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74 | Does the Ipuwer Papyrus solve the mystery of the Egyptian Guard?

Israel in Egypt By Edward Poynter (1836-1919)/Wikipedia/Public Domain
74 | Does the Ipuwer Papyrus solve the mystery of the Egyptian Guard?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast, I want to discuss an issue that has puzzled many people namely: why don’t we find any mention of the devastating 10 plaques or Israel’s departure in Egypt’s archaeological records.

Though Egyptian pharaohs were notorious for downplaying their defeats and glorifying their victories, you would think there would be at least some hint of Israel’s exodus.

Well in fact there is a reference to the plagues, but it hasn’t caught most Christian’s attention because it requires a major rethink of when the Exodus took place. Because, it puts the exodus about 300 years earlier than traditionally believed.

And as an added bonus, in this podcast I will reveal who I think was the actual Pharaoh of the Exodus.

If you have watched any of the movies about Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, they always portray the Pharaoh as a bald-headed Rameses II, arguably one of Egypt’s most powerful and famous pharaohs, who ruled between 1279 and 1213 BC.

There is a reason for this. Because in the Biblical account, we find four references to Ramses. But in each instance, the name is used to describe a city or territory, and not the actual name of the Pharaoh.

That is important because cities, regions and even countries can change their name over time, particularly when there is a new government in power.

  • Turkey changed Constantinople’s name to Istanbul
  • The Soviet Union was renamed Russia

And we even see the same thing occurring in Genesis 47:11:

11 So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed.

It was called the district of Rameses, even though Pharaoh Rameses would not show up until much later, if you hold he was the actual Pharaoh of the Exodus account.

A chapter earlier, this same area is described as the land of Goshen in Genesis 46:3.

Though this seems like a discrepancy, it isn’t. These ancient manuscripts were meticulously rewritten by hand down through the generations, and as the names changed over time, later scribes chose at times to use the area’s current name, that people were familiar with, rather than using its original name.

And this paves the way for an ancient papyrus on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities located in Leiden, Holland.

Called the Ipuwer papyrus, it was discovered in 1828, but wasn’t translated until 1909, when Professor Alan Gardner discovered it was a lament speaking of a very chaotic time in Egypt’s history.

It spoke of disasters, deaths, mysterious natural phenomena and famine.

It was written by a man named Ipuwer who may have actually witnessed the events he was describing as he mixes historical with current events.

The Ipuwer papyrus is dated to the New Kingdom period of Egypt that started around 1550 BC.

In the papyrus, Ipuwer also referred to a group called the Asiatics and most believe this is a reference to an unusual time in Egypt’s history, when the Hyksos, a Semitic people similar to the Jews, conquered the northern half of Egypt in the 17th century BC, driving the Egyptian government into the southern half of the Nile delta.

When the Hyksos took over, they simply assumed the Egyptian government as the Hyksos leaders adopted the title of Pharaoh. They even embraced Egyptian culture, as archaeologist have found sphinxes with the heads of Hyksos pharaohs carved on them.

Around 1550 BC, the Egyptians were finally able to drive the Hyksos from Northern Egypt and retake the Nile Delta. In his papyrus, Ipuwer was referring to the period shortly after the Egyptians regained control and warned the current rulers if they did not rule honestly, Egypt would be judged by their gods similar to what happened years earlier.

And then, Ipuwer goes on to describe some of these judgments that are eerily similar to several of the plagues mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
In the following comparison of the Ipuwer plagues with the Biblical plagues, I used a translation provided by Rabbi Mordechai Becher of OHR Somayach a Jewish seminary.

The First Plague: Nile turned to blood

First, we see a a reference to the first plague found in Exodus 7:20, when God turned the water of the Nile river into blood. It was undrinkable and the Egyptians were forced to dig wells to find clean water (Exodus 7:24)

The Ipuwer papyrus reads:  “The river is blood. Men shrink from tasting — human beings, and thirst after water.” (Ipuwer 2:10)

The Fifth Plague: Animals struck with a disease

Secondly, we also have a reference to the fifth plague mentioned in Exodus 9:3, when God struck the cattle and all the animals of Egypt with a plague.
Ipuwer papyrus reads:

“All the animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan…” (Ipuwer 5:5).

  • “Behold, cattle are left to stray, and there is none to gather them in.” (Ipuser 9:2-3)

The Sixth Plague: Boils

Thirdly, the Ipuwer Papyrus also discusses the sixth plague, when God judged the Egyptians with festering boils that broke out into open wounds. It not only struck people, but animals as well (Exodus 9:8-9).

The Ipuwer papyrus reads:

  • “Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere” (IP 2:5-6).

The Seventh Plague: Hail

Fourthly, there is also a reference to the seventh plague, when God sent a massive hail storm that destroyed the herbs (Exodus 9:24-25) and flax and barley crops which were close to harvest (Exodus 9:31-32)

Ipuwer papyrus speaks of a crop failure that affected the Egyptian revenues. It reads:

  • “Lower Egypt weeps … The entire palace is without its revenues. To it belong wheat and barley, geese and fish” (IP 10:3-6). 
  • “Forsooth, grain has perished on every side” (IP 6:3).
  • Ipuwer 5:12 also compares the weariness of the land to the “cutting of flax,” that would happen with a massive hail storm.

In connection with the seventh plague, the Bible mentions a massive storm that resulted in lightning that rolled along the ground. Fire was mixed with the hail (Exodus 9:23-24).

The Ipuwer papyrus also speaks of damage due to fire:

  • “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire” (IP 2:10).

The Ninth Plague: Great Darkness

Fifthly, the Ipuwer papyrus also mentions the ninth plaque found in Exodus 10:22 where it says that a great darkness covered the land for three days.

The Ipuwer papyrus says:

  • “The land is without light” (IP 9:11)

And this is not the only reference to the plague of darkness from Egyptian archaeology.

The Tempest Stele, a stone monument discovered in Egypt dated to the same times as the events mentioned in the Ipuwer Papyrus, describes a darkness so intense that the Egyptians were unable to light their lamps. Describing the same event, the Bible adds that it was so dark that people could not see each other, and the Egyptians did not leave their homes for three days (Exodus 10).

The Tenth Plague: The Death of the Firstborn

And finally, there is also a mention of the the last plague, the death of the firstborn, when God sent a death angel to kill the first-born of every family, including the Pharaoh’s (Exodus 12:29-30). The Bible adds that a great cry was heard across Egypt.

Ipuwer papyrus also refers to this plague describing it this way:

  • “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere” (IP 2:13)
  • “It is groaning through the land, mingled with lamentations” (IP 3:14).
  • “Forsooth, the children of the princes are dashed against the walls.” (IP 4:3, 5:6)
  • “Forsooth, the children of princes are cast in the streets” (IP 6:12).

Gold and Silver given to the Hebrews

But the similarity does not stop there. The Ipuwer papyrus also referred to a couple of other unusual events connected with Israel’s exodus out of Egypt.
Ipuwer talks about a massive transfer of wealth from Egyptians to the slaves of society writing:

  • “Gold and lapis Iazuli, silver, malachite, carnelian and bronze … are fastened on the neck of female slaves” (Ipuwer 3:2)

What would happen to cause such a strange thing to take place.

We know from the Biblical account, that towards the end of their stay in Egypt, the pharaoh was treating the Hebrews as slaves.

But a strange thing happens after the Pharaoh finally allowed Israel to leave after the deaths of the firstborn.

We read in Exodus 12:35-36, that as they were about to leave, the Hebrews asked the Egyptians for gold and silver, call it back pay for their years of slavery.

Having just experienced God’s judgment through the plagues, it’s obvious by this point the Egyptians were terrified of the Israelis.

According to Ipuwer much of it showed up in the form of jewellery as they poured out of their homes handing over their wealth.

The Pillar of Fire by Night

But there is another reference in the papyrus that addresses a second event unique to this time. As Israel was leaving, the Bible says that God led them with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21).

The Ipuwer papyrus also refers to a fire high in the sky, but puts a bit of spin stating that they believed the Egyptian gods were pouring down fire on their enemies. At least that’s what was stated in the official release by the Pharaoh’s press office:

Ipuwer writes:

  • “Behold, the fire has mounted on high. Its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land” (7:1)

Is there any reference to the Hyksos in the Bible?

So despite these very distinct similarities between the Biblical plagues and what is mentioned in the Ipuwer Papyrus, we have to address the bigger issue.
Is there any evidence in the Bible to support this later date for the Exodus?

I believe there is.

If the Ipuwer Papyrus suggests that the plagues of Egypt took place 300 years earlier, shortly after the Hyksos were driven out of Northern Egypt, then this also means that Joseph arrived in Egypt while the Hyksos were in control of Northern Egypt.

As a fellow Semite, Joseph would have had a similar language and culture to the Hyksos and this explains why he so easily rose up to second in command in Egypt.

It also explains why the Hyksos welcomed Joseph’s extended family to settle in some of the prime land in Egypt.

But this also explains two other puzzling passages related to the Exodus story.

The first is found in Genesis 39:1-5. After Joseph was sold into slavey by his brothers to a band of passing Ishmaelites, they headed off to Egypt, and sold Joseph to Potiphar, the head of security for the Pharaoh.

But in the five verses describing this sale, a very strange thing happens.

We are told three times that Potiphar was an Egyptian.

He is described as the “Egyptian officer of Pharaoh,” in verse one. In verse two, Potipher is described as Joseph’s “Egyptian master” and verse 5 also describes Potipher’s house as the “the Egyptian’s home.”

So what is strange about that you ask?

Well it is this.

In the matter of five verses, Moses specifically tells us three times that Potipher was an Egyptian, when he didn’t even need to mention it once, because we would have just presumed the head of the Pharaoh’s security was an Egyptian.

And equally bizarre, Moses specifically described Potipher, as the Egyptian officer of the Pharaoh.

It is like me saying did you know the President of the United States is an American. Then a few second later later jabbing you in the ribs and telling you again he is an American and then two seconds later mentioning he even owns a house in America.

If I did that you would think I was a bit off my rocker, because of course we know he is an American.

But this is essentially what Moses did.

So why did Moses do this?

Because of the obvious focus on Potipher’s Egyptian heritage, we have to conclude that the fact he was Egyptian was very strange and Moses emphasized it several times to make this point.

And the only time this would be unusual is if Potipher, the Egyptian, was serving as head of security during the reign of a Hyksos pharaoh.

And as strange as that sounds, using local people as head of security during a time of occupation is not all that unusual. When the Germans invaded France during World War II, they only had 7,500 German administrators and military in the country, and used the French police and militia to maintain their control of France. And having French police serving in this way would be useful because they were familiar with the French language and culture.

Then finally in the first chapter of Exodus leading up to Israel’s exodus from Egypt we find another interesting passage.

In Exodus 1:8, we read:

“Now a new King rose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8)

Why is this pharaoh described as new king?

During the previous couple of hundred years or so, there would have undoubtedly been several different Hyksos pharaohs.

But there was something different about this one and we are told what it is.

This new pharaoh did not know Joseph or the Hebrews living in the land.

I believe this verse is describing the arrival of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose I, who drove the Hyksos out of Northern Egypt. After regaining this lost territory, the Egyptian Pharaoh had no idea who these strange people were, now living in Egypt’s former territory.

So, Ahmose decides to enslave the Hebrews, but notice the reason he gave for doing this:

“Come let us deal wisely with them [the Israelites] or else they will multiply, and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from their land.”

The new king was very concerned that the Hebrews would join Egypt’s enemy in the event of a war.

Who was this enemy that the pharaoh was concerned about? And why was he concerned that the Hebrews would join them in a war against Egypt?

Ahmose was undoubtedly talking about the Hyksos, that he had just driven out of Northern Egypt, and because of the similar culture, Ahmose was equally concerned Israel would ally with the Hyksos if they ever retried to take Egypt.

So this leads us to our final question. Who was the pharaoh of the Exodus?

Well it was certainly not Ahmose, because several years would pass before Moses approached the pharaoh asking for the release of the Hebrews.

We are told that Moses was adopted into the family of the Pharaoh as a baby where he grew up and later fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard and then spent several years in the wilderness, before returning Egypt to lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land.

At this point, Moses was undoubtedly confronting Ahmose’s son, Amenhotep who reigned from 1524 to 1504 BC and because we don’t know how much time there was between the plagues, it is possible they started in Ahmose’ reign and finished in his son’s.

And there is one final detail about Amenhotep’s reign that has an interesting Biblical twist. In his article entitled, Amenhotep, the second king of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, author Jimmy Dunn writes:

“Some information appears to indicate that Amenhotep I’s son died in infancy and that the Pharaoh died childless.”

This confirms what the Bible says about the final plague, that the killing of the first born also touched the pharaoh’s home.

Despite the movies and documentaries portraying the Pharaoh of the Exodus as being Rameses, I believe the Biblical record and archaeology suggests it was actually Amenhotep.

Thanks for joining me on this podcast and we will catch you again


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