I don’t remember being interested in archaeology as a child or teenager. However, as a young man searching for answers to questions about the existence of God, archaeology became of great interest to me.
It was early 1971 and writings about archaeological discoveries in the Middle East were abundant. Some of the books and articles available to me dated from the 19th century AD, but the majority were from the early to middle 20th century.
I remember asking Dr. Edward Hindson question after question about people and places in the Bible and was quite surprised to hear that archaeological evidence already existed for many of them. He was answering my questions with evidence! It is most helpful when people who say they believe something actually have evidence to support their beliefs. In our most recent posts, we looked at some of the archaeological evidence concerning the Hebrew patriarchs including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons. We pick up the story after Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery.
“Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian. And his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made all he did to prosper in his hand. So Joseph found favor in his sight, and served him. Then he made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority. So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field. Thus he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand, and he did not know what he had except for the bread which he ate.” Genesis 39:1-6
I remembered this story from when I was a kid in Sunday School class. However, as an atheist I viewed everything in the Bible as a fairy tale. There was no Joseph, no Jacob, no Isaac, no Abraham. Yet, I was seeing through the investigative process that there might be more to the Bible stories than just fairy tales. The story of Joseph in Egypt was another opportunity to test the Bible against archaeological discoveries in the region.
We’ve already seen that Asiatics were known to have visited Egypt during the Middle Bronze Age (MBA, 2100 – 1550 BC). Many of these people were West Semitic (including Hebrews). Renowned Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner wrote this about the Asiatics – “on stelae and in papyrii Asiatic slaves are increasingly often mentioned, though there is no means of telling whether they were prisoners of war or had infiltrated into Egypt of their own accord.” (Sir Alan Gardiner, “Egypt of the Pharaohs”, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966, p. 133). Archaeologist Joseph Free wrote that “Syrian slaves were highly prized in Egypt. The word ‘Kan’amu’ or ‘Canaanites’ even became a synonym for ‘slaves’ in the Egyptian documents” (Joseph P. Free, “Archaeology and Bible History, Scripture Press, 1969, p. 74). [See also George Alexander Frank Knight’s 1921 classic, “Nile and Jordan Being The Archaeological and Historical Inter-Relations between Egypt and Canaan”, James Clarke and Co. LTD, 1921]
I didn’t believe in the “supernatural” as an atheist, so I wasn’t interested in what the Bible said about God blessing Joseph during his captivity. What I was interested in knowing is if archaeological finds supported the basic physical aspects of the ancient text (e.g. names, places, events, etc). Archaeological finds during the 19th and 20th centuries had already addressed many of my questions.
For instance, what about the name Potiphar. Did it have a meaning in the Egyptian language? It meant “belonging to the sun.” The name Poti-Pherah was similar and meant “he whom Ra has given.” What about the priest of On? On was another name for the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, which was the ancient center of worship of the sun god, Ra. What about the “land of Goshen?” Archaeologists identified it at the end of the 19th century as the 20th nome of Egypt, located in the eastern Delta section of Egypt. What about the prison where Joseph was held? German Egyptologist Georg Moritz Ebers identified a fortress in Memphis as the prison where Joseph would have most likely been placed. Other possible locations (prior to 1971) included a prison at Thebes and one near the Palestine frontier.
Drawings and monuments gave Egyptologists a clear view of life in ancient Egypt, which included servants, slaves, butlers and bakers. What about the “seven years of plenty” and “seven years of famine?” American Egyptologist C.E. Wilbour discovered a large granite stele (see photo above) in the late 19th century on the island of Sahel in Egypt (near Elephantine). It is often referred to as the Famine or Djoser Stele. Several Egyptologists have deciphered the writings on the stele and say it includes the story of the Pharaoh Djoser and his scribe and architect Imhotep. Egyptologists believe it was engraved during the 3rd century BC, but was based on a much older document from the Old Kingdom period. While it is not identical to the story in the Bible, it does speak of the pharaoh’s dream and seven years of famine. The writing also details building with stone.
The story of Joseph includes three dreams: chief butler, chief baker and pharaoh. Archaeologists have discovered that the ancient Egyptians believed their gods would communicate to them through dreams and that knowing how to interpret those dreams was a key to success. The Papyrus Chester Beatty 3, also known as The Dream Book, was discovered by archaeologists at Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village where tomb workers and their families lived near the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom period.
“Papyrus No. III, as we have seen, is in its present condition incomplete at both ends, and since there are no means of ascertaining the extent of the loss in either direction, it might seem rash to choose a comprehensive title for the principal work to which it was consecrated. On a first reading the fragmentary eleventh page of the recto seems irrelevant to its surroundings, and arouses the suspicion that both at start and finish there may have been other sections of a general divinatory character. Closer study, however, points in the opposite direction, bringing to light reasons for thinking that the whole composition was constructed on a consistent and homogeneous plan, and that it truly deserves the name of Dream-book which I have given to it. It is, indeed, the earliest Dream-book in existence and may well date back to the Twelfth Dynasty (approx. 2000—1790 B.C.), though this cannot be proved with certainty. The core of the work consists of a long enumeration of dreams in clear tabular form, accompanied by their interpretations.” (Hieratic Papyri British Museum, Alan H. Gardiner, D.Litt., F.B.A. 1 Text, 1935, p. 9)
This may explain why the chief butler, chief baker and pharaoh were so concerned about finding an interpretation to their dreams and why Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams was held in such high esteem. However, could a foreigner really rise to the position of second-in-command to the Pharaoh? German Archaeologist Adolf Erman wrote:
“Amongst the court officials also we often meet with foreigners who may have been slaves. For instance, the office of ‘* first speaker of his Majesty,” whose duty was to take charge of the intercourse between the king and his attendants, was, under King Mcrenptah, invested in the Canaanite Ben-Mat’ana, the son of Jupa’a, from D’arbarsana.* At court he of course assumed an Egyptian name ; he was called ” Ramses in the temple of Re’ ” of his colleagues, he bore the additional name of the “beloved of Heliopolis.” All barbarians were probably not so conscientious as Ben-Mat’ana in ^ 2; – An.,4, 16, 2. ‘ I’.j.T., 4, 12, 14, 15. An., 3, 8, 3 ; and as this distinguished name might also belong to some ; confessing their foreign origin, consequently we may suppose that many of the officials named after the reigning king may have been Phoenicians or Cilicians.” (Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, London: Macmillan, 1894, p. 106).
I asked Dr. Hindson many other questions about archaeological finds concerning the possibility of Joseph and his family living in Egypt, but the most important questions may have concerned the Israelites leaving Egypt by way of a great exodus. Were my questions answered? We’ll see in the next part of our investigation into Convince Me There’s A God.
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”