Gen 39:1-23 Joseph works hard and is well thought of – until Potiphar’s wife makes unjust sexual allegations and Joseph ends up in prison for nine years.
Gen 40:1-23 After being in detention for eleven years, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and his chief baker.
Gen 41:1-40 Two years later, Pharaoh has a series of dreams. His cupbearer remembers Joseph – who is duly called to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.
Joseph interprets the dreams as a warning of severe famine after seven years of good harvests. Joseph is put in charge of Egypt’s agriculture in c.1670BC and builds storehouses to prepare for the seven years of famine.
Gen 41:41-52 Joseph is appointed Vizier (Prime Minister) to the Pharaoh - probably Amenemhat III (c.1678-1635BC) – the most successful pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom - and becomes one of the most powerful people in Pharaoh’s court. He is given fine robes, a gold chain and a wife - the daughter of the priest of the temple to the universal sun god Atum-Ra (later called ‘Helios’ by the Greeks) at On (Heliopolis) (see 6 on Map 42).
A fertile smallholding beside the River Nile
On / Heliopolis
In Joseph’s day, the centre of sun worship in Lower Egypt was the temple of Atum at On. Little remains at the site of On (later called Heliopolis by the Greeks), now in the northern Cairo suburb of Al Matariyyah (not the modern suburb called Heliopolis which has no connection with the ancient site). Today, only one obelisk - one of a pair erected by Pharaoh Senusert I (c.1971 – 1928BC) – remains at the site.
Evidence from On’s past can be found, surprisingly, in London and in New York. The Egyptian obelisk commonly called Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment in London, and its twin in Central Park, New York, have nothing to do with Cleopatra. In fact, these two obelisks were originally erected at On (Heliopolis) by Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (c.1504 – 1450BC). They were moved to Alexandria by the Romans shortly before the beginning of the Christian era, and finally left Egypt nineteen centuries later during the rule of Khedive Ismail the Magnificent (1863 – 1879AD).
Joseph’s Egypt in c.1660BC
Egypt under Pharaoh Amenemhat III had already been a prosperous and powerful kingdom for fifteen centuries when Joseph was appointed Vizier (Prime Minister) in c.1670BC. Under a succession of twelve pharaonic dynasties, the annual flooding of the River Nile had been used over the centuries to transform the fertile low-lying lands of the Nile Delta into the breadbasket of Egypt (see Map 42).
The prosperity and absolute power of the pharaohs was reflected in the amazing building works carried out by thousands of poorly paid labourers, slaves and skilled craftsmen. Nearly a thousand years earlier, during the fourth dynasty in c.2500BC, the three great pyramids at Giza had been built by the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. About two hundred and thirty years before Joseph, in c.1900BC, Pharaoh Amenemhat I had built a new capital at Itjtway in Faiyum in Lower Egypt, and only recently, Amenememhat III had embarked on building two new pyramids at Dahshur and Hawarah.
As Vizier, Joseph would have overseen the maintenance of the extensive system of irrigation channels which ensured that the waters of the annual Nile flood watered the fields of barley and emmer, the cereals grown to produce Egypt’s two great staples – bread and beer. He would have collected taxes from Egypt’s farmers, and ensured a continuous revenue from the royal gold mines upstream in Nubia.
Just west of Cairo, modern-day visitors can see the great pyramids at Giza that had already been standing for over a thousand years in Joseph’s day. Near the Faiyum oasis 30 miles / 50 km south of Giza, visitors can explore the pyramid complex of Amenemhat III at Hawarah, built to house the mortal remains of the pharoah who probably appointed Joseph to the top administrative post in Egypt (see Map 42).
Pyramids at Giza
The Nile Floods
Successful harvests in ‘The Black Land’ of the Nile Delta depended on the annual Nile floods – the ‘inundation’ that transformed the red soils of the barren desert into fertile black agricultural loam by depositing humus-rich black mud that enriched the soils of the delta area. So important was the annual inundation to agriculture that the Egyptian year was divided into three seasons: Akhet (the time of the inundation, from June to September), Peret (the time of planting and growing, from October to February), and Shemu (the time of harvesting, from March to May).
The prosperity of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom depended on the successful management of the Nile floods by the Pharaoh and his Vizier. During the time of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (who probably appointed Joseph as Vizier), an artificial canal was built to link the River Nile to the Faiyum Basin, a short distance south of Memphis. The excess waters of the Nile inundations were channeled along this canal and formed a huge artificial reservoir in the Faiyum depression – Lake Moeris (now the 25 mile / 40 km long lake called Birket Qarun) – which stored water for use during low Nile inundations. Traditionally, the canal – which can still be seen today - is called the Bahr Yussef – the ‘waterway of Joseph’ (see Map 42).
During the reign of Amenemhat III, exceptionally high water levels were recorded in situ on the rocks at the Semna Fort and the Kumma Fort on opposite sides of the Nile gorge near the Second Cataract in Southern Nubia. Seven years of good inundations (marked by high water levels) would have produced seven years of plentiful crops; but seven years of even higher catastrophic flood levels (similar to those recorded at Semna and Kumma) would have swept away the irrigation bunds and destoyed the crops – producing years of famine.
The River Nile at Aswan
Gen 41:53 - 42:38 After seven years of plenty, famine arrives in Egypt. Jacob and the other eleven brothers are also suffering from famine in Canaan. Ten of the brothers come to Egypt to buy corn, but the youngest – Rachel’s son Benjamin – stays at home with his father Jacob.
Joseph recognises his half-brothers, but they don’t realise who he is. Joseph gives them supplies of grain, keeps Reuben (who saved Joseph’s life some fourteen years earlier) as surety, and sends the other nine brothers back to Canaan.
He demands that they return with Benjamin (Joseph’s only true brother), but Jacob will not allow Rachel’s son Benjamin – now his favourite son - to travel to Egypt (see 7 on Map 42).
Gen 43:1-34 The famine gets worse so the brothers are forced to go back to Egypt with Benjamin. They take gifts of resin, honey, spices and almonds. Joseph entertains the brothers to a meal at his private residence. They are astonished when – without being asked - they are seated in the exact order of their ages.
Gen 44:1-34 Joseph sends the brothers back home with more grain, but as they leave, a silver cup (hidden by Joseph) is discovered in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin must become his slave while the other brothers return to Canaan. The brothers are horrified and beg Joseph to forgive them.
Gen 45:1-28 Joseph – one of the most powerful men in Egypt - can control himself no longer. In c.1662BC – twenty one years after he was sold into slavery - Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, forgives them, and sends them back to Canaan to bring his father Jacob to Egypt.