Why bricks with straw in Egypt at the time of the Exodus?
(Is the Bible historically accurate?)

Exodus 5:6-18 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: 7 "You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don't reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.' 9 Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies." 10 Then the slave drivers and the foremen went out and said to the people, "This is what Pharaoh says: 'I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.'" 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, "Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw." 14 The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh's slave drivers were beaten and were asked, "Why didn't you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?" 15 Then the Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh: "Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, 'Make bricks!' Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people." 17 Pharaoh said, "Lazy, that's what you are - lazy! That is why you keep saying, 'Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.' 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks." (NIV)

A few questions arise regarding the use of straw in unbaked mud bricks, as referenced in this Biblical account, including:

  1. Was straw actually used in making bricks?

  2. Were bricks with straw the common practice in Egypt at this time?

  3. Why add straw to unbaked bricks?

  4. What is the significance of this topic?

Throughout the Bible lands, straw was used in the making of bricks only in Egypt. Other lands, such as the Mesopotamia region, baked their bricks. This was common even in a far earlier period, as shown in Scriptures and verified by archaeology...

Genesis 11:2-4 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." (NIV)

In the land of Canaan, bricks were occasionally used, but stone was the normal and widespread building material of choice. Even when bricks were employed they did not utilize straw in them. (See Tell Dan for an example, the bronze age gate was of sun-baked brick, all later were stone). This brings us back to Egypt where we find that bricks with straw were a common building material at this time. Archaeological excavations in the Delta region, especially those dating to around the time of the Exodus, and specifically in regards to the store city of Pithom and nearby Succoth, show that mud brick with straw was the only standard building material. Bricks formerly having straw within them are very distinctive due to the small holes left with the decay of the organic material.

 Remains of mud bricks at Tell el Retabeh (Pithom) -- dating to the time of the Exodus
Notice holes from where the straw has decayed.

The author holding an ancient mud brick made with straw, at Succoth (Tell el-Maskhuta), dating to the time of the Exodus

For the bible skeptics who claim that the account of the exodus was a later innovation, perhaps written as late as immediately following the Babylonian exile, small but significant details, such as these mud bricks, point to an author directly familiar with the circumstances and practices of Egypt in the appropriate timeframe. If written in Babylon (Mesopotamia) or even in Canaan, they likely would have reflected local practice in making up such a story. But our Bible account is written by a divinely inspired eyewitness from Egypt.

Baked bricks are very strong, but they require a large amount of burnable fuel to bake them. The cost of acquiring this in Egypt may have led to the alternate practice of unfired clay bricks with straw. Certainly the Egyptians were aware of the beneficial effects of baking clay. Evidence from the ruins of burned building would have exhibited this to them. Still, no evidence has been found that burnt bricks were intentionally prepared for use in buildings during the Pre-dynastic Period or the Old Kingdom. A solitary example of burnt brick paving slabs comes from the Middle Kingdom. Yet these were not bricks, measuring almost 1ft x 1 ft x 2 inches (30 x 30 x 5 cm), nor were they used as walls - plus this lonesome example comes from the area of Nubia not lower Egypt. The next isolated example comes from Thebes, in Upper Egypt, during the New Kingdom Period. These fired bricks were used in conjunction with funerary cones in the tombs. It is only late in the New Kingdom Period that a couple examples appear, at Nebesheh and Defenneh, dated to the time of Ramesses II 2. This use of fired bricks, as a constructional material, is certainly an exception and not the rule. It was not until the Roman period that usage of baked bricks became more common place in Egypt, reflecting standard Roman usage elsewhere. Simply put, during the time of the Exodus, large scale baked brick construction was nonexistent in Lower Egypt (the Delta & Goshen region).1

Unlike the Bible, which legitimately notes the widespread usage of mud-bricks with straw, in the region of the Delta at the time of the Exodus, the Qur'an (Koran) makes an interesting claim. Showing that it was written by someone influenced by the culture and practice outside of Egypt, at a much later date, it portrays a boastful and mocking Pharaoh asking his associate Haman to build a lofty tower or palace. (Ignore the fact that the name Haman also is not Egyptian and appears to have been randomly pulled from another biblical account and timeframe). From two different English language translations:

Pharaoh said: "O Haman! light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace (Arabic: Sarhan, lofty tower or palace), that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" [Qur'an 28:38]

And Firon said: O chiefs! I do not know of any god for you besides myself; therefore kindle a fire for me, O Haman, for brick, then prepare for me a lofty building so that I may obtain knowledge of Musa's God, and most surely I think him to be one of the liars. [The Holy Qur'an 28:38, translated by M.H. Shakir and published by Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., in 1983]

It is safe to say that it would be exceedingly rare for a Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus to ask for a major construction to be built in the Delta out of kiln fired bricks - something that there is absolutely no example of until the time of Ramses II almost a century and a half later. As to the significance of this entire issue: once again archaeology confirms the Bible and, at best, casts serious doubt on the historicity of the account in the Qur'an.

Returning to the Biblically cited practice of adding straw to bricks in Egypt, this was done with intent. With the extreme cost of firing bricks in a land without an abundant fuel source, the Egyptians had discovered something not widely known. Bricks made out of mud and straw are three times stronger than those made merely out of dried mud/clay.6 The scientific reason for this is that the straw releases humic acid3, into the mud, assisting in hardening the bricks.4 In a land where this straw-brick practice was unknown, it would be highly unlikely that it would be even suggested. If the Bible account was written in another land by someone who was not a witness to the practice - as skeptics commonly profess - they would have drawn upon local practices which would not have included this very localized yet beneficial method.

Exodus 5:14 The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh's slave drivers were beaten and were asked, "Why didn't you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?" (NIV)

More could be said about brick making, as referenced in the Biblical account, but one final comment will have to suffice. Early Egyptian records show that it was common practice for tallies of bricks made by slaves to be recorded.5 The Bible is full of historically accurate details!

Click here for more on the events and places of the Exodus.

End Notes

1) Showing how insignificant and rare any ancient usage of baked bricks was in early Egypt, one reference work makes this contrasting summary:

In Egypt, baked bricks were not employed before the Roman period at all. In Mesopotamia, they were used on an unprecedented scale during the Neo-Babylonian period. (Page 30, A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture, by Gwendolyn Leick and Francis J Kirk, published by Routledge, 1988)

Another general citation:

Most of the ancient Egyptian buildings have disappeared leaving no trace. Built of sun baked bricks made of Nile mud and straw, houses, palaces and city walls crumbled when they stopped being looked after. Stone structures like temples and tombs fared better, but even they fell victim to the ravages of time, the greed of men, to earthquakes and subsidence. One shouldn't be surprised by what has disappeared but by how much is left. (Section: Building in ancient Egypt, An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt by Andre Dollinger, http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/building/)

2) The archaeologist, who found the only significant exception where kiln-baked bricks were used at Tell Defenneh (alt. Daphnae) at Tahpanhes (alt. Tahpanheth) and the neighboring village of Tell Nebesheh, was Flinders Petrie. These structures were significant not because of size or important use but solely because they were the only exception ever found. The building material of ancient Egypt had always been stone and mud bricks, and remained so until more than a thousand years later, except for these few structures at the time of Ramses II. Dating is considered to be without question because of the cartouche and artifacts associated with the site.

"The earliest tomb opened, was one built of red baked bricks, No. 35, almost at the extreme east of the cemetery. It had been much disturbed and broken up in early times ... This tomb was of `Pa-mer-kau', according to the two limestone ushabti found in it; and from a statue found in the temple, representing `Merenptah', son of `Pa-mer-kau', and bearing the cartouche of Ramses II, it may be dated to the 19th dynasty. The style of the two ushabti also exactly accords with that period; and some fragments of wrought granite found in the tomb again agreed to a Ramesside period. The employment of red brick in this tomb, and in the next to be described, which is also Ramesside, is of great importance. Hitherto I had never seen any red brick in Egypt of earlier times than the Constantine period; and it appeared to be a test of that age. Now we see from these cases ... that baked brick was introduced in the Ramesside times in the Delta." ("Nebesheh and Defenneh" by Flinders Petrie, pages 18-19)

The nearby site at Tell Defenneh likewise yielded the foundation of a single structure comprised of fired bricks, also dating to the time of Ramses II.

"The earliest remains found here are a part of the foundation of a building of red bricks." (Ibid. page 47)

3) "Humic acid defies precise description except in very general terms. Black or very dark brown high molecular weight organic polymer is as good a description as any. The color of the materials is effectively used as a sales or advertising attribute. Black organic matter conjures up the image of dark fertile soils covered with lush plant growth. Chemically, humic acid contains more carbon and less hydrogen than does the animal and plant residues from which it has formed through extensive biological decomposition." (Humate and Humic Acid, By Dr. Wayne R. Kussow, Department of Soil Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison. June 2002 web issue of Horticulture Update, edited by Dr. Douglas F. Welsh, and produced by Extension Horticulture, Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.)

4) Gerald Vardaman describes this in Archaeology and the Living Word, 1966, p. 37, and Baruch Halpern writes about Mesopotamian and Canaanite building materials in "The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality?" The Rise of Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington D.C., pp 99-100.

5) This practice of recording tallies of bricks may have actually begun during the enslavement of Israel. It was certainly still being practiced a century and a half later. One Egyptian scroll (Louvre Leather Roll 1274) reports that tallies of bricks made by slaves were in fact recorded at this time. The scroll is critical of "Paherypedjet son of Paser," one of the 40 overseers of Rameses II, who failed to deliver his quota of 2,000 bricks. It goes on to say that the shortfall was because the slaves "could not gather the required amount of straw."* As a result, the slaves were beaten. Sounds familiar to the Biblical account doesn't it?! (* K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions [Oxford: Blackwell, 1996] Vol. 2, 520-522 & Out of Egypt," BAR Jan/Feb 2007.)

6) One publication expressly examining Egyptian building materials had this in its subsection on "Mud":

The absence of rain, the scarcity of wood and an abundance of sunshine made adobe the preferred building material. Loamy Nile mud mixed with straw resulted in surprisingly strong bricks. A sun baked mud brick without straw had a strength of less than 6 kp/cm², the addition of straw resulted in a brick three times as strong (about 20 kp/cm²). As long as groundwater did not dissolve their foundations and floods did not reach them, well tended mud brick walls could stand for generations. In every location during a building project brick moulds of equal size were used, which were between about 45 to 30 cm in length and 20 to 15 cm in width. The brick size was thus standardized, e.g. 30 by 15 by 7.5 cm during the Middle Kingdom. At Karnak the bricks measured 40 by 20 by 15, at the Late Period Naukratis they were about the same size. These dimensions suggest they were generally laid in cross bond. A modern mud brick maker can produce between 1000 and 2000 bricks a day. One may assume that ancient workers were about as efficient. Five days' work should therefore have sufficed to make about 5000 bricks needed for a worker's one storey house of 60 to 80 m² with 40 cm thick walls. Few ancient mud bricks survived, but those that did can sometimes be dated because they were frequently stamped with the cartouche of the reigning monarch. Not surprisingly, given the scarcity of fuel, the Egyptians rarely used burned bricks.

More remains of large amounts of mud bricks with straw at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth)

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