Bible and Spade 15.2 (2002) 35-38 [text only]

Copyright 2002 by Bible and Spade. Cited with permission.


Joseph in Egypt

Second of Six Parts


By Charles Aling


Joseph began life in Egypt as a slave (Gn 39:1). As we

saw in Part I of this study, these events in the life of Joseph

should be dated to the great Middle Kingdom period of

Egyptian history (2000-1782 BC).

It is important to note that during the Middle Kingdom,

slavery as an institution of society flourished in Egypt.

Evidence from Egyptian texts, indicates that at this time

in Egypt's history, the number of Syro-Palestinian slaves

in bondage in the Nile Valley was growing constantly

(Aling 1981: 30, note 14). While some of these Asiatic

slaves must have been prisoners of war captured by the

Egyptian army in raids to the north, the majority certainly

were not obtained by violence (Aling: 30). Most of the

slaves were female; prisoners of war would have been

predominantly male. Also, there are no Egyptian records

of any major wars being fought by Egypt in Syria-Palestine

in the Middle Kingdom. It is best to conclude that most of

the Asiatic slaves entered Egypt just as Joseph did, through

the slave trade. This, however, brings up an interesting

question: why is there no written evidence at all of a slave

trade between Syria-Palestine and Egypt?

First, let it be said that dismissing something on the basis

of a lack of evidence is a dangerous business. Today, we have

very few of the written documents composed in the Ancient

Near East. What we have reflects accidental preservation. And,

when we realize that the slave trade would have centered in

the Nile Delta (northern Egypt), accidental preservation

becomes even less likely due to the high water table there.

Very few papyrus documents have been recovered from that

region, especially from the earlier periods of Egyptian

history. Also, the slave trade would have been in all probability

in private hands rather than under government control. This

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would have made preservation of documentary evidence even

more remote. Lastly, it is very possible that the slave trade

would have been in the hands of foreigners rather than

Egyptians, as the Bible implies in the case of Joseph.

Records in so far as they were kept at all, would thus not be

kept by Egyptians but by the


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Asiatics who were selling other Asiatic men and women to the


We are fortunate to have a papyrus from the Middle

Kingdom that deals with slaves. This papyrus was studied

and published some years ago by the American

Egyptologist William C. Hayes (Hayes 1972). We will

have occasion to refer to this remarkable document in the

next issue of Bible and Spade, since the reverse side of

this same papyrus contains a discussion of Egyptian

prisons, another topic of vital importance for the Joseph

story. But this papyrus' main significance lies in its list

of Middle Kingdom slaves with names, nationality and

titles or jobs held by these slaves. The list contains 95

entries. Of the 95 slaves listed, about 30 can be identified

as non-Egyptian, either by their non-Egyptian names or

by the designation "name", meaning an Asiatic (Hayes:


Two things of great interest emerge from a study of the

Asiatic slaves on this list. First, the names are very

significant to the student of the Bible. Several of them

are either identical to or very similar to some names

familiar to us from the Old Testament itself. A female

version of the Hebrew name Menahem is present; Sk-ra-

tw, also the name of a woman, is paralleled by the Hebrew

name Issachar; Ashra is most certainly the feminine version

of Asher; and Shepra is known to us in the Old

Testament as Shiphrah, the Hebrew midwife in the Book

of Exodus (Hayes: 95-96). Secondly, the duties assigned

to the Asiatic slaves in our list provide some important

correlations to Joseph's career. The kinds of jobs

performed by the Asiatic slaves are generally less onerous

than those assigned to native Egyptian slaves, and are in

fact classifiable as skilled labor (Hayes: 93). Let us

examine some of the titles held by the Asiatic slaves.

One of the most common titles held by male Asiatic

slaves was that of "Household Servant" (Hayes: 103 ff).

This is not only a confirmation of the accuracy of Scripture,

which assigns this title to Joseph, but also helps us to get

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a better idea of what kinds of work Joseph would have

been involved in while a slave of Potiphar. When we

examine Egyptian monuments that picture or discuss

household servants, we find that such slaves performed

the normal kinds of tasks we would expect. For example,

they are often shown in tomb paintings bringing food and

drink to their masters (Hayes: 104). An Asiatic slave could

also be a cook, a teacher, or a brewer (Aling: 35).

A final fact to note from Hayes' papyrus is that slaves in

the Middle Kingdom were commonly owned by private

individuals. It has always been known that the

governments of the Near East were owners of large

numbers of slaves, many of whom would have been used

in the vast construction projects of the state such as temple

building, palace repair, and the construction of

fortifications. It may be assumed that slaves would also

have been employed as laborers on both the large

agricultural estates of the king and of the temples. But

here, in the papyrus published by Hayes, we have evidence

(p. 134) that officials of wealth and standing also could

own slaves. The Potiphar of Genesis must have been such

a man.

Joseph's entire life and career were indeed remarkable.

As the Bible repeats again and again, the Lord was with

Joseph and blessed what he did. God's blessing was, in

fact, so obvious that Joseph's Egyptian masters were able

to recognize it! (Gn 39:3) We find in Genesis 39:4 that

Potiphar, Joseph's first Egyptian master, promoted Joseph

from being merely a household servant to become his

steward, the one over his household. What did this entail?

From the far better documented New Kingdom period

of Egyptian history (1570-1085 BC), we have information

on the duties of the steward (Aling: 35-36). Under Mery,

the High Priest of the god Amon for King Amenhotep II,

a man named Djehuty served as steward. Two of his

subsidiary titles were "Scribe of Offerings" and "Chief of

Agricultural slaves." The first proves that he was literate,

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and the second shows us his primary duty, the supervision

of his master's agricultural estates. Several other stewards

known from New Kingdom times had the same titles. This

indicates two things about Joseph. First, he was literate.

He would have to be to hold a stewardship. How and

when he learned to read and write the complex Egyptian

language is not known. Perhaps it was when he was a

household servant of Potiphar. In any case, we may assume

that Joseph was a quick and diligent student. Secondly,

as a steward, Joseph would have been in charge of the

agricultural holdings of his master, Potiphar. We should

remember that ancient Egypt did not have a money

economy as we know it today, and officials such as Potiphar

would have been paid for their work by being allowed the

use or ownership of farmlands. Potiphar would not have

the time or perhaps even the skills to supervise the land

and its cultivation himself; hence the necessity for a

steward. We remember too that Joseph came from an

agricultural family, and presumably already had extensive

knowledge of farming techniques and farm animals.

From a practical point of view, there are two reasons

why it is important for the modern student of the Bible

to realize all this about Joseph. First, through a knowledge

of what an Egyptian steward did, we can see the accuracy

of the book of Genesis, even in minute details. Note for

example Genesis 39:5. At the end of this verse, we are

told that Potiphar's holdings were blessed for Joseph's

sake, both in the house and in the field. When we

understand that Joseph was a steward, and when we learn

what kinds of things a steward did in both the house and

the field, we have a far clearer appreciation of this verse

and what it is telling us. Second, when we see that Joseph

was an Egyptian steward, we see him getting the kind of

on-the-job training he would need for the ultimate task

God had for him, the task of preserving the people of Israel

during the coming time of great famine. As we will see

in a later article, Joseph will eventually become the head

of agriculture for the entire land of Egypt. Under Potiphar,

he received vital experience on a smaller scale for the far

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greater responsibility he will have later. He was faithful
over a small job; God would therefore give him a more

important one (Lk 16:10).

In our next article, we will find Joseph in prison. This

same papyrus published by Hayes will give us much

information on this aspect of the life of Joseph.




Aling, C. F.

1981 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Baker

Book House.


Hayes, W. C., ed.

1972 A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the

Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum



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