The pyramids. The sphynx. King Tut’s tomb. No ancient culture has captivated the world like that of the early Egyptians. Tourists flock to Egypt to see these ancient treasures first hand. Hollywood captures the ancient world of the Pharaohs in all its glory. The mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics are easily recognizable even if they are not understood. It is no wonder the account of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 has been read and reread with fascination by countless people.
Throughout the biblical text, Egyptian culture acts as the rich tapestry upon which Joseph’s story unfolds. Egyptian names, titles, places and customs are all presented as historical facts. But are these cultural references to ancient Egypt historically accurate?
In order to analyze the biblical description of Egypt during the time of Joseph it is first necessary to determine when Joseph was there. The Bible provides helpful chronological clues. To determine when Joseph lived, we must work backwards from later biblical periods: a straightforward reading of 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 allow us to determine that Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt in 1876 BC.1 This corresponds with what is known as the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (2000-1786 B.C.) in Egyptian history, and according to conventional dating, Joseph would have begun his work as a government official under Pharaoh Senusret II (or Sesostris II, his more familiar Greek name), and served into the reign of Senusret/Sesostris III.2 Egyptologist, Dr. Charles Ailing, has offered compelling evidence that numerous historical details from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt are accurately reflected in the biblical account of Joseph, including:
- The breaking of the independence of the powerful Nomarchs under Senusret/Sesostris III (Gen. 47:20)
- Slavery as an institution of society flourished in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom
- The Hieratic Papyrus (ca. 12th to 13th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom) records a list of the names of slaves, including 30 non-Egyptian names, some of which are identical or at least similar to names in the Old Testament.
- Joseph marries Asaneth, a daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45), where the chief god, Re was worshiped, who was the supreme Egyptian deity during the Middle Kingdom (as opposed to the Hyksos period, when the god, Set, was the primary god).
- Egyptian names and titles in the biblical account are well-attested from this period in Egyptian history.3
If Joseph did indeed live and serve during the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, where might he have visited? What sort of things would he have seen?
Throughout history, different cities served as the capital of Egypt. The 11th Dynasty Pharaohs ruled from Thebes. When Amenemhat I came to power and founded the 12th Dynasty, he moved the capital of Egypt to Itj-Tawy, located in the Faiyum region.4 This was likely so he could distance himself from the previous Dynasty and consolidate his power. Both Senusret II (the likely pharaoh of the years of plenty) and Senusret III (the likely pharaoh of the years of famine) ruled from Itj-Tawy, Thus, Joseph was no doubt familiar with the palace at Itj-Tawy and may have lived in the city himself so as to be nearby to fulfill his administrative duties.
In her 2012 TED talk, space archaeologist, Sarah Parcak, announced that she and her team used satellite imagery to locate the lost city of Itj-Tawy. They analyzed NASA topographical data to determine where the Nile River used to flow (west of its current path), and spotted a raised area nearby. Core samples taken at the site revealed pottery dating to the 12th Dynasty and precious stones – carnelian, quartz, and agate – the most common used in jewelry in the Middle Kingdom.5 A full-scale excavation would be needed to confirm this identification.
Not far from Itj-Tawy are the pyramids of Senusret II and Senusret III. Given Joseph’s long life, he outlived both pharaohs whom he had worked under. We can imagine Joseph watching the funeral procession to Senusret II’s pyramid in nearby El-Lahun, and paying his respects by the pyramid of Senusret III at Dahshur.
Another location Joseph likely knew well was the city of On. In Gen. 41:45 we read that “Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On.” Known in Egyptian as iwnw, and in the Greek as Heliopolis, today its ruins can be found in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt. Joseph’s father-in-law, Potiphara, was a priest at the temple to Re there.6 Since Asenath was given to Joseph as an honor, it may be that her father, Potiphara, was the high priest at the temple and one of the leading religious figures in Egypt at that time.7 While Joseph did not share his father-in-law’s religious beliefs, it is not a stretch to think that Joseph spent time in the city of his wife’s family. Little remains today of the ancient city save for one obelisk that towers 65 feet in the air. It was once part of the entry facade to the temple and has been standing in place for 4000 years. This obelisk was no doubt a sight that Joseph was familiar with.
Rowaty (later Avaris, then Rameses)
When Joseph’s family arrived in Egypt, he coached them to tell Pharaoh that they were shepherds so that they would be allowed to settle in the land of Goshen (Gen 46:34). This area was located East of the Nile in the Delta region.8 Genesis 47:11 further records that “Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed.” Later, the people of Israel would build the city of Rameses as slave laborers (Ex 1:11) and when the Exodus occurred, they left from Rameses (Ex 12:37). The name, “Rameses,” in the biblical text, is likely a scribal update to use a term that later Israelites were familiar with. Rameses the Great, who the region is named after, lived in the 13th century, almost 200 years after the Exodus according to biblical chronology.9 The location of the city of Rameses is known today, thanks to the archaeological excavations led by Manfred Bietek of the Austrian Archaeological Institute at Tell el-Dab’a. We now know that the city of Rameses was built here upon a previous city, the Hyksos capital of Avaris.
Tell el-Dab’a, was on the main road from Egypt into Canaan. According to Bietak’s research, it was settled sometime in the 19th century during the 12th Dynasty by Asiatics and was originally called Rowaty. It was not a fortified city, but rather a rural settlement with evidence of pens or stalls for keeping animals.10 This is the exact time Joseph’s family came to live in Egypt. Moreover, one of the dwellings at Rowaty was significantly bigger than the others and was obviously the home of an important Egyptian official. Interestingly, the floor plan of this official’s villa is identical to the Israelite four-room house of the later Iron Age.11 A series of graves to the southwest of the villa were excavated and it was discovered that those buried within were Asiatic, even though the graves themselves were constructed of mud bricks as the Egyptians did.12 The evidence – the right stuff in the right place at the right time – suggests that this may have been the home of one of Joseph’s family members.
Some view the Bible as a work of fiction, more myth than reality. Some would argue that Joseph is no more historical than Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. While no inscription naming Joseph (Zaphenath-paneah) has yet been discovered, the evidence suggests that the Egyptian culture in which Joseph lived is accurately described in the biblical account. The places mentioned are known from history, and what is said about them in the pages of Scripture has been affirmed through archaeological research. Understanding the sites that Joseph was likely familiar with, helps to contextualize his life and see that the Bible is a historically reliable document.
Title Photo: Model of the gateway of the Temple at On as it would have appeared in a later period, Brooklyn Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain–
1 Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 76.
2 Charles F. Aling, “Is the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt verified?” ChristianAnswers.net. https://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a016.html (Accessed June 10, 2019).
5 Kate Torgovnick May, “Gallery: Archaeological mysteries hidden in satellite images,” Ideas.Ted.com, Feb 17, 2016 https://ideas.ted.com/gallery-archaeological-mysteries-hidden-in-satellite-images/ (Accessed June 12, 2019).
6 Charles Aling, “Joseph in Egypt – Part IV,” Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/patriarchal-era/3751-joseph-in-egypt-part-iv (Accessed June 12, 2019).
7 Charles Aling, Egypt and Bible History. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 46.
8 “Goshen.” BibleHub.com. https://bibleatlas.org/goshen.htm (Accessed February 10, 2019).
9 A good summary of the verses that point to an early date for the Exodus (and by implication the conquest 40 years later) in the 15th century B.C. can be found in the following episodes of Digging for Truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxXXTGD_y40&t=1312s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-mUoS5RvBU&t=1379s In addition, these episodes of Digging for Truth highlight the archaeological evidence for an early Exodus/Conquest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPYkoKyRfKw&t=1s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpRUe6-tkzQ&t=20s
10 Bryant G. Wood, “The Sons of Jacob: New Evidence for the Presence of the Israelites in Egypt.” Associates for Biblical Research. Jan. 26, 2016. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/patriarchal-era/3317-the-sons-of-jacob-new-evidence-for-the-presence-of-the-israelites-in-egypt?highlight=WyJzb25zIiwiJ3NvbnMiLCJvZiIsIidvZiIsIm9mJyIsImphY29iIiwiamFjb2IncyIsIm5ldyIsIiduZXciLCInbmV3JyIsImV2aWRlbmNlIiwiZXZpZGVuY2UnIiwiJ2V2aWRlbmNlJyIsIidldmlkZW5jZSIsInNvbnMgb2YiLCJzb25zIG9mIGphY29iIiwib2YgamFjb2IiLCJvZiBqYWNvYiBuZXciLCJqYWNvYiBuZXciLCJqYWNvYiBuZXcgZXZpZGVuY2UiLCJuZXcgZXZpZGVuY2UiXQ== (Accessed June 12, 2019).