The Bible in the British Museum
This Egyptian stone lion bears the throne name of Khyan, who ruled from about 1610-1580 B.C. It is only about 20 inches long, but as far as I know it is the largest item in the Museum from the XVth dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs — the Hyksos rulers.
The Hyksos were foreigners. Some of our knowledge of the Hyksos comes from Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the 3rd century B.C. who wrote a history of Egypt. He suggested that the Hyksos came to power after a military invasion, but no one knows for certain.
Some Bible scholars think that Joseph’s Pharaoh was one of the Hyksos rulers, but the Biblical evidence fits better with the view that a Hyksos Pharaoh was the “king who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).
Manetho wrote more than 1000 years after the Hyksos lost power, but some of his record fits well with archaeological evidence. The Hyksos were Asiatic peoples (with Canaanite names), probably from Syria and Canaan, who ruled the Egyptians in 1650-1550 B.C. They ruled only the northern half of the country, establishing their capitol in Avaris.
The Egyptians hated the Hyksos, and left them out of the Egyptian king-lists, in the ancient tradition of selective history. They weren’t on the ancient monuments, and the great commentator Karl Keil doubted they existed, though more evidence has turned up since his day.
The Hyksos Museum items are relatively few and small, with many beetle-shaped scarab seals like those above. These were from the first Hyksos ruler, Salitis — perhaps the “king who knew not Joseph.” The seal from a finger-ring to the left comes from the time of Khyan, near the end of the Hyksos dynasty.
Josephus called them “Shepherd Kings,” but we don’t know if he was correct, or if the designation meant anything. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the Hyksos were “Shepherd Kings” or not.
Was Joseph’s Pharaoh a Hyksos?
As mentioned above, some Bible scholars think Joseph’s Pharaoh was one of the Hyksos. In The Big-Ears Pharaoh I mentioned reasons to see Senusret III as Joseph’s Pharaoh. However, many scholars put Joseph in the Hyksos period so we’ll take a few minutes on it.
One reason cited is dating. Some think Galatians 3:17 puts Abraham in the time of Senusret III, and thus they put Joseph in the time of the Hyksos. This is not the only way to understand Galatians 3:17, so alone it is not conclusive.
Another reason sometimes given is the idea that a foreign Pharaoh was more likely to promote a Hebrew than a native Egyptian would be. I give this little credence — the record of Genesis 41 provides enough explanation for his promotion, even if one forgets the sovereign working of God (and one should never forget that).
Joseph doesn’t fit in the Hyksos period very well:
- Joseph shaved when going to see Pharaoh, hinting at a native Egyptian administration. Asiatics usually wore beards, Egyptians typically were clean-shaven.
- Joseph was placed “over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:41, 43). The Hyksos only ruled the northern part of Egypt.
- Joseph’s wife was a daughter of a sun-priest (Genesis 41:45) — a great honour under a native Egyptian, less so to a Hyksos.
- Egypt’s rulers held Hebrews in abomination (Genesis 43:32). The Hyksos would likely have seen Hebrews (from the same region) as potential allies, not abominable enemies.
- They also hated shepherds (Genesis 46:34, etc.). Though the Hyksos may or may not have been “Shepherd Kings,” there is no evidence they hated shepherds, and it makes little sense given their background.
- Genesis 47:18-20 doesn’t make sense if the Egyptians were slaves under the Hyksos.
While the identity of Joseph’s Pharaoh can’t be certain, if one takes the clues in the Biblical record seriously it is hard to see how Joseph fits in the reign of the Hyksos.
“More and Mightier than We”
8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.
9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:
10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.
Verse eight hints at more than the normal succession of father to son — a change of dynasty, perhaps, to one with no appreciation for Joseph and his service to Egypt. There were many dynasty changes in Egyptian history — but in many cases, appreciation for past service would continue. That would not be the case if the new king was a foreigner, especially if he came to power through an invasion.
Verse nine is the strongest evidence that this is a Hyksos king. The children of Israel were 600,000 adult men when they left (Exodus 12:37). This was still far less than the native Egyptians — but if Pharaoh were a Hyksos ruler, it makes perfect sense. The Hyksos had an army of 240,000 men in Avaris — strong enough to be difficult to beat, but a small enough force to feel threatened by a growing Hebrew nation.
Moses died at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7) in about 1405 B.C. Since the oppression was in full force, including the killing of male babies, when he was born (Exodus 2), it must have started before 1525 B.C. That also fits the Hyksos period (1650-1550 B.C.).
The children of Israel were enslaved, perhaps not by native Egyptians, but by a Canaanite or Syrian ruling in Egypt. In 1550 B.C., when Ahmose I drove out the Hyksos, there was no reason to deliver the Hebrews. THEY weren’t Egyptians, they were just slaves.
He would have said, “There’s too many Hebrews, anyway — keep them as slaves. If they keep growing, I can kill some.” The girls are no threat, and you don’t kill working slaves who can build cities, pyramids, and such. Just kill some baby boys (Exodus 1:15-22).
It didn’t work. Satan always moves people to oppress, mock, and even kill those who are the Lord’s. His hatred always shows itself — and it never works. God’s people may suffer for a season, but the time always comes when our Lord says, “Let My people go.” No one ever succeeded in exterminating the Lord’s people, in thwarting His plan. No one ever will.
Sources for this series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum