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This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of Bible and Spade.  1997 bs cover medium


Archaeological Evidence

The Israelites and Rameses

When Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt, they were settled in “the land of Rameses.” The Bible tells us, in fact, that they became property owners there (Gn 47:11, 27). During their time in Egypt, the Israelites were used as slave laborers to build the city of Rameses (Ex 1:11), and when they left after 430 years (Ex 12:40), they departed from Rameses (Ex 12:37). From these references, we can conclude that the Israelites spent the years of the Egyptian Sojourn in and around Rameses.

The name Rameses actually comes from a later period than the Israelite Sojourn. It was the name given to a city built by Rameses the Great (Rameses II) in the eastern Nile Delta in the 13th century BC. This more familiar name was then used retrospectively by later scribes when copying the Biblical texts. Although the location of Rameses was in dispute for some years, that dispute has now been settled. We not only know where Rameses was located, but we know much about the history of the ancient site. Extensive excavations have been undertaken there under the direction of Manfred Bietak of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo, since 1966 (for previous reports, see Shea 1990: 100–103; Wood 1991: 104–106; Aling 1996: 20–21). It is possible that Prof. Bietak may have, for the first time, found physical evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt.

History of Tell el-Daba

Ancient Rameses is located at Tell el-Daba in the eastern Delta, approximately 100 km northeast of Cairo. In antiquity, the Pelusiac branch of the Nile flowed past the site, giving access to the Mediterranean. In addition, the town lay on the land route to Canaan, the famous Horus Road. Thus, it was an important commercial and military center.

SonsofJacob 1Asiatic settlement of the mid-late 19th century BC at Tell el-Daba (Area F/I, Stratum d/2). A - small villa with the plan of an Israelite four-room house; B-F - small huts; 1 - monumental tomb.

We can divide the history of the site into three periods: pre-Hyksos, Hyksos and post-Hyksos. The Hyksos were a Semitic people from Syria-Palestine, who took up residence in the eastern Nile Delta and eventually ruled northern Egypt for some 108 years, ca. 1663–1555 BC (15th Dynasty).1 Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt around 1880 BC, based on an Exodus date of ca. 1450 BC. That was in the pre-Hyksos period when the name of the town was Rowaty, “the door of the two roads” (Bietak 1996: 9, 19).

In the 14th Dynasty, toward the end of the 18th century BC, the name of the town was changed to Avaris, “the (royal) foundation of the district” (Bietak 1996: 40). When the Hyksos later established their capital there, they retained the name Avaris. It was probably the Hyksos rulers who forced the Israelites to build the store cities of Pithom (= Tell el-Maskhuta) and Rameses (= Tell el-Daba = Avaris) (Ex 1:11).2 When Rameses II rebuilt the city in the 13th century in the post-Hyksos period, and long after the Israelites had left Egypt, the name was changed to Rameses.

Could this be the Israelites?

The earliest evidence for Asiatics at Rowaty occurs in the late 12th Dynasty (mid 19th century BC, Area F/I, Str. d/2, and Area A/II, Str H). At that time a rural settlement was founded. It was unfortified, although there were many enclosure walls, most likely for keeping animals. The living quarters consisted of rectangular huts built of sand bricks (Bietak 1986: 237; Bietak, "Egypt and Canaan," 32). It is highly possible that this is the first material evidence of Israelites in Egypt. It is the right culture in the right place at the right time.

Not all residents of the first Asiatic settlement at Tell el-Daba lived in huts. One of them, evidently an important official, lived in a small villa. The Bible tells us that Joseph became a high official after he correctly interpreted Pharaoh's dreams (Gn 41:39–45). We are not told where Joseph lived while serving in the Egyptian bureaucracy. It seems logical to assume, however, that after discharging his duties associated with the famine, he would have moved to Rameses to be near his father and brothers. Could the villa in Str. d/2 at Tell el-Daba have been Joseph's house?

What is a Four-Room House Doing Here?

The Str. d/2 villa was 10 x 12 m in size, situated on one side of an enclosure measuring 12 x 19 m. It consisted of six rooms laid out in horseshoe fashion around an open courtyard. The most striking aspect of the house is that the floor plan is identical to the Israelite “four-room house” of the later Iron Age in Palestine (Holladay, "House, Israelite"). In this type of house two side rooms and a back room were arranged around a central space, or courtyard. In Palestine, the side rooms were usually delineated by stone columns. With the scarcity of stone in Egypt, this feature would not be expected. Holladay suggests that the ground floor of such a house was primarily utilized for the economic aspects of family life such as the storage of food, tools and supplies, and the housing of animals. The family living space, on the other hand, was most likely on the second floor.

Nearby, arranged in a semi-circle around the villa, were much poorer two-roomed homes, approximately 6 x 8 m in size. If the villa was the home of Joseph, then the surrounding huts might have been those of Joseph's father and brothers. Approximately 20% of the pottery found in the settlement debris was of Palestinian Middle Bronze Age type (Bietak 1996: 10). In the open spaces southwest of the villa was the cemetery of the settlement. Here, some of the most startling evidence was found.

The tombs were constructed of mud bricks in Egyptian fashion, but the contents were strictly Asiatic. Although they had been thoroughly plundered, 50% of the male burials still had weapons of Palestinian type in them. Typically, the deceased males were equipped with two javelins, battle-axes and daggers. Tomb 8 contained a fine example of a duckbill-ax and an embossed belt of bronze (Bietak 1996: 14). One of the tombs, however, was totally unique and unlike anything ever found in Egypt.

SonsofJacob 2Comparison of the Str. d/2 villa with Israelite four-room houses. 1 - Tell el-Daba Str. d/2 villa (Bietak 1996: fig. 8); 2 - Tel Masos Str. IIB, 12th-11th cent. BC (Fritz and Kempinski 1983: pl. 6, house 88); 3 - lzbet Sarta Str. II, 11th cent. BC (Finkelstein 1986: fig. 4, house 109b); 4 - Tell el-Farah (N) Str. VIId, 9th-8th cent. BC (Chambon 1984: fig. 13.3, house 328); 5 - Shechem Str. VII, 8th cent. BC (Wright 1965: fig. 76); 6 - Tell en-Nasbeh Str. 3, 7th cent. BC (McCown 1947: Survey Map, house 379).

SonsofJacob 3Grave of a male Asiatic with dagger, Tomb 17 from Str d/2.

We Have the Head, but the Body is Missing!

At the southwest end of the burial area, some 83 m from the villa compound, was a monumental tomb, Tomb 1. It was composed of a nearly square superstructure containing the main burial chamber, and a chapel annex. In a robbers’ pit sunk into the chapel, excavators found fragments of a colossal statue depicting an Asiatic dignitary. The likeness was of a seated official 1 1/2 times life size. It was made of limestone and exhibited excellent workmanship. The skin was yellow, the traditional color of Asiatics in Egyptian art. It had a mushroom-shaped hairstyle, painted red, typical of that shown in Egyptian artwork for Asiatics. A throwstick, the Egyptian hieroglyph for a foreigner, was held against the right shoulder. The statue had been intentionally smashed and defaced (Bietak 1996: 20–21).

In his book Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest, David Rohl suggests that this is the tomb of Joseph himself (1995: 360–67).3 The evidence seems to support this hypothesis. We must assume that Tomb 1 was that of the occupant of the villa, and thus possibly of Joseph himself. The Bible is very specific as to what became of Joseph’s body.

So Joseph died at the age of a 110. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt (Gn 50:26). Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with your from this place” (Ex 13:19; cf. Gn 50:25).

image.axd 2301Bronze belt and weapons from tombs of Str. d/2.

Inside the burial chamber excavators found fragments of an inscribed limestone sarcophagus and a few bone fragments, but no intact skeleton as in the other tombs in the cemetery (Bietak, "Der Friedhof," 61). Sometime after the burial, a pit was dug at the end of the chapel and a tunnel dug into the burial chamber. The “coffin” (sarcophagus) was then broken and the remains  of the deceased removed by these “tomb robbers” (Rohl 1995: 363). It was common for tombs to be broken into in antiquity and the valuables removed, but to have the body taken is highly unusual.

Was the statue broken at the time the bones were removed, or was that done at another time? Archaeology cannot tell us the answer; we can only speculate. It is likely that the statue was broken during a time of political turmoil (Bietak 1996: 21), possibly when the Hyksos took over rule of the region. It appears most likely that the “new king, who did not know about Joseph” (Ex 1:8) was the first Hyksos king who came to power ca. 1663 BC.4 At that time, the Israelites came under intense oppression (Ex 1:9–11). Perhaps the Hyksos destroyed the statue when they overthrew local Egyptian authority. Since the remains in the tomb would also have been in danger, faithful Israelites may have removed them for safekeeping at this time.

image.axd 2302Plan of monumental Tomb 1 in Str. d/2

image.axd 2303

The Hyksos are Coming

In the next phase of occupation, Str. d/1 dating to the early 13th Dynasty (early 18th century BC), the humble dwellings of Str. d/2 were covered over and a huge palace complex constructed. It is obvious that the people of Str. d/1, although Asiatic, were different from those in Str. d/2. The palace complex comprised several large buildings, purely Egyptian in style. It included upper stories, porticos, courtyards, pools, gardens and cemeteries (Bietak 1996: 21–30). The rich finds of this phase suggest that the occupants were high officials engaged in foreign trade. It appears that Str. d/1 was the initial phase of Hyksos settlement at the site. With the coming of these peoples, the fortunes of the families of Jacob’s sons declined (Ex 1:8–12a).

Without identifying inscriptions, we will never know for sure if the Str. d/2 people were Israelites. This much we can say, however. The finds represent exactly what we would expect to find from Israelite occupation in Egypt.

Inscriptional Evidence

Contemporary references to any of Jacob’s 12 sons have not been found. Since the sons of Jacob were humble shepherds, we should not expect to find such records, except possibly for Joseph.5 However, there are ancient references to several of the tribes of Israel which, of course, were named after the sons of Jacob. So, in an indirect way, we do have inscriptional references to the sons of Jacob, albeit from a later time.

Asher - His Food Will be Rich (Gn 49:20)

A number of scholars have maintained that the name ‘Isr appearing in Egyptian texts is the Israelite tribal name Asher (e.g., Aharoni 1979: 179, 183; Hadley 1992: 482). That appears not to be the case, however. So we present the following in the way of a correction to information that might appear in other sources.

The earliest mention of the name ‘Isr is in a list of conquered peoples from the time of Seti I, early 13th century BC (Simons 1937:147, List XVII, no. 4). The name also appears several times in the inscriptions of Rameses II (1279–1212 BC), again in lists of conquered peoples (Gauthier 1925:105; Kitchen 1993: 39–40; Simons 1937: 162, List XXV, no. 8). Perhaps the most interesting of these references is in Papyrus Anastasi I from the end of the 13th century BC. Here, the wise scribe Hori chides the novice scribe Amen-em-Opet concerning his knowledge of Canaan. He warned that his reputation could become as low as that of “Qazardi, ruler of Asru (‘Isr), when the hyena caught him up a tree” (Kitchen 1993: 40).

Noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen lists four reasons why the Egyptian name ‘Isr cannot be the Israelite tribe of Asher (1993: 40–41; cf. Kitchen 1966: 70–71):

  • The texts indicate that ‘Isr is a territory or place-name, not a tribe.
  • The final Egyptian r can stand for l as well as r.
  • It is not known where ‘Isr was located, so it is not possible to make a geographical link between ‘Isr and the tribal area of Asher.
  • The Egyptian letter s corresponds to th not sh, as in Asher.

Dan - Will Provide Justice for His People (Gn 49:16)

With the tribal name of Dan, we are on firmer ground. Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid (Gn 30:1–6). During the period of Judges, the tribe of Dan migrated from their original allotment on the Mediterranean coast to the city of Laish, renamed Dan (Jgs 18).6 The site of Laish/Dan has been under excavation since 1966, directed by Avraham Biran on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

image.axd 2304 Bilingual inscription mentioning Dan. The Greek text reads, “To the god who is in Dan, Zoilos (offers) a vow.” The Aramaic text reads, “[This] (is the) vow (of) Zoilos to the [god in Dan].”.

Dan is most famous as being the site of one of the high-places set up by Jeroboam, first king of the break-away northern kingdom, in order to worship the golden calf (1 Kgs 12:28–29). That high place has been found and excavated by Biran (Biran 1976). The Dan high place was not only used during Israelite times, but continued as a religious center down to the Roman period. In 1977, a very important discovery from the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BC) was made. A dedicatory inscription mentioning Dan was found some 17 m south of the high place (Biran 1981). For the first time, the biblical name of the site was found in an ancient inscription and, by association, the name of one of Jacob’s sons.

Gad - Will be Attacked by a Band of Raiders (Gn 49:19)

Gad was Jacob’s seventh son, the first son of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid. The tribe of Gad occupied the central area of Transjordan (Jos 13:24–28). In the famous Mesha Inscription found at Dhibon in Jordan, dating from the 9th century BC, the tribe of Gad is mentioned.7 In describing his capture of Ataroth, thought to be located at ‘Atarus 13 km northwest of Dhiban, the Moabite king Mesha states, “And the men of Gad had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old” (Lemaire 1994: 33, line 10).

image.axd 2305Yehud seal from the Persian period, found by Associates for Biblical Research archaeologists in 1993.

Judah - Holder of the Royal Scepter and Ruler’s Staff (Gn 49:10)

Judah is perhaps best known of Jacob’s sons. He was the fourth son of Jacob, the fourth son born to Leah (Gn 29:35). It was Judah who talked his brothers out of killing Joseph at Dothan and selling him to the Ishmaelite traders (Gn 37:26–27). He married a Canaanite woman and had three sons by her (Gn 38:1–5). Judah’s name is marred by the sordid incident with Tamar, wife of his eldest son Er. After the death of his wife and Er, he mistakenly lay with Tamar, thinking her to be a prostitute, and had twin sons by her (Gn 38:6–30).

Judah acted as spokesman for the brothers on their second journey to Egypt to face Joseph during the famine (Gn 43:3; 44:14–34). Since his three older brothers were passed over,8 Judah inherited the position of first-born of Jacob’s sons and received the kingly blessing of Jacob (Gn 49: 8–12).

The tribe established by Judah became the greatest of the Israelite tribes. It received the largest allotment in the promised land (Jos 15) and it was from Judah that the Messiah descended (Gn 49:10–12; Mt 1:1–17; Lk 3:23–38). When the kingdom divided, the southern kingdom was known simply as Judah. After the return of the exiles from Babylon, the ancient tribal area continued to be known as Yehud/Judah/Judea until the suppression of the Bar Khokba revolt by Hadrian in AD 135. After that, the name passed out of use.

Because of the political importance of the area of Judah through the centuries, the name has turned up in many ancient inscriptions. The oldest of these are two references to Ahaz King of Judah from the eighth century BC. One is on a bulla (clay sealing) which reads “Ahaz (son of) Jotham King of Judah” (Shanks 1997). The other is in a building inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III from Calah (Nimrud), Iraq. It simply states that “Jehoahaz (Ahaz) of Judah” paid tribute to the Assyrian king (Oppenheim 1969: 282).

Additional references to Judah occur throughout the Assyrian period (Oppenheim 1969: 287, 288, 291, 294, 301). The Babylonians recorded the fall of the “city of Judah” to Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC (Oppenheim 1969: 564) and the issuing of rations to Judean captives, including Jehoiachin (Oppenheim 1969: 308). In addition, we have a 407 BC letter from Elephantine to Bagoas, governor of Judah (Ginsburg 1969: 492), Yehud coins from the 4th century BC, and Yehud seals from the 4th-2nd centuries BC (Stern 1982: 224–27; 202–13).

All of these data support the historicity of the biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel.



1 The Egyptian word Hyksos means "foreign rulers." In common usage, however, the term is used to refer in general to the Asiatics who settled in the eastern delta of Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period. The dates for Hyksos rule are mot known precisely. Those used here are based on the following:

  1. Expulsion of the Hyksos in approximately the 15th year of Ahmose (Bietak, "Egypt and Canaan," 48)
  2. A total of 108 years for the rule of the Hyksos according to the Turin Papyrus (Bietak, "Egypt and Canaan," 48)
  3. The chronology of Wente and Van Siclen for the 18th Dynasty (Wente and Van Siclen 1977: 218). This chronology gives a death date for Tuthmosis III of 1450 BC, which correlates with the biblical date for the Exodus. According to Scripture, the Pharaoh of the Exodus perished in the Yam Suph (Ex 14:5-9, 18, 28; 15:4, 7; Ps 106:9-11; 136:15); therefore, we must correlate the date of the Exodus with the death date of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The chronoloogy of Wente and Van Siclen also incorporates the low date of 1279 BC for the accession of Rameses II accepted by most scholars today.

2 The location of Pithom has also been a matter of some debate. Now, however, it seems quite certain that it should be located at Tell el-Maskhuta at the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat, 15 km west of Ismailiya. Asiatic remains similar to those found at Tell el-Dab’a Have been found there and attibuted to the Hyksos (Holladay 1992, "Maskhuta, Tell el-," 588-89; Holladay 1997: 332-34). According to Holladay, the Hyksos occupation at Tell el-Maskhuta took place ca. 1750-1625 BC. It would have been sometime during this time period, then, that the Israelites built the store city of Pithom.

3 As a result of his non-traditional chronology of ancient Egypt, however, Rohl dates Tomb 1 to the late 17th century BC (1995: 339), rather than the mid-nineteenth century as determined by the excavators. Since Rohl believes the Sojourn to be only 215 years based on the Septuagint (1995: 329-32), Joseph and Tomb 1 end up being approximately contemporary by his chronology. The present author, however, disagrees with both of these views and holds to the conventional Egyptian chronology and a Sojourn of 430 years (Ex 12:40) as recorded in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. However, Rohl places Joseph amd Tomb 1 in Str. d/1, while the present author accepts the excavators' dating of Tomb 1 to Str. d/2, and believes Str. d/2 to be a more compatible context for Joseph and the Israelites.   

4 We are not certain of the name of the first Hyksos king. Redford suggests Salitis/Saites based on literary references (1992: 342), while Ward suggests Khyan based on inscriptional evidence (1984: 162-72).

5 There is a canal connecting the Nile with the Faiyum in the western desert named Bahr Yusuf, the "canal of Joseph." Development of the Faiym is assocaited with Dynasty 12, the time when Joseph was in Egypt carrying out land reforms (Gn 41:46-49; Gardiner 1961: 35-36). Whether the name of the canal is ancient or from a relatively modern tradition is not known. Otherwise, the name of Joseph has not turned up in Egypt (see Aling 1996).

6 For archaeological evidence for the migration of the Danites, see Wood 1991: 107-109.

7 For more information on the Mesha Inscription, see Wood 1996.

8 Reuben sleeping with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gn 35:22), and Simeon and Levi massacring the men of Shechem (Gn 34).



Aharoni, Y. The Land of the Bible, rev. ed., trans. and ed. A.F. Rainey. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1979.

Aling, C.F. "The Historicity of the Joseph Story." Bible and Spade 9 (1996): 17–28.

Bietak, M. Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta. London: The British Academy, 1986.

———. Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

———. "Der Friedhof in einem Palastgarten aus der Zeit des späten Mittleren Riches und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem östlichen Nildelta (Tell el-Dab’a 1984–1987)." Agypten und Levante 2 (1991): 47–109.

———. "Egypt and Canaan During the Middle Bronze Age." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 281 (1991): 27–72.

Biran, A. "City of the Golden Calf." Bible and Spade 5 (1976): 22–27.

———. "To the God Who is in Dan." Pp. 142–51 in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, ed. A. Biran. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College, 1981.

Chambon, A. Tell el-Far’ah I: L’Âge du Fer. Mémoire 31. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1984.

Finkelstein, I. ‘Izbet Sartah: An Early Iron Age Site Near Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel. BAR International Series 299. Oxford: B.A.R., 1986.

Fritz, V., and Kempinski, A. Ergebnisse der Ausgrabunden auf der Hiebet el-Msa¯s (Te¯l Ma¯sos) 1972–1975. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.

Gardiner, A. Egypt of the Pharaohs. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Gauthier, H. Dictionnaire des noms géoraphiques contenus dans les textes hiéroglyphiques, vol. 1. Cairo: L’Institute Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1925.

Ginsberg, H.L. "Aramaic Letters." Pp. 491–92 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Hadley, D.V. "Asher." Pp. 482–83 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. D.N. Freeedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Holladay, J.S., Jr. "House, Israelite." Pp. 308–18 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

———. "Maskhuta, Tell el-." Pp. 588–92 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

———. "Maskhuta, Tell el-." Pp. 432–37 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 3, ed. E.M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kitchen, K.A. Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity, 1966.

———. Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Notes and Comments, vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Lemaire, A. "House of David Restored in Moabite Inscription." Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3 (1994): 30–37.

McCown, C.C. Tell en-Nasbeh I. Berkeley: The Palestine Institute of Pacific School of Religion, 1947.

Oppenheim, A.L. "Babylonian and Assyrian Historical Texts." Pp. 265–317 and 556–67 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Redford, D.B. "Hyksos: History." Pp. 341–44 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed, D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Rohl, D.M. Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown, 1995.

Shanks, H. "Strata." Biblical Archaeology Review 23/2 (1997): 8.

Shea, W.H. "Leaving Egypt." Archaeology and Biblical Research 3 (1990): 99–111.

Stem, E. Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1982.

Ward, W.A. "Royal-Name Scarabs." Pp. 151–192 in Studies on Scarab Seals, vol. 2, by Olga Tufnell. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1984.

Wente, E., and Van Siclen III, C. "A Chronology of the New Kingdom." Pp. 217–61 in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes January 12, 1977, ed. J.H. Johnson and E.F. Wente. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 39. Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1977.

Wood, B.G. "Mesha, King of Moab." Bible and Spade 9 (1996): 55–64.

———. "Recent Discoveries and Research on the Conquest." Archaeology and Biblical Research 4 (1991): 104–110.

Wright, G.E. Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1965.

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