08 March 2014

Joseph and Egyptology

Many scholars today believe that the bulk of Genesis was first written either during the reign of Solomon (970-930 B.C.) or near the beginning of the Babylonian exile around 586 B.C. On the whole, secular scholars reject the traditional Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible. However, arguments from tradition aside, Moses seems to be a good candidate as author because of his unique position as a man raised in the court of Pharaoh and educated in Egyptian learning. In one of my history courses in college, we talked about the unusual wording in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. The author writes that they used bitumen instead of mortar and bricks instead of stone. This comment only makes sense if it is being written to people who have lived in Egypt and are used to the Egyptian methods of architecture. Most of the Ancient Near East did build with bricks and bitumen, unlike Egypt where at least monumental architecture was usually built with stone.

Anyway, I recently finished listening to a fascinating lecture series on the history of Ancient Egypt by Egyptologist Bob Brier. One of his more interesting rabbit trail lectures involved the Book of Genesis as it relates to Egypt. From the lecture it was apparent that there are many details of the story of Joseph in Egypt that could only have been known and written by someone who was intimately familiar with Egyptian culture: details that wouldn’t be known by Jewish scholars in Babylon or by members of Solomon’s court. Let’s look at a few of these.
 
It's Egyptology Time!
First of all, when Joseph is taken to Egypt, he is sold to Potiphar. “Potiphar” is in fact a genuine Egyptian name, “Padi-Ra”, which means “that given by Ra”. This name actually pops up twice, as the captain of Pharaoh’s guard to whom Joseph is sold as well as to the Priest of On whose daughter Joseph marries. Bible scholars disagree about whether these two are the same man or simply different men with the same name.

When Pharaoh has a dream later in the story, his magicians are unable to interpret it for him, and so Joseph is remembered and brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. This too shows knowledge of Egyptian religious customs. In the Coptic translation of the Old Testament, the word for magician is “sesperonch” and means “Scribe in the House of Life” The House of Life was a religious school/seminary in ancient Egypt. The scribes had dream books which contained all the images one might have in a dream and how to interpret them. If an image did not appear in the dream book, then the scribes would be incapable of interpreting the dream. This is why Pharaoh’s magicians could not interpret the dream. Apparently the scribes didn't know what to do with skinny cows.

 Egyptian Dream Book from the 13th century B.C.
 The idea that a famine could hit Egypt, a place which requires no rain because the Nile River floods every year, may seem to be farfetched. However, a stela on Sehel Island tells of a seven-year famine brought about by the Nile’s failure to rise. This is almost certainly not the famine from Joseph’s time, but it does show that such famines were possible.

The famine stela from Sehel Island
Signet Ring from the 18th Dynasty
Other things that connect the Joseph story genuinely to Egypt include Joseph’s signet ring. The giving of a signet ring to the vizier so that he could act in Pharaoh’s name was a common practice in Egypt. Genesis says that people followed Joseph around crying out “Abrek”. Now scholars are not agreed even to this day what Abrek means. Many believe that the word has an Assyrian root, which would support a later date for Genesis. However, “abrek” may very well be a corrupted from of the Egyptian expression “ab–r–k”, literally “heart to you”, and understood to mean something along the lines of “god go with you”. Likewise the fact that priests in Egypt accumulated most of the land fits with the very same event occurring in the story of Joseph.

An Egyptian Vizier

Mummy of Seti I
c. 1290 - 1279 B.C.
Finally, there is the issue of mummification. The exact process of mummy-making was a closely guarded secret of the guild of mummifiers in Ancient Egypt. Trade secrets and whatnot. So the fact that the book of Genesis states that Jacob’s embalming took 40 days and that he was mourned for 70 days total is intriguing. This matches up with what we now know today to be the Egyptian process of mummification during which the body spent 40 days in natron being dried and preserved. The other 30 days were broken into two 15 day periods: one period for cleansing and purification and one for wrapping and final rituals. Once again, this is not the sort of thing likely to be known in Solomon’s court or in Babylon at the time.


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