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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.




              1. Physical Description: Situation; two great divisions; the Nile.




              2. History:

              Little known up to a very recent period.


                            Now opened by study of hieroglyphic inscriptions.


                            Principal dynasties before the Israelites went down into Egypt.




              3. Civilization:

              Social Organization.


                            Domestic Life and Manners.


Religion (Esoteric and Exoteric Aspects).






              A. The last years of Jacob and Joseph:

              1. Entrance into Egypt.

              In what manner effected?


                                          Under what dynasty?


                            2. The Land of Gessen: Situation and description.


                            3. Death and Funeral honors of Jacob and Joseph.




              B. After the Death of Joseph:

              1. Period of Prosperity:

              From a Nomad Tribe, Israel becomes a settled people.


                                          Families remain distinct; no common head.




                            2. Period of Oppression:

              At what time began the oppression?


                                          How exercised?




                                          How illustrated

              A. by Egyptian monuments?


                                                        B. in modern Fellahin?


§ 1. The Land of Egypt

1. Physical Description. Egypt, the country in which the descendants of Jacob dwelt for several centuries, occupies the northeast angle of Africa. It lies on both sides of the Nile and is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by Arabia and the Red Sea, on the south by Nubia (which country the Nile traverses before it enters Egypt at the first cataract), and on the west by Lybia. In ancient times, however, the territory of Egypt was much less extensive, because its width included then little more than the fertile strip of land on both sides of the Nile, the deserts beyond on either side being considered as parts of Arabia and Lybia respectively.

Ancient Egypt had two great natural divisions, (1) the Delta, so called from its resemblance with the Greek letter Δ; (2) the Valley of the Nile. The Delta is a vast triangular plain watered by the branches of the Nile and extending along the Mediterranean coast for about 200 miles, and up the Nile for 100 miles. The Valley of the Nile extends from this point—about the site of the present city of Cairo—to the First Cataract, a distance of about 500 miles, and its width varies from 10 to 30 miles. The Delta and, the Valley of the Nile have together an area of about 9,600 square miles, or about equal to the two States of Massachusetts and Rhode Island together.

Nothing is more exact than the saying of the old Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B. C.), who affirms that Egypt “is the gift of the Nile” (History, Book ii, chap. v), for owing to the periodical rainy season which inundates Upper Abyssinia, where the Nile takes its rise, this river is periodically swollen and by its overflow secures to the country of Egypt its wonderful fertility. The rising of the Nile usually begins towards the end of June, and as the waters rise they turn from greenish to dark red, which latter color does not interfere in the least with their wholesome and palatable properties. During the following months, the lowlands of Egypt are inundated and thereby supplied with the moisture and alluvial deposit required for farming purposes. If the annual inundation reaches a sufficient height—in ancient times, the most favorable height was 16 cubits or about 28 feet—all is well with Egypt and its inhabitants, but if the reverse occurs—if it is only 12 cubits, for instance—a famine is the result. As the fertility of Egypt has ever depended on the water of the Nile, canals were dug from a remote antiquity, to distribute it in various directions.

2. History. Up to a very recent period, little could be known with certainty about the history of ancient Egypt, for every writer on Egypt depended almost entirely on Greek historians whose statements were too often at variance, and whose comparative authority could not be defined. Moreover as these historians were unacquainted with the Egyptian language, they did not utilize the original documents of the banks of the Nile, but simply recorded obsolete traditions with which they mingled their own views, and as a necessary consequence, the history of ancient Egypt was for centuries little more than a collection of groundless statements.

A more accurate and certain knowledge of Egyptian history began only with the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics by François Champollion in the first quarter of the present century. By years of hard and persevering efforts he succeeded not only in making out the value of a large number of Egyptian characters, but also in understanding the meaning of the words through his acquaintance with the Coptic language, a legitimate descendant from the old Egyptian and bearing with it a very close resemblance. Since that time, pyramid and obelisk, sarcophagus and coffin, stele and papyrus have spoken and their inscriptions, ranging from 4000 B. C. to the time of our Lord, have yielded an outline of Egypt’s dynasties and political vicissitudes, and better still a vivid picture of its beliefs, manners and customs (cfr. BUDGE, Dwellers on the Nile, chaps. i, ii).

Despite all these discoveries, the earliest history of Egypt is still very obscure; it cannot be doubted, however, that about 4000 B. C., Egypt was already a well-organized State. Its first dynasty is supposed to have had for its founder Mena or Menes, about whose laws and institutions little is known for certain. Of the following dynasties, twelve ruled in succession before the children of Jacob went down into Egypt; and the principal of these were two: (1) The Fourth, to whose kings Egypt is indebted for much of its ancient glory, and in particular for its greatest pyramids or royal tombs, viz.: those of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Gizeh, on the western bank of the Nile, near Cairo; (2) the Twelfth, famous for its warlike undertakings, and also for the formation of the enormous lake Moeris and the building of the wonderful palace of the Labyrinth. From the twelfth to the eighteenth dynasty, there is a gap of about 500 years during which both the rule of the Hyksos or “Shepherd Kings” and the settlement of the Israelites in Egypt are to be placed.

3. Civilization. Egypt is one of the most ancient civilized nations of the world, and in the present day we are allowed a clear insight into the manifold features of its antique civilization through the numberless paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, etc., brought to light by recent explorations. Among these features we may notice first of all, the political and social organization of the ancient Egyptians, at the basis of which lay their division into classes. Two of these classes, those of the priests and of the warriors, were deemed most honorable, and together with the King, owned the soil of Egypt. The priests constituted the learned class; they were exempt from taxation, received daily rations of the sacred food together with contributions of oxen, sheep and wine, were allowed to have only one wife, and were submitted to minute ritual observances, such as frequent ablutions, the exclusive use of linen robes, etc. Next to the priests in honor, came the soldiers, whose profession, like that of the priests, was hereditary. They possessed nearly a third of the soil and were exempt from all taxes, and of course, when on duty in the field or about the King’s person, they were given special pay and rations. The rest of the free population of Egypt formed a sort of third order subdivided into the classes of shepherds, husbandmen and artisans, whose various occupations are represented with the minutest detail and accuracy in the pictures in the tombs and on the monuments of the ancient Egyptians.

At the head of the State, was the King, bearing the title of Pharao, at once priest and warrior, and the actual god of all his subjects both during his lifetime and after his death. For him the Egyptians were trembling slaves, compelled even from religious motives to carry out his orders blindly, and to set at the same time the highest value on his most trifling favors. “The first object of the King was supposed to be the welfare of his people both temporal and spiritual. Minor matters of administration would be disposed of by his subordinates, but things of importance would come before him and be discussed with his leading advisers and councillors” (BUDGE, Dwellers on the Nile, page 183).

The domestic life of the ancient Egyptians is perhaps better known than their social organization, for their paintings and inscriptions make us acquainted with the minute details of their daily life. Their houses were generally only two stories high, had small windows, lofty ceilings and terraced roofs surrounded by a balustrade or battlement. The houses of the wealthy often covered a very large extent of ground, had an inner court planted with trees, and their walls were beautifully sculptured and decorated, whilst the rooms were supplied with the most elegant furniture. At an entertainment, the dinner was served up at noon, men and women sat side by side at tables covered with numerous dishes and supplied with wine of various sorts, each guest being placed according to his rank. “After dinner, games, music, dancing and other amusements were provided for the guests” (BLAIKIE, Manual of Bible History, p. 98).

Polygamy was certainly practised by some of the nobles and Kings of Egypt, but even where several wives were taken one of them enjoyed a real superiority over all the others. Children were educated according to their futùre position in life, those of the priests being carefully taught the various kinds of Egyptian writing together with astronomy, mathematics, etc., in a word, “all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” (For fuller information see WILKINSON, The Ancient Egyptians, vol. ii.)

The religion of Egypt deserves also a special notice here. It presented, as in all pagan countries, a twofold aspect, the one esoteric, exhibiting whatever was most elevated, most philosophical, but kept hidden in the sanctuary for the honor and profit of the priests and of a small number of initiated,—the other exoteric, the sole known to the people at large, consisting only of the outer form of the esoteric doctrine and made up of the grossest superstitions.

The esoteric doctrine of the Egyptian priests had for its basis the great idea of the unity of a God who is described in the sacred texts of Ancient, Egypt as eternal, infinite, loving and just (cfr. extract from an Egyptian hymn in BUDGE, p. 130 sq.); that the primitive Egyptian worship was thus monotheistic is rendered the more probable from the fact that religious edifices of the primitive ages were without sculptured images and without idols. Unfortunately, this sublime idea was very early obscured and disfigured by the conceptions of the priests, as well as by the ignorance of the multitude. The attributes and qualities of the one sole, absolute and eternal God were by degrees invested with a concrete and personal existence, and transformed in the eyes of the people into absolutely distinct gods. For the purposes of external and public worship these almost countless gods were grouped into triads—after the image of a human family having a father, mother and son—and each triad was worshipped in the sanctuary of one of the capitals of the Egyptian districts or nomes. Again, through a further abuse of symbolic representations so entirely in harmony with Egypt’s genius, the attributes, qualities and nature of the various gods were symbolized by means of animals, each god being represented under the figure of a particular animal, or as was more usually the case, by the conjunction of the head of that animal with a human body, and this finally led the Egyptian multitudes to the worship of the animals themselves, not simply as representations but as incarnations of the deity (see FRANÇOIS LENORMANT, Manual of the Ancient History of the East, vol. i, p. 317–327).

One of the principal religious beliefs common to both people and priests was the doctrine of a future life with its eternal rewards for the just, and its punishments for the wicked.

§ 2. Sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt

1. The Last Years of Jacob and Joseph (Gen. 46–50). The first impulse of Jacob on learning of Joseph’s preservation and exalted dignity in Egypt was to go down to that country and spend his last years with his beloved son. He soon, however, hesitated in carrying out a plan which seemed to run counter to God’s designs by settling down far from the Promised Land, but a vision from Jehovah near Bersabee, put an end to every hesitation on his part, and he started without delay with all his family and possessions, sending Juda ahead to apprise Joseph of his coming. The meeting of the patriarch with his beloved son was most affectionate, and was soon followed by the presentation, first of five brothers of Joseph, and next of the old man himself to the Egyptian monarch. The Pharao of the time belonged most likely to a dynasty established by nomad hordes of Arabia, Chanaan and Syria after their conquest of Northern Egypt, and known under the name of the Hyksos or “Shepherd Kings.” Once settled in Egypt, the Hyksos soon adopted Egyptian manners and customs, and their court resembled in every respect that of the ancient Pharaos, and yet all the time they had to fight against the native Kings who maintained themselves in Southern Egypt, and who ultimately succeeded in expelling those whom the Egyptian population ever regarded as intruders. These historical data concerning the Hyksos agree perfectly with the Biblical statements regarding the dynasty which ruled in Egypt at the time when the Israelites entered that country. On the one hand, although this dynasty had a foreign origin, it had already adopted the customs of Egypt, and in consequence it is justly described in the Bible as holding a thoroughly Egyptian court; and on the other hand, because of its foreign origin and also because of the hatred wherewith it was pursued by the native princes and population, it would not only welcome, but even readily grant a portion of territory to a pastoral tribe coming also from Asia and in which they hoped to secure allies, when necessary, against the conquered Egyptians.

The portion of Egyptian territory ascribed to Jacob and his family as their residence was the “Land of Gessen” whose boundaries gradually “extended with the increase of the people over the territory they inhabited” (NAVILLE, quoted by HARPER, Bible and Modern Discoveries, p. 55). In the time of Joseph it probably comprised little more than the present Wady Et Tumilat, a district east of the Delta and not far from Tanis or Zoan, the actual capital of the Hyksos. The land of Gessen counted but few Egyptian inhabitants, because its former settlers had fled before the invading Asiatic hordes, and although it was capable of yielding excellent crops, it was yet—as we learn from a recently discovered Egyptian document—“not cultivated, but left as a pasture for cattle.” All this enables us to understand why Joseph was desirous that this region should be assigned to his brothers who had come with flocks and herds, were “shepherds from their infancy,” and as such would be an object of hatred for the native population “because the Egyptians had all shepherds in abomination.”

After his migration into Egypt, Jacob lived seventeen years, towards the end of which he requested that his mortal remains should be transported into the land of Chanaan and deposited in “the burying-place of his ancestors.” In his last sickness, the dying patriarch blessed all his children, uttering at the same time prophetic words concerning the future of their respective descendants. His blessing of Juda is particularly remarkable not only because it promised the temporal supremacy to the tribe of Juda, but also because it distinctly foretold that from Juda’s posterity should arise “He to whom nations shall yield obedience,” that is, the Messias in whom “shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; 26:4. For a careful study of Jacob’s blessing of Juda, see VIGOUROUX, Manuel Biblique; CORLUY, Spicilegium Dogmatico-biblicum, vol. i; PELT, Histoire de l’Ancien Testament, vol. i, chap. xv).

Joseph honored his father (1) by a costly embalming, of which the Bible speaks in a manner which agrees perfectly with the process as depicted on Egyptian monuments, (2) by a long time of mourning in the Land of Egypt, (3) by a large and distinguished funeral cortege which accompanied the embalmed body to the Promised Land, finally (4) by “full seven days of great and vehement lamentation” when arrived at Machpelah, where Jacob’s remains were laid by the side of his great ancestors (cfr. GEIKIE, vol. i, p. 471).

Very little is told us about Joseph in the Biblical narrative after the burial of his father. We read simply that be ever bore himself kindly to his brothers, saw the grandchildren of his sons Ephraim and Manasses, and required from his brothers a solemn oath that they should carry his remains out of Egypt, when God would bring them back to Chanaan. His body was carefully embalmed and “laid in a coffin in Egypt.”

2. After the Death of Joseph. The prosperity which the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt during the lifetime of Joseph long continued after his death. During this period of peace and plenty, which the opening chapter of the book of Exodus rather hints at than describes, they multiplied very rapidly and soon covered much more territory than the district originally ascribed to them. Many of the new districts presented much better opportunities for agricultural or industrial purposes than for pastoral pursuits, and in consequence many families gave up gradually their despised primitive shepherd life, and learned to till the fertile soil of northeastern Egypt, or became acquainted with the various arts of the Egyptians, such as weaving, dyeing, etc. Their social importance naturally grew apace with their wealth, and intermarriage gave them access to the highest circles in the State (cfr. 1 Paralip. 4:18). Thus, from a nomad tribe, Israel was by degrees transformed into a numerous and powerful settled people conversant with the arts and civilization of Egypt, and also, it must be added, deeply influenced by the splendor of its temples and worship. Finally, they were allowed a fair amount of political independence, for they governed themselves in pretty much the same manner as the nations kindred to them (the Edomites and the Ismaelites) having like them elders who presided over the interests of distinct districts, but no common head.

Had this wonderful prosperity of the Israelites lasted much longer, it seems not improbable that they would have gradually forgotten Chanaan, and even lost their faith in the God of their ancestors; but these two great evils were averted by a providential course of events, which brought about a long period of severe oppression followed by their departure from Egypt. The precise time at which this oppression began cannot be determined; but it is now universally granted that the “new King who arose over Egypt and did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8) belonged to the old native dynasty which had finally succeeded in expelling the Hyksos from the country. There is also little doubt that the particular King who persecuted so severely the Israelites was Ramesses II, whom Egyptian inscriptions concur with the Bible in representing as having had a very long reign, as a passionate builder, and as the founder of Ramesses and Phithom. His aim was so to weaken the Israelites as to render them of no account in case of a foreign invasion from the east, and for this purpose he had recourse to three devices: (1) he imposed upon them an excessive amount of work of the most exhausting kind; (2) he gave order to the Egyptian midwives to kill every Israelite man-child at its birth; (3) he charged all his people to cast into the Nile any male child who might have escaped (Exod. 1:9–22).

Egyptian monuments make us acquainted with brickmaking as it was then imposed upon the Israelites, when they represent to us some men digging clay, others mixing it, others laden with the prepared clay, others again carrying bricks or stacking them, whilst just by is the task master, his stick ever lifted up to enforce labor. By “all the other manners of service” exacted from the Israelites (Exod. 1:14, cfr. also verse 11) we are doubtless to understand the hewing out of enormous blocks of granite and limestone, and the drawing of them for the building of Ramesses’s temples and cities, the digging of canals, etc. (Cfr. inscriptions of Ramesses in GEIKIE, Hours with the Bible, vol. ii, p. 98, sq.)

The frightful hardships and enormous expenditure of life naturally entailed by such work carried on with no machinery and with but little mechanical help, are most vividly illustrated in the Fellahin or Egyptian husbandmen who, during this very century, were taken by force from their villages and compelled to work for the Egyptian authorities. Thus, for instance, out of 250,000 fellahin torn away from their homes and employed at making the canal which connects Alexandria with the Nile, 30,000 actually died, falling worn out with the toil exacted from them by the blows of their pitiless taskmasters. Similar barbarities with similar results were also noticed in connection with the beginning of the Suez canal, and all travellers relate like tales of woe concerning the forced labor imposed upon the poor fellahin in the sugar factories of the late Khedive (that is, the viceroy of Egypt). (Cfr. HARPER, Bible and Modern Discoveries, p. 69; VIGOUROUX, vol. ii, p. 249, sq.)

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