Joseph in Egypt: Pt 3 of 6: Aling

Bible and Spade 15.4 (2002).

Copyright 2002 by Bible and Spade, cited with permission.


Joseph in Egypt

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

ancient Egypt was death; the fact that Joseph did not suffer

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 Egypt was one of the few nations in

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

Asiatic slaves in Middle Kingdom Egypt. Let us look at what this papyrus

tells us about prisons and prison life in Egypt in the days of

Joseph (Hayes 1972: 37-42).

The main prison of Egypt was called the "Place of Confinement."

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 Egypt: Pt 3 99b


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

Joseph met while in prison, the Butler and the Baker.

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 Butler, was restored to office, leads us to

believe that they were accused of being involved in some kind of plot

against the king. Such things happened in ancient Egypt. In such a case,

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

the Butler was restored to his position. But what was that position?

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 located at Thebes (modern

Luxor) in Upper Egypt, some 400 mi south of the Nile delta and modern

Cairo. Assuming Joseph was there and not at some smaller prison (a correct

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

the Nile as some scholars would have us believe.

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 Egypt: Pt 3 101


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

Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum Reprint.

Vergote, J.

1959 Joseph en Egypte. Louvain: Publications Universitaires.




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Bible and Spade and Dr. Charles Aling

Associates for Biblical Research
      PO Box 144
      Akron, PA 17501

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: