Ancient Egypt: Story of Joseph and Books to Interpret Dreams

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

In ancient Egypt, a priest was consulted in order to interpret a dream. The priest would then look it up in special books on dream interpretation. Then, why was it that the priests were unable to figure out one specific dream of the pharaoh?

Joseph taking responsibility for the pharaoh's grains after he interpreted his dream of famine and prosperity.
When the books of dream interpretation could not interpret the pharaoh’s dream, Joseph came forward and interpreted it. He was given the authority to look over the granaries after that. (Image: Lawrence Alma-Tadema / Public domain)

Books of Dream Interpretation

In ancient Egypt, when one went to a temple for interpretation of a dream, the priests didn’t freewheel. They didn’t just say things off the top of their heads. They looked it up in a book. There were books of dream interpretation in the temples. For example, in a dream, if a man saw his enemies making bad offerings, it meant people were working against him.

So, when the pharaoh had a dream about seven lean ears of corn devouring seven fat ears, the priest in the temple looked into the books and the dream was not there, thus they were not able to interpret it. The existence of an Egyptian dream book to a great extent confirms the way dreams were dealt with in the story of Joseph because he was special as he could interpret a dream, even if it was not in the book.

Egyptian Phenomenon

Seven lean years were going to happen as per the seven fat years and seven lean interpretation. Seven was a magical number in Egyptian. There were seven celestial cows, seven sacred oils—seven was an important number. Regarding seven years of famine, there was evidence in Egypt for that kind of phenomenon on Sehel Island. Sehel Island was in the southern part of Egypt, next to Aswan, which was a large island in the middle of the Nile, covered with big, black boulders and inscribed with hieroglyphs.

Learn more about the religious beliefs and practices in the modern Western world.

Purpose of Sehel Island

Picture of a rock stella which has some records about the famine chiseled on it on Sehel Island.
In addition to other important records, Sehel Island had a huge boulder with the seven-year famine story engraved on it. (Image: Morburre/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

When someone wanted to say anything about the great things he had done, he would go to Sehel Island and have it chiseled on, for eternity. There were different things like military campaigns recorded, ‘we came, we saw, we conquered, and we did this’, and some official records of kings that their sculptors would have carved as records of what had happened.

On Sehel Island there was a boulder with a story of a seven-year famine that could have been caused by other things, such as locusts, pests, or plague. But the Nile did not rise high enough for seven years to yield real crops. So in Egypt, there was a tradition of a seven-year famine.

Concealed Bad Records

The Egyptians usually did not record their defeats or unhappy times. But the Nile not rising was presented as a good time because the pharaoh made offerings to the gods, and then the Nile rose. So, it was the pharaoh who had solved it and divine order restored.

Picture of the causeway that leads toward Uns Pyramid.
Egyptians usually used to conceal any bad records. But in Unas’s pyramid, on the causeway, there are pictures of starving people, maybe due to a famine. (Image: Orell Witthuhn/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

There was another strange story, similar to Joseph’s story. Near Unas’s pyramid, there was a causeway with some scenes on it. There were no hieroglyphs next to the scenes so it is not clear what was being recorded, but it had a picture of people starving to death, who looked skeletal. There was a famine and those people were not in captivity. So they had a tradition of a seven-year famine in Egypt because the Nile won’t rise, and the dream story seemed to ring true.

Learn more about the Egyptian civilization and its depictions of the gods.

Ring of Authority

The Joseph story was written by someone who knew about it and about Egypt. When Joseph interpreted the dreams for the pharaoh, he was given a ring of gold. That is what the pharaoh gave to his viceroys, ambassadors, and viziers. The ring was a sign of authority, a signet ring with their name on it, and they could seal things.

They would roll up a papyrus, put a lump of mud on it, seal it with their signet ring, and nobody could open it. But they also sealed stores of grain that were stored in large storage jars. They put a piece of linen across the top and put their signet ring on a blob of mud. Nobody could steal the grain. So the idea that Joseph was given a gold ring by the pharaoh was a sign of authority in Egypt.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Interpreting the Egyptian Phrase Abrek

Nobody really knew what the phrase Abrek meant. The Bible said, “Wherever Joseph went, they cried out after him, ‘Abrek’.” In Egyptology, if there was an inscription that did not make any sense in another language, they would say it out loud and try to hear it in ancient Egyptian: “Abrek, Abrek, Abrek.” The best bet was that those were three words. The Egyptian concept of the heart and they had two words for ‘heart’. One was hat, which meant the most important thing in the body, used in medical papyri. While doing anatomical stuff, they talked about the heart, hat.

But the other word for ‘heart’ was ib or ab. The first word probably meant ‘heart,’ ab. The next part was rk, ‘Ab-rk,’ ‘Ab-rk.’ r often meant ‘to’, the preposition, ‘heart to’. And what was the k, ku? That was ‘you’. It was a suffix pronoun. When it came at the end of a word, it meant ‘you’. So it meant, ‘your heart to you’, or vaya con Díos, almost like, ‘go with God’. ‘May your heart remain with you’, an Egyptian phrase. The Bible said, “Everybody cried out, ‘Abrek’ after him”, was real Egyptian.

Accumulated Land by Priests

The idea was that the priests were allowed to keep their land when everybody else’s was being bought. There came a time in Egypt when the priests had so much land, more than the pharaoh, that they took control of Egypt.

Learn more about the relationship among gods, humanity, and the cosmos in Egyptian stories.

Internal Evidence of Joseph’s Story

In the Bible, it said that the Egyptians embalmed the dead for 40 days and mourned for 70. In the mummification process, one major part of it took 40 days, but the whole ritual and ceremony took 70. The Egyptians had to place somebody in the tomb 70 days after their death. It had to be done after 70 days, and that was what the Joseph story told. So internal evidence was that there was something true about the Joseph story.

Common Questions about Story of Joseph and Books to Interpret Dreams

Q: What was Joseph’s interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream?

Joseph’s interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream was that there would a famine coming in Egypt for seven years but also seven years of prosperity.

Q: What did the pharaoh’s dream about seven fat and seven skinny cows mean?

The pharaoh’s dream about seven fat cows meant that there would be seven years of prosperity and seven skinny cows meant seven lean years, according to Joseph’s interpretation.

Q: What did priests do in ancient Egypt?

In ancient Egypt, the main job of priests was to perform rituals in the temple and make sure to make the gods happy through offerings for the prosperity of Egypt.

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