The Shihor of Egypt

One of the interesting things that has been clarified by James Hoffmeier’s (et alia) North Sinai excavations around Tel Hebua is the nature of the Shihor, the “Waters of Horus” described in various Egyptian texts alternately as a channel or a basin of water connected to the Mediterranean. It turns out to be both: the easternmost branch of the Nile in the Eastern Delta which emptied into a lagoon or estuary which in turn opened onto the Mediterranean up until the late second millennium or early first millennium BC. See Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticiy of the Wilderness Tradition, particularly chapter 4, “The Geography of the Exodus: Ramesses to the Sea,” and Figures 3-6, 10, and 19 for topographical and geological maps of the area in question in the Eastern Nile Delta. This branch of the Nile began a bit south and west of Avaris/Pi-Ramesses and continued in a northeasterly direction until debouching into the aformentioned lagoon adjacent to Tjaru/Silu/Sile, the great border fortress of Egypt, located at Tel Hebua I and II (the fortress comprised two large buildings, one on either side of the channel, connected by a bridge). It is generally recognized that this Shihor actually defined the border of Egypt. On the western bank was Egypt, on the eastern bank, “the East.” For its entire length, the Shihor channel is paralleled by the “Way of Horus” the road leading from Avaris/Pi-Ramesses to Canaan.

The references within the Bible to this particular body of water are Jos 13.3; 1Chr 13.5; Isa 23.3; Jer 2.18. (There is also mention of a Shihor-Libnath, near Mount Carmel, in Jos 19.26, but this appears to be a Canaanite town or regional name interestingly based on a combination of the Semitic roots for “black” שחר and “white” לבן whatever the meaning may have been.) Nadav Naʾaman in two articles, “The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian Policy on the Border of Egypt” and “The Shihor of Egypt and Shur That is Before Egypt” (reprinted in Ancient Israel and Its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction. Collected Essays volume 1. pages 238-264 and 265-278 respectively) conveniently provides summaries of the scholarship on the subject of the Shihor, describing the various agreements and disagreements over the referents of the Shihor in these Biblical passages. The former article has become the classic statement on the subject, it seems. To summarize reactions to the Biblical use of Shihor, the Isaiah and Jeremiah references are unanimously recognized as referring to the Nile, but the Joshua and Chronicles passages are not. Some (like Naʾaman himself) would equate Shihor in the Joshua and Chronicles references to the Wadi Besor (so Naʾaman argues) as the “Brook of Egypt” rather than the Nile itself, though this “Brook of Egypt” is typically placed further south, at the Wadi el-Arish. Generally, the Joshua and Chronicles Shihor usage is denied as referring to the Nile because the Shihor is elsewhere not described as the border of Canaan or the Promised Land, while the “Brook of Egypt” is. One is forced to ask, however, “Is it necessarily objective to change the referent of a geographical name depending upon equivocal contexts?” Is that actually treating the text fairly, or is it rather attempting to force the text to fit our own theoretical understanding? In this case, it is clearly the latter.

Firstly, there is not necessarily any “Brook of Egypt” which is separate from the “River of Egypt” which is the Nile, particularly in these cases—the easternmost branch in the Delta which was called the Shihor in the second millennium BC, and, much later, the Pelusiac. There is no particular difference in the Hebrew נהר and נחל such that the former means “river” and the latter means “brook” which would justify the tendentious translation “Brook of Egypt.” They are synonyms for a lengthy, flowing body of water of whatever size, large or small. The fascinating information that Naʾaman provides from the Assyrian texts (in “The Brook of Egypt…” article noted above) is still equivocal, and the article has the overall feel of a tour de force rather than an objective, rational investigation. It’s interesting, but forced in its fitting of the evidence to a hypothetical border placed close to Gaza.

Secondly, the Joshua 13.3 and 1 Chronicles 13.5 usages are not so anomalous as we would be led to believe. The former relates a boundary of the territory of the land still to be taken by the Israelites near the end of Joshua’s life, obviously from the actual border of Egypt up to Ekron, not from some unimportant wadi. Interestingly, the “Wadi of Egypt” (as the NRSV puts it) is also mentioned to be the southern border of the promised land in both Numbers 34.5 and Joshua 15.4. Importantly, in Isaiah 27.12, the “Wadi of Egypt” is put in apposition with the Euphrates, just as in Isaiah 23.3, the Shihor is. This seems rather to suggest that no matter the period involved, the Shihor and the “Wadi of Egypt” were understood by the Biblical writers as identical, and as the theoretical or ideal, if not actual, border between Egypt and Israel. That the Egyptians considered the Shihor their border is well known and unanimously acknowledged. That the Israelites, producing the only other body of material to elaborate on this border, indeed to even mention the Egyptian name of this border feature, claimed to share this border with the Egyptians either ideally or actually should not surprise us. Theirs was a vibrant culture immediately to the north of Egypt, with a cultural territory of larger extent than any of the Canaanite or Philistine city-states, and with a literary tradition of astonishing richness which is still appreciated to this day, aside from anyone’s conception of the workings of God in their history. Such things do not indicate the Israelites to have been an inconsiderable cultural force in the region. Control by such a cultural force, to a greater or lesser degree, over the unclaimed lands to the east of Egypt should actually be expected. The incidental usage of Nile/Shihor/River of Egypt in parallel with the Euphrates as indicating the maximal extent of Israelite influence, and Canaanite before that, through several centuries of writing by the Israelites, whether it was ideal or actualized (as it seems to have been at times), should not be denied because it doesn’t fit hypothetical models of Israelite borders based on other, more equivocal and less objectively determinative factors. To do so is clearly an injustice to all the evidence, and this theory of a “Wadi of Egypt” at Wadi Besor or Wadi el-Arish should be abandoned by scholarship.

Of course, we needn’t expect anything to really change on that front, for, as they say, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”


  1. Thank you, Charles. No, I haven’t heard any further development on this. The excavations at Tell Hebua and its surroundings continue.

    I no longer entertain even the slightest prospect of “Biblical scholarship” acting in a reasonable manner when presented with such evidence. They’re much too rigidly locked into their scholarly orthodoxies to be affected by reality.

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