Was the Joseph Story Written in Egypt During the Persian Period?
Egyptology and Bible Studies
From its very beginning, the field of Egyptology was interested, if not obsessed, with Egypt’s role in the Hebrew Bible. The wealth of Egyptian records vis à vis the dearth of contemporary Israelite or Canaanite extra-biblical records, encouraged Egyptologists to provide the historical background for the holy scriptures.
Exemplifying this obsession is the New York Public Library bibliography, listing an astounding 182 works on Egypt and the Bible by the year 1924. Another 97 works were listed by 1941. Among these the works of notable Egyptologists such as,
- Emmanuel de Rouge (1811-1872, France),
- François Chabas (1817-1882, France),
- Wilhelm Spiegelberg (1826-1890, Germany),
- (Henri) Édouard Naville (1844-1926, Switzerland),
- Gaston Maspero (1846-1916, France),
- Wilhelm Max Müller (1862-1919, Germany),
- Sir Alan Gardiner (1879-1963, England).
These were all major Egyptologists of their day, who wrote extensively about the Egyptian elements in the Hebrew Bible.
The main objective of these studies was to verify the biblical accounts. This was neither masked nor veiled but explicitly proclaimed in such titles as Abraham Yahuda’s: The Accuracy of the Bible. The Stories of Joseph, the Exodus and Genesis Confirmed and Illustrated by Egyptian Monuments and Language.
Joseph in (which) Egypt?
Considering its Egyptian settings and the many Egyptian elements in the narrative, the story of Josephs’ descent to Egypt and his subsequent ascent to Egyptian governance has been one of the major focal points of inter-disciplinary studies of the Hebrew Bible. Many studies have highlighted the genuine ancient Egyptian aspects in it and provided parallels to the names, titles, customs and motifs – all taken from the vast records of ancient Egypt.
However, the exact historical setting of the composition of the Joseph story continues to elude scholars as they debate its connection to Egypt of the imperial era in the second millennium BCE or to the much later, Saite and Ptolemaic periods in the late first millennium BCE. Two important studies exemplify the range of approaches.
New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1070) – Jozef Vergote
In his 1959 study, the Flemish Egyptologist, Jozef Vergote (1910-1992), summarized and confirmed the broad consensus that the Joseph story reflected an intimate knowledge of Egypt during its imperial period, known as the New Kingdom. During this period, Egypt controlled considerable regions in the Levant, and saw the integration of several Semitic-named individuals into Egyptian administrative offices. Identifying a proto-type for Josephs’ figure within this timeframe was therefore a plausible idea.
Saite Egypt (664-525) – Donald Redford
Two decades later, a study by the Canadian Egyptologist and archaeologist, Donald Redford (b. 1934), revolutionized our view of Joseph’s Egypt through a critical and comprehensive study of the Egyptian “coloring” in the Joseph’s story.  Redford made use of all Ancient Egyptian sources, without confining his research to New Kingdom Egypt or earlier periods. In doing so, Redford noted that some Egyptian elements in the Joseph story appeared quite late in the Egyptian record, and although they could have represented earlier times as well, the critical mass of his comparanda pointed to a date in the first millennium.
This was no doubt also the result of Redford’s dialogue with contemporary views on biblical redaction and compilation as they were perceived in Europe, rather than in the US.
Customs from a Saite Egyptian Context
Redford’s study notes that many of the so called Egyptian practices in the Joseph story were not exclusive to Egypt and could also be found in other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Such were the trade caravans, the presence of Asiatic slaves, traditions and titles associated with the royal court, etc. Nevertheless, Redford focuses attention on some elements in the Joseph story that are purely Egyptian:
- The use of cows as symbols for years, a known Egyptian motif appearing in texts from the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE).
- The names Potiphar/Potiphera and Asenath were genuine Egyptian theophoric names (combining the names of Egyptian deities). Potiphar was based on a typical Saite Period construct combining the name of the Egyptian god Re. Asenath includes the name of the Egyptian goddess Neith, in a typical construct common from the New Kingdom era to the Ptolemaic period, although the goddess’s popularity increased considerably during the Saite period in the Delta (664-332 BCE).
- The 40 days embalming process (describing Jacob’s death in Gn 50:2) was well documented in Egypt from the New Kingdom onwards.
- The “agrarian reforms” in Gen 47:13-26 describe the exemption of the temples from royal taxation, a practice that was documented from the 8th century BCE onwards.
Despite the fact that the Egyptian elements in the story represent many different eras, Redford concluded that the composition of the Joseph story should be dated to the Saite period, between 640 and 425 BCE, as some of the details could not predate that period.
The Continuity of Egyptian Culture
This inability to identify one specific era in Egyptian history that could provide the historical background to the Joseph story is the result of an inherent trait of ancient Egyptian culture – its continuity. Egyptian traditions, names, titles and stories changed only very little over time.
This makes it very difficult to date a biblical story based on the Egyptian elements it includes. Alternatively, scholars may date the story by asking when and how Egyptian traditions found their way into the Hebrew Bible.
As biblical research grows more concerned with questions of transmission processes along the Egypt-Israel axis, an old idea has reemerged – could the Joseph story have been written by someone living in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt?
A Diaspora Novella
The “diaspora novella” genre was first noted with relation to the books of Esther and Daniel. Both describe one man’s rise to power in a foreign land, a story revolving around a royal court, and culminating with the successful integration of the foreigner within local elites. The background in both books is the exiled Jewish population and both display considerable knowledge of the court, its officials and customs.
The underlying message of both Daniel and Esther is that one can survive and even thrive in the diaspora setting. Therefore, these books were probably written in exile, for the exiles. In 1975, the biblical scholar Arndt Meinhold first suggested that the Joseph story follows the same narrative scheme of a diaspora novella set in the Egyptian court.
The Egyptian Diaspora
The idea of a Jewish diaspora in Egypt, compiling its own inspirational literature, is compelling. However, for the most part, the Egyptian diaspora before the Persian period (5th-4th centuries BCE) has remained invisible to Egyptologists. For example, in Jer 44:1, the prophet addresses Judeans that reside in the land of Egypt at Migdol, Tahpanhes, Noph and in the land of Pathros. Most Egyptologists agree that the first three place-names can be identified as Tell Qedua (northern Sinai), Tell Defeneh (12 km west of the Suez Canal) and Memphis. Nevertheless, these sites have not yielded remains that attest to their foreign Judahite/Israelite element during the 6th century BCE, the period of Jeremiah’s prophecies.
Perhaps too few Judahite and Israelite settlers were in Egypt to leave a significant mark. But it should not be surprising that some settled there after the destruction of Judah; trade relations between Egypt and Judah/Israel were maintained throughout the first millennium BCE, and those trade relations may have also led to the migration of smaller groups to Egypt, particularly after the destructions of Samaria (722 BCE) and Jerusalem (586 BCE).
The presence of Levantine-style pottery, typical of the late 8th and 7th centuries BCE, at various Egyptian sites has sometimes been understood as evidence for the inception of this Egyptian diaspora. Although such pottery may only indicate trade relations between Egypt and Judah/Israel, the presence of Levantine pottery that was locally produced in Egypt, may hint at the Judahite/Israelite origin of the people who produced and consumed these vessels in Egypt.
The Jewish Community of Elephantine
By the Persian period, a flourishing Jewish diaspora was already established on the island of Elephantine in Upper Egypt (Hebrew Yev), with strong ties to Jerusalem, a local temple and intricate community life. A vast archive of Aramaic letters written by the Jews of Elephantine reveals the military nature of this colony and provides a rare and detailed view of a diaspora community.
The Elephantine correspondence describes the conflict between the Jewish and the Egyptian temple on the island. This conflict resulted in the subsequent destruction of the Jewish temple. Such trials and tribulations could have motivated the formulation of local traditions on better negotiations with local elites, such as the Joseph story.
Joseph’s Land Deal: A Tax Exemption for Diaspora Jews?
Some themes in the Joseph story certainly fall within the scope of securing favorable conditions for the Egyptian diaspora. These include the ownership of the Land of Goshen, the exemption from agrarian taxes and the establishment of marital ties with local priestly elites exemplified by Joseph’s marriage to the daughter of the Heliopolite priest Potiphera.
One element of the story in particular may appear in a new light if seen as arising from the milieu of the Jewish Egyptian diaspora, namely, the importance of the Jewish connection to the land of Goshen in the Nile Delta. Goshen is mentioned nine times: once promised by Joseph, then settled by the newcomers, then promised by the Pharaoh (Gen 45:10; 46:28, 29; 46:34; 47:1, 4, 6, 27; 50:8). By comparison, Goshen is only mentioned twice more in the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus 8:22 and 9:26 (excluding the other Goshen in Joshua).
Israelite Land Wasn’t Taxed
Establishing private ownership of the Land of Goshen by the sons of Jacob could have served as a precedent for a tax exemption on Jewish land. Genesis 47:20-24 explains how Joseph established a tax over all Egyptian lands. The verses explain that during the famine, all the lands except for those of the priests were bought by the crown and while the Egyptians continued to work these lands they were taxed by one fifth of the crops. And yet, the text implies that this tax may not have been meant to extend to the Israelites in Goshen, as the next verse states:
בראשית מז:כז וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ וַיִּפְרוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹד.
Gen 47:27 Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.
Pharaoh granted the sons of Israel the right to live in Goshen (Gen 47:6) and they would have had no need to buy food in exchange for land, since Joseph promised to support them (Gen 45:11), and thus, it could be argued, the tax would not apply to them. This, in fact, is how the 12th century French exegete, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, interprets the verse:
ויאחזו בה – כי כל הארץ היתה לפרעה ונתנה להם, והרי היא להם לאחוזה, כי הם לא מכרו כלום. כי כמו שלא מכרו הכהנים שהיה להם חוק מאת פרעה, כך יוסף כילכל אחיו, ולא מכרו כלום, והיתה הארץ להם לאחוזה.
“And they settled in it” – for all the land was Pharaoh’s and he gave it to them, and it became their possession, since they did not sell anything. For just as the priests did not need to sell [their land] since such was the decree from Pharaoh, so too did Joseph support his brothers, and they had no need to sell anything, and the land became their possession.
The exemption of Israelites from taxes could serve as an ancient precedent for the diaspora story teller. Although certainly the Joseph story was not composed to procure a tax exemption for Jews or to confirm an existing one, understanding this detail adds yet another dimension to this artfully crafted diaspora tale.
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December 21, 2017
January 14, 2021
Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Theology, University of Lausanne. She received her Ph.D., M.A., B.A., and LL.B. Adv. all from Tel Aviv University. Her dissertation is titled: Egypt and Philistia in the early Iron Age: The Historical Record and the Archaeological Remains.
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