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The term “Hebrew” will be used here because it is more anthropologically and historically accurate as it refers to the language spoken by a specific group of people from the Levant (the area roughly congruous with the modern-day nation-states of Israel, Palestine, and southwestern Syria). Although the Hebrews would later establish the Kingdom of Israel and become known as Jews, during the period of the biblical Exodus they were without a kingdom.
During the period when they were in Egypt, the Hebrews were just another Semitic speaking people from the Levant who were closely related to other Canaanites and for the most part indistinguishable from them in the eyes of the Egyptians. <ref> Kuhrt, Amélie. <i>The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC.</i> (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 417</ref> The Old Testament heavily documents the history of the Hebrews’ sojourn in and exodus from Egypt, which although historically based, was “ideologically motivated . . . to drive home particular lessons of the past.” <ref> Kuhrt, p. 417</ref> With that in mind, it is critical to consider some of the more important biblical passages that relate the early Egyptian-Hebrew relationship.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrews’ first major encounters with the Egyptians take place in the Book of Genesis. The book describes Abraham’s descent into Egypt (Gen. 12:10-19), which some modern scholars believe took place around 2116, or during Egypt’s Tenth Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2125-1975 BC). <ref> Redford, Donald. <i>Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times.</i> (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pgs. 258-9</ref> After Abraham, Joseph was the next major Hebrew figure to spend considerable time in Egypt, which was followed by a large migration of Hebrews into the Nile Delta.