The Ipuwer Papyrus


ipuwer papyrus 2
The Ipuwer Papyrus (officially Papyrus Leiden I 344 recto) is an ancient Egyptian hieratic papyrus made during the Nineteenth Dynasty, and now held in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in LeidenNetherlands.[1] It contains the Admonitions of Ipuwer, an incomplete literary work whose original composition is dated no earlier than the late Twelfth Dynasty (c.1991-1803 BCE).

In the Admonitions a man named Ipuwer complains that the world has been turned upside-down, and demands that the “Lord of All” remember his religious duties and destroy his enemies.[1] The poem is considered the world’s earliest known treatise on political ethics, suggesting that a good king is one who controls unjust officials, thus carrying out the will of the gods.[3] Ipuwer is often put forward in popular literature as confirmation of the Biblical Exodus story, but these arguments ignore the many points on which Ipuwer contradicts Exodus.[4]

Look at the ancient Egyptian papyrus recording  the plagues of Exodus Chapters 7-12 (called the Ipuwer Papyrus), now in the National Archeological Museum in Leiden, Netherlands.

First, there is the plague of Blood (Exodus 7: 14-25) as water sources (including the Nile) are turned into blood.  This is followed by a plague of Frogs (Exodus 7: 25-8:11).  Then Lice envelop the land (Exodus 8: 16-19).  Next, Flies infest the country
(Exodus 8: 20-32).  An epidemic kills Livestock en masse (Exodus 9: 1-7).  Boils befall the Egyptians (Exodus 9: 8-12).  Eventually, Hail and Fire falls from heaven (Exodus 9: 13-35) followed by a swarm of Locusts (Exodus 10: 1-20).  The ninth plague is Darkness (Exodus 10: 21-29) and the last one involves the Death of Firstborn Male Egyptians (Exodus 11 and 12).

Treaty of Kadesh (replica), United Nations
Treaty of Kadesh (replica), United Nations

Truth be told, the Egyptians were renown for engaging in historical revisionism.
The oldest treaty we know of in the world is the Treaty of Kadesh1 (ca.1269 CE), which was a peace agreement, signed between Egypt and the ancient Hittite Empire.  In fact, a replica of it can be found in the United Nations Building.

If you were to look at strictly Egyptian sources, you would think the Egyptians pulled off a spectacular victory over their Hittite foes. Egyptian accounts of the conflict are found in ancient papyri as well as in reliefs carved in temple walls (such as at Luxor).  If you had only these to go by, you may not get the full story. Other ancient (and non-Egyptian) accounts have recently been uncovered that suggest the Hittites held the upper hand at the end of the engagement2.
Even with this tendency to remove from historical memory troubling episodes, is there any Egyptian source that speaks to such cataclysmic events as the Biblical plagues?  You would think with such upheaval, there would be some national memory or ancient source attesting to such devastation.  Sure enough, there is!

In the National Archaeological Museum in Leiden, Netherlands is found the Ipuwer Papyrus3.  The manuscript itself was discovered in Memphis, Egypt and dates to the 13th Century BC  or within a century or so after the Exodus plagues occurred.  

The similarities to the account of Exodus are striking4 :

  • The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25
    Ipuwer 2:3 – Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.
    Ipuwer 2:9 – The River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.

  • The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7
    Ipuwer 5:5 – All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.

  • The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26
    Ipuwer 9:23 – The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.

    Ipuwer 2:10 – Forsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.

  • The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)
    Ipuwer 6:1 – No fruit nor herbs are found. Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.
    Ipuwer 4:14 – Trees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.

  • The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29
    Ipuwer 9:11 – The land is without light.

  • The Plague on Egypt’s Firstborn in Exodus 12
    Ipuwer 2:13 – He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.

    Ipuwer 3:14 – “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”
    Ipuwer 4:3 – “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”
    Ipuwer 6:12 – “Forsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”

  • Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36
    Ipuwer 1 – “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”

    Ipuwer 2 – “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”
    Ipuwer 3 – “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”
    Ipuwer 5 – “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”
    Ipuwer 10 – “The king’s storehouse has now become common property.”

Now some Egyptologists will argue that the work is merely a poem, a kind of satire, or even a theodicy [the problem of how to reconcile a just God with a world containing evil]. Further, they will say that the ultimate source for this papyrus must go much further back5 than the period in which Moses is penning Exodus.  Even one of the sources we used to provide a translation for the Ipuwer text here holds this view6.

Quite frankly, I am not convinced they are correct.  Neither are other experts . It seems more likely to me that the Ipuwer Papyrus is an Egyptian version or recollection of the traumatic events described from Exodus 7 through Exodus 12.
2. (pages 2 and 3) 3
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