THE “SHISHAK” ATTACK
Ancient Egypt|January / February 2021
James Bowden reassesses the Libyan pharaoh Sheshonq I’s attack on Israel and its importance to Egyptian history.
James Bowden

Pharaoh Sheshonq I (variously spelled Sheshonk or Shoshenq) has occupied a position in the shadowlands of Egyptian history. Ruling from the Delta city of Bubastis (Per-Bast) c. 945-924 BC during the Third Intermediate Period, he is thought by some scholars to be the pharaoh ‘Shishak’ named in the Bible. His legacy and impact appear to be more frequently invoked by scholars of the Old Testament and in Canaanite studies, but Sheshonq’s place in Egyptian history should be in manyways just as important for Egyptology. Sheshonq’s attack on Canaan/Israel is mostly dismissed as a mere ‘raid and plunders’ expedition, but it was much more. The invasion challenged the political system of Israel at a critical moment and became a source of embarrassment for the leadership of Judah. From the Egyptian point of view the attack represents the last bid for imperial greatness and the most vigorous attempt to reinstate the Egyptian power that had characterised so much of the country’s history.

The Rise of Sheshonq

Sheshonq was not a native Egyptian; he was of Libyan Meshwesh ancestry, the son of Nimlot A, Great Chief of the Ma, and nephew of the Twenty-first Dynasty king Osorkon the Elder. He was adopted into the Egyptian royal court because of his skills as a fighter and promoted to the rank of ‘Great Chief of Chiefs’ by Pharaoh Pasebakhaenniut II (Psusennes II, c. 950-945 BC), giving him command of the Egyptian army. This promotion also gave him control of the city of Thebes and would have granted him a large number of administrative duties. Pasebakhaenniut II died shortly after the appointment was made and Sheshonq swooped in to claim the throne, becoming Hedjkheperra Setepenra Sheshonq I, founder of the Twenty-second Dynasty.

Details on competition for the title are scarce but it is most likely he faced some form of challenge. In spite of his foreign ancestry, Sheshonq immediately began a programme to demonstrate his right to rule, re-instituting many of the traditional Egyptian forms of leadership, government, and religion. This is not unprecedented – other foreign leaders (such as the Hyksos Fifteenth and later Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasties) found it convenient and necessary to adopt local customs in order to stabilize their rule. However the king also strengthened his control over Egypt by handing strategically important roles to his sons, ending the hereditary high priesthood of Thebes with the appointment of his son, Iuput A, to that position.

Attack on Canaan

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