Exploring Ancient History - The First 2500 Years
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Exploring Ancient History - The First 2500 Years
Roy Schulz  

Chapter 25:


Joseph's Reign in Egypt

   The story of Joseph in Egypt is one of the most fascinating in all ancient history. Joseph rose to be second in command in the most powerful nation on earth. Later his brothers also held positions in the Egyptian government. Their families lived in the most fertile area of the Delta.
   When did Joseph come to Egypt? When did his period of public service begin? When did the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine occur? How did the Children of Israel gain possession of the lushest area in Egypt, the land of Goshen? Who was the great Pharaoh when Joseph ruled?
   All these points, and many more, will be covered on the following pages. But before telling of Joseph's career in Egypt. It is necessary to back up in time and fill in a few points concerning Isaac and Jacob in Canaan.

Jacob in Mesopotamia

   As stated in Part Three, "Abraham's Impact on History," Isaac married Rebekah in 1876 when he was 40 years of age (Gen. 25:40). Twenty years later, in 1856, when Isaac was 60, Jacob and Esau were born (verse 26).
   Now move ahead quickly to the story of Genesis 27. The first verse of the chapter tells us that Isaac was now old and his eyes had become dim. At this point he must have passed the age of 100 but the exact year is not given. However, it has been suggested that Isaac was 117 at this juncture and Jacob 57. As the chronological summary that follows will show, these ages are accurate because they harmonize with all later dates in relation to the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph as well as dates in the history of Egypt in this period.
   Isaac apparently felt he has going to die soon. Notice his words in verses 1 through 4. Esau also expected his death (verse 41). However, Isaac actually lived to be 180 (Gen. 35:28). So he lived 63 years after this event. At this time, then, he must have had some temporary illness or weakness which led him to believe death was near. And which also caused his eyes to dim. Apparently God allowed this to come upon Isaac because he wanted the blessing given to Jacob at this time and not later. God had a certain time schedule and this event at this time was necessary for his overall plan.
   Notice the interesting story in this chapter. Jacob had gotten Esau's birthright previously. Now, with the help of his mother, he also obtained the blessing. Once it is given it could not be recalled. (Genesis 27:35-36) Though Jacob got the blessing by trickery God still wanted him to have it. Jacob was chosen over Esau even though Esau was the first born. Read Romans 9:10-14 in connection with this.
   Esau was very angry as can easily be imagined. He resolved to kill Jacob. (verse 41.) Rebekah learned of this and told Jacob to flee to her home country in Mesopotamia to her brother Laban. However, she did not tell Isaac the real reason for his journey but said it was for the purpose of finding a suitable wife (verses 42-46).
   As a result of these events, Jacob traveled to Padanaram in Mesopotamia to the house of Laban. His uncle, the brother of Rebekah (Gen. 29). Jacob was born in 1856. This event was 57 years later in 1799. How long was Jacob in Mesopotamia? To find the answer it is not necessary to go through all the details of Jacob's relations with Laban. It can simply be found in verses 38 and 41 of chapter 31. When rightly understood, these verses actually speak of two separate periods of 20 years. A total of 40 years in all. Some commentators have stated that the period was only 20 years but this is not long enough to permit the birth of so many children. Actually the 40 years falls into three periods 14, 20, and 6. Jacob served Laban 14 years for Rachel and Leah, 20 years for nothing, and six years for wages (cattle). (Read the detailed discussion of this in Adam Clarke's commentary following Genesis 31 where an excellent chronological table is provided.) Jacob did not return to Canaan until 1759. Now recall the events of the reign of Sesostris the Great recounted in the last chapter. He began his military campaign to conquer the world in 1760. Apparently he subjugated Assyria in 1758. Thus he must have subdued Palestine with little resistance prior to 1758 just before Jacob returned from Mesopotamia! The death of Isaac took place 23 years later in 1736. Jacob and Esau buried him (Gen. 35:27-29). With this chronological background covered, the story of Joseph in Egypt may begin.

Joseph sold into Egypt

   The story opens in Genesis 37. At this time Jacob lived in the area of Hebron in southern Canaan (verse 14). Joseph was just a teenager of 17. Based upon the chronology of his reign in Egypt which will be presented shortly, the date of this chapter is 1747.
   Because Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons. And because Joseph had some unusual prophetic dreams that he did not keep to himself, he incurred the wrath of his brothers (verses 3-11). First they entertained the idea of murdering him but changed their minds and sold him to a caravan that was on its way to Egypt (verses 26-28). Once there, he was sold to Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh. Thus began the adventures of Joseph in Egypt.
   The account continues in chapter 39. With God's protection and blessing, Joseph quickly gained a responsible position with Potiphar (verses 1-5). However, his excellent appearance and personality became a temptation to his master's wife (verse 6-7). When he resisted her advances she used trickery and lies to frame him into being cast into prison (verses 8-20). About this time Joseph must have wondered whether God was on his side or not. Things were going from bad to worse. Not only had he been sold into slavery by his own brothers but now he had been thrown in prison for being a loyal servant. But God was directing his life. This was simply the means by which he would finally come to the attention of the Pharaoh!
   Time moved along to the year of 1736. Joseph was now 28 years of age. He was one of the most model prisoners in History. The keeper of the prison actually entrusted to him the care of all the other inmates (Gen. 39:21-23). God was providing Joseph with plenty of training for his future responsibilities. Among the prisoners were the former baker and butler of the Pharaoh. They had somehow offended the King and were being punished for it (Gen. 40:1-4). Joseph and these two men did not know it, but they would serve as instruments of God in ultimately bringing Joseph to fame in Egypt. The baker and the butler each had a dream. Little did they realize that God was the source of these dreams. But Joseph, as recorded back in chapter 37, had experience in these matters. He knew that God both inspired dreams and interpreted them. Notice what he said in Genesis 40:8: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" Then he heard the men's dreams and told them what they meant. The rest of this 46th chapter goes on to show how these prophetic dreams came true.
   The significance of this incident is that Joseph established a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. This is what God wanted because it was the means by which he would come to the Pharaoh's attention. Joseph had asked the butler to remember him before the Pharaoh when he got his job back (Gen. 40:13-15). However, the last verse of chapter of 40 records that the butler forgot Joseph. This first verse of chapter 41 shows that Joseph had to remain in prison for two more long years. But this too was all according to God's schedule of events. It was not yet the proper moment for Joseph to come to high office in Egypt.
   The first 8 verses of chapter 41 tell of Pharaoh's dream of seven fat and seven lean cattle and seven fat and seven lean ears of corn which the magicians and wisemen of Egypt could not interpret because God had sent it. Now was the time for the butler to remember Joseph. He told the Pharaoh how this young Hebrew had interpreted his dream and that of the baker (verses 9-13) two years before.
   Joseph was summoned out of prison and brought before the leading king in Egypt. Under God's inspiration he interpreted the Pharaoh's dreams which represented the next fourteen years of Egypt's history. The first seven would be years of plenty, the last seven would be years of famine (verses 14-32).
   But God inspired Joseph to go beyond this interpretation. What Joseph said next is recorded in verses 33-36. He advised the Pharaoh to choose someone to wisely store up food during the good years in preparation for the famine period. The Pharaoh realized he was talking to an unusual and gifted individual. He did not take long in making a decision. He appointed Joseph over all the land of Egypt with authority second only to his own (verses 37-45). In one short day Joseph had risen from a dungeon to the position, of king in Egypt. When the time is right, God causes events to happen suddenly!

The Importance of Dynasty III

   "Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before the Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Gen. 41:46). This was the year of 1734, a date which marks not only the beginning of Joseph's governorship in Egypt but also the beginning of the fourteen years of plenty and famine. This key date will now be proven on the basis of the dynastic history of Egypt. To do this it is necessary to briefly review the chronology of Egypt from the beginning. Dynasty I began in 2254 and lasted for 261 years to 1993. Dynasty II began in 1993 and lasted for 256 years to 1737. Then, in this year of 1737 Dynasty III commenced (while Joseph was still in prison). In short, the first three dynasties of Manetho's history go forward in logical 1, 2, 3 order. This is not the case with most other dynasties.
   The first king of the Third Dynasty was Zoser I who ruled for 19 years, 1737-1718. In the 18th year of his reign the seven years of famine ended (1720-1719). Zoser preserved a written record of this calamity. No other seven-years' famine is ever reported during the entire history of the Pharaohs! This could be none other than the biblical famine under Joseph because it comes at exactly the right time. It does not conflict with any of the biblical or Egyptian chronology for this period in ancient times. Rather, it helps clear away chronological problems that previously existed.
   Zoser's account of the famine has been found on the rocks of the island of Sehel, at the Nile's First Cataract. This is what he wrote:
"Year 18, ... I was in distress on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart's affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of SEVEN YEARS. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short .... The infant was wailing; the youth was waiting; the heart of the old man was in sorrow .... The courtiers were in need. The temples were shut up .... Everything was found empty." (Translation by J. A. Wilson in "Ancient Near Eastern Texts", edited by J.B. Pritchard, page 31, emphasis added.)
   It must be realized that the famine was not due to lack of rain in Egypt. Rather, it came as a result of the Nile not flooding for seven years. The Nile floods lay out rich Soil along the river's shores. When the waters recede crops are planted in the rich soil left behind. The Nile usually rises in June-July and recedes in October-November. Crops are then planted in the winter and harvested in the spring before the next inundation. The Nile failed to rise in the summer of 1727 and this marked the beginning of the seven years' famine.
   The fourth ruler of Dynasty Three was a man named Souphis. Variations in the spelling of this name are Saophis or Suphis (Compendium, Vol. I, pp. 64-65, 76). This same name is also found in the Fourth Dynasty as preserved by Manetho, who used the form Suphis. Those who copied from Manetho used the different Greek spellings listed above. This individual was none other than Joseph.
   Joseph in Hebrew is not pronounced with an English "J" sound, but with a "Y" sound. In Manetho's Egyptian transcription of the name, only the consonants "S" and "PH" appear the letters at the beginning and end of the name. There are no vowels in Hebrew hence the Greek Suphis, Saophis, or Souphis, variant forms in which two or three vowels have by en added.
   The ancient historian Eratosthenes wrote that the Egyptians designated Suphis as a "money-getter" or "trafficker" (trader). Though these were meant to be uncomplimentary titles, they do describe Joseph in his responsibilities as ruler in Egypt. (Compendium, Vol. I, p. 64.) Read Genesis 41:46-48 and 47:13-26 in connection with this.)
   In Dynasty III Suphis or Joseph is listed as reigning 16 years from 1684 to 1668. However, in Manetho's account of Dynasty IV he is given 66 years. The listing of Suphis in both of these dynasties makes it clear that Dynasty IV, a foreign dynasty, must have PARALLELED Dynasty III. The two records together tell the full story. Only the latter portion of Joseph's reign is preserved in the list of rulers in Dynasty III. The entire period of Joseph's public service is found in the parallel account, the list for Dynasty IV from Manetho. The 66 years of Joseph's public service, the full period of his reign, span the years 1734-1668 (Compendium, Vol. I, pp. 65, 76).
   Now compare this date with the seven years of famine a during the reign of Zoser. The famine ended in the year 1720. The seven years of the famine thus extended from 1727 to 1720, the previous years of prosperity from 1734 to 1727. According to the Bible, Joseph came to power at the beginning of the seven years of prosperity when he was age 30 (Gen. 41:46-48). This would be 1734. And 1734 is the very date of the commencement of Joseph's 66 years of public office, as listed in the Fourth Dynasty. Since Joseph was 30 years of age upon entering public office and served 66 years, he was ruler in Egypt till age 96. Fourteen years later he died at the age of 110 (Gen. 50:26) the year 1654.
   All these dates in the history of Egypt and the life of Joseph fit out perfectly. Once more it is proven that the history of ancient times and the history of the Bible can be beautifully harmonized. Now it easy to see why Dynasty III is one of the most important in all Egyptian history. It contains the records of Joseph's rulership and of the seven years' famine, thus adding much to our understanding of the Bible. It also shows the proper position of Dynasty Four which will be discussed in more detail shortly. But now it is time for another look at the great Dynasty XII.

Joseph and Dynasty XII

   Who was the great Pharaoh under whom Joseph serves? The answer is contained in the history of Dynasty XII, the dynasty made famous by Sesostris the Great.
   Again a review of Dynastic chronology is necessary to prove the proper placement of Dynasty XII. Its predecessors Dynasty XI of Thebes, began in the year 2035 during the reign of Shem in Dynasty I. Shem, remember, divided the power in Egypt by creating new dynasties at Thebes and Heracleopolis. Dynasty XI lasted 143 years, 2035-1892. The year 1892 climaxed seven years of civil war and near anarchy in Egypt and witnessed the rise to power of a new dynasty in Thebes, Dynasty XII.
   Dynasty XII continued for 212 years to 1680. Since Joseph ruled in Egypt 1734-1668 his years in public office paralleled the last 54 years of Dynasty XII (1734-1680). Dynasty XII was also paralleled, then, with Dynasties III and IV. Strange as it may seem, Dynasties III, IV, and XII were contemporary for many years. (a good way to remember this is that 3 times 4 equals 12.)
   Now it begins to become clear what Manetho did in his treatment of the dynastic history of Egypt. First he told the story of Thinis or Abydos (Dynasties I and II, then he moved to Memphis (Dynasties III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII), next to Heracleopolis (Dynasties IX and X), and then, after all that, he finally told the history of Thebes (Dynasties XI, XII, others)! This arrangement makes it appear as if Dynasty XII came long after dynasties III and IV, but actually they were parallel for decades.
   The average historian who reads Manetho gets the following picture: the history of Egypt apparently begins with Thinis, proceeds to Memphis, and then to Thebes. In this way he has finished the stories of Dynasties III, IV, V, Vi, VII, and VIII of Memphis before getting to the 11th and 12th of Thebes. From this he deduces the false concept that Memphis had already ceased to be the center of government before Thebes became important with Dynasty XI and Mentuhotpe the Great.
   But when we know that Dynasties III, IV, and XII were parallel, it becomes possible to determine who the Great Pharaoh was in Joseph's day. Remember the rise in power of the Great Dynasty XII after its beginning in 1892. Then, in 1779, the reign of the Great Sesostris III commenced. Between 1779 and 1751 his worldwide conquests made Egypt the greatest power on earth. Under his administration Egypt built an empire with colonies in areas far-removed from, Egypt. In 1741, ten years after completing his world conquests, Sesostris made his son, Amenemhe III, co-ruler with him on the throne of Egypt. They ruled jointly for 11 years till the death of Sesostris in 1730. Amenemhe III continued to rule till 1692 and thus his entire reign covered the lengthy span of 49 eventful years!
   Now recall the story of Joseph in connection with this. He was appointed second in authority in all Egypt in the year 1734 seven years after the beginning of the reign of Amenemhe III! Though reigning jointly with his father, Amenemhe must have, by this time, been the most active and dominant figure in the government. This was the king whose dream Joseph interpreted in Genesis 41 and who made Joseph governor over all the land of Egypt!
   There are many factors which indicate that Amenemhe was the leading individual at this time in Egypt's history. In Herodotus' History (book II, Section 108) it is reported of this period that many canals were dug which intersected the whole of Egypt! These canals were dug by foreign labor the prisoners Sesostris had brought back to Egypt from his far-reaching military campaigns! But what was the purpose of these canals? Remember that the seven years of great prosperity began in 1734. To increase this prosperity, these canals were dug so that many more acres of land could be flooded by the unusually high Nile during this seven year period. In this way the immense seven year crop could be produced that was harvested and stored under Joseph's direction. Presumably Sesostris, who died in 1730, did not see the end of this great project which continued to be carried out by his son, Amenemhe III. Until 1727 when the prosperity ended. The Achievements of Amenemhe III
   But Amenemhe did much more! Egyptian history rarely records a man who exerted so much energy in a positive direction. During his reign the famed Labyrinth was erected A vast building which was nothing less than the "Pentagon" of ancient Egypt. Ancient authorities say that it was built as a place of meeting for the officials of the Egyptian nones or political divisions. This extensive structure was necessary for the administration of the vast governmental affairs of Egypt and its empire. From Herodotus' (History, Book II. Section 147) we learn this fascinating information: the entire building was surrounded by a single wall and it contained 12 courts and 3,000 rooms, 1,500 above ground and 1,500 below ground. Knowing Joseph's great impact on Egyptian affairs and his wisdom in administering theme it is only logical that he would be the key individual in the planning and building of these headquarters offices.
   Amenemhe's greatest projects centered around the use of water from the Nile, the key to Egyptian prosperity. One of these projects supplies important proof that Joseph's life coincided with his. Under Amenemhe, Lake Moeris was developed for the storage of water. Between the Nile and Lake Moeris, for the purpose of carrying water from the river to the Lake, was constructed a long canal or secondary river. This canal exists and is used today, but it still bears its ancient name, the "Bahr Yusuf" which means the River of Joseph!
   To make all of this clear, more information is necessary about Lake Moeris, the Bahr Yusuf, and the Fayum where they are located. The Fayum is a province of Egypt southwest of Memphis. Much of it and surrounding regions form a vast depression which is below sea level and surrounded by the Libyan hills. Today the Fayum proper is an oasis in the Libyan desert. It is connected with the Nile by the Bahr Yusuf, which reaches the oasis through a gap in the hills separating the province from the Nile Valley. The cultivated land in this unusual Fayum oasis is formed of Nile mud brought down by the Bahr Yusuf and distributed through irrigation canals.
   Within this vast depression was Lake Moeris. This body of water was a natural Lake but Amenemhe ordered it to be greatly expanded so it would hold much more! What Amenemhe said in effect was this: "We have learned from experience that we must store water. The best way to do this is to greatly expand the capacity of Lake Moeris and direct the overflow of the Nile into it. Then, when we find that the Nile is low, we can open the dams of the Lake and let the water run back the other way into the Nile again."
   A careful look at a map of lower Egypt makes clear how this would work: the Bahr Yusuf is the long stream or canal that is a few miles to the west of the Nile and flows parallel to it into Lake Moeris. Since this great Lake was below sea level the Nile waters would flow into it through the River of Joseph with no difficulty. Thus, when the Nile dried up, as it had done during the famine years, the waters in Lake Moeris could be released and sent back through the Bahr Yusuf into the depleted river to supply moisture for at least some of the area. Lake Moeris, then, became the great storage area.
   Both the Bahr Yusuf Joseph's Canal and the Labyrinth were constructed before the seven years of famine. Joseph supervised the construction of the canal for Amenemhe III during the years 1734-l727 to prepare for the seven years of terrible famine that were soon to arrive. And the immense Labyrinth, which spread over many acres, served as a general headquarters for the government and as a center of administration for the distribution of government provisions. The 20% that was collected during the years of plenty to be used in the years of famine.

Dynasty XII was Dominant

   With the foregoing in mind, it seems most probable that Amenemhe III of Dynasty XII was the leading ruler in Egypt in this period. And because Joseph was second in command in Egypt, and since his full 66 year reign is listed in the Fourth Dynasty, this would make Dynasty IV the second most important in the country. And, finally, Dynasty III, the Dynasty of Zoser, would take third position.
   Therefore, since Dynasty XII was the dominant dynasty in Egypt at this time, the question arises: where was the government of Dynasty XII, the government of Amenemhe III being held? Obviously the center of government was not way down south at Thebes since the main activity was all centered around Memphis.
   The answer is that the focal point of Egyptian government was the city of Lisht near the Fayum. The supreme government was at Lisht in lower Egypt right near Memphis. So Lisht was the leading center and Memphis was the area second in importance because Dynasty Four was centered there. Lisht and Memphis ruled jointly, but Lisht was the most important because the Pharaoh of Dynasty XII exercised the ultimate authority in Egypt.
   The supreme rule over ALL Egypt, then, was exercised from Lisht under the leadership of Dynasty XII. But since it was originally Theban, Dynasty XII governed directly only Upper Egypt. However, because this dynasty of Amenemhe III was supreme in all matters of external or general overall policy policy that concerned the entire country the decisions made by its rulers (and Amenemhe in particular) were dominant, In other words, Amenemhe could intervene in any or all matters when necessary, but he did not directly administer all districts outside of the Theban area. However, when it came to gigantic projects such as developing Lake Moeris, digging the Bahr Yusuf, or building the Labyrinth. He gave the orders and they were carried out. This, then, is the way the governmental organization in Egypt in this period is to be understood.

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Publication Date: 1967
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