The Mosaic Authorship of the Joseph Story
[EDITOR’S NOTE: A.P. auxiliary staff writer Dewayne Bryant holds two Masters degrees, and is completing Masters study in Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology and Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, as well as doctoral studies at Amridge University where he is a Ph.D. candidate. He holds professional membership in both the American Schools of Oriental Research as well as the Society of Biblical Literature.]
Few success stories in the Bible are more memorable than that of Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers and later accused of a crime he did not commit, Joseph narrowly avoided death on two separate occasions. In spite of the personal hardships he suffered, God had a plan to use him to save countless lives. Thanks to divine providence, he stood triumphant at the right hand of the pharaoh as one of the most powerful men, not only in Egypt, but in the world.
As with most of the early books of the Bible—particularly from Genesis to the early chapters of 1 Samuel—skeptics and critics label the Joseph story as the work of later authors (see Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, pp. 67-68). According to the documentary hypothesis (popularly known as the JEDP theory), the Pentateuch as a whole is composed of several different documents edited together by redactors, or editors. The Joseph story is no exception. Critics claim it is the product of multiple authors living between the 10th and 6th centuries B.C., if not later.
The Bible recognizes Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (Exodus 24:7,27-28; Numbers 33:2; Joshua 8:32; 2 Chronicles 34:14). Critics reject the Mosaic authorship of this material, with most denying the existence of Moses as well. This denial is built upon the assumptions inherent in the documentary hypothesis, whose adherents rarely take Egyptian evidence into account. The fine details of the Joseph story do not point to a Hebrew scribe writing in the 10th-6th centuries B.C. Rather, they point to an author who was intimately familiar with Egypt and who included Egyptian loanwords and other details of Egyptian culture in his work. To summarize some of the important Egyptian details in the Joseph story, consider the following points:
Joseph is sold for 20 shekels (Genesis 37:28). Babylonian records indicate that this was the average going rate for a slave in the first half of the second millennium (Kitchen, 2003, pp. 344-345), but later rose due to inflation. The prices given in the Bible in later texts correspond to the prices at the time those texts were written. At the ancient cities of Nuzi and Ugarit in the mid- to late-second millennium, the price was 30 shekels and more, which is reflected in the Mosaic law (Mendelsohn, 1955, p. 68; cf. Exodus 21:32). Still later in the first millennium, the price went up to 50-60 shekels, which seems to be reflected in the ransom for Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:20). Later authors would not have been able to research these minute details in order to make the account believable, nor would anyone have thought about doing so. If the Joseph story had been written when critics claim (closer to the 6th century B.C.), the price asked by his brothers should have been somewhere around 60 shekels instead of 20 (Kitchen, 2003, p. 345; cf. Kitchen, 1995, 21). If the Joseph story was written after the exile, we would expect the price to have been as high as 90-120 shekels. On a further note, Leviticus 27:4 establishes the price of 20 shekels for a male slave younger than 20 years of age (Joseph was 17—Genesis 37:2; see Wenham, 1978, pp. 264-265).
Joseph is thrown into prison, which the Egyptians called the “Place of Confinement” (Aling, 2002, p. 99). These were rare in the ancient Near East and seem to have been found only in Egypt. The Mosaic Law never mentions prisons, and does not seem to have a close parallel to our modern concept of them. If later Israelite authors had invented the Joseph story, it would have been highly unlikely that they would have included this feature.
Joseph likely serves as an overseer (Egyptian imy-re per) in Potiphar’s house. His service and promotion fits very well in an Egyptian context (see the discussion of relevant titles for this office, as well as Joseph’s promotion, in Hoffmeier, 1996 and Kitchen, 2003).
Joseph is able to interpret dreams. This was a vital aspect of life in ancient Egypt. Those who did so were specialists who consulted dream books, examples of which have been discovered by archaeologists (e.g., Papyrus Chester Beatty III, currently housed in the British Museum). Joseph proves his superiority by interpreting the king’s dreams without any access to these reference works.
Joseph is brought before pharaoh after being shaved and dressed appropriately (Genesis 41:14), something that was done in Egypt but not among Semitic peoples (see Fried, 2007). The Beni Hasan tomb painting depicts Canaanite merchants around the same time as the patriarchs wearing beards and having full heads of hair. Although pharaohs were depicted wearing beards, it is clear that these were false (whether in paintings or on statuary, a close inspection will reveal the strap along the jawline that held the beard in place).
Jacob and Joseph are both embalmed or mummified. The text also mentions Joseph’s coffin (Genesis 50:26). Although extremely sparse, the details given in the Bible match what scholars know about the process from ancient records. The biblical text states that 40 days were required for mummification (Genesis 50:3). This seems to be a rounded number that agrees with an Egyptian text known as “The Ritual of Embalming,” which states that the beginning of the embalming process began four days after death and continued for 42 days (Brier, 1994, p. 45).
Joseph is described as being 110 years old. We know from ancient Egyptian records that this was the ideal age at the time of death, essentially a way of saying that a person had lived a rich, full life. The Bible later records this figure at 70 or 80 years (cf. Psalm 90:10). Over half of the references to this lifespan in Egyptian literature occur during the same general period as the one in which Moses lived (Kitchen, 2003, p. 351). Thus, this number preserves an expression that appears to have been the most popular during the period in which Moses received his education.
Linguistic clues provide important insight into when the Joseph narrative may have been put into written form. The word for the Nile River used in the text when Pharaoh discusses his dreams is ye’or rather than the more common Hebrew term nahar. The word ye’or is an Egyptian loanword for “river” that was used in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1295 B.C.) onward (Sarna, 1966, p. 218). Likewise, the term for the grass eaten by the cows is akhu, another Egyptian loanword. Sarna notes that the reference to cattle may be significant as well. They were an important part of the Egyptian economy, while sheep played a minor role. The situation was reversed in Palestine.
One of the supports for the early second millennium devotion to writing of the Joseph material is the phrase “the land of Rameses” (Genesis 47:11) which came into common use in the 13th century and fell into disuse after the 12th century (Kitchen, 1991, p. 118).
The Egyptian details of the Joseph story are what we would expect to find if someone educated in Egypt had been the one to put this story into written form (cf. Acts 7:22). Alan R. Schulman states: “It is quite clear that the person who either wrote, or wrote down, the Joseph sagas had an exceedingly intimate knowledge of Egyptian life, literature, and culture, particularly in respect to the Egyptian court, and, in fact, may even have lived in Egypt for a time” (1975, p. 236). This is precisely what we find in the Bible’s statements about the life of Moses. Put simply, the Joseph story could not have been the invention of a Hebrew scribe in the first millennium.
Taken together, the details above generate some important questions about the authorship of the Joseph story and the assumptions made by many modern interpreters. Why does the text include terms popularized in the Egyptian language during the time in which Moses would have lived? Why do Egyptian concepts fill these stories when they are absent in later texts that critics claim to have been written at the same time as the Pentateuch? Why is it that chronologically-sensitive details in the Joseph story fit well within a context of the early second millennium, while critics claim it was written in the early first millennium? These questions demand a reevaluation of the skeptic’s position, which tends to be haunted by the twin spectres of unfounded skepticism and anti-biblical bias. The Bible presents a far more believable author of this material than the contrivances of its critics.
Aling, Charles (2002), “Joseph in Egypt: Part III,” Bible and Spade, 15.
Brier, Bob (1994), Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secret of an Ancient Art (New York: Quill).
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: The Free Press).
Fried, Lisbeth S. (2007), “Why Did Joseph Shave?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 33, July-August.
Hoffmeier, James K. (1996), Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1991), “Israel Seen from Egypt: Understanding the Biblical Text from Visuals and Methodology,” Tyndale Bulletin, 42, May.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (1995), “Patriarchal Age: Myth or History,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 21, March/April.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Mendelsohn, Isaac. (1955), “On Slavery in Alalakh,” Israel Exploration Journal, 5.
Sarna, Nahum M. (1966), Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History (New York: Schocken Books).
Schulman, A. R. (1975), “On the Egyptian Name of Joseph: A New Approach,” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 2.
Wenham, Gordon J. (1978), “Leviticus 27.2-8 and the Price of Slaves,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 90.