On a regular basis I am sent in a question or questions about some detail of the Exodus. The questions range from the identity of the Exodus pharoah, to where I think the lsraelites crossed the Red Sea (or “Reed Sea,” depending on who you ask). One question that I’ve been asked about recently concerns a particular ancient papyrus which some have connected to the events surrounding the Exodus. Most recently the Ipuwer Papyrus was featured in the documentary film Patterns of Evidence as an artifact of the Exodus. Several years ago (in 2006) the History Channel ran a program titled, The Exodus Decoded which was produced and narrated by Simcha Jacobovici. In the series Jacobovici stated that events described in an ancient document called the Ipuwer Papyrus, are identical with the Exodus and show a direct correlation. The general public as well as many Christians who are unfamiliar with details of Egyptian history and the Exodus may find it tempting to think of this as evidence for the Exodus. In this article, I hope to show that the events described in the Ipuwer Papyrus are NOT connected to the Biblical Exodus, and that there is much better evidence elsewhere.
WHAT IS THE IPUWER PAPYRUS?
The papyrus was written in an ancient Egyptian script called hieratic. It is officially called the Papyrus Leiden I 344 Recto by the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities where it is currently held in Leiden, Netherlands. Most people who have read anything on ancient Egypt or Egyptian history and archaeology may know it as the “Ipuwer Papyrus” or “The Admonitions of Ipuwer.” The great Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner who translated the papyrus gave it the title, “Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage,” based on the subject matter and composition . Even if you’ve never heard of the Ipuwer Papyrus, it is an interesting artifact in its own right.
The papyrus is heavily damaged, and appears on seventeen pages. It was first translated from hieratic into English by Sir Alan Gardiner in 1909. There are some scholars who believe that it was composed sometime during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty. It is also believed that the historical context of the writing is from the dissolution of Egypt’s Old Kingdom which they designate as an era called the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2200-2050 B.C.) – (more on this below).
WHO WAS IPUWER? WHY DOES HE HAVE A PAPYRUS, AND WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE EXODUS?
In order to understand the Ipuwer Papyrus and its possible connection with the Exodus we must first understand what kind of literature it is; secondly the historical context in which it was written; and third – the date which the events in the text describes.
In the ancient world (especially in the Ancient Near East), we have a treasure trove of different kinds of literature which reflect the various cultures and conditions of the times in which they were composed. Just a quick perusal at the various kinds of literature which existed is impressive indeed: there are, annals/chronicles, archives, divination and incantation texts, epics and literary texts, hymns and praise texts, legal [law] texts, letters laments or lamentations, myth, royal inscriptions and decrees, prophecy and apocalyptic texts, ritual texts, and wisdom literature.
There is a tendency of some scholars to categorize the Admonitions of Ipuwer as prophecy or prophetic literature, however, the text is most like lament literature such as is found in Mesopotamia in Ur, or even similar to the OT book of Lamentations, Amos, and parts of Isaiah, or Jeremiah.
Ipuwer was possibly an aristocrat or court official. Some have suggested that he was a treasury official of Pharoah who lived during a tumultuous time of upheaveal and great unrest in Egyptian history. Ipuwer was lamenting to the pharoah that all was not right in Egypt. Cosmic order and harmony (Maat) were severely out of balance.
In ancient Egypt there were three periods of great political unrest and upheaval that scholars call Intermediate Periods. The First Intermediate Period (1IP) lasted for about 125 years (ca. 2181-2055 B.C.). It was a time in which Egypt was internally unstable because of a division between two bases of political power and authority: one was based in upper Egypt at Thebes, and the other in lower Egypt at Heracleopolis. The Second Intermediate Period (2IP) lasted for about a hundred years (ca. 1650-1550 B.C.). This period is best known as the time when an Asiatic group called the Hyksos invaded Egypt, and actually comprised the 15th Dynasty. The Third Inermediate Period (3IP) lasted from approximately 1069-664 B.C.. The 3IP was marked by political instability both internally, and externally by Nubian invaders from the south.
The papyrus begins mid-speech as Ipuwer is lamenting, and then admonishing the pharoah that it was time make drastic changes or else Egypt would be lost. Based on the content and context of the document scholars are unanimous that it is referencing one of the Egypt’s intermediate periods. The big question is, “Which one?” A large part of the debate over whether or not the Ipuwer Papyrus is related to the Exodus is exactly when the events described in the lament should be dated.
Perhaps one of the top experts on this papyrus is Egyptologist, Roland Enmarch of the University of Liverpool (UK). In Enmarch’s landmark book, he states that:
“…the viewpoint of the poem is apparently centered in Memphis or Itj-tawy. Rebellion is described in upper Egypt, and the Delta is overrun. This makes it unlikely that the poem is a Hyksos composition, under whom Asiatic encroachment on the delta might not be expected to be lamented. If these descriptions have any historical significance, and are not merely schematic ‘inverted world’ laments, it might indicate that the text was written before dynasty 13 retreated to upper Egypt, which happened at or near its end” .
So it is apparent that the historical environment described in the Ipuwer Papyrus recalls events of a political collapse that was happening during the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1550-1650 B.C.), most likely during the latter part of the 12th Dynasty.
So, why have some connected the events recorded in this papyrus to events of the Exodus? One of the main reasons for the connection, is that there were some (vague) similarities to what was happening in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, and the Exodus. There were also some small similarities between the departure of the Israelite slaves, and the political unrest of Egypt during the Hyksos invasion. But, as Enmarch noted above, if the text has any historical significance, then it must have been composed before the 13th Dynasty retreated south to Upper Egypt (i.e. during the late 12th Dynasty). This is problematic for connecting the events described in the text for at least three reasons.
THE TOP THREE PROBLEMS CONNECTING THE IPUWER PAPYRUS TO THE EXODUS
1 – THE CHRONOLOGY IS WRONG
Chronology is vitally important in aligning purported events to their corresponding date in time in history. In this case, it is attempting to correlate OT Biblical history with Egyptian history. This is not as simple as one might think. However, If one takes the Biblical record at face-value then there are internal dates which point to when the Exodus must have occured.
According to 1 Kings 6:1 the Exodus occurred 480 years prior to the laying of the foundations of Solomon’s temple. Solomon undertook this project in his fourth year – in 966/7 B.C.. According to normal hermeneutics and serious appraisal of the biblical data, the Exodus then took place in approximately 1446 B.C. during Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. Of course, there are other reasons (listed below) besides 1 Kings 6:1 which establish the historicity of the Exodus, but the bottom line is that the two events are separated by at least 100 years or more. It is very highly unlikely therefore, that Ipuwer is referring to the events of the Exodus.
2- THERE ARE ONLY VAGUE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE TWO EVENTS
Because Egypt did experience periods of unrest, droughts, political instability and war, it not surprising to find literature which records events that are similar to what transpired during the Exodus. Each of Egypt’s intermediate periods produced similar writings.
Marvin E. Tate states that Ipuwer is lamenting that:
International security had broken down. Bandits roamed the country and there was disregard for the law. Foreigners appeared everywhere and there seemed to be some threat of invasion. Economic impoverishment gripped the land. Foreign trade was greatly diminished and domestic productivity was at a very low level: the plowing was not done, the cattle were allowed to run free without care, the storehouse was empty and the storekeeper dead. The poor had swaped places with the rich, the nobles were banished, and servants had little respect for their masters. …the land was spinning like a potters wheel, laughter had become wailing, suicides and internecine strife plagued the land .
In addition to the above-mentioned upheavals, Ipuwer also recorded events that resemble the Exodus plagues, such as the Nile turning to blood.
After his lamenting and listing all that was upside down in Egypt, Ipuwer attempted to urge or admonish the pharoah to restore Egypt by remembering certain regulations concerning proper worship of Egyptian gods. Maat or “cosmic order” was a very important concept in ancient Egypt, and it was the primary role of the pharoah to keep peace, order and harmony (i.e. Maat) in the land. The Ipuwer papyrus was written to inspire, encourage, and admonish the pharoah to do just that. In some ways Ipuwer actually resembles later Old Testament prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, when Israel went into captivity because of their sin and rebellion against god.
3 – HISTORICAL & ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE INDICATE THAT THE EXODUS OCCURED SOMETIME DURING THE MIDDLE OF EGYPT’S 18TH DYNASTY
From the assumed early date of the Exodus of 1446 B.C., and knowledge of the 18th Dynasty, the evidence points to Amenhotep II who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. When we dig further into the life of Amenhotep II, a picture emerges which is quite consistent with what the Exodus states concerning this king and some of the momentous events that happened during his reign. From our knowledge of Egyptian culture and beliefs, pharaonic inscriptions on tombs, walls, and monuments, didn’t record military losses, only victories. Only events which would make the name of the pharoah great, everlasting and enduring would be recorded. So it is highly unlikely that some future archaeologist will discover an inscription where Amenhotep II touts that a foreign “god” [i.e. Yahweh of the Jews] made a mockery of the Egyptian gods (including the Pharaoh who was himself considered to be god’s representative on earth), defeated his armies in the desert, and freed an enslaved people to their homeland. What we see in Amenhotep II, is a radical change in his foreign policy (quite out of character from what history knows of both he and his father, Thutmoses III), and a religious “crisis” which led to the defacement of many Egyptian “gods” in the 9th year of his reign. These events, as well as others, points directly to the Israelite Exodus as happening during this time. More recently inscriptions freshly translated in the Sinai region may give further incontrovertible evidence that the Exodus occured during the reign of Amenhotep II.
Of course, there is much more to this discussion of the historicity of the Exodus and Amenhotep II as the pharoah of the Exodus. The Ipuwer Papyrus is certainly an interesting literary document which records events that sound vaguely familiar to the Exodus, but Christians should refrain from using it as evidence for the Exodus for the above-mentioned reasons. For a deeper discussion of the identity of the Exodus pharoah see Douglas Petrovich’s article here, as well as my two articles here in EA where I get into further details on evidence for the Exodus – Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries of the Old Testament and A Groundbreaking Theory about the Hebrew Language & the Remarkable Discovery of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.
 see, Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharoahs: An Introduction (London: Oxford University Press,1961), pg.110.
 Roland Enmarch, A World Upturned: Commentary on and Analysis of the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All (London: British Academy, 2009), pg. 24 [I am greatly indebted to Dr. Douglas Petrovich for the Enmarch reference]
 See, Marvin E. Tate, “Ipuwer, Admonitions Of,” in Charles F. Pfeiffer, Editor, Wycliffe Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000 reprint), pp. 299-300.