Pharaoh Ramses’ Anti-Israelite Policy Now Explained
Why were the Jews enslaved in Egypt? New evidence from a French Egyptologist, Alain Zivie, now points to an Egyptian suspect: Pharaoh’s vizier ‘Abdiel, whose Semitic name means ‘a servant of [the god] El’.
‘Abdiel’s name is very unusual. In Egyptian, it is ‘Aper-El. ‘Aper is the Egyptian way to render the Semitic word ‘abed, which means “servant.” So, Alain Zivie believes that the vizier’s name actually would have been pronounced “‘Abdiel.” The second part of his name consists of the name of the god El, the head of the Syro-Canaanite pantheon.
Thus, ‘Abdiel’ means ‘servant of [the god] El’. El is the generic west Semitic linguistic term for ‘god’ and one of the names of the Israelites’ deity in the Hebrew Bible. The names or appellations; El, Elah, Elohei and Elohim are all pre-Moses west Semitic generic terms for a God; or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.
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Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) painting circa 1895–1900 by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public Domain)
Who was Abdiel?
The vizier ‘Abdiel had many titles, including “chief of the town”, “general of the horses,” “chief in the entire land,” “messenger of the king” (ambassador), and “father of the god” (a senior advisor who knew the Pharaoh as a child).
We do not know if ‘Abdiel’ the servant of [the god] El was a descendant of Jacob/Israel; or if he was a native Egyptian noble who, stimulated by the monotheistic beliefs of the Israelites, was inspired to spread those ideas among the nobles of the Egyptian court.
We do know that ‘Abdiel was the only vizier in the entire history of ancient Egypt to be called “child of the kap” (someone raised or educated in the palace). He also bears the title “first servant of Aten in …”
Although this title’s ending is not readable, the surviving part shows that ‘Abdiel was connected to the religion of the Egyptian Solar disc god Aten, whose worship rose to prominence through the efforts of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
And we do know that in 1320 BC, after Akhenaten’s religious revolution had failed, the notables who were involved were allowed to go into exile in Egypt’s Canaan province, more specifically in Shechem and Urushalim (Jerusalem). The discovery by Alain Zivie of the tomb of Akhenaten’s vizier Abdi-El at Memphis suggests a close family relationship between Abdi-Heba, Mayor-Governor of Urushalim, and many of Akhenaten’s top officials.
Akhenaten as a Sphinx. (CC BY 2.0)
Vizier to the Monotheist Akhenaten
The ten-page article “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” published in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Alain Zivie explores this intriguing Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, who lived in the 14th century BC and who likely served two 18th dynasty pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (better known by his later self-chosen name Akhenaten).
Akhenaten is famous for his attempt to push the Egyptian court and nobility into worshipping the Solar disc Aten, instead of all the traditional Gods that Egyptians had worshipped for over 2,000 years.
This was the most revolutionary event in Egypt’s religious history, and it failed because Akhenaten died as a young man, and his young son also died a few years later. The general who was acting regent then took over and at his death the next general started the 19th dynasty and ruled in his own name; Ramses.
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Ramses Colossus, Memphis. (CC BY 2.5)
The Israelite Threat
The Torah states, “When a new king (dynasty), to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt” Pharaoh said to his court nobles, “Look, the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if a war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
That is what Pharaoh (Ramses I) said, but what he really meant was: although we nobles outnumber the Israelites, their belief in only one God has already influenced two previous Pharaohs (Amenhotep III and especially Amenhotep IV (better known as Akhenaten).
If the Israelite belief in only one God spreads from some of the nobility into the general population, many people might stop believing that Pharaoh himself is the son of God, and that would be very dangerous for the traditional authority of our religious and political establishment, so we should oppress them.
Thus, the attempt of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, ‘the servant (prophet) of El” to influence Pharaoh Akhenaten and the royal court to forcefully spread monotheism among Egypt’s nobility failed, with negative consequences for the Children of Israel.
High-Status for the Influential Vizier
That Pharaoh Ramses’ oppression policy started a decade or two after the death of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, the servant (prophet) of El” as is shown by his high-status Saqqara tomb which in 1980, Egyptologist Alain Zivie began excavating.
In 1987, the tomb’s burial chamber with the remains of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, his wife Tauret, and his son Huy was discovered. Each had been buried in three coffins and the grave goods that filled the room included a wood cubit listing some of ‘Abdiel’s prestigious titles.
This is what enabled the biography of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, ‘the servant (prophet) of El” to be written. The Torah is silent about this episode because ‘Abdiel, ‘the servant (prophet) of El” should not have encouraged Pharaoh Akhenaten to pressure the Egyptian nobility to become monotheists.
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Top image: "Israel in Egypt" by Edward Poynter, 1867. Source: Public Domain