Egypt, Joseph and the rise of Israel

Remarkable by its prominence, Egypt is mentioned more than 550 times in the Old Testament alone, it’s impact on Israel is huge.  It’s people, according to Moses, descend from Mizraim.  To the people of Abraham’s time, Egypt represents many things:  a life-line, a life-boat, and an oasis of refuge in times of war, famine.  She is a mysterious source of knowledge and inspiration, even today.

Thanks to Manetho, an Egyptian priest engaged by one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Ptolemy I, we can see much of the Biblical story of Abram’s descendants unfold.  He translated the hieroglyphs into Greek.  Abraham arrives in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, fleeing famine and leaving Egypt a richer man.  Joseph, a descendant of Abraham, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers who wish to be rid of him and ends up in Egypt involuntarily.  It is believed that Joseph came to Egypt during the reign of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs Sesostris II (1897 – 1878 BC) and III (1878 – 1839 BC) , the latter becoming a legendary warrior pharaoh.  It is interesting, Joseph was a Hebrew, a foreigner, who entered involuntarily as a slave.  How does he come to ascend to the throne and become a power second only to the pharaoh himself?  Even more interesting, how does THE LORD fulfill his promise to Abraham that many nations and people will be blessed by Sarah’s offspring here in Egypt?

Egyptian history is divided into several periods:  Old Kingdom, First Intermediate Kingdom, Middle Kkingdom,  Second Intermediate KingdomHyksos Invasion, and New Kingdom. ,

egypt-housesThe Old Kingdom was weakened by a combination of weak rulers and a global climatic catastrophe that envelopes the region of the Near East.

Egypt in the Middle Kingdom was undergoing one of its three greatest ages (Hayes, 1964).  It was unified and it was prosperous.  This was the time of the 12th Dynasty, there were eight great pharaohs:  the founder was Amenemhat I (1991-1962 BC).  After Amenemhat’s assassination, his son Sesostris II I took the throne (1971-1928 BC).  Nubia was conquered and trade became the focus of the Egyptian rulers.  Babylon had not yet emerged as a great power under Hammurabi; Egypt stood alone as the world’s greatest nation.  They were rich from foreign trade.  They were exploiting the mines and quarries on a greater scale than ever before.  They had reclaimed land in the Faiyum region to the west of the Nile valley.

egypt - donkey

From Exodus 12:40, we can calculate that Jacob came to dwell in Egypt 430 years before the Exodus, around 1876 BC.  This is during the Middle Kingdom.  There is some discussion that Jacob was in Egypt during the period of the Hyksos kings, but there are some reasons to believe that it was during the 12th dynasty this story occurs.  In Genesis 41:14, Jacob shaves himself and puts on clean clothing to meet with the king after he’s called out of prison.  This is a particularly Egyptian custom; the Egyptians were very clean and particularly offended by facial hair.  It is most likely because the pharaoh is an Egyptian and not a foreigner (i.e., a Hyksos).  It is also important to note that the Middle Kingdom is the first major period in Egyptian history where slavery was well-known and accepted.


Sesostris III’s reign was notable for its administrative reforms.  He broke the power of the local nobility; they had been thorns in the sides of the pharaohs and he ended the semi-independence of the Nomarchs (provincial governors).  There was a hierarchy:  under the pharaoh was the vizier, his chief minister (sometimes 2).  There were also chancellor, overseer, and governors of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.  Each town had a mayor.  The bureaucracy supported itself through taxation assessed in kind on yields (e.g., farm produce).  There were taxes in the form of conscripted labor which could be avoided by paying for a substitute.  Mining and trade extended to the Aegean.  The duties of Joseph, as described in Exodus, suggest he was the Vizier.

Other changes were taking place.  Spiritually, Osiris was the god of the necropolis and the pharaohs had participated in mystery rites on behalf of the people.  Now private people were taking part in these rites.  All people were thought to have the spiritual force or ba.  What had formerly been the province of kings, the people now were though to possess as well.  Mummies and coffins were given to ordinary people. It was being recognized that gods would speak to individuals.

semites entering egypt ca 1870 BC

Semites entering Egypt, ca. 1870 BC, from the tomb of Khnumhotep, Beni Hasan, Egypt. Carl R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Vol. IV, Ab. II, BI. 133, Berlin: Nicolai, 1949.

At the time Joseph was sold into slavery, Semite slaves were considered skilled laborers and were recorded as being in positions of responsibility in households.  Joseph was eventually made the overseer of Potiphar’s household (Genesis 39:4).  When he is thrown into prison, again another unique Egyptian institution is illustrated.  In most of the Ancient Middle East, punishments were either restitution or death; but the Egyptians maintained prisons for two types of prisoners:  for those laboring as a punishment for their crime and for those being held pending judgment.  That Joseph meets the cup bearer and the baker would not have been unusual.  Palace coups were well known ways of removing rulers and as the two principal members of the king’s household, they would come under suspicion.  It is also instructive about the pardons.  The pharaohs did not celebrate birthdays but rather celebrated coronation day, when pharaoh became the son of the god — the Egyptian Festival of the King’s Appearance.  It was common for the pharaoh to offer pardons to those in prison in honor of this day.

When Joseph was made pharaoh’s chief minister, he was given an Egyptian name Zaphenath-pa’aneah (in English form) and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, high priest of On (Genesis 41:45).  He became a powerful man.  He was continually in the right place at the right time with the right words.

In Genesis 47:13-26, We hear how Joseph, during the famine’s height, used the calamity to enrich the pharaoh’s power and wealth in Egypt.  In the times of plenty, the prosperous land holders had control of serfs and peasants tied to their lands, beyond pharaoh’s reach and control.  Under Joseph’s scheme, their desperation for food, grains and other essentials caused them to trade their very lives to the pharaoh.  This action made the pharaoh all-powerful in the years to come.  Egyptians, Hebrews and others in the land now were vulnerable to the heavy hand of a cruel task master.  Because of Joseph, the Hebrews who came escaping the famine gained some of the more fertile land in Egypt.  Their skills made them valuable; later they made them vulnerable.


In 1646 BC, the most massive volcanic explosion known to humanity explodes on Thera (today Santorini) which sets off massive tidal waves and produced global cooling and climatic changes in the years following.  Around 1627 BC, the Hyksos seized power and their kings ruled Egypt at the 15th dynasty ( 1630 – 1521 BC).  They were desperate for fertile lands and water.  Their military weapons were superior:  they introduced the horse and chariot, the compound bow, improved battle axes and advanced fortification techniques into Egypt.  In Josephus’ telling (who claimed to quote directly from Manetho) “By main fource they easily seized it without striking a blow, and having overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of god … finally they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis.”  Egypt, once again, underwent a massive change.

But for now, the Hebrews are free from famine, rich in lands and becoming a strong and skillful group of people under Joseph’s leadership.  THE LORD is preparing them for the next step in their journey.

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