Joseph in Egypt: Evidence for an Egyptian Background for the Exodus

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.” [2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6]

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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to Joseph in Egypt: Evidence for an Egyptian Background for the Exodus

  1. Two comments:(1) I think the general familiarity with Egyptian customs is more compelling that the specific ties to 18th Dynasty. In the past, wasn't Joseph more commonly tied to the Hyksos era? Or is that passé?(2) Whatever you do, don't tell Jim West!

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  2. >Darrell,I still believe that Joseph was in Egypt during the time of the Hyksos but the writer of the article dates Joseph during the 18th Dynasty. Amosis expelled the Hyksos from Egypt during the 18th Dynasty.For sure, I will not tell Jim West because he may not appreciate that the book of Genesis and Exodus may be based on historical facts.Claude Mariottini

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  3. >HyksosIs there a) a list that shows all of the Egyptian Pharoahs that were in Egypt the same time as the Hyksosb) a list of all the Hyksos rulers from first to lastc) What scriptures do you have that indicate those in the context may have been Hyksos?Thanks Sam

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  4. >Sam,You can read the answers to your questions here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HyksosClaude Mariottini

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  5. Adam Stuart says:

    >For Dr. Mariottini and other scholars and laypersons, I am submitting this comment which I hope will be helpful. It has been claimed that Immanuel Velikovsky’s identification of the Amalekites with the Hyksos lacks archaeological evidence. This claim is not well founded, and, as Velikovsky showed in Chapters 1 and 2 of ‘Ages in Chaos’, there is a vast amount of textual evidence supporting the identification of the Amalekites with the Hyksos. It is well known that there is archaeological evidence for the Hyksos having extensive international connections. This is evidence for Velikovsky’s argument that the Hyksos were the Amalekites and ruled in Syria and Egypt, and dominated or were influential in other lands of the Mediterranean world and Near East. Various early Islamic historians indicated that there were Amalekite pharaohs of Egypt, that Amalekites left Arabia after circumstances of natural catastrophe or plagues, that Amalekites invaded and ruled in Syria and Egypt, and that Amalekites ruled in Arabia and neighboring countries including Egypt.Recent archaeological finds at Tell el-Dab’a, which has been identified as the Hyksos capital of Avaris, included a northern Syrian style palace, a cuneiform letter of southern Mesopotamian style, and a Mesopotamian/Levantine-style courtyard used for ritual feasting. The presence of Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite cultural aspects in Hyksos culture seems consistent with Velikovsky’s ideas that the Amalekites were the Hyksos and ruled in Egypt and Syria and dominated or were influential in neighboring countries. Velikovsky also argued that the Amalekites supported the Canaanites. Thus I suggest that it should not be surprising to find archaeological evidence that these other peoples influenced the culture of the Hyksos, because the Hyksos interacted with them and probably traded with and received tribute from them. However, I think that the Hyksos were the Amalekites and that they originated not in the Levant/Syria but in Arabia. It has been said that the Hyksos were an Asiatic people, and also that the Amalekites were a semi-nomadic Arabian people who lived mostly in Transjordan. I would partly agree and partly disagree with these points. The Bible mentions Amalekite activity in Palestine, including in southern Palestine and near Mt. Gilboa, but this does not mean that the Amalekites could not have ruled in Egypt. Further, the identification of the Amalekites with the Hyksos seems to shed light on the meaning of, or historical background to, a number of biblical verses and Jewish legends. I agree that that the Amalekites were, or appear to have been, an Arabian people. The Egyptian historian Manetho indicated, according to Josephus, that some say that the Hyksos were Arabians. Early Islamic historians indicated that the Amalekites came from Arabia. I agree that the Amalekites were, or appear to have been, semi-nomadic. Likewise, the Hyksos seem to have been semi-nomadic: there is evidence that the Hyksos had a nomadic lifestyle, but they also had cities such as Avaris. The idea that the Hyksos were the Amalekites seems to explain why David encounters an Egyptian who is a servant to an Amalekite (1 Samuel 30:13). Why would an Egyptian, a son of a proud and powerful nation, be a servant to an Amalekite? Why would this Egyptian have an Amalekite master? Based on Velikovsky’s ‘Ages in Chaos’ the Egyptian was a servant to an Amalekite because the Hyksos-Amalekites had recently ruled in part of Egypt. His Amalekite master would thus have been one of the Hyksos leaving Egypt as a result of their expulsion.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    >The difference in time between the eighteenth dynasty and the thirteenth is several hundred years, but only about half a millennium. The case is made in the article that titles such as 'over the house' were in use in that dynasty. However it does not necessarily follow logically that the eighteenth dynasty is/must be that of Joseph. Further, the Hyksos ruled Egypt after having invaded it. For such a people to invent a myth of having been enslaved by Egypt instead of conquering it is antithetical to all reason and logic. Whoever the Hyksos were, they were NOT the children of Israel. The early Hyksos Egyptian writing style is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Late Middle Kingdom, so the identification of Joseph as an 11th or 12th dynasty official is not out of line at all. In that regard, household titles such as maid and butler, even official titles like king, queen, or ship's captain – these have remained constant in our language for some five hundred years, since the time of Columbus some five hundred years ago, about the same time difference that exists between the late middle kindom and the eighteenth dynasty. If the article makes the point that eighteenth dynasty terms are faithfully rendered in the Torah text, the argument would then even more forcefully apply to the Late Middle kingdom as the time for Joseph, when the identity of the Hysksos as Arabian invaders is considered. The authochthonous Arabic traditions are quite explicit – the Hyksos were indeed arabian pharaohs. The children of Israel were enslaved during a time when invaders on Egypt's frontier were becoming a threat to Egypt, and spoke the same language as the children of israel, or at least a similar dialect. This made the Egyptians concerned that the slaves would join forces with the invaders – a condition the Torah also explicitly states. The article would have done well to emphasize the importance of this, but it was not actually the case in the eighteenth dynasty. The one time in history when this was in fact the case would match the thirteenth dynasty, not the eighteenth. Joseph would properly belong in the eleventh or twelfth dynasty then, since a dynasty change is implied by the reference that there 'came a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.' The article does in fact confirm a genuine egyptian influence in the Torah narrative – but perhaps this one was missed – beside the city of Ramses – named for the district of that name long before pharaohs of that name wore the double crown, the other garrison city that the children of Israel were conscripted to build is called PiThom – named for an actual ruling pharaoh – the thirteenth dynasty pharaoh Taui Thom.It is this pharaoh that Manetho explicity describes as perishing after a series of natural disasters, such that Egypt at that time succumbed to foreign invasion "without hazarding so much as even a single battle." Manetho says explicitly that this invasion was that of the Hyksos. The children of Israel departed Egypt amid a series of natural disasters, remembered as the plagues of Egypt. Upon their departure, prostrate Egypt, sans pharaoh and army, was helpless against the invading Hyksos, who even fought with Israel in the desert at Rephidim, on their way to conquer the plague ravaged land of the Nile. The article in my view does well to point back to genuine egyptian in the Torah – it just doesn't point back all the way, and seems to have missed some of these more important references.

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