Does the Ipuwer Papyrus Refer to the Biblical Exodus Account?

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The Admonitions of Ipuwer (or the Ipuwer papyrus) is an ancient Egyptian poem and lamentation recording several dramatic scenes, some of which appear to parallel the biblical account of Moses and the ten plagues recorded in Exodus 7. The biblical plagues were disasters coordinated by the God Yaweh and functioned as signs of punishment to pharaoh who refused to allow Moses to leave with the slaves.

The Ipuwer papyrus  speaks of national distress, calamity, and chaos because respect for order had been discarded by the people: “Indeed, [hearts] are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere, death is not lacking… many dead are buried in the river…” Within it there is famine, desecration, plagues, death, mysterious natural phenomena, and more. The author foresees little else than death and destruction if this is left unchanged, and thus promotes a strong view on central governance essential for maintaining order and peace. Moreover, given some similarities the biblical exodus has to the Ipuwer story some Christians have argued that it provides independent, non-biblical evidence for the historicity of the exodus story. Egyptologist Roland Enmarch who has examined the papyrus ind etail explains that,

“The broadest modern reception of Ipuwer amongst non-Egyptological readers has probably been as a result of the use of the poem as evidence supporting the Biblical account of the Exodus” (1).

Enmarch says that on the surface level there are similarities.

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However, that the Ipuwer papyrus provides attestation to biblical events has not been accepted by experts in the field, and a major reason for this is because it conflicts with the biblical account on important details. For example, instead of reporting a massive migrating population leaving Egypt it instead chronicles an Asiatic invasion. Enmarch explains that it appears to,

“contradict the Biblical account, and imply that they described different occasions. For example, the Egyptian poem actually laments the invasion of Asiatics rather than their largescale emigration.”

The Ipuwer papyrus dates to some time between the late Twelfth Dynasty (ending in 1803 BC) and the end of the Middle Kingdom Period in 1710 BC. This would place the text in a much earlier period than to when most would date the exodus. It is thus more reasonable to suppose that its contents refer to calamitous events taking place within Egypt which preceded the exodus by several centuries. However, despite the dating and the story of an Asiatic invasion, perhaps the most frequently cited similarity is to the river becoming red. There is a very tiny piece of the papyrus which says that “the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.”

According to some scholars this is probably a metaphorical description of what happens when the Nile river floods and carries large quantities of red soil with it. The soil thus gives the river an appearance of red which might look like blood and therefore be the inspiration behind creative interpretations and metaphors. It could be the case that the author of the Ipuwer papyrus and the author of the book of Exodus were referring to the same events concerning the Nile river.

Beyond this, however, the Ipuwer papyrus is unlikely to constitute a “historical reportage” for it, Enmarch explains, “contains no preserved historical setting, no kings’ names, very few and generalised toponyms and ethnonyms,” and thus “attempts to link the poem to a historical event that might also be recorded in Exodus are unconvincing.” A further reason for this because the Ipuwer papyrus mentions events that would have occurred multiple times within Egyptian history (such as plundering empty tombs, rebellion against the rulers etc.) and therefore proves very difficult to allocate to a specific event. Without specific names and locations one is left in the dark, and attempts to link the story to the exodus is unconvincing in the absence of this.

References.

1. Enmarch, R. The Reception of a Middle Egyptian Poem. Available.

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