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Joseph — historical man or hysterical myth?

Generations of readers have been intrigued by the story of Joseph and the seven years' famine. It reads like the ultimate rags-to-riches success story:

While still a teenager, Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. He ended up as a servant in Egypt, and was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. Finally, events suddenly took a turn for the better. Pharaoh had a dream, and Joseph was brought forth out of the dungeon to interpret it. From the position of a lowly slave and a prisoner in a strange land, Joseph was thus raised overnight to a position of responsibility and honor second only to Pharaoh himself!

Not only did Joseph explain Pharaoh's dream as a warning from God of an impending seven-year famine, but he went on to advise the ruler on how to prepare effectively for the calamity (Gen. 41). Pharaoh was so impressed that he immediately put Joseph in charge of all the food resources of Egypt.

For seven plenteous years Joseph gathered Egypt's produce into granaries. Wheat was so plentiful that efforts to keep tally on the amount stored were abandoned. Joseph prepared all Egypt to face the famine.

When the famine struck, the years of preparation paid off. While surrounding nations were starving, Egypt had food. Thanks to God's warning and Joseph's foresight, the nation was able to weather the disaster. Joseph emerged as the savior of Egypt — the one who had fed it and kept it alive during the famine.

A fascinating account! But is it true? So Sunday-school-like does this story appear, so simple-minded and so fabulous, that critics have not been slow in calling it into question.

Where, outside of the Bible, they ask, is there any proof that such a famine took place — or, for that matter, that there was ever even a Joseph?

Egyptian history provides these answers!

Toward the end of the last century an inscription was discovered on a rock on the island of Sehel, at the First Cataract of the Nile. It is in the form of a message sent by Zoser, a Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, to the ruler of the city of Elephantine. Zoser wrote:

I was in distress on the Great Throne, and those who are in the palace were in heart's affliction from a very great evil, since the Nile had not come in my time for a space of seven years. Grain was scant, fruits were dried up, and everything which they eat was short . . . The infant was wailing; the youth was waiting; the heart of the old men was in sorrow . . . The courtiers were in need. The temples were shut up; the sanctuaries held nothing but air. Everything was found empty (James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Princeton: 1955, p. 31).

Here is the situation as it was during the final year of the calamity, when "the land of Egypt . . . fainted by reason of the famine" (Gen. 47:13). Here is the account of the Biblical seven years' famine preserved on stone by the Egyptians themselves.

But that's not all. The inscription goes on to show how Zoser, in desperation, turned for advice to his prime minister Imhotep. Who controls the flow of the Nile, the Pharaoh wanted to know. Imhotep then described to the king the nature of the God who alone could relieve Egypt from her plight. Zoser followed the sage's advice, the famine ceased, and the "borrowing from their granaries" was no longer necessary (ibid., p. 32).

Who was this Imhotep?

Ancient Egyptian documents style him as prime minister of Zoser. He had the ability to foretell the future (ibid., p. 432) and had written a book on wisdom. He was also remembered as being in some way connected with the supervision of granaries. In later ages idolatrous Egyptians forgot Imhotep's true personality and deified him as a god of medicine. In Zoser's time, however, he was regarded as a worshipper or a son of Ptah, the Egyptian god of creation.

It is not hard now to deduce to which Biblical personality the qualities and deeds ascribed to Imhotep really belong. What prominent man in Egypt obeyed the Creator? Whom does the Bible identify as prime minister of Pharaoh? (Gen. 41:40, 41, 44) Who in Egypt had "physicians" (health instructors) in his employ? (Gen. 50:2) Who taught Pharaoh's ministers wisdom? (Psalm 105:22) Who advised Pharaoh about the famine and distributed grain for food? Who was regarded as the savior of Egypt? (Gen. 47:25) The personality and deeds ascribed to Imhotep belong actually to none other than Joseph!

But, then, how did the deeds of Joseph come to be attributed to Imhotep? Remember that when a new Pharaoh arose, he "knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). That is, he preferred not to know of or remember Joseph. When the Egyptians began to oppress the Hebrews they also erased the memory of Joseph from their minds and from their history. They chose not to remember the service he had performed. Whatever works of Joseph's could not be forgotten or erased were falsely attributed to other individuals, such as Imhotep — who was, probably, the architect of Zoser's step pyramid and a contemporary of Joseph. In time, the Egyptians really "knew not Joseph." Imhotep was one of those who took his place, and was eventually deified. The cult of Imhotep, which boasted little idols or figurines of this patron god of medicine, became extremely popular in the second century B.C. Whatever had been remembered of Joseph was thus completely corrupted and transferred to an idol.

Enough material has been preserved, however, to substantiate the Biblical account of Joseph's rule in Egypt and of the seven years' famine.