Genesis 41: Joseph in Egypt…

I posted yesterday on what I learned from my Bible study on Genesis 41, but my study today also required me to go over this same chapter. So, instead of attempting to read into something else in that chapter (and perhaps see something that really isn’t there), I have decided to do a short study of different commentaries on the chapter, as well as some other sources, to see what other people may have learned. I have been warned multiple times about the dangers of reading commentaries and getting influenced by other people’s interpretation of scripture (no one’s interpretation is infallible), but after going through the chapter on my own and studying through it without any other interpretation other than the Bible itself, and getting my own view as to what the scripture says, I think it is okay to go back and read other commentaries every once in a while.

The first commentary I read was by Robert Jamieson (found here). Jamieson begins by talking some about who he believes Pharaoh was at the time of Joseph (he says “Aphophis, one of the Memphite kings, whose capital was On or Heliopolis”), and he says that the name “pharaoh” came from the Egyptian word “Phre” which means “sun”. I tried to find something to back that up, but I was unsuccessful – what I read elsewhere was that the word “Pharaoh” meant “Great house,” and that it originally stood for the house of the king, or the palace, before it was given as an “address for the person of the king.” (see Pharaoh on Wikipedia). This whole idea of who Pharaoh was and how this related to the story of Joseph was really interesting to me, so I continued some research on this topic.

I came across a site that proposed an idea about who Joseph might have been in Egyptian history. You would think that, since we do have a good archeological history of Egypt (compared to some ancient cultures), if Joseph was made second to the ruler of that land, there might be some archeological evidence of this. Turns out…there might just be!  About the same time that Joseph would have been in Egypt, there arose to power a man in Egyptian history name Imhotep. Imhotep was not a Pharaoh, but was a ‘second-in-command’ person who had so much respect in Egypt that he was elevated to the status of a god. Here are the evidences they propose:

  • “When excavations were carried out at the Step Pyramid at Sakkara, fragments of a statue of pharaoh Djoser were found. The base was inscribed with the names of Djoser and of ‘…Imhotep, Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, Chief under the King, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Lord, High Priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the Builder, the Sculptor, the Maker of Stone Vases…'” – showing that Imhotep was very likely a real person
  • “…the first evidence which connects Imhotep with Joseph is an amazing inscription found carved on a large rock on the island of Sihiel just below the First Cataract of the Nile…This inscription claims to be a copy of a document written by Djoser in the 18th year of his reign…”  Here is a comparison between this inscription and the Biblical account:
  • The inscription begins with the great distress of the pharaoh: “I was in distress on the Great Throne…” The Bible: “And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled” GEN 41:8
  • In the inscription, the pharaoh is troubled about a famine and asks Imhotep who the god of the Nile is, so he can approach him about the drought: “… I asked him who was the Chamberlain,…Imhotep, the son of Ptah… `What is the birthplace of the Nile? Who is the god there? Who is the god?'” Imhotep answers: “I need the guidance of Him who presides over the fowling net,…” The Bible: “And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace.” Genesis 41:16; In the Egyptian text above, Imhotep is termed “the son of Ptah”, who was the Egyptian god known as the “creator” of everything else, including the other gods.
  • In the inscription, Imhotep answers the pharaoh about the god of the Nile and tells him where he lives. In the Bible, Joseph interprets the pharaohs dream. But, the next part of the inscription tells that when the king slept, the Nile god Khnum, revealed himself to him in a dream and promised the Nile would pour forth her waters and the land would yield abundantly for seven years, after a seven year drought. This passage reflects the fact of a dream by the pharaoh of seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, although reversed.
  • The inscription then goes on to record Djoser’s promise to the Nile god, Khnum, in which the people were to be taxed 1/10 of everything, except for the priests of the “house of the god,” who would be exempted. The Bible: “And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part, except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s.” Genesis 47:26

So, it really looks like “all of the components of the Biblical account are present in this inscription, except that the story has been ‘Egyptianized’ to fit their religious beliefs.”

One of many other pieces of evidence they provide is the name Imhotep – the name is translated in ancient Egyptian to mean “the voice (or mouth) of Im.” There are no Egyptian gods named Im, but the authors do wonder if perhaps it is referring to the Hebrew God, who was called I AM (see Exodus 3:14). It would be interesting if the Egyptians knew Joseph’s God as I AM (or Im), and therefore this is why God told Moses later to tell Pharaoh that “I AM” had sent him. Purely speculative, I’m sure, but interesting all the same.

Another interesting side note from Genesis 41 is the fact that Joseph was required to shave himself before coming into the presence of Pharaoh. Jamieson says “…the Egyptians were the only Oriental nation that liked a smooth chin. All slaves and foreigners who were reduced to that condition, were obliged, on their arrival in that country, to conform to the cleanly habits of the natives, by shaving their beards and heads, the latter of which were covered with a close cap.” Apparently, Egypt was the first nation to establish hair removal as a regular part of grooming (see the history of shaving), and it was mainly for the purpose of cleanliness and health. I guess they didn’t want Joseph, who had been in prison for a couple of years, to pass lice and coodies to Pharaoh…and I can’t blame them. :)

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2 Comments

Filed under Bible Study, Genesis

2 responses to “Genesis 41: Joseph in Egypt…

  1. williamfromderbyshire

    Imhotep is far too early to be Joseph. He was chancellor to the 3rd Dynasty king, Djoser around 2650BC.
    There are 2 much more likely periods for Joseph being in Egypt.
    The Hyksos rule in the 2nd intermediate period – 1720BC to 1560BC.
    The Hyksos were Asiatic invaders who ruled the Nile delta region from Avaris in the eastern part of the delta. The favourite time for Joseph among people who hold this view is circa 1670BC.
    The alternative view would place Joseph in the 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. The best guess is for the reigns of Senusret II and Senusret III (1897BC to 1839BC).
    Hope this is helpful.

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