Joseph and Potiphar

The story of Joseph is one of the best known in the Bible: Joseph who dreamed prophetic dreams, and wore a shirt of many colors—a distinction of his father—and was sold into Egypt by his brothers. There he became housekeeper in the household of a high official, but later was thrown in the dungeon. Then, after he had interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh about the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, he was freed and was appointed to gather and store the produce during the good years and distribute it during the lean years.

The person of Joseph was searched for by the historians among the grandees of Syro-Canaanite origin at the court of the Egyptian Pharaohs. He was identified with Dudu, the courtier in the palace of Akhnaton; or with Iaanhamu, who was in care of the food supply in the same reign: his name is often mentioned in the el-Amarna letters as that of an official who sold food to the people of Canaan on behalf of the Pharaoh.

In Ages in Chaos it was demonstrated that Dudu was probably a grandson of Hadad—mentioned in I Kings 2; that the letters of el-Amarna described the famine, also known from the Scriptures, that occurred in the days of Ahab, King of Israel.

In Ages in Chaos and in Worlds in Collision I was able to establish the fact that the Exodus took place on the day when the Middle Kingdom of Egypt had its end. Thus we are carried to the conclusion that the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt falls in the period of the Middle Kingdom. This sojourn begins, according to the Scriptures, with the arrival of Joseph, son of Jacob, who at the same time is the only figure of discern in the Egyptian Jewry before the time of Moses and Exodus. Thus, realizing that the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt took place not during the New Kingdom but during the preceding Middle Kingdom, in order to find out whether the personality of Joseph or the patron of the early stage of his career, Potiphar, is referred to in the historical documents, we have to look into those of the Middle Kingdom. The task appears simple. According to the Book of Genesis Potiphar was “an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard.” In the register of the private names to the Ancient Records of Egypt by James Breasted, we find the name Ptahwer.

Ptahwer was at the service of the Pharaoh Amenemhet III of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. According to an inscription of Ptahwer at Sarbut el-Khadem in Sinai dated in the forty-fifth year of Amenemhet III, his office was that of “master of the double cabinet, chief of the treasury.” Ptahwer’s text reads:

I was one sent to bring plentiful ____ from the land of ____, ready in his reports to his lord, delivering Asia to him who is in the palace, bringing Sinai at his heels, traversing inaccessible valleys, bringing unknown extremities (of the world), the master of the double cabinet, chief of the treasury, Ptahwer, triumphant, born of Yata.

The inscription records the successful accomplishment of some peaceful expedition. Since there is only one Ptahwer in the historical documents, and since he lived in the time when we expect to find him, we are probably not wrong in identifying the biblical Potiphar with the historical Ptahwer.

This being the conclusion concerning Potiphar, we are curious to find whether any mention of Joseph is found in historical documents, too. the fact that from the great and glorious age of the Middle Kingdom only a very few historical inscriptions are extant. Since a great famine took place in the days of Joseph, it is, of course, important to trace such a famine in the age of which we speak. In the days of Amenemhet III there occurred in Egypt a famine enduring nine long years. Of this period we have a revealing document, which reads:

With these expressions the words of the Scriptures can be compared (Genesis 41:54):

And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said; and the dearth was in all lands; but in the land of Egypt there was bread.

Thus it seems that the Pharaoh in whose days was the seven years’ famine was the successor of the Pharaoh in whose days began the rise of Joseph’s career (if Yatu is Joseph). Potiphar, who lived under Amenemhet III, probably lived also under his successor.

The inscription which deals with Ptahwer mentions a man whose name is transliterated by Breasted as Y-t-w. Among the monuments of Amenemhet III’s reign is one of the Storekeeper who was honored together with two other persons, and , with a royal If we remember that according to the Scriptural narrative Joseph was appointed storekeeper of the State (Gen. 41:40-41) in anticipation of the seven lean years, with the powers of a chief Minister of State or Vice-King, we may suspect in Yatu the Biblical Joseph. In the Scriptures it is said that his name was changed by Pharaoh to Zaphnath-paaneah, but still his original name may have been in use until he became next to the Pharaoh in importance.

The inscription that mentions Ptahwer refers to his activity in the mines of the Sinai peninsula. In this respect it is of interest to find that the Jewish traditions connect Joseph with the area of the Sinai Peninsula saying that he kept a large quantity of treasuries near Baal Zaphon, the scene of the Passage of the Sea.

The beautiful story of Joseph appears to be a narrative in the style of Egyptian literature of the Middle Kingdom. It should be noted that Egyptian literature achieved its apogee in this period of Egypt’s history. Literary creations such as “The Story of Sinuhe” or “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” were equalled neither before nor after the Middle Kingdom. And the beautiful style of the story of Joseph seems to be a product of the same time; it could have been written at the end of the Middle Kingdom, before the end of the sojourn of Israel in Egypt.