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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Were the Levites Hyksos? – No! That Would Mean Having to Take the Exodus Seriously as a Secular Event in History

Was he a Hyksos?

Were the Levites Hyksos? Both the Levites and the Hyksos garner their fair share of attention in their respective disciplines, biblical scholarship for the former and Egyptology for the latter, but never the twain shall met. The association with the Hyksos, the West Semitic warriors from across the river with a 400-year tradition of being in Egypt at the time of Ramses II, with the Exodus is millennia old. As recounted by 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus, the Egyptians already had a centuries-old tradition linking the Hyksos to the Exodus. The idea of their being some relationship between at least some Hyksos and the Israelites is more acceptable in Egyptology than in biblical studies. It would mean real people in the real world in a real political context of some kind left Egypt and settled in Canaan, ideas that are unacceptable to biblical scholars.1

The Levites are better known the Hyksos and their role in Israelite history and the writing of the Hebrew Bible is much more acceptable. Tracing their involvement over time in the writing by biblical scholars is considered a valid and legitimate academic undertaking. But even given this connection between the writing of the Hebrew Bible and the Levites, there is still something which doesn’t quite sit right with biblical scholars. 2

One would be remiss in this investigation of the Levites to Israelite history and biblical writing if one ignored that sometimes the Levites themselves were the subject of stories that portray a distinctly non-priestly picture of them. Typically one thinks of priests in ritualistic settings. They offer sacrifices, maintain the holiness of the sanctuary, and perform rituals at the sacred times. But with the Levites, there is a legacy of violence associated with them as well. The verses typically cited to illustrate that aspect of their identity are:

Genesis 34:25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males.

Genesis 49:5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 O my soul, come not into their council; O my spirit, be not joined to their company; for in their anger they slay men, and in their wantonness they hamstring oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

Exodus 32:27 And he [Moses] said to them, “Thus says Yahweh God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

Deuteronomy 33:8 And of Levi he said, “Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 9 who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed thy word, and kept thy covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt offering upon thy altar. 11 Bless, O Yahweh, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, that they rise not again.’”

Exactly how it came to be that the Levites and violence are so closely linked is not clear. 3

Biblical scholars have endeavored to plumb this facet of this violent attribute of the Levites, priests of Moses or Mushites. For example, in Mark Leuchter’s oral presentation on “The Fightin’ Mushites” two years prior to his published paper, he stated in his abstract:

The priestly line founded by Moses (the “Mushites” following [biblical scholar Frank M.] Cross and others) stands out most prominently in this regard in premonarchic tradition and, subsequently in the northern kingdom…But how did the Mushites establish themselves as a dominant priestly house, and at what point did Moses himself become a typological symbol of the Levites more broadly. 4

Leuchter finds his answers in the violent Mushite legacy of Moses slaying the Egyptian taskmaster who beat a Hebrew:

One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Ex.2:11-12).

Following that event, Moses flees to Midian where he marries Zipporah and they have a son Gershom. Leuchter dismisses the biblical “stranger in a strange land” explanation for the name of Gershom as its true meaning. Citing various scholars, Leuchter links the shared root GRSH (גרש) to the action of the shepherds who “drove away” the women watering at the well before Moses turned the table on them. Thus the son was named after the action whereby his parents met. Leuchter then suggests that term Gershom was less a name than a title signifying a Mushite who acts to defend the weak be it the Hebrew man in Egypt or the Midianite women in the wilderness. In the remainder of the article, Leuchter elaborates on the continuity of this marital prowess tradition. 5

Richard Elliott Friedman, author of the recent The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, pushed the Levite identity back to the origin of Israel into Egypt itself. In his earlier book Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman suggests that perhaps of the people who became Israel only the Levites had been slaves in Egypt. He cites the Egyptian names of key Israelites such as Moses and Aaron=s grandson Phinehas as part of this Egyptian heritage. Since the Levites in Egypt were mere slaves, Friedman does not address the writing or literacy skills of these marginalized people. Nor does he speculate on how these Levites acquired their violent image if they were slaves in Egypt. Years after that 1987 publication he returned to that subject online and promised a forthcoming book about it now published. But even though he has identified the Levites as critical to the writing of the Hebrew Bible, the now-published book does not address the writing legacy these Levites brought with them when they crossed over the river Nile to the promised land or the origin of their violent heritage. 6

It is possible to put these pieces together to suggest the critical role of the Levites in the origin of Israel and the writing of the Hebrew Bible. For violent Semites in the land of Egypt there are two realistic choices: the Hyksos and the n’rn. N’rn is a Semitic word. In Egypt, they were the soldiers who rescued Ramses II when he marched headstrong into a Hittite trap on the Orontes in Syria in Year 5 (1274 BCE). They appear out of nowhere without explanation and are depicted as Egyptians in a battle relief. Even more amazingly, Ramses credits them for the “victory” at Kadesh, a battle he also claimed to have won all by himself! The n’rn also appear in the Karnak Inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son and successor to Ramses who claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. Generally, the n’rn are considered to be Canaanites from multiple locations now fighting on behalf of Egypt, but their ethnicity is under debate among Egyptologists. However, the Karnak Inscription clearly differentiates the n’rn from the victorious Egyptian troops even as they are likened to each other. One might even inquire why Merneptah chose to compare his Egyptian troops to the n’rn in the first place. Evidently their fighting reputation was well-known. 7

The Hyksos are an intriguing piece in the puzzle. There is no inherent reason why Hyksos could not have been included in the n’rn who rescued Ramses or their commanding officers. According to Manfred Bietak, the excavator Avaris/Pi-Ramesse, the capital city of both the Hyksos and Ramses:

The end of Hyksos rule in Egypt from the historical point of view is a subject rarely addressed in Egyptology….In Egyptology, the impact of Hyksos rule on Egypt has been largely neglected in research if not ignored….[I]t is only logical to postulate that the presence of several ten thousands people of Western Asiatic people in north-eastern Egypt over a period of over 300 years (c. 1830-1530 BCE) must have had an impact on successive New Kingdom culture. 8

Levite n’rn would have a military heritage but not the writing and cultural experience of the Hyksos who had once ruled Egypt and remained a more elite and educated group. Either way, Friedman’s violent slave Levites make more sense if they had a military background.

I suggest that the missing link in all these musings is the recognition that the Levites were Hyksos. I am not claiming that all the Hyksos became Israelites nor I am claiming that all Israelites were Levite. I am claiming that the Levites who left Egypt provided the leadership for the people who became Israel. They were literate. They were warriors. They were aware of the world picture. They were known to Ramses who honored the Hyksos collectively for their 400-years in Egypt in the appropriately named 400 Year Stela. 9  They were the right people in the right place at the right time to contemplate leaving Egypt to liberate the land of Canaan from Egyptian hegemony under the leadership of the Levite Moses. Recognizing that Levites were Hyksos who became Israelites in opposition to Ramses means the Exodus occurred in the real world. By contrast biblical scholarship takes pride in having freed itself some such myths as an historical Exodus. Ironically, it will be easier for Egyptologists to deal with a real world Exodus than for biblical scholars.


1. For the Hyksos, see Bietak, Manfred, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” in Rakefet Sela-Sheffy and Gideon Toury, ed., Culture Contacts and the Making of Cultures: Papers in Homage to Itamar Even-Zohar (Tel Aviv: Unit of Culture Research Tel Aviv University, 2011), 19-65; Bietak, Manfed, “On the Historicity of the Exodus: What Egyptology Today Can Contribute to Assessing the Sojourn in Egypt,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider and William H.C. Propp, ed., Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (Heidelberg-New York- Dordrecht-London 2015), 17-36; Marée, Marcel, ed., The Second Intermediate Period (Thirteenth-Seventeenth Dynasties): Current Research, Future Prospects (OLA 192; Leuven: Peters, 2010); Oren, Eliezer D., ed., The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Philadelphia, 1997); Redford, Donald B., “The Hyksos Invasion in History and Tradition,” Orientalia 39 1970: 1-51; Redford, Donald B., and Weinstein, James, “Hyksos,” Anchor Bible Dictionary III: 341-348; Ryholt, K. S. B., The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period c. 1800-1550 B.C. (Copenhagen: K.S.B. Ryholt and Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997); Van Seters, John, The Hyksos: A New Investigation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

2. For the Levites, see Cohen, Martin A., “The Role of the Shilonite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 36 1965:39-98; Frolov, Serge, “’Days of Shiloh’ in the Kingdom of Israel,” Biblica 76 1995:210-218; Halpern, Baruch, “Levitic Participation in the Reform Cult of Jeroboam I,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 1976:31-42; Polk, Timothy, The Levites in the Davidic-Solomonic Empire,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 9 1979:3-22; Rehm, Merlin, “Levites and Priests,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary IV:297-310; Robinson, Robert B., “The Levites in the Pre-Monarchic Period,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 8 1978:3-24.

3. Joel Baden, “The Violent Origins of the Levites: Text and Tradition,” in Mark A. Leuchter and Jeremy M. Hutton, ed., Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 103-116; Richard Elliott Friedman, “Levites and Priests in History and Tradition,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, San Diego, November 24, 2014; Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” Vetus Testamentum 62 2012:479-500.

4. Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” paper presented at the Columbia Hebrew Bible Seminar, March 17, 2010. The published article dates the presentation to February, 2010.

5. Leucheter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” 492-494.

6. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: Harper, 2017); Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?,(New York: Summit Books, 1987), 82; Richard Elliott Friedman, “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, undated,‑historical‑exodus/ and “The Exodus Is not Fiction: An Interview with Richard Elliot Friedman” Reform Judaism, undated,‑not‑fiction. See also Richard Elliott Friedman, “Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?,” BAR 40/5 2014:48-52.

7. For the role of these Semitic soldiers in the showdown with the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, see Goedicke, Hans, “Considerations of the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52 1966:71-80; Kitchen, Kenneth A., Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1982), 60; Manassa, Colleen, The Great Karnak Inscriptions of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century BC (YES 5; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 53; Morris, Ellen, The Architecture of Imperialism: Military Bases and the Evolution of Foreign Policy in Egypt’s New Kingdom (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 362-366; Obsomer, Claude, “La Bataille de Qadech de Ramsès: Les n’arin, sekou tepy et questions d’itinéraires,” in Christina Karlshausen and Claude Obsomer, ed., De la Nubie à Qadech: La Guerre dans l’Égypte/From Nubia to Kadesh: War in Ancient Egypt (Brussels: Safran Publishers, 2016), 81-168; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1 1962:47-52; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at Kadesh Once Again,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 11 1981:7-19; Spalinger, Anthony, “Notes on the Reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh,” in Hans Goedicke, ed., Perspectives on the Battle of Kadesh (Baltimore: Halgo Inc., 1985), 1-42, here 3; Zudhi, Omar, “Benteshina and the N’rn Division,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 1977-1978: 141-142.

8. Bietak, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” 20-21.

9. Peter Feinman, “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research, November 16, 2017, publication forthcoming Beal, Richard and Scurlock, JoAnn, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming).

Portions excerpted from Jerusalem Throne Games by Peter Feinman