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First Person: A Name in Search of a Story, Hershel Shanks, BAR 24:01, Jan-Feb 1998.

An Egyptian papyrus reveals an Asiatic slave with a Biblical name—a midwife mentioned in Exodus

It would be easy to tell you how a story in BAR develops, but I thought I would instead tell you how a story didn’t develop—at least not yet.

The tip came from a lawyer, a faithful reader from Brooklyn named Harvey Herbert- An Egyptian hieroglyphic papyrus now in the Brooklyn Museum mentions an Asiatic slave named Shiphrah.

Shiphrah, of course, is the name of one of the Hebrew midwives (the other is Puah) whom Pharaoh summoned to carry out his order that all boys born to the enslaved Israelites be killed (Exodus 1-15). Shiphrah (and Puah) didn’t obey Pharaoh, however; they were devoted to God, so they let the boys live.

And here was an Asiatic slave with this same name mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus written in hieroglyphics. Was this for real?

It certainly was. The problem was that it had been in the museum for a long time—since 1935. An entire book had been written on this papyrus in the 1950s. So what was new? Sad, but true, journalism seems to require novelty. An interesting fact that has been known for a long time, but of which we are unaware, somehow seems less interesting than a newly revealed fact. At least so it is with editors. So I began looking for a new, novel angle.

I called a leading young Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University, Betsy Bryan, who immediately recognized the papyrus I was speaking of. She was intimately familiar with it, as, she said, were most Egyptologists. But she knew the papyrus only from the Egyptological viewpoint, not from the Biblical viewpoint. She was able to tell me, however, that the publication of the papyrus was by a first-rate scholar, the late William Hayes.

I next called the distinguished Biblical historian Abraham Malamat, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He told me that the papyrus was a well-known text and that the great William Foxwell Albright had written a paper on it in 1954 (even before Hayes’s book came out), analyzing it from the Biblical viewpoint.

Trying to think of a new angle, I asked myself whether the appearance of the name Shiphrah could be used to date the origins of the Biblical narrative. So I called Avi Hurvitz, a leading Hebrew University scholar in the development of the Hebrew language. He told me that my methodology was sound—if the name appeared only at a particular time, that could help date a text. Whether there was sufficient evidence in this case was another question.

This would take a lengthy study. And I knew from past experience that we can rarely get scholars to do major studies for us, especially if the outcome is doubtful. We have to find out what scholars are working on and then see if that can be made interesting to our readers.

So I have neither an author nor a subject. All I can do is report what to some (surely, to me) are previously unknown facts that have nevertheless been known to scholars for a long time-
The papyrus was purchased by an American journalist and Egyptologist named Charles Wilbour on one of his regular winter sailing trips up the Nile, between 1881 and 1896, looking for Egyptian antiquities. On Wilbour’s death the papyrus was placed in a trunk and languished there until it was given to the Brooklyn Museum in 1935. It is reasonably certain that the papyrus originally came from ancient Thebes. It has been dated to about 1740 B.C.1

The back side of the papyrus contains a long list of slaves who are to become the property of the new owner’s wife. Each is identified as Egyptian or Asiatic. The Asiatic slaves, unlike the Egyptian slaves, almost all have Northwest Semitic names—nearly 30 of them. Among them is a female slave named Shiphrah.

But she is not the only one. Another, according to Albright, has a name that is the feminine form of Issachar, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Another is the feminine form of Asher, also one of the twelve tribes. Still other Northwest Semitic names are related to the Hebrew names Menahem and Job.

Based on the date of the papyrus, Albright comments that “we should expect significant points of contact with Israelite tradition … Virtually all the tribal names of the House of Jacob go back to early times.”2

If anyone sees an angle for an article for BAR in all this, please let me know.

1. William C. Hayes, A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum [Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446] (New York- Brooklyn Museum, 1955).

2. William F. Albright,“Northwest Semitic Names in a List of Egyptian Slaves from the Eighteenth Century B.C.,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 74 (1954), pp. 222–233.

Posted in: Exodus

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