Part 1—Ancient Egypt—First of the Great World Powers
EGYPT—ancient land of the Pharaohs and of the Nile—was one of the world’s major civilizations. Its art adorns great museums. Its history is related in school textbooks. Its massive monuments awe tourists. Furthermore, many Biblical events either occurred in or involved this land. Egypt and its people are referred to more than 700 times in the Bible.
Yet, what do you really know about ancient Egypt? Learning more about it will help you to understand many things mentioned in the Bible.
In Egypt, archaeologists have found much that confirms the Bible record. For example, consider the account about Joseph. Names, titles, Joseph’s position as a house manager, the position given him as second ruler in the land and as food administrator, the Egyptian burial practices, and even the practice of bakers’ carrying baskets of bread on their heads—all of these have been found to conform to Egyptian customs of that time.—Genesis, chapters 39–47; Ge 50:1-3.
The Land and Its People
Egypt depends on the Nile. That river’s rich valley, averaging only about 12 miles [19 km] in width from Aswân to Cairo, stretches northward like a narrow green ribbon across the parched African desert. In the past, its annual floods brought soil-enriching silt that made Egypt an exporter of food and a place of refuge in time of famine. (Genesis 12:10) Papyrus reeds, found along its banks, were made into the earliest paper.
The broad delta, where the Nile’s waters fan out before flowing into the blue Mediterranean, is called Lower Egypt. Here, apparently, lay “the land of Goshen,” where the Israelites lived during their long sojourn in Egypt.—Genesis 47:27.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their Pharaoh was a god. This fact adds meaning to Pharaoh’s disdainful question to Moses: “Who is Jehovah, so that I should obey his voice?” (Exodus 5:2) The Egyptians also had many other gods. The names of some 740 of these were found in a list discovered in the tomb of Thutmose III. The Egyptians worshiped triads of gods, or trinities, and one of the most popular of these was the triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.
Many of Egypt’s most prominent gods were depicted with human bodies and animal heads. The Egyptians represented Horus with a falcon’s head and Thoth with the head of an ibis or an ape. Cats, jackals, crocodiles, baboons, and various birds were considered sacred because of their association with certain gods. The Apis bull, viewed as the incarnation of the god Osiris, was kept in a temple at Memphis, then given an elaborate funeral and even mummified at death. Famed Egyptian scarabs, worn like beads as protective charms, were representations of the dung beetle—thought to be a manifestation of the creator-god.
Despite a long stay in Egypt and close contact with the people of that land, the Israelites had only one God, Jehovah, and were to serve him alone. They were warned not to make any religious image—either of God himself or of a bird, beast, fish, or anything else. Their worship of a golden calf shortly after their exodus from Egypt may have resulted from Egyptian influence.—Exodus 32:1-28; Deuteronomy 4:15-20.
Belief in Immortality
The Egyptians were firm believers in immortality. Thus, the Egyptian rulers prepared elaborate tombs, laden with life’s necessities and luxuries, hoping to secure eternal happiness in an afterlife. The pyramids are the most outstanding example of this practice.
Gold jewelry, clothing, furniture, wine, food, pottery, ivory boxes, and even little slabs for grinding eye paint were all carefully placed in Egyptian tombs. It was believed that these items could be used in a life beyond the grave. In earlier times, slaves were killed and buried along with their masters, to serve them after death. A collection of spells known as the “Book of the Dead” has been found inside thousands of Egyptian coffins. It was hoped that these spells would help a dead person to overcome the various perils of the afterlife.
How different was the Israelites’ view! They knew, as the Bible would later say, that “as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” And when a man dies, “in that day his thoughts do perish.”* Their hope for future life was in the resurrection.—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Psalm 146:4; Job 14:13-15.
Who Lived When?
Egyptologists identify 31 “dynasties” of Egyptian kings and speak of the Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3-6), the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11, 12), and the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18-20). But this way of reckoning is far from accurate. It involves questionable and fragmentary writings and may even include several kings ruling in different regions at the same time, rather than a succession ruling one after the other.*
When Moses began writing the first books of the Bible, he followed what apparently was the Egyptians’ own custom of referring to their king as “Pharaoh,” without using a personal name. Thus, we do not know the name of the Pharaohs that Abraham and Joseph knew or which one ruled at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. However, the title “Pharaoh” later began to be coupled with the king’s own name, making it possible to link Biblical events with the Egyptian king list. Here are some of the Pharaohs of particular interest to a student of the Bible:
Akhenaton (of the so-called 18th Dynasty) was a fervent worshiper of the sun disk Aton. In 1887 a collection of some 377 clay tablets was found at Tel el-Amarna, about 200 miles [320 km] south of Cairo. These interesting tablets were diplomatic correspondence received by Akhenaton and his father Amenhotep III. Included were letters from the rulers of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Hazor, Shechem, Lachish, Hebron, Gaza, and other city-states in Palestine. Perhaps written shortly before Israel entered Canaan, these letters reveal warring feuds and intrigue. They also show that each town had its own king, as the Bible book of Joshua indicates.
Tutankhamen, a son-in-law of Akhenaton, is the famed “King Tut” whose splendid golden tomb furnishings were uncovered by archaeologists and have been displayed in various museums. These furnishings are an outstanding demonstration of the wealth of the Pharaohs. It was wealth such as this that Moses had earlier turned his back on when he “refused to be called the son of the daughter of Pharaoh, choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God rather than to have the temporary enjoyment of sin.”—Hebrews 11:24, 25.
Merneptah was of the “19th Dynasty.” On a victory monument found in a temple at Thebes, this Pharaoh recorded that “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” This is the only direct mention of Israel as a nation yet found in ancient Egyptian records. While evidently an idle boast, this claim seems to indicate that the Israelite conquest of Canaan had already occurred. Thus, that conquest of 1473 B.C.E. must have occurred between the time Akhenaton received the Tel el-Amarna letters and the days of Merneptah.
Shishak (Sheshonk I, “22nd Dynasty”) is the first Pharaoh mentioned by name in the Bible. With a mighty force of chariots and horsemen, he invaded Judah, threatened Jerusalem, and “took the treasures of the house of Jehovah and the treasures of the king’s house. Everything he took.” (2 Chronicles 12:9) This event is confirmed by a relief on the southern wall of the temple of Amon at Karnak (ancient Thebes). It shows 156 manacled prisoners, each representing a captured city or village, including Megiddo, Shunem, and Gibeon. Among the places captured, Shishak even lists the “Field of Abram”—the earliest reference to Abraham in Egyptian records.
Other World Powers Arise
Eventually, Egypt was replaced by Assyria as dominant world power. But she remained a potent political force. Hoshea, the last king of the ten-tribe northern kingdom of Israel, conspired with King So of Egypt in an unsuccessful attempt to throw off the yoke of Assyria. (2 Kings 17:3, 4) Years later, during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, King Tirhakah of Ethiopia (probably the Ethiopian ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh Taharqa) marched into Canaan and temporarily diverted Assyrian king Sennacherib’s attack. (2 Kings 19:8-10) Sennacherib’s own annals, found in Assyria, apparently refer to this when they say: “I personally captured alive . . . the charioteers of the king of Ethiopia.”—Oriental Institute Prism of Sennacherib, University of Chicago.
Jehovah’s prophet Isaiah had foretold that Egypt would be delivered into “the hand of a hard master” and that a “strong” king would rule over the Egyptians. (Isaiah 19:4) The truthfulness of this prophecy is confirmed by an Assyrian document in which Sennacherib’s son Esar-haddon boasts about his conquest of Egypt, saying: “Its king, Tirhakah, I wounded five times with arrowshots and ruled over his entire country.”
Pharaoh Necho marched northward about 629 B.C.E. to intercept the armies of the upcoming third world power, Babylon. The Bible says that Josiah of Jerusalem unwisely tried to stop the Egyptian forces at Megiddo and was defeated and killed.* (2 Chronicles 35:20-24) About four years later, in 625 B.C.E., Pharaoh Necho himself was defeated by the Babylonians at Carchemish. Both the Bible and the Babylonian Chronicles refer to this event, which gave the Babylonians mastery over western Asia.
In 525 B.C.E., Egypt came under the control of the fourth world power, Medo-Persia. Almost two centuries later, in 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great came on the scene and brought Egypt under the fifth world power, Greece. Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt’s Nile-delta area, where, about 280 B.C.E., the first translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek was begun. This translation, which became known as the Septuagint, was the Bible used by Jesus’ followers in the Greek-speaking world.
In the time of Rome, the sixth world power, Jesus was brought to Egypt as a young child to save him from jealous Herod. (Matthew 2:13-15) Egyptians were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E. to hear the marvelous preaching of the Christian good news. And the eloquent first-century Christian Apollos came from there.—Acts 2:10; 18:24.
Yes, Egypt and the Egyptians have figured prominently in Bible history, and many archaeological discoveries confirm what the Scriptures say about this ancient land. Indeed, Egypt was so prominent that in some prophetic passages, it symbolizes the whole world under Satan’s domination. (Ezekiel 31:2; Revelation 11:8) But ancient Egypt, despite its strength as a world power, was never able to thwart the fulfillment of Jehovah’s purposes. And this was also true of the second world power of Bible history, Assyria, as we shall see in the next issue of the Watchtower magazine.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is . . . nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”
For an interesting discussion of the problems associated with these lists, see the book Aid to Bible Understanding, pages 324-5, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
This was one of the decisive battles fought at Megiddo, which leads to its being used as a symbol of God’s decisive final battle against rebellious human nations at Har–Magedon, or Armageddon.—Revelation 16:16.
[Map on page 23]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Based on a map copyrighted by Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est. and Survey of Israel
[Picture on page 24]
Egyptian god depicted with a human body and a falcon’s head
Courtesy of the British Museum, London
[Pictures on page 25]
Section of “Book of the Dead” found inside an Egyptian coffin
Courtesy of the Superintendence of the Museo Egizio, Turin
Egyptian coffin and cover for mummy
Courtesy of the Superintendence of the Museo Egizio, Turin
[Picture on page 26]
King Tutankhamen next to the seated god Amon
Courtesy of the Superintendence of the Museo Egizio, Turin