Bible and Spade 16.2 (2003).

Copyright 2003 by Bible and Spade, cited with permission.



Joseph in Egypt

Fifth of Six Parts


By Charles Aling


The specific Egyptian titles granted to Joseph by Pharaoh

have been discussed at great length by modem scholars. The

key verse is Genesis 45:8, which mentions three titles held by

Joseph. The Hebrew text of course does not give the Egyptian

form of these three titles. Hence, years of scholarly debate have

arisen over the exact Egyptian renditions of the Hebrew words

or phrases.

Of the three titles that Joseph held, let us begin with the one

obvious title, and then move on to the two more complex and

problematical titles.


Lord of Pharaoh's House

Genesis 45:8 states that Joseph was made Lord of all of

Pharaoh's House. This title has an exact Egyptian counterpart,

which is normally translated into English as "Chief Steward of the


The main job of the Chief Steward was the detailed supervision

of the King's personal agricultural estates, the number of which would

have been vast. This fits well with Joseph's advice regarding the coming

years of plenty and the following years of famine. As Chief Steward,

Joseph would be well placed to prepare for the coming famine during

the years of more abundant production.

It is interesting to observe that another specific responsibility of the

Chief Steward was to take charge of the royal granaries, where the agricultural

wealth of the nation was stored. As the person in charge of these great

storehouses, Joseph was ideally placed for carrying out his suggestion to store

food during the good years for the bad.

On the practical side, two things can be learned from Joseph's

post as Chief Steward. First, note how God had prepared him for his task.

No one starts out in life at the top of the ladder. We all must learn the

ropes, so to speak, from the ground floor up. Joseph had been steward of

the estates of Potiphar. This job was very much like that of Chief Steward

of the King, but on a much smaller scale. Joseph without doubt received


Aling: Joseph in Egypt: Pt 5 58b


on-the-job training as Potiphar's steward, which stood him in good stead

when he later was promoted to the same job in the King's household.

As Potiphar's steward, Joseph did his job faithfully. We are told

that all that Potiphar owned prospered under the stewardship of Joseph.

Joseph evidently learned well. He was therefore




59 Bible and Spade 16.2 (2003)


ready when the Lord allowed him to become Chief Steward for

all of Egypt.

A second point is also worth mentioning. As Chief Steward

of the King, Joseph was perfectly placed to care for God's Chosen

People during the famine. As Genesis 45:7 tells us, God put

Joseph into this position in order to save the Patriarchal family.

It is almost certain that Joseph did not know this at the time of

his appointment, but God had plans for him. And, in the same way,

wherever God places us, He may have a major task for us to do later.

Like Joseph, we should do the best we can at whatever task He gives

us, so that we will be ready when called upon later.


Father to Pharaoh

Genesis 45:8 also calls Joseph "Father to Pharaoh." Of course, this

does not mean that Joseph was the physical father of the King of Egypt.

There was no blood connection between the two men. Pharaoh was an

Egyptian; Joseph was a Hebrew. Even if we assume, as many scholars do,

that the Pharaoh in the Joseph story was a Hyksos king, there is no reason

to suspect any blood relation between the two men. Dismissing that

possibility, what then does the phrase "Father of Pharaoh" mean?

Father of Pharaoh, or more literally "father of the God" (the Egyptians

believed their kings to be divine), had a variety of meanings in ancient

Egypt. One was as a term for the tutor of the King during the ruler's

childhood. In Joseph's case this is not likely. He had never met the King

until called out of prison to interpret the royal dream. Nor does the Bible

ever suggest that Joseph held such a post.

Another way the title was used was as a designation for an individual

whose daughter became a wife of the reigning king. In other words,

"Father of the God" meant "father-in-law." Again, we may dismiss this

meaning for Joseph's title. The Bible says nothing about Joseph having any

daughters, let alone daughters who married the King of Egypt.

Yet another usage of the title was as a designation for minor priests in

Egypt's complex state religion. Again, this does not seem even a remote

possibility for Joseph. He was never a priest in ancient Egypt, and as a servant

of the true God, he would not have such an office.


Aling: Joseph in Egypt: Pt 5 60a


A last use of the title "Father of the God," however, makes

more sense for Joseph. The Egyptians used this title as a special

honor given to officials who had served long and well, or who

had done the King some special favor. Joseph would easily

qualify for the title Father of the God when used in this way; in

fact, this is the only usage that makes sense. Joseph would

have been named Father of the God for interpreting the dream

of the King, and for suggesting a plan for Egypt to get through

seven terrible years of famine.


Ruler Throughout all the Land of Egypt


Joseph's third possible title is more controversial, and merits

a more extended treatment. The basic question is whether Joseph

ever became Vizier, or Prime Minister, of Egypt.

Genesis 45:8, by calling Joseph "Ruler of all Egypt," seems to

suggest that he became the Vizier of Egypt. And, when Pharaoh

promoted and rewarded Joseph, he said that only as King would

he be greater than Joseph. But the modern scholar William

Ward has argued that Joseph never became Vizier (Ward 1960:

144-50). Ward states that Hebrew phrases such as those

mentioned above are not specific equivalents of the Egyptian

title of Vizier, but are rather only renditions of vague Egyptian

epithets given to other, lesser, officials.

However, Joseph obviously held only one of the vague epithets

discussed by Ward and that epithet was "Chief of the Entire

Land." While Ward is correct in stating that this epithet was at

times used for officials of lower rank, it was most commonly

used for Viziers. And, for the phrase in Genesis 41:40, "Only

with respect to the throne will I be greater than you,'' no exact

Egyptian parallel exists. The Hebrew text strongly suggests

that Joseph became the Vizier of Egypt.

Assuming that Joseph was indeed Vizier, what were his


There are Egyptian inscriptions that describe the duties of

the Vizier of Egypt. Although such inscriptions are much later

than Joseph's time (they date from the New Kingdom), several

texts exist which describe in great detail the duties and powers

of the office of Vizier.


60b Bible and Spade 16.2 (2003)


The Vizier was the chief record keeper of the government

records, was the supervisor of the government in general,

appointed lower officials of government to office, controlled

access to the person of the Pharaoh, and generally supervised

construction work and industry in Egypt's state-run economy

(Aling 1984: 49). More pertinent to Joseph, the Vizier also



Aling: Joseph in Egypt: Pt 5 61


was in charge of agricultural production, just what he needed to

care for God's people in the time of famine.

Also, another power held by the Vizier has great interest in

regard to the Joseph story. Only the Vizier welcomed foreign

embassies coming into Egypt. So, when Joseph's brothers came

to Egypt for food, they would normally meet with the Vizier.

And, Joseph is the man they met (Gil 42).

It is also interesting that in referring to Joseph, the brothers

normally call him "the man." This is perhaps a play on words

since the Egyptian word for man and the Egyptian word for

Vizier are only one letter different.

The positions of Vizier and Chief Steward of the King were

both very high posts in the government of Ancient Egypt, even

as far back as the Middle Kingdom. It is reasonable to ask if

there are any known officials with these titles that could have

been Joseph. The answer is no, at least at the present time.

One problem is that we know comparatively few Viziers and

Chief Stewards from the Middle Kingdom. Also, another major

obstacle is that we do not know the Egyptian form of Joseph's

name, only the Hebrew.

There is, however, one fact of interest that we know about

Middle Kingdom Viziers. It is rare in the early part of the

Middle Kingdom period to find one person holding both the

title of Vizier and the title of Chief Steward of the King. But,

from the time of Sesostris II of the Middle Kingdom, we do find

examples until the end of the 12th Dynasty. It is possible that

Joseph broke new ground in this regard, being the first person

to hold both positions at the same time.


The Seven Years of Famine

As for the seven years of famine, no contemporary Egyptian

record of this famine exists. But from a later time, when Greek

kings ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt,

there is an Egyptian text which mentions a seven-year famine,

but dates it to the reign of King Djoser of the Old Kingdom.

One wonders if this is a garbled memory of the famine in

Joseph's day, simply re-dated to the reign of a more famous

king. Confirmation of such a theory is nearly impossible, but it

is interesting to speculate about. In our next article in this series

we will consider some final aspects of the Joseph story.


61b Bible and Spade 16.2 (2003)





Aling, Charles

1984 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids MI: Baker.

Ward, William

1960 The Egyptian Office of Joseph Journal of Semitic

Studies 5: 144-50.




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

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