Egyptian loanwords in the Torah

Please help me in understanding the trajectory of the Torah.

  1. The exodus took place at c. 1500 BCE Moses revealed the Torah. The Jews settled in Israel. Around 600 BCE they were exiled to Babylon. Sometime, thereafter they returned. I have read that the Torah was “lost” at this time. St Ezra found a copy in a temple in Jerusalem. This manuscript became the basis of the present-day Bible.
  2. ⁠Sometime after this, some Jews migrated to Egypt and settled in Alexandria in particular. This Hebrew bible was used by the Ptolemy to translate the Bible into Greek Septuagint.
  3. ⁠From 600 BCE to 900 CE, the Torah was carried mainly orally. Some scripts such as the Aleppo Codex are available.
  4. ⁠The present Masoretic text was codified around 900CE. The Aleppo and Leningrad Codex are after this date.
  5. Benjamin J. Noonan has found 0.64% Egyptian loanwords in the Hebrew Bible as a whole and 0.91% in the Torah.
  6. There are three points of connection between Egypt and Hebrew Bible. 1] Revelation at Sinai c. 1500 BCE. 2] Alexandria 600-300 BCE. 3] After Septuagint during transmission of Torah from Egypt to the Masoretic text.
  7. The question is at which of these three periods were the Egyptian loanwords borrowed into Hebrew.
    I shall be much thankful for your guidance.

No – Ezra apparently brought a copy with him from Babylon. There couldn’t have been any in the Temple since the entire city had been leveled by the Babylonians and they had to rebuild the Temple from the ground up.

A long time after; Alexandria didn’t exist until the mid fourth century B.C.

That’s the legend – that Ptolemy asked for a translation, that is. Whether there is any truth to the claim is an open question. The reality is that there was no single Greek translation, though one produced in Alexandria could have dominated since that city had more Jews than any other Greek-speaking city.

No – we know it was already written down by the end of the fourth century B.C., and given the completeness of texts we have from then it was certainly in written form shortly after or before the end of the Exile.

That first one should be the captivity in Egypt, to whatever extent that occurred. Second should be the entire periods of the judges and the kingdom(s) because there was continual contact with Egypt. Alexandria doesn’t really count as that was a Greek imperial city and not very Egyptian at all. So also anything after the Septuagint is Hellenistic, not Egyptian.

That said, the primary source for Egyptian loan words would be the first period as evidenced by Noonan’s analysis. IIRC the portion is even higher in just Genesis-Exodus than in the rest of the Torah, and also higher in the Joshua-Judges material than in what came later. This fits with the origin of Israel from Egypt and the gradual divergence of their society and thus language from that of Egypt.


Flip the figures over: 0.91% means that one in every 110 words in the Torah is an Egyptian loan-word; 0.64% means that one in every 156 words in the rest of the Tanakh is an Egyptian loan-word. Depending on how a book is printed, that means that there are on the order of a half dozen (or more) Egyptian loan words for every page of the Tanakh!
And since Egyptian loan words make up about half the loan words, double those numbers – thus on any given page in the Torah there are a dozen or more loan words, one in every 55.


Starts to put a dent in a theory that the Israelites originated in the Indus Valley, doesn’t it?



Thanks. I stand much educated. However, I am still unable to grasp the logic behind this comment of yours. Noonan does not look at the time of borrowing. To me it seems Exodus and Judges would be equally plausible. How do we go about assessing this? Again, thank you.

I took the figures from this.

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This is incorrect: his analysis looked at the ages of the various writings. Those closest to the time Israel spent in Egypt have the most loan words.

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I will recheck.

As a linguist I generally find arguments based on frequenct of loan words not very compelling. All languages in contact borrow words. Any kind of contact between people groups leads to loan words and cultural borrowing of various kinds. The Hebrew people were never culturally or linguistically isolated from the surrounding cultures of the ANE.


I’ve always thought the loan word arguments were predominantly centered around helping to date texts. Like someone found an old piece of white paper and it had modern slang on it they would know it was not from the 1800s type of stuff. Or when they know that a particular story has existed for centuries in Europe, and was never in anything in Russia, but then a war happened and Russia was invaded by Europe and suddenly you see writings of that story there claiming to be centuries older there is a good chance it was post invasion.

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But the obvious corollary to that is that the more contact there is, the more loan words there will be. So a high number of Egyptian loan words in one portion of scripture indicates more contact with Egyptian culture at the time of writing than is the case with other passages.

What I find compelling is that just as the presence of an abundance of Egyptian loan words indicates plenty of contact with Egyptian culture, the presence of Greek loan words in other books indicates contact with Greek culture, which places the books with a lot of those into the Hellenistic period. In grad school we looked at “language spillover” between ancient near eastern languages but for some reason loan words from Greek was never examined, which now seems to me to have been a serious lack of attention.

Yes, but there are far more reliable ways to date texts than the mere presence of loan words. These kind of arguments work better as supporting evidence for hypotheses based on other observations.


Yes, because it correlates with cultural contact.

I have vague memories of finding ancient slang in different languages and trying to match those to cultural contacts to try to figure out where each one originated; I also vaguely remember that it wasn’t easy at all and was rarely conclusive. The same was done with wisdom statements, which in Hebrew writing shows up primarily in the book we call Proverbs (some of those seem to go back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead!).

That can be a fun one to tackle because it can be a matter of someone taking a centuries-old story and editing to make it comprehensible to a new audience. There are examples of that in Mediterranean literature, stories written in Greek but which came from earlier versions, where terms or place names that Greek readers wouldn’t recognize replaced with Greek words and place names so the readers would be able to understand the story.

But we are talking about documents we know were redacted and recomplied in a long history of oral and written transmission. So if someone starts talkiing about biblical texts as if they were “authored” out of nothing during the Exile because of evidence of Babylonian words or whatever, I just assume they don’t understand the context that gave rise to ancient texts and are imposing anachronistic ideas of authorship on a document.

  • It would seem then that Linguistics doesn’t have much to offer in answer to the question of the historicity of the Exodus, which is disputed.
  • On the other hand, the proliferation of French loan words in the English language would seem to suggest that the historicity of a French and English contact, which is not disputed, has some probability to it.
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Right, because you would expect Egyptian loan words in Hebrew regardless of whether or not they had been enslaved by Egypt. No one is disputing that they were two cultures in contact living in the same region of the world.

  • Keeping in mind the fact that this thread was started by someone who proposes an Indus Valley origin of Hebrews, in direct opposition to early Old Testament claims otherwise, and who has proposed that several Old Testament characters were actually Hindu gods, the usefulness of a couple of Egyptian “loan words” seems important to me.
  • The word pharaoah alone is significant, because its first four appearances are:
    • Genesis 12:15, 17, 18, and 20.
    • Which places Abraham and Sarah in Egypt far, far away from the Indus Valley and the Hindu Rama.
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But you would expect more in material written during periods of closer contact.

There are others that support this point. Interestingly (if I recall correctly) the number of Egyptian loan words in Genesis suddenly jumps at the point of the Abraham stories. That pretty much sends the whole Indus valley conjecture right into the trash.