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Tale of Sinuhe, 1971-1928 BCE

AmenemhatWith the campaign of Sesostris III about 1850 B.C. we are right in the middle of the patriarchal period. Meantime Egypt had taken possession of the whole of Canaan- the country now lay under the suzerainty of the Pharaohs. Thanks to the archaeologists we possess a unique document from this epoch, a gem of ancient literature. The author- a certain Sinuhe of Egypt. Scene- Canaan. Time- between 1971 and 1928 B.C. under Pharaoh Sesostris I.

Sinuhe, a nobleman in attendance at court, becomes involved in a political intrigue. He fears for his life and emigrates to Canaan-

“As I headed north I came to the Princes’ Wall, which was built to keep out the Bedouins and crush the Sandramblers. I hid in a thicket in case the guard on the wall, who was on patrol at the time, would see me. I did not move out of it till the evening. When daylight came… and I had reached the Bitter Lake I collapsed. I was parched with thirst, my throat was red hot. I said to myself- This is the taste of death! But as I made another effort and pulled myself on to my feet, I heard the bleating of sheep and some Bedouins came in sight. Their leader, who had been in Egypt, recognized me. He gave me some water and boiled some milk, and I went with him to his tribe. They were very kind to me.”

Sinuhe’s escape had been successful. He had been able to slip unseen past the great barrier wall on the frontier of the kingdom of the Pharaohs which ran exactly along the line which is followed by the Suez Canal today. This “Princes’ Wall” was even then several hundred years old. A priest mentions it as far back as 2650 B.C.- “The Princes’ Walls are being built to prevent the Asiatics forcing their way into Egypt. They want water… to give to their cattle.” Later on the children of Israel were to pass this wall many times- there was no other way into Egypt. Abraham must have been the first of them to see it when he emigrated to the land of the Nile during a famine (Gen. 12-10).

Sinuhe continues- “Each territory passed me on to the next. I went to Byblos, and farther on reached Kedme where I spent eighteen months. Ammi-Enschi, the chief of Upper Retenu, made me welcome. He said to me- ‘You will be well treated and you can speak your own language here.’ He said this of course because he knew who I was. Egyptians who lived there had told him about me.”

We are told in great detail of the day to day experiences of this Egyptian fugitive in North Palestine. “Ammi-Enschi said to me- ‘Certainly, Egypt is a fine country, but you ought to stay here with me and what I shall do for you will be fine too.’

“He gave me precedence over all his own family and gave me his eldest daughter in marriage. He let me select from among his choicest estates and I selected one which lay along the border of a neighboring territory. It was a fine place with the name of Jaa. There were figs and vines and more wine than water. There was plenty of honey and oil; every kind of fruit hung on its trees. It had corn and barley and all kinds of sheep and cattle. My popularity with the ruler was extremely profitable. He made me a chief of his tribe in the choicest part of his domains. I had bread and wine as my daily fare, boiled meat and roast goose. There were also desert animals which they caught in traps and brought to me, apart from what my hunting dogs collected…. There was milk in every shape and form. Thus many years went by. My children grew into strong men, each of them able to dominate his tribe.

“Any courier coming from Egypt or heading south to the royal court lived with me. I gave hospitality to everyone. I gave water to the thirsty, put the wanderer on the right way, and protected the bereaved.

“When the Bedouins sallied forth to attack neighboring chiefs I drew up the plan of campaign. For the prince of Retenu for many years put me in command of his warriors

and whichever country I marched into I made… and… of its pastures and its wells. I plundered its sheep and cattle, led its people captive and took over their stores. I killed its people with my sword and my bow thanks to my leadership and my clever plans.”

Out of his many experiences among the “Asiatics” a life and death duel, which he describes in detail, seems to have made the deepest impression on Sinuhe. A “Strong man of Retenu” had jeered at him one day in his tent and called him out. He was sure he could kill Sinuhe and appropriate his flocks and herds and properties. But Sinuhe, like all Egyptians, was a practiced bowman from his earliest days, and killed the “strong man,” who was armed with shield, spear and dagger, by putting an arrow through his throat. The spoils that came to him as a result of this combat made him even richer and more powerful.

At length in his old age he began to yearn for his homeland. A letter from his Pharaoh Sesostris I summoned him to return- .”..Make ready to return to Egypt, that you may see once more the Court where you grew up, and kiss the ground at the two great gates…. Remember the day when you will have to be buried and men will do you honor. You will be anointed with oil before daybreak and wrapped in linen blessed by the goddess Tait. You will be given an escort on the day of the funeral. The coffin will be of gold adorned with lapis-lazuli, and you will be placed upon a bier. Oxen will pull it and a choir will precede you. They will dance the Dance of the Dwarfs at the mouth of your tomb. The sacrificial prayers will be recited for you and animals will be offered on your altar. The pillars of your tomb will be built of limestone among those of the royal family. You must not lie in a foreign land, with Asiatics to bury you, and wrap you in sheepskin.”

Sinuhe’s heart leapt for joy. He decided to return at once, made over his property to his children and installed his eldest son as “Chief of his tribe.” This was customary with these Semitic nomads, as it was with Abraham and his progeny. It was the tribal law of the patriarchs, which later became the law of Israel. “My tribe and all my goods belonged to him only, my people and all my flocks, my fruit and all my sweet trees. Then I headed for the south.”

He was accompanied right to the frontier posts of Egypt by Bedouins, thence by representatives of Pharaoh to the capital south of Memphis. The second stage was by boat.

What a contrast! From a tent to a royal palace, from a simple if dangerous life back to the security and luxury of a highly civilized metropolis. “I found his Majesty on the great throne in the Hall of Silver and Gold. The king’s family were brought in. His Majesty said to the Queen- ‘See, here is Sinuhe, who returns as an Asiatic and has become a Bedouin.’ She gave a loud shriek and all the royal children screamed in chorus. They said to his Majesty- ‘Surely this is not really he, my lord King/ His Majesty replied- ‘It is really he.”

I was taken to a princely mansion,” writes Sinuhe enthusiastically, “in which there were wonderful things and also a bathroom… there were things from the royal treasure house, clothes of royal linen, myrrh and finest oil; favorite servants of the king were in every room, and every cook did his duty. The years that were past slipped from my body. I was shaved and my hair was combed. I shed my load of foreign soil and the coarse clothing of the Sandramblers. I was swathed in fine linen and anointed with the finest oil the country could provide. I slept once more in a bed. Thus I lived, honored by the king, until the time came for me to depart this life.”

The Sinuhe story does not exist in one copy only. An astonishing number of them has been found. It must have been a highly popular work and must have gone through several “editions.” Not only in the Middle Kingdom but in the New Kingdom of Egypt it was read with pleasure, as the copies found indicate. One might call it a “best-seller,” the first in the world, and about Canaan, of all places.

Werner Keller. The Bible as History. Bantam Books. New York. 1982. p.59-63.

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