The Bible tells us that Joseph was the favored son of Israel (Jacob) and the great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph receives visions of future personal power and, in his immaturity, brags about his dreams to his brothers. Sibling rivalry at its most heinous, he was sold into slavery by his jealous and spiteful ten older brothers. He spends years enslaved in Egypt, but through God’s blessing (charisma and wisdom), he becomes the top slave in Potiphar’s house. But, he is jailed on the accusation of sexual harassment by Potiphar’s wife, and spends three years in the dungeon, innocent. While in prison, Joseph divines the dreams of two prisoners, a baker and a butler, both accused of treason. Joseph correctly divines one is innocent and one is guilty and begs the innocent to plead his case to Pharaoh when he is released. Joseph is forgotten.
Only when Pharaoh is plagued with bad dreams is Joseph’s divining talent remembered and he is called to the palace to give the king answers. God reveals to Joseph that Egypt will enjoy seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph lays out a long-term plan to avoid disaster, convinces Pharaoh of his genius and is given absolute control of the country, with the king’s exception. The story concludes with Joseph’s brothers seeking food in Egypt and eating humble pie before accepting forgiveness and acknowledging Joseph’s dreams did indeed come true through God’s providential plan. The whole family moves in and makes Egypt home for the next couple hundred years.
Scholars of ancient literature are convinced the Genesis account of Joseph is Egyptian in origin. Most believe Moses inscribed it from oral Egyptian tradition. The Egyptian details, names and locations can be identified and verified with other ancient documents. But there is a big yellow question mark over the two central characters of the story. Who was Pharaoh? Just who was Joe?
These are three of the most credible theories.
Vizier under Hyksos Invaders (1720 BCE)
The Hyksos were nomadic invaders from the north that ruled Egypt from 1730-1580 BCE. It is believed Joseph gained power during the time they were in control. There are a number of reasons why this is the most popular academic theory.
Egyptians hated everything Hyksos and attempted to destroy all their monuments and records. This is one explanation for no record surviving of the “grand vizier Joseph” in Egyptian writings. His reign could have been erased with the bad memories of the Hyksos.
The Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot to Egypt. Genesis mentions the chariot on three occasions in the Joseph story, so it is problematic to date Joseph earlier than the Hyksos era. Potiphar is called “an Egyptian” in Genesis, which is only noteworthy if Egyptians are not in power. The Hyksos capitol was located in Avaris, which is in the same region as Goshen (the area the Hebrews settled), a “coincidence” not overlooked. Genesis says Pharaoh invited Joseph’s family to stay near him. And lastly, the Exodus slavery account begins with “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Scholars explain the Egyptians were back in power, and the Hebrews, once honored for being related to Vizier Joseph, were blacklisted and enslaved.
Vizier under Amenemhat III (12th Dynasty, 1860 BCE)
This view is detailed by David Rohl, rogue Egyptologist, who believes that the academic world has dated the ancient world incorrectly. Until the last five years, most scholars didn’t give him the time of day, much less the time of Egypt. But recently, astronomical dating on lunar events recorded in ancient times confirms Rohl’s dates as close as four years! Rohl’s new timeline is being hailed by some as the “round earth” for Biblical archeology. He is not a Christian, yet he confirms the existence of Joseph based on archeological digs dated to this time period.
One of the logical ways to begin dating Joseph is to discover ancient famines in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians kept records detailing the most important agricultural event of the year, the flooding of the Nile. Flood records show the Nile flooded four times its normal size (27 feet higher than normal) during this era which would have made seed sowing impossible for years, creating famine. To handle the influx of water, a new channel was dug at this time which retains its name from antiquity to this day: Bahr Yussef, the Waterway of Joseph. Pharaoh Amenemhat III built his pyramid overlooking this drainage channel. Financial records show that fortunes were in sharp decline and a new agricultural department was established called “the Department of People’s Giving.” This could be the system Joseph utilized to collect the grain given years in advance to the shortage.
12th Dynasty, Semitic grave artifacts are abundant in the area of the delta called Avaris, the Biblical Goshen. Some archeologists believe Joseph was entombed in a pyramid in his palace complex in Avaris.
“When excavated, Joseph’s pyramid tomb turned out to be empty. ‘But that’s consistent with his dying wish to be returned to the Promised Land,’ argues Rohl. ‘At the exodus, they took his body with them.’ What was found in the chapel of the tomb, however, was a busted-up painted statue of an Asiatically pale fellow with reddish hair adorned with the multicoloured coat of a middle Bronze Age chieftain.” TIMES ONLINE (now behind a paywall)
Ptahwer (speculated to be Potiphar) is the name of a man in service to Amenemhat III. His name is found on an inscription in Sinai. This is another link connecting Joseph to the reign of Amenenhat III.
Imhotep (2600 BCE)
The reason more scholars won’t blend Imhotep with Joseph is not for lack of evidence. The two are strikingly similar! But, the dates are off. Remember that pesky chariot detail? Most scholars place Imhotep in 2600 BCE and Joseph in 1700 BCE, but Egyptian chronology is notoriously argued. I won’t bore you with dusty debate.
Imhotep was considered a genius by ancient Egyptians, and was deified (by the Greeks and Egyptians) 1000 years after he lived. You may know him best, albeit fictionalized, as The Mummy
Imhotep was vizier to the Pharaoh Netjerkhet, called Djoser. He is described as a self-made man (common birth) who was appointed later in Pharaoh’s reign. Joseph was second in command to his Pharaoh, and was also of humble origins. They both are one of twelve brothers.
Imhotep is deified as the god of medicine. The Greeks established a temple to worship him where they claimed he healed people in their dreams. Joseph commands the physicians (Genesis 50:2), and is plagued (or blessed, tom-A-to/tomato) with dreams throughout his life.
Imhotep was known for his wisdom and is believed to have begun the practice of writing down wise proverbs. Joseph instructed the Egyptian rulers in wisdom. (Psalm 105:17-22)
Priest of Heliopolis and called the son of Ptah
Heliopolis is the Biblical On. Joseph married Asenath, daughter of the priest of On. It is possible that the priesthood passed to Joseph on his father-in-law’s death. Ptah is the name of the Egyptian Creator god. Some argue that he created all the other gods and would be a suitable counterpart for the Hebrew God, Yaweh.
Cutting Edge Architect
Imhotep built the first pyramid and the complex at Saqqara. Some believe this to be large grain storage pits and the buildings used to dispense the large amounts of grain to the surrounding population during the foretold famine.
Seven year famine
Based on an inscription claiming to be a copy of one from 1000 years earlier, we learn about the circumstances surrounding this famine. The pharaoh is greatly troubled and asks Imhotep who the god of the Nile is so he can approach him about the drought. Imhotep says he will seek an answer from the god Khnum. Khnum, the Nile god (also associated with the creator god and Hebrew religious ideas) comes to the Pharaoh in a dream and says he will pour forth the waters for seven years of plenty after seven years of drought. (reversed from the Bible account) Djoser promises to tax the people 1/10 of everything, except the priests of god. This is the closest match to Joseph’s famine in Egyptian history. The details are surprisingly exact.
Death and burial
Imhotep lived to 110 years of age. So did Joseph. The tomb of Imhotep has not been found. Scholars believe he was buried under the complex at Sakkara. They’ve found a network of tunnels filled with artifacts they have linked with Imhotep, but have not found a burial chamber. Joseph’s bones were embalmed and removed during the Exodus by Moses.
Even if you don’t share my love of the ancient, the saga of Joseph will inspire you with a surprisingly modern experience of faith in uncontrollable circumstances.
Other fun re-tellings about Joseph
Joseph and Aseneth is a fantastical (fiction) love story written around the time of Christ. It explains how Joseph, a good Jewish boy, could marry a pagan priestess. Which, I guess, people had a problem with. The irony is, Joseph wasn’t Jewish. At least how Moses defined Jewishness, since Joseph was Moses’ ancestor! Joseph’s father, Jacob, married a pagan as well. She was Joseph’s own mother, Rachel.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, is always a winner.
Joseph: King of Dreams is one of my favorite toons. Ben Affleck is the voice of Joseph and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) is the voice of Judah. It is filled with great songs and funny animation.
The fictionalized trilogy of Joseph’s life by Angela Elwell Hunt, Legacies of the Ancient Rivers, enlivens the Egyptian culture and makes it come to life! It is written as a romance.