Joseph, Imhotep and Djoser

Joseph, Imhotep and Djoser

H. Abdul Al-Dahir

In order to understand the biblical story of Joseph, one must understand the narrative of Yusuf in the Quran. This is a brief biography of Yusuf based on the Quran which puts him in his historical, cultural and linguistic context. The story takes place at the beginning of the climate conditions that will cause the Bronze Age collapse. Drought is becoming more frequent and more severe. Yusuf is the young son of a tribal sheikh, Yacub. The duties of the sheik include the physical, social and spiritual well-being of his tribal confederation. Yacub has sons older than Yusuf who herd the livestock and participate in caravan trade. These young men range in age from young teens to early adulthood. Yacub recognizes that despite Yusuf’s young age (between 6 and 8 as he has not yet been trained to herd livestock) he shows remarkable spiritual insight, one of the main requirements for a tribal leader. He decides to train Yusuf in the spiritual duties and teaches him the use of incense and perfumed oils used in the rituals. His brothers know that this training means that Yusuf has been chosen to be the tribal sheikh. They become jealous and trick their father into allowing them to initiate Yusuf in the skills of a herdsman. They dump their brother down a well where he is picked up by a caravan which assumes that Yusuf is a mamzer (a child ousted from the tribe due to his illegitimate birth status). The brothers return to their father saying that Yusuf was eaten by a wolf, a plausible story since Yusuf was a young boy between the ages of 6-8.

Yusuf is sold in Egypt to a nomarch (HAty-a) or local prince who was in charge of a district or nome (spAt)). He has no son and sees that Yusuf is a very gifted child who he adopts and gifts with a tunic (qamis) as a symbol of his status. The nomarch trains Yusuf in the management of the nome which includes the export of foodstuffs and corvee labor to the king who is the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser. Yusuf achieves manhood as a skilled manager, accountant and scribe. Yusuf’s position in the nomarch’s house incites members of the house to jealousy and they plan to get rid of him. The plot is to accuse him of attempted rape. The woman employed to execute the plot has a male relative who coveted Yusuf’s position. The ruse went awry when Yusuf became suspicious and fled the room. The woman tore his tunic from the back indicating the ruse failed. Servants in the house gossiped about the incident and the news reached others connected to the nomarch. The woman was unable to confess the plot because she would endanger the male on whose behalf she executed the plan, so she invited the pertinent women to a party to demonstrate why she was incited to behave in a lustful manner. This act was a cover for the failed plot.

This was the second time that Yusuf was the victim of a ruse, so he asked the nomarch to be sent to a labor camp as corvee labor to work on one of the king’s building projects. Nomarchs were required to send corvee labor to work on these projects, so the normarch agreed and sent Yusuf as an accountant and a scribe to work in the corvee camps which were, in a manner, prisons because the labor was not voluntary. Yusuf kept track of the camp (prison) supplies. In order to do this, other corvee labor reported to him as to the need and use of the supplies. Two of these fellow ‘prisoners’ were the brewer and the baker who reported on the need for flour, grain etc. It was these two who had mysterious visions. Yusuf was in charge of ordering and recording the supplies. The brewer was talented and honest but the baker was a thief, so he knew the destiny of both. He asked the brewer to remember him to the king as he himself recommended him to the proper authorities.

The king, Djoser, had a vision which he could not decipher and the brewer-become-cup bearer remembered Yusuf who deciphered the mysterious vision. The vision told of a famine like the famine that occurred in the 2nd Dynasty. Because this event had already occurred, the king knew what to do and appointed Yusuf as a scribe and accountant to oversee the storage of the grain being sent by the nomarchs from the 40 plus nomes in Egypt. Before the appointment, the king summoned the women involved in the plot. Nomarchs were important to the success of Egypt, so he made sure that his appointment would be cleared by the nomarch who sent Yusuf to the labor camp. The nomarch knew that Yusuf was honest and recommended him to the king. The woman confessed and Yusuf secured his appointment. There were 7 years of good crops followed by a drought which forced Yusuf’s brothers to come to Egypt for food.

Yusuf heard about the caravan sent by Yacub and recognized his brothers who did not recognize him because they abandoned him at such a young age. He devised a plot to get his brothers to return to Egypt with his younger brother and, later, his father. After the plot succeeded, Yusuf told his brothers to toss his tunic in the face of his father who had become blinded by eye inflammation. Yusuf had scented the tunic with the same perfumes and incense that Yacub used to begin training him in his spiritual duties. That incense and perfume contained frankincense which was used to cure eye disease. The brothers did as Yusuf asked. Yacub smelled the scented tunic before the brothers entered the tent. The scent, not only reminded him of Yusuf, it gave him the information about the frankincense that he needed to cure his eye ailment. Yacub’s wife created a medicinal formula from the frankincense to use as eye drops and burnt the frankincense and made a salve to line Yacub’s eyes. Yacub’s eye problems were cured and he, his wife and sons all moved to Egypt where they re-located to Goshen in the Egyptian delta. They thrived until Khufu began persecuting them.

The biblical stories of Joseph are far more complicated that the story in the Quran. The story of Joseph can be found in Psalm 105, and 1 Chronicles 16:8, which are older than the Genesis story. Because the Joseph story in Psalm 105 pre-dates the Genesis tale, understanding the original version is helpful to understanding the Genesis version.

There is much disparity between the two tales as the Genesis story of Joseph names the ruler of Egypt as a Pharaoh, but Pslam 105 (also quoted in 1 Chronicles 16:8-dated to 540 BCE) states that Joseph served a governor and not a pharaoh:

…”He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations 9 the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac,10 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree ,to Israel as an everlasting covenant: 11 “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit.” 12 When they were but few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it, 13 they wandered from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another. 14 He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings:15 “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”16 He called down famine on the land and destroyed all their supplies of food; 17 and he sent a man before them—Joseph, sold as a slave. 18 They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons, 19 till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the Lord proved him true.
20 The king (melek) sent and released him, the governor (mashal -governor) of peoples set him free. 21 He made him master of his household, ruler over all he possessed, 22 to instruct his princes as he pleased and teach his elders wisdom. 23 Then Israel entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham.”

This Psalm was written during the Persian Period when Persia dominated Palestine. References to iron shackles refers to its use which was widely documented during the Greco-Punic Wars between the Greeks and the Carthaginians, starting in approximately 600 BC. According to to 2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 36:6, and Jeremiah 52, the Babylonians used bronze shackles. According to this site: https://unitedlocksmith.net/blog/the-history-of-handcuffs

“During Greco-Punic Wars between the Greeks and the Carthaginians, starting in approximately 600 BC, the use of chains and iron bindings is widely documented. These handcuffs were used to shackle prisoners of war with the intention of later selling these individuals as slaves. These temporary bindings were incredibly important, as the sale of slaves taken by the empires paid for wars, expansion, and basic city maintenance.

It is said that chariots full of handcuffs would be brought to battlefields in anticipation of an overwhelming victory. These metal restraints were technically shackles, which were merely one-size fits all. A ‘U’ shaped piece of metal was placed around the wrist, and then a small metal bar would be placed to keep the device from falling off. This small bar would then be locked temporarily or stamped so that the cuffs could not be removed unless it was broken.”

So, this reference to iron shackles in Psalm 105 and 1 Chron 16 indicates that this literature was written at a time when iron implements were in common use in Greece and Carthage or around or after 600 BCE. This use of iron shackles would have been introduced to Egypt during the Egyptian Late Period or the Saite Period, Dynasty 26 (664–525 B.C.).


“Under Saite rule, Egypt grew from a vassal of Assyria to an independent ally. There were even echoes of the bygone might of Egypt’s New Kingdom in Saite military campaigns into Asia Minor (after the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C.) and Nubia. In pursuit of these goals, however, the Saite pharaohs had to rely on foreign mercenaries—Carian (from southwestern Asia Minor, modern Turkey), Phoenician , and Greek—as well as Egyptian soldiers. These different ethnic groups lived in their own quarters at Memphis, the capital city. The Greek city-states were also allowed to establish a trading settlement at Naukratis in the western Delta, which, with the mixed Greek-Egyptian settlement at Thonis/Heraklion, served as a direct conduit for cultural influences traveling from Egypt to Greece. Greeks also settled many other areas in the Delta. After the fall of Assyria in 612 B.C., the major foreign threat to Egypt came from the Babylonians. Although Babylonia had invaded Egypt in 568 B.C. during a brief civil war, the countries formed an alliance in 547 B.C. against the rising threat of a third power, the Persian empire—but to no avail. The Persians conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. and Egypt in 525 B.C., bringing an end to the Saite dynasty and native control of Egypt.”

Other than issues with the iron shackles, which indicate an Iron Age composition, the ruler in this Psalm is referred to as a king (melek) and not a pharaoh. Since, the composition was written at a time when the ruler of Egypt was referred to as a king, one is forced to conclude that Joseph was not in service to a pharaoh, but to a governor who served a king which points the origin of this story to the the Persian Period when a Persian king ruled Egypt and Egyptian rulers were reduced to the title of Satrap. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lapd/hd_lapd.htm

Persian Period, or Dynasty 27 (525–404 B.C.)

Egypt’s new Persian overlords adopted the traditional title of pharaoh, but unlike the Libyans and Nubians before them, they ruled as foreigners rather than Egyptians. For the first time in its 2,500-year history as a nation, Egypt was no longer independent. Though recognized as an Egyptian dynasty, Dynasty 27, the Persians ruled through a resident governor, called a satrap, helped by local native chiefs. Persian domination actually benefited Egypt under Darius I (521–486 B.C.), who built temples and public works, reformed the legal system, and strengthened the economy. And the Persian dynasties introduced the qanat irrigation system from Iran to the Egyptian Western Desert, permitting water to be channeled through tunnels over long distances and without prohibitive evaporation. The military defeat of Persia by the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C., however, inspired resistance in Egypt, and for nearly a century thereafter, Persian control was challenged by a series of local Egyptian kings, primarily in the Delta.”

So, it appears that a king ruled Egypt at this time and not a pharaoh which means that the initial story was that a Persian king ordered the release of Joseph who worked under an Egyptian who was a Satrap (mashal/governor) to the Persian King or Shah which means king. The Genesis story of Josephs’ service to a pharaoh as a governor of the Egyptian store houses was authored by the Septuagint writers who worked under the Ptolemies. At this time Joseph was modeled after Imhotep, a favorite historical figure and god of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The Biblical Book of Genesis is the common source for the Joseph narrative. According to this book, Joseph was the eleventh son of the patriarch Jacob who was regarded as the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the Genesis narrative, Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianite merchants for ‘twenty silvers’ or twenty drachmas; the price for a Jewish slave in Ptolemaic Egypt according to the 2nd Century BCE ‘Letter of Aristeas’. Joseph became known as an interpreter of dreams and was summoned by Pharaoh to interpret a dream which foretold of a great famine which was to be followed by a period of plenty. After interpreting the dream, Joseph married Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the High Priest of On/Heliopolis, and was appointed as a governor in charge of distributing grain during the famine. Joseph reunited with his family who retired to the Egyptian Delta to raise their sheep and continue their commercial activities. Asenath produced two sons for Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. However, her name has been a source of controversy.

According to Genesis 41, Asenath was the wife of Joseph and the daughter of the high priest of On/Awn or Heliopolis, whose name was Potiphera. Her name is the source of much Biblical discussion which can be put to rest with current scholarship. Asenath is the Demotic Egyptian name for the goddess Neith. During the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, when the Septuagint was being written, Neith was conflated with the Greek goddess Athena whose name was pronounced as Asenat by the Egyptians. The name was transliterated into Koine Greek by the authors of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Bible) as Asenath. Asenath’s name, meaning ‘devoted to Neith’ and/or Athena as Neith, made perfect sense to the Hebrew authors of the Septuagint residing in Alexandria under the Ptolemies. They didn’t speak Hebrew. They spoke Koine Greek. The goddess Neith (aka Athena/Asenath in Sais, Neith’s holy city) was the mother of the Egyptian sun god Ra. Asenath, according to Gen 41, was the daughter of the Priest of On or Heliopolis in the Septuagint. Heliopolis was the Egyptian city devoted to the sun god Ra, so Neith/Asenath, as the mother of Ra, would be an appropriate name for the daughter of the high priest of On or Heliopolis.

Potiphera’s (Pwtipra’) name presents another conundrum. This name has been translated as meaning ‘belonging to the sun’. There is nothing in the ancient Egyptian language which can even remotely account for that translation. However, if one transliterates the name as pAwty (GSL G40-X1-X6-U33-M17) and pr3 (GSL O1-O29) it would mean ‘from the ancient line of Pharaoh’. High priests were often members of Pharaoh’s own family. Hemiunu, the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu’s vizier, was a son of Prince Nefermaat and his wife Itet. He was a grandson of the Pharaoh Sneferu and a relative of the Pharaoh Khufu. Among his impressive titulary, there were several priestly titles as a priest of Bastet, Sekhment, Mendes and Thoth. His statue has a list of his titles inscribed on it: “Member of the elite, high official, vizier, king’s seal bearer, attendant of Nekhen, and spokesman of every resident of Pe, priest of Bastet, priest of Shesmetet, priest of the Ram of Mendes, Keeper of the Apis Bull, Keeper of the White Bull, whom his lord loves, elder of the palace, high priest of Thoth, whom his lord loves, courtier, Overseer of Royal Scribes, priest of the Panther Goddess, Director of Music of the South and North, Overseer of All Construction Projects of the King, king’s [grand]son of his own body.” The Meshwesh Libyan Pharaoh’s (880 – 720 BCE) of the 23rd Dynasty appointed their own sons as high priests.

During the period of the writing of the Septuagint in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd Century BCE, the Ptolemaic pharaohs were in control. The Ptolemies were blood relations with both the high priests of Letopolis, who were devoted to Horus, and the Royal Princes of Memphis, who were the high priests of the god Ptah. Memphis was the royal city of the god Ptah since the time of the Old Kingdom. Both the high priests of Letopolis and the high priests of Memphis traced their origin to the line of the ancient pharaohs. The office of high priest was hereditary, so the son of the high priest filled the office of his father upon the father’s death much like the succession of the Pharaohs. The Temple of Ptah in Memphis is where Alexander the Macedonian had himself crowned as king of Egypt.

Memphis was the royal city of the Pharaohs from the time of the Old Kingdom and Letopolis also dates from that time. So, Potiphera’s name meant ‘from the ancient line of Pharaoh’. He was a high priest to the god Ra in Heliopolis or Awn in the language of Ptolemaic Egypt. By naming Potiphera as Asenath’s father, the authors of the Septuagint were declaring that Joseph had become a royal member of Pharaoh’s own house. This explanation clears up the matter of Joseph’s Egyptian name ‘Tsphnthpa’nch’ in Hebrew or ‘Psonthomphaneach in Koine Greek in Gen 41:40-46.

The Arabic speaking Masoretes, who authored the Hebrew Biblical texts in use today, could not make sense of the Greek version of the Egyptian name, so they attempted to equate the name to the Arabic phrase ‘tsfynah ba’eenah’ which means a dowry settlement. The dowry settlement or reward for marrying into Pharaoh’s own house was Joseph’s appointment as governor of the granaries for the whole land of Egypt. Pharaoh gave Joseph a dowry/political appointment because he married from Pharaoh’s own kin, who were also high priests. However, Joseph’s Egyptian name as transliterated into Greek, Psonthompaneach does have meaning in the Egyptian language.

1. Greek ‘Pso’ is the Egyptian word ‘psSw’ (GSL* O3-O34-N37-G43-Z9-Y1-Z2-A1) which means arbitrator. (Greek does not have the ‘sh’ sound which is ‘S’ in hieroglyphics, so the ‘sh’ was eliminated).
2. Greek ‘nth’ is the Egyptian word nty (GSL N35-X1-Z4) and means ‘who’ or the Greek ‘nth’ is the Egyptian word ntt (GSL N35-X1-X1) which means ‘that’
3. Greek ‘m’ is the Egyptian word ‘m’ (GSL G17) and means ‘in the position of’
4.Greek panech is the Egyptian word ‘pnq’ (GSL Q3-N35-N29-D36) which means to expend provision

(*GSL refers to Gardiner’s Sign List of Egyptian Hieroglyphics)

So, the name transliterated into English would be PsSwntwmpnq or in Greek it would be Psonthompaneach. The name would mean ‘the arbitrator/judge whose position is to pay out provision’. The Greek word describes Joseph’s position as the one who distributed the grain during the 7 years of famine. The Arabic speaking Masoretes didn’t have access to an Egyptian dictionary, so they equated the Greek Psonthompaneach, which is a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian phrase psSw nty m pnq (the arbitrator whose position is to pay out provision), to an Arabic phrase, ‘tsfynah ba’eenh’ which means ‘dowry settlement’ and then transliterated the Arabic phrase into Hebrew as ‘Tsphnathpaneach’. Dowry settlements only became an Egyptian custom during Egypt’s occupation by the Greeks and Romans. So, prior to the Ptolemaic dynasty, dowries were not a part of either the Hebrew or Egyptian culture. The fact that the Masoretes wrote this custom into the Joseph narrative indicates that they were aware of this Greek custom being practised in Egypt.

The Hebrew writers of the Septuagint would have been familiar with these Egyptian phrases, pwty phera and psonthomphaneach, because they lived in Alexandria Egypt under the Ptolemaic pharaohs. They would have also known of the high priests’ claim of an ancient Pharaonic lineage. Ptolemy VIII married his daughter, Berniece, into the Memphis family of the high priests, who were linked to the high priests of Letopolis. The high priests of Memphis and Letopoolis claimed descent from the most ancient kingly lines of Egypt. The Ptolemies needed this claim of an ancient lineage because they were descended from the Macedonian, Ptolemy Soter, a Macedonian nobleman who was Alexander’s boyhood companion and, later, his bodyguard. After Alexander’s death, he was appointed as Satrap of Egypt in 323 BCE. He declared himself as king of Egypt in 305 BCE. So, the Ptolemaic line could not be traced to any royal Egyptian line.

In order to make himself acceptable to the Egyptians, Ptolemy VIII Physcon married his daughter, Berniece, into the Memphis family of the high priests in order to establish an ancient royal blood line. The Memphis high priests were linked through marriage with the high priests of Letopolis. So, by creating a marriage alliance with the Memphis high priests, Ptolemy VIII also established a link with the high priests of Letopolis. This is why the writers of the Septuagint had Joseph marry into the family of the High Priest of On. Joseph was an outsider as was Ptolemy. The writers of the Septuagint granted Joseph a royal Egyptian lineage through his marriage to the high priest’s daughter just as Ptolemy VIII married his daughter into the family of the high priests so that he could claim that the royal blood of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs flowed in the veins of the Ptolemies too. This story line illustrates that Joseph’s marriage narrative was written in Egypt by the Septuagint authors who lived in Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It also indicates that the authors of the Septuagint were familiar enough with the marriage arrangements of Ptolemy VIII to grant Joseph a similar marriage.

Furthermore, the history of the Septuagint is a blend of legend and history, much of which the Septuagint authors garnered from the Library of Alexandria as well as Manetho’s three volume work, Aegyptiaca or The History of Egypt. According to the pseudoepigraphic (falsely attributed) ‘Letter of Aristeas’, the Septuagint was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus who reigned from 283-246 BCE. Because the ‘Letter of Aristeas’ has been identified as a forgery, scholars have relied on early authors who quoted this letter to date its authorship. The earliest quotes are written in Praeparatio Evangelica by Eusebius’ (260-340 AD) who quoted Aristobulus of Paneas (160 BCE), in Josephus’ ‘Jewish Antiquities’ and in Philo of Alexandria’s ‘Life of Moses’ which date to the 1st Century AD. So, it is likely that the writing of the Septuagint actually began in the 2nd Century BCE in Alexandria Egypt under Ptolemy V Ephiphanes who reigned from 204-181 BCE. The writing of the Septuagint continued from the reign of Ptolemy V until the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (182-116 BCE) when it was completed. However, changes were made to these texts over many, many succeeding centuries.

The identification of Ptolemy V as the Egyptian ruler at the time the Septuagint was first being written in Koine Greek is important. Ptolemy V was especially devoted to the deified 3rd Dynasty architect, Imhotep. Imhotep was the world’s first named architect who built Egypt’s first pyramid. He is often recognized as the world’s first physician, a high priest, scribe, sage, poet, astrologer, as well as a vizier and chief minister to Djoser (2630-2611 BC), the second king of Egypt’s 3rd Dynasty. Imhotep’s titles included: Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief. Under the Ptolemies, Imhotep was regarded as an astrologer. Astrologers studied the stars for omens which was in keeping with the offices of Vizier, Physician and High priest.

Imhotep’s main centers of worship were in the Ptolemaic temple to Hathor at Deir el-Medina and at Karnak in Thebes, where he was worshiped along with Amenhotep-Son-of-Hapu, a sanctuary on the upper terrace of the temple at Deir el-Bahari. A chapel at Philae, also dedicated to Imhotep, is located immediately in front of the eastern pylon of the temple of Isis. He was also worshiped at Memphis in Lower Egypt, where a temple was erected to him near the Serapeum. Ptolemy V built a temple to Imhotep at Kalabsha in Nubia, where he is pictured alongside Imhotep. At Saqqara, devotees brought offerings to his cult center which included mummified Ibises and clay models of diseased limbs and organs. Imhotep was later worshiped by the early Christians as one with Christ. The early Christians often adapted the pagan gods of non Christian cultures and re-invented these gods as Christian saints and heroes.

Stories regarding Imhotep and the Pharaoh Djoser were very popular during Ptolemy V’s reign as is indicated by the Tebtunis Papyri which date to the 2nd Century BCE. Such a tale is inscribed on the Famine Stela that Ptolemy V erected to honor Imhotep. The Stela is located on Sehel Island in the Nile near Aswan, Egypt.

The Famine Stela is inscribed with the legend of a devastating famine. According to the Wikipedia article entitled ‘Famine Stela’: “The story told on the stela is set in the 18th year of the reign of king Djoser. The text describes how the king is upset and worried, as the land of Egypt has been in the grip of a drought and famine for seven years, during which time the Nile has not flooded the farm lands. The text also describes how the Egyptian people are suffering as a result of the drought and that they are desperate and breaking the laws of the land. Djoser asks the priest staff under the supervision of high lector priest Imhotep for help. The king wants to know where Hapy (a river deity directly identified with the Nile) is born and which god resides at this place.

Imhotep decides to investigate the archives of the temple Hut-Ibety (“House of the nets”), located at Hermopolis and dedicated to the god Thoth. He informs the king that the flooding of the Nile is controlled by the god Khnum at Elephantine from a sacred spring located on the island, where the god resides. Imhotep travels immediately to the location which is called Jebu. In the temple of Khnum, called “Joy of Life”, Imhotep purifies himself, prays to Khnum for help and offers “all good things” to him. Suddenly he falls asleep and in his dream Imhotep is greeted by the kindly looking Khnum. The god introduces himself to Imhotep by describing who and what he is and then describes his own divine powers. At the end of the dream Khnum promises to make the Nile flow again. Imhotep wakes up and writes down everything that took place in his dream. He then returns to Djoser to tell the king what has happened.

The king is pleased with the news and issues a decree in which he orders priests, scribes and workers to restore Khnum´s temple and to once more make regular offerings to the god. In addition, Djoser issues a decree in which he grants the temple of Khnum at Elephantine the region between Aswan and Takompso with all its wealth, as well as a share of all the imports from Nubia.”

The story is very reminiscent of the Genesis narrative regarding Joseph, Pharaoh and the seven year famine. Seven year famines were a popular topic in many Near Eastern cultures. A seven year famine is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Temple’ in which the 2nd Dynasty king Neferkasokar also reigned during a seven year famine. The authors of the Septuagint appear to have attempted to link Joseph to Imhotep in that both individuals rescued Egypt from a seven year famine. Genesis 41 describes Pharaoh’s dream of 7 fat cows and 7 lean cows in which the cows represented years of plenty and years of famine. In this case the symbol of the ‘cow’ meant ‘year’. According to Werner Keller’s edition of the book ‘The Bible as History’, it was only during the Ptolemaic period that the hieroglyphic sign for the word ‘year’ was a cow. This hieroglyphic sign was never used for the word ‘year’ prior to the Ptolemaic rule of Egypt.

Further identification between Imhotep and Joseph can be made in Imhotep’s role as a healer and author of the medical tract recorded in the Edwin Smith Papyrus. The Papyrus was written 900 years after Imhotep’s death, but the Egyptians attributed the medical information to the deified architect. So, it is interesting that both individuals can be connected to healing. According to Genesis 30:23,24, Joseph’s name has a double meaning; Yacaph which means Ya causes one to recover from a disease esp. leprosy (2 Kings 5:3,6,11) and Ywcaph, which means Ya increases.

Despite the Hebrew interpretations of the name Yusuf or Joseph, the name is most likely of Egyptian origin. The name Yusuf in Egyptian can be divided into 2 words. ‘iiw’ (M-17-G43), which means welcome and ‘sf’ (S29-I9-D19) which means mercy. So, the name Yusuf or iiwsf in Egyptian means ‘he welcomes mercy’. The name is a reference to Joseph welcoming his brothers and then forgiving them for selling him to slavery.

Another interesting parallel between Imhotep and Joseph is that both individuals were connected to the office of High Priest of Heliopolis, aka Awn or On. Imhotep was the High Priest of Heliopolis, a city which was dedicated to the Egyptian sun god, Ra while, according to Genesis 41, Joseph married the daughter of the High Priest of On/Heliopolis. The Hebrew authors of the Septuagint could not ascribe the office of High Priest of On to Joseph as that office would imply that Joseph worshipped Ra and not YHWH. The Hebrew authors’ solution to this dilemma was to create a marriage alliance which connected Joseph to that high office without inferring that he worshipped the Egyptian sun god. In this manner, Joseph became a member of Pharaoh’s own family because Egyptian high priests, as the Princes of Memphis, traced their lineage to that of the ancient Pharaohs. The royal lineage of the Egyptian high priests are mentioned in Isaiah 19:13: “The princes of Zoan (Tanis) have become fools; the princes of Noph (Memphis) are deceived; they have also deluded Egypt, those who are the mainstay of their tribes.

Both Imhotep and Joseph were connected to astrology which was the art of interpreting astronomical events as signs of divine communication. According to Genesis 37:9, Joseph dreamed that he saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing to him. The use of astronomical data in a dream suggests the Hebrews placed great store in the power of dreams and the power of astrology. The Hebrew use of astrology is mentioned in Isaiah 47:12-15, Jeremiah 10:2-3, and Daniel 2:27-28. Imhotep’s prowess as an astrologer is mentioned extensively in the Tebtunis papyri.

Allusions to the extensive Ptolemaic influence on the Joseph narrative include the Greco-Egyptian name Asenath, the name Potiphera, indicating the royal origin of the priesthood, the marriage between Asenath and Joseph, which was patterned after the Ptolemaic marriage with the families of the high priests of Letopolis and Memphis, as well as the Ptolemaic symbol of a cow to represent the word ‘year’. Also, the mention of a dowry settlement indicates that this part of the narrative was written during or after the Ptolemaic Dynasty. In addition to the foregoing must be mentioned the similarities between Joseph’s name meaning to recover from a disease and Imhotep’s medical attributions as well as their mutual connection to astrology. Also, both Joseph and Imhotep were linked to the office of High Priest of Heliopolis, both were hereditary nobleman or commoners who were granted royal titles, both rose to the position of vizier, both men died in old age as loyal subjects of their Pharaoh and both men were remembered fondly by their countrymen. These parallels indicate that the authors of the Septuagint tale of Joseph were influenced by the stories of Imhotep, the 3rd Dynasty architect who was later worshiped as a deity that was popular with the ruling Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The above analysis is not decisive proof that Joseph’s existence is in doubt. The analysis is an example of the many layers of tribal lore that the Biblical tales acquired over the centuries that this tale was told. Adding to this tribal lore did not end when the story was committed to writing in the Biblical texts. The Talmud greatly expanded upon the Biblical story in the most imaginative way by adding elements that were not even alluded to in the Biblical narrative as Joseph throwing himself on his mother’s grave, the Midianites threatening Joseph’s brothers with their knives, the name of Potiphera’s wife (Zelicha), the feast Pharaoh gave for his officers and princes etc. etc.. The Talmud’s expansion of the Biblical tale is very indicative of how these tales were enhanced under the influence of the cultures with which the narrators were in contact. The story of Potiphar and Asenath is just such an enhancement which was included to demonstrate that the Septuagint authors shared a royal connection to Egypt. Establishing a connection with a foreign culture can also be seen in the Biblical narrative of Abraham’s origin in Ur of Chaldea and his sojourn in Harran . These episodes were interpolated into tribal lore and Biblical texts to demonstrate a connection to the Hebrew’s Babylonian and Assyrian overlords.

Joseph may very well have been Imhotep, who might have been a Shasu (Asiatic Bedouin) the Egyptians adopted into their culture. The Egyptians incorporated Asiatic gods and goddesses into their religion as the Syrian god Resheph and the Semitic goddess Qetesh, so it is not impossible that Joseph was a Shasu who was appointed as a vizier and architect and adopted the Egyptian name Imhotep. Imhotep means ‘he comes in peace’ which may indicate that Imhotep was not an Egyptian, but a Shasu whom the native Egyptians viewed with suspicion. This would explain the choice of a name which indicated that this foreign vizier and architect was not a threat to the Egyptian people. However, until Imhotep’s tomb is located, the proposition that Joseph was the Hebrew version of Imhotep is speculative. The Quran gives a different perspective.

One of the notable differences between the narrative in Genesis and the story in the Quran is the price for which Joseph was sold. According to Genesis 37:28, Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianite caravan merchants for 20 silvers or 20 drachmas. However, in the Quran, Joseph’s brothers abandoned their younger sibling but did not sell him. The merchants found Joseph abandoned in a pit and retrieved him so that they could sell him in Egypt as a slave.

Reasons for Joseph’s brothers’ behavior are explained in the Quran.

From the story 12:12, we know that Yusuf was a young boy who was deemed too young to be an independent herdsman. Bedouin trained their children from the age of 8 to shepherd animals, so Yusuf was likely 8 or younger when his brothers decided that he was a thief who stole from them the affection and preference of their father (12:8). This ‘theft’ of affection caused Yusuf’s siblings to conclude that Yakub had chosen Yusuf as their future sheikh over his elder siblings, which of course, caused them to wish physical harm to their brother. So, they cast him into a pit (12:10). Such an act meant that this child was abandoned by his clan as a mamzer or outcaste:

A bastard (mamzer) shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD (i.e. the clans of Yakub); even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

—?Deuteronomy 23:2

Such repudiated children were often killed or sold into slavery, so they were free pickings for anybody passing by to take them and treat them in any manner that they saw fit, as there was no fear of retaliation from the clan from which the child originated. If Yusuf were a youth of herding age, his protests that he was the son of a tribal sheikh would have been heeded. He would have been returned to his clan and there would have been a substantial reward for those who rescued him. Because, of his very young age and the means of his abandonment, the caravaners, who picked him up and sold him in Egypt, felt secure that they were at liberty to treat the young boy as they saw fit. The theft of their father’s affection and preference is what is referenced in 12:77. Yakub knew what his elder sons had done to Yusuf but was powerless to recover him. So, Yakub sent his sons to find Yusuf and when they failed to recover him, they reminded their father that Yusuf had stolen from them their rightful patrimony. One can speculate that Yakub had repeatedly denied the brothers’ original alibi since no body was recovered. They probably protested saying that Allah (swt) sent the wolf to eat Yusuf because Yusuf was plotting to steal their patrimony. They seem to have clung to their lie up until the time that Yusuf revealed to them who he was.

One may ask why the brothers didn’t kill Yusuf. The answer is superstition. Bedouin believed that the blood of an innocent person unjustly spilled cursed the land upon which it was spilt. The brothers thought that their pastures would dry up and their herds would die if they killed their brother; which really happened as a severe drought caused them to seek supplies in Egypt. One wonders if they secretly blamed themselves for the drought or maybe, they continued to blame Yusuf as the cause of all their misfortunes including the drought.

According to the Quran, Surah 12:20, the caravan merchants sold Joseph for a low price: “And they sold him at a low price; a number of dirhams.” The word dirham is an anachronism as coinage was invented long after Joseph lived. However, the Quran used a word familiar to its 7th Century audience so the listeners would appreciate Joseph’s value or lack thereof. Nevertheless, the understanding was that the price paid was only a few dirhams; certainly not greater than 20 and maybe even lower. His price was so low because the merchants assumed that he was a castaway or an abandoned ‘mamzer’ (bastard), which meant that he had no value to any tribe. So, the merchants figured that they would just unload him to any Egyptian who was willing to take him. Also, the Egyptians were not fond of Asiatics whom they held in very low esteem, so a Bedouin slave would not bring a high price on the Egyptian market.

The Joseph narrative in the Quran places him under a Pharaoh that preceded the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu. According to the Quran 28:38: “And Pharaoh said, “O nobles, I have not known you to have a god other than me. Then ignite for me, O Haman, [a fire] upon the clay and make for me an impressive tall building (‘sirhan ali’) that I may look at the God of Moses. And indeed, I do think he is among the liars.” A better translation would be “Oh, Haman fire up the kilns…”; probably to make the beer jugs and other storage vessels to feed the workers on the ‘impressive tall buiding’ or pyramid project. According to this site, the workers drank three jugs of the stuff daily.In any case, the name Haman (Hemon according to the Egyptologist Peter A. Clayton), is currently pronounced as Hemiunu. He was Khufu’s vizier and chief of public works according to the inscriptions on his statue:

His statue has a list of his titles inscribed on it: “Member of the elite, high official, vizier, king’s seal bearer, attendant of Nekhen, and spokesman of every resident of Pe, priest of Bastet, priest of Shesmetet, priest of the Ram of Mendes, Keeper of the Apis Bull, Keeper of the White Bull, whom his lord loves, elder of the palace, high priest of Thoth, whom his lord loves, courtier, Overseer of Royal Scribes, priest of the Panther Goddess, Director of Music of the South and North, Overseer of All Construction Projects of the King, king’s [grand]son of his own body”.

Haman/Hemon/Hemiunu is credited for building Khufu’s pyramid, which is the ‘sirhan ali’ or tall impressive building which Pharaoh built to ‘see the god of Moses’. Pyramids were built as resurrection machines which would allow Pharaoh access to the heavens where he would ride the solar boat with the god Ra. Two of these boats were found buried next to Khufu’s pyramid. In this case, Pharaoh clings to the belief that the pyramid will allow him access to Ra and not Moses’ god which is why he calls Moses a liar. So, the Quran places Joseph prior to Khufu. Because of the 7 year famine, the best guess would be that he may have been an administrator under Neferkasokar or Djoser as both pharaohs reigned during a 7 year famine.

The Septuagint authors guessed that Joseph was Imhotep, who was very popular in Ptolemaic Egypt, which is why there were so many parallels drawn between Imhotep and Joseph in the Genesis narrative. The Quran does not draw these parallels as there is no mention of Asenath nor of Potiphera nor was Joseph granted such a high political position as next in power to the Pharaoh as is indicated in Genesis 41:40. In the Quran account, Joseph requested to be set over the storehouses of the land because he was a skilled custodian (Q12:53). According to the Quran, Joseph used his office to bring his family from the drought stricken area where they dwelt to Egypt. So, except for the necessary ‘dirham’ anachronism, the Joseph narrative in the Quran points to a time prior to the Pharaoh Khufu.

Also, according to these Quranic narratives regarding Jewish tribal lore, the Quran portrays an accurate picture of the Bedouin customs of the Jewish tribes. A male family member could be abandoned if he was a mamzer; a bastard or a child of incest or the offspring of an exogamous marriage. Joseph was not a mamzer, but his brothers deliberately gave that impression to whomever discovered him when they abandoned him. This is why they did not sell him to the merchants. The brothers’ presence would indicate that Joseph was not a mamzer, but was being kidnapped by his kin. In that case, Joseph would have been returned to family and his brothers would have been punished severely. According to Deut 24:7: ” If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.” So, it appears the Arabian Jewish tribal lore regarding Joseph as it is recorded in the Quran is more in line with the laws and customs of Bedouins than the Genesis story where the personality of Joseph is infused with the character of Imhotep.

Another discrepancy between the Joseph narrative in Genesis and the same narrative in the Quran is Joseph’s age at the time he was taken by the caravan merchants. According to Genesis 37:2, Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. At that age one would expect that Joseph would have been able to defend himself against his brothers’ action, identify himself to the caravan merchants and request that he be returned to his family; perhaps promising a reward for their compliance with this request. The merchants would surely have favoured the generous reward from a grateful parent over the measly price they would obtain for a Bedouin slave on the Egyptian markets. The Quran paints a very different view of this event.

According to the Quran, Joseph’s brothers requested Jacob to allow their little brother to accompany them while they herded sheep. Jacob was reluctant because he did not trust the brothers and Joseph was too young for the task. However, the brothers assured their father that he would not be watching the sheep, but enjoying himself under their watchful eye. Joseph accompanied his brothers who abandoned him in a pit beside a caravan route. Joseph was then taken by caravan merchants who sold him into slavery in Egypt. This scenario puts the age of Joseph as under the age of eight and possibly as young as six years old.

Bedouin mothers often took their children on sheep herding expeditions as infants, so children learned to herd sheep at a very young age. However, the child was never entrusted with the care of sheep until he was old enough to defend them from predators. Among the Bedouin, eight years would be the minimum age and ten years would be the norm for this task. So, according to the Quran, Joseph was probably only six years old when he was abducted by his brothers. He was certainly too young to defend himself against either his brothers or the caravan merchants. The caravan merchants would have disregarded the protests of such a young child as the fact of his abandonment indicated to them that the child was deliberately abandoned as a bastard according to Bedouin custom. As a bastard or mamzer, he could be sold as a slave without fear of reprisal from his tribe. Another discrepancy between the Genesis narrative and the Quranic version of Joseph, is the character of Joseph.

The Genesis tale mentions that Joseph married into an Egyptian priestly family which was devoted to the Egyptian sun god, Ra. From this marriage, Joseph sired two sons from his Egyptian wife, Ephraim and Manasseh. According to Genesis 47, as an expression of his loyalty to the Pharaoh, who arranged this marriage, appointed him as the most powerful man in Egypt next to the himself, and gave land in Goshen to his clan, Joseph extorted cattle and land from the starving Egyptians and gave it to Pharaoh at the expense of his subjects. So, Joseph’s character is besmirched by his marriage connections to an Egyptian priestly office, by his shameful treatment of the starving Egyptians who were entrusted to his care and by his fierce loyalty to a Pharaoh that worshipped a sun god. This tale is very indicative that the Septuagint authors, who lived during the Ptolemaic Dynasty, wrote this interpolation into the original narrative in order to garner favour from their Egyptian hosts. These alterations were an evident attempt to establish a blood relationship between the Jewish residents in Egypt and the Egyptian royals as well as indicate that the Hebrews were loyal subjects and only interested in the welfare of the ruling Egyptian Dynasty; the Ptolemaic Pharaohs. Altering scripture is condemned in the Quran. However, the above evidence emphasizes the accusation in the Quran that the Jews changed their scriptures from the original revelation:

Q 2:211: Ask of the Children of Israel how many a clear revelation We gave them! He who alters the grace of Allah after it has come unto him, lo! Allah is severe in punishment.

Q 5:13: And because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them (the Jews) and made hard their hearts. They change words from their context and forget a part of that whereof they were admonished. You will not cease to discover treachery from all save a few of them. But bear with them and pardon them. Lo! Allah loves the kindly.

Again, the Quran’s narrative has been proven accurate and the Biblical authors have been proven to alter their revelations according to circumstance as well as attempt to benefit from the alterations:

Q 2:79: So woe to those who write the scripture with their own hands, then say, “This is from Allah”, in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.

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