Joseph in Egypt: Part I

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Excerpt No portion of the Old Testament has a richer Egyptian coloring than the story of Joseph. Egyptian names, titles, places, and customs all appear in Genesis 37–50. In the last one hundred years or so, historical and archaeological research has made the study of the Egyptian elements in the Joseph story more fruitful than ever before... Continue reading

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This article is the first in a series of six parts published in Bible and Spade.

No portion of the Old Testament has a richer Egyptian coloring than the story of Joseph. Egyptian names, titles, places, and customs all appear in Genesis 37–50. In the last one hundred years or so, historical and archaeological research has made the study of the Egyptian elements in the Joseph story more fruitful than ever before. In order to examine the Egyptological information, it is necessary to establish the period in Egyptian history when Joseph was in Egypt.

Mainline contemporary scholarship and the Bible’s own chronology are in accord in dating Joseph sometime between 2000 and 1600 BC. This time frame includes two important periods of Egypt’s history, the Middle Kingdom (2000-1786 B.C.) and the Second Intermediate Period (1786-1570 B.C.). However, before narrowing down our dates for Joseph any more, let us first survey these two periods.

The Middle Kingdom was one of Egypt’s three greatest ages (Hayes, 1964) (Aling, 1981). The country was unified and prosperous, and was in the process of conquering Nubia, located in what is today the Sudan. In the Bible, this area is called Ethiopia.

The eight Pharaohs of this period comprise Egypt’s 12th Dynasty. The founder was the great Amenemhat I (1991–1962 BC). He died by assassination, but not before he had associated his son Sesostris I with him on the throne as coregent. Sesostris in his long reign (1971–1928 BC) campaigned with success in northern Nubia and built at no less than 35 sites in Egypt.

Under his immediate successors, fighting in Nubia subsided and trade received the main royal attentions. Since Babylon had not yet emerged as a great power under Hammurabi, Egypt stood alone as the world’s greatest nation.

Sesostris I, ruler of the Middle Kingdom just prior to the time of Joseph.

The most important king of the 12th Dynasty was Sesostris III (1878–1843 BC). He renewed the efforts to conquer Nubia, and was successful. All of Nubia as far south as Semnah was taken. Sesostris III also instituted great administrative reforms. He broke the power of the local nobility. These officials had been a thorn in the side of the Pharaohs all through the 12th Dynasty. We know little in detail of what Sesostris III did, but he did end the semi-independence of the so-called Nomarchs (provincial governors). We will have occasion to return to this point later.

Under Amenemhat III (1842-1797 B.C.) the Middle Kingdom reached its highest level of material prosperity. Egypt was very successful in foreign trade. The exploitation of mines and quarries was greater than ever before, and a project to reclaim land in the Faiyum region to the west of the Nile valley was completed.

The final rulers of the Twelfth Dynasty (including one female king) were weak. As central authority broke down, so did control of Egypt’s borders with Syria-Palestine. This enabled an ever-expanding infiltration of Asiatics to enter Egypt’s delta region. Eventually these Asiatics were able to seize control of northern Egypt, thus ending the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history.

Sesostris III, the most important king of the 12th Dynasty. He may have been the Pharaoh on the throne during the years of famine.

The Second Intermediate Period, or as it is sometimes called, “the Hyksos Period,” was not a time of greatness for Egypt. The north was controlled by Asiatics, a group called the Hyksos by the Egyptians. The south was ruled by local Egyptian dynasts of no great power or importance, at least in their early years. [The best study of the Hyksos is John Van Seters, The Hyksos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).]

A few comments on the Hyksos are necessary here. There are several wrong views concerning them which have become popularly held. The first is that they entered Egypt by means of a massive military invasion led by chariots. While the Hyksos probably did introduce the war chariot to Egypt, they most certainly did not enter the country and conquer it in a military campaign. They entered the Nile delta gradually and, finding themselves there in sufficient numbers to do so, simply established one of their leaders as an Egyptian-style Pharaoh. They resided in a capital city called Avaris; later in Egyptian history this city would be re-named “Rameses” after the great king Rameses II (1290–1223 BC).

Another misconception about the Hyksos concerns their name. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the first century AD during the days of the great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire and Rome’s armies led by Vespasian, said that the term “Hyksos” meant “Shepherd Kings.” This is of course quite wrong. The name Hyksos comes from two Egyptian words meaning “Rulers of Foreign Lands, “and has nothing at all to do with shepherds.

The final incorrect idea regarding the Hyksos is that they ruled all of Egypt. They did not. They only controlled the delta region, at least for any length of time.

During which of these two periods of time did Joseph come to Egypt as a slave? It has become fashionable among scholars to date him to the Hyksos period, since it is generally assumed that the Israelites were fellow Asiatics related to the Hyksos. It is also assumed that, since Joseph eventually rose to a high position in the Egyptian court, the king must have been a fellow countryman of Joseph’s. If we allow for a sojourn of some 400 years in Egypt by the Israelites, and if we accept the so-called Late Date of the Exodus (in the middle 1200’s BC), a date for Joseph around 1650 BC would be perfect.

The Bible, on the other hand, provides us with some very specific chronological data regarding these events. 1 Kings 6:1, a pivotal reference for all Old Testament chronology, dates the Exodus 480 years before the fourth year of Solomon, accepted by virtually all scholars as 966 BC. This places the Exodus in ca. 1446 BC; a date which agrees with the so-called Early Date for the Exodus.

Next, Exodus 12:40 states that Jacob came to dwell in Egypt 430 years before the Exodus. Thus he came to Egypt in ca. 1876 BC. These Biblical references clearly show that Joseph ought to be dated in the Middle Kingdom rather than in the Hyksos Period.

Several specific points in the Joseph story confirm a Middle Kingdom rather than a Hyksos date for Joseph. In Genesis. 41:14 Joseph is called out of prison to meet with the king. Before going to meet the king, Joseph puts on new (clean) clothing and shaves himself. This becomes understandable when we realize that the Egyptians were a clean people and were particularly offended by facial hair.

This verse points to the Pharaoh being a native Egyptian, and not Hyksos. The latter, being Asiatics, were not bothered by facial hair and a general lack of cleanliness. When Joseph is rewarded and promoted by the Pharaoh for interpreting the king’s dream, he is named to be ruler overall the land of Egypt (see Genesis 41). The Hyksos never ruled all the land of Egypt, but the native Egyptian Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom did.

Also, when Joseph is given a wife by the king as a reward for his interpretation of the dream, the woman is said to be the daughter of Potiphera, Priest of On. On was the center of solar worship in ancient Egypt. The chief god worshiped there was Re or Ra, the northern manifestation of Amon-Re, the supreme deity of both the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom periods of Egyptian history.

The Hyksos, while they did not persecute the worshipers of Re, did not give that deity the number one position. Their favorite deity was Set, a delta god sometimes regarded by the Egyptians as nearly a devil-like figure. The Hyksos identified Set with the Palestinian god Baal, a god from their Canaanite homeland who was very familiar to them.

Now if Joseph was being rewarded by a Hyksos king, it stands to reason that his new wife would not have been the daughter of a priest of Re, but rather the daughter of a priest of Set. Once again, the Middle Kingdom seems a better choice for datum Joseph than the Second Intermediate Period. Thus, relying on the Biblical chronology and the historical material, we will place Joseph in the Middle Kingdom Period, under two great rulers, Sesostris II (1897–1878 BC) and Sesostris III (1878–1843 BC).

Joseph entered Egypt as a slave. It is interesting to note that slavery was not a very old concept in Egypt. It had not existed earlier in the Old Kingdom, the period when the great pyramids were being built. Those structures were not, as is sometimes stated, built by slave labor. They were constructed by drafted peasant labor.

The Middle Kingdom is the first major period in Egyptian history where slavery was well known. In the 1950s AD, the American Egyptologist William C. Hayes published a famous papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom which had a list of slaves on one side and a discussion of Egyptian prisons on the other (Hayes 1972). In the next issue of Bible and Spade, we will examine the information this valuable papyrus provides for us regarding the story of Joseph.


Aling, C. F.
1981 Egypt and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hayes, W. C.
1964 The Middle Kingdom of Egypt. New York: Cambridge University. 34ff.

Hayes, W. C., ed.
1972 A papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum Reprint.

Reprinted in Bible and Spade with permission from Artifax 15.3 (Summer 2000): 20-21.

Comments Comment RSS

1/10/2011 11:15 AM #


tim - 1/10/2011 11:15:10 AM

3/10/2012 5:46 AM #

Question:  What is the source Dr. Ailing uses for the dates of the reigns of the pharaohs in this series of articles, and how did he select that source?  There seems to be little agreement among references in the public domain concerning these dates.    

Bob Steckbeck - 3/10/2012 5:46:40 AM

5/10/2013 10:53 AM #

Thanks so much for posting these. I am taking online college classes at Northwestern College, and took Dr. Billington's Old Testament Archaeology class, where Dr. Aling does some of the lectures, including the ones on Joseph. I am writing my paper on the date and title of Joseph, and I was wondering if I could find Dr. Aling's work anywhere. I am so glad I found will help me tremendously with my paper. thanks

A Fraser - 5/10/2013 10:53:05 AM

5/30/2013 11:20 PM #

In the article Dr. Aling uses Exodus 12:40, correctly quoting "Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years."  The problem is that this quote leaves out an essential phrase "and the land of Canaan."  The whole verse reads, "And the sojourning of the children of Israel, while they sojourned in the land of Egypt and the land of Chanaan, was four hundred and thirty years." (c.f. LXX Ex 12:40)

Not surprisingly Josephus, and the bulk of Jewish historians are consistent with the LXX.

By not including the phrase Dr. Aling creates a biblical conflict with Gal 3:17 which explicitly states that the 430 year period began with the promise of God to Abram (inferred, that it subsequently included the period of the sojourn of Isaac and Jacob, the generations of Israel's time in Egypt, the slavery) and finally culminated with the giving of the Law.  The Jewish historical calendar, Josephus, the Septuagint, Sefer Ya Hashar (The Book of Jasher) hold that the Israelites were in Egypt for 210 or 215 years.

That said, the article is very well done and was a great read.  

Mike Blondino - 5/30/2013 11:20:10 PM

5/31/2013 2:11 PM #


It seems that nobody has attempted to answer your question. I just saw it now for the first time, so I will try to help you. First of all, I cannot speak for Dr. Ailing or how he came up with his regnal dates for Egyptian kings. I do not agree with all of his numbers, but I do agree with his date of 1878 BC as the accession-year of Sesostris III. There is absolutely no agreement on precise dating for Egyptian monarchs, and it would be a long discussion to tell you about all of the nuances. We simply do not know the regnal dates for selected kings. Kitchen has his own dates, as well as Simpson, and many others. When I began sorting through this minefield in the late 1990's, I realized that I need my own chronology, based on my own choice of the right 'system' to use (due to being convinced that it's the proper one, for the right reasons), and based on my own study of the regnal length of each pharaoh. This took a LOT of work. I was revising it for years. It's still open to improvement, but I haven't modified the numbers more than once in the last 5-6 years. As one of our profs told us when I was a seminary student, "The danger with standing on someone else's shoulders is that you both will fall." I have great confidence in my chronology, but not enough to say that I have to be right everywhere. Dr. Wood has asked me for some years to publish it, so that he can reference it in his articles and use it as a standard. I'm happy to say that it will be published as an appendix in the book I am writing now, entitled, "Evidence of Israelites in Egypt from Joseph's Time until the Exodus". If you would like a copy, I will send it to you. You merely need to go to my webpage and find my e-mail address on the left side, then send me a request by e-mail. I hope this helps.

Douglas Petrovich, PhD Candidate, ThM, MDiv, MA
University of Toronto, NMC Dept.
Major: Syro-Palestinian Archaeology
1st Minor: Egyptology
2nd Minor: ANE Religions

Douglas Petrovich - 5/31/2013 2:11:55 PM

5/31/2013 3:46 PM #


I would like to respond to your note regarding the disagreement with Dr. Ailing. For the sake of others who read this, what you did not spell out clearly is that you are an advocate of the short-sojourn (SS) view (215 years, rather than the 430 years of the long-sojourn view) for the length of the Israelites' stay in Egypt. While I long have admired the zeal of SS advocates, I have not always been very excited about your/their handling of (lower) textual criticism (TC) of the Bible, hermeneutics, or exegesis of the text.

I will save my comprehensive answer to this question for the appendix of a second book I am writing, entitled, "Illuminating Biblical History from the Worldwide Flood to the Patriarchal Age". The appendix will be titled, "Solving the Textual Variants in Exodus 12:40 and 1 Kings 6:1," and I will be debunking the SS view in another appendix: "Defining the Precise Length of the Israelite Sojourn and Enslavement in Egypt."

Unfortunately, there is far too much spoken confidently by those who know neither how to practice biblical TC properly, how to practice biblical exegesis, or how to apply sound biblical hermeneutics. The truth is that SS advocates fail on all counts. And even if they were to do justice to all of the above, and still somehow end up trapped in the futility of their view, they would fail on account of the archaeology of biblical Rameses's mitigating against the possibility of such a SS. The heart and soul of my book will point this out with amazing detail, discovery, and precision. The spade backs-up powerfully what the text makes so crystal clear (all plundering aside).

Back to your comment, the "and the land of Canaan" variant is clearly spurious, and not part of the autographa of the Hebrew OT. If you would like to understand this better, before waiting for my book to make it to press, please consult chapters 2, 3, and 5 of my ThM thesis, on the textual variant in Ephesians 1:1, with extra emphasis on both establishing a proper praxis of textual criticism and the nature of textual errors (in this case, especially looking at how scribal errors are made, and thus why the "and the land of Canaan" variant is undoubtedly spurious, on internal evidence alone, though the external evidence clearly favors its non-originality, as well).

Without going too deeply into the external evidence, why you champion Josephus's reading is incomprehensible. Forgetting about the LXX's inherent problems in most of its variant readings, citing Josephus as an authority here is a bit like supporting a variant reading in the KJV simply because a guy from 1742 decided to quote the KJV's reading in his writings. Hmmmm.

When you say that by not including the variant phrase Dr. Ailing creates a conflict with Gal 3:17, bells and whistles go off in me as if you walked into the laser beams of a high-tech security system protecting a bank vault. As I drilled into my seminary students over and over again, you must let EACH passage speak for itself. You cannot use Gal 3:17 to interpret Exod 12:40. This is a "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" moment.

As for Galatians 3, this is a text that has been pillaged and plundered by weekend-biblical-historians (and good scholars, amazingly enough!) for years. I plan to spend a LOT of time reestablishing the meaning of this passage in its proper context, and freeing it from the grips of SS advocates who have no idea of what they are doing with that text, . . . except that they're reading into it exactly what they want to get out of it.

If you want an advanced look at some of what will be in my appendix, please write me a request, using my e-mail account that is on the left column of my webpage. I can send you a document that represents interaction I had on this topic with a biblical historian and a biblical chronologist who were trapped in the same web that has enveloped you, dear brother. My ThM thesis (on TC) is downloadable from that same webpage, as well.

Wishing you success in your pursuit of truth,

Doug Petrovich
Biblical historian and former seminary prof

Douglas Petrovich - 5/31/2013 3:46:07 PM

2/18/2014 2:36 AM #

This article has been very helpful.  I have spent a lot of years seeking refinements to biblical chronology and I place Josephs elevation to Prime Minister in 1883 BC, and his death at 1803 BC.

I'm guessing that the Pharaoh who "knew not Joseph" was from the Hyksos in the northern region of Egypt, because there seems to be a crossover.  The 400 year era of enslavement (Acts7:6) appears to have started about 40 years before the actual death of Joseph.  Do you think that Josephs latter years were spent in the south where the Hyksos influence was  not yet felt?

Christian Gedge - 2/18/2014 2:36:05 AM

2/18/2014 1:49 PM #


Since Dr. Aling probably will not be responding, please allow me to do so. First, after 15 years of research on this era, including the establishing of a chronology with absolute dates, I would refine your numbers slightly: Joseph's elevation to vizier: 1885 BC; Joseph's death: 1805 BC. I am quite confident about these dates, and when my book is published, I believe that you will be also.

The pharaoh who knew not Joseph is Ahmose, the last pharaoh of the 17th Dynasty and 1st pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. The Hyksos, instead, are his 'enemies' with whom he did not want the Israelites to join themselves, lest they (together) overtake the native Egyptians. You will also see the correctness of this association in time.

The notion of a '400-year enslavement' is a misnomer. I explain this in more detail on another ABR thread (addressed to Roger), as of now the last comment in the comments section. Please read this, as you will find it helpful and eye-opening, I believe:

As for your final question, my research of the last 2 years has allowed me to identify precisely who Joseph is in Egyptian records. In addition, I have identified the occupation of the Israelites from Jacob's arrival in Egypt. When combined with the biblical evidence, it's clear that there is NO EVIDENCE whatsoever for Joseph's ever having lived at biblical Ramses.

Instead, the evidence points to two places where he lived: Lahun, and Dahshur. From available evidence, my guess is that his entire residence in Egypt was at these two sites. Having said that, I cannot rule out the possibility that he resided at Avaris in 'retirement' (i.e. under the radar). What I am certain about is that he was buried in Dahshur, from where the Israelites took his body (by destroying his mastaba, which has been excavated and found to be both destroyed and bodyless).

Hoping this helps,

Doug Petrovich, PhD Candidate, ThM, MDiv, MA
University of Toronto, NMC Department

Douglas Petrovich - 2/18/2014 1:49:51 PM

2/20/2014 2:10 AM #

Thanks Doug for your link, and I will certainly be getting your book when it is published.  As for biblical chronology, I don't think I should comment further since it takes us beyond the scope of this article. However I would like to be able to discuss this with you if there is a suitable Internet forum somewhere.  Alternatively, may I send you my charts to look at?


Christian Gedge - 2/20/2014 2:10:00 AM

2/24/2014 3:47 PM #

Have you published anything concerning the identity of Joseph in the Egyptian records?  Where can it be found?


John Dittmer - 2/24/2014 3:47:44 PM

2/26/2014 8:43 PM #


No, I have not published anything yet. Unfortunately, I have to finish writing a dissertation first. Then, I will finish writing the book (about 25% left), Lord willing, and try to secure a publisher. Hang in there. Sorry, I wish I had better news to give.

Douglas Petrovich - 2/26/2014 8:43:29 PM

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