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6. Egypt To 1600 B.C.

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Egypt, like Mesopotamia, is a fluvial civilization. Unlike Mesopotamia, Egyptian history is characterized by a great stability brought about by the predictability of the annual inundations of the Nile. This river is 4,000 miles long. The White Nile, originating in Kenya, joins the Blue Nile, originating in Ethiopia, at Khartoum in the Sudan. The annual melting of the highland snows produces the flooding which brings rich alluvial soil to the banks of the Nile. The Nile produces two tensionsthere is unity because of the one river, but disunity because of its great length. These tensions are historically evident in the union of upper (south) and lower (north) Egypt. The Pharaohs will be known as the kings of upper and lower Egypt.

Cartouche of Khufu (Cheops), the great pyramid builder. The symbols outside the cartouche are translated “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” This symbol was used by all the Pharaohs even during Greek and Persian times.


No one pretends to be satisfied with the present chronology of Egyptian history. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, pp. 46-48, presents an excellent discussion of the problems. The materials from which a chronology is generally derived are as follows:


Manetho was an Egyptian priest contemporary with the first two Ptolemies (323-245 B.C.). He listed the entire history of Egypt in two parts: first the era of gods and demi-gods and then 31 dynasties for the real history. His work is only partially preserved in the works of others (notably Josephus) and has been demonstrated to be quite defective, but the dynastic presentation has become so entrenched in Egyptology that it is still used today for the outline of Egyptian history.

Turin Canon of Kings (Papyrus)

This hieratic papyrus comes from about the time of Ramases II (1290-1224 B.C.). It is very fragmentary and yields only 80 or 90 royal names.

The Table of Abydos

An inscription from the temple of Abydos shows Seti I (1303-1290) with his oldest son, Ramases II, making offerings to 76 of his ancestors. In addition to these are the Table of Sakkara and the Table of Karnak.

The Palermo Stone

This stone is now in the museum of Palermo, Italy. It is only a fragment containing some of the names in Egyptian history. Its date, significance and extent are still much debated.

These data, synchronized in so far as possible with Mesopotamian events and astronomical date, provide a framework for the erection of Egyptian history, but, it must ever be kept in mind, that the framework is only tentative.

The Early Period--to 2700 B.C.

Racial origins and language.

Multiple political divisions.

Kingdom in south under the god Seth.

Unification of lower Egypt. First union of upper and lower under falcon kings of lower Egypt. Capital was at Heliopolis. They worshipped Horus.

Break-up of the union. Development of both kingdoms.

Conquest of lower by upper about 2900 B.C.

Dynasties I, II. 2900-2700 B.C.

The Old Kingdom-Memphis-Dynasties III-VI-2700-2200 B.C. (500 years)

Innovation and adventure mark Dynasties III-IV (400 years). The achievements of this era become “canonized” and copied by all succeeding generations. Wilson argues that cylinder seals, architecture (bricks), art, the potter’s wheel, and above all writing come from Mesopotamia.1

Religious significance of Pyramids is the preservation of the Pharaohs. Old pyramids are best here. The Great pyramid (IV dynasty) contained 6.25 million tons of stone. Some of the blocks were 2.5 tons each. The joints were 1/50th of an inch. Squareness deviation: .09 N-S, .03 E-W. Plane deviation: .004%.

Relation with neighbors--expeditions against Nubia, Libya, Palestine, Syria. Close relations with Byblos--cedar wood.

There was a slowly developing crisis from the Vth dynasty onward. The priesthood begins to ascend and feudalism begins.2

The “First Sickness”--Dynasties VII-X--2200-2000 B.C. (200 years)

There was a leveling of the Pharaoh and nobility. The administration approached that of a democracy. There was a loss of the intellectual self-confidence which had characterized the earlier period.

Egypt fell into disorganized feudalism which lasted almost four centuries. The priesthood at Heliopolis and the sun god Re become dominant.

The Middle Kingdom--Dynasties XI-XII--2000-1700 B.C. (300 years)

The XIth dynasty at Thebes began to fight for supremacy against the Fayum and eventually won. Under the XIIth dynasty, Egypt was again unified and became strong. Amon emerges and becomes the dominant god. (There is some confusion as to the placement of Dynasties XIII and XIV.)

The Egyptians penetrated to the first cataract (see the story of Sinuhe--1960-1928 B.C.).

The Egyptian standard was carried to Syria (1887-1849). JOSEPH ENTERS AROUND THIS TIME (1871 for Jacob). There is evidence for Asiatic intrusion into Egypt during the “first sickness” (see ANEP, #3).3

This is the classical period of art and literature.

The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of the Hyksos (“second sickness”).

The Hyksos Invasion--Second Sickness”--Dynasties XV-XVII (1700-1600 B.C.)

The Hyksos are still an obscure people in part because of the effort of their successors to eradicate any memory of them from the monuments. Josephus, quoting Manetho, believes they are the Israelites.4 He calls them “shepherd kings,” but the word is now translated “rulers of foreign lands.” There were, apparently, contemporaneous dynasties at the southern capital of Thebes which were too weak to overthrow these foreigners. Their influence is noted in the importation of the composite bow, chariotry, Canaanite words and Canaanite divinities.5

Kamose, from the rival Egyptian dynasty, began the wars of liberation against the Hyksos. He is considered the last of the XVIIth dynasty and the brother of Amose I who is considered to be the founder of the XVIIIth and most powerful dynasty of all. Kamose was able to drive the dreaded Asiatics back into Palestine.6

Place of Israel. The period of the Hyksos is very obscure for obvious reasons. Biblical chronology, however, puts Jacob and his descendants in Egypt before the Hyksos invasion and the exodus after their expulsion. This synchronism is based on the assumption that the dates for the pharaohs are correct, and an early date for the exodus based on 1 Kings 6:1.

1 J. A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt, pp. 37-38.

2Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient, p. 107.

3A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, p. 109.

4Josephus, Contra Apion I, 14.

5Cf. CAH, 2,1:633-638 for a connection with the Greeks. Stubbings hypothesizes a link between Danaus, founder of the Mycenaean dynasty, and the Hyksos.

6See P. Montet, Lives of the Pharaohs, pp. 64ff., and Moscati, The Face of the Ancient Orient, pp. 109-10.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History

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