Vayigash - Joseph's Ascension in Egypt
2015 S.H. Parker

Vayigash is the second of seven "historical" sedrot, sedrot about the history of am yisroel. Because of questions about the exodus, scant attention is paid to the Joseph cycle (of which Vayigash is the second of four sedrot). The enslavement and, with it, the sojourn are dismissed with the exodus. But it just isn't that easy....

In last week's exciting episode, Mikeitz, Joseph spent a lot of time, months, and a lot of effort psychologically torturing his brothers.

But just before Joseph started on his brothers, Pharaoh had dreams. His magicians (i.e., priests) could not divine the meaning. For whatever reason, Pharaoh feels these dreams are important, requiring a "reading."

The chief of the drink-stewards ("cupbearer"), a mere two years after promising to help Joseph, refers Pharaoh to Joseph.

We get a significant historical memory here. We are told that Joseph shaves. Whoever wrote these stories down would have no reason to know or to think that Joseph shaved. Western Semites were short-bearded and wore their hair close-cropped. In fact, our writer has every reason to reject, not include, "and he shaved."

We know Egyptian priests shaved off all their hair, were circumcised and did not eat fish. We know that this was a full-body shaving (see "Why Did Joseph Shave?" Lisbeth S. Fried, in Exploring Genesis, Biblical Archaeology Society, 2013). Joseph is imitating an Egyptian priest in Pharaoh's presence.

Joseph interprets the dreams. Pharaoh likes the interpretation.

Having provided the requested dream analysis, Joseph promptly oversteps - not surprising, given his previous behavior - and offers Pharaoh advice: appoint "overseers" (the same word that will later be rendered "taskmasters") and "five" the land. That is, Joseph recommends a 20% flat-tax on the harvests for the next seven years to lay up stores against the coming years of famine.

Again, we have a telling anachronism. To provide seven years of stored grain, you would expect a 1/7th levy, not 1/5th. This represents an over-taxing of almost six percentage points. One would expect the writer to use the 1/7th figure. Of course, if you foresee "Asiatics" (what the Egyptians called western Semites ... Canaanites ... us) coming down to escape the famine - as is well attested in Egyptian records and as in fact happens at the beginning of the sedrah - setting aside a bit more does make sense.

The next thing we know, Joseph is appointed second-in-command to Pharaoh. From convicted sex-offender, albeit wrongfully, to "second only to Pharaoh" in an instant!

How can this be? An Asiatic appointed COO over Egypt? Did we not read in Mikeitz that the Egyptians working for Joseph had to be seated at a separate table, when Joseph does lunch with his brothers, "the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews because that is an offensive thing to Egypt"? (N.B.: "offensive," here, is the same word later used to characterize male-male physical relations, in the later case, however, with no specification as to who is offended.) This dovetails with what we know from Egyptian records about their sense of cultural superiority; they did not "fraternize" with Asiatics.

Another thing: we are given one of the rarest bits of information Torah ever gives, a time-marker. We are told that Joseph was 30 years old at the time of his ascension. We have absolutely no clue who the Pharaoh was; Torah has, as it so often does, gone out of its way to hide any information that would allow us to refer to the Egyptian King Lists. Torah does not want us to know who he was.

And we were told that Joseph was 17 at the time of his enslavement. So we now know that it has been 13 years since Joseph left Canaan.

The famine starts.  Egyptians come to Joseph to buy grain. They buy back the very grain Joseph has been collecting from them the past seven years. (Note how no one is recorded as complaining "It was our grain in the first place, you should just give it back to us.")

The next events, the climax of Joseph's efforts, are related quickly, in less than 10 pasukim. In actuality, these events probably took place over the five years remaining in the famine. Genesis 47:12-21 tell us:

"And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh because Egypt, each man, sold his field ... And the land became Pharaoh's, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge." (47:20)

But this is not the end of the story. Egypt, like Akkad and Sumer before, like Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome, in fact like every successor state in history, is feudal in organization and philosophy. The peasants are bound to the land. So, Joseph owns them too:

Joseph said to the people, "Behold, I have bought you and your farmland today for Pharaoh. Behold, you have seed, so sow the soil.   וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֵן֩ קָנִ֨יתִי אֶתְכֶ֥ם הַיּ֛וֹם וְאֶת־אַדְמַתְכֶ֖ם לְפַרְעֹ֑ה הֵֽא־לָכֶ֣ם זֶ֔רַע וּזְרַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה:
And it shall be concerning the crops, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and the [remaining] four parts shall be yours: for seed for [your] field[s], for your food, for those in your houses, and for your young children to eat."   כדוְהָיָה֙ בַּתְּבוּאֹ֔ת וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם חֲמִישִׁ֖ית לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַרְבַּ֣ע הַיָּדֹ֡ת יִֽהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶם֩ לְזֶ֨רַע הַשָּׂדֶ֧ה וּלְאָכְלְכֶ֛ם וְלַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּבָֽתֵּיכֶ֖ם וְלֶֽאֱכֹ֥ל לְטַפְּכֶֽם:
They replied, "You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord's eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh."   כהוַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ הֶֽחֱיִתָ֑נוּ נִמְצָא־חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְהָיִ֥ינוּ עֲבָדִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹֽה:

Did any of this happen? Did a Canaanite rule in Egypt?

Given that fraternizing with Asiatics "is an offensive thing to Egypt," it would seem most unlikely. An Asiatic couldn't be appointed to any official position, much less second in command. Unless. Unless Pharaoh is also an Asiatic and it is the native Egyptians who are the subject people.

And we know that the eastern Nile Delta, "Goshen," was heavily populated with Canaanites from the 18th century. We know that the Hyksos gain suzerainty in the mid-17th century and ruled Lower (northern) Egypt for about 150 years. We know that later Hyksos rulers were called "Pharaoh" and, even, that one was named "Yacob." So it is entirely possible that the story of Joseph occurs during Canaanite suzerainty over Egypt.

Halpern ("The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality," The Rise of Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992) additionally notes such passages as "And he wept out loud. And Egypt heard and Pharaoh's house heard" (45:2) and "And the voice was heard at Pharaoh's house" (45:16) as indicating that Pharaoh's residence was thought to be near enough to hear what was going on in Joseph's house. This contrasts with the more typical citation of a report reaching the ears of.... Further, it contrasts with the traditional native Egyptian capital being in Memphis, Luxor or Thebes, hundreds of miles to the south.

A Hyksos Pharaoh would have no problem with a fellow Canaanite second in command. And, if Joseph was governor during the Hyksos period, the phrase "a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph" makes a lot of sense after the Hyksos expulsion.

Another Joseph, Flavius Josephus, flatly asserts - does not argue, does not polemicise, just asserts as if it is common knowledge - that the Hyksos are Israel's ancestor (Against Apion). He goes so far as to accuse Manetho, the 3rd century BCE Egyptian writer, of bad-mouthing Israel because Israel (the Hyksos) once ruled Manetho's people.

Does this mean that it happened? Not at all. But it does mean, as Halpern argues, that the entire story must be set in a Hyksos context. And, as noted, there are historically accurate details, facts asserted that are accurate of ancient Egypt but foreign to 1st millennium Canaan, when these stories were written down. So, Joseph's ruling Egypt could have happened.

Within the Hyksos suzerainty, there are two facts, facts in the ground, that may help (see Patterns of Evidence, Mahoney and Law, Thinking Man Media, 2015; also available as a video).

At Avaris, the Hyksos' capital city, there is a palace compound that has been well excavated. But it is not a Pharaoh's palace. While there are several notable features of this palace vis--vis the Joseph legend, what is most notable is a tomb found on the palace grounds.

The tomb is pyramidal. Pyramids are normally "royalty only." But the palace owner is not royalty. It contains a very large statute of a seated man. The size indicates great importance. The hair style is the way Egyptians (the Hyksos are known to have thoroughly assimilated to Egyptian cultural norms) represented "Asiatic" hair. The skin is painted yellow, the way Egyptians represented "Asiatics." And. And the tomb-owner's clothing is represented as a striped, multi-colored garment.

There is something else seriously interesting about the tomb. Or, more precisely, there is something not in the tomb that is seriously interesting. There is no sarcophagus, no coffin, no grave goods, no bones nor any sign of any of these in the burial chamber (an interesting reversal of an "argument from absence"). The absence of grave goods might be explained away by grave robbers. But grave robbers would not remove bones, they are of no value, nor sarcophagi, which are normally not removable.

It is almost as if someone has been buried there but his remains were wholly removed and taken elsewhere....

There is another known example of a Canaanite (some say Mitannian) of very high position in Egypt, Yuya. Yuya was a courtier in the 14th century, thus after the Hyksos expulsion. He was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III. Therefore, he was the grandfather of and may have served Amenhotep IV (who later changed his regnal name to Akhenaten, the (in)famous strict monotheist overthrown and expelled from Egypt). His tomb, until the discovery of Tutankhamun's, was considered the most spectacular ever found. Where is Yuya buried?-In the Valley of the Kings. Thus, we have an Asiatic buried with the Pharaohs. Some identify Yuya as Joseph (see Ahmed Osman, Moses and Akenaten, Bear and Company, 1990;  though this is rejected by mainstream scholars, the same scholars who ignore the Avaris palace complex mentioned above). In any case, our question, "Could a Canaanite have been 'second-in-command'?" is answered. Yes, a Canaanite could have and, in all likelihood, was.

The second fact is, perhaps, more telling. Ancient Egypt was divided into "nomes" (Greek; Egyptian: sepat). These were, later, administrative districts but appear to have started out as independent city-states. Suddenly, the 16th-15th century horizon, these independent city-states suddenly decreased in power, while the "central" Pharaonic administration suddenly increased in power. This sounds remarkably like:

"And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh because Egypt, each man, sold his field ... And the land became Pharaoh's, from one edge of Egypt's border to its other edge." (47:20)

This shift in the base of power is in the same timeframe as the palace complex mentioned above.

The short version of this is that someone did what Joseph is described as doing. Someone essentially subjugated all the local warlords in Lower Egypt, did so in a very short time and left Pharaoh in total command of Lower Egypt.

Whoever the head of this operation was, whatever his name, the Bible remembers him and calls him "Joseph."

Is this the same person who tortured his brothers in last week's sedrah? Indeed, was there even such a series of brotherly torments? Don't know and don't know how we'd ever find external evidence for it. The material is clearly legendary, though it contains several bits of historically accurate material, facts that one really would not expect to find. But there is concrete evidence that a Joseph-like figure was a major player in the Pharaonic court and that the nomes, as independent political entities, were eliminated and power consolidated under his authority.

One name is as good as another. Why don't we just continue to call him "Joseph?"