Bible and Spade 15.1 (2002) 21-23 [text only]

Copyright 2002 by Bible and Spade. Cited with permission.

                  Joseph in Egypt

                     First of Six Parts

                                      by Charles Aling


No portion of the Old Testament has a richer Egyptian

coloring than the story of Joseph. Egyptian names, titles,

places, and customs all appear in Genesis 37-50. In the

last one hundred years or so, historical and archaeological

research has made the study of the Egyptian elements in

the Joseph story more fruitful than ever before. In order to

examine the Egyptological information, it is necessary to

establish the period in Egyptian history when Joseph was

in Egypt.

Mainline contemporary scholarship and the Bible's own

chronology are in accord in dating Joseph sometime

between 2000 and 1600 BC. This time frame includes two

important periods of Egypt's history, the Middle Kingdom

(2000-1786 B.C.) and the Second Intermediate Period

(1786-1570 B.C.). However, before narrowing down our

dates for Joseph any more, let us first survey these two


The Middle Kingdom was one of Egypt's three greatest

ages (Hayes, 1964) (Aling, 1981). The country was unified

and prosperous, and was in the process of conquering

Nubia, located in what is today the Sudan. In the Bible,

this area is called Ethiopia.

The eight Pharaohs of this period comprise Egypt's 12th

Dynasty: The founder was the great Amenemhat I (1991-

1962 BC). He died by assassination, but not before he had

associated his son Sesostris I with him on the throne as co-

regent. Sesostris in his long reign (1971-1928 BC)

campaigned with success in northern Nubia and built at

no less than 35 sites in Egypt.

Under his immediate successors, fighting in Nubia

subsided and trade received the main royal attentions.

Since Babylon had not yet emerged as a great power under

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Hammurabi, Egypt stood alone as the world's greatest


The most important king of the 12th Dynasty was

Sesostris III (1878-1843 BC). He renewed the efforts to

conquer Nubia, and was successful. All of Nubia as far

south as Semnah was taken. Sesostris III also instituted

great administrative reforms. He broke the power of the

local nobility. These officials had been a thorn in the side

of the Pharaohs all through the 12th Dynasty. We know

little in detail of what Sesostris III did, but he did end the

semi-independence of the so-called Nomarchs (provincial

governors). We will have occasion to return to this point


Under Amenemhat III (1842-1797 B.C.) the Middle

Kingdom reached its highest level of material prosperity.

Egypt was very successful in foreign trade. The

exploitation of mines and quarries was greater than ever

before, and a project to reclaim land in the Faiyum region

to the west of the Nile valley was completed.

The final rulers of the Twelfth Dynasty (including one

female king) were weak. As central authority broke down,

so did control of Egypt's borders with Syria-Palestine. This

enabled an ever-expanding infiltration of Asiatics to enter

Egypt's delta region. Eventually these Asiatics were able

to seize control of northern Egypt, thus ending the Middle

Kingdom period of Egyptian history.

The Second Intermediate Period, or as it is

sometimes called, "the Hyksos Period," was not a

time of greatness for Egypt. The north was

controlled by Asiatics, a group called the Hyksos

by the Egyptians. The south was ruled by local

Egyptian dynasts of no great power or importance,

at least in their early years. [The best study of the

Hyksos is John Van Seters, The Hyksos (New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1966).]

A few comments on the Hyksos are necessary

here. There are several wrong views concerning

them which have become popularly held. The first

is that they entered Egypt by means of a massive

military invasion led by chariots. While the Hyksos

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probably did introduce the war chariot to Egypt,

they most certainly did not enter the country and

conquer it in a military campaign. They entered

the Nile delta gradually and, finding themselves

there in sufficient numbers to do so, simply

established one of their leaders as an Egyptian-style

Pharaoh. They resided in a capital city called

Avaris; later in Egyptian history this city would be

re-named "Ramses" after the great king Ramses II

(1290-1223 BC).

Another misconception about the Hyksos

concerns their name. Josephus, a Jewish historian

writing in the first century AD during the days of

he great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire

and Rome's armies led by Vespasian, said that the

term "Hyksos" meant "Shepherd Kings." This is of course

quite wrong. The name Hyksos comes from two Egyptian

words meaning "Rulers of Foreign Lands," and has

nothing at all to do with shepherds.

The final incorrect idea regarding the Hyksos is that

they ruled all of Egypt. They did not. They only controlled

the delta region, at least for any length of time.

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During which of these two periods of time did Joseph

come to Egypt as a slave? It has become fashionable

among scholars to date him to the Hyksos period, since it

is generally assumed that the Israelites were fellow Asiatics

related to the Hyksos. It is also assumed that, since Joseph

eventually rose to a high position in the Egyptian court,

the king must have been a fellow countryman of Joseph's.

If we allow for a sojourn of some 400 years in Egypt by

the Israelites, and if we accept the so-called Late Date of

the Exodus (in the middle 1200's BC), a date for Joseph

around 1650 BC would be perfect.

The Bible, on the other hand, provides us with some

very specific chronological data regarding these events. I

Kings 6:1, a pivotal reference for all Old Testament

chronology, dates the Exodus 480 years before the fourth

year of Solomon, accepted by virtually all scholars as 966

BC. This places the Exodus in ca. 1446 BC; a date which

agrees with the so-called Early Date for the Exodus.

Next, Exodus 12:40 states that Jacob came to dwell in

Egypt 430 years before the Exodus. Thus he came to Egypt

in ca. 1876 BC. These Biblical references clearly show

that Joseph ought to be dated in the Middle Kingdom rather

than in the Hyksos Period.

Several specific points in the Joseph story confirm a

Middle Kingdom rather than a Hyksos date for Joseph. In

Genesis 41:14 Joseph is called out of prison to meet with

the king. Before going to meet the king, Joseph puts on

new (clean) clothing and shaves himself. This becomes

understandable when we realize that the Egyptians were a

clean people and were particularly offended by facial hair.

This verse points to the Pharaoh being a native Egyptian,

and not Hyksos. The latter, being Asiatics, were not

bothered by facial hair and a general lack of cleanliness.

When Joseph is rewarded and promoted by the Pharaoh

for interpreting the king's dream, he is named to be ruler

over all the land of Egypt (see Genesis 41). The Hyksos

never ruled all the land of Egypt, but the native Egyptian

Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom did.

Also, when Joseph is given a wife by the king as a reward

for his interpretation of the dream, the woman is said to

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be the daughter of Potiphera, Priest of On. On was the

center of solar worship in ancient Egypt. The chief god

worshiped there was Re or Ra, the northern manifestation

of Amon-Re, the supreme deity of both the Middle

Kingdom and New Kingdom periods of Egyptian history.

The Hyksos, while they did not persecute the worshipers

of Re, did not give that deity the number one position.

Their favorite deity was Set, a delta god sometimes

regarded by the Egyptians as nearly a devil-like figure.

The Hyksos identified Set with the Palestinian god Baal,

a god from their Canaanite homeland who was very

familiar to them.

Now if Joseph was being rewarded by a Hyksos king, it

stands to reason that his new wife would not have been

the daughter of a priest of Re, but rather the daughter of a

priest of Set. Once again, the Middle Kingdom seems a

better choice for dating Joseph than the Second

Intermediate Period. Thus, relying on the Biblical

chronology and the historical material, we will place

Joseph in the Middle Kingdom Period, under two great

rulers, Sesostris II (1897-1878 BC)and Sesostris III

(1878-1843 BC).

Joseph entered Egypt as a slave. It is interesting to

note that slavery was not a very old concept in Egypt. It

had not existed earlier in the Old Kingdom, the period

when the great pyramids were being built. Those

structures were not, as is sometimes stated, built by slave

labor. They were constructed by drafted peasant labor.

The Middle Kingdom is the first major period in

Egyptian history where slavery was well known. In the

1950s AD, the American Egyptologist William C. Hayes

published a famous papyrus document from the Middle

Kingdom which had a list of slaves on one side and a

discussion of Egyptian prisons on the other (Hayes 1972).

In the next issue of Bible and Spade, we will examine the

information this valuable papyrus provides for us

regarding the story of Joseph.

page 23b



Aling, C. F.

1981 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hayes, W. C.

1964 The Middle Kingdom of Egypt. New York:

Cambridge University. 34ff.

Hayes, W. C., ed.

1972 A papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in

the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: Brooklyn

Museum Reprint.

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