The Egyptian Who Prophesied the Exodus

This week’s parasha, Va’era, gets into the heart of the Exodus narrative, starting with the first of the Ten Plagues. These events are so monumental that it is specifically for this part of the Torah, far more than any other, that people always seek some archaeological or historical proof. An impressive amount of such evidence has indeed been found. One particularly important piece of evidence, the Ipuwer Papyrus, incredibly mentions the Nile River turning to blood and Egypt being decimated by pestilence, famine, and even fire from the Heavens. Yet, this text is generally rejected by secular scholars as having anything to do with the Exodus! A proper understanding of the Torah’s events and timeline might reveal that the Ipuwer Papyrus may very well be among the greatest pieces of evidence that we have.

What is the Ipuwer Papyrus?  

The Ipuwer Papyrus is an ancient Egyptian text, also known as The Admonitions of Ipuwer, The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, and The Dialogue of Ipuwer and The Lord of All, housed at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities since 1828. It is written in hieratic script, which was the simplified, “cursive” form of writing used by the ancient Egyptians, especially for detailed record-keeping and day-to-day correspondence. (The more popular hieroglyphics were generally used only ceremonially, religiously, and in public displays.)

Scholars estimate that this papyrus was written sometime in the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292-1189 BCE), which is after the traditional dating for the Exodus. However, it is thought that the text dates back to the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1803 BCE), which is before the Exodus, and not too far from when Joseph may have first come down to Egypt. The speaker is a man named Ipuwer, a name which appears to have been common in Egypt before around 1450 BCE. Archaeologists have since discovered a tomb relief dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty which mentions an important Egyptian named Ipuwer.

Although the manuscript runs 17 pages, it focuses on several repeating themes:

  • Foreigners taking charge of Egypt (“the tribes of the desert have become Egyptians everywhere” while “the chiefs of the land flee”.)
  • Slaves leaving their posts and not doing their jobs (“The washerman refuses to carry his load”, “the servant takes what he finds,” and “all female slaves are free with their tongues, and when their mistress speaks, it is irksome to the maidservants.”)
  • The poor becoming rich and the Egyptian nobility falling apart (“the poor of the land have become rich, and the [erstwhile owner] of property is one who has nothing.” Or “he who had no grain is now the owner of granaries, and he who had to fetch loan-corn for himself is now one who issues it.”)
  • The Nile River in blood (“the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.”)
  • Rebellion and chaos in Egyptian society (“Behold, noblewomen flee; the overseers of [. . .] and their [children] are cast down through fear of death.” “Behold, things have been done which have not happened for a long time past; the king has been deposed by the rabble.” “How comes it that every man kills his brother?”)
  • Lack of faith among the Egyptians and weakness of Egyptian gods (“Khnum fashions [men] no more because of the condition of the land… Khnum groans because of his weariness.” Or “Behold, men have fallen into rebellion against the Uraeus, the [. . .] of Ra, even she who makes the Two Lands content.”)

It is easy to see the connections to the Exodus. Egypt is in tatters (“towns are destroyed and Upper Egypt has become an empty waste”) after being plagued by various catastrophes (“Indeed, [hearts] are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere, death is not lacking”). Slaves are rebelling against their masters, and the poor are becoming rich. There is a civil war, with Egyptians slaying one another (“man strikes his maternal brother”). Pharaoh is deposed, Egyptians are fleeing, and apparently no longer believe in their gods. Ipuwer himself seems to be addressing a singular god, “the Lord of All”!

All of this fits neatly into the Torah’s account. Aside from the Ten Plagues, for example, the Torah tells us that Egyptian society fell into chaos and civil war. In fact, one reason for commemorating the Sabbath before Passover, Shabbat haGadol, is because a civil war began when Egypt’s firstborn sons protested, knowing their days were numbered after Moses warned of the final plague. This would explain why “man strikes his maternal brother”. (Our Sages say that all firstborn were killed, whether they were first for their fathers or their mothers.)

We also read in the Torah how the Egyptian soothsayers and priests tried to mimic Moses’ plagues. However, by the third plague they were no longer able to do so and cried: “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:15) This would explain Ipuwer’s statements regarding the lack of faith among Egyptians in their gods. It might even explain why Ipuwer himself is addressing the “Lord of All”. Perhaps he became convinced that there was indeed only one God.

We know that the deeper purpose of the Ten Plagues was to show the Egyptians (and the Israelites) that there are no other gods. Each plague attacked one major Egyptian deity, starting with the Nile itself (associated with the god Khnum, noted above). God “killed” the Nile, so to speak, by turning it to blood. Ipuwer notes the bloody Nile multiple times. The plagues continued in this fashion until the ninth plague blotted out the greatest of Egyptian idols, the sun-god Ra (actually mentioned in the Torah, Exodus 10:10). Finally, God struck Pharaoh himself (or his firstborn, and heir to the throne), since the Egyptians worshipped the pharaoh, too, as a deity.

Interestingly, Ipuwer also mentions serpents on several occasions (perhaps alluding to the serpent staffs), as well as flames from above devouring the land: “Behold, the fire has gone up on high, and its burning goes forth against the enemies of the land.” This may be a reference to the seventh plague of flaming hail.

All in all, it is pretty clear that the Ipuwer Papyrus and the Exodus are linked. Those on the secular side who have an interest in “debunking” the Torah propose various ways of avoiding the obvious Ipuwer-Exodus connection. Some say it is just a coincidence, as Egypt went through multiple periods of chaos in its long history—and this is just one of them, probably from long before the Exodus. Others say the Ipuwer Papyrus is not a work of history but a work of fictional literature (a convenient conclusion when a historical text doesn’t match one’s own biased view of history!) I’ve even read one Egyptologist say that surely no serious Egyptologist would link Ipuwer to the Exodus—then go on to name a serious Egyptologist who does make the link, only to go back and say something along the lines of: Wait, he can’t be serious?!

There are those scholars who do find the Ipuwer-Exodus connection compelling, but have a hard time reconciling the dating. The evidence points to a composition of Ipuwer before at least 1500 BCE, and probably in the Twelfth Dynasty. The Exodus did not take place that far back. How might this problem be solved?

A Work of Prophecy, or Propaganda?

One possibility is that Ipuwer was an Egyptian prophet who foresaw the events of the Exodus. Indeed, in the beginning of the papyrus he actually references previous prophets (“what the ancestors foretold has arrived…”) Maybe Ipuwer lived at the time when the Israelites settled in Egypt and slowly became wealthy and influential. He was thus warning Egypt of what is to come.

Ipuwer explicitly mentions an invasion of “Asiatics”. When he speaks of the poor becoming rich, and the previous owners now having “nothing”, Ipuwer may be describing the Israelite rise to greatness. We read in the Torah how Joseph slowly appropriated all that the Egyptians had in exchange for food during those years of famine (Genesis 47:13-25). Ipuwer speaks of a horrible famine, too. He even states: “he who had to fetch loan-corn for himself is now one who issues it.” This sounds like a pretty clear allusion to Joseph, the man who rose from being a slave and prisoner to being put in charge of issuing food during the famine.

More amazingly, Ipuwer criticizes a particular “herdsman”, and says how the Egyptians admire him and say: “He is the herdsman of mankind, and there is no evil in his heart.” While a classic interpretation is that Ipuwer is criticizing one of the gods of Egypt, there is a better alternative. We read in the Torah how the Israelites made it clear to the Egyptians that they are shepherds—“herdsmen”. The Nile Delta-farming Egyptians despised nomadic shepherds, and they even refused to dine together with Joseph (Genesis 43:32). After all, Joseph was essentially the leader of these foreign “herdsmen”.

It was Joseph who systematically took over all the wealth of the Egyptians, to the point of making them slaves to Pharaoh. Yet, the Egyptians adored him, and said: “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25) What if Ipuwer is admonishing his fellow Egyptians for this? They think Joseph is a righteous “herdsman of mankind” with “no evil in his heart”. Ipuwer is telling them: do you not see what this foreigner—this “Asiatic”—has done to you, and to our country?

Ipuwer goes on to state how this will end very badly for Egypt, and prophesies that Egypt will be destroyed, the Nile in blood, and so forth. If the papyrus is a work of prophecy, then its dating to several hundred years before the Exodus is absolutely fitting. And this might tie right into another possibility:

The Torah tells us that the Israelites and the Egyptians initially had good relations. The Israelites were productive citizens and became very successful in their adopted land. However, this led to envy and resentment from the native Egyptians, who felt the “foreigners” were taking over. (Sadly, the same pattern repeats itself throughout Jewish history, to the present day.) At this point:

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.” (Exodus 1:8-10)

The new Pharaoh began a propaganda campaign against the Israelites. He roused his people, and they quickly turned on the Israelites, eventually enslaving them. It didn’t happen overnight. First there were special taxes imposed upon the Israelites (“sarei missim”, Exodus 1:11), then other forms of discrimination, until finally “the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labour.” (Exodus 1:13)

Today we know that the Egyptians were experts in employing propaganda. All sorts of Egyptian propaganda pieces have been discovered. There are at least two more dated to the same era as Ipuwer, one called The Complaints (or Lamentations) of Khakheperraseneb, and another called The Prophecy of Neferti (or Neferyt). It is very possible that Ipuwer is indeed an ancient work of Egyptian fiction, as many scholars do believe—but with the purpose of swaying the hearts and minds of Egypt’s populace against the “foreigners”. Ipuwer may have been recognized as a “prophet” in his day, or styled himself a prophet in order to make his propaganda work more effective.

If this is the case, there is a tremendous irony here: Ipuwer predicts that if Egypt does not rise against the foreigners, it will be destroyed. There will be famine and pestilence, fire from the Heavens, and the very Nile will turn to blood. So God, in His characteristic measure-for-measure fashion, brought about those vary plagues upon Egypt!

‘The Seventh Plague’ by John Martin (1823)

To conclude, by reading Ipuwer as a piece of prophecy-propaganda, composed in the time of the Israelite settlement—and not the Israelite exodus—one can see how it fits well into the Biblical and historical timeline. While there are a great many striking similarities, it doesn’t get all the details right because it is not a description of the Exodus. It was written before the Exodus, to convince the Egyptian populace to fight back against the “invaders”, and thereby led to the events of the Exodus.

Viewing it in this way also explains one more problem: scholars date Ipuwer’s composition to the Twelfth Dynasty, even though they know the physical text we have was written later in the Nineteenth Dynasty, after the Exodus. It would make sense that after the Exodus—when Ipuwer’s “prophecy” was realized—the Egyptians would have dug up this old text and republished it. In the Nineteenth Dynasty, it once again became relevant.

And so, it appears that the Ipuwer Papyrus could very well be one of the best pieces of archaeological evidence for the Torah’s Exodus.