The presence of Hebrews in Egypt prior to their departure is a key component in the Exodus story, leading to the eventual formation of the Israelite nation and the subsequent settlement of Canaan. However, skepticism about the historical validity of the Exodus story has spread through both academia and the general public over the last century. One of the key problems for asserting the Exodus narrative as historical has to do with the supposed lack of archaeological confirmation for Hebrews living in Egypt. Current academic consensus views the events described in the book of Exodus as myth, without any indication of an historical core, and now a topic which the vast majority of scholars decline to investigate due to their certainty that the story is fictional. Scholars have made claims that according to archaeological investigations, “Israelites were never in Egypt...The many Egyptian documents that we have make no mention of the Israelites' presence in Egypt” (Zeev Herzog). Another archaeologist concluded that investigation of the Exodus story is pointless because of the alleged absence of evidence, stating that “not only is there no archaeological evidence for such an exodus, there is no need to posit such an event…I regard the historicity of the Exodus as a dead issue” (William Dever). Are claims that there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that Hebrew people were in Egypt prior to the time of the Exodus consistent with current archaeological and historical data?
Any possible evidence of Hebrews living in Egypt must be prior to the time of the Exodus in order to maintain that the story recorded in the Bible is an accurate historical narrative. Approximately when might have the Exodus occurred? According to a reading of specific chronological information in the books of Kings, Judges, and Numbers, combined with chronological information from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hellenistic, and Roman documents, the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt occurred around the 1440s BC (1 Kings 6:1; Judges 11:26; Numbers 32:13; Ptolemy’s Canon; Neo-Assyrian Eponym List; Manetho’s King List; Uruk King List; Roman Consul Lists). This approximate date in the 1440s BC is a crucial chronological marker which restricts investigation of archaeological and historical material to a particular window of time. Prior to this date, one would expect evidence for Hebrews in Egypt and an Egyptian policy of slavery towards Asiatics or Semites, the larger ethnic groups to which the Hebrews belonged, if the Exodus account is historical. According to the narrative in the Bible, near the end of the Patriarchal period calculated at approximately 1680 BC, Jacob and his family had settled into the northeastern Nile Delta region known as Goshen with their livestock and various possessions (Genesis 46:6, 47:1). Earlier, Abraham had resided temporarily in Egypt but he moved back to Canaan for the remainder of his life (Genesis 12:10-13:1). Around the time of these patriarchs, during the periods called the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period in Egypt and the Middle Bronze Age in Canaan, many people from western Asia or Canaan immigrated into Egypt. A famous contemporary depiction and description of this immigration was found painted on one of the walls of the tomb of Khnumhotep II in Beni Hasan, Egypt. The scene, paired with a text, depicts a group of 37 Semites from Canaan—men, women, and children, along with their livestock and supplies—immigrating into middle Egypt during the early 19th century BC.
While this would be slightly earlier than when Joseph and subsequently his father Jacob arrive in Egypt, the events occur in the same general historical period. According to archaeological excavations and information derived from various ancient documents and art work, during this time large numbers of people from western Asia immigrated into Egypt and settled primarily in the Nile Delta region, just as Jacob and his family also did. Following this period, the Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose I retook Lower Egypt and began enslaving Semites or “Asiatics”—an Egyptian designation for people from the area of greater Canaan which would have included the Hebrews and other tribal groups (Exodus 1:6-14). The transition from a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph to the forced labor of the Hebrews and other Semites seems to fit the transition from the rule of the Hyksos to the 18th Dynasty and the subsequent policy of forced labor upon Asiatics and other non-Egyptians. Papyri such as Leningrad Papyrus 1116A from the 18th Dynasty, probably the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III prior to around 1450 BC, specifies that immigrant people were subjected to compulsory labor such as public building projects after the expulsion of the Hyksos under Pharaoh Ahmose I and subsequent rulers. This would be exactly the time of the enslavement of the Hebrews. Just as this papyrus describes Asiatics or Semites being forced to construct public buildings, the book of Exodus records that the Hebrews were involved in constructing storage buildings in the cities of Rameses, Pithom, and On (Exodus 1:11). Artwork in tombs from the early and middle 18th Dynasty, up through the reign of Thutmose III just prior to the Exodus, also demonstrate the type of slave labor forced upon Semites as described in the book of Exodus. Wall paintings in the tombs of Intef and Rekmire show Semitic slaves performing agricultural tasks, making mud bricks, and constructing buildings. Egyptian artwork depicts different ethnic groups very distinctively, so distinguishing Semities in a particular scene is relatively simple.
The making of mudbricks by Hebrew slaves and the difficulties in this task are detailed in the Exodus account (Exodus 5). A remark on the scene in the tomb of Rekmire about an Egyptian master reminding slaves to not be idle lest they receive a beating with the rod brings to mind the episode in which Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:11). Although many of these connections are circumstantial, the lack of contemporary texts or inscriptions directly attesting to Joseph, Moses, or a large scale enslavement of the Hebrews specifically may be due to the fact that no sites of the period have been excavated in either the central or western Nile Delta region and that few records from the Nile Delta region in this period have survived.
However, an important Egyptian document from Upper Egypt has survived the millennia. While the current scholarly consensus asserts that there is no definitive evidence for Hebrews living in Egypt prior to the Exodus, an Egyptian list of domestic servants written in the Second Intermediate Period, perhaps in the 17th century BC, contains not only Semitic names, but several specifically Hebrew names. This document was designated Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446.
Rediscovered on the antiquities market, this papyrus was examined by William Albright and Kenneth Kitchen, and published in a book by Egyptologist William Hayes of the Brooklyn Museum. Several references to Thebes on the papyrus indicate that it was originally composed in or around that city, the capital of Upper Egypt, although it is not certain exactly where in that region it came from, as information about its original place of discovery was lost. The section of the papyrus dealing with the servants is thought to date from the 13th Dynasty of Egypt, or at least from some time in the era known as the Second Intermediate Period. The end of this period preceded the Exodus by approximately 120 years, while the period began around 300 years prior to the Exodus—encompassing the time that the Hebrews were in Egypt as settlers and perhaps even slaves. The dates for Pharaohs and even the existence of the Pharaohs themselves from this period are often tentative and highly disputed, so it is difficult to date anything with absolute certainty. However, the papyrus does contain the name of a Pharaoh called “Sobekhotep” who may have reigned around either the late 18th or the 17th century BC.
While various publications have suggested rather definite and specific date ranges for the servant list section of the papyrus, it is difficult to establish the precise date due to the fragmentary history of the Second Intermediate Period. Pharaohs Sobekhotep III and VIII, who shared almost identical throne names, could possibly have been the same ruler. All of the monuments of Sobekhotep III are located in the south, and the only monument of Sobekhotep VIII is also located in the south at Karnak, indicating both were Theban kings during the 16th or 17th Theban Dynasties. With the 18th Dynasty beginning ca. 1570 BC according to the latest chronological studies based on high precision radiocarbon samples, this could place the Pharaoh “sekem re sewadjtowy” Sobekhotep (?) in the approximate range of 1700-1620 BC. Further, studies of the phrases and handwriting of the servant list on the papyrus also suggest a date in the Second Intermediate Period. Therefore, the list of servants probably comes from a time during or just after the life of Joseph.
A section of Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 contains a list of 95 servants, many of whom are specified as "Asiatic" or coming from western Asia (i.e. Canaan). The servants with foreign names are given Egyptian names, just as Joseph was when he was a household servant under Potiphar (Genesis 41:45). The majority of the names are feminine because domestic servants were typically female, while the male servants often worked in construction or agricultural tasks. Approximately 30 of the servants have names identified as from the Semitic language family (Hebrew is a Semitic language), but even more relevant to the Exodus story is that several of these servants, up to ten, actually have specifically Hebrew names. The Hebrew names found on the list include: Menahema, a feminine form of Menahem (2 Kings 15:14); Ashera, a feminine form of Asher, the name of one of the sons of Jacob (Genesis 30:13); Shiphrah, the name of one of the Hebrew midwives prior to the Exodus (Exodus 1:15); ‘Aqoba, a name appearing to be a feminine form of Jacob or Yaqob, the name of the patriarch (Genesis 25:26); ‘Ayyabum, the name of the patriarch Job or Ayob (Job 1:1); Sekera, which is a feminine name either similar to Issakar, a name of one of the sons of Jacob, or the feminine form of it (Genesis 30:18); Dawidi-huat a compound name utilizing the name David and meaning “my beloved is he” (1 Samuel 16:13); Esebtw, a name derived from the Hebrew word eseb meaning “herb” (Deuteronomy 32:2); Hayah-wr another compound name composed of Hayah or Eve and meaning “bright life” (Genesis 3:20); and finally the name Hy’b’rw, which appears to be an Egyptian transcription of Hebrew (Genesis 39:14). Thus, this list is a clear attestation of Hebrew people living in Egypt prior to the Exodus, and it is an essential piece of evidence in the argument for an historical Exodus. Although it appears that the Israelites were centered around the northeast Nile Delta area—the regions of Goshen and Rameses and the cities of Rameses, Pithom, and On—this document is from the area of Thebes to the south and includes household servants like Joseph in his early years rather than building and agricultural slaves of the period of Moses. Thus, the list appears to be an attestation of Hebrews in Egypt in their earlier period of residence in the country, prior to their total enslavement, and perhaps shows that a group may have migrated south or was taken south for work. While remains of material culture such as pottery, architecture, or artifacts may be ethnically ambiguous, Hebrew names and possibly even the word or name Hebrew clearly indicates that there were Hebrews living in Egypt. Although rather obscure, the list includes the earliest attestation of Hebrew names that has ever been recovered in Egypt, and it demonstrates that Hebrews were in Egypt prior to the 1440s BC just as the story in the book of Exodus records.