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Joseph in Egypt

Updated on March 19, 2012

From Slavery to Prison

The sojourn of Israel in Egypt begins with the selling of Joseph into slavery as recorded in Genesis 37, “Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. This story is considered a fictional story by some, a history by others, me included.

The dating of Joseph’s entry into Egypt varies among the scholars, anywhere from 1902 B.C. (Paul J. Ray) to 6th Century B.C. by minimalists. The sale of Joseph as a slave, however, provides information as to the date of his entry into Egypt. The price paid for Joseph, twenty pieces of silver, is consistent with an early second millennium date (2000-1500 B.C.). This would be the time of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. The price for slaves continued to rise over time, 30 pieces of silver in the latter half of the second millennium, and 60 pieces by the 6th Century, thus if the story is from a later time period we would expect a higher price to be listed as being paid for Joseph.

The practise of slavery in the Middle Kingdom saw Semite slaves as skilled labourers. They are recorded as being in positions of responsibility in households and such is the position recorded of Joseph “and he made him overseer over his house” Gen. 39: 4.

When Joseph is thrown into prison his incarceration points to a very Egyptian institution. Incarceration was very limited in the Ancient Near East, most punishments resulting in restitution or death. Neither the Ten Commandments nor the Code of Hammurabi contains a provision for imprisonment, but the Egyptians maintained prisons. There were two kinds of prisoners kept in Egypt, those who labored as a punishment for their crime, apparently for life, and those being held pending judgment. As rape was punishable by death in Middle Kingdom Egypt Joseph appears to be the latter. His being held without trial for so long (at least two years) appears to be both a belief in his innocence and unwillingness on the part of Potiphar to condemn his wife when Joseph was publicly found innocent.

That the Butler (actually wine taster or better, cup bearer) and the Baker are cast into prison is also evidence of an Egyptian provenance for the story. Palace coups were known in Middle Kingdom Egypt and these two principal members of the king’s household would come under suspicion. The fact that Pharaoh’s birthday occurred shortly after is also instructive. The Pharaohs did not celebrate an annual birthday; rather, it was the coronation day when Pharaoh became the son of the god, therefore, his birthday as the son of the god. James Hoffmeier suggests this is the Egyptian Festival of the King’s Appearance. It was common at this time for Pharaoh to offer pardons to those in prison.

It is of course frustrating that the Pharaoh is not named. This is in fact in keeping with Egyptian practise up to the 10th Century. There are several occasions in the Joseph narrative where Pharaoh is simply mentioned as king, the proper way in which the ruler of Egypt was identified in the Middle Kingdom. This was not changed to Pharaoh until the New Kingdom (1550-1069). The use of the term Pharaoh may indicate later editorialization. The use of a name with the term would not occur until the 10th century.

Dates for Joseph in Egypt

Paul J. Ray
Long Chronology
Ryrie Study Bible
Masoretic Text
Archbishop Ussher
Masoretic Text
Dr. Kenneth Kitchen
Second Intermediate Period
David Rohl
Revised Chronology
Late Exodus/Long Sojourn
Late Exodus/Long Soujourn
Dr. James Hoffmeier
New Kingdom (1550-1400)
Late Exodus/Short Sojourn

N.B. David Rohl’s Revised Chronology uses an Early Exodus (1446) short sojourn (215 yrs.). His revision is to Egyptian Chronology, the 12th Dynasty being Middle Kingdom. Therefore he agrees with the Dynasties of the Long Chronology but changes the assigned dates.

From Prison to Power

Pharaoh rewards Joseph with a ring from his hand, vestures of fine linen, and a gold chain around his neck. From the reward scenes known to archaeologists it is known that Pharaohs rewarded people with gold chains and presents of fine linen. It is also known that in investiture ceremonies, ceremonies where an individual is given high office, the Pharaoh gives the individual a seal, which can be a ring. The majority of such reward and investiture scenes are from the New Kingdom, with some from the Second Intermediate Period and one from the Twenty-First Dynasty putting a definite time bracket to Joseph’s investiture.

That Joseph is made to ride in “the second chariot” suggests to some that Joseph must therefore have been promoted by a Hyksos Pharaoh as chariots were introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos. But this does not preclude the use of the chariot as a special means of transport for the Pharaoh prior to the Hyksos. It was only as a vehicle of war that the Hyksos can be credited with introducing the chariot into Egypt; carts were known before that time.

The Hyksos were Semites who took over Egypt by infiltration rather than by conquest. They controlled the Delta region rather than all of Egypt. While they were Egyptianized, they still differed from the Egyptians in some respects. When Joseph is called out of prison to meet with Pharaoh he shaves, for an Egyptian this would have been important but not apparently for the Hyksos. As one of his rewards for his service to Pharaoh Joseph is given a wife, a daughter of the Priest of On, this meant that priest worshipped the sun or sun god Re, while the Hyksos worshipped Set. It would seem therefore that Joseph is most appropriately dated to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.

The identity of Joseph’s Pharaoh would of course, vary with the date given for Joseph. The preferred Pharaoh is Sesostris III (aka Senusret III) 1878 – 1843. This date allows for Jacob dwelling in Egypt 430 years prior to the Exodus (1446 B.C.) from Exodus 12:40, and placing the Exodus 480 years prior to the fourth year of King Solomon from 1 Kings 6:1. David Rohl identifies floods during the reign of Sesostris that would account for the famine. Using a late date Exodus (1250-1220) would put Joseph into the Hyksos period. Some, like Dr. Hoffmeier, prefer to use a 215 year period for the sojourn, this allows for Joseph in the New Kingdom as well as a late date Exodus.

Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name, Zaphnath-paaneah, a name which Kenneth Kitchen argues is a Hebraised form of the Egyptian. He suggests the name should read, Joseph who is called Ipiankh, a name formula which apparently was common in the Middle Kingdom. The name of Joseph’s wife was Asenath, a name which Kenneth Kitchen ascribes to the First Intermediate Period or early Middle Kingdom. His father-in-law, Potipherah, has a name which it is suggested is a modernized (New Kingdom) form from an older (Middle Kingdom) name form.

It has been suggested by some that the story of Joseph is simply a rags to riches story. If so it was a common story in Egyptian history for there is recorded in the reign of Hatshepsut (1479-1457) a vizier with a Semitic name. A Semite helped Siptah (1197-1191) to the throne and was given the title “Grand Chancellor of the Entire Land”. In 1987 a tomb of one Aper-el was discovered, he was the vizier to Amenhotep III (1386-1349) and Akhenaten (1353-1336). His name is Semitic and his titles are equivalent to Joseph’s. Each of these Semitic viziers point to the reliability of the story of Joseph.

The evidence we do have, while not pinpointing the date of Joseph in Egypt, definitely puts the date within a time period. Far from being fiction, the story of Joseph is consistent with the practise of slavery in the Middle Kingdom. The details of the prison story are Egyptian, both in the structure of prison practice and the prisoners, and in the interpreting of the dreams. The dual use of king and Pharaoh may indicate that the story originated in the Middle Kingdom when the term Pharaoh was used for the palace, with later editorial reworking in the New Kingdom period when the title was used without naming the Pharaoh. While there is no smoking gun to identify Joseph in Egypt (David Rohl thinks otherwise in his book “A Test of Time”), there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the story of Joseph is history rather than fiction

Some useful books about the time period

On the Reliability of the Old Testament
On the Reliability of the Old Testament

Recommended by Associates for Biblical Research



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