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The oldest historical mention of ancient Israel occurs in the Merneptah stele, an Egyptian monument dated to 1208 B.C. But mention of Israel’s God, Yahweh, occurs even earlier in Egyptian inscriptions in conjunction with a group of people called the Shasu.
Among ancient Egyptian designations for types of foreign peoples in the New Kingdom Period (1550–1070 BC), the term Shasu occurs fairly frequently. It is generally accepted that the term Shasu means nomads or Bedouin people, referring primarily to the nomadic peoples of Syria-Palestine. There are two hieroglyphic references in New Kingdom Period texts to an area called “the land of the Shasu of Yahweh.” Except for the Old Testament, these are the oldest references found in any ancient texts to the God Yahweh.
THE TERM SHASU
The term Shasu is found in a variety of New Kingdom hieroglyphic texts including the military, administrative, and diplomatic documents of pharaohs Thutmosis III, Amenhotep II, Thutmosis IV, Amenhotep III, Akhenaton, Seti I, Ramses II, Merneptah, and Ramses III.
The vast majority of scholars who have written on the Shasu stress that they were a people who were not totally nomadic. There were specific geographic areas associated in Egyptian topographical texts with the Shasu, thus indicating that at least some Shasu lived a somewhat settled existence in defined areas. “Semi-nomadic” is probably a more accurate translation.
The term Shasu is almost exclusively used in New Kingdom texts for semi-nomadic peoples living in parts of Lebanon, Syria, Sinai, Canaan, and Transjordan, and for people groups clearly identified as Semitic herders. The Shasu were rarely if ever under the control of the Egyptian government and were almost always looked upon as enemies of the Egyptians. For example, at the famous Battle of Kadesh in ca. 1275 BC, there were Shasu soldiers who were allies of the Hittites against Ramses II.
It is very likely that the Egyptians of the New Kingdom Period classified all of the ancient Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, Amalekites, Midianites, Kenites, Hapiru, and Israelites as Shasu. There is even a reference dating to ca. 1250 BC in Papyrus Anastasi I to a group of giant Shasu living in Canaan who may be identified with the giants encountered by the Israelites at the time of the Exodus.
THE LAND OF THE SHASU OF YAHWEH
The New Kingdom inscriptions which refer to “the Land of the Shasu of Yahweh” are found in two topographical lists. The lists are found inscribed on the walls of temples, one at Soleb and the second at Amarah-West.
Soleb, a temple dedicated to the god Amon-Re, was built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III around 1400 BC. Today it is located in the nation of Sudan, on the left bank of the Nile about 135 miles south of Wadi-Halfa. Amarah-West, which is also located in Sudan, is a construction of Ramses II in the 13th century. The section of the Amarah-West topographical list which contains the reference to “the land of the Shasu of Yahweh,” is not original with Ramses II, and was almost certainly copied from the earlier list at Soleb.
Egyptologists in general do not question the appearance of the name Yahweh in these two ancient lists. For example, Donald Redford writes of the reference to Yahweh at Soleb:
For half a century it has been generally admitted that we have here the tetragrammaton, the name of the Israelite god “Yahweh;” and if this be the case, as it undoubtedly is, the passage constitutes the most precious indication of the whereabouts during the late 15th century BC of an enclave revering this god.*
Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald B. Redford,1993
Even though Egyptologists accept the appearance of the name Yahweh in these topographical lists at Soleb and Amarah-West, the implications of its appearance do not seem to have been fully appreciated by Old Testament scholars. Of course the question remains, who or what is being referred to by the word Yahweh? Is it a reference to the God of Israel? Or is it just a reference to a town or city like most of the other Shasu descriptions?
The answer to this is not known with absolute certainty, but even if Yahweh is a place in these hieroglyphic texts, it was clearly a place named after the god Yahweh of the Old Testament. Anything less seems too coincidental.
There is no topographical site in the entire region today that bears the name Yahweh or anything remotely similar. There is also no biblical reference or ancient historical source that mentions a topographical site named Yahweh.
EGYPTIAN SYNCRETISM AND THE GOD YAHWEH
The Egyptians were known to have worshipped foreign gods and goddesses. The West Semitic goddess Astarte, who probably evolved out of Semitic Ishtar and/or Sumerian Inanna, was a goddess of love and fertility. She does not appear in Egyptian texts until the reign of Amenhotep II in the 15th century BC, when she is mentioned in that king’s famous sphinx stele. In the New Kingdom Period Astarte was made a consort of Set and a daughter of Re. In Egyptian art, Astarte is depicted standing on a horse, with a crown on her head, and holding various weapons. A temple to her was built at Tell el Daba, biblical Rameses, a city site associated both with the Israelites and the Hyksos.
Another West Semitic female warrior deity revered in Egypt was Anath, who appears as early as the late Middle Kingdom, perhaps as a part of the influx of Semites into Egypt that eventually produced the so-called Hyksos period. After a brief hiatus in Dynasty 18, Anath enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in Dynasty 19, being credited with military victories of Seti I and his son Ramses II. The center of her worship was the Delta. Because of the sexual nature of her worship, Anath was viewed as an associate of a number of sexually-oriented Egyptian deities: Min, Hathor, and Set. She was depicted either wearing a traditional Egyptian sheath dress or as wearing nothing at all. She also tended to be shown holding weapons, such as a spear or battle-axe.
Reshef, a Canaanite god of war and thunder, seems to have been introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos. As king of the netherworld, Reshef was thought to bring plague and war upon humanity. The Egyptians depicted him in a distinctly Syrian style, with kilt, beard, and horned helmet, but he could also be shown wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt and holding the Egyptian ankh and scepter, or sometimes holding Canaanite weapons. This, along with Reshef’s insertion as a member of a trinity of deities with the god Min and the goddess Qadesh, shows the marked degree of syncretistic integration of foreign deities into the Egyptian pantheon.
However Yahweh was for some reason treated very differently. Clearly the Egyptians knew about Yahweh as can be seen in the Soleb and Amarah-West topographical lists, but they did not worship him, and they apparently did not want to worship him.
Nor was Yahweh equated to or identified with any Egyptian deity. There were no temples to Yahweh built by the Egyptians, nor were there any artistic representations made of him, or in fact even any discussions of him in Egyptian texts. It appears that the ancient Egyptians placed Yahweh into a category all by himself. To say the least, this is very strange for the syncretistic Egyptians. A possible explanation is that Yahweh was seen by the Egyptians as an enemy God, of an enemy tribal group which was a part of the hated Shasu peoples who lived north of Egypt.
THE SHASU OF YAHWEH AND THE DATE OF THE EXODUS
There are two indisputable facts that Old Testament scholars must face when dealing with these hieroglyphic references to the Shasu of Yahweh. First, there is no doubt that the name of the Israelite God Yahweh appears in these hieroglyphic texts at Soleb and Amarah-West. And second, at Soleb the reference to Yahweh dates to 1400 BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. In other words Pharaoh Amenhotep III, or his scribes, knew about the Hebrew God Yahweh in 1400 BC. This fact is highly significant when trying to date the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses.
In Exodus 5:2 Pharaoh answers the first request of Moses to allow the Israelites to go into the desert to worship Yahweh by saying: “Who is Yahweh that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and besides I will not let the Israelites go.” Pharaoh appears here to be saying that he had never heard of the God Yahweh. This interpretation of Pharaoh’s statement is reinforced by Exodus 7:17 where God responds to Pharaoh: “Thus says Yahweh, ‘by this you will know that I am Yahweh, behold I will strike the water that is in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will become blood.’” (NASV)
In his third meeting with Moses and Aaron after the second plague, Pharaoh clearly recognized Yahweh as some sort of deity and asked Moses and Aaron to pray to Yahweh to remove the plague of frogs (see Exodus 8:8). If the Pharaoh of the Exodus had never before heard of the God Yahweh, this strongly suggests that the Exodus should be dated no later than 1400 BC because Pharaoh Amenhotep III had clearly heard about Yahweh by that time.
It is clear that there once was a group of Shasu Bedouin/nomads living in Syria-Palestine who were associated with either a deity or a place named Yahweh. It is also clear that the name Yahweh was known to the Egyptians in the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.
But it must be admitted at this point that we also know from the Old Testament that there were other worshippers of Yahweh in Canaan who did not go into Egypt and therefore did not leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus. The question thus arises, were they perhaps the Shasu of Yahweh mentioned at Soleb and Amarah?
Although we do not have all the information that we wish we did, it is significant that there are no mentions of the Shasu of Yahweh in Egyptian texts earlier than the reign of Amenhotep III. If the group in question were Yahweh followers who never went to Egypt, why are they absent in topographical lists from the early period of the 18th Dynasty, for example, from the extensive topographical lists of Thutmosis III? The reason may very well be because the Shasu of Yahweh were indeed the Israelites and that they were still living in Egypt in the early 18th Dynasty.
The fact that the Shasu of Yahweh first appear in topographical lists under Amenhotep III in ca. 1400 BC fits perfectly with the Early Date of the Exodus, but this fact presents major problems for those scholars who prefer a Late Date for the Exodus during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC. In any case, these references to Yahweh have been ignored for far too long by both conservative and liberal Bible scholars.
It thus appears very likely that the Shasu of Yahweh, who are mentioned in the topographical texts at Soleb and Amarah-West, were the Israelites who by about 1400 BC had settled into their own land in the mountains of Canaan. It also appears that for the ancient Egyptians the one feature that distinguished the Israelites from all the other Shasu (Semitic herders) in this area was their worship of the God Yahweh.
Charles Aling, an Egyptologist and chairman of the History Department at Northwestern College (St. Paul, MN), is the primary author of this article, with additional research and editing assistance from Clyde Billington, also a professor of history at Northwestern College, and Gordon Govier, the editor of ARTIFAX magazine. This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of ARTIFAX
This article relates to ‘God’s name, Jehovah, in an Egyptian temple’ in The Watchtower, May 1 2010, published by Watchtower Bible and Tract Society