Patterns of Evidence (the Exodus), Part 3: Ipuwer

Today, I was reading about the Admonitions of Ipuwer, which was discussed in the 2015 documentary Patterns of Evidence.  Patterns of Evidence argues that the biblical Exodus took place during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom Period.  The Admonitions of Ipuwer presents a picture of chaos in Egypt, and the documentary believes that some of what it says resembles the plagues in the biblical Exodus story, and may even attest to their historicity.

In the documentary, Timothy Mahoney is interviewing Maarten Raven, curator of the Leiden Museum, and Raven disagrees with the view that the Admonitions of Ipuwer describes the plagues of the Exodus.  For one, Raven believes that, if there was an Exodus, it dates to the time of Ramesses II.  Ramesses ruled during the time of the New Kingdom, not the Middle Kingdom, which was likely the date of the Admonitions of Ipuwer.  For Raven, the Admonitions of Ipuwer is too early to describe the biblical plagues.  Second, Raven does not even believe that Ipuwer was describing actual events, but rather that he was imagining what he was writing about.  Raven looked to me like he was reaching, but that was because I was unaware of the basis for his position.  The documentary then referred to Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim, who also did not think that Ipuwer was describing actual events.  Lichtheim is quoted as saying that the picture that Ipuwer presents is contradictory and is thus probably unhistorical.  Lichtheim notes that Ipuwer presents the land as impoverished, and yet the poor and the slaves are becoming rich. How can both be true?

The documentary holds that a Middle Kingdom date for the Exodus solves these problems.  If the Exodus occurred during the Middle Kingdom, then the Admonitions of Ipuwer is not too early to describe the biblical plagues.  And, if Admonitions of Ipuwer is about the Exodus, then that would resolve the contradiction that Lichtheim identifies: the Egyptians are becoming poor and the land is becoming impoverished, but the Hebrew slaves are plundering the land and becoming rich as they leave Egypt.

My purpose in this post is to evaluate these claims.  Today, I read a translation of the Admonitions of Ipuwer.  I read some of what Miriam Lichtheim wrote in volume 1 of Ancient Egyptian Literature, which is what the documentary was quoting.  I also looked at some scholarly commentaries on the Book of Exodus, and a couple of scholarly articles about the Admonitions of Ipuwer.  What follows are my reactions:

A.  In reading the Admonitions of Ipuwer, I could indeed see some similarities between the biblical plagues and what Ipuwer describes.  Slaves are going free.  The poor are becoming rich.  The river is blood, yet people are still drinking from it.  At the same time, I also noted differences.  For example, the Admonitions of Ipuwer more than once refers to the overflowing of the Nile and to floods, a problem for ancient Egypt, whereas the biblical Exodus story does not mention that.  In addition, it seemed to me that the poor who were becoming rich in the Admonitions of Ipuwer were not leaving Egypt, as did the Jews in the biblical Exodus story, but were planning on staying and prospering there.  The poor took tombstones that belonged to the rich, and the poor lived in the rich people’s houses. 

There were other interesting details in the Admonitions of Ipuwer.  Although the document is polytheistic, it does refer to God in the singular at some point.  Some may deem that significant, maybe even seeing it as evidence that the Egyptians were acknowledging the God of Israel, but I am hesitant to jump to that conclusion: perhaps “God” refers to Re, the sun-god and creator-god whom Ipuwer says is worthy is worship.  The Admonitions of Ipuwer also supports the slaughter of oxen for sacrifice.  That stood out to me, since some argue on the basis of Exodus 8:26 that the Egyptians considered the animal sacrifices of the Israelites to be offensive because the Egyptians worshiped those animals.  From Ipuwer, however, it seems that the Egyptians, at least during the Middle Kingdom Period, were not opposed to animal sacrifice.

How could one explain the water turning to blood in the Admonitions of Ipuwer?  The Admonitions of Ipuwer does talk about intense violence, so perhaps that it how it believes that the river became blood (i.e., the river is being filled with blood from the killing).  Some maintain that there was a natural cause for the Nile appearing red; some, however, say that water becoming blood was a common motif in the ancient Middle East.  See page 40 of Mark Smith’s commentary on Exodus.

B.  I learned a couple of things in reading Miriam Lichtheim’s comments.  First of all, Lichtheim did not come up with that thought that the Admonitions of Ipuwer is unhistorical because it is inherently contradictory.  She was agreeing with an article by S. Luria, “Die Ersten werden die Letzen Sein (zur ‘sozialen Revolution’ im Altertum),” which appeared in Klio n. F. 4 (1929) 1-27.   She thought that Luria’s article contained important insights and was not getting the attention that it deserved.  Second, Luria, and Lichtheim, had additional reasons for believing that the Admonitions of Ipuwer did not describe actual historical events.  They were not just basing their conclusion on that one contradiction within the Admonitions.

Essentially, Luria was arguing that the Admonitions of Ipuwer has a theme of national distress that is present in other Middle Kingdom Egyptian works, such as the Prophecies of Neferti and the Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb.  National distress in these works, for Luria, had a propagandistic function: to present the king of Egypt as one who preserved the social and natural order, or to encourage the king to do so.  The Prophecies of Neferti, for example, present calamities and predict that a future king, Amenemhet I, will solve these problems.  According to Lichtheim, the reign of Amenhemet I was probably when the Prophecies was written, even though the prophecies were set in the past!  The aim of this work is to validate the king of Egypt, to depict him as a savior from chaos.  Moreover, according to Lichtheim, the twelfth dynasty, which is when she dates the Admonitions of Ipuwer, was not a particularly chaotic time, so she doubts that the Admonitions reflects actual chaos.

I was reading Gerald E. Kadish’s contribution to the “Egypt, History of” article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and Kadish says that twelfth dynasty kings tried to portray the preceding First Intermediate Period as a time of anarchy, in order to present themselves as saviors, but Kadish maintains that the problems of the First Intermediate Period were probably “episodic rather than typical.”  According to Mark Sneed, on page 33 of The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes, Luria himself acknowledged that there may have been chaos in the Old Kingdom period, but he believed that the Admonitions of Ipuwer exaggerated these problems.

C.  Is the Admonitions of Ipuwer encouraging the king of Egypt to uphold the natural order, though?  R.J. Williams, on page 4 of “The Sages of Ancient Egypt in the Light of Recent Scholarship” (Journal of the American Oriental Society 101, January-March 1981, pages 1-19), discusses the development in scholarship on this topic:

“Ipuwer had been understood by earlier scholars to be an attack by Ipuwer on a ruler, probably Pepi II. J. Spiegel reinterpreted this as an attack by a member of the ruling class at the end of the Old Kingdom on a supposed usurper who gained power after the revolution which toppled the Old Kingdom (Spiegel, 1950). This reconstruction failed to gain general support, but is still confidently maintained in an article Spiegel contributed to the most recent encyclopedia (Spiegel, 1975). A fresh and stimulating approach was made by E. Otto in a published lecture (Otto, 1951). He argued that the composition was not a denunciation of a human ruler, but a reproach directed at the creator-god Atum for the lamentable state of the land.”

Otto argued that the Admonitions of Ipuwer is about Ipuwer’s confrontation of the creator-god Atum, not his confrontation of the king of Egypt to preserve the natural and social order.  If Otto is correct, then the Admonitions of Ipuwer may not be so much like the Prophecies of Neferti, contra Luria and Lichtheim, as the biblical Book of Lamentations, which challenges God about problems in the land.

D.  John Van Seters wrote a significant article on the Admonitions of Ipuwer: “A Date for the ‘Admonitions’ in the Second Intermediate Period.”  One place that it appeared was The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 50 (December 1964): 13-23.  Many scholars before him thought that the Admonitions of Ipuwer reflected the chaos of the Old Kingdom, but Van Seters was arguing that it was instead reflecting the social situation of the Middle Kingdom Period.  

I would like to note two things about Van Seters’ article.  First of all, unlike Lichtheim and Luria, Van Seters maintains that the Admonitions of Ipuwer reflects actual historical events.  Second, Van Seters thinks that the king of Egypt is being criticized in the Admonitions of Ipuwer: it is not just about blaming a god, and it is not promoting the king as a savior from chaos, as the Prophecies of Neferti does.  Rather, it is criticizing the king.  Perhaps, if Van Seters is correct, it is attempting to convince the king to fulfill his role, or Ipuwer has despaired of appealing to the king and is appealing to the creator-god instead.

What particularly interested me was what Van Seters portrayed as the historical context for the Admonitions, the historical situation that it was addressing.  According to Van Seters, as he cites passages from the document, this was a time when foreigners were assimilating into Egypt and gaining power, compromising the social order.  Foreign powers were outside of Egypt, posing a threat.  Van Seters also raises the possibility that, when the Eastern Delta “fell to foreigners,” lists were destroyed, allowing Asiatic slaves to go free.  For Ipuwer, this was a threat to the social order. 

This is not the biblical Exodus: there is nothing about the Asiatic slaves leaving Egypt to settle elsewhere.  Van Seters’ speculation, however, may account for certain details of the Admonitions of Ipuwer that sound Exodus-like, only without appealing to any Exodus. 

In any case, I found reading about this to be interesting, and I hope that you find something useful in this post, even if you may have wondered where exactly I was going in it.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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One Response to Patterns of Evidence (the Exodus), Part 3: Ipuwer

  1. The Middle Kingdom is generally in the range of 2060 B.C.E. to 1802 B.C.E. Since Abram was born in 2020 B.C.E., his life partially would be in this range. One of those Pharaohs would be the one who wanted to marry his wife Sarai. The Exodus took place in 1510 B.C.E. It is marked by God [YHWH] by the “Star of Bethelehem” on Sivan 6 (when the Ten Commandments were given).
    There are two Pharaohs of the Exodus. One maybe Sequenere Taa who may have chased Moses to Midian in 1520 B.C.E. (end of 17th Dynasty). Moses came back, and one reason was that Pharaoh died. His children (perhaps Kamose or Ahmose came to power). They were young and foolish. One of the early 18th Dynasty was the primary Pharaoh of the Exodus. Perhaos the mother of of Kamose or Ahmose was really pharaoh (probably knew Moses quite well).
    As to Akhenaten, he was Pharaoh in 1375 B.C.E. True, Tuthmoses III had been at Jericho, but he was after Akhenaten. Joshua died in the Jubilee year 1420 B.C.E. The Period of Judges then began. Archeological studies of Jericho confirm the time period of the attack on Jericho in the range 1400 to 1500 B.C.E. by both pottery and C-14 dating.

    Liked by 1 person

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