Who was the Pharaoh during Joseph’s time?

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By BibleAsk Team


The biblical account of Joseph, a key figure in the Book of Genesis, particularly in chapters 37-50, places him in Egypt during a period when he rose from being a slave to becoming a high-ranking official under the Pharaoh. Identifying the specific Pharaohs during Joseph’s time involves both biblical exegesis and historical inquiry. This analysis will explore the relevant biblical passages and historical context, providing an interpretation grounded in both the scriptural narrative and what is known from Egyptian history.

Biblical Account

Joseph’s story is primarily documented in Genesis. Here are some key passages from the New King James Version (NKJV) that mention his interactions with Pharaoh:

  1. Joseph Sold into Slavery:
    • Genesis 37:36: “Now the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard.”
  2. Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams:
    • Genesis 41:1-7: Describes Pharaoh’s dreams of the seven fat cows and seven lean cows, and the seven heads of grain.
    • Genesis 41:14-16: “Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon; and he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that you can understand a dream, to interpret it.’ So Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace.'”
  3. Joseph’s Rise to Power:
    • Genesis 41:39-41: “Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you.’ And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.'”
  4. Joseph’s Administration:
    • Genesis 41:47-49: Describes Joseph’s effective administration during the seven years of plenty and the subsequent seven years of famine.

These passages illustrate Joseph’s journey from being sold into slavery to becoming the second most powerful person in Egypt, serving directly under the Pharaoh.

Historical Context and Identification of the Pharaohs

Identifying the specific Pharaohs during Joseph’s time is challenging due to the lack of direct names in the biblical text and the complex nature of Egyptian chronology. However, several theories exist:

  1. Middle Kingdom Theory: Some scholars place Joseph in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, specifically during the 12th Dynasty. This period, approximately from 1991 to 1802 BC, is marked by significant developments in Egyptian administration and agriculture, which align with the biblical account of Joseph’s famine management.
    • Amenemhat III (1860–1814 BC): One of the prominent Pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty, Amenemhat III, is often considered a possible candidate for the Pharaoh during Joseph’s rise to power. His reign was noted for extensive building projects and efficient administration, including improvements in agricultural practices which might correlate with the biblical narrative of storing surplus grain.
  2. Hyksos Period Theory: Another theory suggests that Joseph’s rise to power occurred during the Hyksos period (circa 1650–1550 BC), a time when a foreign Semitic people ruled parts of Egypt. These Semitic kings were in good terms with the Hebrews, and under their rule it is believed that Joseph was brought to honor. Naturally, the Hyksos were not loved by native Egyptians even though they worked to improve their land. The Hyksos, who were known for their skills in administration and commerce, might have been more open to elevating a foreigner like Joseph to a high position.
    • Apophis (Apepi I, circa 1581–1540 BC): A significant Hyksos ruler, Apophis is sometimes identified as the Pharaoh during the later part of Joseph’s story. The Hyksos capital at Avaris (modern-day Tell el-Dab’a) and their interactions with Semitic people align with the narrative of Joseph’s acceptance and rise to prominence in Egypt.
    • When the Hyksos had ruled over Egypt for some 150 years (c. 1730-1580 B.C.), Sekenenre, a native Egyptian prince of Upper Egypt and vassal of the Hyksos, revolted. His mummy shows clear head wounds, indicating a fierce death possibly as a result of his rebellion. Kamose, the son and successor of Sekenenre succeeded in expelling the Hyksos from Upper and Middle Egypt and restricting their rule to the eastern Delta area. But the full dismissal was done by his younger brother Ahmose, who defeated the hated enemies and forced them to surrender their strong city – Avaris. As a result, the Hyksos retreated to Sharuhen in southern Palestine, which later was also defeated by Ahmose. And thus, the Hyksos’ rule came to an end. They were no longer mentioned in history.
    • Then, the kings of Thebes became the rulers and the pharaohs of all Egypt. As kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, they freed Egypt and conquered Nubia and Palestine as well. These native Egyptian Pharaohs “knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), nor the Israelites, who occupied the land of Goshen in the eastern Delta. These Pharaohs were ones that oppressed the Israelites. The dismissal of the Hyksos led to a new spirit of patriotism, and all outsiders were regarded with distrust, especially the ones that were favored by the Hyksos. Thus, the great work done by Joseph to the welfare of the nation of Egypt was not remembered, mainly because he was an Asiatic and a former minister of a foreign king. The generation that had lived through the seven years of famine had passed away, and the offspring of Jacob’s twelve sons was faced with new kings that detested the Israelites and were bent on enslaving them.

Supporting Arguments from Archaeology and Egyptian History

  1. Administrative Practices: The administrative reforms and centralization efforts of the 12th Dynasty Pharaohs, particularly Amenemhat III, resonate with the biblical description of Joseph’s role in managing Egypt’s resources. Extensive records of granaries and distribution centers from this period support the idea of a well-organized state capable of storing and distributing grain during times of famine.
  2. Semitic Influence: Evidence of Semitic presence in Egypt during both the Middle Kingdom and the Hyksos period supports the plausibility of a Semitic person like Joseph rising to prominence. Archaeological finds, including inscriptions and settlements with Semitic characteristics, indicate significant interactions between Egyptians and Semitic peoples.
  3. Famine Records: Egyptian records, such as the Famine Stela from the Ptolemaic period (though much later, it refers to earlier traditions), speak of seven-year famines. These echo the biblical account and suggest that long-term famines were part of Egyptian historical consciousness, providing a cultural context for the story of Joseph.

Conclusion

While the precise identification of the Pharaohs during Joseph’s time remains speculative, the convergence of biblical text, historical context, and archaeological evidence provides a plausible framework. The Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty, particularly under Pharaoh Amenemhat III, offers a scenario with its administrative sophistication and documented famines. Alternatively, the Hyksos period, with its Semitic rulers, presents another plausible context for Joseph’s narrative.

The biblical account of Joseph in Genesis, corroborated by historical and archaeological findings, suggests that Joseph’s rise to power occurred during a period marked by significant administrative capabilities and interactions with Semitic peoples, whether during the Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty or the Hyksos period. The exact identity of the Pharaoh remains a matter of scholarly debate, but the story’s alignment with known historical and cultural patterns enriches our understanding of this pivotal biblical figure.

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