Jacobovici on the Ipuwer Papyrus

Simcha Jacobovici recently published a blog post insisting in no uncertain terms that the Ipuwer Papyrus is “proof” of the Exodus. For Jacobivici,

the Ipuwer Papyrus is basically the story of the Biblical Exodus, from an Egyptian point of view.

Now, on what is this conclusion based? Simcha provides only a few pieces of evidentiary support, among them the text’s putative uniqueness and a handful of narrative parallels:

1) The text states “the tribes of the desert have risen above the Egyptians,” which, in Simcha’s mind, can only refer to Israel.

2) The text states “the servant takes what he finds”;  “poor men have become wealthy”; a man who could not afford to have “sandals for himself is now a possessor of riches.” These comments about the poor breaching class boundaries are taken as a “direct parallel” to Exod 12:35, which states that the Israelites borrowed gold, silver, and clothing from the Egyptians. According to Simcha, the Israelites “bankrupted” the Egyptians.

3) The text mentions earthquakes and the Nile turning to blood.

4) The text describes the exodus event itself, stating that “those who were Egyptians [have become] foreigners.” Simcha takes this to refer to the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.

The problems with this conclusion and the methods undergirding it are legion, but I start with a betrayal on Simcha’s part of his complete and utter ignorance of any methodological standards of literary evaluation:

Scholars have dismissed the Papyrus as a work of fiction and describe it as part of a “genre”. A “genre” is a French word for a series, class or category of stories that share common themes. If you’re unique, you’re not a “genre”. The fact is that there is no papyrus like the Ipuwer Papyrus.

Evidently Simcha thinks the Ipuwer Papyrus is not “part of a ‘genre.'” He obviously does not know what a “genre” is, or how the term is used in scholarship. His definition is also lacking, as it seems to indicate that texts of a similar genre have to share the same or similar subject matter, which they do not. What they must share are sets of stylistic features, which are never entirely unique. Every text is a part of some genre or another. If a text were not part of a genre, it would not be adequately understood. As an example, imagine I handed you a small piece of paper with the following written on it:

1 lb. monkey brains
a dozen eggs
1 gallon breast milk
cyanide (2 capsules)
football helmet full of cottage cheese (low fat)

Now, obviously, you’ve never seen a text exactly like this before. It’s a unique text.  And yet, you can probably tell pretty quickly what I might want you to do with it. It’s a shopping list. The underlying implication is that this is a list of things I want you to go buy, for whatever bizarre reason. How do you know? Because “shopping list” is a genre, and  you know the genre and its associated stylistic features. It is not the content of the list that screams “shopping list,” it is those conventional features (small piece of paper, items listed in specific quantities, etc.). Because you know the genre, you can interpret the meaning of the list. All texts belong to some genre or another. This is axiomatic. To insist that a text is not part of a genre is to betray complete and utter ignorance of the concept.

So is the Ipuwer Papyrus “part of a ‘genre'”? Obviously. It not only contains similar stylistic features to other texts, but also subject matter. First, it is a poem. It makes frequent use of conventional poetic elements, like parallelism and metonymy. That’s a genre, albeit a broad one. Next, it is a lament, which is a known genre of Egyptian literature (despite Simcha’s assumption that the pessimism is “remarkable” and uncommon). Laments for the dead, for instance, are full of pessimism and tragedy. Sumerian city laments are also strikingly similar in style as well as content. The Lament for Sumer and Urim, for instance, contains pleonastic lists of devastating circumstances following a deity’s actions against a region, just like the Ipuwer Papyrus. Most importantly for Simcha’s claims, the notion of the river turning to blood is actually not that unique. It occurs in Egyptian and other texts spread across a pretty broad period of time, and it is a metaphorical description of the reddening of the Nile when particularly heavy inundation washes a great deal of red sediment down from Upper Egypt. This process also kills off a lot of fish, making the river stink and the water bad.

So the Ipuwer Papyrus is certainly part of a “genre” and is not as remarkable or unique as Simcha seems to think. This lack of uniqueness also extends to the items he lists as direct parallels to the Exodus tradition. To begin, the notion of “tribes of the desert” coming against Egypt does not necessarily refer to Israel. The Egyptians frequently interacted with various nomadic peoples, both hostile and benign. The Hyksos (“rulers of foreign lands”) were a large tribal group ubiquitous in the historical record from the third to the second millennia BCE. They were thought by Middle Kingdom writers (2000 – 1700 BCE) to originate from Syria and Canaan, and they actually took over Egypt (during the Second Intermediate period). There’s no indication they were Israelites, though, and the dates of their accession don’t fit the biblical text at all. Obviously this makes for a far better context than the Exodus for “desert tribes” having “become Egyptians everywhere,” particularly in light of the statement by the author of the Ipuwer Papyrus that foreigners are attacking Egypt (this does not fit with the exodus tradition).

Next, the notion of the poor violating class boundaries is not unique. The intermediate periods in the history of Egypt were periods of political and social upheaval, not uncommonly attended by uprisings among non-royals and poorer classes. This was viewed as particularly horrifying to traditionalists among the Egyptian intelligentsia, and fits quite well with the lament of Ipuwer. The notion of Egyptians becoming foreigners also fits with the First or Second Intermediate period, when the country was taken over by outsiders, leaving the traditional Egyptians on the political fringes, making them “foreigners.” Jacobovici’s interpretation of these Egyptians cum foreigners as the departing Israelites is nonsensical, as the author of this text would never have considered Asiatic slaves Egyptians to begin with, and the designation “foreigner” does not refer to someone who departs Egypt. It refers to native Egyptians who have been displaced by incoming rulers.

To conclude, the Ipuwer Papyrus only provides support for the exodus tradition if one is woefully ignorant of broader Egyptian literature and history, and is only looking for points of contact (while ignoring points of conflict). The document most likely originates centuries before the traditional dating of the exodus (which itself doesn’t fit at all with the actual history of Egypt), and it conflicts with the exodus tradition as contained in the Bible more than it overlaps. Those areas of overlap are also not unique or striking. They are rather conventional literary elements that coincide with different periods and events from Egypt’s ideological past.

Mr. Jacobovici wants a debate, but there’s really nothing to debate. There is no evidence that the Ipuwer Papyrus has anything at all to do with a historical exodus. Jacobovici’s analysis is staggeringly uninformed and myopic, and there is nothing left for him to marshal in support of his reading. All he could possibly offer is restatement and argument by assertion, apart from the inevitable ad hominem and hypocritical decrying of my academic condescension. I would be happy to have him prove me wrong.


11 responses to “Jacobovici on the Ipuwer Papyrus

  • Tom Verenna

    I would note, as well, that for hundreds of years archaeologists have been scouring the sands between Egypt and Palestine looking for some scrap of evidence–be it animal bones (people have to eat), to camp sites (according to tradition the Israelites stayed in this very small region for decades)–and yet no archaeological evidence has been discovered. Not pottery shards (which are found everywhere else because they were notorious for chipping and breaking), not lamps, no evidence of temporary settlements (though waiting around for a generation to die seems pretty permanent for some people–though no permanent settlements uncovered either). Odd too that the Israelites would think to escape Egypt since at the time the borders of Egypt extended out into the region they supposedly inhabited and Egyptian guard posts and military camps were literally all over the place during the period in which the Exodus is supposed to have happened. A good volume to read would be L.L. Grabbe’s volume on the subject. Stay away from maximalist stuff–you just can’t trust it (they handle the evidence much in the same way Simcha does).

  • theologyarchaeology

    Veranna, you do not know anything. You also limit yourself to the type of evidence YOU want to see and not what is actually there. You are assuming that slaves were free enough to have their own manufacturing business and were free enough to create their own cultural items. Quite unrealistic. You and Mcellen are dumber than Jacobovici, and I am no fan of his.

    As for the above post, mcellen shows he is off his rocker as he can’t do any independent thinking but relies upon unbelieving scholars for his information. If he were a christian, he would know not to do that.but since they tell him what he wants to hear, he ignores biblical commands and follows after false thinking.

  • theologyarchaeology

    ” The document most likely originates centuries before the traditional dating of the exodus (which itself doesn’t fit at all with the actual history of Egypt), and it conflicts with the exodus tradition as contained in the Bible more than it overlaps.”

    Your problem is providing the evidence for the source material for the Ipuwer papyrus. Where did the author get his idea from and how much poetic license did he take with retelling or creating the story? You, Verrenna, and your precious scholars have NO evidence to support your claims and no previous event to point to that would inspire the writer of that papyrus.

    Before you caste stones, you should examine your own glass house first.

  • Stephan Huller

    “caste stones” That’s even worse than Mcellan.

    FWIW Daniel a real live Samaritan will be ‘in town’ from Dec 8 – 12. If you have any interest in making contact with this living treasure – Benny Tsedaka – he will be available for hanging out, questions, whatever during that time. He is fluent in six languages, he is a living encyclopedia of Samaritan knowledge. Ingrid Hjelm can vouch for him. He’s a very nice guy and he used to go up to Bellingham to visit Logos software when they were working on a digital version of the Samaritan Pentateuch. I don’t know what his schedule is this time but I know I will take him out sometime during that period. If you want to hang out with him separately for any reason (living testimonies are always or often better than books) I can forward you his contact information.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the very tempting invitation, Stephan. His English translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch is on my list of books this year. I was helping a professor put together his own English translation when we came across Benny’s. We figured his would carry much more weight than ours ever could, so we scrapped the project. Unfortunately, I am not currently in Washington state, and although I will be traveling up to Bellingham around that time, it will be to defend my thesis, and I won’t have the time to head down to Seattle.

  • Stephan Huller

    Since you are interested in the book, I will contact him and see if he is going up to Bellingham (as he has in the past). I usually drive him around wherever he wants to go. I realize you are probably going to be occupied with your defense but if he is going to be up there anyway and since I usually take him out to dinner (he can only eat grilled fish which limits our choice of restaurants) I would like to extend the invitation to you and your professor friend. There is only so long that I can entertain Mr Tsedaka before I need some other distraction.

    As another suggestion – if I may be so bold – please, please, please convince your professor friend to at least consider translating the writings of Marqe. If he translates Hebrew it wouldn’t be such a big deal to render Ben Hayyim’s Hebrew translation into English. MacDonald’s rendering is useless considering he couldn’t read Aramaic (only Arabic). The opposite problem of Crown who couldn’t read Arabic.

    Benny has also written a summary of Marqe in Hebrew for which I have an extra copy. It would be very cool to have a good English resource for the Mimar.

    Again, extend the invitation to your professor friend. Benny is a living treasure. He knows so much including the liturgy. An hour with Benny is worth a year in the library. It’s like a dinner with Maimonides. My son used to think he was Santa Claus.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I will receive the details of my schedule shortly, and I’ll definitely mention it to my colleagues up there. Thanks for the kind offer!

  • Virginia

    If there is any correlation/relationship between the Ipuwer papyrus and the biblical story, wouldn’t it be more likely that the Egyptian account was the original source which then later inspired a revised version which suited the needs of an invented “history”? Particularly if the “Moses family” were in fact Egyptian, possibly affiliated with some religious sect, there could be familiarity with this previously established theme as a call for unified action in the struggle to establish order.

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