Joseph on the Nile

A new look at the biblical story.

joseph pharoh 58 (photo credit: courtesy)
joseph pharoh 58
(photo credit: courtesy)
The story of Joseph in Egypt is one of the most challenging biblical episodes. Joseph, the son of Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel, the great grandson of Abraham, suggests his superiority and future greatness to his jealous brothers, who sell him into slavery. He distinguishes himself as an administrator at Potiphar’s Egyptian court, but is denounced for a crime he didn’t commit and is sent to prison, “a place where the king’s prisoners were bound.”
But even in this dungeon Joseph’s talents are recognized: “For the Lord is with him,” and he ended up running the place. After he successfully explained their dreams to two prisoners, Joseph is asked to interpret Pharaoh's dreams and, having done so, he becomes an administrator who saves Egypt from seven years of hunger.
Joseph forgives his brothers: “Be not distressed nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that God sent me ahead of you.”
But when the number of “Asiatics,” as the Egyptians used to call their Eastern neighbors, grows considerably, the next pharaoh sentences them to a humiliating slavery and virtual extinction. After years of suffering they escape, wander in the desert, receive the Torah and, as a nation, return to their promised land. This is certainly a moving story, which in more than one respect fits both the Egyptian landscape and Jewish experiences in exile. 
Two extant Egyptian documents: “The Hymn to the Nile” (British Museum, Papyrus 10182 and 10222 and Louvre tablet 693) and the inscription “Tradition of the Seven Lean Years” carved on a rock on the island of Siheil near the Firat Cataract, published by H.K. Brugsch in Leipzig in 1891, indicate that the prophecy he presented to the Pharaoh, plus his agricultural program, prove that he was well aware of the needs and problems of his adopted country.
This was not the only time in history that a stranger who was quick to learn was able to devise a sound national policy. It was also easier for a stranger to organize any required changes in the rigid structure of pharaonic Egypt, divided as it was by an inflexible social structure.
The Egyptians recognized that life in their land was possible only because of the Nile, the regular flooding of which facilitated water storage and irrigation. There are numerous texts of hymns to the Nile expressing gratitude. Most of them derive from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1350-1100 BCE), but there might also have been earlier texts. Some of the poems were brutally corrupted by schoolboys, who had to copy the hymns as an exercise.
These hymns claimed that “whenever water was drunk every eye was on the Nile, who gave in excess of his good.” Egyptians believed that the real Nile was coming from underground caverns, and thought of the rain as a river in the sky falling upon mountain tops. They thought that while the Nile loved to erupt, its powerful coming forth, largely for their benefit, was a total mystery. When the floods came, all Egyptians “laughed in delight.” “Nile made the desert drink” and men used to sing to it with their harps and clapping. They chanted that the “Nile brought food and clothed men with flax from his meadows.” But they didn’t directly pray to it; the Nile didn’t appear as a god in their already crowded pantheon.
They sang that the “Nile took possession of Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt), filled the magazines, made granaries wide, and gave things to the poor.” But the river had “no shrines and no portion of his own, no service of his desire.” When it had risen in Thebes, the city of the ruler, “men were satisfied with the godly produce of the meadows.” During the flood, offerings were made like great oblations, birds and oxen were fattened, lions were hunted for sacrifices. While Egyptians believed that the god Khnum had constructed the Nile, the river was unpredictable. No one could foresee whether it would be high or low, and yet the entire land’s prosperity depended on such prediction.
Egypt had also an ancient tradition of “seven lean years,” followed by “seven years of plenty.” The ancient Egyptian texts have frequent references to “the years of misery,” when a low Nile affected the entire country’s irrigation. These texts have been gathered by J. Vandier in La Famine dans L’Egypte Ancienne, published in Cairo in 1936.One text tells us that Netjer-er-Kher, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, was sitting in distress on his great throne, together with all those in his palace, since the Nile had not come up for the past seven years. “The grain was scant, fruits had dried up and food was short. Every man robbed his companion, the infant was wailing. The youth was wasted. The hearts of old men were in sorrow, their legs were bent.”
When Netjer-er-Kher fell asleep, his god Khnum appeared and reassured him that “the starvation year will pass, and people’s borrowing from the granaries will end… the Nile will come into the fields. The banks will sparkle and contentment will be in people’s hearts more than that which was formerly.”
Of course, the grateful Netjer’-er-Kher promised Khnum that the land would be tithed for his temple. Eventually the whole strip of land south of Elephantine was devoted to the god Khnum, but not to the Nile directly.
There is another fascinating inscription from the First Intermediate Egyptian Period (23-22nd century BCE) on a tomb, not far from Thebes, of an official who tells us that “When the entire Upper Egypt was dying because of hunger, with every man eating his own children, I never allowed death from hunger in my “nome” (district)… I gave a loan of grain to Upper Egypt… Moreover, I kept the Elephantine and Iat-negen alive in these years, after the town of Hefat and Hor-mer were satisfied. But first I took care of my own “nome.”
There is also the Great Papyrus, Harris I, which records that from about 1205 BCE and the beginning of the reign of Ramses III in about 1197 BCE, or between the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of Twentieth Dynasty,  Egypt was in a chaotic state, ruled by a “Syrian” who set the whole land as a tributary to him and who “treated gods like people.” No offerings were presented to the temples at that time. But unfortunately this papyrus doesn’t remember, or does not wish to remember, anything more.    

THERE CAN be little doubt that Joseph, during his service at Potiphar’s court, must have been well aware of such life-and-death aspects of Egyptian existence. His prophecy was the most plausible explanation of Pharaoh's dream, based both on his genius of deduction and practical experience, and so was the proposed solution: imposition of a 5% tax on the wheat, to be stored against famine during the seven years of plenty.
The solution was so obvious that it was immediately understood not only by the Pharaoh, but by his entire court. A new tax was imposed, the granaries were widened, and Joseph became a national hero. He had predicted the unpredictable, and by marrying Assenath, daughter of the priest of On, had entered the highest ranks of Egyptian society.
In this respect Joseph, the successful Egyptian treasury and grain administrator, was perhaps the first of the Jewish advisers to mighty kings; he certainly wasn’t the last. From Spain and the numerous princes of various German principalities to the Kingdom of Poland, the typically Jewish combination of vision and practical good sense won them wealth, protection and the right to settle for their less-fortunate brothers. But there was frequently a king who didn’t remember their contribution, became suspicious of strangers and had the Jews robbed and expelled.
The ancient Egyptian writings quote many instances of Canaanite tribesor individuals crossing the Egyptian border for grain in a time offamine. The main northern road connecting Canaan and Egypt was usuallywell guarded. (Moses’s Hebrews escaped by a southern route). Egyptiantemples are frequently adorned by paintings of such “Asiatics” offeringgifts to Egyptian rulers. Slaves were bought, sold and hunted on bothsides of the border. Egypt had extradition treaties with its neighbors.
But such Canaanite traders or tribes always returned home. It was alsoEgyptian policy for centuries to ward off all foreign invaders:Libyans, Hyksos, Philistines, the mighty People of the Sea defeated byRamses II. It was only natural for the ancient Hebrews to end theirEgyptian sojourn and return to their promised land