The Israelites Are Not the Hyksos!
As the Israelites make their escape from Egypt, the Torah reflects on the direction God chooses to lead them (Exod 13:17-18a):
וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֘ אֶת הָעָם֒ וְלֹא נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה: וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים׀ אֶת הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds (NJPS).
This verse, which opens our holiday reading for the seventh day of Pesach, gives us a peek into God’s planning. We know not only His decision of where to send them, i.e., the wilderness, but also the option he rejected - the “way of the land of the Philistines.”
The Philistine Pentapolis (five cities) was a confederation of Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod along the Mediterranean coast together with Ekron and Gath in the Shephelah. Thus, the “way of the land of the Philistines” along the Mediterranean coast, is the shortest way from Egypt to Canaan. As the verse puts it: “it was nearer.”
What Happened to the Plan of Worshipping on the Mountain in the Wilderness?
The option of leading the Israelites by way of the land of the Philistines, however, suggests that God intended to take them straight to the Land of Canaan. This explicitly contradicts God’s plan as communicated to Moses earlier (Exod 3:12b):
בְּהוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֤ אֶת הָעָם֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם תַּֽעַבְדוּן֙ אֶת הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַ֖ל הָהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה:
And when you have freed the people from Egypt you shall worship God at this mountain.
Scholars have come up with twenty-three different suggestions for the location of Mount Sinai/Horeb/Mountain of God. The main clue for its location from the biblical text is that when Moses meets his brother Aaron at that mountain, he is on his way from Midian to Egypt (Exod 4:19–20, 27). As Midian is identified either at Southern Sinai, east of the Gulf of Aqaba or south Jordan, any road going to Egypt from Midian would be far away from the coastal road. Thus, the idea that God would take the Israelites by way of the land of the Philistines contradicts His own order to worship Him at the mountain of God.
Not Separate Sources
Often the solution to such contradictions is that the verses come from separate sources. In this case, however, both verses (Exod 3:12b and 13:7a) are identified by documentary scholars as coming from the E source. This identification is likely for two reasons:
- The use of the name Elohim and not Yhwh means that it cannot be J.
- The name Sea of Reeds (ים סוף) as the place of the miracle and the point of Israel’s embarking on the wilderness journey (Exod 15:22) is only found in E.
This brings us back to square one: Why would E even mention the possibility of travelling up the coast when the entire storyline is aimed at taking Israel into the wilderness to the Mountain of God?
Jews and Hyksos: An Ancient Polemic
Exodus 13:17 could represent a hidden polemic on the origin of the Israelites.  Manetho, the Egyptian priest from the third century B.C.E., in his book Aegyptiaca, identifies the Israelites with the Hyksos.
The term Hyksos derives from the Egyptian term Heka-chasut (Ḥq3-ḫ3swt), meaning “foreign kings,” and refers to the Asiatic rulers of Lower (=northern) Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (15th dynasty; ca. 1674-1535 B.C.E.). Many of these rulers had recognizably Semitic names, including one named Jacob (Yaqub-Hor).
Manetho offers the following outline (quotes come from Josephus’ Against Apion):
These people, whom we have before named kings, and called shepherds also, and their descendants,” as he says, “kept possession of Egypt five hundred and eleven years...” (1:84) “After this composition was made, (=the Hyksos surrender to the Egyptians in return for safe passage back to Canaan,) they went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand. They took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria: but that, as they were in fear of the Assyrians, who had then the dominion over Asia, they built a city in that country which is now called Judea, and that large enough to contain this great number of men, and called it Jerusalem. (1:89-90)
Despite the historical confusion of periods (the Assyrians conquered the Levant a full millennium after the Hyksos left Egypt) the connection to the exodus story is clear. Manetho also includes a number of other significant details:
- The Hyksos built Avaris as their capital. This is historically correct and in the 19th dynasty, this city was rebuilt by Ramesses II into his new capital and name Pi-Ramesses.
- The leader – whom Manetho thinks of as Moses – is named Osarsiph. (Manetho is clearly confusing and telescoping two biblical characters.) This name is a hybridization of “Joseph” with “Osiris;” the Egyptian theophoric element “Osir-” replaces the Jewish theophoric prefix “Yo-” or “Yeho-.”
Many modern scholars believe that Manetho is preserving an authentic, ancient tradition, and thus identify the Israelites with the Asiatic rulers of Egypt, the Hyksos. If this were so, then the Israelite claim that they were enslaved in Egypt and the Egyptian claim that they were conquered by the Israelites contradict and are in direct tension with each other. It is thus likely that both of these traditions are ancient.
One of the preserved works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus is Contra Apion (Against Apion), a polemical work defending Judaism. In this work, Josephus responds harshly to Apion, who used the identification between the Jews fleeing Egypt and the Hyksos to undermine the biblical account, painting the Jews as aggressors hiding behind false claims of victimization:
Now Manetho, in another book of his, says, “That this nation, thus called Shepherds, were also called Captives, in their sacred books.” (1:91)
Realizing that this perspective undermines the biblical account entirely, Josephus spends almost a quarter of his book refuting it. I believe that the author of E, writing hundreds of years before Josephus, knew the same traditions and had the same concern.
The Return of the Hyksos to the Levant
The final surrender and retreat of the Hyskos is recounted by Ahmose, son of Abana, who served as an officer in the Egyptian navy under the Pharaoh who drove the Hyksos out of Egypt, Ahmose I. According to Ahmose Son of Abana's autobiography, the final stage of the battle against the Hyksos was when the Egyptian army besieged the city of Sharuhen for three years.
Shruhen is usually identified with Tell el-'Ajjul in the Gaza area, on the ancient costal road along the Mediterranean, and appears to have been their last stronghold. Accordingly, the Hyksos withdrawal from Egypt was by the costal road – the way of the land of the Philistines, and this is where they resettled after their retreat back to Canaan.
Conclusion: The Israelites are not the Hyksos
I suggest that when E explicitly rejects the coastal road and the Gaza area as having been the Israelites route, he has the story of the Hyksos on his mind. The author wants it to be absolutely clear that the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt bears no relation to the story of the Hyksos and their ignominious escape from Egypt. One is the story of conquerors losing their hold over a captive population, the other the story of captives escaping a cruel oppressor.
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April 26, 2016
September 20, 2020
Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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