The Ancient Egyptian Setting of the Joseph Story

Analysis of the Joseph story reveals details of the narrative that demonstrate a setting in ancient Egypt and even suggest a specific time known as the 2nd Intermediate Period. The account begins with a clear distinction between Joseph and his brothers, apparent by happenings such as Jacob giving Joseph a tunic of many colors (Genesis 37:3). Tunics of many colors were in style during the Middle Bronze Age in Canaan, as exhibited by the clothing of migrants from Canaan depicted on the walls of the Tomb of Khnumhotep II (Newberry, Beni Hasan). Preferential treatment lead to jealousy and eventually culminated in Joseph being captured and sold by his brothers for 20 shekels of silver, which was the standard rate for slaves in the 18th century BC according to the Code of Hammurabi (Law of Hammurabi #116, 214, 252). This information is both a chronological and historical marker. Since the price of slaves slowly increased over time due to inflation, the match in price situates the early life of Joseph around the 18th century BC and demonstrates this detail of the narrative to be historically accurate.

Once he arrived in Egypt, Joseph initially became a household servant at the estate of Potiphar, then soon was appointed “over his house” (Genesis 39:4). The 13th Dynasty Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 contains a list of household servants in Egypt around the time of Joseph. The papyrus attests to the presence of Semitic servants in Egypt and also uses the same terminology when referring to a chief servant of the house (Hayes, A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum). The Egyptian title Hry-pr is translated as “he who is over the house” and is equivalent to the title mentioned in the book of Genesis. However, the new position was not without its problems, and Joseph was put “into the jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined” as punishment due to the false accusation of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:20). He remained there for 2 years until the Pharaoh freed him (Genesis 41:1). Punishments in Egypt were generally less harsh in comparison to the rest of the ancient world at this time, and only Egypt used prisons to punish criminals rather than merely as holding areas for judgment. In law codes such as the aforementioned Code of Hammurabi, Joseph may have been killed or maimed as punishment for what he was accused of. In Egypt, pits, temples, palaces, and border fortresses are known to have been used as prisons, which accords with the situation in the Joseph narrative (Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt; Aling, “Joseph in Egypt”; Yahuda, The Accuracy of the Bible).

When Joseph was ordered to be removed from the prison and to appear before the Pharaoh to hear the dream, he first shaved himself and put on clean clothes (Genesis 41:14). Not only were the ancient Egyptians intent on keeping themselves clean, but in contrast to the people of Canaan, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia, it is evident from both ancient documents and artwork that the men of ancient Egypt typically shaved their beards. After interpreting the dream of the Pharaoh and being pardoned, Joseph was placed in a position only second to the Pharaoh (typically thought to be “vizier”) and given gifts that symbolized authority and the acknowledgement of contributions to Egypt. “'I have set you over all the land of Egypt.' Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from on his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put the necklace of gold upon his neck” (Genesis 41:41-42). A vizier who was given the Pharaoh's signet ring was known officially as the “Royal Seal Bearer,” and the ring was a visible symbol of the king’s power (Sarna, Understanding Genesis). The necklace of gold was probably a unique Egyptian award called the “Gold of Valor,” which was given to those who made significant contributions to Egypt (cf. the Relief of Horemheb). Ahmose, son of Ebana was an Egyptian soldier who helped defeat the Hyksos and drive them from Egypt. For his services, he was awarded the “Gold of Valor,” as were others who made significant contributions to Egypt (Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt; Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature). During the period of Joseph in Egypt (2nd Intermediate Period), several rulers in the Nile Delta region had Semitic names due to the widespread immigration of Asiatics and specifically Semites into the area from approximately 200 years earlier until the expulsion of the Hyksos and enslavement of Asiatics at the beginning of the New Kingdom ca. 1570 BC. This was the region that Jacob and his family had migrated to and where the majority of Hebrews apparently lived (Genesis 47:6-11). In addition to written sources and material remains indicating the widespread presence of Asiatics in certain areas of Egypt, artwork such as a section of the wall paintings in the Tomb of Khnumhotep II exhibits the migration of Asiatics into Egypt starting in the early 19th century BC during the Middle Kingdom (Newberry, Beni Hasan).

After receiving his freedom and gaining prominence, Joseph married an Egyptian named Asenath (perhaps Egyptian As-Neith meaning “Favorite of [the goddess] Neith”), whose father was a priest of the city of On (also known as Heliopolis), the location of the sun god Ra's main cult center from the Old Kingdom until the 3rd Intermediate Period (Genesis 41:45; Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt). While the names Potiphar, Potiphera, and Asenath appear to be of types most commonly known from Egypt in the 1st millennium BC, there are examples of usage in the 2nd millennium BC (Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament; Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt; Free, Archaeology and Bible History; Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament). Joseph also was given an Egyptian name once he had been taken into the house of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45). This renaming practice is attested on Papyrus Brooklyn of the 13th Dynasty. Scholars have not come to any agreement on exactly how the Egyptian name of Joseph would have been rendered in the ancient Egyptian language, but it does appear to contain the component ankh “life” which was a prominent component of names in the Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period.

At the end of their lives, both Jacob and Joseph were embalmed or mummified in Egypt according to local funerary customs (Genesis 50:2, 26). The Hebrew word used in these verses is related to the word spice, and is found only in Genesis 50 and Song of Songs 2:13, where it is used in reference to a fig tree. The process of mummification used spices, oils, and perfumes, illuminating why this particular word was chosen. Mummification was practiced in Egypt beginning in the Middle Kingdom—the period just prior to the life of Joseph. However, the process was not used in Canaan until hundreds of years later, suggesting that the story took place in Egypt or was written by someone familiar with Egyptian practices. According to multiple specific practices, phrases, words, names, and locations, the setting of the Joseph narrative is ancient Egypt, while the price of slaves, the multicolored tunic, Joseph’s title, the renaming of servants, and the presence of free Asiatics with a select few even holding positions of power in northern Egypt together indicate that the events occurred in the 18th and 17th centuries BC during the 2nd Intermediate Period of Egypt and the Middle Bronze Age in Canaan. According to the chronological scheme found throughout various books of the Bible, combined with king lists from Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, Joseph lived in the 18th and 17th centuries BC, demonstrating agreement between the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis and the available archaeological data (cf. Genesis 15:13-16, 37:2, 41:46, 47:6-9, 50:22; Joshua 5:6; Judges 11:26; 1 Kings 6:1; Galatians 3:16-17).


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