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SBL e-journal

Israel Knohl





Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptian History





APA e-journal

Israel Knohl





Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptian History








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Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptian History

During the reign of Pharaoh Siptah, Egypt had a powerful vizier from the Levant named Baya, who dominated even the Pharaoh. Archaeological records and climatological studies show that this was right in the middle of a lengthy famine that affected the entire Mediterranean.


Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptian History

Pharaoh Siptah receives life from the god Horus. John D. Croft / Wikimedia

Genesis 41 tells of a lengthy famine which, according to the text, lasts seven years. The famine is so deadly that people have nothing to eat, not only in Egypt, but in the surrounding lands as well. Egypt, however, survives the famine by storing extra grain from previous good years, and all the neighboring lands come to Egypt to buy food.

This famine provides the background for the story of how Jacob and his extended family end up in Egypt. They are just one group out of many that come to Egypt to buy food. But does this dramatic account of a regional famine have any basis in Egyptian history? In other words, do we have any historical record of a dramatic or widespread famine that might bring many people to move to Egypt on a quasi-permanent basis? One such event that we can identify is attested.

When the Bronze Age Collapsed

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, in the last decades of the 13th century and the early decades of the 12th century B.C.E., the Mediterranean world suffered a decades-long series of draughts and famines.[1] Many of the more vulnerable lands in the Levant and the Mediterranean were in desperate need of food. Egypt was in a unique position to supply food since it depended on the annual inundation of the Nile rather than on rainfall.[2]

This famine began in the final years of Ramesses II, who ruled for 66 years, from 1279–1213 B.C.E., dying in his early nineties. The Hittite Empire in Anatolia (modern day eastern Turkey) was hit particularly hard from the beginning and turned to their historic rival Egypt for assistance. This is attested in a letter from the Hittite Queen Puduhepa to this Pharaoh about a royal marriage between their two houses, where she notes that the Hittite princess was given animals as her dowry, and tells Ramesses II to quickly take possession of them himself, since “I have no grain in my lands” with which to take care of them.[3]

When Ramesses II’s son Merneptah (1213–1203 B.C.E.) takes over as an old man,[4] he immediately has to contend with the challenges of being the only country with an excess of food in the region. In his first year as Pharaoh, Merneptah boasts how “he caused grain to be taken in ships, to keep alive this land of Hatti”[5]—in other words, he sends boatloads of wheat to the starving Hittite Empire.[6]

Of course, Egypt did not send this wheat to the Hittites as a charitable donation. A letter uncovered in Tel Aphek (near Antipatris) from the governor of Ugarit to the Egyptian governor of Canaan, describes a shipment containing about 15 tons of grain paid for with silver, to which the governor of Ugarit added 100 shekels of blue and purple (biblical תכלת וארגמן) dyed wool.

As the Israeli Hittitologist Itamar Singer (1946–2012) notes: “The efforts invested in procuring such a relatively small amount of grain only emphasize the severity of the situation.”[7] Ultimately, before the advent of the Iron Age, the Hittite Empire crumbled as a consequence of both the famine and the invasions from marauders looking for food.

The famine extended beyond the Levant and Asia minor, throughout the Mediterranean. Greece was affected, and the Mycenean culture, with its luxurious palaces, collapsed. Other civilizations in the Greek and Italian islands, such as Sicily and Sardinia, were also destroyed, and the peoples of the Greek and Hittite empires began to wander, looking for a more hospitable environment.

This famine is responsible for a wave of destructions in the Levant. Emar, a powerful city on the Euphrates in Syria, Ugarit, and many Canaanite city-states are destroyed in his period. The Ugaritic texts describe the invaders from the sea, showing that the king and his people knew what was coming, but were powerless to stop it.

Invading Egypt for Resources

It is thus not surprising that in this period, many people attempted to enter Egypt. Some trickled in as migrants and settled in the Delta, while others attempted to invade Egypt in large groups, using force.

The Merneptah Stele describes one such attempt to conquer Egypt and settle it by force during that king’s fifth year (1208 B.C.E.). This stele narrates how Merneptah succeeded in defeating a coalition of invaders, led by Merey, who attempted to enter Egypt from Libya.[8] The goal of this invasion appears to have been to take control of Egypt’s grain depots to save themselves from starvation. Merneptah defeated them, and, in Egyptian style, extols his victories.

Another attempt to conquer Egypt occurred towards the end of this half century of famine, in 1175, during the 11th year of the reign of Ramesses III (1186–1155). A massive coalition of tribes from Greece, Crete, Sardinia and other places, what scholars call “the Sea Peoples,” attempted to infiltrate Egypt.

The most famous of these Sea Peoples are the Philistines, who settled on the coast of Canaan in the area between what is now the Gaza Strip and modern-day Tel Aviv. Other groups, such as the Sikil, settled farther north, in Dor and Akko. Ramesses III immortalized his victory on what is known as the Medinet Habu inscription, which also includes images of the invading troops and the Egyptian counter-insurgency and victory.

Scientists studying the remnants of plants from Israel and Turkey, and all the way to Ireland, have confirmed that this period was catastrophic for plant growth.[9] All of this evidence suggests that during this fifty-year period, the Mediterranean experienced a long period of drought which destroyed societies dependent on agriculture; Egypt, which did not depend on rainfall, was spared.

Backdrop to the Joseph Story

I suggest this famine serves as the backdrop for the Joseph story. Jacob and his extended family are suffering in Canaan from the famine, and go to Egypt with bags of hacksilver in order to buy grain.[10] This group would have been one of many to do so, and we can hardly expect to find any description of it in Egyptian records. But one detail of the Joseph saga stands out as something we can look for in the archaeological record: Joseph and the role that he played.

A Non-Egyptian Vizier

According to the biblical story, after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and develops a strategy to store grain for the years of famine, Pharaoh appoints Joseph vizier:

בראשית מא:מ אַתָּה תִּהְיֶה עַל בֵּיתִי וְעַל פִּיךָ יִשַּׁק כָּל עַמִּי רַק הַכִּסֵּא אֶגְדַּל מִמֶּךָּ.
Gen 41:40 You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you."[11]

Thus, when the brothers appear in Egypt to purchase grain, they must contend with Joseph:

בראשית מב:ו וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה.
Gen 42:6 Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground.

This verse suggests that a foreigner from Canaan becomes a vizier in Egypt so powerful that he effectively has control of the government. In certain periods, Egypt did have viziers with this kind of power, usually appointed for a Pharaoh who acceded to the throne as a minor.

These regent-like viziers, however, were typically Egyptians attached to the royal family;[12] it would be very unusual for a foreigner to get this position.[13] Nevertheless, we do have evidence from the middle of the famine period of a foreign vizier or chancellor with that kind of power.

The Story of Chancellor Baya

Baya (by, 𓃝 𓇌—more on this name later) was an important scribe and palace official of northern origin (i.e., Canaan, Transjordan, or Syria)[14] during the reign of Merneptah’s son Seti II (1203–1197). When Seti II died without a clear heir, Baya backed the claim of a boy named Siptah, who became the next Pharaoh.

Siptah's foot, Wikimedia

Some believe Siptah was the son of Seti II, others that he was the son of the rebel king Amenmesse, who attempted to usurp the throne from Seti II.[15] From his mummy, we know that Siptah was crippled with a deformed left foot (pes equinovarus), perhaps as the result of polio or a congenital malformation;[16] he ended up dying while still a teenager, having reigned only five or six years.[17]

During the first few years of his brief reign (1197–1191 B.C.E.), Twosret (or Tausert), the wife (and sister) of Seti II, functioned as his guardian (the same way Hatshepsut did for Thutmose III).[18] By Twosret’s side, serving as chancellor, and to some extent as regent, was Baya.

In two different inscriptions, Baya is described as the one “who established the king on the seat of his father.”[19] To quote University of Bristol Egyptologist Aidan Dodson, “Bay[a]’s boast is particularly striking: for a man to claim to have been installed by a king in his father’s place is quite normal; for a man to have done so for the king is without parallel.”[20] This claim is unprecedented, since according to Egyptian religio-political beliefs, one of the gods was responsible for choosing the next pharaoh. Perhaps Baya’s foreign origin made him less sensitive to Egyptian cultural norms. In any case, the controversy over the accession of Siptah allowed Baya to boast about being the one responsible for his taking the throne as Pharaoh.

According to Egyptian records, Baya’s title was both Treasurer and Vizier or Chancellor (scholars seem to use these translations interchangeably), and in his letter to Ugarit, he signs as Egypt’s Major General. In other words, Baya was, essentially, in charge of everything, at one time or another.

Another sign of Baya’s importance is the statue of a Mnevis Bull—an important part of the sun cult—found with Baya’s name and titles on it in the Mnevis Bull cemetery in I͗wnw, biblical On (אוֹן).[21]

Finally, Baya’s tomb also reflects his significance.

Baya’s Tomb (KV13)

Due to the importance the afterlife in Egyptian religion, important Egyptians spent their lives and fortunes preparing their tombs. Baya, despite being a foreigner, was no exception. Quite remarkably, Baya’s tomb (KV13) was built in the Valley of Kings in Thebes/Luxor, which was generally reserved for Pharaohs and their families (royal wives, princes, etc.).

Though not unprecedented—Amenemipet, vizier to Amenhotop II and Thutmose II, was buried in KV48[22]— Baya’s tomb was carved right next to that of Twosret (KV14).[23] Moreover, the immense size of this tomb, with multiple rooms and decorations, is unprecedented for a non-royal.[24] Finally, the carvings on the walls depict Baya with funerary gods, imagery generally reserved for Pharaohs.

Baya’s Yahwistic Name

The name Baya is unusual. For a long time, Egyptologists wrote his name as “Bay” (many still do), since hieroglyphic and hieratic writing does not have short vowels, and his name is spelled in Hieroglyphics 𓃝 𓇌 𓀀 namely, the syllable ba (b), the letter y, and then a determinative meaning “man.”[25]

Nevertheless, as a letter of his to King Ammurapi of Ugarit was found in the Urtenu archive (RS 86.2230), with the name spelled Beya in Akkadian cuneiform, a syllabic writing which includes short vowels, we know it was pronounced with a final vowel sound “a.”[26] (The shift between Akkadian Beya and Egyptian Baya is a relatively minor pronunciation adjustment, common when names travel between languages.)

As Baya has no obvious meaning in Egyptian, most scholars assume it is a Semitic name. But what does it mean? Here the Bible may help us.

Yah and Beyah

In the Bible, the name YHWH has an abbreviated form, Yah (יה). Yet in two verses, the name is written ביה (Beyah). The first example appears in Psalm 68, which I have argued elsewhere, is a very ancient composition.[27]

תהלים סח:ה שִׁירוּ לֵאלֹהִים זַמְּרוּ שְׁמוֹ סֹלּוּ לָרֹכֵב בָּעֲרָבוֹת בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ וְעִלְזוּ לְפָנָיו.
Ps 68:5 Sing to God, chant hymns to His name; extol Him who rides the clouds; Beyah is His name. Exult in His presence.

The term “rider of clouds,” was the epithet in ancient times for the western-Semitic storm God Adad/Hadad, known by his epithet Baʿal (“the master”). This verse emphasizes that the deity who controls rain and clouds is Beyah, the Israelite God, and not Baʿal.

The second reference to Beyah appears in the book of Isaiah:

ישעיהו כו:ד בִּטְחוּ בַי־הוָה עֲדֵי עַד כִּי בְּיָהּ יְ־הוָה צוּר עוֹלָמִים.
Isa 26:4 Trust in YHWH for ever and ever, for Beyah YHWH is an everlasting Rock.

Later rabbinic liturgy seems to have a version of this name as well. During the confession of the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Mishnah writes (m. Yoma 6:2):

אנא השם עוו פשעו חטאו לפניך עמך בית ישראל
Please, Hashem! I have done wrong, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, Your people the house of Israel.
אנא בשם כפר נא לעונות ולפשעים ולחטאים שעוו ושפשעו ושחטאו לפניך עמך בית ישראל
Please, Bashem! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, Your people the house of Israel.

The great Israeli historian, Gedaliahu Allon (1902–1950), explained that in both cases shem should be understood as a stand in for YHWH, and thus Bashem equals Beyahweh or, in the short version, Beyah or Beyahu.[28] To explain this unusual term, Allon pointed to the two verses quoted above, and suggested that the divine name with the prefix b is an alternate form of the name without the prefix. Allon stopped short of explaining the meaning of this epithet, which I think should be understood against the backdrop of the Egyptian documents.

In Yahwa-Land

The geographical list in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple, dated to around 1350, mentions various nomadic tribes, shaswe (šꜣsw, ) living in various lands. The area near Nomad-land Seir was Nomad-land Yahwa (yhwꜣ(w), ). Another list from Ramesses II also mentions the nomads living in this land.

As I noted in my, "YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name," TheTorah (2018), this is also the area in which a group called Jacob-el, likely proto-Israelites, are said to have lived.[29] In other words, the name of the Israelite deity YHWH and the land Yahwa are connected. In fact, the Bible twice describes YHWH as coming from the area of Seir, the area where Yahwa-land is also found:

דברים לג:ב יְ־הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ
Deut 33:2 YHWH came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir
שופטים ה:ד יְ־הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם
Judg 5:4 O YHWH, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom,

Looking at the Egyptian evidence together with that of these biblical poems, it seems as if YHWH/Yahwa is both the name of the deity and the name of the land. This pattern is attested in the ancient Near East: Ashur, for example, was the name of both the area of Assyria and its high god. I suggest that the meaning of the obscure Beyah “in Yah(wa),” is “the deity who is manifest in the land of Yahwa.”

In short, Baya/Beyah has a Yahwistic theophoric name, though it is strange that it contains only the divine element.[30] It is thus likely that Baya was a proto-Israelite, part of the Jacob-El clan from Nomad-land Yahwa, who migrated to Egypt during the famine.

Baya’s Abrupt End

Tomb KV13 was never completed; it has no funerary goods inside, nor was his mummified body ever placed inside. For a long time, the fate of Baya and why he never used his tomb remained a mystery. The mystery was solved, however, when French Egyptologist Pierre Grandet combined two broken parts of an ostracon, which yielded the following:

Year 5 III Shemu the 27th. On this day, the scribe of the tomb Paser came announcing “Pharaoh—Life! Prosperity! Health!—has killed the great enemy Bay(a).”[31]

This suggests that in the fifth year of his reign, Siptah has Baya executed as a traitor. Whether this was instigated by him or Twosret, perhaps Baya spoke too boldly when he had scribes write that he was responsible for Siptah’s accession to the throne, or the royal family feared that Baya might try to accumulate even more power. Enemies of the Pharaoh do not receive burial rights in the valley of the kings—thus, the unfinished tomb.[32]

Joseph and Baya

The biblical story of Joseph and the Egyptian records about Baya do not tell the same story. According to the records, Egypt did not suffer during the famine, and Baya didn’t get his position by interpreting a Pharaoh’s dream. The famine was fifty years not seven, and Baya did not live to see years of plenty because he was executed by the Pharaoh. These are only some of the many differences between the accounts. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the points of correspondence:

  • Both are foreigners from the north who work for Pharaoh.
  • Both serve during a time of famine.
  • Both have a combined job description of vizier and treasurer.
  • Baya serves as a kind of regent to a child pharaoh, and Joseph, in his conversation with his brothers, states that God: וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. “has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (Gen 45:8).
  • Baya has a connection to On (Heliopolis), and Joseph is said to have married the daughter of the priest of On (Gen 41:45).[33]
  • Both have Yahwistic names.[34]
  • Both took Egyptian names: Baya takes the name Ramesse Khamenteru, and Joseph, Tzafenat Paaneach (Gen 41:45).[35]


As Oxford professor of Bible Jan Joosten has recently shown,[36] the language in which the Joseph story was written is Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), from the monarchic period. This fits with source-critical analysis, which shows that much of the story was part of the northern Elohistic source, written around the 8th century B.C.E., not much before the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E.

This, however, does not mean that the story dates to this period. Instead, traditions about this once powerful Hebrew vizier were passed down by the Jacob-El/proto-Israelite group for centuries, and entered Israel with the settlement of this group in the Cisjordan. Naturally, the stories about Joseph/Baya were embellished over time, and adjusted to fit other parts of the Elohistic narrative.

In addition to the story which became the core of the Pentateuchal account, we have other, independent, references to this figure in biblical poetry:

תהלים פא:[ה]ו עֵדוּת בִּיהוֹסֵף[37] שָׂמוֹ בְּצֵאתוֹ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
Ps 81:[ 5 ]6 He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt.

Why this once powerful vizier is called Joseph in the later biblical tradition but Baya in contemporary Egyptian documents is a matter of speculation, but the bottom line is that the biblical character Joseph overlaps significantly with the historical person Baya. Thus, I suggest that the memory of the powerful Hebrew Baya/Beyah, who became Egypt’s vizier, more powerful than Pharaoh himself, was the basis for the story of Joseph the vizier, who ran Egypt during the time of the great famine.


December 26, 2019


Last Updated

June 18, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Israel Knohl is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Hebrew University. Knohl’s numerous publications include: The Sanctuary of Silence, which won the Z. Shkopp Prize for Biblical Studies and The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.