Biblical Egypt by R. David Pogge

Chapter 3

Abram goes to Egypt

Genesis 11 – 13 and the Second Intermediate Period

Section 3.1 - Abram's Itinerary

Here’s what the Bible tells us about Abram (before God changed his name to Abraham). The story starts at Genesis 11:31.

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there. 1

The story continues in Genesis 12.

Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

...

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. 2

Genesis 13 tells us where he went next.

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord. 3

Abram's time in Egypt was not his finest hour; but God blessed him anyway. I'll leave it to preachers to explore that topic, and what that means to modern Christians. That topic is outside the scope of this book.

What is in the scope of this book is a discussion of when this happened, and who the pharoah was at the time.

Section 3.2 - Egypt's Second Intermediate Period

Exodus 12 tells us when this was.

Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt [and Canaan] was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt. 4

The Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint translations of Exodus 12 have the words “and Canaan.” Those words aren’t in the Masoretic text, which is the manuscript used by the King James translators. The genealogy of Abraham’s descendents would be off by about 200 years if that whole 430 years had been spent in Egypt alone, so the Septuagint (the Greek translation financed by an Egyptian pharaoh) is probably the correct translation. We will have more to say about that when we discuss the Septuagint in a later chapter.

It was probably about five years after Abraham entered Canaan that the famine forced him to go to Egypt. So, who was the pharaoh about 425 years before the Exodus?

That’s difficult to say, because 425 years before the Exodus would probably be near the beginning of the 13th Dynasty (the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period) which isn’t well documented.

The true chronology of the 13th Dynasty is rather hard to ascertain since there are so few monuments dating from that period. 5

The ephemeral kings of the 14th Dynasty were not the only group to set themselves up alongside the main house at the end of the 13th Dynasty; a series of Semitic kings was beginning to assume control in the eastern desert and Delta regions of Egypt. These rulers, the 15th Dynasty, are known as the Hyksos, ‘Desert Princes’ [Hikau-khoswet], often inaccurately referred to as the “Shepherd Kings’. 6

So, the Biblical account of Abram (and presumably other Semites) going to Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period is born out by Egyptian history, as incomplete as it is. Furthermore, it appears that although Abram left Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, other Semites (the Hyksos) stayed.

Section 3.3 - Egyptian Chronology

Egyptologists divide Egyptian history into periods. Specifically these are the Old Kingdom, the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom, the Third Intermediate Kingdom, the Late Period, and the Greco-Roman Period.

The intermediate periods were times when Egypt was in chaos, usually controlled by foreigners, and times that the Egyptians would just as soon forget. Naturally, the Egyptians didn’t care to document these periods. That’s why we don’t know too much about them.

Egyptologists aren’t sure how many kings there were during the Second Intermediate Period, who they were, or how long they ruled. This causes a lot of uncertainty in the Egyptian chronology because dates are most often determined by adding up the number of years each king ruled.

The problem is further exacerbated by the well-known fact that some of the New Kingdom pharaohs chiseled the names of previous kings off monuments in an effort to remove them from history (and prevent them from enjoying the afterlife, too). Some pharaohs apparently claimed to rule longer than they actually did, and co-regencies also muddle up the chronology.

Egyptologists make their best guesses, and they usually have good reasons for making their guesses; but they often disagree about dates. It isn’t until the beginning of the 26th dynasty (664 BC) that all seven of the Egyptian chronologies I used agreed exactly. That’s why I respectfully view some of the earlier absolute dates with skepticism.

Back to Chapter 2 Table of Contents On to Chapter 4

Footnotes:

1 Genesis 11:31
2 Genesis 12:6-7, 10-20
3 Genesis 13:1-4
4 Genesis 12:40-41
5 Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs, 2006, page 91
6 ibid., page 93