Bible and Spade 15.4 (2002).
Copyright © 2002 by Bible and Spade, cited with permission.
Third of Six Parts
By Charles Aling
As all who are familiar with the Biblical account will
remember, Joseph, while still in the household of Potiphar, was
falsely accused of adultery with the wife of his master and
thrown into prison. The normal punishment for adultery in
execution is interesting and perhaps indicates that Potiphar
doubted the veracity of his wife, who had made the accusation.
In any case, Joseph spent time in an Egyptian prison.
The Biblical mention of Joseph serving time in a prison is
noteworthy in itself. To us in the 20th century, serving time in a prison
as punishment for a crime seems quite natural. But in the ancient
world, this was not the case. The death penalty, a fine, or even
bodily mutilation were the usual means of making people suffer for
their crimes in the ancient Near East.
Prisons were rare in the ancient world. To see this, one need only
look at the Old Testament Law. There is nothing there about serving
a prison sentence for any sin or crime, and in fact there is nothing
Biblically or archaeologically that would lead us to believe that
the Hebrews even had prisons as we know them. The importance, then,
of the prison sentence of Joseph is that the author of the book of Genesis
is recording correct information, for
the ancient Near East that had prisons in the classical sense of the term.
We are very fortunate to have an Egyptian papyrus, translated
and published by the Egyptologist W. C. Hayes, that deals at length with
Egyptian prisons (Hayes 1972). We have mentioned it also deals with
slaves in Middle Kingdom
tells us about prisons and prison life in
Joseph (Hayes 1972: 37-42).
The main prison of
It was divided into two parts: a "cell-block" like a modern prison, and
"a barracks" for holding a large number of prisoners who were forced
into serving as laborers for the government. What kinds of sentences
were given to prisoners? We know little about specific sentencing
procedures. It does not seem that criminals were given a number of
years to serve in prison. Perhaps all sentences were life sentences.
In any case, some of the prisoners in the Place of Confinement were
"serving time" for their crimes, as Joseph presumably was. Other
Aling: Joseph in
prisoners, however, were simply being held in prison awaiting the
decision of the government as to what their punishment was to be.
In other words, they were waiting to find out if they were going to be
executed. This last category seems to be that of the two individuals
met while in prison, the
Who were the two individuals? We are never told their names
or their crimes. The fact that one,of them, the Baker, was eventually
executed, and the other, the
believe that they were accused of being involved in some kind of plot
against the king. Such things happened in
once the king sorted out the facts, the guilty would be punished and the
100 Bible and Spade 15.4 (2002)
innocent would be exonerated. The Baker was executed (for treason) and
We get the term "butler" from the KJV translation of the
Bible, and it brings to our minds the very British concept of a man
in a tuxedo who answers doorbells and supervises household
servants. This does not reflect the situation in the Joseph story.
The Hebrew title is "Cup Bearer" (for a Middle Kingdom
example, see Vergote 1959: 50). The duties of this personage
involved providing beverages to the king; hence we see the
importance of having someone trustworthy on the job.
Getting back to the prison itself, let us see what else the Hayes
papyrus tells us about it. The main prison was
assumption I believe since key royal officials were imprisoned there too),
we see that the entire Joseph story cannot be confined to the delta area of
As the Genesis account states, there was a "Warden" or "Overseer
of the Prison," who was assisted by a large staff of clerks and scribes.
Record keeping at such an institution was as important to the ancient
Egyptians as it is in a modern prison. The actual title Overseer of the
Prison is not commonly found in Egyptian inscriptions, but examples
do exist from the Middle Kingdom, the time of Joseph.
One of the chief assistants to the Warden or Overseer was the
"Scribe of the Prison." In Genesis 39:22 we are told that Joseph was
promoted to high office in the prison. Since Joseph was literate, as we
have seen from the fact that he served as steward in the household of
Potiphar, it seems probable that he was promoted to Scribe of the Prison.
As such, he would not only have been the right-hand man of the Warden,
but he also would have been in charge of all the records of the institution.
No matter how high in rank he became, Joseph naturally would
have valued his personal freedom more than a high office in the prison.
When he interpreted the dream of the Cup Bearer as meaning that the
Cup Bearer would be freed and restored to his post, Joseph implored
that individual to remember him when he has the ear of Pharaoh. The Cup
Bearer promises to do so, but quickly forgets Joseph when he assumes his
old position again. It is only when Pharaoh himself dreams a dream that
the Cup Bearer remembers the young Hebrew who could, through the power
of God, interpret dreams. At that time, Joseph is called out of prison.
One final point needs to be noted. Joseph, before going to
the king, has to change his clothing and shave (Gn 41:14). These are
significant details. Native Egyptians were very concerned about personal
cleanliness and the removal of all facial hair--the beards worn by kings
were false beards. If Joseph appeared before a Hyksos, i.e. non-Egyptian
Pharaoh, these factors would not have been so significant. It is likely
Aling: Joseph in
that the ancient Hyksos were Amorites, and we have ancient
pieces of art indicating that the Amorites grew beards. This
verse, therefore, is further evidence that the Pharaoh of Joseph's
day was Egyptian and not Hyksos, and that Joseph is correctly
dated to the Middle Kingdom period.
In our next article we will examine Joseph's encounter with
Pharaoh, a real turning point in the career of the Biblical
Hayes, W C., ed
1972. A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the
1959 Joseph en Egypte.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Bible and Spade and Dr. Charles Aling
Associates for Biblical Research
PO Box 144
report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: