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Holman Bible Dictionary

Egypt

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A land in northeastern Africa, home to one of the earliest civilizations, and an important cultural and political influence on ancient Israel.

Geography Egypt lies at the northeastern corner of Africa, separated from Palestine by the Sinai Wilderness. In contrast to the modern nation, ancient Egypt was confined to the Nile River valley, a long, narrow ribbon of fertile land (the “black land”) surrounded by uninhabitable desert (the “red land”). Egypt proper, from the first cataract of the Nile to the Mediterranean, is some 750 miles long.

Classical historians remarked that Egypt was a gift of the Nile. The river's three tributaries converge in the Sudan. The White Nile, with its source in Lake Victoria, provides a fairly constant water flow. The seasonal flow of the Blue Nile and Atbara caused an annual inundation beginning in June and cresting in September. Not only did the inundation provide for irrigation, but it replenished the soil with a new layer of fertile, black silt each year. The Nile also provided a vital communication link for the nation. While the river's flow carried boats northward, prevailing northerly winds allowed easy sailing upstream.

Despite the unifying nature of the Nile, the “Two Lands” of Egypt were quite distinct. Upper Egypt is the arable Nile Valley from the First Cataract to just south of Memphis in the north. Lower Egypt refers to the broad Delta of the Nile in the north, formed from alluvial deposits. Egypt was relatively isolated by a series of six Nile cataracts on the south and protected on the east and west by the desert. The Delta was the entryway to Egypt for travelers coming from the Fertile Crescent across the Sinai.

History The numerous Egyptian pharaohs were divided by the ancient historian Manetho into thirty dynasties. Despite certain difficulties, Manetho's scheme is still used and provides a framework for a review of Egyptian history.

The unification of originally separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt about 3100 B.C. began the Archaic Period (First and Second Dynasties). Egypt's first period of glory, the Third through Sixth Dynasties of the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 B.C.) produced the famous pyramids. The first, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, was build for Djoser of the Third Dynasty. The most famous, however, are the Fourth Dynasty pyramids at Giza, especially the Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu (Greek Cheops ). Much poorer pyramids demonstrate a reduction in royal power during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.

Low Nile inundations, the resultant bad harvests, and incursions of Asiatics in the Delta region brought the political chaos of the Seventh through Tenth Dynasties, called the First Intermediate Period (2200-2040 B.C.). Following a civil war, the Eleventh Dynasty reunited Egypt and began the Middle Kingdom (2040-1786 B.C.). Under the able pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty, Egypt prospered and conducted extensive trade. From the Middle Kingdom onward, Egyptian history is contemporary with biblical events. Abraham's brief sojourn in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20 ) during this period may be understood in light of a tomb painting at Beni Hasan showing visiting Asiatics in Egypt about 1900 B.C.

Under the weak Thirteenth Dynasty, Egypt entered another period of division. Asiatics, mostly Semites like the Hebrews, migrated into the Delta region of Egypt and began to establish independent enclaves, eventually consolidating rule over Lower Egypt. These pharaohs, being Asiatics rather than native Egyptians, were remembered as Hyksos, or “rulers of foreign lands.” This period, in which Egypt was divided between Hyksos (Fifteenth and Sixteenth) and native Egyptian (Thirteenth and Seventeenth) dynasties, is known as the Second Intermediate or Hyksos Period (1786-1550 B.C.). Joseph's rise to power (Genesis 41:39-45 ) may have taken place under a Hyksos pharaoh. See Hyksos .

The Hyksos were expelled and Egypt reunited about 1550 B.C. by Ahmose I, who established the Eighteenth Dynasty and inaugurated the Egyptian New Kingdom. Successive Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs made military campaigns into Canaan and against the Mitannian kingdom of Mesopotamia, creating an empire which reached the Euphrates River. Foremost among the pharaohs was Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.), who won a major victory at Megiddo in Palestine. Amenhotep III (1391-1353 B.C.) ruled over a magnificent empire in peace—thanks to a treaty with Mitanni—and devoted his energies to building projects in Egypt itself. The great successes of the Empire led to internal power struggles, especially between the powerful priesthood of Amen-Re and the throne.

Amenhotep III's son, Amenhotep IV (1353-1335 B.C.), changed his name to Akhenaton and embarked on a revolutionary reform which promoted worship of the sun disc Aton above all other gods. As Thebes was dominated by the powerful priesthood of Amen-Re, Akhenaton moved the capital over two hundred miles north to Akhetaton, modern tell el-Amarna. The Amarna Age, as this period is known, brought innovations in art and literature; but Akhenaton paid little attention to foreign affairs, and the Empire suffered. Documents from Akhetaton, the Amarna Letters, represent diplomatic correspondence between local rulers in Egypt's sphere of influence and pharaoh's court. They especially illuminate the turbulent situation in Canaan, a century prior to the Israelite invasion.

The reforms of Akhenaton failed. His second successor made clear his loyalties to Amen-Re by changing his name from Tutankhaton to Tutankhamen and abandoning the new capital in favor of Thebes. He died young, and his comparatively insignificant tomb was forgotten until its rediscovery in 1921. The Eighteenth Dynasty would not recover. The General Horemheb seized the throne and worked vigorously to restore order and erase all trace of the Amarna heresy. Horemheb had no heir and left the throne to his vizier, Ramses I, first king of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

Seti I (1302-1290 B.C.) reestablished Egyptian control in Canaan and campaigned against the Hittites, who had taken Egyptian territory in North Syria during the Amarna Age. See Hittites. Construction of a new capital was begun by Seti I in the eastern Delta, near the biblical Land of Goshen. Thebes would remain the national religious and traditional capital.

Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.) was the most vigorous and successful of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs. In his fifth year, he fought the Hittites at Kadesh-on-the-Orontes in north Syria. Although ambushed and nearly defeated, the pharaoh rallied and claimed a great victory. Nevertheless, the battle was inconclusive. In 1270 B.C. Ramses II concluded a peace treaty with the Hittites recognizing the status quo. At home he embarked on the most massive building program of any Egyptian ruler. Impressive additions were made to sanctuaries in Thebes and Memphis, a gigantic temple of Ramses II was built at Abu Simbel in Nubia, and his mortuary temple and tomb were prepared in Western Thebes. In the eastern Delta, the new capital was completed and called Pi-Ramesse (“domain of Ramses;” compare Genesis 47:11 ), the biblical Ramses (Exodus 1:11 ). Indeed, Ramses II may have been the unnamed pharaoh of the Exodus.

Ramses II was succeeded, after a long reign, by his son, Merneptah (1224-1214 B.C.). A stele of 1220 B.C. commemorates Merneptah's victory over a Libyan invasion and concludes with a poetic account of a campaign in Canaan. It includes the first extra-biblical mention of Israel and the only one in known Egyptian literature. After Merneptah, the Nineteenth Dynasty is a period of confusion.

Egypt had a brief period of renewed glory under Ramses III (1195-1164 B.C.) of the Twentieth Dynasty. He defeated an invasion of the Sea Peoples, among whom were the Philistines. The remainder of Twentieth Dynasty rulers, all named Ramses, saw increasingly severe economic and civil difficulties. The New Kingdom and the Empire petered out with the last of them in 1070 B.C. The Iron Age had taken dominance of the Near East elsewhere.

The Late Period (1070-332 B.C.) saw Egypt divided and invaded, but with occasional moments of greatness. While the high priesthood of Amen-Re controlled Thebes, the Twenty-first Dynasty ruled from the east Delta city of Tanis, biblical Zoan (Numbers 13:22 ; Psalm 78:12 ; Ezekiel 30:14 ; Isaiah 19:11 ; Isaiah 30:4 ). It was likely a pharaoh of this dynasty, perhaps Siamun, who took Gezer in Palestine and gave it to Solomon as his daughter's dowry (1 Kings 3:1 ; 1 Kings 9:16 ). The Twenty-second Dynasty was founded by Shoshenq I (945-924 B.C.), the Shishak of the Bible, who briefly united Egypt and made a successful campaign against the newly-divided nations Judah and Israel (1 Kings 14:25 ; 2 Chronicles 12:1 ). Thereafter, Egypt was divided between the Twenty-second through Twenty-fifth Dynasties. The “So king of Egypt” (2 Kings 17:4 ) who encouraged the treachery of Hoshea, certainly belongs to this confused period, but he cannot be identified with certainty. Egypt was reunited in 715 B.C., when the Ethiopian Twenty-fifth Dynasty succeeded in establishing control over all of Egypt. The most important of these pharaohs was Taharqa, the biblical Tirhakah who rendered aid to Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:9 ; Isaiah 37:9 ).

Assyria invaded Egypt in 671 B.C., driving the Ethiopians southward and eventually sacking Thebes (biblical No-Amon; Nahum 3:8 ) in 664 B.C. Under loose Assyrian sponsorship, the Twenty-sixth Dynasty controlled all of Egypt from Sais in the western Delta. With Assyria's decline, Neco II (610-595 B.C.) opposed the advance of Babylon and exercised brief control over Judah (2 Kings 23:29-35 ). After a severe defeat at the Battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.), Neco II lost Judah as a vassal (2 Kings 24:1 ) and was forced to defend her border against Babylon. The Pharaoh Hophra (Greek Apries ; 589-570 B.C.) supported Judah's rebellion against Babylon, but was unable to provide the promised support (Jeremiah 37:5-10 ; Jeremiah 44:30 ). Despite these setbacks, the Twenty-sixth Dynasty was a period of Egyptian renaissance until the Persian conquest in 525 B.C. Persian rule (Twenty-seventh Dynasty) was interrupted by a period of Egyptian independence under the Twenty-eighth through Thirtieth Dynasties (404-343 B.C.). With Persian reconquest in 343 B.C., pharaonic Egypt had come to an end.

Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians in 332 B.C. and founded the great city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. After his death in 323 B.C., Egypt was home to the Hellenistic Ptolemaic Empire until the time of Cleopatra, when it fell to the Romans (30 B.C.). During the New Testament period, Egypt, under direct rule of the Roman emperors, was the breadbasket of Rome.

Religion Egyptian religion is extremely complex and not totally understood. Many of the great number of gods were personifications of the enduring natural forces in Egypt, such as the sun, Nile, air, earth, and so on. Other gods, like Maat (“truth,” “justice”), personified abstract concepts. Still others ruled over states of mankind, like Osiris, god of the underworld. Some of the gods were worshiped in animal form, such as the Apis bull which represented the god Ptah of Memphis.

Many of the principal deities were associated with particular cities or regions, and their position was often a factor of the political situation. This is reflected by the gods' names which dominate pharaohs' names in various dynasties. Thus the god Amen, later called Amen-Re, became the chief god of the Empire because of the position of Thebes. The confusion of local beliefs and political circumstances led to the assimilation of different gods to certain dominant figures. Theological systems developed around local gods at Hermopolis, Memphis, and Heliopolis. At Memphis, Ptah was seen as the supreme deity which created the other gods by his own word, but this notion was too intellectual to be popular. Dominance was achieved by the system of Heliopolis, home of the sun god Atum, later identified with Ra. Similar to the Hermopolis cycle, it involved a primordial chaos from which appeared Atum who gave birth to the other gods.

Popular with common people was the Osiris myth. Osiris, the good king, was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. Osiris' wife, Isis, gathered his body to be mummified by the jackal-headed embalming god Anubis. Magically restored, Osiris was buried by his son, Horus, and reigned as king of the underworld. Horus, meanwhile, overcame the evil Seth to rule on earth. This cycle became the principle of divine kingship. In death, the pharaoh was worshiped as Osiris. As the legitimate heir Horus buried the dead Osiris, the new pharaoh became the living Horus by burying his dead predecessor.

The consistent provision of the Nile gave Egyptians, in contrast to Mesopotamians, a generally optimistic outlook on life. This is reflected in their preoccupation with the afterlife, which was viewed as an ideal continuation of life on earth. In the Old Kingdom it was the prerogative only of the king, as a god, to enjoy immortality. The common appeal of the Osiris cult was great, however, and in later years any dead person was referred to as “the Osiris so and so.”

To assist the dead in the afterlife, magical texts were included in the tomb. In the Old Kingdom they were for royalty only, but by the Middle Kingdom variations were written inside coffin lids of any who could afford them. In the New Kingdom and later, magical texts known as The Book of the Dead were written on papyrus and placed in the coffin. Pictorial vignettes show, among other things, the deceased at a sort of judgment in which his heart was weighted against truth. This indicates some concept of sin, but the afterlife for the Egyptian was not an offer from a gracious god, but merely an optimistic hope based on observation of his surroundings.

The Bible mentions no Egyptian gods, and Egyptian religion did not significantly influence the Hebrews. There are some interesting parallels between biblical texts and Egyptian literature. An Amarna Age hymn to the Aton has similarities to Psalm 104:1 , but direct borrowing seems unlikely. More striking parallels are found in wisdom literature, as between Proverbs 22:1 and the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope.

Daniel C. Browning, Jr.


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Egypt'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/e/egypt.html. 1991.

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