Biblical Egypt by R. David Pogge

Chapter 4

Joseph in Egypt

Genesis 37 - 50 and the 15th through 17th Dynasties

Section 4.1 - Joseph's Story

The story of Joseph in Egypt is found in Genesis chapters 37 through 50. It takes place 217 years before the Exodus, which would have been during the 15th Dynasty. Or, more precisely (well, maybe not “precisely”), during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Dynasties because all three overlapped during the end of the Second Intermediate Period.

The 15th Dynasty rulers were mysterious people called the Hyksos, who were Semitic, but not Israelites (like Joseph was). Since they were closely related to Israelites, they would have been more favorable to the Israelites than the descendents of Ham (that is, native Egyptians) would have been.

The story of Joseph is one of the longest, and most interesting, stories in the Bible. To condense 14 chapters down to a few paragraphs, let's just say that Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him as a slave to some traders who sold him to an Egyptian official. Joseph was falsely accused and put in prison, but (through God’s help) rose from the lowest possible position (a slave in prison) to become a very high ranking official in the Egyptian government, second only to the pharaoh himself. God did this by warning Joseph that there would be seven years of famine, and advising him to store up grain during the seven years of plenty before the famine would begin.

Years later, during the predicted famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to beg for grain, not knowing that they were dealing with the brother they had so treacherously mistreated many years earlier. He forgive them, and the whole family moved to Egypt.

People often wonder, “If Joseph was such a great pharaoh, why isn’t he mentioned in the Egyptian literature?” The short answer is, “Because he ruled during a time in history that the Egyptians tried very hard to forget.” Here is the longer answer:

Manetho’s account of this period is preserved at great length in Contra Apionem by the Jewish historian Josephus, but it must be remembered that Manetho was writing as a Greco-Egyptian about the greatest disaster that ever struck ancient Egypt: rule by foreign nationals. While later Egyptian records suggest a great invasion of a desperate horde through the eastern Delta, in reality Semitic immigrants had been steadily entering Egypt for some time. This is evident not only from the names recorded in the Middle Kingdom stele and in some lists of servants, but also from the 12th Dynasty paintings of Asiatics in the tomb of noble Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt. These settlers gradually acquired increasing authority …

The five (possibly six) main Hyksos rulers identified by Manetho are allocated a span of 108 years in the Turin papyrus, the lengths of their individual reigns being uncertain.

Records for the period of the Hyksos are sparse, probably due to two main factors. First, their influence was largely confined to the Delta and the northern areas of Egypt, where they had their centre of authority. Secondly, to have foreign rulers was regarded as a terrible thing in ancient Egypt and—once the essential equilibrium had been restored—there was a definite movement of damnation memoriae, and Hyksos monuments would have been obliterated or destroyed. 1

The Bible says that during times of famine, some Semites went down to Egypt to buy grain to take back to the Promised Land, or settled in northern Egypt. Egyptian historians confirm this. Furthermore, Egyptian history confirms the fact that some of these Semitic people became powerful enough to found the 15th Dynasty in northern Egypt. Although we don’t know a lot about the Semitic rulers in the 15th Dynasty, what we do know fits perfectly with the Biblical account.

We know even less about the 16th Dynasty.

The ephemeral 16th Dynasty (minor kings who almost certainly operated in the shadow of and by the authority of the Hyksos rulers at Avaris) produces only two names—Anather and Yakobaam—which do not occur in cartouches and are largely only known from scarabs found in northern Egypt and southern Palestine. 2

Perhaps Joseph was one of the nameless 16th Dynasty pharaohs appointed by a 15th Dynasty Hyksos pharaoh. (There must have been more than 2 pharaohs during the 108 years of the 16th Dynasty.) Regardless, he made the area he ruled very rich.

Section 4.2 - Joseph’s Bones

In response to the skeptics’ taunt, “If Joseph was a pharaoh, why doesn’t he have a tomb in Egypt?” there is a simple explanation.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. 3

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”

So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt. 4

Sure enough, when God delievered the children of Israel from Egypt, the vow was fulfilled.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” 5

Section 4.3 - The Afterlife

This brings up an interesting point about the differences between Hebrew and Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife and proper burial customs.

The New Testament tells about the burials of Lazarus and Jesus. Both were wrapped in cloth, put in a cave shortly after they died, and a stone was rolled in front of the opening. This was the normal Hebrew burial custom.

The body was allowed to rot in the family cave until some long time later (probably when another relative died). Then the cave was entered and the dry bones were collected and placed in an ossuary.

All undisturbed tombs of this period [New Testament times] also contained ossuaries, small limestone chests in which the bones were gathered up and reburied. 6

Even in Old Testament times, the Hebrews cared more about bones than bodies.

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. 7

The king asked, “What is that tombstone I see?”

The people of the city said, “It marks the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and pronounced against the altar of Bethel the very things you have done to it.”

“Leave it alone,” he said. “Don’t let anyone disturb his bones.” So they spared his bones and those of the prophet who had come from Samaria. 8

When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done,  he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead.(They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan,where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.)  David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.

They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land. 9

The Egyptians, on the other hand, thought it was very important to preserve the body so that the dead person’s ka 10 and ba 11 [let’s just say, “soul” to use western terminology] could live in it. The mummy had to be as lifelike as possible so the soul would know which body to inhabit; and the person’s name had to be written on the coffin just to make sure. The body was placed in a tomb with magic paintings on the walls which would create a wonderful environment for the soul in the afterlife. Prized possessions, or miniature models of valuable things, were placed in the tomb for the deceased person to enjoy in the afterlife. The Book of the Dead was written on a scroll, or painted on the wall, so the deceased would know how to pass the tests to get into the glorious afterlife.

Joseph didn’t believe the Egyptian mythology about death. He didn’t believe the soul went to Heaven when the person died. Some Christians today believe the soul goes to Heaven immediately after death because the Roman Catholic Church adopted the Greco-Roman mythology about the Elysian Fields [Heaven], Erebus [Purgatory], and Hades [Hell] in order to frighten people into obedience, and encourage them to buying indulgences.

Since Joseph lived millennia before this Greco-Roman myth became established church doctine, he believed what Job, Solomon, and Martha believed about death—specifically that the dead don’t come to life again until the Day of the Lord.

Job said,

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! 12

Solomon said,

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. … Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. 13

When Lazarus died, Jesus comforted Martha.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 14

If Lazarus was already in Heaven, Jesus would have told her that Lazarus was having fun in Heaven, and that Jesus was going to drag him, kicking and screaming, back to Earth—but Jesus didn’t say that because that wasn't true. Lazarus was unconscious in death, that’s why Jesus said this to His disciples:

After he [Jesus] had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”  Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.15

Joseph was in a difficult situation when his father, Jacob, died. He wanted to bury his father in the family tomb in Canaan; but it was long journey back to Canaan in the hot sun. As Shakespeare so delicately put it,

But if indeed you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby. 16

Well, maybe that wasn't so delicate.

The situation was even more difficult because Joseph probably did not want to disrespect the Egyptians’ religion. Since there was practical value to having his father embalmed in the Egyptian tradition before taking him back to Canaan to be buried, Joseph came up with a diplomatic solution.

Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him.  Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.

When the days of mourning had passed, Joseph said to Pharaoh’s court, “If I have found favor in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me. Tell him, ‘My father made me swear an oath and said, “I am about to die; bury me in the tomb I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.’”

Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.”

So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt— besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Only their children and their flocks and herds were left in Goshen.  Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company.

When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.  When the Canaanites who lived there saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning.” That is why that place near the Jordan is called Abel Mizraim. [Abel Mizraim means mourning of the Egyptians]

So Jacob’s sons did as he had commanded them:  They carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite.  After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father. 17

As noted above, Moses said the embalming of Jacob took forty days of the seventy day mummification/mourning period. Modern scholars have confirmed this.

Chapter 1 of The Mummy describes in detail the five steps of mummification: 1) Desiccation; 2) Storage of the Entrails; 3) Stuffing the Body; 4) The Art of Bandaging; and 5) The Final Touches.

The entire process, from death to mummy, had taken seventy days. Herodotus was confused in his belief that the drying period alone lasted seventy days, and indeed modern experimentation has shown that there is no benefit to be gained from drying a corpse for longer than forty days. 18

The modern experimentation she references is probably that of Dr. Robert Brier.

In 1994, Dr. Brier became the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver in the ancient Egyptian style. This research was the subject of a National Geographic television special Mr. Mummy. 19

The Biblical description of the disposition of the bodies of Joseph and his father are consistent with Egyptian scholarship and experimental scientific verification.

Back to Chapter 3 Table of Contents On to Chapter 5


1 Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs, 2006, pages 93-95
2 ibid., page 95
3 Hebrews 11:22
4 Genesis 50:24-26
5 Exodus 13:19
6 The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1980, Tyndale, Volume 1, page 214
7 2 Kings 13:21
8 2 Kings 23:17-18
9 2 Samuel 21:11-14
10 ka: a spiritual entity, an aspect of the individual, believed to live within the body during life and to survive it after death.
11 ba: an aspect of the soul, represented as a human-headed bird.
12 Job 19:25-27
13 Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10
14 John 11:23-24
15 John 11:11-14
16 Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 3
17 Genesis 50:1-14
18 Joyce Tyldesley, The Mummy, 2006, Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., page 32
19 The History of Ancient Egypt Course Guidebook, page 1. Dr. Brier explained his work in Lecture 26 of his video course, The History of Ancient Egypt, produced by The Teaching Company.