Pithom and Pi-Ramesses

We read about the purported construction by Hebrew slaves of the Egyptian cities of Pithom and Raamses/Rameses/Ramesses. Pithom or the “House of Atum,” called by the Greeks Heroöpolis, was a well-known city dedicated to one of Egypt’s major gods.

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.      Exodus 1:11 

In recent decades, archaeologists have discovered the massive city of Pi-Ramesses, built under the pharaoh Ramesses II, which construction may be reflected in the Exodus tale as a long-distant memory. However, any “slaves” purportedly involved in its building could be designated as “Western Semites,” not Israelites per se.

The Septuagint rendering of Genesis 46:29 includes an anachronism, by changing the location of Jacob in Egypt from “Goshen” to Ἡρώων πόλιν or Heroöpolis, where Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, purportedly went to meet his father.

29 Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.      Genesis 46:29

As we know now, Heroöpolis or Pithom did not exist at the time when Jacob traditionally was in Egypt, but it was in the future an important trading station at the time when the LXX was composed (3rd–2nd cent. BCE).

In this regard, Redford states that the biblical names of Pithom and Ramesses date from the Saitic period (7th–6th cents. BCE);220 hence, they could not have been part of a tradition from the second millennium Moses period.

Indeed, Pithom may have been included because of its popularity among the Greeks and Romans of the apparent time of this biblical passage’s composition, during the seventh to possibly third centuries BCE. The city’s proximity to the Red Sea gives the Exodus tale legitimacy, possibly explaining its inclusion in the story.

The construction of Pi-Ramesses was ordered during a period when Egypt lost its colonization of Canaan, because of constant attacks by groups of raiders called the “sea peoples.” In this regard, Redford remarks:

In the wake of the retreating Egyptians [under Ramesses II], all Canaan flared into open revolt. For the first time in over two hundred years Egypt could scarcely lay claim to any territory beyond Sinai. The building of a “great and awesome new residence,” Pi-Ramesses (“the House-of-Ramesses”) in the northeastern Delta, was now hurried forward with all dispatch, “to strengthen the borders of Egypt.”

Here seems to be a real, historical detail from the Exodus tale, and it has been surmised therefore that one of the small groups of slaves who helped build Pi-Ramesses retained a memory that was fleshed out to become the biblical drama in later centuries. In this regard, Dr. Michael B. Rowton, a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, relates that a relatively new Ramesside text recounts that laborers from the group called ‘apiru or “Hapiru” were used in construction work, providing a clue as to the true origin of the Israelites, as we will see.

Despite this correlation between Pi-Ramesses and Ramesses II, many believing researchers and scholars continue to pose other pharaohs as the Exodus pharaoh, once again revealing the difficulty in taking this story as “historical” .