Famine, Part 1 of 2 – 1708 B.C. & Famine in Ancient Egypt

Hands OutI can’t understand why You create such great events to occur, but I ain’t nobody to question You, nobody is. 

So with this famine, is everyone going to die?

Remember that God had told Abraham that his people, God’s chosen, would suffer for 430 years (Gen 15:13). 

This involves the 12 tribes, Jacob’s 12 sons.  At this time it seems that God only looked out for His chosen people, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.  I don’t think it was that way because He doesn’t change (Mal 3:6) and He sees everyone equal (Col 3:10-11).  

Before Jesus, God’s chosen people were the Israelites, later recognized as Hebrews, and still later, the Jews. 

Today God’s chosen people are not specifically the Jews, but anyone that believes in and follows the ways of Jesus Christ.

“And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21).

And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

1. Famine Stela
The Famine Stela is an inscription written in hieroglyphs located on Sehel Island in the Nile near Aswan in Egypt, which speaks of a seven-year period of drought and famine during the reign of the 3rd dynasty king Djoser. It is thought that the stela was inscribed during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled 332–31 BC.

The story told on the stela is set in the 18th year of the reign of king Djoser. The text describes how the king is upset and worried, as the land of Egypt has been in the grip of a drought and famine for seven years, during which time the Nile has not flooded the farm lands.

The text also describes how the Egyptian people are suffering as a result of the drought and that they are desperate and breaking the laws of the land. Djoser asks the priest staff under the supervision of high lector priest Imhotep for help. The king wants to know where Hapy (a river deity directly identified with the Nile) is born and which god resides at this place.

At the time of first translating the stela, it was thought that the story of a seven-year-famine was connected to the biblical story in Genesis 41, where also a famine of seven years occurs. But more recent investigations have showed that a seven-year famine was a myth common to nearly all cultures of the Near East.

A Mesopotamian legend also speaks of a seven-year-famine and in the well known Gilgamesh-Epos the god Anu gives a prophecy about a famine for seven years. A further Egyptian tale beside the Famine Stela about a long-lasting drought appears in the so-called “Book of the Temple”

And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-9).

“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference (Rom 3:22).

“For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him” (Rom 10:12).

God says that He doesn’t change, and He doesn’t (Mal 3:6).

“God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good”? (Num 23:19).

You may think that He did when Jesus was born, but no He hasn’t, we change.

Some people question if there had been a famine since the Nile is ever flowing and at times even floods Egypt. 

Yet, there has been times when the Nile was low.  This famine happened, just like the ones in 2700 B.C., 1970 B.C., and 1500 B.C.

It has been 13 years since Joseph had been sold by his brothers. 

“Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? 

And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die. 

And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt. 

But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him.

And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth. 

And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. 

And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him” (Gen 42:1-8).

“Joseph remembered the dreams he had told them when he was 17, that they would bow down to him, so he decided to play with them and accused them of being spies, to check out Egypt and see if they could steal their food.

They explained that they were all brothers, but their youngest, which is Benjamin, stayed at home.

Joseph then put them all in jail for three days and then let them out and continued to pretend they were spies.  They made Numerous trips back and forth and finally Joseph told them who he was and to bring Jacob and everyone up there and live in the land of Goshen.

Jacob, all of his brothers and their families added up to be 70 people” (Gen 42:9-46-2). 

2. GoshenGoshen was only about 900 square miles but he had them live there because of irrigation it is considered some of the best land of Egypt, excellent for grazing and for certain types of agriculture.

Jacob was leery of making the move, but God said to him…

“…I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will  there make of thee a great nation;

I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again: and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes” (Gen 46:3-4).  And that was all it took.

This move would be quite the culture shock because people that lived in Canaan were farmers and shepherds. 

The soil was watered by the heavy rain and dew, while Egypt was an advanced civilization that mainly depended on the Nile river. 

It rarely rained in Egypt; along the Mediterranean at Alexandria the rainfall was about 8 inches a year, in Cairo it was 1½ to 2 inches, and south of that it was less than an inch. 

The people used the Nile for the drinking and daily usage of water and for crops.

The Nile was also the main highway and on its banks they could get clay to make bricks to build houses or make pottery and dishes. 

Also along the banks grew papyrus reeds that they used for making writing paper, and there was flax for linen. 

Moving from the land of Canaan to Egypt would be like moving from the boon docks to New York City.

Famine in Ancient Egypt 
(and Nubia)

This article serves as a general background to the evidence for famine in various periods of ancient Egyptian history.

To many people, ancient Egypt is not a civilization linked to food shortages.

3. famine
There are several accounts of famine throughout ancient Egypt.

One of the accounts from the Old Kingdom comes from the 5th Dynasty at the Pyramid of Unas, located at a place called Saqqara. Along its causeway (the long walled and covered walkway between the mortuary temple and the valley temple of the Unas Pyramid) was found a scene, which is carved on a stone block showing people who were starving.

In antiquity, Egypt was renowned for its agricultural success, so much so that, in later periods, the country was desired by the Romans as a provider of grain. 

Agricultural productivity  was linked to an effective inundation of the River Nile. 

Every year, the combined forces of the Blue Nile originating in East Africa and the White Nile flowing north from central Africa, flooded the river banks of Egypt depositing rich, black mud on the land; farmers encouraged the further spread of the waters by digging irrigation channels and this practice continues today.

Following the lowering of the flood  waters, seeds were planted and the ensuing crops eagerly awaited. 

However, on the occasions when the Nile flooded either too much or inadequately, crop failure would occur and it seems that there were periods of famine.

However, for a culture clearly so keen on recording daily life events, there are relatively few references to famine and starvation in terms of artwork and texts. 

Interestingly, examinations of ancient Egyptian and Nubian skeletons seems to suggest there could be biological evidence possibly demonstrating famine and starvation. 

Artistic and Textual Evidence

Recording information in ancient Egypt was really a way of expressing an ideal state and perpetuating desired order. 

By actually recording episodes of starvation and famine, the failure of the authorities to provide food for the people would have been demonstrated, and this surely would have been a foolish political admission by the ruling classes. 

This may account for why we have relatively few records, artistically and textually, of famine and starvation.

Probably the best known artistic representations of starvation from ancient Egypt are these shown on the causeway leading to the valley temple of King Unas (Wenis). 

Dating to about 2,500 B.C., the scenes show emaciated figures with protruding ribs and pained facial expressions.

It is now thought that these scenes do not depict Egyptians but perhaps people then living on the edges of Egyptian society – that they were Beja people has been suggested. 

Whatever their identification, it is clear that they are under stress and it is possible they may have come further into Egypt in order to obtain food and thence their suffering was recorded by Egyptian artists.

4. Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom of Egypt ended at around 2200 B.C. – a period which experienced widespread drought in many parts of the Bronze Age world (See Syria Blog Entries).

There may have been other issues promoting instability at this time, but there is evidence people lost faith in the divine abilities of the Pharaoh.

The crown of Upper and Lower Egypt no longer represented a strong and unifying government and the country split into smaller satraps – this was the time of the First Intermediate Period.

A time of extinguished central government and uncertainty, both contemporary carvings of famine and Ptolomaic era carvings provide evidence of severe drought and famine in Old Kingdom Egypt well before the collapse of the last dynasty.

A text carved on a granite boulder on Sehel Island (near the first cataract)  has been termed The Famine Stele because it includes references to food shortages. 

The text, purporting to be a decree from the Third Dynasty king Djoser, records the king’s concerns that the Nile’s poor performance for seven years has caused widespread food shortages:

I was despondent upon my throne, and those in the palace were in grief.  My heart was extremely sad since the Inundation had not come on time for a period of seven years. Grain was scarce, the kernels dried out, everything edible was in short supply.

While it is possible that the decree is recording actual times of hardship, it is unclear as to when the events actually occurred for examination of the text’s language (grammar, vocabulary) indicates that it was, in fact, composed during the Ptolemaic period but set in the earlier Old Kingdom period.

Information from texts in the tomb of Ankhtifi at Moalla, however, offers information with a more secure date. 

The First Intermediate Period, at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.), in Egypt seems to have been a time of political troubles.

The kings of Egypt of the time were based in Herakleopolis but evidence indicates that, due to a rising development whereby local officials became governors, or rulers, of their particular regions, the Herakleopolitan kings held only a loose power over much of the country.

We have tomb autobiographies of some of these local governors such as those of Ankhtifi at Moalla and Hetepi at Elkab; that of Ankhtifi is particularly useful in terms of examining evidence for famine.

Ankhtifi was the governor of the nome (or province) of Nekhen which he controlled from his home in the town of Moalla (ancient Hefat).  

Due to his political abilities he was able to expand his control over two other provinces – Edfu (ancient Khuu) and Elephantine (ancient Ta-Sety) and from this was able to challenge Theban authority over Upper Egypt.  

5. unerary stela
A funerary stela of a man named Ba (seated, sniffing a sacred lotus while receiving libations); Ba’s son Mes and wife Iny are also seated.

The identity of the libation bearer is unspecified.

The stela is dated to the Eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom period.

Accounts of Ankhtifi’s battles, his confederation of three provinces and the subsequent success of the Theban forces can be read in detail elsewhere, however, what is particularly useful to this discussion is the information Ankhtifi gives us about food deprivation.

A tremendous famine hits the whole region of southern Upper Egypt, affecting Akhtifi’s province and that of other local rulers – as evidenced by the funerary inscriptions of some of these governors.  

Upper Egypt was dying of hunger; every man was eating his children.

Ankhtifi’s immediate response is to release food from his stock-piled food supplies, firstly to aid his own area, in which he states, “Nobody died of hunger in this nome”’ and then more widely to other parts of Upper Egypt. 

There can be little doubt that Akhtifi was a savior to many Egyptians at this time!

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