The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 12: The Patriarchs

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 13: The Israelites in Egypt
Last modified on Sun Jul 4 22:59:48 2021


This is the thirteenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation, Professor Stenger made a brief mention of Biblical archaeology, making the (rather common) claim that not only is there is no evidence for most of the Old Testament, but some parts of the Old Testament are directly contradicted by the archaeological evidence. My intention is to answer this criticism, or at least give hints as to how it might be answered.

The first post in this mini-series gave a general introduction to the topic of Old Testament archaeology as a whole. The subsequent posts will discuss individual periods and topics. This post will discuss Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt. My goal is not to prove the Biblical account from archaeology, but ask if there are any contradictions or points of contact between the Biblical account and the archaeological record.

Once again, I need to remind readers that chronology is disputed. There are two main schools of though. One, the early chronology, would place Abraham's entry to Canaan at the very end of the MBI (or Intermediate Bronze Age, or EBIV in some terminology) period, so with the birth of Isaac somewhere around 2040BC to 2000BC. The late chronology would place the birth of Isaac at around 1750BC to 1740BC. If the campaign of the Mesopotamian Kings against Sodom as described in Genesis 14 is accurate, then these are the only two possible time periods when there was a Mesopotamian Empire strong enough to campaign against Sodom. Comparing the general archaeological picture with the description in Genesis, I argued that both options provide a decent but still imperfect match between the Biblical account and the secular evidence. The imperfection in each case is not a direct and unambiguous contradiction, but largely arises from a lack of data, or the need to question some of the standard site identifications -- but only those where there is no hard evidence to confirm the identification -- so people make claims about one Biblical city based on data from an entirely different mound.

If we accept the numbers in the book of Genesis, then Jacob and Esau were born when Isaac was (about) 60 years old, and Jacob entered Egypt at the age of 130, which gives a total of 190 years. Thus, we might expect to see the Israelites enter Egypt around 1850BC-1810BC in the early Chronology (which would correspond to the late twelfth dynasty) or about 1560BC in the late chronology (give or take a few decades) (which would correspond to the end of the Hyksos period). Obviously we can also look for evidence outside these two time periods, which would work on the assumption that the numbers and ages in the Bible are mis-recorded but the rest of the story is correct. For example the recorded years could be symbolic figures or exaggerations, or simply distorted as the manuscripts were copied over the centuries. So we should perhaps not focus exclusively on these two periods, even though I am going to be lazy and do that.

Equally, those dates represent the time when Jacob and most of the Israelites came into Egypt. Joseph himself arrived in Egypt some time earlier. This includes two years in prison (Genesis 41:1); seven years of plenty (Genesis 41:53) and two years of famine (Genesis 45:6), which suggests a time of at least 11 years. The actual time would have been longer than this. Joseph was thirty years old when he entered Pharaoh's service (Genesis 41:46), which, given that he had to be old enough to be sent out independently before entering Egypt, limits the unknown amount of time he could have spent in prison and as a slave. On the other hand, Isaac dies at age 180 just before the Joseph narrative begins (Genesis 35:28), which is ten years before Israel entered the land (Genesis 25:26, 47:9). But that figure might be approximate, or the biblical stories are out of order. The best I think that we can say is that Joseph was in Egypt for about twenty years before the rest of the Israelites entered the land.

In this post, I am first of all going to outline the Biblical story, suggesting what evidence we might expect to find, then see what the critics say, and finally compare against the evidence for these two time-periods.

The Biblical story

In the last post, I ended with Jacob/Israel and his twelve sons and unspecified number of daughters settling down in Canaan. They first dwelt near Shechem, but got into trouble with the local townspeople, and moved South, living in the Southern part of what would later be Judah, eventually settling close to Hebron. However, he would still send his flocks to the North for pasture. Joseph was Jacob's favourite son, despite being only the eleventh oldest, since he was born to Jacob's favourite wife. The second favourite son was probably Joseph's full brother Benjamin, who was also the youngest, being born in the land of Canaan. This favouritism caused resentment among Joseph's brothers. That resentment only increased when Joseph had various dreams which suggested that he would come to rule over his family.

One day, Jacob had sent his oldest ten sons North to find pasture for the flocks. After a while, he asked that Joseph should go to check up on them. The brothers saw Joseph approaching, and initially decided to kill him, but later relented and merely faked his death at the hand of a wild beast, and sold him as a slave to some Midianite or Ishmaelite traders for twenty shekels. The traders took him onto Egypt, where he was resold to Potiphar, an Egyptian officer.

Joseph was successful, and Potiphar raised him to be steward of his household. However, Potiphar's wife was attracted to Joseph; when Joseph refused to lie with her, that changed into resentment and she framed him for attempting to assault her. Joseph was thrown into prison.

While in prison, Joseph again won the favour of the prison officers, and he was placed in charge of the other prisoners. After a while, two members of Pharaoh's retinue were also put in prison, as the King tried to decide which one had been plotting against him. They each had some vivid dreams, which Joseph correctly interpreted. The Baker was executed, and the cup-bearer was restored to his position. Two years later, Pharaoh himself has some dreams warning him of an imminent famine. The cup-bearer remembers Joseph, who correctly interprets the dream, and is immediately released from prison, and raised to a position of authority in the land to prepare for the famine.

Genesis 41:38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God? Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, Bow the knee! Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

During seven years of plenty, Joseph taxes the Egyptians and stores up grain. Then, when the famine comes, he sells the grain back to the Egyptians. This leads to a great centralisation of power, as the Egyptian nobles are forced to sell themselves and their land to the Pharaoh in order to buy the grain. The famine also strikes Canaan, and Jacob sends his ten oldest sons to Egypt because he hears that there is grain there. After a few tricks and misadventures, Joseph is reunited with his family, and they move to Egypt and settle down there, in the region of Goshen, or land of Ramesses, in the Eastern Nile delta, close to Joseph but away from the Egyptian rulers who didn't like shepherds or foreigners.

The Israelites stay in Egypt for (depending on the whether you prefer the Hebrew text or the Greek translation; there is a textual variant) either 430 or 215 years. They thrive and have a lot of children. At some point a new Pharaoh arises "who did not know Joseph," and he, concerned by their numbers, subjects the Israelites to harsh slavery.

So that's the story. What evidence might we expect to find to support it?

  1. The Egyptians accepted caravans and traded with the Levant. This, of course, happened throughout Egyptian history, but if we find evidence that it didn't happen during the time periods under consideration, then that would disprove the Biblical narrative.
  2. We might expect to find signs of the Israelite settlement. First this would be small, but eventually grow to large numbers. Of course, we need not expect to find these people specifically called Israelites; they would be referred to as the term commonly translated as "Asiatics," and their artefacts would be generic Canaanite rather than anything distinctive to the Hebrews. But this would be distinguishable from the native Egyptian culture.
  3. We might expect to see evidence of a centralisation of power in Egypt. At the top of Egyptian society was the Pharaoh, but under him were a large number of other powerful families. In particular, the country was divided into administrative regions called nomes, and there was a Nomarch ruling over each of these regions. At times these Nomarchs acted largely independently, and Pharaoh had limited control over them. But at other times, the Nomarch's were weaker, and Pharaoh exerted closer control. At the end of Joseph's narrative, Pharaoh is in firm control. The implication is that before then the Nomarchs were more autonomous. So we might expect to see evidence of this shift in power.
  4. There are various names and customs mentioned in the Biblical text which can be compared against what is known from Egyptian history.
  5. Evidence of a famine in Egypt. This wouldn't prove much in itself -- famines happened frequently in any period of history. While the Nile offered some stability to Egypt, it was still a difficult time to live, and people were at the mercy of nature. Both very low and very high Nile floods could cause famine.
  6. Finally, we might expect to see evidence for Joseph himself, probably under his Egyptian name. Many of the Egyptian officials of the Middle Kingdom are known.

Of course, just because we might hope to see such evidence does not mean that we will. The usual caveats apply: there are gaps in our knowledge of ancient history; very little has survived to our day, and little of that has been excavated. To disprove the Biblical account, we need to find a direct contradiction. It is not enough to say "we should have found this, but haven't." Equally, we are not going to be able to prove the Biblical narrative from the secular historical record. The best that can be expected is to find various correspondences.

It would, of course, have been nice if the Joseph (and Exodus) narratives had named the Pharaoh involved. However, this is in line with the practice of the time. Until the third intermediate period, much later, many records did not name the foreign rulers. So in this irritating silence, the Biblical authors were just following contemporary practice.

Stenger and Finklestein's views

Once again, before discussing the evidence, I want to discuss how Professor Stenger and Israel Finklestein (Stenger's source) evaluate it. Professor Stenger just devotes one paragraph. He says that Finklestein and Silberman report that there is no evidence of an Israelite presence in Egypt prior to the time of Ramesses II, the popular late date for the exodus.

As may be expected, Professors Finklestein and Silberman devote a bit more space to the topic. They acknowledge that numerous immigrants came from Canaan and settled in the Eastern Nile delta. This occurred throughout the history of Pharaonic Egypt -- not just the Bronze Age. They mention the expulsion of the Hyksos, and a theory by Josephus which related this to the Exodus. They mention that there was a gradual increase of Canaanite influence in Avaris from about 1800BC, in contrast to the Ptomelic era historian Manetho's tale of a violent conquest. They state that the expulsion of the Hyksos cannot be the Exodus story, because the two events are too dissimilar. Equally, there is a problem with the dates. (I think they make a mistake here, saying that the expulsion of the Hyksos is dated to about 1570BC by Egyptian records and the destruction of various cities in Canaan related to the same event. 1570 strikes me as being a few decades too early -- a more usual date for the start of the eighteenth dynasty is around 1550BC. But more importantly, the destruction layers in Canaan were not used to date the expulsion of the Hyksos and the rise of the New Kingdom of Egypt, but rather it was assumed that they were related to that event and then the Canaanite destructions were dated by the Egyptian records.)

So with the Hyksos option removed, Professors Finklestein and Silberman turn their attention to the late Exodus date, citing the reference to Ramesses in Exodus 1:11. That city was built by Ramesses II early in his reign; together with the Merneptah stele (Ramesses II's successor), with its mention of Israel (and at about the same time that proto-Israelite settlements appear in the highlands of Israel), means that the Exodus must be dated to between these times, and dated to Ramessess II's reign. But, they argue, there is no mention of the name Israel in Egyptian records before Merneptah. There is no mention of the name Israel found in Egyptian documents during the Hyksos period. Nor do the Armana letters mention Israel. Thus they conclude that there is no recognisable evidence of Israelite presence in Egypt during the time when they were meant to be there.

So before moving on, I ought to address this case. They do get some things right. They are correct in saying that Semites ventured to Egypt frequently during Egyptian history, although they perhaps could have mentioned that Canaanite presence in in the sort of numbers that might correspond to the the Israelite sojourn is somewhat rarer. You see it in the first intermediate period, second intermediate period, and the early New Kingdom. They were also correct to say that there was a gradual increase in the Canaanite population in Egypt, specifically Avaris, from about 1800BC. I think that they are a bit too quick to dismiss the accounts of a violent invasion of Hyksos -- there is no difficulty in having a gradual build up of Semites in the delta, and then an additional violent invasion and expansion, either a revolt by the Semites living in the land, or a revolt by another group. They could be wrong in saying that the Merneptah stele is the earliest mention of Israel, but more of that in the next post.

But their weakness is that their argument is one of silence. Arguments from silence are always weak. They base it solely on the presence of the name Israel in Egyptian records. But there is no reason to suggest that the Egyptians would have used that term. In the book of Exodus, the Egyptians refer to the Israelites as Hebrews, or (as they were known to the ancient societies) Habiru or Apiru. In the book of Genesis, Jacob's family introduce themselves as Canaanite. Or they might have used the generic term for Semites, Aamu, which is usually translated as Asiatic. The Egyptians did not generally distinguish between the different Semitic ethnicities -- they were all non-Egyptian barbarians as far as the Egyptians were concerned. And both Apiru and Aamu are found in the New Kingdom inscriptions describing slaves. Equally, he makes no mention of depictions of slaves in the tombs, or the hard evidence for Semites living in Egypt during the New Kingdom.

So Finklestein's case here is really weak. He dismisses a straw man -- Josephus' reconstruction of the Exodus, which nobody today argues for -- and then bases his case on the absence of a name which we have no reason to expect that the Egyptians would have used to describe the Hebrews. They also ignore all the positive evidence for the Israelites in Egypt.

The early date

As stated in my previous post, the precise Biblical chronology is uncertain and disputed, but there are two time frames which stand out, and each have their advocates. The early date is to place the birth of Isaac around the end of the MBI period, somewhere around 2000-2050 BC. The second, the late date, is to place it in the midst of the MB2b period, around 1750BC (give or take a decade or so). Time-frames between these might be possible, it becomes very difficult to reconcile the Biblical story with the external evidence, in particular with regards to the story of the Mesopotamian Kings campaigning in Canaan. So I will focus on these two chronologies. First of all, the early date.

The early date for Abraham would place Joseph in the late nineteenth century BC, which corresponds to late twelfth dynasty (assuming the accuracy of the internal Chronology of Genesis). While there is still some uncertainty in the dating, the most likely Pharaohs associated with Joseph would be Sesostris III or Amenemhat III. So we have to ask whether there is evidence of a community of Semites settling down in Egypt's delta at around this time, particularly in the region of "Ramesses".

The answer is a clear "Yes". Excavations at Tell el-Daba, the site of the Hyksos capital Avaris, and just across the river from Quantir, which would become the centre of the great city of Pi-Ramesses, have been very revealing. Avaris was an important site in the second intermediate period and New Kingdom. It was located at the start of the main road leading to Canaan and Syria. It also had, until the Nile silted up and changed course, an important and significant harbour, which would during New Kingdom times be known as Peru-Nefer, and which served as Pharaonic Egypt's main port for maritime trade with the Mediterranean. During the second Intermediate period, it served as the capital of Northern Egypt.

Excavations at Tell el-Daba have revealed that the site was initially an Egyptian village dating from the early Middle Kingdom. This village was soon abandoned. A second settlement was founded a little while later, at about the time of Sesostris III or Amenemhat III. The inhabitants of this settlement were not native Egyptians. Their tools, pottery, burial practices and livestock were all Canaanite. They started off as a small community, centred around a mansion or palace, but rapidly grew. They seemed to be at first reasonably well integrated into Egyptian society, while remaining their own distinct cultural identity. For example the tombs were built using standard Egyptian methods, but the contents within those tombs were clearly Canaanite. For example, we have the statue shown below. This is a reconstruction of various broken fragments of a mortuary statue that was found in a pyramid tomb in the palace garden. The rest of the contents of the tomb, including the body, had been robbed in antiquity, just leaving the broken fragments of this statue.

Joseph statue

The statue shows distinctive features of an important Egyptian official: the posture, throwstick, significant size, and that it was found in a pyramid tomb. However, the pigment used for the skin colour indicates that this man was an Asiatic, from Syria or Canaan. Clearly, this statue was of a foreigner who was associated with the early days of this settlement in Avaris, and who rose to some high position in Egyptian society. Unfortunately, there was no name or inscription in the tomb, so we can't identify who it was (although some people have guessed).

The architecture of the mansion is also interesting. Although it was later extended, the original plan is that of what is known as a four room house, which much later was distinctive of the early Israelites. This is possibly not as interesting as those who tout it most would claim. There are some six hundred years between this dwelling and the four room houses of ancient Israel, which started appearing in the early Iron age. So any cultural memory of this architectural style would have had to survive that time, including the nomadic wanderings in the wilderness and (if this early chronology is correct) the two hundred years or so the Israelites spend living in tents in the promised land before finally building their own villages. So it could all be coincidental.

This settlement of Asiatics in the region of Ramesses endured for a long time, until the early nineteenth dynasty. The Asiatic occupation of the site was most likely abandoned early in the reign of Ramesses II. No conservative Christian scholar would claim that it was only inhabited by Israelites. Indeed, Exodus 12:38 describes a "mixed multitude" accompanying the Israelites as they left Egypt. It is likely (and see for proof, that while many of these inhabitants, particularly in the later fifteenth dynasty times, were descended from those original settlers, there was always some more immigration from Canaan.

So the picture of those who support the early date is the following. The earliest inhabitants of Tell el-Daba were the Israelites. They first settled down at precisely the time assigned to Jacob's arrival. They were later joined by other immigrants. One group of these immigrants then took charge, and became the Hyksos usurpers of Egypt. The native Egyptians of the Seventeenth dynasty drove out the Hyksos, but the Hebrews remained. While some slavery of the Hebrews existed from the thirteenth dynasty (see below), this is when the oppression began in earnest. The Exodus then (in the early chronology) occurred during the eighteenth dynasty, but some of the Asiatics remained (some of the other groups didn't leave with Moses and the Israelites), and more were brought in from military raids in Canaan to repopulate Avaris. This community continued until the time of Ramesses II, when for some unknown reason it was dissolved, and the remaining slaves (presumably) dispersed across Egypt.

Is there any proof that these earliest inhabitants of Avaris were the Israelites, rather than some other Semitic group? The difficulty is that we cannot expect to find any such proof. Certainly, the excavators of the site tend to regard them as just early fore-runners of the Hyksos. Culturally, Jacob and his family were just generic Semites from Canaan, and that is how they would appear in the archaeological record, and to the ancient Egyptians. But it is notable for the advocates of the early chronology. that the founders of Avaris were the right people (livestock farmers, who mingled with high Egyptian society) in the right place from the right place in the right numbers and at precisely the right time, if the early chronology is correct. This is certainly strong circumstantial evidence.

The next thing is is there any evidence that these Semites were slaves? This isn't much of a question: like all of the ancient world, there were a lot of slaves in Egypt, and throughout history many of them would have been Semitic. Equally, we do not require that all of the Israelites were slaves. Recall that the methodology that the atheist ought to adopt is to assume for the sake of argument that some possible interpretation of the Biblical record is correct and then search for evidence which contradicts each interpretation. The Bible records that the Israelites were not slaves for the entirety of their time in Egypt. The oppression started sometime between Joseph and Moses, but it is not recorded when. Even before the oppression there would have almost certainly been some Hebrew slaves; and after it there might well have been some Hebrews who were not slaves. So whatever evidence we find concerning Semitic slavery in Egypt is not going to prove the Israelite oppression; the only thing that could disprove it would be evidence that there was no Semitic slaves. But even without the Biblical account, it would be hugely surprising if there weren't Semitic slaves. So whatever evidence there is, it isn't going to settle this case one way or the other.

There is, of course, a large amount of evidence for slavery of Asiatics in Egypt. I'll only mention a few examples. I'll start with Brooklyn Papyrus 35.1446, which dates from the early 13th Dynasty, and Southern Egypt. It is a list of numerous household slaves, about thirty of whom have Semitic names. Some of these names are also recorded in the Bible (or at least there are possible reconstructions consistent with this), including Shiphrah and the tribal names of Asher and Issachar. Several of the slaves held the position of "household servant", corresponding to that given to Joseph in the book of Genesis. Slaves in the late middle Kingdom were also owned by private individuals (rather than being solely the property of the state), which also agrees with Joseph's story. (There is nothing particularly exciting about that, or anything which can be used to provide a date, but it is still a point of consistency.) Moving onto the New Kingdom, we have the tombs in Thebes of the priest Puyemre and herald Intef which depict Apiru (Hebrew) slaves preparing wine. These both date to around the time of Thutmose III. Then, also from around the same time, we have this image of Semitic slaves in the tomb of Rekhmire involved in the construction industry, making bricks, the same activity accurately (as we can tell from images such as this) described by the book of Exodus.

brick making

The Anastasi Papyri, dating from the nineteenth dynasty (so around the time of the Exodus in the late chronology, and a little time later in the early chronology) describes the process by which Egyptians made bricks, in terms very familiar to readers of the book of Exodus.

So there were certainly Hebrew slaves in Egypt during the early part of the New Kingdom, and there were also many Semitic slaves (who may or may not have been Hebrew) who were employed in a similar way to the Israelites described in the book of Exodus. Of course, there were slaves in Egypt for all of Egyptian history, so this doesn't prove very much, but it is consistent with the Biblical picture. Remember, we are searching for contradictions, and the contradiction in this case would be if there were no or very few Asiatic slaves in Egypt at the time of the Israelite sojourn. The Book of Exodus passes this test.

So the next question is whether there is evidence of trade with Egypt, similar to the Midianites and Ishmaelites of the Joseph story, from the time of the twelfth dynasty? The answer is "Yes". Another painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep, depicted in my previous post, shows similar traders. But would this have been a slave trade? Much is sometimes made of a lack of written evidence for a trade in slaves with the Levant, but this is not surprising. What evidence there was would have been recorded on Papyrus scrolls in the delta region, and these have long since rotted. What we do know is that there were large numbers of Semitic slaves in late Middle Kingdom Egypt. These slaves could only have entered the country through a trade or as prisoners of war. However, there were few large-scale campaigns conducted by the Middle Kingdom rulers into the Levant. They almost exclusively campaigned to the South.

The early chronology places Joseph's prominence in Egypt in the time of the late twelfth dynasty, around the time of either Sesostris II, Sesostris III or Amenemhat III (there is some room for flexibility in the Biblical dates, for example they might have been rounded or symbolic figures). The Biblical story shows that, during the years of famine, there was a great centralisation of wealth and power during Joseph's time as administrator. Something similar occurred during the reign of Sesostris III. Before his reign, local officials had a great deal of independence. They lost it during his reign. Sesostris III expanded the bureaucracy, and was seen by later Egyptians as one of their greatest rulers. He traded extensively to the North, and also engaged in some military campaigns, mainly to the South, although there is possible mention of a campaign against Shechem. He possibly began the work on a canal connecting the Nile with Lake Moeris, creating a back-up water supply for Egypt and opening up another area of land for agriculture. This work was completed in the time of his son and successor, Amenemhat III, and was known as the great Canal, or today as the Bahr Yussef (the waterway of Joseph).

Does the culture of Egypt of the late middle Kingdom match that of the Biblical account? The answer again is generally that it does. For example, Joseph is thrown into prison. Prisons were rare in the ancient world, with punishments generally being fines, death or mutilation. An exception to this was Middle Kingdom Egypt. There is a Papyrus describing a place of confinement, which held both convicted criminals, many of whom were employed as labourers for the state, and also those awaiting a verdict, such as Pharaoh's cup-bearer and baker in the Joseph story. The main prison was located in Thebes, although there might have been other prisons elsewhere in the country, or prisoners involved in mining or quarrying in the desert. There was a warden or overseer of the prison, and extensive record keeping using scribes. The title "Overseer of the prison" is not frequently attested in Egypt, but there are examples from the Middle Kingdom. It was common for wealthy Egyptians to appoint one of their slaves as the overseer of their household. The Biblical title of Joseph's position under Potiphar and his roles once again matches examples found in the Middle Kingdom (and later periods in Egypt). Potiphar's wife was not the only Egyptian lady to try to seduce a slave. Dream interpretation was not really considered that significant by the ancient Hebrew or Israelite culture. There are a few references to it in the Old Testament: here in the Genesis story, in the book of Daniel, and the Midianites opposing Gideon in the book of Judges. All of these arise from interactions with foreigners. When God communicates with Israelites in a dream (such as in 1 Kings 3:15 when God communicates with Solomon) it is in clear and unambiguous speech, not an image. So it is not obvious that the story of Pharaoh's dreams would have been composed by an Israelite based on Israelite customs. However, the Egyptians took dreams far more seriously, and really did believe that they were warnings about the future which needed interpretation. We have books from Egypt listing dreams and giving their interpretation. Thus the story of Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh's dreams, and immediately being promoted because he was good at it, makes sense in terms of how much Egyptian culture valued those who could interpret dreams. Joseph was the only vizier at the time of his rule, which matches the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, but not the culture of the New Kingdom or later where it was common for two or more viziers to hold office simultaneously (ruling over different parts of Egypt). The reference for forty days for embalming and seventy days of mourning in Genesis 50:3 also matches Egyptian custom.

On elevation into high office, Joseph is given a gold chain, a ring, clean clothes, an Egyptian name, a chariot and a wife. The gold chain is represented in various Egyptian monuments (mostly, admittedly, from the new Kingdom): it seems to have been a common reward for service committed, similar to how today we would give out a medal or an honorary title. The Egyptian name, Zaphenath Pa'aneah, has been transliterated into Egyptian by Kenneth Kitchen as Djad-naf Ipu-Ankh. Djad-naf is a common term indicating that what follows is an Egyptian name given to a foreigner. something-Ankh names were common in the Middle Kingdom. Joseph's wife, Asenet, is also a good Middle Kingdom name. The closest matches to Potiphera and Potiphar, Joseph's former master and father-in-law, come from the New Kingdom, but there are earlier forms of the name in the Middle Kingdom. All of these are good and attested Egyptian names. Joseph's wife was the daughter of the Priest in Heliopolis. The Gods Re and Atum were particularly associated with Heliopolis, and these were the main deities worshipped in Egypt during the New and Middle Kingdoms, though not by the Hyksos in the second intermediate period. Also, when Joseph came before the Pharaoh, he had to shave himself and change into clean clothes. The native Egyptians, unlike the Semites such as the Hyksos, valued personal hygiene and disliked beards. The price of the slave paid for Joseph is twenty Shekels. There was an inflation of the slave price throughout the history of the near East. At the time of the Ur III dynasty, it was 8-10 shekels. At the time of Hammurabi and the Mari documents (about 100 years after Joseph in the early chronology, 100 years before Joseph in the late chronology) it was between 15-30 shekels. In the Nuzi and Ugarit documents, around the time of the New Kingdom, the average slave price rose to 30 Shekels (c.f. Exodus 21:32); while in the Neo-Assyrian period the slave price was 50 to 60 Shekels (2 Kings 15:20). Thus the price paid for Joseph was reasonable for the time period when the story was set (whichever chronology is adopted), but not earlier or later.

Genesis 45:8 states that Joseph was made Lord of all of Pharaoh's House. This title is the equivalent of the Egyptian title translated as 'Chief Steward of the King.' The chief Steward was responsible for overseeing Pharaoh's agricultural estates and granaries. This is consistent with Joseph's responsibilities as recorded in the book of Genesis. It is also notable that Joseph held a similar role (albeit on a smaller scale) in the household of Potiphar. He had been prepared for this job.

Joseph was also given the title "Father to the Pharaoh." This expression isn't found in Egyptian records, but there is the similar expression "Father of the God," with "God" here meaning the Pharaoh. One can easily see how a Hebrew scribe -- or perhaps even the original author -- would be offended by the suggestion that a man can be God's father, and apply a more liberal translation of the title. The title "Father to God" occurs numerous times in Egyptian inscriptions. It was used in a variety of ways in ancient Egypt, most of which don't apply to Joseph (literal father, father-in-law, or tutor). But it was also used to indicate some special service to the Egyptian King. For example, it is a title given to the vizier Ptahhotep in a text (called the "Maxims of Ptahhotep" in the translation I have in front of me) that is set in the Old Kingdom, but probably was written in the Middle Kingdom. In any case, the title was known in ancient Egypt.

The third title given to Joseph is "Ruler of all Egypt," which is commonly interpreted to mean the Vizier, the Pharoah's right hand man and second in command. This interpretation isn't certain, and while it remains the most likely option, it can be questioned. The vizier (according to New Kingdom documents) was responsible for record keeping, supervising construction work, overseeing agriculture, and welcoming foreign dignitaries. These are all consistent with Joseph's responsibilities as recorded in Genesis. It is interesting that in referring to Joseph, the brothers normally call him 'the man.' This is perhaps a play on words since the Egyptian word for man and the Egyptian word for Vizier are only one letter different.

Could one person have held all these offices at once? Not in the early Middle Kingdom, but examples of this are known from the time of Sesostris II onwards.

So what objections can be raised against a Middle Kingdom Joseph? There are a few apparent anachronisms that are sometimes raised.

  1. It is sometimes claimed that a native Egyptian Pharaoh wouldn't have responded so warmly to the Asiatic Joseph. The ancient Egyptians were racist and believed themselves to be superior to their Northern neighbours. This is sometimes used to support the idea that Joseph would have entered Egypt under the more ethnically and culturally similar Hyksos. However, there are indications that there was a divide between the Egyptians and the Israelites. The culture of the Egyptians as depicted in Genesis more closely matches the native Egyptian Middle Kingdom rulers than the Canaanite Hyksos. When Joseph's brothers dined with him, they were pushed into a corner of the room, because the Egyptians couldn't bear to be with them. Joseph used a translator to communicate with his brothers (he didn't need it, but was keeping up the appearance of an Egyptian official). Of course, as they stayed in Egypt, the Hyksos could have picked up Egyptian culture and customs, and to a certain extent they did, so this doesn't rule out the late date. But the Biblical description of the Egyptian relationship with the Hebrews displays the sort of distance we would expect from a native Egyptian ruler, so it is hardly a contradiction. As for the Egyptian Pharaoh granting some land to Joseph's family to settle permanently, we know that some late twelfth dynasty Pharaoh made a similar dispensation to some group of Canaanites because of the settlement that sprang up at Tell el-Daba at this time. So, again, there is no contradiction here. Would a foreigner such as Joseph rise to high office in Egypt? It was uncommon, but did happen on occasion. For example, in the New Kingdom, there was a vizier Aper-El (servant of El), who served under Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. In the Middle Kingdom, we have the official whose statue was recovered at Tell el-Daba. Some Asiatics even rose to the rank of Pharaoh in the thirteenth dynasty. So while this was unlikely, particularly for the twelfth dynasty, it was not impossible for a particularly exceptional individual.
  2. One of the strongest objections to a Middle Kingdom Joseph is over the mention of chariots in the story. For example, Pharaoh gave Joseph use of his second chariot. However, chariots as a weapon of war were not introduced into Egypt until the time of the Hyksos. The native Egyptian horses were not strong enough to pull chariots until they interbred with those the Hyksos brought with them. There is no evidence of any sort of chariot in the Twelfth dynasty.

    There are several answers that could be made to this. Firstly, although chariots were not used in battle at this time, it is possible that they were used in a ceremonial role. While there is (to my knowledge) no evidence to support this; neither is there any evidence to contradict it. Chariots (or at least primitive wheeled vehicles that vaguely resembled a chariot) seem to be introduced into the ancient near East around 2500BC; there are examples known from Mesopotamia at about this time. Of course, at this time they were rather crude, and far from the refined fighting machines of the Egyptian New Kingdom. But the Biblical text doesn't require that there were many of these in Egypt (it only mentions two), or that they were used in war, or that it was any more than a glorified ceremonial wagon mis-associated with the New Kingdom chariot by the author of Genesis. There were some news reports from 2013 about someone who claimed that he had found evidence of leather chariot straps from the Old Kingdom, but the stories died off after that date and I haven't been able to verify this, so this might just be another case of bad reporting.

    So this is a point against a Middle Kingdom Joseph, but not insurmountable, if the other evidence points towards the early date. The claim that there were no chariots (or non-military wheeled vehicles that were precursors to chariots) in Egypt at that time is derived from an argument from silence, which is a relatively weak argument. Equally, chariots are only incidentally mentioned in the Genesis text, and nothing is lost from the story by removing the reference, so someone trying to argue that the text is generally reliable but not inerrant (not a position I would agree with, but one which the atheist who denies the existence of Joseph also has to disprove) could argue that this is an anachronism introduced by the New Kingdom author of the text.

  3. Religion. The Hyksos did not worship the same God as Moses. They are most commonly associated with the god Set, associated with the Canaanite Baal-zephon, but also Astarte and Resheph. Their temples were mostly typical Canaanite in structure. There is some ambiguous evidence that some Hyksos worshipped the native Egyptian Gods, most particularly Hathor, although there are other sources suggesting that they forbade worship of the Egyptian Gods.

    The Biblical Patriarchs (on the other hand), if Genesis is to be believed, worshipped their God as El. This is the same name as the god who was head of the Canaanite pantheon. There is, however, some distinction between them and the Canaanite worship. The Patriarchs knew their God by the same name, but had a different conception of the God and a different way of worshipping.

    So we might expect from the Biblical text that the Israelites in Egypt would have primarily worshipped El, while the Semitic colonists in Egypt primarily worshipped Baal/Hadad (associated with the Egyptian Seth). This appears to be a contradiction. However, things are not as clear as this. Firstly, the construction used by the early date supporters suggests that the Israelites were not the only Semitic group in Egypt at the time. There were other Canaanites at the time, and these could have been Baal/Hadad worshippers, while the El-worshipping Israelites alongside them left no mark in the archaeological record. Secondly, there is no indication that the Israelites in Egypt continued to worship El only, and some indication that they didn't. For example, at the end of the Exodus/conquest narrative, Joshua calls on the Israelites to put away their foreign gods (Joshua 24:23). Even at mount Sinai, the Israelites were quick to turn to idolatry (Exodus 32). There are numerous commandments (such as Exodus 23:13) forbidding them from mentioning other gods, which suggests that the Israelites were prone to this. So there is nothing in the Biblical text which states that the Israelites in Egypt worshipped El exclusively or even primarily. Thus it is not a contradiction when we find out that the primary gods worshipped in Avaris were Baal and Hadad.

  4. The use of the word Pharaoh. Pharaoh wasn't used as the title of the Egyptian ruler until the New Kingdom. The use of this word in the book of Genesis is thus an anachronism. However, since the text isn't (in a conservative viewpoint) meant to have been written until the time of Moses in the New Kingdom, it is easy to see how the then modern term might have been retrojected back into the earlier period.
  5. There is no mention of a seven year famine in the Egyptian records of the time. But, then again, we wouldn't necessarily expect there to be. There were famines in ancient Egypt throughout its history. So the story of a famine in the Middle Kingdom was not implausible. We do know that during the reign of Amenemhat III, at the end of the period in question, the Egyptians kept a careful eye on the level of the Nile river. The annual Nile flood was crucial to Egyptian agriculture. If the flood was either too low or too high it could have devastating effects on the crop. So perhaps the recording of the Nile level, as well as the creation of Lake Moeris as a backup source of water, was done as a response to some cataclysmic event? Perhaps, but perhaps not. This isn't really evidence for a famine. But again, claiming that there wasn't a famine at this time is an argument from silence. It is not an especially compelling argument.
  6. Finally, should we expect to see Joseph named in Egyptian records? Given his prominence, it is possible that we would. We certainly have records from the Middle Kingdom of people in a similar position that Joseph is meant to have occupied. However, records from the Middle Kingdom are sparse. Much of the information we know about officials are from inscriptions on tombs, and unless we find Joseph's tomb it is unlikely that he would be mentioned there. As far as I am aware, the tomb at Tell el-Daba with the statue did not have any inscriptions.

    If Joseph was mentioned, it would be under his Egyptian name. We do know some of the Viziers of the period in questions. The tombs of Viziers Khnumhotep and Nebit were found as part of Sesostris III's burial complex. Notably Khnumhotep had two of Joseph's three titles, Steward of Pharoah's house and Vizier. But neither of these officials match up with Joseph, but they also wouldn't have been the only viziers of Sesostris' long reign. Of the time of Amenemhat III, the vizier Kheti is firmly linked to his rule. There are a couple of others, Ameny (mentioned in a single surviving inscription giving just his name and title) and Zamonth (who has a statue) who might date from that time. Zamonth's mother's name is listed, and it wasn't Rachel. Ameny's wife wasn't Asenath. There are a couple of Viziers called something-ankh from this period and not specifically linked to any Pharaoh. Senewosret-Ankh is the most likely of these to correspond to Joseph, and there are some similarities: he rose from a personal scribe to the overseer of fields (matching Joseph's main concern) to the position of Vizier. His wife's name, Henutsen, is also known: not so close to Asenath.

    So none of the known Viziers of the period are a particularly good match with the Biblical Joseph. This just leaves all the unknown ones. Of which there are many. So while this is a weakness in the suggestion that Joseph belongs to this time (it would certainly be nice to the apologists if there was an official we could plausibly link to Joseph), it is not a fatal one. Again, this objection is an argument from silence which would only be valid if our records of the period were complete, which they are not.

Petrovich and the world's oldest alphabet

One further interesting feature to throw into the equation is the Proto-Sinatic alphabet. There are some things about this script that everybody agrees on. Firstly that it originated in Egypt and the Sinai around 1800-1850 BC. The earliest inscriptions were found in Egypt; most of the inscriptions are found in the Sinai peninsula, with many of them associated with the Egyptian mining activities, for example at Serabit el-Khadim. The inscriptions are carved either on bare rock, or on various Stelas (stone monuments) which are mostly standard hieroglyphs. The end date of the script is more difficult to define. It gradually evolved into the Canaanite script used in the late Bronze Age, so it is somewhat arbitrary to say when the Proto-Sinatic alphabet ended and the successor Proto-Canaanite script began (if nothing else because of the small number of surviving inscriptions from the early part of the Late Bronze Age). The script was certainly used until the end of the Middle Bronze Age, and possibly some of the later Proto-Sinatic (rather than Proto-Canaanite) inscriptions date from Late Bronze I. Dating the texts can be a bit uncertain because, being inscribed on stones, they don't come from a secure archaeological context. The second thing that is agreed is that this script is not Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is an alphabetic script. The third thing that is universally agreed is that it was, however, based on hieroglyphics. The original letters were hieroglyphic symbols (written in the style used in the Middle Kingdom), taken out of their original context, and reused as the letters of this new alphabet. The fourth thing that is universally agreed is that the language was not Egyptian. It is instead a Semitic language. The people who wrote this script came from somewhere in the Levant. Which language this is is disputed. The problem is: a) the Semitic languages are all quite similar, so many words are shared between them (or at least there close analogues to each word in the different languages). To identify a text as a particular language, you need a word that is unique to that language. b) The script only writes the consonants and not the vowels (common to many ancient writing systems), so interpreting it can be ambiguous; c) we don't have a particularly large sample of texts. There are only one to two dozen inscriptions from Egypt and Sinai, and these are no more that one or two lines of text, so obviously you can't draw too many conclusions from that. It is quite possible (and in my view implausible to suggest otherwise) that the script was more widely used than the small sample of texts that have come down to us, but that most of the inscriptions were written on Papyrus sheets which have long since rotted away. The fifth thing that is universally agreed is that this script was the ancestor of the various alphabetic scripts that we see widely attested in the first millennium BC (with a few examples from earlier), and (indeed) through numerous intermediaries and distortions it is also the ancestor of our own Latin alphabet. This obviously is a great help when trying to interpret the Proto-Sinatic inscriptions because we can compare the letters of the Proto-Sinatic script against those later, better known, alphabets and try to deduce how each letter evolved.

The script is often also called the earliest alphabet. This is a little less clear, because it is an argument from silence. Just because we haven't found evidence of an earlier alphabet doesn't mean that there wasn't one. Indeed, there are a few scratchings from the Early Bronze Age which some claim to be evidence of an earlier alphabetic system; although this is disputed because they only include a few symbols which might not indicate a fully developed writing system.

So the Proto-Sinatic script was created by a group of Semites with a close association to Egypt living in the Middle Bronze IIb, III and perhaps Late Bronze I period. To advocates of an early date for Joseph, it is easy to accept that the Hebrews were a group of Semites with a close association to Egypt living in the Middle Bronze IIb, III and Late Bronze I periods. It is obviously tempting to connect the two. And the texts are further evidence, beyond the evidence of excavations at, for example, Tell el Daba, that there was a large Semitic population in Egypt at the time; indeed, a large population of labourers or maybe even slaves since many of the scripts were written by mine workers.

But were the texts written in Hebrew specifically, which is what we would need to link them to the Israelites? That's the claim of a recent book by Douglas Petrovich. It revives an earlier proposal from the 1920s, but with more rigour and in more detail. Petrovich claims to have a) correctly identified each letter in the inscriptions with its equivalent in later Old Testament era Hebrew text; b) explained the origin of those letters, and why they were chosen; c) translated (for the first time) the 16 oldest substantial inscriptions; d) identified some words which, given the wider context of the inscription, could only have been Hebrew; e) identified various names of people which also occur in the Bible. This would then be the script in which Moses wrote the original version of the Torah, and in which the Ten Commandments were carved into the tablets of Stone.

Needless to say this claim is rather controversial, and he is opposed by many leading experts on the early text. Petrovich has responded to those criticisms by Millard, Rollston and with a follow-up and Schneider. The original criticisms are referenced in those responses. I am not qualified to judge whether or not the criticisms are valid or if Petrovich successfully defends his case. One of the criticisms seems to be that the usual interpretation of the alphabet is that it has 27 characters, while the first millennium Hebrew texts only have 22 characters. Petrovich responds to this by saying that five of the symbols have been extrapolated from the later Ugaritic alphabet and were not originally part of the Proto-Sinatic script. One could also argue that the letters became seen as redundant and were dropped as the script evolved into the Iron Age Old Hebrew alphabet. I have also seen suggestions that Petrovich might have misread some of the inscriptions and employs poor methodology.

If Petrovich's idea is correct, then it would obviously have a strong bearing of both the date and accuracy of the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt. It would show clearly that there were Hebrews in Egypt from the time of the Middle Kingdom. His readings also confirm the names of a number of people from the texts of Genesis and Exodus. But is he correct? To my untrained eye, he seems to have adequately responded to the criticisms, although I am suspicious of his response to the criticism regarding the number of letters. There are places where he clearly goes well beyond the evidence; for example in his identification of Joseph and Manasseh with names on his reading of the inscriptions which do not even closely resemble their names, either in Hebrew or the Egyptian name ascribed to Joseph. I am also disappointed in his lack of humility. Let us grant for the sake of argument that his reading of the texts is possible. It is a long jump from that to saying that it is the only possible reading; that no other interpretations, even those not yet thought of, are correct. At this point, his argument is just speculation, and when speculating one should acknowledge the possibility of error.

The obvious way to test this interpretation is to wait until a new Proto-Sinatic inscription is discovered, particularly if it is more substantial than the current examples. If it cannot be read using Petrovich's understanding of the letters, then his thesis must be rejected. If it can be read, and the process repeated a few times, then Petrovich's work should be given due consideration. Until then, I think a healthy scepticism should be in order, and his work should not be cited as evidence for an Exodus and the early date for the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. If no such inscription is discovered, then Petrovich's proposal has to remain (at best) in the "interesting but unproved" category.

The late date

As stated in the previous post, the second possible date for the Patriarchs is to place the birth of Isaac around 1750BC, give or take a few decades. This would place Joseph in Egypt during the Hyksos period. This is perhaps the most common view among those scholars of the ancient world who accept the historicity of Genesis and Exodus, particularly amongst Egyptologists. The Israelite sojourn would then continue until the nineteenth dynasty, unless we adopt a 200 year sojourn (following a textual variation in the Greek translation of Exodus 12:40).

Most of the evidence presented above for the early date of Joseph is also valid in this case. We still have the community of Asiatics living in Egypt. Again the interpretation would be that the Israelites would have just been one of a number of Semitic peoples in Egypt; the difference is that the Israelites would not have founded the community and left it sometime in the middle of its life, but joined it part way through, and left when the community disbanded at the time of the nineteenth dynasty. The Eighteenth dynasty references to Asiatic and Hebrew slaves would remain relevant. The thirteenth century slave list could no longer refer to the Hebrews, as it would date from before Joseph's entry into Egypt. The same is true for the other evidence from the Middle Kingdom.

Equally, while we have evidence for a centralisation of power in the late twelfth dynasty, there are hints of something similar in the Hyksos period. The eighteenth dynasty rulers, after expelling the Hyksos, wrote about how they redistributed the land to various notable Egyptians. This is, it is claimed, only possible if the land was previously taken away from the Egyptian land-owners and nationalised under the Hyksos rulers.

The late date for Joseph does resolve a number of the potential difficulties with the early date.

Firstly, the Hyksos rulers would have been more likely to accept and promote Joseph than the native Egyptians, because they were from a similar race and culture. Joseph was promoted because he was an exceptional young man. While the Egyptians were prejudiced against foreigners, it wasn't to the extent that they would deny clear talent when they saw it. This is known to have occurred a few times in the New Kingdom. However, the rise of Joseph is certainly more likely to have happened under a Hyksos ruler than a native Egyptian.

Secondly, the lack of attestation of Joseph in Egyptian inscriptions is less of a problem, because, unlike in the Middle Kingdom, we have very few inscriptions of any sort from the Hyksos rulers.

Thirdly, the mention of chariots is no issue because the Hyksos were the ones to introduce chariots into Egypt.

Joseph (in Genesis 45:10) assigns his family land close to him, which we know was around the city of Avaris. If Joseph was the vizier, he would presumably be based in the capital city. In the Hyksos period, this was Avaris; in the Middle Kingdom it was down in Thebes. Defenders of the Middle Kingdom Joseph might contest that he could have had a separate office in the Delta; and if he spent much of the time there then this would be consistent with the passage. They would also point to Genesis 46:34 which suggests that the land of Goshen was some distance away from the Egyptians (who couldn't bear to be near the keepers of livestock).

However, there are also a few weaknesses to the late date proposal.

Firstly, as mentioned, there was a clear cultural and language divide between the Egyptians and Jacob's family as described in the book of Genesis. This isn't fatal to the Hyksos hypothesis. The Hyksos did absorb some Egyptian culture. But it makes more sense if the Pharaoh was a Middle Kingdom ruler.

Joseph became the ruler of all Egypt (Genesis 41:43). The Hyksos never ruled all of Egypt. This could possibly be explained as hyperbole or exaggeration.

Joseph was given the wife of the daughter of the Priest of either Atum or Re, which seems to be an unusual honour from a Hyksos ruler who did not worship Atum, but the Canaanite Baal/Hadad (associated with the Egyptian Seth).

The Chronology is also suspect. The early date construction assumes that the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph was Ahmose, the first of the eighteenth dynasty rulers. The Biblical text implies that Joseph was buried with some honour (he was embalmed, which only happened for wealthy or important people), which suggests that he was buried before the eighteenth dynasty took over. A Hyksos vizier would not have been treated with an honourable and expensive burial by the eighteenth dynasty, and the enslaved Israelites would not have been capable of doing so. If Amraphel, the Mesopotamian King who opposed Abraham, is associated with Hammurabi, as the late date construction supposes, then this encounter would take place around 1760-1750BC. Isaac was born at least a decade after this time, and fathered Jacob and Esau at age sixty. Jacob fled to Canaan when he was some unspecified age over forty, and stayed in Haran for twenty years, with Joseph born right at the end of this time. Joseph was thirty years old when he entered Pharaoh's service, and thus about 40 when the Israelites entered Egypt when Isaac was 130, and died seventy years later. That puts a date for Joseph's death at around 1490BC, on the late Chronology. On any chronology, this is during the 18th dynasty, and thus during the period of oppression where Joseph would not have been honoured by the wider Egyptian society. Given that the Hyksos dynasty only lasted a little over 100 years this again leaves the timing rather tight If Joseph came to power in the twelfth dynasty, on the other hand, he would have died during the thirteenth dynasty, where the Asiatics still held an important position in society (with several Pharaohs with Asiatic names). One can get around this problem either by distrusting the Biblical numbers on which the calculation is based (giving the Patriarchs shorter lives, and placing Joseph's entry into Egypt earlier into Egypt), or by saying that Joseph could still have been embalmed and buried with honour by the Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptians despite being very closely associated with the Hyksos. This is not a disproof of the late date for Joseph, but the chronology is more easily reconciled with the early date.


It is thus over-exaggerating the case to claim that the archaeological evidence disproves the story of Joseph and the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Several aspects of the Biblical story are confirmed, most notably the presence of a large community of Asiatics in Egypt, many of whom were slaves including a few more specific mentions of Hebrew slaves, at the time when the Bible states that we ought to find them on either the early or late chronology. I'll discuss the end of the sojourn in more detail in the next post. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence matching the culture described in the Bible with that of the time in which the story was set.

There are, however, some parts of the story which are not confirmed. The biggest gap is the lack of an explicit mention of a figure who might be identified with Joseph in the Egyptian records based on the Egyptian name as recorded in the Bible and his life story. But this is not proof that Joseph did not live. There are gaps in our knowledge of the mid-twelfth dynasty, and even more so in the Hyksos period. We do not have contradictory evidence, but a lack of evidence (outside the Biblical record). Thus (for those who question the Biblical account) the existence of Joseph should be regarded as an open question rather than as something disproved.

More troubling for the early date are two problems. Would an Asiatic be granted political power during the twelfth dynasty? Can the mention of chariots in the Genesis account be reconciled with the evidence which suggests that chariots were introduced into Egypt under the Hyksos?

An Asiatic vizier in xenophobic ancient Egypt? It was certainly uncommon, bit it did happen during other periods of Egyptian history, such as the New Kingdom; and in the late 13th dynasty there were several Pharaohs with Asiatic names. So the possibility is not ruled out definitively. The question of chariots is also a difficulty, but not a fatal one, for the early date. Maybe the evidence concerning the introduction of chariots has been misread -- chariots were used in Mesopotamia and the Levant at this time, and the reference does not require that they were widely used in Egypt; indeed some might say that it implies that they were not since there is only evidence of two of them. Maybe the word was an anachronism introduced by the (New Kingdom) author of the Genesis account, applying the wrong name to an earlier wheeled vehicle. Chariots are only mentioned incidentally and play no key part of the story. So this is a problem, but not enough to derail the early chronology, if other factors favour it, and certainly not enough to prove the Joseph story false. Neither of these are issues for the late date for Joseph.

So as with the story of Abraham, there are gaps when we reconcile the story of Joseph with the archaeological record, and it would certainly be more comfortable for the Christian, Jewish or Islamic apologist if these gaps were filled. But these gaps and tensions arise from a lack of archaeological evidence, not contradictory evidence. And it is wholly unsurprising that we don't know everything about the Egypt of 3500 years ago.

Next time we will move closer to our own time, and see what the situation is regarding whether the archaeological evidence contradicts the story of Moses and the Exodus.

Reader Comments:

1. Michael Brazier
Posted at 01:14:37 Thursday July 8 2021

Broken link to image

The image of the mortuary statue in Avaris isn't showing up; the link is to a file that doesn't exist.

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 17:46:14 Thursday July 8 2021

Missing image

Thanks Michael. Now fixed.

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