, however, do we look to Egyptian house architecture for parallels.3 On the contrary, despite the flimsy construction of these huts, we find the same room configuration in the so-called Israelite four-room house in Palestine.4
A four-room house consists of three parallel long rooms separated by two walls or rows of columns, plus a broad room across one end. Often the rooms are subdivided, and sometimes subsidiary rooms are added. The central long room is thought to have been a roofless courtyard, often separated from one of the adjoining rooms by a row of columns. The four-room house is the predominant type of domestic building in Palestine during the entire Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.E.). In other words, it made its initial appearance when the Israelites began to settle perceptibly in Canaan in Iron Age I and continued to be the most popular house-type during Iron Age II. After the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E., it entirely disappeared. The house-type endured for more than 600 years.
In scholarly circles today, the four-room house is often called the “Israelite house” because it is ubiquitous in the Israelite period and at Israelite sites, with only a few appearances elsewhere. The late Yigal Shiloh called the four-room house “an original Israelite concept.”5 Two Israeli archaeologists recently concluded in these pages that “the four-room house may safely be called the Israelite house.”a I am not so sure. First, there is a very old prototype from Mesopotamia and Syria, called the “Mittelsaal Haus” (middle-room house), which goes back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. Second, the four-room house can also be found outside the settlement area of the proto-Israelites. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the exceptions can be accounted for as belonging to Israelites living for relatively short periods in non-Israelite areas. On the other hand, some of the earliest four-room houses, at Tel Masos in the Negev, have been ascribed to the Amalekites,6 although the excavators claim the settlement is Israelite. At two sites suggested to be Philistine (Tel Qasile, stratum X, and Tel Sera‘=Tell esh-Shari‘a, stratum VII), four-room houses have been excavated, but they date to the end of Iron Age I (1000 B.C.E.) at the earliest and probably to Iron Age II. Apparently, if Philistines built four-room houses, they did not do so until some time after their settlement on Palestine’s southern coastal plain. Most of the four-room houses are from Israelite settlements. Even if all early four-room houses are not necessarily Israelite, the early or proto-Israelites were surely among their main inhabitants.
The four-room house at Medinet Habu was not recognized as such by the excavators. I recognized it by pure chance when studying the Chicago reports. There can be no doubt now what it is, especially because of the very typical pillar separation of the center room or courtyard from one side room (a hallmark of the four-room house) and the fact that the four-room house first appears in Palestine at precisely this time. In one detail, however, the Egyptian example does deviate from the usual four-room house: Its entry is through the broad room rather than through the courtyard (the middle long room). (From the broad room, one would have walked into the middle long room.) But even this anomaly sometimes occurs in houses in Canaan, at Tel Masos, for example.7 It may well be that the entry to this house is through the broad room because it is the northern room and, as in most contemporary Egyptian houses, is designed to let the prevailing north wind enter the house, especially during the heat of the summer.8
On this basis, the workmen—perhaps slaves—employed to demolish the Temple of Ay and Horemheb in the late 12th century B.C.E. could have been early Israelites, although we cannot prove it with absolute certainty.
Ramesses III campaigned against Sea Peoples (including Philistines), as well as Shosu Bedouin, and brought them back as prisoners of war. According to the first section of the Papyrus Harris (one of the longest ancient Egyptian papyri still in existence, now in the British Museum), most of these Shosu Bedouin were dispersed among the main temples as slaves. Many scholars follow Raphael Giveon in identifying the early Israelites as a faction of the Shosu Bedouin.9 In any event, it is clear that the majority of early Israelites came out of this pool of wanderers.
The above-mentioned Harris papyrus recounts Ramesses III’s exploits during what was probably the last, large-scale Egyptian campaign in Canaan:
I extended all the frontiers of Egypt and overthrew those who had attacked them from their lands. I slew the Denyen in their islands, while the Tjeker and the Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and Weshesh of the Sea were made nonexistent, captured all together and brought in captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore…I destroyed the people of Seïr among the bedouin [Shosu] tribes. I razed their tents, their people, their property, and their cattle as well, without number, pinioned and carried away in captivity, as the tribute of Egypt. I gave them to the Ennead of the gods, as slaves for their houses (temples).10
The Sea Peoples (including Philistines) who came originally from the Aegean or Asia Minor had their own distinctive domestic architecture. (No four-room houses have been found at such Philistine sites as Ekron, Ashdod and Ashkelon.) They may have occasionally adopted the four-room house, but only later. (But even this is doubtful, as excavator Amihai Mazar informs me; at the Philistine site of Tell Qasile, the discovery of a colored rim jar may be an indication that Israelites were present at the site and responsible for building the four-room houses there.)
The proto-Israelites, however, were expanding dramatically in the 12th century B.C.E. Archaeologists have recently found several hundred new settlements with four-room houses and related structures in the highlands of central Canaan. Therefore some proto-Israelites were very likely among the prisoners from the campaigns of Ramesses III and were employed to demolish the Temple of Ay and Horemheb. The workmen who lived in the four-room house in Egypt were probably slaves descended from the prisoners of war from Palestine or the desert of Seïr—perhaps early or proto-Israelites.
The next question is whether this four-room house in Egypt may be significant in dating the presence of proto-Israelites in Egypt (perhaps corresponding to the Biblical Exodus). I think it is. The demolition in which these probable proto-Israelite workmen participated occurred after the time of Ramesses III, no earlier than the reign of Ramesses IV—c.1153–1147 B.C.E., in other words in the mid-12th century. Not in the XVIIIth Dynasty, not in the XIXth Dynasty, but in the XXth Dynasty, the second of whose rulers was Ramesses III.
If proto-Israelites were in Egypt at this time, as the reed huts by the Temple of Ay and Horemheb suggest, they must have been close to Egypt prior to this time. It seems highly likely that to some extent they had already settled in Canaan or in its immediate neighborhood, and later were either deported to Egypt by force, or migrated toward Egypt in order to keep their flocks alive (as the Bible suggests). This reasoning would imply that if an Exodus (a flight of a group of proto-Israelite slaves)11 occurred, the order of the Biblical tradition should be reversed.
First came the Israelite settlement of Canaan, which had already begun before their sojourn in Egypt. Otherwise they would not have demanded to return to this region after leaving Egypt.
Second came their time in Egypt.
Third came the Exodus from Egypt. It is also possible that some proto-Israelites moved (or were moved) to Egypt directly from Transjordan, and only afterwards departed for Canaan. Such a case could be made for the Shosu whom Ramesses III captured in the desert of Seïr.12 But for most of the proto-Israelites the connection with Canaan must have been established before their journey to Egypt. Therefore, the presence of proto-Israelites in Egypt should be dated to a time when the settlement at Canaan had already begun.
According to recent archaeological surveys, the spread of Iron Age settlements ascribed to the proto-Israelites
began no earlier than the 12th century B.C.E.13 These settlements were located in the central hill country of Canaan, while the Canaanites continued to control the fertile plains. However, the material culture—mainly pottery—of these new settlers is so significantly different from that of the inhabitants of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age that we must assume a new population with a pastoral background had arrived. Whether this migration was a peaceful infiltration or a military conquest is a question that we need not decide here.14 Suffice it to say that in the stratigraphy of a large part of Canaan, archaeologists have found a series of destruction levels in the 12th century B.C.E. indicating military actions by the Sea Peoples (Philistines),15 by proto-Israelites and by related populations. These are found not only on the coast, but also in the interior (at Megiddo, Taanach, Gibeon and Hazor).
The famous Merneptah Stele that mentions Israel in Canaan, not as a city or a state or a land, but as a people, can be dated to the late 13th century B.C.E. and is therefore sometimes cited as evidence for an Exodus at some time earlier in the 13th century. But Israel is mentioned along with Ashkelon, Gezer and Yinoam. These names follow a progression from the coast to the interior (Yinoam is southwest of the Sea of Galilee). The stele may indicate that the people Israel were still east of the Jordan at this time. At any rate, the Israelites (or proto-Israelites) clearly did not possess any land of their own at this point, because the hieroglyphic determinative attached to their name indicates they were still a people without a land.16
All this, I believe, supports an assumption that the settlement in Canaan took place no earlier than the early 12th century B.C.E.—in the XXth Dynasty. This was followed by the sojourn in Egypt (at least by some of the proto-Israelites). If there was a historical Exodus, it was probably a group of these people who left Egypt in the XXth Dynasty.
This finding also could have significant implications for the core historicity of the Biblical account. Ancient philology indicates that the historical reliability of oral traditions can be sustained for only about three to six generations—say 200 years at most. After that the historical picture fades into mythical darkness.17 This is as true for Herodotus as it is for the Hebrew Bible. Genealogical lists are the exceptions; they can be reliable for a much longer period.18
The books of Genesis and Exodus may have taken their final shape only in the seventh century B.C.E. Admittedly, the Biblical writers had sources. They did not write on a clean slate, a tabula rasa. There may well have been written accounts from as early as the time of the United Monarchy (the hotly debated tenth century B.C.E.), when we even find some references to court annals.19
If Israel’s stay in Egypt and the so-called Exodus occurred in the XXth dynasty, say the middle of the 12th century B.C.E. (and it may have occurred a little later—Ramesses IV’s reign is the earliest that the Temple of Ay and Horemheb could have been destroyed), and if the accounts of the Exodus were written down in the mid-tenth century B.C.E., this puts us just within the limits of historical reliability. (Another way of calculating is by the number of generations in the Biblical account. Gary Rendsburg has counted five generations from David back to the Exodus—back to Nachshon, Aaron’s brother-in-law [Exodus 6:23].)
Dating the Exodus to the XXth dynasty (mid-12th century B.C.E.) brings us significantly closer to the composition of the Biblical writings that incorporate the Exodus tradition.
Moreover, a date so late would be consistent with the description of the “Way of the Land of the Philistines” in the book of Exodus (what the Egyptians called “the Way of Horus”). The Israelites did not, according to Exodus 13:17, leave Egypt by the Way of the Land of the Philistines. By the XXth dynasty, the Philistines were already settled in their pentapolis—Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, Ekron and Gaza—on the southern Canaanite coast. The term “way of the Philistines” is no longer an anachronism. It would make sense for the Israelites to avoid this route.
From a purely literary viewpoint, the earliest Hebrew texts—like the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) and the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15)—that incorporate the Exodus and Sinai traditions date from very close to this time, in the opinion of leading scholars, including Frank M. Cross, J.C. De Moor, D.A. Robertson and others.20 In the article following this one, Baruch Halpern, a respected Biblical scholar, explains how these poems are dated and places their composition between 1050 and 1100 B.C.E.—well within 200 or even 100 years of the Exodus, meaning that they could very likely contain an accurate recital of core history. Indeed, people who had been in Egypt and participated in the Exodus may well have still been alive when these songs were composed.
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Until Next Time
David James