Brook of Egypt

From Academic Kids

The Brook of Egypt is the name used in certain English translations of the Bible for the Hebrew Nachal Mitzrayim ("River of Egypt") used for the river defining the westernmost border of the Land of Israel. It has commonly been identified with Wadi El-Arish but modern scholars identify it with the Pelusian arm of the Nile - a no longer extant branch of the Nile lying on the border of Ancient Egypt.


Occurrences of the name

  • Genesis 15:18 employs the expression Nahar Mitzrayim for the border which is usually translated instead as "River of Egypt", nahar denoting "large river".
  • Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28 refers to it simply as Nachal ("River").
  • I Chronicles 13:5 refers to it as Shichor Mitzrayim ("Dark River of Egypt") often translated as "Shihor the Brook of Egypt".
  • Joshua 13:3; Isaiah 23:3 and Jeremiah 2:18 refer to it simply as Shichor ("Dark River") usually translated by the proper noun "Shihor".

Isaiah 23:3 equates Shichor with Ye'or. Ye'or, usually translated "River" or "Nile", is used in Genesis 41:1-18; Exodus 1:22, 2:3-5, 4:9, 7:15-25, 8:3-11, 17:5; Ezekiel 29:3-9; Daniel 12:5-7; Isaiah 19:7-8, 23:3-10; Jeremiah 46:7-8 and Zechariah 10:11. In Amos 8:8, 9:5 we find Ye'or Mitzrayim, usually translated "River of Egypt". Taking into consideration Isaiah 23:3 these should be considered as additional references, however, as Ye'or is recognized as meaning Nile (see below), Isaiah 23:3 is usually ignored by those who identify Nachal Mitzrayim with the Wadi El-Arish. (As Daniel lived in Babylonia, the reference in Daniel 12:5-7 is sometimes assumed to be a usage of the term ye'or as a common noun meaning "(dark) river" or "channel" although it occurs in a prophecy that can be understood to apply to Egypt suggesting that it too is a reference to the Nile.)

Traditional interpretation as the Nile

The traditional Jewish understanding of the term Nachal Mitzrayim is that it refers to the Nile. This view is made explict in the Jerusalem Targum, the Targum Jonathan, the Targum Neofiti, the Fragment Targums and the commentaries of Rashi and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.

Nevertheless the term Nachal Mitzrayim is only used when discussing the border of the Land of Israel whereas Ye'or is typically used for the main body of the Nile. This suggests that there is indeed some difference in meaning. Since the Land of Israel did not extend into the Nile Delta the most probable interpretation of the term is that it refers specifically to the Delta or the Pelusian arm of the Nile. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explicitly identified it with the Pelusian arm.

The name Nile (Greek: Neilos) is thought to be ultimately derived from the Semitic Nahal meaning "river" from which the Hebrew nachal is derived.

Later interpretation as Wadi El-Arish

The disappearance of the Pelusian arm of the Nile led to much confusion regarding the Biblical geography of Sinai. The Jewish commentator Saadia Gaon, although well aware of the traditional interpretation of Nachal Mitzrayim as the Nile, nevertheless identified it with the wadi of El-Arish meaning "the palm huts". The Jewish commentators Radbaz and Kaftor Vefarach followed suit. This was understood to be a reference to the Biblical locality Sukkot (Hebrew for "palm huts"), which lay near Saadia Gaon's hometown of Fayyum. It lies in the vicinity of the Pelusian arm and so this identification is still consistent with the traditional interpretation.

The Septuagint translates Nachal Mitzrayim in Isaiah 27:12 as Rhinocorura. This name and its variant Rhinocolura were later used for an entire district in Sinai and also for a coastal town on the road to Egypt. The disappearance of the Pelusian arm of the Nile led to the interpretation that the Rhinocorura of the Septuagint was the wadi providing water to this town. Pilgrims subsequently misidentified the Arab settlement at the mouth of this wadi (either identical to or near Rhinocolura) with the Biblical Sukkot and the names El-Arish and Wadi El-Arish were applied to the settlement and wadi respectively.

The translation of the term nachal as "brook" in English, a word implying a small stream, also influenced the interpretation amongst later commentators. This translation is generally regarded as erroneous however, for although in later Hebrew the term nachal tended to be used for small rivers, in Biblical Hebrew, the word could be used for any flowing stream. Its usage, even in modern Hebrew, does not match that of the Arabic wadi.

The identification with the Wadi El-Arish is still widely accepted in popular literature but has been generally rejected by archaeologists.

Identification based on archaeological and geographical evidence

While Rhinocolura (a variant of Rhinocorura) in the writings of Pliny and Josephus apparently refer to El-Arish, archaeologists have found no evidence of occupation at the site prior to the Hellenistic period suggesting that this was not identical to the locality Rhinocorura mentioned by Strabo and Diodorus Siculus which had been settled by Ethiopians. Thus the Rhinocorura mentioned in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 27:12 cannot be assumed to be the Wadi El-Arish. The name was also used for an entire district in the vicinity of Pelusium.

Joshua 10:41 and 11:16 indicate that the Land of Goshen was part of the Land of Israel. The known Goshen (mentioned in a 12th Dynasty papyrus as Qosem) lay well to the west of Wadi El-Arish in the vicinity of the Pelusian arm. Commentators who identify Nachal Mitzrayim with the Wadi El-Arish are thus forced to propose the existence of a second Goshen lying east of the Wadi El-Arish but no such locality has ever been identified.

The account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is also consistent with the identification of Nachal Mitzarayim with the Pelsuian arm and not the Wadi El-Arish. The crossing of the Red Sea described in Exodus 14 is traditionally regarded as the departure from Egypt. The crossing is understood to have taken place at the section of the Red Sea which lay south of the Pelusian arm (known today as the Gulf of Suez). The Red Sea, like the Nachal Mitzrayim is described as part of the border of the Land of Israel (Exodus 23:31). Following the crossing, the Israelites were in the wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15:22) which is identified as lying west of the Wadi El-Arish.

Assyrian texts describing Sennacherib's invasion of the region of Pelusium mention Nahal Musri (a cognate of Nachal Mitzrayim) [1]. Egyptian inscriptions from the 19th Dynasty show that the Pelusian arm of the Nile was considered to be the eastern border of Egypt [2].

Identification based on textual analysis

Hebrew text

An examination of the Hebrew text confirms the traditional view as can be seen from the following points:

  1. Joshua 13:3 and I Chronicles 13:5 use the terms Shichor and Shichor Mitzrayim as synonyms for Nachal Mitzrayim denoting the western border.
  2. Isaiah 23:3 equates the Shichor (Shihor) with the Ye'or. It also describes its as "great waters" and speaks of its "seed" and "harvest". Moreover, shichor is a direct Hebrew translation of the Egyptian: ye'or meaning "dark [river]".
  3. Ye'or is undisputedely a reference to the Nile.

In addition, Genesis 15:18 refers to the western border of the Land of Israel as Nahar Mitzrayim i.e. "[Great] River of Egypt". Unlike nachal which can denote both rivers and wadis, nahar is only used for large rivers whence Nahar Mitzrayim conclusively refers to the Nile.


Nachal Mitzrayim in Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:47 and 2 Kings 24:7 are translated Cheimarros Aigyptou ("Torrent of Egypt") in the Septuagint. This translation sheds no light on the identity of Nachal Mitzrayim being applicable to both the seasonally flooding Nile and seasonal wadis. The translation Pharangos Aigyptou ("Channel of Egypt") in Joshua 15:4 is similarly inconclusive. However, Nachal Mitzrayim in 1 Kings 8:65, together with Nahar Mitzrayim in Genesis 15:18 and Ye'or Mitzrayim in Amos 8:8, 9:5 are all translated Potomos Aigyptou ("River of Egypt") indicating that they were all understood to be the same. As mentioned Ye'or undisputedly refers to the Nile and in addition, potomos is only used for larger rivers not wadis, whence Potomos Aigyptou conlusively refers to the Nile. The proper noun Rhinokoroura (Rhinocorura) in the translation of Isaiah 27:12 can thus be understood as the designation of the Pelusian arm of the Nile.

(Ye'or in Genesis 41:1-18; Exodus 1:22, 2:3-5, 4:9, 7:15-25, 8:3-11, 17:5; Ezekiel 29:3-9; Daniel 12:5-7; Isaiah 19:7-8; Jeremiah 46:7-8 and Zechariah 10:11 are all translated potomos ("river"). Isaiah 23:3-10 is not translated verbatim in the Septuagint which contains no direct translation of the occurrence of Ye'or in these verses. Similarly it contains no direct translation of the occurrences of Nachal in Ezekiel 47:19.)

In Joshua 13:3, Shichor is translated asikēton ("muddy [river]") corresponding to the Hebrew meaning of "dark (i.e. muddy) [river]". Similarly in Jeremiah 2:18 it is translated geon ("earthy [river]"). These words are synonyms of the name Pelousion (Pelusium) derived from pelos meaning "mud" or "silt". In other occurrences Shichor is not translated verbatim. The translation of I Chronicles 13:5 speaks instead of orion Aigyptou ("border of Egypt") which nevertheless confirms that the Shichor was understood to be identical to Nachal Mitzrayim and Nahar Miztrayim which are explicitly mentioned as the border with Egypt. Similarly in Isaiah 23:3 it is represented by metabolē ("[border] crossing").


  1. Na'aman, N., The Brook of Egypt and Assyrian policy on the border of Egypt, Tel Aviv 6, 68-90 (1979)
  2. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) p. 549-550.

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