Joseph’s “Official History”

Joseph was a very high officer in Egypt, reporting to Pharaoh Thutmoses IV.
Status is very important in such a position, as is one’s family background.
It was in Joseph’s interests to show that his family had status in their own land.
So here is “Joseph’s official history” of his own family, in its context.

Joseph had his account written down in hieroglyphics and in Akkadian.
The tablets, in Akkadian, containing this account were preserved in Jerusalem.
They were recovered in the time of King Josiah, along with other tablets.
This story then became a vital part of the expanded story of Israelite history.

This account can be extracted from the book of Genesis.
It is a two-step approach. The first step is to find the very late “Priestly Source.”
This is easy, and well established by scholarship, tested over 100 years.
Next, anachronistic elements can be removed and things reconstructed.

It is a wonderful story, but it is not a “family story:” it is an official story.
It is given here, with its undisputed historical context, which is shown in red.
To this I have added the results of my own historical analysis (in green).
So here is Joseph’s story, taken from the Bible, re-written in the first person.

My great-grandfather was Abram, our ancestor.
He came from Haran, otherwise known as Ur of the Chaldeans.
He took with him Sarai, his wife, Lot, his brother’s son, and all their goods
And set out on an adventure, to Djahi, together with all their servants.

Djahi was the Egyptian name for the land later called Canaan.
Canaan is from a word used for “dealers in purple.”
It came to be used for the northern coastal lands of Djahi.
Much later the Egyptians began to use “Canaan” for all their Djahi territory.

Although the indigenous population of Djahi originally was Semitic,
Hurrians had entered the land centuries earlier, and populated it.
The inland cities now had Hurrian fortifications,
By 1700 BC, all Djahi was infiltrated and well settled by the Hurrians.

Aleppo's fortifications
Modern Aleppo’s fortifications

In 1620 BC, in northern Djahi, Alalakh was attacked by Hattusili.
Under its king, Hattusili, Hittite borders grew rapidly.
If a city surrendered, it got one of his sons as its ruler.
If a city resisted, Hattusili would raze it to the ground

“When Mursili, Hattasuli’s successor, was king, his sons and troops were united.
He defeated his enemies with a strong arm [and ruthlessness].
He made the sea the boundaries of his land.
He even took Aleppo, in Djahi, which Hattasuli could not do.

Mursili brought resettlers from Aleppo to Hattusa, the capital.
He went to Babylon and destroyed that city in 1595 BC.
[We have no record, but he certainly would have put a “son” there.]
He also fought the Hurrians” in southern Djahi, taking Hazor.

Evidence of Hittite control of Hazor is found in the early basalt work.
It is a very hard rock, which cannot be worked with bronze tools.
Abrasives may do the job, but iron tools are more likely.
At this time, only the Hittite nobility had iron tools.

The destruction of Jericho has also been incomprehensible to historians,
Yet it can be reasonably be attributed to the Hittites, under Mursili.
Who else was as active as Mursili at that time? “No-one” is the answer.
Poor Jericho! Its great fortifications could not save it from destruction.

When Mursili returned to Hattusa, the capital, he was killed in a palace coup.
Mursili was killed by his brother-in-law, Hantili, and Hantili’s son-in-law.
Seizing the moment, the Hurrians struck out, reaching as far as Hattusa.
The Hittite rulers did not understand that their ruthlessness had a cost.

What were Mursili’s “sons” now to do? The evidence is clear.
The new outposts of empire were lost. Babylon was taken by the Kassites.
The Hittite ruler of Hazor was free of the king at Hattusa.
Disgusted with his “father’s” murder, he owed no allegiance to Hantili.

By 1545 BC, the Egyptians had expelled their foreign rulers, the Hyksos.
Weakened by the Hittite incursions, the Hyksos were left friendless.
Pharaoh Ahmose defeated the Hyksos, who were originally from Djahi.
No help came to them from the dynasty of Yamhad, based on Aleppo.

Hyksos expelled from Djahi
Political map after the Hyksos were defeated

Pharaoh Ahmose established a new Egyptian dynasty, the 18th dynasty.
The chief god of Thebes, Amun, became the highest god of the land.
With “Amun’s help,” Ahmose took the Hyksos fortress of Sarunhen, near Gaza.
He also ventured further into Djahi, but did not create much of a legacy there.

Around 1530 BC, Abram and Lot arrived in Djahi.
They soon each had so many sheep that they had to separate.
Lot went to live among the Canaanites on the coast.
Abram continued to live inland, in Hittite territory.

While the intrepid adventurers were building their pastoral enterprises,
Pharaoh Thutmoses III was creating a new Egyptian empire.
From 1479 BC, in repeated campaigns, he crushed all opposition.
He established outposts in Djahi and demanded annual tribute payments.

When Thutmoses died, the king of Kadesh on the Orontes rebelled.
Every city from that region joined in; Hazor made a minor contribution.
Yet Pharaoh Amenhotep II defeated them all in battle.
Shut up in Mediggo, after six months they all submitted to Amenhotep.

After living for ten years in Djahi, Sarai gave her maid to Abram.
She said to him, “Take Hagar, my maid, as your wife.”
So Abram took Hagar as his second wife, and Hagar became pregnant.
When the time arrived, Hagar, the Egyptian, gave birth to his son Ishmael.

After this, Sarai also become pregnant to Abram.
When the time arrived, Sarai, his first wife, gave birth to a son.
He called this son, Isaac. He was a son born to him in his “old age.”
Isaac was my grandfather, and Ishmael was my grandfather’s brother.

Abram, Sarai, and his two sons lived near Kiriath Arba, a Hittite city.
Kiriath Arba was a town with Hurrian fortifications, a “kiriath.”
It was a dependency of Hazor, the pre-eminent Hittite city of Djahi,
While Hazor was a city-state in Djahi, it remained a loyal Egyptian vassal state.

Sarai died near Kiriath Arba. She had lived a rich life and was full of years.
Abram grieved for Sarai and wept for her: he loved her very much.
Wanting a place to bury her, he went to Hittite leaders in Kiriath Arba.
He said to them, “I am an alien amongst you. Grant me a place to bury my wife.”

The Hittite leaders said to Abram, “You are a chieftain among us.
Bury your dead in the choice of our tombs.”
Abram said to them, “Please intercede for me with Ephron, son of Zohar;
Ask him to sell me the cave of Machpelah, on the edge of his field.”

Ephron was sitting there. He said to Abram, “I will give you the field!”
Abram replied, “I must pay for the field. What will it cost?”
Ephron replied, “The land is worth 400 shekels of silver.”
Abram weighed out the silver to Ephron, and he bought the field and cave.

Abram buried Sarai, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpelah.
The field is located near Mamre in the land of Djahi.
It became Abram’s property and remained as a lasting inheritance.
The deed was established and witnessed before the Hittite leaders of the town.

Hittite law governed the transaction for the purchase of the field and the cave.
The Bible account is saturated with the subtleties of Hittite law.
It tells us that, along with purchasing the field, the cave and its trees,
Thus Abram also acquired a formal relationship with the king of that place.

Many have tried to defend the idea of the “verbal inspiration” of the Bible.
Some have even argued the Israelites entered Egypt during the Hyksos period.
This proposition, relying on one verse, composed much later, is foolish.
Why try to place the Hittites in Djahi before they even entered that region?

Abram lived to a good old age; he lived a full life.
Finally he died and was gathered to his people.
Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Machpelah,
Which Abram had bought from the Hittites, and where Sarai was buried.

Ishmael also lived a good long life, who knows how long?
Twelve chieftains and twelve tribes came from his loins.
The first was Nebaioth, followed by Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Temar, Jetur, Napish and Kedmah.
They dwelt from Havilah, by Shur, all the way to Assyria.

Joseph died during Amenhotep III’s lifetime (d. 1323 BC).
Joseph indicates that Ishmaelite territory in his time went up to Assyria.
This make sense: at that time, Assyria territory went down to the Red Sea.
This points to this story being both contemporary and historical.

When Esau was forty years old, he took a wife.
He first married Judith, the daughter of Beeri, the Hittite,
Then he married Basemath, daughter of Elon, the Hittite.
These two women brought bitterness to the spirit of Isaac and Rebekah.

Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of Esau’s wives.
If Jacob also takes a wife like these women, I will be very unhappy.”
So Isaac said to Jacob, “You shall not take a wife from the women of Djahi.
Go to Paddan Aram, to your mother’s father, and take a wife there!”

So Jacob, having listened to his father and his mother, went to Paddan Aram.
There he married Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters.
After Isaac left, Esau saw that his marriages had displeased Isaac and Rebekah.
So he also took a new wife, a cousin, Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael.

Leah gave Jacob sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.
Benjamin is a son of Rachel, and so am I!
Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, gave birth to Dan and Naphtali.
Leah’s maid, Zilpah, gave birth to Gad and Asher.

With his wives and children, Jacob returned to his father near Kiriath Arba.
Isaac died there. He was gathered to his people, old and full of days.
Esau and Jacob, his sons, buried him in the family tomb, as was required.
The two brothers were now free to separate: they had fulfilled their duties.

It was clear that their vast herds were too much for them to live together.
So Esau took his wives, sons, daughters and servants and went to Mount Seir.
But Jacob continued to live in the land of his father’s sojourn, in Djahi.
Esau went away from Jacob, my father. Esau became the ruler of Edom.

From Djahi, I found my way to Egypt, serving one of Pharaoh’s servants.
In 1397 BC, when I was thirty years of age, I stood before Pharaoh.
Then I invited my whole family to come to Egypt with all their property.
Seventy persons came: Jacob, his sons, grandsons, daughters and granddaughters.

Pharaoh Thutmoses IV said to me, “Your father and brothers have come.
The land of Egypt is before you; settle them in the best of the land.
They can live in the land of Goshen, where they can feed their flocks.
If there are worthy men among them, they can manage my flocks.”

So I brought my father to be introduced to Thutmoses.
Pharaoh said to Jacob, “how many years have you lived?
Jacob responded, “One hundred and thirty years.
My days have been few and bad, not like my fathers’ long lives.”

While the Egyptians could calculate the years of their lives,
Such as those living in non-literate social groups, as Abram’s family,
Could only guess their ages. Jacob clearly assumed that older is better.
This then shaped the ages given to all the patriarchs in the Priestly Source.

After this, I settled my father and brothers in Goshen.
They gained a place in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land.
They lived there, just as Pharaoh had commanded,
And I supplied them all bread according to their numbers.

Pyramids were not store houses

Historical support of the Biblical account is not found in imaginative inventions, such as pyramids being built as grain storehouses by Joseph, the son of Jacob, the central ancestral figure of the Israelites.

Instead, we know that the Biblical account has real historical connections, e.g. to the Hittites in Canaan (as uncovered by Yadin’s archaeological studies of the city of Hazor). This means that the Biblical references to Abraham negotiating with the Hittites can now be considered to historically possible (not impossible as previously thought).

Theory of Joseph building pyramids (which were funerary edifices, not grain stores), puts Joseph – Abraham’s great-great-grandson – ahead of Abraham & Hittites. This is impossible.

We know that the great pyramids were built around 2600 BC. Yet the earliest possible date for Abraham is around 1500 BC. Joseph was the descendant of Abraham, not his ancestor, which a 2600 BC date would imply.

The 1500 BC date for Abraham is founded on the evidence that the Hittites were first in Canaan around 1530 BC. Therefore, they could not have been in Canaan when the pyramids were built, simply because they were not even a recognized people group at that time. That didn’t happen for a thousand years after the pyramids were built.

The oppression of the poor

It is ironic that the result of modern economics, which is supposed to maximize everyone’s wealth, is oppression of the poor.

Ecclesiastes has something to say on the oppression of the poor. See if you can perceive any 21st century applications:

Ecclesiastes 4:1-6

I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter.

And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.

But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.

And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.

Better one handful of tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

Wisdom literature and King Solomon

The invention of writing in Hebrew script, around the time of the warrior king, David, marks the earliest possible date for Hebrew Wisdom Literature. David’s successor, Solomon, is the first (and only) king with a reported enduring interest in secular wisdom: it is not a satisfactory way of proceding for historians and Biblical scholars to ignore that piece of information. Indeed, the text indicates that Solomon claimed that God (Yahweh) promised him that he would be the wisest man on earth. It can be argued that Solomon worked to fulfil this promise through gathering together the collected “wisdom” from the nations around him. His marriage relationships with Egyptian, Sidonian and Hittite women testifies to his desire to share in the cultures of the surrounding nations.

Yet even if we consider the claims for Solomon’s involvement in these texts, it is unlikely that he wrote much of their content. It is more likely that Solomon funded a team of scholars who were charged with reproducing in Hebrew the wisdom found in Egyptian, Phoenician, Hittite and Akkadian scripts, transforming these works into a form acceptable to the Israelites and delivering these works in the new Hebrew script. Indeed, the brilliant prosperity of the Israelite nation during Solomon’s reign, together with its international connections at the time, force us to consider the possibility that scholars within Solomon’s kingdom produced each of the wisdom texts, namely, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Job. Even some of the Wisdom Psalms can be placed at that time.

The “Wisdom of Solomon” is a good example of works that are “useful for instruction.” They are starting points for understanding our world, God’s involvement in the world, and our own appropriate response: they are not the final word on such matters – in this regard we have Jesus’ teachings and fruit of God’s Holy Spirit working in our lives.

Exodus: Gods and kings

Ridley Scott’s movie, Exodus: Gods and kings, based on the Biblical book of Exodus, is of interest to historians of Israelite history, theologians of Jewish and Christian backgrounds, and to movie critics.

As an historian, I would caution viewers not to take Scott’s version of the Israelite exodus from Egypt too seriously. It is more like a historical novel than a serious attempt to reconstruct the events depicted in the Biblical book of Exodus.

While Scott has made a fair attempt to make sense of the difficult elements in the story, he had to invent his own framework with which to deal with the miraculous things associated with Israel’s escape from Egypt, treating them as a “mysterious other.”

Biblical Inerrancy

Some consider that the entire text of Exodus was dictated by Moses, but as an historian I find that this approach does not show sufficient respect for the text. This is because the content of the text itself reveals that it was drawn from at least three different sources, each one reflecting, at least in part, the intention of its author at the time the account was written. This is discussed here.

A corollary of the claim that the text of Exodus was written by Moses is the belief that all of the Bible is without error, being somehow inspired by God in such a way that it shows no signs of human fallibility in its construction. It is a position that defies logic, and cannot be consistently held. Yet it is the majority position among those Christians who call themselves evangelicals. Even Scott’s account makes a number of concessions to the way the story is told by those who hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. This includes the old chestnut of the 400 year sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, the wrong identification of the sea that the people crossed, and the reference to 600,000 men-at-war as reported in the Israelite censuses.

  • While Scott accepted the Biblical reference to a 340 / 400 year sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, it is an unlikely piece of accounting. Although this time-span can be sourced to a guess made 300 years after these events took place, it is actually historically impossible when one takes the totality of the Biblical evidence into account. For example, this time-span would place the references to the Hittites in Genesis even before the Hittites had emerged outside of central Anatolia. In addition, 400 years of exile are incompatible with the relatively short genealogy of Aaron’s line; it is also incompatible with the account of David’s line. Yet both of these genealogies are presented as complete. However, Biblical literalists never worry about actual history, preferring unlikely half-researched explanations.
  • The assumption, which recently re-emerged, that the Israelites actually crossed the Red Sea, rather than some other body of water, is taken at face value in this film. Those who promote the doctrine of inerrancy find this association necessary because when the J source was written around the time of King David (some 300 years later) the name “Sea of Reeds” / Red Sea was applied to the sea that the people crossed – it is elsewhere unnamed. Yet the Biblical literalists ignore the fact that the Bible says that the Israelites could see the Egyptian dead on the other side of the Sea of Reeds – something that would have been impossible for the Red Sea proper, and quite difficult (at least without a telescope) even at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez (the north-west branch neck of the Red Sea), where the sea is about 10 km wide.
  • Scott has also taken at face value the difficult suggestion that there were 600,000 men of war in the Israelite party that left Egypt. This idea can also be dated to around the time of Solomon, when this way of reading the source documents first emerged. For example, where Numbers refers to the tribe of Reuben being counted as 46 clans / thousands and five hundred men, this was taken as meaning 46,500 men, rather than the more likely 500 men in 46 clans – a form of reading that also applies to all the other tribes.

Out of the two possible readings of the tribal numbers, the “more wonderful” version, 600,000 men, was preferred by the ancient Israelite story-tellers to the “more ordinary” version, 6,000 men. Since the archaeological records do not show a massive invasion of the Israelite highlands, but rather something closer to a new people group entering Canaan around 1200 BC (such as could be encompassed by a force of 6,000 men) we can be confident that 6,000 is the correct reading. Recounting a story of 600,000 warriers was only possible for the story-tellers once the reality of their early history had faded from the Israelite view. Yet, for us, counting the Israelites as 600,000 men must be considered to be unrealistic, at both ends of the exercise. There is no evidence for such a large number entering Canaan, and there is no evidence for such a large number of Israelites leaving Egypt. Since the larger number would mean an exodus of about 2 million men, women and children out of a total Egyptian population of 9 million people at that time, it is quite improbable that an event of this magnitude would not be found anywhere in the Egyptian archaeological records, if indeed 2 million people had left the country quite abruptly.

More vivid and more miraculous

It is recognized  (or it should be) among historians that stories of extraordinary events carried down over time (without firm written sources) tend to become more vivid over time, and reported miracles become more miraculous.

A tendency in this direction can be seen in the wonderful song of Moses and the children of Israel found in Exodus 15. This gives a vivid account of the defeat of Pharaoh and his chariot army at the Sea of Reeds. This version is drawn from the oral traditions of the tribe of Judah (and of Aaron’s descendants). This version is much more elaborate than the two line song of Miriam, also found in the same chapter, which is likely to have been drawn from the Akkadian texts surviving from that period. While both versions of this song have their own place in the historical record, their composition cannot both be dated to the same moment in time.

It is not only Israelite song-writers who are given to depicting vivid imagery. When we turn to Scott’s account of the sea swallowing the Egyptians, it would be difficult to have constructed a more hyperbolic account. His version goes far beyond even the most dramatic description found in Exodus itself.

Even though it would have been easier for Scott to have created a plainer account, it would have been much less entertaining, and would not have provided the excellent graphic imagery he has gifted to us. Can it then be surprising if the Israelite story-tellers also adapted the story to current needs as they told it? This is especially the case since the exodus and the rescue of the early Israelites from slavery in Egypt was the central event of their history, not something invented 600 years later, as some have suggested.

Historical context

From an historian’s perspective, there are at least some things in which it is difficult to disagree with Scott’s version:

  • Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus – this is uncontroversial.
  • Moses as the (imputed) grandson of Pharaoh Horemheb – this shows some insight. It even could be possible that the purging from all monuments of the name of Horemheb’s predecessor, Pharaoh Ai, was due to Egyptians’ disgust with that pharaoh’s decision to order the unjust killing of all newborn Hebrew boys, if indeed Ai was responsible for this decree.

Other aspects of this recounting are more difficult from a historian’s perspective:

  • Scott has Pharaoh Seti implying that Moses was more worthy to be his successor than his own son, Ramesses. Given usual dynastic ambitions, this seems quite unlikely, and can be considered to be an imaginative reconstruction of no historical value.
  • While Moses was brought up in Pharaoh Horemheb’s court, it does not naturally follow that he would have been in Pharaoh Seti’s court or been one of Seti’s generals. This aspect of Scott’s story can also be taken under the heading of imaginative reconstruction. On the other hand, one can at least accept that Ramesses and Moses knew each other: the royal clique was not so large as to make this unlikely.
  • The Egyptians seem to have been portrayed somewhat unkindly in Scott’s version, with his presentation giving insufficient recognition to the importance of Maat (truth and justice) among the Egyptian nobility. Scott also failed to observe the openness of the Egyptian nobility to Asiatics where these foreigners had particular talents of use to the Pharaoh.
  • It is difficult to accept that Moses, Seti and Ramesses did not know of Moses’ Israelite ancestry. It is not likely that Moses’ Israelite origins was a terrible secret only disclosed at the last minute.

As a Christian, one has also to take issue with Scott’s depiction of Yahweh (the name for God that Moses learnt in Midian) as a petulant child and of Moses’ difficult relationship with Yahweh.  It is likely that Scott has given us his own view of the God of the Old Testament, even though it is one that many others may share. Yet this film is his creative work and naturally reflects his opinions (or those of the director and writers together). However, his interpretation of this story can hardly be accepted uncritically, nor do we have to accept his opinion that he was depicting a foundation myth, not an actual historical event.


Even though Scott’s film has limited value as an historical account of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, it remains a good yarn, and probably worth watching for the issues that it raises.

Dr Graham Lovell / Historian / Sydney