The Language of the Ten Plagues
As we enter the Passover season, millions of people around the world are telling the story of the Hebrews’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt and remembering a series of remarkable events that define the Jewish people and faith. As part the Seder (the celebratory Passover meal), Jews recount the Ten Plagues that ravaged Egypt and finally convinced Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from bondage. The historicity of the Exodus has been debated, analysed, rejected and rethought countless times. While large scale archaeological evidence has not yet been uncovered, clues do indeed exist. Outside of archaeology, are there any hints that there was an Exodus and that it did indeed occur at the time reported in the Bible, rather than being a later invention as some scholars assert? One way to approach the answer is to determine if there are similar words in both Hebrew and Egyptian that might have required interactions between the two peoples in order to develop. A scribe creating a fictional narrative during the Babylonian Captivity and Post-Exilic Period would have been far less likely to use these types of words than words arising from the Babylonian and later Persian culture that surrounded him.
In studying the textual material over the years I (and others) have come across remarkable similarities between the Biblical Hebrew text and the Egyptian language that far pre-date the Captivity. Whether these words are cognates or loans (and, in turn, which way the word was loaned) is unclear at best, but it does provide a tantalizing glimpse into the interactions of the two peoples.
In reference to the account of the Ten Plagues there are some words these languages would appear to have in common. I have used the generally accepted Hebrew transliterations below, and provide the Egyptian transliteration along with an approximated phonetic rendition for ease of reading.
The first plague, where the waters of the Nile are turned to blood, brings us our first Hebrew word: dam or blood. It has been convincingly shown elsewhere that dam is cognate with Egyptian dmꜣ (dema) which means “to clot [blood]” (whose usage is limited to medical texts from around 1550 BCE or earlier) and similar words exist across the Berber, Omotic, and West Chadic languages. Clearly, this is a particularly ancient word with a shared heritage.
A more tentative correlation can be seen with the third plague – lice or gnats, which in Hebrew is kenim. Although generally taken to be the plural of ken it has some similarities with the Egyptian word ḫnms (khenemes), which means mosquito or gnat. From my research, its occurrence seems restricted to the New Kingdom during the reigns of Seti II (c. 1200-1194 BCE) and Rameses IV (c. 1155-1149 BCE), a period throughout which increased contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean meant an uptick in cultural and linguistic exchange. The exact texts in which ḫnms are mentioned include “The Misery of Being Stationed Abroad”, which quite specifically talks about the annoyance of mosquitoes when in foreign lands. One difficulty with this comparison is that Hebrew kaf, which begins kenim, is not identical to Egyptian ḫ. Nevertheless, the common characteristics do mean that a shared lineage for the words should at least be investigated. Should we be reading lice and gnats in the Hebrew text as mosquitoes? We cannot know for sure, but it is a possibility.
The sixth plague, when boils sweep through Egypt, has an almost identical word in Egyptian. In Hebrew shechin is a boil or eruption on the skin, meanwhile in Egyptian sḫn (sekhen) refers to a swelling or gathering of material and is found exclusively in medical texts (specifically the Ebers Papyrus, dating to around 1550 BCE, but probably derived from earlier sources). The similarity seems striking and, given the date, lends the possibility of another word shared with similar meanings between these two civilizations.
Finally, there is an extremely interesting comparison in Egyptian to be made with Hebrew maror, referring to the bitter herbs that the Passover sacrifice was to be eaten with (Exodus 12:8), which has cognates across several languages (think myrrh in English). In Hebrew, maror derives from marar which means to be bitter. The words mꜣr (mar), mr (mer) and mꜥr (mar) in Egyptian can mean misery, bitter and painful, the earliest of which dates from the reign of Djedkare Isesi (c. 2436–2404 BCE).
There is also a different use for the word in Egyptian – a type of unknown plant or wood mentioned only in Papyrus Harris I, dating from the reign of Rameses III (c. 1186–1155 BC). Given that the Hebrew text is also referring specifically to a plant, could this have meant a particular type of plant that would have been known at the time and whose identity is now lost?
In my own research, I’ve found around 100 words that show relational similarities, many of which shed new light on traditionally difficult or bizarre translations of the biblical text. These are just a few examples of words that may be cognates or loans between the two languages that suggest a deeper cultural link than might previously have been thought and can contribute to answering the question as to whether or not the is any validity to the stories to which they relate.
Adam Hemmings is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he specialized in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological and heritage law. He is currently engaged in research for his PhD regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.