The Rekhmire Tomb Scenes
7th December 2021
“Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt…” (Amos 3:1)
Around the year 750 BC, Amos brought God’s word of warning and judgement to Israel. But why should Israel listen? Because this word came to them from the same God who had seen their servitude in Egypt, and rescued them. For Amos’s audience, slavery in Egypt, and the Exodus, were not new news. Rather, these events were an old, firm foundation on which Amos could base his message. Even for Amos’s original hearers the “slavery-Exodus traditions” were old - they go way, way back.
And yet, these traditions live on. Right up to the present day, while Christians are preparing to celebrate Jesus’s death and resurrection each Easter, Jewish families sit around a table of food rich with symbolism, and remember: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand” (Deuteronomy 6:21). For three millennia, redemption from Egyptian servitude has been at the heart of biblical faith.
So when presenters of TV documentaries announce—with sensationalist glee—that there is no evidence for the Exodus “myth”, it cuts deep. It’s a disturbing, unsettling claim.
But it’s also a deeply skewed, misleading claim. Sure, it’s true that (as yet) there are no archaeological remains of (proto-)Israelite settlements in the East Nile Delta region of Egypt where—according to the biblical text—the Israelite slaves were housed. Likewise, it’s true that no papyrus remains have been found in the region, recording, or even hinting at, Israelite presence. Of course, the alluvial mud of the East Delta region, together with the moist climatic conditions, mean that relatively few mud-brick structures survive at all (Israelite or otherwise). Likewise, these conditions do not promote papyrus longevity: virtually all Egyptian administrative documents from the Delta region from all periods of Ancient Egypt’s history have long since rotted into oblivion. So absence of evidence, in this case, is hardly evidence of absence.
But there is another way, too, in which this sensationalist iconoclasm is misleading: it encourages us to look for evidence in the wrong places. What if, instead of looking for traces of Israel among the stones of Egypt, we start looking for traces of Egypt among the stories of Israel? In other words: are there elements within the biblical narratives of the Egyptian sojourn, servitude, and salvation that “ring true” with what we know of Ancient Egypt from outside the Bible? Or, instead, do these narratives describe life in Egypt in a way that bears no resemblance whatsoever to what we know of Egyptian culture and history?
It turns out that when we dig into the text, and not just the turf, circumstantial evidence for the authenticity of the Exodus traditions abounds. From Egyptian loan-words, to names of people and places, to geography and customs, to the holiday entitlements of foreign slaves—the circumstantial evidence lends plausibility to the idea that when we speak of the Hebrews being enslaved in Egypt and rescued therefrom, we are talking about things that actually happened, in real history. Here’s just one example.
Exodus chapters 1 and 5 vividly describe the slave labour to which the Hebrews were subjected in Egypt: “The Egyptians… made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick” (Exodus 1:13-14). Taskmasters and supervisors oversaw the slaves, ensuring that the daily quota of clay-and-straw bricks was met. The texts are powerful—we can easily see in our mind’s eye the filthy, mud-caked, rod-bruised, sweat-drenched Hebrew slaves.
From Egypt’s Old Kingdom, and all the way through to the end of the Hyksos Period (about 2700-1550 BC), various Egyptian records have survived concerning brickmaking. But it is only in the New Kingdom era (roughly 1550-1069 BC) that we begin to find records of slaves from the Levant region being put to work in the brickfields. We have reports of brick quotas, and the building purposes to which the bricks were put. We even have a report from an overseer, complaining that there is insufficient straw in the region for his team to meet their daily quota of bricks. This all matches the situation and time period envisaged in Exodus 1 and 5 perfectly.
History in colour
Pictured above is a facsimile of a scene depicting brickmakers in the Tomb of Rekhmire. It was painted on site at the tomb on the Nile’s west bank by Nina de Garis Davies for the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c.1928. Vizier Rekhmire was the highest government official under pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep II. His tomb was lavishly decorated and many scenes of daily life in the Egyptian New Kingdom survive.
In addition to these written documents, scenes adorning the lavish tomb chapel of the Egyptian government official, Vizier Rekhmire, from around 1450 BC bring the biblical text to life before our very eyes. This scene, with its adjoining text, shows Nubian and Syro-Canaanite slaves fetching and mixing mud and water to make bricks, shaping the bricks in moulds, then casting them and leaving them to dry, before measuring off the results and carrying them to where they would be used. All this activity happens under the watchful gaze of rod-wielding overseers. Altogether, the scene offers what biblical scholar and Egyptologist, Professor Kenneth Kitchen, has described as “a vivid visual commentary” on the biblical text.
So, at least in the matter of bricks and hard service, the biblical text matches with uncanny precision what we know from ancient Egyptian sources—sources that later Israelite scribes could not have had access to. Are we to suppose that a seventh-century Israelite scribe conducted “fieldwork” in Egypt, perhaps examining Rekhmire’s tomb paintings to ensure his Exodus novella had the flavour of authenticity? Of course not. Far better to conclude that in this case, the proximity between the biblical and non-biblical accounts arises because both reflect, in their own ways and for their own purposes, events that actually occurred.