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Pharaoh’s Brick Makers

Israelite construction workers in Egypt

The Book of Exodus makes two basic assertions: prior to the biblical Exodus, the Israelites in Egypt were forced to make mudbricks, and they built “supply cities.” In Exodus 5:6–8, we read: “Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the [Israelites], as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously.’” This makes it clear that the Israelites’ task was to manufacture mudbricks, which is, in less specific terms, further confirmed in Exodus 1:14: “[The Egyptians] made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.”

Exodus 1:11 adds a rather puzzling statement: “They built supply cities, Pithom and Ra’amses, for Pharaoh.” What were these “supply [or “storage”] cities” (‘ārê (ham) miskenôṯ, in Hebrew)? The biblical name Pithom most likely stands for Per-Atum, “Estate of Atum,” which has only tentatively been identified with modern-day Tall al-Maskhutah. Ra’amses must be Per-Ramesses, “Estate of Ramesses,” the new capital of Egypt built by Ramesses II (13th century B.C.E.) near ancient Avaris. Apparently located near to one another, both cities lay in the northeast Nile Delta, where there is abundant historical evidence for West Semitic peoples starting at least in the Middle Bronze Age II (c. 2000–1570 B.C.E.).

Brick by Brick

What did the Israelites build in Egypt?

Without straw, Israelite efforts to meet their quotas were hampered. This gave the Egyptian taskmasters pretense to beat the slaves. Note that in Exodus 5:14 the supervisors were beaten first and then questioned. This interrogation technique—where the suspects were beaten before questioning—was used with the tomb robbery incidents that took place during the reign of Ramesses IX.2

In the Egyptian mind-set, one could guarantee that questions would be answered truthfully only after a severe beating. Papyrus BM 10052 (15.21–23) recorded several of these interrogations, for example, “Examination. The foreigner Ahautinūfer son of Nehk was presented. He said, ‘Far be it from me, far be it from me.’ He was examined with the stick and found innocent.” From Papyrus Amherst (3.6–7), we know these beatings could be severe: “They were examined by beating with a stick, and their feet and hands were twisted.”

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