Rabbi Leibel Reznick, in an interesting and informative article, “Egyptology in the Torah: Biblical Archeology,” published by Aish.com, says that, contrary to popular view held by many scholars, the Torah provides evidence of contemporary life and customs that reflects life in Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty.
The following is an excerpt from the article:
Egyptologists have expressed disappointment that almost nothing relating to ancient Egyptian life or culture can be gleaned from the Bible. This has lead many, such as Egyptologist Donald Redford of Pennsylvania State University to disparagingly claim, “The Hebrew writer (of the Bible) was not so well acquainted with Egypt as has often been imagined.” 
For us, the lack of cultural references is quite understandable because the Torah is neither a history book nor an anthropological record of ancient societies but rather it is a guide for everyday life based on human nature and the spiritual loftiness of the Jewish soul and these elements are timeless. However, many Egyptologists have taken a different approach. They claim that the Torah was composed 8-10 centuries after the Exodus and the “Biblical author(s)” had no idea what was going on in ancient Egypt. Therefore, these Egyptologists claim, the Torah had no choice but to remain silent about ancient Egyptian practices.
Not only are they wrong about when the Torah was composed and by Whom, these Egyptologists are also quite mistaken if they think there are no revelations to be found in the Torah reflecting ancient Egyptian life. Let us see for ourselves.
1. “they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver; and they brought Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). In ancient times, just as in our day and age, prices slowly but steadily increased over the course of time. In ancient Ur, circa 2000 BCE, a slave would cost 10-15 pieces of silver (shekels). During the reign of the Hammurabi dynasty, the price increased slightly, to about 20 pieces of silver. For a while, the price of a slave remained fairly stable but by the last quarter of the second millennium BCE., the price crept up to 30 shekels. During the first quarter of the Assyrian Empire, a healthy slave could fetch 50-60 pieces of silver and by the middle of the first millennium, the price of a slave soared to over 100 shekels. When the Torah tells us that Joseph was sold for 20 pieces of silver it was an accurate reflection of the price of a slave in Canaan/Egypt at that time period, about 1500 BCE according to our Biblical chronology.
2. The Torah (Genesis 37:36) tells us that the name of Joseph’s slave-master was Potiphar. It later tells us that Joseph’s wife’s name was Asenath (Genesis 41:45). These were in fact Egyptian names in use in Egypt during the time of Joseph, though they were quite unusual and later fell into disuse. Biblical “author(s)” not aware of these obscure ancient names could never have used them.
Torah uses the exact expression the contemporary Egyptians used for the foreman of the servants and slaves.
3. The Torah tells us that Joseph was the overseer of Potiphar’s estate. There are many possible titles one can give the chief slave or servant. The Torah chose to call Joseph the one “Over the house” (Genesis 39:4). The Papyrus Brooklyn 53.1446 refers to a chief slave and gives his proper title as the one who was “Over the house.” We see that the Torah is using the exact expression the contemporary Egyptians used for the foreman of the servants and slaves.
4- “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him in the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined” (Genesis 39:20). Due to the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph was thrown into a prison. The concept of imprisonment was not widespread in the ancient world of the early Biblical era. In the Torah itself, we do not find any mention of imprisonment being a form of punishment. We do find that the son of Shelomith, who cursed God, was held in confinement, but that was only until the correct punishment could be determined. The actual detention was not a punishment. In the ancient world, those convicted of crimes were generally killed, tortured, mutilated or made to compensate monetarily. The concept of imprisonment was almost unheard of. Egypt was one of the very few exceptions to have prisons. Many of the isolated fortresses that guarded the borders of ancient Egypt also served as royal prisons.
5. “Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14) Joseph, known to be an interpreter of dreams, was taken out of prison to be brought before the pharaoh to interpret pharaoh’s dream. But first, Joseph had to shave to make himself more presentable to the king.
Throughout the ancient Middle East, beards were considered the norm, especially among “Asiatics” such as the Israelites. In fact the longer and more styled the beard, the greater the admiration. The common folk had shorter, trimmed beards. The king was depicted with a long tightly curled beard. The exception to this rule was in Egypt. Egyptians are rarely depicted with beards and those few times that they are depicted with facial hair, it is usually the pharaoh and not any of his subjects. In Egyptian tomb and temple depictions, enemies are often depicted with beards. The Biblical “author(s)” seem to be very aware that proper Egyptian etiquette demanded that Joseph had to shave before entering the presence of the pharaoh, unlike anywhere else in the ancient world.
6. Pharaoh had a dream in which “… behold, I stood upon the bank of the river. And, behold, there came up from the river seven cows, fat and beautiful; and they fed in the reed grass. And, behold, seven other cows came up after them, scrawny and very gaunt and thin, such as I have never seen in all the land of Egypt for badness. And the thin and the gaunt cows ate the first seven fat cows. And when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still inferior as before.” (Genesis 41:18-21)
You can read the article in its entirety and consult the notes mentioned in the article by visiting Aish.com.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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