Patriarchs – Hebrews in Egypt
The patriarchs of the Old Testament—including Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph—were nomads and extensive travelers for their day. One of the places they visited and lived was ancient Egypt, passing through the Sinai Peninsula on the way to the fertile Nile Delta region in the northern part of Egypt. Here in the northern Sinai during the days of the Patriarchs, and later, were ancient highways used by armies, tradesmen, and travelers, and later protected by Egyptian border fortresses. The highway running along the coast was called the Way of Horus by the Egyptians, the Way of the Sea by the Romans, and the Way of the Land of the Philistines in the book of Exodus.
In Genesis 12:10, the Patriarch Abraham and his family go into Egypt to avoid a famine. Later, in Genesis 42-46, Jacob and his family enter and exit Egypt several times for the purpose of buying grain to avoid another famine, and finally decide to live in Goshen, or the land of Ramses in the northeast Nile Delta.
Patriarchs – Traveling the Ancient Highways
The Patriarchs would have traveled on the ancient highways along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt. In Egypt, a famous wall painting with text from Beni Hassan showing this type of activity survives. Dated to about 1870 BC, it depicts 15 pastoral, nomadic Semites entering Egypt just like Abraham, Jacob, and even the Ishmaelite traders who took Joseph. Speaking of Joseph being sold into slavery, Genesis states he was sold for 20 shekels of silver, while a famous law code called the Law of Hammurabi, from about the same time as Joseph in the 18th century BC also states the value of a slave as 20 shekels. Prices increased over time, ranging from 10 shekels before Abraham’s time, to 120 shekels over 1000 years after Joseph.
When Abraham arrived in Egypt, the Great Pyramids had already been completed hundreds of years before, and the Pharaoh ruled from a place called Itjtawy, possibly located around Lisht, a Middle Kingdom royal cemetery south of Cairo. Here, Abraham may have encountered the Pharaoh and seen the two pyramid complexes of Amenemhat I and Senusret I. Abraham did not stay long, however, and returned to the land of Canaan where he raised his son Isaac. Interestingly, there is an ancient Egyptian text about a man who had a lifestyle similar to that of Abraham. Called “The Tale of Sinuhe,” it was written around Abraham’s time in about 1900 BC. It is the story of a man from Egypt who goes to the Levant and becomes a nomad chief living in tents, moving from place to place, raising livestock, commanding a small force of men, and having various adventures.
Patriarchs – The Account of Joseph in Egypt
By the time the Patriarch Joseph arrives in Egypt, things had changed a bit. Northern Egypt, known as Lower Egypt, had been infiltrated by people from the Levant, and some of these people rose to positions of power. Slowly, northern Egypt was coming under the control of these foreigners. So, when Joseph entered Egypt, there were already many people like him—some in important government positions. Joseph begins as a lowly house slave in an Egyptian town, and is said to be appointed “over his [Potiphar’s] house” (Genesis 39:4). The Middle Kingdom Brooklyn Papyrus from the 18th century BC, around the time of Joseph, uses the same terminology when referring to a chief slave, titling him in Egyptian as “imy-r pr” or “over the house.” The name of Joseph’s first master was Potiphar and the name of Joseph’s wife was Asenath (Genesis 37:36, 41:45). These were Egyptian names commonly used in the Middle Kingdom, during the time of Joseph, but later the names became unusual and were rarely, if ever, used (J.F. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, pg. 72; Cf. Kenneth Kitchen). Usually, those slaves with Asiatic or Semitic names would have a new Egyptian name assigned. Genesis 41:45 records this practice when Joseph is given a new Egyptian name. Joseph’s Egyptian name, recorded in Hebrew as Zaphenath-paneah, which is a mouthful to say, is even more perplexing to decipher. Scholars still are not sure what it means.
Ultimately, misfortune falls on Joseph, when he is accused of sexual assault by his master’s flirtatious wife. As punishment, he is put “into the jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined” (Genesis 39:20). He remained there for two years until the Pharaoh freed him (Genesis 41:1). His imprisonment is interesting because in the ancient Near East, punishments in Egypt were generally less harsh, and only Egypt used prisons to punish criminals, not merely as holding areas for judgment. Places like pits, temples, palaces, and border fortresses were used as prisons in ancient Egypt. Adultery was a capital offense in Egypt, so the fact that Joseph was only imprisoned suggests that Potiphar may not have believed the accusation (A.S. Yahuda, The Accuracy of the Bible, pg. 5; From the Regulations Laid upon the Vizier, Rekhmire, 18th dynasty, James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 683). The Brooklyn Papyrus even mentions prisons in Egypt, specifically calling the main prison the “Place of Confinement,” which some scholars believe may have been located at Thebes, the ancient capitol of Egypt.
After interpreting the Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph is promoted and given gifts that symbolized authority and acknowledgement of contributions to Egypt. Genesis 41:41-42 says that Joseph was set “over all the land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put the gold necklace around his neck.” “Lord of all Pharaoh’s House” (Hebrew), would be the Egyptian title “Chief Steward of the King.” Egyptian documents from the Middle Kingdom indicate the Chief Steward would supervise agricultural activities and the granaries. Many of these would have been in and around Thebes. Joseph’s final title, “Ruler of all Egypt” (Hebrew), has often been interpreted as the “Vizier.” At some point in the Middle Kingdom around the time of Joseph, Egyptian documents suggest that the titles of Vizier and Chief Steward began to be given to the same person. (Aling 2003:58–61). A vizier who was given the pharaoh's signet ring was known officially as The Royal Seal Bearer, and the ring was also a visible symbol of the king’s power (N. Sarna, Understanding Genesis, pg. 220).
The gold necklace was a unique Egyptian award called the “Gold of Valor,” given to those who made significant contributions to Egypt. Ahmose, son of Ebana, was an Egyptian soldier who helped defeat the Hyksos and drive them from Egypt. For his services, he was awarded the “Gold of Valor” ("The Autobiography of Ahmose Son of Abana" in Ancient Egyptian Literature by M. Lichtheim, vol.2, pp.12ff).
Archaeology has revealed through the discovery of numerous inscriptions that many of the rulers in the Nile Delta region during the 14th Dynasty had Semitic names, due to the influx of people from the Levant, especially Semites, into the Nile Delta region during this period. Semites held positions ranging from a lowly slave to a powerful chancellor, just as the books of Genesis and Exodus depict. Joseph was probably a ruler or government official during this same time period.
In stratum d/2 at Tel el-Daba, a large villa in the shape of the four-room Israelite house measuring 10 x 12 m was discovered. Adjacent is a cemetery, and the largest tomb (Tomb 1, probably belonging to the villa owner) contained a broken statue of an Asiatic that had been defaced. This defacement could have occurred after the Hyksos were expelled and the Egyptians destroyed their monuments and art. The statue was easily identified as Asiatic because of the hairstyle, the fragments of yellow coloring found, and the throwstick on the shoulder—the hieroglyphic determinative for a person from the Levant. The statue was about 1.5 times the height of a normal man, indicating a person of importance. The tomb was underground, and covered by a small pyramid structure. A small chapel is located at the entrance of the tomb before the burial chamber, typical of Egyptian construction. However, the sarcophagus was discovered empty, although the other tombs in the cemetery still contained their bodies and actual corpses are not normally stolen during tomb robbery. A few archaeologists have suggested this could have been Joseph’s villa and tomb, and that the body is missing because it was taken back to Canaan by Moses (Genesis 50:25-26). However, it is also possible that Joseph lived at Heliopolis to the south, since he married a daughter of a priest of On/Heliopolis (Genesis 41:45).
Patriarchs – Jacob, Joseph, and the Enslavement of the Hebrews
When the Patriarchs Jacob and Joseph die, both are embalmed (or mummified) in Egypt, and Joseph is buried there (Genesis 50:2, 26). Egyptians were typically buried in tombs, and would range from a simple hole to an extravagant pyramid. The word used in Genesis for embalm is “chanat,” related to the word spice, and is only used in Genesis 50 and Song of Songs 2:13 (used of a fig tree). In the ancient Near East, mummification was only practiced in Egypt, where spices, oils, and perfumes were used in the process, beginning in the Middle Kingdom—the time when the Patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph were in Egypt.
Then, sometime after Joseph's death, a new king rose to power who did not know Joseph. The result was enslavement (or servitude) of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:7-11). The identity of this Pharaoh is unknown, but he was probably a Hyksos king or more likely Ahmose I, the Pharaoh who drove out the Hyksos. The Hebrews were not driven out with the Hyksos, nor did they possess the same military technology, so we should not associate the two groups as one. Instead, the Hebrews left peacefully when asked to after the 10 plagues, an event which took place over 100 years after the expulsion of the Hyksos.