Egypt at the Time of Joseph
Updated: Mar 10
The Egyptians in Egypt, Scene from The Ten Commandments by Cecil B. DeMille, 1956
This blog by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD is written to accompany the Come Follow Me lesson for March 7–13; Genesis 37–41
If you’ve seen the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” you may be of the opinion that the Israelites spent their 400 years in bondage to the Egyptians building pyramids. Joseph apparently came to Egypt around 1600 to 1700 BC. Bishop Ussher has Joseph arriving in 1706 BC; undoubtedly on Friday afternoon, February 13th, just in time for dinner. You may want to read some of my other blogs if you don’t know my opinion of Ussher’s Old Testament dates.
The problem here is that the oldest well-known pyramid in Egypt, the step pyramid of Djoser, was built around 2686 to 2613 BC, some nine hundred years before Joseph showed up for dinner. The most famous, Great Pyramid of Khufu was at least 700 years old when Joseph arrived. Of 43 pyramids listed in Wikipedia, only the last one, the Pyramid of Ahmose hadn’t been built by the time Joseph arrived – and it wasn’t even a burial pyramid, it was filled with sand and had no burial chamber.
In short, when Joseph arrived in Egypt, at least as far as the pyramids were concerned, the place looked about the same as it does now. However, the Great Pyramid still had its white casing stones, so it would have been bright and shiny. According to legend, the upper 30 feet of the pyramid was a single pyramidal stone covered in gold – now long gone. Back then, it may still have been covered in gold when Joseph arrived, or the gold may have been looted by that time, or maybe it wasn’t coated in gold in the first place.
Akhenaten, who lived around 1353 to 1336 BC, wasn’t born yet, so his great heresy hadn’t yet occurred and his city of Akhetaten, or Amarna, had not yet been built. Sewadjenre may have been pharaoh at the time. The Bible does not say. Of course the Bible never mentions pyramids either. Only the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, was mentioned. “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.” (Genesis 39:1)
The Egyptians had at least one prison, because Joseph was put into it (Genesis 39:20). But that prison didn’t seem to have cells as do prisons of today, as Joseph apparently had a considerable amount of autonomy there (Genesis 39:21-23; 40:4). It was also apparently in a house or part of a household (Genesis 40:7). It was also apparently a dungeon (Genesis 40:15; 41:14), although that may be only a seventeenth century twist on the story. Egypt had chariots by this time (Genesis 41:43). According to Chariots in Ancient Egypt: The Tano Chariot, A Case Study, edited by André J. Veldmeijer and Salima Ikram, with contributions by Ole Herslund, Lisa Sabbahy and Lucy Skinner, (Sidestone Press, 2018), the chariot first appeared in Egypt around 1600 BC. This information places Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt at 1600 or later, rather than 1700, sorry Bishop Ussher, wrong again.
Studying archaeology along with the Bible gives both a much richer flavor and greatly expands the mind of the reader. William Henry Bragg shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his son, William Lawrence Bragg, for inventing X-ray crystallography. The senior Bragg is quoted as saying: “From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.” [Salam, Abdus, The Art of the Physicist, New Scientist, 35 (20 Jul 1967):163]
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
Be sure to visit my previous blogs, all dealing with past Come Follow Me lessons: go to my website trentdeestephens.com and click "Blog" in the upper right corner of the first page. Also check out the growing list of books that I have written - a new book is in press and will be out later this year.