Towards the end of the book of Genesis we’re told about the 12 sons of Jacob. Joseph, the second youngest son is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. There, God enables him to interpret dreams and rise to the role of Grand Vizier or Prime Minister.
In the process, he interprets the King’s dream to prophecy seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. It is this that causes the King to put Joseph in charge of the country and help prepare the land for the coming drought and famine.
How does the Biblical account fit with the historical and archaeological data?
- We know that Semitic people from Canaan did settle in the Nile Delta round about the time that Moses and the Israelites would have been in Egypt. One such group was the Hyksos who for a period rose to prominence and power over the country. Some historians think it possible that it was a Hyksos ruler who came to power and had forgotten Joseph at the start of Exodus.
- Of particular note are excavations under the city of Ramses where there is evidence of Semitic settlements These findings include a palatial complex and burial site with evidence that the grave had been opened. Some archaeologists have suggested that the site would seem to fit with the description of Joseph’s burial and then the removal of his bones to Canaan during the Exodus. Note that this is one of those examples where care is needed when considering archaeological evidence. There is significant data available from the site but whether or not it does prove evidence of the settlement of Jacob’s family in Egypt is up for dispute. So whilst I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that we definitely have the site of Joseph’s burial (and I’m not even sure that this is the most important point) what the archaeological data does provide is a picture of life in the Nile Delta region which fits what we read in the Bible
- The problem of drought and famine was a real issue for the Egyptians around the time that Joseph would have been alive. There is evidence of engineering work to provide link canals to overcome the problem of drought and ensure that water kept flowing so that the land could be irrigated. Fascinatingly a key canal dating from that time is known as Bahr Jusuf or Joseph’s Canal and is still in use today.
Myth, History and famous Egyptians
Imhotep was Grand Vizier to Dozier, King of Egypt around 2500BC. He was instrumental in the building of The Step Pyramid. Inscriptions report that he was gifted in dream interpretation and predicted a period of Seven Years Drought and Seven Years famine.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So, what do we do with the information? I want to suggest that there four options:
- That Joseph and Imhotep were one and the same person. This would mean that our chronology of the Ancient Near East is wrong and that Djoser was ruling later than conventional chronology suggests.
- The Jews created their Joseph myth around the story of Imhotep.
- They are two different people who coincidentally oversaw very similar historical events. As we’ve mentioned before, this isn’t that unusual. Think of how President George HW Bush and George W Bush oversaw military conflicts in Iraq. Think as well about how Britain has had two female Conservative Prime Ministers whose period in government has co-incided with the Labour Party being led by its extreme left wing!
- Joseph is the true famine saviour but the Egyptians transferred this story back onto Imhotep to embellish the myth.
We might be tempted to treat the fourth option with scepticism. Why would we assume that the earlier figure’s biography was in fact copied from the later one? However, consider the following:
- that the stories about Imhotep date from 1000 years after his life. In other words, either contemporary or later than Joseph.
- That the inscriptions about Imhotep seem politically motivated in order to build up the reputation and win favour for the priestly orders in Egypt.
- That as noted above, there is other evidence of a famine around about the time of Joseph
It then makes sense for later Egyptian propaganda to want to play down the intervention of foreign rulers in their land. What do you with the stories about a drought saviour? Answer, you take the story and you add it to the legend of your hero.
So, there is a strong case for re-constructing events as follows.
- Imhotep was a famous Egyptian leader
- Joseph gains significant power in Egypt as a result of interpreting the King’s drought dreams
- Joseph’s descendants fall out of favour with a later dynasty. The history books need to be altered because Joseph was a national hero.
- The stories about Joseph are transferred onto Imhotep, the all Egyptian hero.
 KA Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2003), 347-349.
 http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/04/09/Joseph-in-Egypt-Part-VI.aspx See also David Rohl, The Lost Testament, (London: Random House, 2002), 149-170.
 One of the main proponents of this position, David Rohl tends to be regarded as a maverick in the field. Christians should be wary of jumping on such findings especially when they are proclaimed with tabloid headlines on the internet. However, it is also worth noting that sometimes it takes a maverick to break through the conventional assumptions of an academic field. In other words, we shouldn’t just discount the work of Rohl and Thiede. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised when radicals who propose theories which challenge the status quo are treated with some suspicion. Indeed that is often how break throughs have been made in many fields, think for example of Copernicus as the Copernican Revolution in Astronomy. Within Christian Theology and Pastoral studies, Jay Adams was notable as a thinker and practitioner who broke the mould in the field of Christian Counselling.
 The default position of liberal Biblical scholarship is that the Old Testament is just a reworking of Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian history and mythology.