As we focus on the Exodus narrative during the holiday of Passover, one issue which arises for many is the historical accuracy of the events. All popular stories contain at least a kernel of truth – whether that truth is historical or psychological or something else – it is the true elements that make the stories relatable to us. This is especially important in the Passover story as every one of us is admonished to see ourselves as having experienced the events personally.
Biblical scholars have focused on the historical footprint of the Jews in Egypt and their expulsion and tried to connect it to other extra-biblical sources centering on Egypt at this general time. One group of people which is brought forward as a candidate for the Children of Israel is the Hyksos.
The Hyksos were Western Semitic natives with a 400-year tradition of being in Egypt during the second millennium BCE. They rose to prominence and even ruled before being expelled around 1550 BCE. Their existence has been documented through archaeology and also ancient texts including Manetho, the 3rd century BCE Egyptian historian. Even archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, famous for upsetting the cart in the world of Biblical archaeology, concedes in The Bible Unearthed, “One thing is certain. The basic situation described in the Exodus saga – the phenomenon of immigrants coming down to Egypt from Canaan and settling in the eastern border regions of the delta – is abundantly verified in the archaeological finds and historical texts.”
If this sounds to you like the Exodus narrative, you are not alone. Josephus in Against Apion also makes the comparison of the Hyksos, which he translates as “shepherd king” to the ancient Israelites. While the timing doesn’t exactly work out with the established approximate date of the Exodus (around 1300 BCE), it is interesting to learn about these Canaanite foreigners who ruled and were expelled from Egypt, like the ancient Israelites.
Manetho in his Aegyptiaca describes the Hyksos as ruthless invaders who destroyed cities and temples, massacred locals, and placed one of their own as a king and founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty. According to Manetho, the Hyksos then went on to built the citadel of Avaris (now identified with Tell el-Dab’a) in the northeastern Nile Delta.
The archaeological record, however, has not unearthed any evidence of a violent takeover. Excavation from Avaris has shown that although the city was founded by Egyptians, by 1800 BCE, the variety and number of foreigners increased, and it became a truly mixed, cosmopolitan city. With the weakening of the Egyptian leadership throughout the Middle Kingdom, immigrants peacefully and gradually entered Egypt. Trade concerns led these immigrants to settle in the trading centers of the Delta and continue trading with their home countries. Avaris strengthened trade with Sidon, and Ashkelon, and we continue to see throughout this period a large Egyptian influence in the Western Negev and Israel’s coastal plain. Examination of Strontium levels in tooth enamel of individuals buried in Tell el-Dab’a shows an influx of non-locals in the pre-Hyksos-rule period of 1991-1650 BCE, during the construction of Avaris.
Finally, around 1674 BCE, the Hyksos were able to seize power from the native Egyptians and control all of Lower Egypt around the Delta. This date matches the time period of Joseph, give or take. The Hyksos ruled for about 150 years before being forcibly expelled from the country by Ahmose I, founder of Egypt’s New Kingdom, to ethnically cleanse Egypt from the foreign influences. Impressive reliefs depict the violent expulsion of the Hyksos.
It would only make sense that later writers would demonize and downplay any role of outsiders in Egypt’s past, and in this light we can read Manetho’s works (written over 1000 years after the expulsion of the Hyksos). Manetho’s works influenced the writings of Josephus 300 years later, who wrote about the Hyksos:
“…they went away with their whole families and effects…and took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria…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…these shepherds, as they are here called, who were no other than our forefathers, were delivered out of Egypt, and came thence and inhabited this country…” Against Apion 1:89ff
Whether you see the events of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as an actual occurrence or see it as simply a crucial part of the national narrative, learning about the Hyksos’ history brings up interesting parallels and insights to the Passover story.