The Authenticity of the Joseph Story
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The Authenticity of the Joseph Story

The Joseph story is one of the most well-known in the Bible. It also appears in one of the most heavily scrutinized sections of Scripture. While many people assume that Joseph’s story is a fictional composition produced by authors living in the first millennium, numerous details argue for its authenticity. Consider the following:

  • Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery for 20 shekels of silver (Genesis 37:28). Records from Babylonia indicate that this was the average price for a slave in the early second millennium. [1] If a later Hebrew scribe had created the story from whole cloth, we would expect a much higher amount.
  • Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison, which the Egyptians called the “Place of Confinement.” [2] Prisons seem to have been located primarily in Egypt. They rarely appear elsewhere in the ancient Near East, and not at all in the Mosaic Law. If later Israelite authors had invented the Joseph story, it almost certainly would not have included this detail.
  • Joseph appears before the king after being shaved and dressed appropriately (Genesis 41:14). The Egyptians routinely shaved their heads and beards, while Semitic people in Canaan and Mesopotamia did not. The law forbade shaving one’s beard (Leviticus 19:27; 21:4-5), except when it served as an act of purification (Leviticus 14:9; Numbers 8:7). This lack of a beard is why his brothers would not recognize him later (Genesis 42:8).
  • It seems supremely unlikely that a later Israelite author would create a story to lionize Joseph with details that would have met with sharp disapproval from a Hebrew audience. These include depicting Joseph marrying the daughter of a pagan Egyptian priest (Genesis 41:45, 50), shaving (Genesis 41:14), or undergoing mummification (Genesis 50:26; cf. v. 2).
  • The few details concerning mummification included in the biblical text match what scholars know about this process. The text gives a rounded number of 40 days for mummification (Gen. 50:3). This is quite close to the Egyptian “Ritual of Embalming,” which began four days after death and continued for forty-two days. [3]
  • Linguistic details offer clues concerning the background of Joseph’s story. When referring to the Nile River, Pharaoh uses the Egyptian loanword ye’or (Genesis 41:1; et al.) rather than the more common Hebrew term nahar.[4] Likewise, the term for the grass eaten by the cows is akhu (Genesis 41:2), another word of Egyptian derivation. The appearance of cattle in Pharaoh’s dream fits an Egyptian context perfectly, where they played an important role in the economy.

The Joseph story contains numerous references to Egyptian culture and customs. These details demand a reevaluation of the assumptions common among critics, which seem to be influenced more by bias than fact. At a time when research libraries and detailed analyses of foreign cultures would have been unavailable, the story of Joseph’s life could not have been the invention of a Hebrew scribe in the first millennium.

[1] Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2003), 344-345.

[2] Charles Aling, “Joseph in Egypt: Part III.” Bible and Spade 15.4 (2002), 99.

[3] Bob Brier Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secret of an Ancient Art (New York, NY: Quill 1994), 45.

[4] Nahum M. Sarna Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History (New York, NY: Schocken Books 1966), 218.

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