The Soleb hieroglyph (Exodus 5)

Illustration: the temple of Soleb

In Exodus 5:2 the pharaoh scoffed, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey Him and let Israel go?” It is not clear whether this pharaoh had never heard of Yahweh or whether he was simply dismissing Him as the insignificant god of an enslaved people. Amazingly, one of the first references to Yahweh besides those in the Bible has been discovered in an Egyptian temple.

The Eighteenth-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhoptep III (ca. 1390-1352 B.C.) built this temple at Soleb, in upper Nubia along the western bank of the Nile. This temple was dedicated to Amenhotep III, who was viewed as a divine king associated with the god Amon. Its hieroglyphics memorialize Amenhotep III’s domination of foreign peoples; subjugated peoples are depicted with their arms bound behind their backs. The historical accuracy of his claims is doubtful, given that Egyptian pharaohs routinely made such boasts, whether or not they were true. Although long-lived and otherwise successful, Amenhotep III was not a notable warrior.

Even so, one remarkable inscription at the Soleb temple speaks of “the land of the Shasu, (those of) Yhw”. The term Shasu refers to Bedouin peoples of the Levant (the region compassing Syria and the area known as Palestine). Scholars almost universally acknowledge that Yhw refers to Yahweh, the God of Israel. But what might be the significance of this inscription for Old Testament studies?

Evidently Amenhotep III was aware of a land in the Levant peopled by “Shasu” who worshipped Yahweh. This is not to imply that all Shasu were Israelites; the pharaoh may have been using a generic or shorthand term.

If the Shasu of the inscription were indeed the Israelites, the implication is that the exodus from Egypt to the Levant (Syria/Palestine) occurred prior to the time of Amenhotep III. The traditional date for the exodus is understood to be approximately 1445 B.C. or a little more than half a century prior to the reign of Amenhotep III. As with other such discoveries, however, we do well to treat this “evidence” cautiously. The Soleb inscription does not unambiguously refer to Israelites, and some have argued that the Shasu who worshiped YHWH were simply a small Bedouin group.

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