How Many Egyptian Words Made It into Biblical Hebrew?

And does their presence illuminate the book of Exodus—or is it simply a sign that ancient Egypt was a powerful nation?

April 4 2023
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

A while ago I wrote a column about the word sha’atnez, signifying the weave of wool and linen forbidden by the Bible, in which I observed that it derives from ancient Egyptian and “testifies to a period in which the early Israelite nation, or a part of it, was in intimate contact with Egyptian life.” I even went so far as to imply that an Israelite sojourn in Egypt, and therefore the exodus from it that we are celebrating this week, is attested to by words like sha’atnez. Did I go too far?

That’s a question implicitly asked by the Mosaic reader Frederick P. Wiener, who recently wrote:

Can we assume that the Hebrews, as they were then known, spoke Hebrew during their reputed 400-year sojourn in Egypt? Or should we assume that they would have adopted ancient Egyptian as their vernacular, or perhaps have spoken a kind of biblical “Yiddish” in which Hebrew and Egyptian were fused together? It would be hard to credit that, living in Egypt for a lengthy time as a small minority, they would not have learned the local language, if only for survival purposes. And if they spoke Egyptian, or a Hebrew-Egyptian mélange, both in Egypt and during their 40 years in the desert, would they not have gone on speaking it for at least their first generations in Canaan? But how then does this square with the fact that it is difficult to attribute an Egyptian provenance to all but a few biblical words?

Mr. Wiener makes a valid point. After all, one can hardly base the argument for an Israelite sojourn in Egypt on one word alone. How many other words of Egyptian or probable Egyptian provenance are there in the Bible?

There’s no need to guess. According to a list compiled by the Harvard Egyptologist and professor of Semitic philology Thomas Lambdin (1930–2020) in an article on “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, the answer is 40 to 50. But is this a significantly high or an insignificantly low number?

It all depends. If you were to find 50 (there are actually about half that many) Algonquin loan words in American English, you wouldn’t doubt they were proof of contact between English-speaking settlers in North America and native Americans in Algonquin-speaking areas, because there would be no other reasonable explanation for them. If, on the other hand, you were to find 50 Italian loan words in American English, you would have to examine each case in its own right, because there would be different possibilities. Was the word spread by 19th- or 20th-century Italian immigrants to America? Was it brought back to the U.S. by American tourists in Italy? Has it been borrowed second-hand from other languages, such as French or Spanish, which also took words from Italian? You certainly wouldn’t conclude from such words that the original European settlers of America were Italian.

Egyptian loan words in ancient Hebrew are more like Italian words in English than like Algonquin ones. For much of the second millennium BCE, toward the end of which the Exodus supposedly took place, Egypt was an imperial power that controlled its small next-door neighbor of Canaan and Canaan’s proto-Hebrew-speaking population. Egyptian garrisons were stationed in Canaan, Egyptian merchants did business there, and Egyptian officials dealt with their Canaanite vassals—and many Canaanites (the Hebrews possibly among them) lived and worked in Egypt, whether as slaves or free men. Egyptian words had many paths by which to enter the languages of Canaan and the Middle East, of which residence in Egypt was but one.

Take the Hebrew word etun, traditionally translated as “linen,” which occurs only once in the Bible, in the verse in Proverbs 7:16, “with coverlets I’ve spread my couch, fine cloths of Egyptian linen.” Lambdin derives etun from Old Egyptian edamej, “red linen,” which became edom in Middle Egyptian, which was in transition to Late Egyptian at the time of the Exodus. Yet this is no proof that the word was borrowed by Hebrew slaves in Egypt, since Egyptian linen was a commodity exported to Canaan and elsewhere—indeed as far as Greece, where it yielded the word othonē.

But let’s take a more common biblical word on Lambdin’s list that doesn’t refer to a commodity, evyon, “poor” or “destitute,” which is still in use in Hebrew today. Lambdin traces it to Late Egyptian ebyen, “poor,” “needy,” or “wretched,” whose earlier form of ebyun Hebrew borrowed. Since the shift from ebyun to ebyen took place in the Middle Egyptian period, does this mean that the borrowing was done by Hebrews living in Egypt prior to the Exodus?

Not necessarily. Lambdin writes:

The early entrance of the word into Canaanite is confirmed by its occurrence in Ugaritic [a Phoenician language closely related to Hebrew and spoken in northern Lebanon]. . . . Even though the greater number of [ancient] loan words are names of objects exchanged through commerce or cultural infusion, it is not unusual for a word of this sort to be borrowed. Such a term as ebyun may possibly have possessed derogatory significance and have been applied as such by Egyptians to a certain class of Semitic workers, very possibly in connection with shipping and shipping crews.

Canaanite or Ugaritic sailors visiting Egyptian ports and mocked as “poor wretches,” in other words, may have brought the word back to Canaan with them. Other, similar scenarios can be imagined, too. There’s no need to bring Hebrew slaves into the picture.

Yet there are also Egyptian-derived words in biblical Hebrew that are not so easily accounted for. One of these is aḥu, “meadow” or “pasture,” which first occurs in the book of Genesis, in Pharaoh’s dream of the seven sleek and seven haggard cows that emerge from the Nile. The word, says Lambdin, comes from Egyptian ‘iḥ(w), which “referred originally to the land affected by the annual inundation [of the river] but came in time to mean pasture land in general. The final u of the Hebrew word points to a very early borrowing, possibly in the Old Kingdom [of the third millennium BCE], when the final –w of the Egyptian word was still pronounced.”

There are several other Egyptian-derived words in the Bible that relate to the Exodus or to an Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Three of these appear in a single verse, Exodus 2:3, which tells of Moses’ abandonment by his mother: “And when she [Moses’ mother] could no longer hide him, she took an ark of reeds [gomē] and caulked it with clay and pitch and put the child in it and placed it in the rushes [suf] by the banks of the Nile [y’or].” Gomē, suf, and ye’or all have clear Egyptian etymologies and paint a distinctly Egyptian landscape of water and marsh. Geographically bound to Egypt as they are, why, it can be asked, would they have entered the Hebrew language unless this happened in Egypt itself?

This, too, however, is far from conclusive. We have words in American English—think of jungle, tundra, savannah—that refer to terrain that does not exist in America; why could not speakers of biblical Hebrew living in Canaan have had similar words? It is true that, when considered together with the many personal and place names in the Exodus story that also have Egyptian roots (Moses, Pharaoh, Rameses, etc.), such words suggest a real familiarity with their subject. We are unlikely, though, ever to know exactly where this came from. One can’t even rule out the possibility, as far-fetched as it may seem, that a biblical author tasked with writing about the Exodus traveled to Egypt, or interviewed Egyptians, to research his narrative. Nor can one do more than speculate, as does Mr. Wiener, about what language Israelite slaves in Egypt might have spoken. Rabbinic tradition, for what it’s worth, held it to be pure Hebrew. As stated by the midrash Seder Eliyahu Rabbah:

When the Israelites were in Egypt . . . they made common cause and vowed to stick together as one group. They agreed to be kind to each other, and to keep the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their hearts, and never to forsake the language of their father Jacob or to speak the tongue of Egypt, lest they lapse into idol worship. How did they worship their Father in Heaven while in Egypt? By retaining their language.

On which note, I’ll wish you all a happy Passover.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

More about: Ancient Egypt, Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays