Israelite construction workers in Egypt
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not assert that during their sojourn in Egypt the Israelites were involved in building the pyramids. Although fundamental questions remain regarding the presence of Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus—including the dating and scale—it is certain that the most impressive, stone-built pyramids of the Old Kingdom (27th–22nd century B.C.E.) predate the biblical Exodus by hundreds of years. Moreover, there is now plenty of contemporary evidence showing that the pyramids were constructed by indigenous professional builders, not enslaved foreigners.
So what is it the Bible really claims about the Israelites’ forced labor for the Pharaoh? Writing for the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, David A. Falk of the Vancouver School of Theology examines the question of Israelites in Egypt and their building activities in his article “Brick by Brick.” Falk scrutinizes the biblical account and looks for the most plausible match in ancient Egyptian architecture.
The Book of Exodus makes two basic assertions: prior to the biblical Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt were forced to make mudbricks, and they built “supply cities.” In Exodus 5:6–8, we read: “Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the [Israelites], as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously.’” This makes it clear that the Israelites’ task was to manufacture mudbricks, which is, in less specific terms, further confirmed in Exodus 1:14: “[The Egyptians] made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.”
Exodus 1:11 adds a rather puzzling statement: “They built supply cities, Pithom and Ra’amses, for Pharaoh.” What were these “supply [or “storage”] cities” (‘ārê (ham) miskenôṯ, in Hebrew)? The biblical name Pithom most likely stands for Per-Atum, “Estate of Atum,” which has only tentatively been identified with modern-day Tall al-Maskhutah. Ra’amses must be Per-Ramesses, “Estate of Ramesses,” the new capital of Egypt built by Ramesses II (13th century B.C.E.) near ancient Avaris. Apparently located near to one another, both cities lay in the northeast Nile Delta, where there is abundant historical evidence for West Semitic peoples starting at least in the Middle Bronze Age II (c. 2000–1570 B.C.E.).
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Falk argues that these two cities cannot properly be described as “storage cities”; the Bible here more likely refers to some enormous mudbrick buildings within these cities. Falk then suggests that the term could denote a series of mudbrick depots or warehouses associated with temples. In Egyptian temples, extensive storage capacities were necessary to provide for daily offerings and the numerous personnel. In the case of royal mortuary temples, it was furthermore critical to assure that a temple would continue operating even after the king’s death.
Mudbrick architecture in Egypt has a very long tradition going back to the predynastic period and continuing to this day. Starting with Djoser (27th century B.C.E.), Egyptian pharaohs built their tombs and temples in stone, but most other structures continued to be built with sun-dried mudbricks and light materials, such as wood and reed. This was especially true for private houses, royal palaces, and administrative buildings associated with temples. It is therefore very likely that mudbricks manufactured by the Israelites in Egypt were meant for building temple storage facilities or workshops, which is indeed the case with the scene from the tomb of Rakhmire, where an inscription specifies that the workers are “making bricks to build anew the workshops at Karnak.”
For the full analysis of the biblical passages about the Israelite brick makers in Egypt and about the kinds of mudbrick buildings they constructed, read “Brick by Brick,” published in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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