Joseph in Egypt
A brief life of Joseph
1 ‑ Captive in a strange land
Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob, born to Rachel eight or nine years before the family left Haran and returned to Canaan. He comes into the story in Gen. 37 at seventeen years of age and already in bad odour with his elder half-brothers, for, it is said, he brought unto his father their "evil report" (37.2). To what extent this procedure partook of "tale-bearing" does not appear; it is plain though that several of Jacob's sons were most undesirable characters and Joseph might well have been justified in whatever it was he told his father. What does stand out is Jacob's avowed predilection for Joseph, clearly on account of his being the first-born son of his beloved Rachel. The 'coat of many colours' which 37.3 declares Jacob had made for his favourite son has been variously explained. There is good reason for supposing that it was what the AV says it was, a variegated garment made of various materials of different colours sewn together in a definite pattern. There is a famous Egyptian tomb painting of the 12th dynasty, which is some time before that of Joseph, showing Asiatic visitors to Egypt clad in just such garments. It would seem that Jacob, perhaps influenced by the power of the Holy Spirit, was already realising something of Joseph's future exaltation.
The brothers' jealousy was intensified when Joseph began to relate his dreams, and they perceived the implication. One dream showed them binding sheaves in the field when Joseph's sheaf stood upright and all the others bowed down to it. Later on he dreamed again and saw the sun and moon and eleven stars making obeisance to him. His father rebuked him at this, for in the strict code of the East the father is supreme until his death and this dream savoured of something like high treason. Yet 37.11 says that his father "observed the saying" where 'observe' means to take diligent heed. Perhaps he remembered his own dream something like half a century earlier of the ladder stretched up to heaven and wondered if this was another pointer to the outworking of God's purpose. He must have realised that his elder sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, were all of them men of blood and most unlikely to be chosen to execute the Lord's purposes. But for the present Joseph must take his place as a lad in the family duties and so it came about that he was sent to report on the welfare of the brothers who were guarding Jacob's far-flung interests at the other end of Canaan.
Jacob had established his headquarters somewhere near his father Isaac at Hebron. His flocks however apparently ranged far and wide over Canaan as far north as Shechem, fifty miles away. When Joseph got there he found that his brothers had moved on to Dothan, twelve miles farther still. Casual allusions like this make it plain that Canaan must have been very thinly populated at that time; it is highly probable that Abraham and his descendants counted for a large part of the inhabitants if their flocks and herds could thus apparently graze unmolested over what was practically the entire length and breadth of present-day Israel.
The rascally brothers saw Joseph coming and hatched a plot. It would be easy to kill him and persuade their father that he had been slain by a wild beast somewhere on the way, and all they were able to recover was the bloodstained garment. Reuben, the eldest, was evidently not in agreement with the proposal but felt himself in a hopeless minority. He therefore proposed that Joseph be cast into one of the water cisterns, cut out of rock, which abounded in the district, deep excavations from which a man could not escape unaided, intending to rescue him later and smuggle him back to his father. Reuben's plan worked up to the point of dropping Joseph into the pit, but while he was away from the others, evidently busy about some duty connected with the flocks, Judah, also somewhat conscience stricken at the projected murder of their brother, proposed that their end could be equally well achieved by selling Joseph as a slave to passing traders and so the guilt of blood need not rest on them. The bargain was struck and the Ishmaelite traders took Joseph in exchange for twenty shekels of silver and carried him into Egypt. Reuben, returning later to the pit, was grief-stricken at the turn events had taken. It would appear that he regarded himself responsible to his father for the younger son's safety. But there was nothing to be done; Joseph was gone from their lives, and all Reuben could do was acquiesce in the brothers' lie to Jacob, a lie which broke the old man's heart. "All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him but he refused to be comforted, and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning." (37.35). This particular verse is interesting as showing that in addition to his twelve sons Jacob also had a number of daughters; the only one whose name is recorded is Dinah. A characteristic of the Old Testament, or rather the genealogies which are incorporated in the Old Testament, is that daughters are not mentioned or recorded unless some particular incident is connected with their names.
So Joseph travelled with the caravan of merchants along the highway which connected Canaan with Egypt, a slow two hundred mile journey lying for the most part along the seacoast, until his captors passed the frontier guards. Joseph saw with his own eyes the land his great-grandfather Abraham had visited nearly two centuries earlier, the land of the Pharaohs. Modern research has established that his entry must have been during the 17th century BC, when the Hyksos, Semitic invaders from Syria, ruled Egypt. The Hyksos capital was Zoan (later called Tanis) in the eastern Nile delta, and this was the district in which lay the land of Goshen later assigned to the people of Israel. An incidental support for the view that it was in the time of the Hyksos that Joseph entered Egypt lies in the fact that according to the narrative he was bought from the Ishmaelites by "Potiphar an officer of Pharaoh, an Egyptian". Were the reigning house an Egyptian one there would seem no point in mentioning the fact that the captain of the guard was an Egyptian; the fact would be assumed as a matter of course. If, however, the reigning Pharaoh was of the Semitic race, almost certainly most of his court officials would be Semitic also. The historian would feel some reluctance to have it thought that any such would take a brother Semite as slave, hence the care to point out that in this case the individual concerned was an Egyptian.
The story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by his master's wife is well known and has formed the subject of many a sermon and homily. The fact that Joseph's master contented himself with putting Joseph in prison instead of to death, which was the usual punishment for the crime, seems to indicate that Potiphar was probably not altogether convinced of the truth of the accusation. But Joseph stayed in prison for anything up to ten years and it was during that time that the incident occurred which became the means of his subsequent exaltation to the highest position in Egypt next to Pharaoh himself.
Two of Pharaoh's officials, his butler and his baker, had offended and been cast into prison and so brought into contact with Joseph. Each had a dream, and with the superstition of the age each wanted to know the interpretation. Joseph pointed out, as Daniel was to do in similar circumstances a thousand years later, that the interpretation belonged to God, and in his confidence of faith indicated that he could reveal to them the meaning of their dreams. For the butler the news was good; for the baker it was bad. One was to be pardoned and the other executed. Within three days the prediction was fulfilled and the butler stood at his accustomed place attending upon Pharaoh. But he forgot the young man who had prophesied his good fortune, and Joseph remained in prison still.
Two years went by, and then it was Pharaoh's turn to dream. Seven fat cows came up out of the Nile and fed in the rank grass growing by the riverside, and behind them seven thin and ill-favoured cows who ate up the fat ones and yet remained thin and ill-favoured as before. Seven full ears of wheat on one stalk swallowed up by seven withered and thin ears. The magicians and wise men were unable to interpret the dreams and it was then that the butler remembered the young man in the prison who had correctly interpreted his own dream two years before. So it came about that Joseph was hastily brought out of prison, dressed and shaved, and ushered into the presence of Pharaoh.
This Pharaoh was probably Salitas, the first of the Hyksos kings. He was an Arab or Syrian chieftain who invaded Egypt and set up his court at Zoan in the Delta and ruled, with his successors, for something like a hundred years, constituting what are known as the 15th and 16th dynasties. Towards the end of the rule of the Hyksos, or "Shepherd Kings" as they are sometimes called, native Egyptians challenged their grip on the land and for a long time there were Hyksos and native kings exercising sovereignty over different parts of Egypt so that the 17th dynasty overlapped those of the Hyksos. Then at last Aahmes the first king of the 18th dynasty expelled the last of the Hyksos from the country and Egypt was united under a single rulership. This was about twenty years after the death of Joseph and since the Israelites were of the same race, the Semitic, as the hated Hyksos, and moreover had been greatly favoured by them, it is probable that from this time began the oppression of the children of Israel which hardened later on into the slavery which led to the Exodus.
Joseph modestly disclaimed all ability of his own and accredited God with the power to interpret. He told Pharaoh that the dreams portended a seven year period of plenty followed by seven years of famine through all the land. He counselled Pharaoh to appoint a wise and discreet man to supervise the storage of all supplies produced during the seven years of plenty for reserve against the seven years of famine.
With impetuous informality Pharaoh immediately appointed Joseph to act in the character suggested. At this point there is another sidelight on the likelihood of Joseph's Pharaoh being one of the Hyksos. Said Pharaoh (41.38-39) "Can we find such a man as this, in whom the Spirit of God is?" And then addressing Joseph, "forasmuch as God has showed you all this…" Now all the native kings of Egypt acknowledged and served many gods; it is most unlikely that this Pharaoh who thus acknowledge one God, in the singular, was other than one of the Semitic Hyksos. It is well known nowadays that the worship of the "Most High God" was common in Canaan and Syria at that time. Melchisedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem in Abraham's time was one such worshipper and so was Abimelech king of Gerar. Here is another. It is very likely that this similarity of worship is one reason, perhaps the principal reason, for the welcome which Jacob and his family received when they came into Egypt.
The sudden exaltation of Joseph to the highest position in the land need not be thought improbable or fantastic. There is a story in Egyptian history of one Saneha who came into Egypt a poor man in the reign of Amenemhet I, the first king of the 12th dynasty, married a local nobleman's daughter, acquired great wealth and was finally exalted to high office by the Pharaoh. This is almost a perfect likeness to the story of Joseph, although it must have been more than two centuries before his time.
The expression "Bow the knee" in 41.43 is "abrech" in the original and the translators, not knowing its meaning, read it as "Habrech" which does mean "Bow the knee". It is now known that "abrech" was a popular acclaim meaning literally "rejoice, be happy" but having much the same significance as our expression "God save the Queen". It was a shout of loyalty raised by the people as Joseph passed through the streets.
Gen.41.41 declares that Pharaoh changed Joseph's name to "Zaphnath-paneah" an Egyptianised word meaning "the food of life", in obvious allusion to his mission of preserving Egypt through famine. He also married Joseph to Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of the Sun-god (not to be confused with Potiphar captain of the guard, Joseph's erstwhile owner). It might be queried why Joseph consented to such marriage when the Lord had beforetime laid emphasis in marrying only within the Semitic race. The answer may well be that Potipherah was himself a Semitic immigrant like his royal master so that no objection could stand on this point at all. There is just one hint that this may in fact have been the case. "Potipherah" is an Egyptian term meaning "servant-of-the-Sun-god" and is extremely common in the Egyptian inscriptions. It is really a title rather than a proper name, indicating that the holder was the senior religious official in the land, 'High Priest' so to speak. Potipherah would be a man of immense authority and in the closest counsels of Pharaoh. But the name of his daughter, Asenath, means "dedicated to Anath", and Anath was not an Egyptian deity. Anath was a goddess worshipped by the Semitic Syrians and before them by the Babylonians, who looked upon her as the consort of Anu the god of heaven. It is very unlikely that a native Egyptian High Priest should commit so grave a breach of etiquette as to name his daughter in honour of a goddess of the Semites. On the other hand, if Joseph's father-in-law was a Syrian who came in to Egypt with the first of the Hyksos kings, what more natural thing than to name his daughter after one of his own national deities. This cannot possibly be claimed as proof, but her name does at least give some reason to think that Asenath might have been of the Syrian Semitic race and not native Egyptian, in which case she could even have been descended from one of Abraham's relatives and have derived ultimately from the parent stock of Terah. There is a sense of fitness in thinking that perhaps, after all, Joseph's sons Manasseh and Ephraim, progenitors of two tribes in Israel, were full blooded Hebrews and not half Semitic and half Hamitic.
The first seven years of Joseph's married life were busy ones, for he was constantly engaged travelling throughout all Egypt supervising the gathering and storage of as much surplus food as possible. In this connection it is not always realised that the Egypt of Joseph was not the whole of the country now known by that name. While the Semitic Hyksos were ruling in the north, native Egyptian Pharaohs were ruling in the south. The Egypt of Joseph stretched from the mouths of the Nile only about two hundred miles up the river and comprised mainly the Nile delta, the capital city of Pharaoh being quite near the frontier with Canaan. It is estimated that the population of Egypt at the time did not exceed one million so that Joseph might have had half a million people to provide for, about the population of a British city like Sheffield.
Then the years of plenty ceased and the years of famine came. Now was the efficacy of Joseph's work to be tested.
AOH (To be continued)