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Bible Study Resource

Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob, and first born of his wife, Rachel. The Joseph story (Genesis 37, 39-50), which unfolds against an Egyptian background, marks the end of the Patriarch stories and the beginning of settlement of the Hebrews in Egypt. 

Early Life

Joseph was his father's favourite son and therefore a natural object for the envy and hatred of his brothers.  His naive arrogance, revealed in the self-magnifying dreams which he told and interpreted to his brothers, so infuriated them that they decided to do away with him. The biblical account of their actions combines two traditions. One states that they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, Dry cistern the other that they abandoned him in a dry cistern (see right) from which he was rescued by Midianite traders who sold him to Potiphar, chief of the Pharaoh's household. 

Joseph in Egypt

The story of Joseph’s life in Egypt contains many episodes which tally with Egyptian life and times, fully backed up by archaeological discoveries. These point to authentic details in the Joseph story. Joseph rose high in the service of Potiphar, and became overseer of his household. The turning point in his life came when he rebuffed the wife of his master, and was imprisoned on a false charge of attempted rape. It is interesting to note that this tale of seduction is quite similar to the plot of the Egyptian folk-story The Two Brothers, found in a 13th century BC papyrus (see below). 

Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'Orbiney, British Museum

Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'Orbiney, British Museum

Joseph did not languish in prison for long. Soon his reputation as an interpreter of dreams brought him before Pharaoh, to explain the dream of the seven fat and seven lean cows. Joseph interpreted the dream as fore-shadowing seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This seven year cycle motif was common in ancient Near Eastern lore, and may have been based on actual periods of drought and plenty, which were determined by the rhythm of the rainy season in central and eastern Africa, and the consequent rise or recession of the Nile, which either flooded the fields or left them parched. The 19th century photograph below shows the Nile in flood, submerging the island of Philae and its temples in southern Egypt. 

the Nile in ?ood submerging the island of Philae and its temples in southern Egypt

19th century photograph showing the Nile in flood, submerging the island of Philae and its temples 


The Egyptian Economy

The stability of the Egyptian economy largely depended on the grain harvest. Detailed records of the grain supplies were kept by scribes (illustrated in a wall painting below found in the tomb of Menena). The office of Superintendent of Granaries was especially important. The 'account of the harvests' presented in solemn audience with Pharaoh represented a royal tax of one-fifth of all crops. 

Egyptian wall painting from the tomb of Menna (Menena) shows careful measuring and recording of the grain harvest

Egyptian wall painting from the tomb of Menna (Menena) shows careful measuring and recording of the grain harvest

The New Kingdom period, during or slightly before which Joseph may have lived, was an age of Pharaonic ownership of all the land. The people were considered little more than serfs who cultivated the royal estates. Joseph advised the Pharaoh to appoint a competent director, 'discreet and wise', and charge him with a country-wide scheme to collect and store 20% of the produce of the land in granaries (see model of a granery below) in preparation for the lean years. The monarch responded to the suggestion by naming Joseph Vizier of Egypt or Chief Administrator, a post second in power only to the Pharaoh. Joseph may also have exercised the function of Superintendent of Granaries. lt was not uncommon for foreigners to rise high in the Egyptian court, a fact mentioned in official Egyptian records. 

Model of a granery from the Middle Kingdom period, during the reign of Amenemhat I circa 1975BC

Model of a granery from the Middle Kingdom period, during the reign of Amenemhat I circa 1975BC


The Joseph Story Tradition

The original tradition from which the Joseph story stems contains genuine Egyptian titles and proper names, although the names (Potiphar, Potiphera, Asenath) were current in Egypt mainly in the 11th and 10th centuries BC, while the name of Ramses (Genesis 47:11) was certainly not known before the rise of the 19th dynasty (13th century BC), whose kings were the first to bear that name. This suggests that the story did not reach permanent form until some centuries after the events were supposed to have taken place. 

The biblical account conforms closely to Egyptian texts and illustrations. We read in Genesis 50:26 that Joseph lived 110 years, which was the traditional length of a happy and prosperous life in Egypt. There are numerous striking instances of authentic detail. A hint as to the locale in which Joseph may have lived is given in the reference to his marriage to Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, Priest of On. She bore him two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim. It would be in keeping with Joseph’s high rank for the Pharaoh to give him an Egyptian wife and the Egyptian name of Zaphenath-paneah, Djepa-ntr-fnkh (God wishes him to live) in Egyptian. 

Years of Famine

As predicted, the famine came, not only to Egypt but to all of western Asia. One ancient inscription noted by J.B. Pritchard in Ancient Near Eastern Texts records a seven-year famine alleged to have taken place during the time of Pharaoh Tjoser (circa 2700 BC). This monarch is supposed to have appealed to the god Khnum, who promised that the Nile would rise and flood the fields with sufficient water. 

Stepped pyramid tomb of Pharaoh Tjoser (Djoser)

Stepped pyramid tomb of Pharaoh Tjoser (Djoser)

An Egyptian inscription from the 14th century BC indicates that it was customary for frontier officials to allow people from Palestine and Sinai to enter Egypt in time of drought. The Anastasi papyrus VI has a communication dated 122O BC from a frontier official of Mernephtach to his superior, informing him that certain Edomite nomad tribes had been allowed, according to precedent, to pass the fortress in the district of Thuku (the Hebrew Succoth) to pasture their cattle near Pithom. 

The Children of Israel Enter EgyptTomb painting, Nebamun, Egypt

The Bible relates that Jacob, aware of this custom, sent his sons to the Land of the Pharaohs to ask permission to settle. From here on the story of his brothers is linked to that of Joseph, which proceeds with rising tension from the critical moment of his recognition of his family to a happy ending. After Joseph arranged for their welfare, Jacob, now called Israel, and his clan of 70 moved into Egypt with all their livestock and possessions. There they were welcomed as relatives of the famous Joseph. 

In the biblical scheme this story serves to bring the Patriarchal age to a close (Genesis 47:27-50:26) and connect it to the climactic point of the national epic, the deliverance of lsrael from the Egyptians and the birth of the nation after the Exodus. While an old Egyptian folk-tale may be embedded in Joseph’s success story, the biblical writer’s account conveys a religious and moral lesson, hinting that the promise made to Abraham, namely that the descendants of the sojourners in Egypt would inherit Canaan, was moving towards fulfillment. 

Dating the story

The date of the entry into Egypt, as well as the period of Joseph’s career, is a matter of dispute. The Bible does not name the Pharaoh he served, nor does it give any conclusive references, such as the king's place of residence. One important clue, however, is dropped in the description of the Israelites’ entry into Goshen. lt is written that Jacob sent his son Judah ahead to represent him before the royal court, and that when the Hebrews later entered the country at Goshen, Joseph rode in his chariot to meet his father, and then returned to report to the Pharaoh (Genesis 46:28-29; 47:1). Light-wheeled chariots were not used for long journeys (see below). Bearing this in mind, and assuming that Joseph must have lived in or near the king’s capital, his one day round-trip by chariot implies that the Pharaoh’s residence was situated close to Goshen, or at Avaris. 

A lightly-built Egyptian chariot

A lightly-built Egyptian chariot

Flavius Josephus quotes Manetho, an Egyptian Hellenistic historian who described how the Egyptians drove the Hyksos out of Egypt: 'They went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand, and took their journey from Egypt, through their wilderness, for Syria . . . they built a city in that country which is now called Judea, and that large enough to contain the large number of men and called it Jerusalem.' Josephus continues a tendentious account, trying to equate the Hyksos with the Children of Israel, whom Manetho also calls 'shepherds'. 'Nor was it without reason that they were called captives by the Egyptians since one of our ancestors, Joseph, told the king of Egypt that he was a captive and afterward sent for his brethren into Egypt'. 

The Bible maintains that the Israelites stayed in Egypt 400 to 430 years (Genesis 15:13, Exodus 12:40-41). This would place their entry during the Hyksos‘ Middle Kingdom (circa 1720-1570 BC) and their exit in the 13th century. Nevertheless, some scholars feel that the Joseph story took place during the middle of the 14th century BC in the New Kingdom of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaton. Statuette of an Egyptian scribe The theory is based on the Genesis 47:19-20 account of Joseph setting up the economic system that turned the Pharaoh into an absolute dictator and gave him ownership of most of the country's land. This was in contrast to the feudal system that prevailed under the Hyksos. 

From Egyptian sources we learn that during the period of dictatorship. the kings required efficient and resourceful civil servants to administer the lands. Talented commoners were given an opportunity to rise to high positions. There may be a point of contact with the Joseph story here, which would put the entry of the Israelites after the Hyksos feudal era. The point also rests on the established fact that the 20% tax was normal for the New Kingdom period, and was paid in grain delivered to the royal granaries in each provincial capital. On the evidence of a large scroll dealing with tax assessments (the Wilbour papyrus), it seems that the tax-exemption privileges of the priesthood and temples granted under the New Kingdom system were a heavy burden on the rest of Egypt. 

The Joseph story closes with Joseph's request that he be buried in Canaan, like his father before him. Tradition relates that he was mummified and entombed in Egypt, indicating that the political climate was not as favourable at his death as it had been previously, or his request would have been carried out. Instead, the Exodus story includes an account of his remains being borne back to Canaan by the departing Hebrews. 

Process of mummification

Process of mummification

Wall painting of a mummified body

Wall painting of a mummified body

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Bible Study Resource, Archaeology: Joseph in Egypt: Egyptian economy, famine, dating the story

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher