Many people know the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt, as well as the Israelites being slaves there for centuries. Those of us who attended church school learned about how God miraculously delivered the Israelites from bondage and led them to Canaan. But are these Bible stories true? Did they really happen? If they did, there should be historical evidence to support them. So, does such historical evidence exist? To find the answer, keep on reading.
For starters, whatever evidence (external or internal) there might be, it would have to run along the lines of showing that Joseph was in Egypt and that he was governor. External evidence would be accounts of Joseph?s actions or mention of him in official Egyptian government records. The fact is that no Egyptian records have been found of Joseph ruling Egypt or even of the Israelites ever living in Egypt prior to the Exodus.
One would immediately assume therefore, seeing that no records exist in Egypt, that these Bible stories must be fables. How else can one explain why no such Egyptian records exist? Well, it should be noted that there have been deliberate changes in Egyptian records. Certain names, and portions of names, had been defaced from Egyptian monuments, for one reason or another.1
For many years, Egyptologists assumed that the deliberate removal of a person’s name, image, and memory would cause them to die a second, horrible and permanent death in the afterlife. However, later studies and theories were developed that run along the lines of Egyptian historians and influential people erasing information that did not harmonize with what was ?ideal.?
For example, King Akhenaten, who was married to Nefertiti, changed the religious beliefs of the time. The priests did not agree with this, and by their influence, his name is not found among the listed pharaohs in Egyptian record. It is believed to have been erased. Another example is the record of Queen Hatnepshut. It was uncommon for a woman to be pharaoh, and soon after her death, Hatshepsut?s monuments and statues were demolished, and her image and titles defaced.
With this attitude and mentality displayed by Egyptian rulers and historians, it is very possible that the negative impacts that the Israelites had on Egypt would be ?erased? explaining the absence of such records in Egypt.
External and Internal Evidence
Based on the internal evidence in the Bible, external evidence has been found that correlate with points made in the story of Joseph being in Egypt.
As the story goes, Joseph, a favored son of Jacob, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and ends up in Egypt. The events that transpire result in Joseph predicting 7 years of plenty and 7 years of drought and suggesting the necessary steps to survive these years, he is made governor of Egypt.
External evidence in Tanzania & Lake Quaran
Studies in ‘ice cores’ found in Mount Kilimanjaro, the mountain which supplies the Nile with water, in Tanzania have revealed that a drought took place around 3600 years ago which is around the time the Bible sets Joseph’s story.
We also know of another event around the same time. One of the most fertile areas in ancient Egypt was the land around Lake Quarun. This lake was supplied with water from one of the branches of the Nile.
Droughts in Egypt used to cause this branch to dry up, leaving the land around the lake destitute. Between 1850 BC and 1650 BC a canal was built to keep the branches of the Nile permanently open, enabling water to fill Lake Quaran and keep the land fertile. This canal was so effective that it still successfully functions today. There is no record of who built the canal, but for thousands of years it has been known by one name. In Arabic it’s the ?Bahr Yusef.? This translated into English means the water way of Joseph.2
External Evidence in Yemen
More external evidence supports that Joseph did exist in Egypt and that he held a high position. An ancient inscription reveals that a Yemenite Arab noble woman made a sincere complaint that she could not purchase grain from Egypt with her gold. Here it is:
A Yemenite Inscription About a Famine During The Time of Joseph
In thy name O God, the God of Hamyar,
I Tajah, the daughter of Dzu Shefer, sent my steward to Joseph, And he delayed to return to me, I sent my hand maid With a measure of silver, to bring me back a measure of flour:
And not being able to procure it, I sent her with a measure of gold:
And not being able to procure it, I sent her with a measure of pearls:
And not being able to procure it, I commanded them to be ground:
And finding no profit in them, I am shut up here.
Whosoever may hear it, let him commiserate me; And should any woman adorn herself with an ornament From my ornaments, may she die with no other than my death.3
It is no coincidence that the water way of Joseph, used to prevent the drying of the lake Quaran, exists under that name, and that the famine predicted by him did indeed take place. It is significant that the Yemenite Arab woman addressed her complaint to Joseph, showing that he held the high position that the Bible tells us about.
Internal Evidence in Egypt
Joseph was good to Egypt, he saved it from famine. If no obvious mention of him is made in Egyptian records, it should come as no surprise that there is no record of the Israelites dwelling or leaving Egypt.
According to the Bible, the events that took place prior to the Israelites departure from Egypt devastated the land and the people.
Knowing the attitude of ancient Egyptians in recording negative historical facts, we should expect to not find any record of the Israelites ever being there. However, there is one poetic eulogy that mentions Israel. It was written to Pharaoh Merneptah who ruled Egypt after Rameses the Great, between 1212-1202 BC.
There is a short section at the end of the poem describing a campaign to Canaan by Merneptah in the first few years of his reign around 1210 BC.
One line mentions Israel: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” This is the earliest mention of Israel outside the Bible, and the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records.
It was discovered in 1896 in Merneptah’s mortuary temple in Thebes, by Flinders Petrie.4
Detail from the inscription of the Merneptah Stele: the hieroglyphic symbols for “Israel”. (Adapted from Laughlin 2000 <http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/otarchrefs.html#laughlin2000> , p.
Significance of a specific Bible detail
Another point to consider is the Bible?s account that when Joseph was originally sold into Egypt as a slave, he was bought by a man named Potiphar. Genesis 39:1 says, ?And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.?
The name Potiphar (Pa-di-Ra) means ?that given by the god Ra?
and was a common Egyptian name, its use here, in the ancient language that this is recorded in, places emphasis on pointing out that this man was an Egyptian in high power. The specification of the name Potiphar being Egyptian suggests that foreign rule must have been instituted.
Effect of Foreign rule in Egypt
Scholars suggest that Joseph may have entered Egypt during the unusual time when the nation was being ruled (1730 to 1580 B.C.) by the foreigners called the Hyksos, who were the ones who introduced chariots, horses, and certain types of weapons to the Egyptians.5 When the Hyksos were driven out of Egypt through war, their monuments and records were destroyed by the Egyptians.
The names of their kings, a few sarcastic remarks about them, and a few brief episodes from the war of liberation are all that remain in Ancient Egyptian history. This is probably why no obvious mention of Joseph is made.
When discussing Bible stories in relation to history, one should never argue before looking at what facts are present, what facts are not present, and why they are not present. It is understandable why there is not much internal evidence supporting the presence of Joseph ruling Egypt or the Israelites being there because of the prideful and egotistical attitude of ancient Egyptian historians and scholars.
However, the external evidence bears weight, as apparently seen in the above.
The lack of evidence does not suggest that these Bible stories were not true, and the evidence that does exist strongly supports their truth. As in all fields and aspects of knowledge, valid opinions are based on educated backgrounds. Empty opinions that argue against the Bible stories of Joseph in Egypt and the Israelites apparently reflect a lack of knowledge that you, the reader, have just been briefly associated with.
In conclusion, we should form our opinions based on our own efforts to educate ourselves with appropriate and valid facts. A man by the name of Bill Beattie said, ?The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think?rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men.?
1. On the Defacement of Divine and royal Names on Egyptian Monuments. Edward Hincks. The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 21, (1846), pp. 105-113. Published by: Royal Irish Academy. Stable
2. Encyclopedia Britannica
3. Reported in Niebuhr’s Voyage en Arabie, PL. LIX Translation by Rev. Charles Forster
4. Adapted from the following link: http://bibleprobe.com/proof1200.htm
(January 19, 2008)
5. Adapted from the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/history/joseph.shtml
(January 18, 2008)