Joseph in Egypt: Pt 4: Aling

Bible and Spade 16.1 (2003).

Copyright 2003 by Bible and Spade, cited with permission.



Joseph in Egypt

Fourth of Six Parts


By Charles Aling


In Genesis 41, Joseph meets the king of Egypt. As we saw in

our last article, he had been prepared for this encounter by being

cleaned up and shaved, in true Egyptian fashion. He was now

ready to meet the most powerful and important man on earth.

Before we consider this meeting however, a word on the title

Pharaoh is necessary. This term means literally "Great House,"

and refers to the palace establishment of Egypt. As the years

passed, the title "Pharaoh" began to be used when speaking of

the king, the main inhabitant of the palace and the head of

Egypt's government.

If we date Joseph to the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian

history, as I believe it is correct to do, an apparent problem

arises. At this early stage of Egyptian history, the title Pharaoh

was not used to refer to the king in direct address; such use

begins only in Egypt's powerful 18th Dynasty in about 1400

BC, some 300 years after the time of Joseph.

We must remember, however, that Joseph did not write the

account we have in Genesis; Moses did. Moses of course lived

much later than Joseph, in about 1400 BC. During his time,

the title Pharaoh was beginning to be used as a form of direct

address for the king of Egypt. It is important to note that Moses

does not use Pharaoh followed by a proper name. This practice

was only instituted in the late period of Egyptian history, as is

correctly reflected in Jeremiah 44:30, where "Pharaoh Hophra"

is mentioned.

But let us turn to the events surrounding the actual meeting

between Joseph and the king, most probably Sesostris II of

Dynasty 12. As all of us will recall from our own study of the



Aling: Joseph in Egypt: Pt 4 11


Scriptures, Pharaoh had had a dream. His magicians (the Hebrew

in Genesis 41 is an accurate translation of the Egyptian word for

a magician) could not tell the meaning of his dream.

At this point, the Butler (Cupbearer) remembered his friend

Joseph from prison days who had interpreted his dream and

that of the Baker. Joseph's interpretation of their dreams had

come true. This was the man to send to the king to interpret his

dream. Pharaoh's dream, itself full of Egyptian coloring,

predicted according to Joseph's interpretation that Egypt would

experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of


The years of plenty would of course cause no problem; but in

a country dependent on agriculture, seven years of famine could

spell disaster. The Pharaoh is then offered sage advice by Joseph:

find a man to supervise Egypt's produce during the seven good

years. He should put aside one fifth of the produce of the seven

good years for distribution during the seven bad years.

In Genesis 41:39, two remarkable things take place. First,

Pharaoh acknowledges that God (singular) has revealed all this

to Joseph. He must have been told this fact by Joseph himself. It

is interesting that this man of God was not afraid to give credit to

the Lord even while speaking to a pagan king who was considered

to be a god on earth by his people. This shows solid faith and

remarkable courage on the part of Joseph. Second, Pharaoh

realizes that Joseph has the Lord's wisdom and appoints him to

be the one in charge of Egypt's agricultural production during

these important years.

After all of this takes place, a very significant scene is

described. In Genesis 41:40-45, Joseph is appointed to high

office in Egypt and is given several rewards--a ring, a gold chain,

new linen robes, a chariot, an Egyptian name, and a wife. The

interpretation of this scene has created a good deal of controversy

among scholars. Traditionally, the entire scene has been taken

to represent some kind of investiture ceremony. Joseph is named

to high position, and is given the trappings of high office.


[graphic] Pharaoh gave Joseph "Asenath daughter of Potiphera,

prient of On, to be his wife" (Gn 41:45). Little remains

at On (called Heliopolis by the Greeks) except for this

lone obelisk. A grand temple to the Egyptian god Re

stood here in Joseph's day.



12a Bible and Spade 16.1 (2003)


This interpretation is, however, certainly wrong. The Egyptologist

Donald B. Redford in his study of the Joseph story examined all

known scenes in Egyptian tomb paintings where individuals are

given gold chains (Redford 1970: 208 If). In the 32 known paintings

of this event, not one has anything to do with induction into high

office. They all, on the other hand, show an individual being rewarded

for service rendered. Redford uses this information to deny the accuracy

of the Biblical account. We do not agree with him on that point, though.

What is happening in these verses is a two-fold ceremony.

In verses 40-41, Pharaoh officially appoints Joseph to high office

in Egypt (in our next article, we will try to establish exactly

which Egyptian titles Joseph held). However, in verses 42-45,

Pharaoh rewards Joseph for what he has revealed.

Let us look at how Joseph was rewarded. Of the three items of

personal adornment mentioned, the gold chain is by far the most

important. As Redford has pointed out, this is a common item in

reward scenes in Egyptian tomb paintings (most of the examples

come from the New Kingdom period, somewhat later than the

days of Joseph). While the ring and the linen robes are not

prominently mentioned in Egyptian reward scenes, the gold chain

catches our attention because one would not expect an Egyptian

reward ceremony to occur without it. This again indicates the

accurate Egyptian nature of the details of the Joseph Story.

Joseph's new chariot is also of special interest (Aling 1981:

44-45). As a vehicle for war, the chariot seems to have only

been introduced into Egypt during the Hyksos period, 1786-

1570 BC. This would be, according to the dates calculated

from the Bible itself, too late for Joseph. There is, however,

nothing strange about the Egyptians having a few chariots for

high officials to use in the Middle Kingdom period when Joseph

lived. In this passage of Scripture we are not looking at war

chariots lined up for battle in some anachronistic way. In fact,

the implication of the Biblical text is that there- were not many

chariots in Egypt at this time. Joseph's chariot is called "the

second chariot," implying that the only person who outranked

him, Pharaoh himself, had the other.

What of Joseph's new name? Unfortunately, scholars are

uncertain about the Egyptian original for the Hebrew version

Zaphnath-paaneah (Kitchen 1996; Redford, 1970: 230-31).

Identification of the Egyptian name of Joseph would be of great

interest, since some of the viziers of the Middle Kingdom period

are known to us. Our small sample of names, though, probably

does not include Joseph's.

Aling: Joseph in Egypt: Pt 4 12b


Joseph also was granted a wife. The woman's name was

Asenath, which is a good Egyptian female name of the period.

We know little of her, other than her name and the name of her

father. Knowing Joseph, however, we must assume that he taught

her to have faith in the true God of Heaven, despite her pagan


But who was her father? The Bible gives us several tantalizing

facts about the man. He is called Potiphera. This is a variant of

the name Potiphar, the only other male named in the Joseph Story.

As we all recall, Potiphar was Joseph's former master. In both

cases it is likely that we are not dealing with a personal name at

all. Such a grammatical construction of a name, meaning "the



[graphic] Pharaoh had Joseph "ride in a chariot as his second-in-

command, and men shouted before him, "Make way!"'

(Gn 41:43). Golden state chariot from the tomb of Tutankhamun, ca. 1325 BC.



13 Bible and Spade 16.1 (2003)


one given by Re (the Sun god)," would only be possible in the

later periods of Egyptian history. It would also be strange to

have two men named who have virtually the same name, while

none of the kings is named. It seems most likely that the two men

involved are not actually being referred to by name, but that we

are being told that they were native Egyptians.

We are also told that the father of Asenath was a priest. This

in itself is not terribly significant, other than to show that Joseph

was being highly favored since priests were at the pinnacle of

Egyptian society. What is important is the further information

we are given in Genesis 41:45. Asenath's father was Priest of

the city of On. On was known to the Greeks as Heliopolis, and

was the center of worship of the sun god Re. It was also the

educational center of ancient Egypt. The High Priest of the god

Re at that city was a key figure in Egyptian religion and politics.

That Joseph married the daughter of a priest of Re at

Heliopolis is important as confirmation of our date for Joseph

in the Middle Kingdom and not in the Hyksos period as so

many scholars wish to do. His marriage must be regarded as a

high honor, as it is part of the rewards given him for what he

has done. It thus stands to reason that the priest of On and his

god Re were highly favored by the Pharaoh at that time.

Under the Hyksos, the god Re, while not being persecuted as

was once thought by some scholars, was certainly not the main

god: For the Hyksos the god Set, a Nile delta deity often equated

with the Canaanite god Baal, was number one. If Joseph dates

to the Hyksos period, we would not expect to find Re being so

important. That Joseph marries a daughter of the Priest of Re is

evidence for his belonging to a period of history when native

Egyptian kings ruled in Egypt, not Hyksos foreigners.

In our next article, we will examine the titles Joseph held in

the Egyptian government.



Aling, Charles F.

1981 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids MI: Baker.

Kitchen, Kenneth A.

1996 Zaphnath-Paaneah. P. 1262 in The New Bible

Dictionary, third ed., ed. D. R. Wood. Downers Gorve

IL: InterVarsity.

Redford, Donald B.

1970 A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph. Leiden, The

Netherlands: E.J. Brill.


[graphic]Artist's reconstruction of the entry facade of the Temple of Re at

On. Joseph's father-in-law was a priest at this temple and Joseph's marriage

to his daughter no doubt had political ramifications.



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: