Joseph in Egypt: A Unique Skill and an Ability for a Family Reunion

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

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

There was nothing but hatred in the hearts of Joseph’s brothers against him. Joseph was his father’s favorite son because of his great virtue, compassion, and strength of character. Then, what made Joseph trick and trap his brother Benjamin who was then jailed? Was it really love for his family?

Joseph with his brothers, who recognize him in Egypt.
Joseph tricked Benjamin into stealing a cup and the latter was sent to jail. When Joseph’s family arrived in Egypt he had a reunion with all of them. (Image: Musée municipal Frédéric Blandin/Public domain)

A Trick for a Family Reunion

Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him in Egypt. He asked them if they had any other brothers. They told him about Benjamin who was home with their father. He then asked his brothers to go back home Egypt and bring Benjamin to Egypt. He played a trick on them by putting their money back along with the grain, which the brothers were unaware of.

When they returned home, their father was upset about the money and concerned about Benjamin going to Egypt. But he sent Benjamin who had a reunion with Joseph whom he, unfortunately, did not recognize. With another trick, Joseph put a silver cup in the sack of grain.

The silver cup was discovered, and Benjamin was kept as a hostage in Egypt. Joseph knew that his father would miss Benjamin the most. So, his trick yielded results. Finally, Joseph’s family came to Egypt and Joseph told them who he was. It was a tearful reunion, but Joseph forgave them all.

Joseph, in some way, was sent by God to ensure the well-being of Israel, both Israel his father and Israel the people. So Jacob, the father, came to live in Egypt ‘in the land of Goshen’. That was the Delta where the Hyksos were.

Learn more about the role mythology, religion, and philosophy play in ancient Egypt.

Joseph, the Businessman

Jacob, the patriarch, the father, had a vision. God told him, “I will bring you out of Egypt.” It was like the Exodus foretold. The famine was proceeding, and Joseph showed what a sharp businessman he was. He was not a freewheeler but worked for the pharaoh.

As the famine proceeded, the pharaoh had the grain stored, but the people did not have food to eat. The farmers were not growing crops so Joseph bought their land and gave them grain. Soon the pharaoh owned virtually all the land in Egypt and became very wealthy. However, there was an exception. The exception was the priests’ land. Joseph did not buy the land owned by the temples because for centuries pharaohs had given land to the temples as donations. To show the god they were in favor of him, they could give 100 acres to the temple, and the priests fed on the crops from those acres.

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

Deaths of Jacob and Joseph

Soon, Jacob died. But, before that, he blessed his sons with the 12 tribes of Israel. He also requested a burial outside of Egypt. The Bible said, “Then Joseph ordered the doctors in his service to embalm his father which took 40 days for embalming and the Egyptians mourned him for 70 days.”

Illustration shows mourning people around the dead body of Joseph who died after his father, Jacob.
Like his father, Joseph made a wish that after his death his bones should be sent out of Egypt as he wished to be buried outside Egypt. (Image: illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible/Public domain)

Jacob was mummified like an Egyptian, one of the only two people in the Bible who were mummified. The other was going to be Joseph. A large retinue took the body of Jacob, called Israel, out of Egypt for burial.

Then Joseph died, and he had wished that his bones be taken out from Egypt. He did not want to be buried in Egypt either, so they embalmed Joseph and laid him in his coffin.

Learn more about the modern Egyptology which began with Napoleon.

Verifying Stories

Now, is there any way to know the authenticity of these stories? A way to verify a story can be looking at external evidence. There were a lot of numbers like eleven, seven, and three which featured a lot everywhere but with no archaeological evidence for them. There was also no archaeological evidence for if there ever was a large number of Israelites in Egypt. Looking at the story from an Egyptological view makes sense. External evidence suggests there was no statue of Joseph or Jacob or the name of anybody named Joseph in Egypt. There was no record talking about someone called Joseph in Egypt. But the other was internal evidence.

The Story of Potiphar

Picture showing Potiphar's wife making advances and stopping Joseph who is trying to leave the place.
Many stories, similar to the one where Potiphar’s wife made advances toward Joseph, were common in Egyptian society. (Image: Guido Reni/Public domain)

The internal evidence was the story where Joseph was unjustly accused of making advances toward Potiphar’s wife. There happened to be an ancient Egyptian story called ‘The Tale of Two Brothers’. The good brother worked in the fields and the wife of the other brother made advances toward him, which he refused. Thus she accused him of rape.

So there was an Egyptian tradition for such a situation which was not impressive. Potiphar’s name was Egyptian where ‘Poti’ was probably Pa-di-ra. Pa is ‘that’, di means ‘given’, by ra, by ‘Re’, the sun god. So Pa-di-ra means ‘given by the sun god’. So ‘Potiphar’, at least, was a good name.

A Different Approach: Looking at Language

There was a wonderful piece of evidence in the pharaoh’s magicians who were called to interpret dreams, but were unable to do so. They did not know what the seven lean ears of corn were, or what the fat cows were doing. But the Bible says the pharaoh called for his magicians. The latest form of Egyptian language and writing was Coptic. It was the ancient Egyptian written in Greek, and the Copts, the Christians in Egypt, had their Christian Bible, which was the Old Testament, and they wrote and told that story including that of Joseph.

Learn more about the methods that Egyptologists used to reconstruct history.

The Meaning of Sesperonch

The word in Coptic for ‘magician’ in the Coptic Bible was sesperonch, ses-per-onch. Sesperonch is three words: ses means ‘scribe’; per is ‘house’, onch is ‘life’. The magicians were the ‘scribes of the house of life’. The house of life in Egypt was a theological college, a school associated with a temple, ‘the house of life’, where priests were trained. So it was obvious that the pharaoh called them to interpret a dream, which is evidence of internal verification through Coptic, making sense in Egyptian terms.

Joseph’s Real Skill

Joseph’s real skill was not just having dreams. The Egyptians believed that everybody had prophetic dreams. The real skill was in interpreting those dreams, and that was Joseph’s skill. Joseph was not special because he was prophetic but because he knew how to interpret the dreams.

In ancient Egypt, the priests were the interpreters of the dreams. One would go to the temple and ask the priest about them. But in Joseph’s story, when the pharaoh called his magicians to interpret him dream, they failed to do so. And thus Joseph stepped in help the king.

Common Questions about Joseph’s Unique Skills

Q: Why did Joseph put his cup in Benjamin’s bag?

When his brothers went home, Benjamin was sent to Egypt where he had a reunion with Joseph whom he did not recognize. With a trick, Joseph put a silver cup in the sack of grain with the brothers so that Benjamin could be kept hostage and he could meet with his father and the rest of his brothers. Finally, the family was reunited when they went back into Egypt where Joseph revealed who he was, forgiving them with a tearful reunion.

Q: Why is the story of Joseph so important?

Joseph’s story is important because he was not just a dreamer but an interpreter of dreams.

Q: Who threw Joseph in a well?

Joseph’s brothers threw him in the well as they did not like him much.

Q: How many years of famine did Joseph prophesize?

Joseph prophesized seven years of famine in Egypt.

Keep Reading
The Fifth and Sixth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt
Isis and Osiris: Death and Rebirth in Ancient Egypt
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egyptian Pharaohs