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Joseph, Imhotep, Asenath & Potiphera

Joseph, Imhotep, Asenath & Potiphera

H. Abdul Al-Dahir

The Biblical Book of Genesis is the 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 ‘Psw’ is the Egyptian word ‘psSw’ (GSL* O3-O34-N37-G43-Z9-Y1-Z2-A1) which means arbitrator
2. Greek ‘nthw’ or ‘nthy’ 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 ‘w’ is the Egyptian word ‘wa’ (GSL T21-D36-Z1) and means alone or sole
4. Greek ‘m’ is the Egyptian word ‘m’ (GSL G17) and means ‘in the position of’
5.Greek paneach 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 either ‘the sole arbitrator/judge whose position is to expend or pay out provision’ or ‘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.

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.

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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