A Little Background: Joseph in Egypt

As you may know, the Nile River Basin is Egypt; the open desert on either side is mostly empty of life, and certainly never saw much human life. In ancient times this was more so the case. Today’s modern Cairo (ancient Memphis) is centered more or less at the head of the Nile Delta. The famous Giza Pyramids cluster is nestled against the southwestern edge of Cairo. It’s somewhat off the Nile Valley.

When Joseph was brought down to Egypt, it would have been roughly 1880 BC, during the early Middle Kingdom Period. By this time the Giza Pyramids were already centuries old. The Djoser Pyramid was farther south along the Nile and almost as old. This cluster of monuments weren’t too far from the cities these ancient pharaohs had built in or near ancient Memphis.

Somewhere farther south was an oasis that had come and gone several times over the centuries. It was fed by a slender branch of the Nile somewhat west of the main valley. While it initially gained attention as a very large, spread out lush green area for hunting, this was also the primary source of papyrus at that time. It drew a lot of attention and during the 12th Dynasty saw the construction of canals ordered by Pharaoh to spread the water across the area between the huge oasis lake and that branch of the Nile. This was all in place when Joseph arrived.

Pharaoh’s capital at that time was where one of the canals fed into that slender river branch, and was named al-Lahun. This 12th Dynasty had a somewhat lesser interest in the Nile Delta. Instead, there had been some efforts to suppress the Nubians far to the south, upstream on the Nile River. It’s quite likely Joseph came to serve in the House of Potiphar during the reign of Sesostris II (AKA Senworset or Sunusret). This ruler’s position as Pharaoh was a little weak against the independence of the nobles in Egypt at that time.

But it was likely Joseph entered court service under Sesostris III. We know from Egyptian records that this Pharaoh managed to centralize political authority during his reign so that he was actually the master of Egypt. It was also the peak of prosperity and power for the Middle Kingdom Period. The Faiyum district in particular became the hub of national wealth. The crops grown here were considered the best in the whole country. They were traded far and wide.

Thus, when Joseph moved his tribe into the Nile Delta, they were among many other wandering tribes coming down from farther north. Large sections of the Delta were grassy and perfect for herd animals, while the imperial center farther south was more about farming and using water buffalo for agricultural work. It’s no surprise the Bible says Pharaoh’s court had a low opinion of shepherds. Eventually the 12th Dynasty declined and Faiyum fell into some neglect. Meanwhile, some of the migratory outsiders in the Delta rose to oppress everyone else there.

I teach that the Pharaoh who rose up and didn’t know Joseph was Hyksos, the non-native invasive nomads (likely some Semitic tribe) who rose to relative independence from the native Egyptians farther upriver. They never took over much of the rest of Egypt, but dominated the Nile Delta. Once they gained some level of power, they did as most other conquering hoards in the Ancient Near East and adopted some measure of the local language, culture and religion. The Hyksos worshiped mostly Set, which they considered the closest Egyptian version of their actual deity, Baal. Set was the snake god typically regarded by native Egyptians as somewhat like the Hebrew Devil. These Semitic rulers would have found the Hebrews a hostile influence in the Delta, since they were so favored by the previous native dynasty. Thus, it was the Hyksos that first began the oppression and enslavement of the Hebrew people.

However, the Pharaoh of Exodus was from the dynasty of native Egyptians who drove the Hyksos out. This was the 18th Dynasty, and the Exodus pharaoh was most likely Thuthmose III. The biblical narrative takes little interest in the details of Egyptian history, because the focus is the Hebrew nation. What we see is that this new dynasty destroyed everything the Hyksos built, then took over the same enslavement policy to build their own stuff in the Delta. While the Hyksos were a little rough on the Hebrews, the new rulers saw them as dangerous allies of those foreign invaders. Thus, the slavery became far more brutal under the native rulers.

The 18th Dynasty began with the expulsion of the Hyksos a century before Moses’ time. What few people consider is that Moses had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, with Hatshepsut most likely his foster mother. That means the pharaoh he faced off against was his foster brother, which tempered how Thutmose could treat him.

Another issue that too many people miss is that much of what is given to us in the biblical narrative took place at a very slow pace. For example, the interaction between Moses and Pharaoh played out for roughly a year. It was a long trip upriver from the Nile Delta to Pharaoh’s court at Thebes, far upstream.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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