Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Enigma of Joseph

Painted wooden stela showing the deceased (right) making an offering to Re-Harakhty. From the tomb of Aafenmut in Thebes. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Alice C. Linsley

Joseph (Yosef), the favored son of Jacob, is an enigma. Joseph's elevation to a high position in Egypt and his marriage to Asenath of Heliopolis, a Horite Hebrew shrine city, suggest that he was a rightful heir to something back in Egypt. However, everything in Genesis about Jacob points to a late attempt to reshape the material to fit the Jewish narrative. We are told that Jacob's 2 wives, Leah and Rachel, were sisters. How did that affect the status of their first-born sons: Reuben and Joseph? Certainly, in the narrative's present form, Joseph does not fit the pattern of a sent-away son. He fits the pattern of a cousin bride's son who goes to serve as a high official in the territory of his maternal grandfather.

How likely is it that this high-born youth was sold as a slave? He was familiar enough with the customs of Egyptian nobility to adapt to life in Potiphar's house, and he went from slave to influential ruler. 

To understand the enigma of Joseph we must consider the finer details of his story.

He was the son of a Horite Hebrew ruler, Jacob/Yacob.

He was designated to rule, as evidenced by the Canaanite Y in his name - Yosef, a sign of divine appointment to rule.

He was already Egyptianized before going to Egypt. Egypt's cultural influence and military control of Canaan lasted from c. 2000 to 1200 BC. Joseph lived in Canaan during that period.

He married Asenath, a daughter of a Horite Hebrew priest of On (Heliopolis). Heliopolis was a prestigious temple complex.

In Moses' time, Zelophehad's daughters inherited property after petitioning Moses to render a judgement on this dispute connected to a land holding of Manasseh, the oldest son of Joseph and Asenath (Num. 27). In the Book of Chronicles, Zelophehad is listed as a son of Manasseh whose original land holdings were in Egypt.

The present account of Joseph likely comes from a source dating to the later Neo-Babylonian period (c.700-300 BC). The purpose is to explain the assignment of land holdings in Canaan. However, this story of Zelophehad's daughter petitioning Moses for their inheritance comes before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Zelophehad's holdings were with the clan of Manasseh which had deep roots in Egypt. However, this does not serve the Deuteronomist's narrative. This later source would have us believe that all the Hebrew people left Egypt, never to return there.

Joseph's Saga

Joseph's story serves as the transition from the patriarchal narratives to the Exodus. After his death, he was mummified as a high-ranking Egyptian and buried in Goshen, adjacent to Avaris. Avaris was founded by Amenemhet I, the first king of the 12th dynasty. Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that the settlers of Goshen were people from Canaan who shared many features of Egyptian culture. This would be expected if Abraham's people were Horites, a priesthood devoted to Horus of the Two Crowns.

During the Second Intermediate Period, coinciding with the time of biblical Joseph, the Egyptians experienced an influx of Canaanites. These Semites had settlements in Tanis, Avaris and el-Yehudiya. The Egyptians called the chiefs of these settlements "Hyk Khase", the origin of the term Hyksos.

Horite ruler-priests were careful to marry chaste daughters of priests. It is not a coincidence then that Joseph married Asenath, daughter of the "priest of On" (Gen. 41:45), called Heliopolis (city of the Sun) by the Greeks. Asenath's father was a Horite Hebrew priest and the Horite priestly lines intermarried.  If the sons of Horite priests married the daughter of Horite priests, their sons were also in the caste of priests.

Asenath, Joseph's wife, was probably Joseph's cousin. Her first-born son likely belonged to the Heliopolis shrine, whereas Ephraim, Joseph's younger son belonged to the House of Jacob. This explains why Jacob gave him the blessing (not birthright) that pertained to the first-born (Gen. 48:14).

Moses' two older brothers - Aaron and Korah - would also have married the daughters of priests. Korah's descendants are praised in 1 Chronicles 26, where they are grouped with the gatekeepers of Obed-Edom. Obed-Edom is a connection to Ruth, who named her first-born son Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David. This picks up the Messianic thread, pointing us back to the Horite expectation of the Son of God who was coming into the world.

Joseph's Horite Hebrew Ancestry

Horite Hebrew ruler-priests married the daughters of Horite Hebrew priests. About 75% of the women named in the Old Testament are daughters of priests. This was the practice among the royal priestly lines of Abraham’s people. By every indication, Joseph was as thoroughly immersed in the Horite Hebrew religion as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.

The Horite caste of ruler-priests was devoted of Horus, the son of the High God, whose emblem was the sun. His queen mother was Hathor, the patroness of metal workers. Heliopolis was one of the shrines dedicated to Ra and Horus or Re-harakhty, that is, Horus of the Two Horizons (East and West). During the New Kingdom (c. 1539–1075 BC) the great temple of Re at Heliopolis rivaled that of Amon at Thebes, and the Horite Hebrew priesthood of Heliopolis wielded great influence.

Horite ruler-priests married two wives and placed them in separate households on a north-south axis. The bride of the man's youth was his half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. The second bride was a patrilineal cousin, as was Keturah to Abraham. Sarah resided in Hebron and Keturah resided to the south in Beersheba. There is no biblical record of Joseph taking more than one wife. However, it is significant that of his two sons - Manasseh and Ephraim - the first belonged to the house of Asenat's father, and the second was claimed by the house of Jacob (Gen. 48:20). This suggests that Manasseh and Ephraim were the first-born sons of different wives.

Traditions Concerning Joseph's Burial

In Goshen/Avaris, Joseph had a large Egyptian-style palace built over Jacob's dwelling. The palace enclosure had a garden tomb, the largest sepulcher found in Goshen. Joseph's body would have been mummified and wrapped in cloth. He may have been buried according to the custom of his Nilo-Saharan ancestors, with the body on its left side, head to the south, facing west.

According to Scripture Joseph requested that his body be removed to Canaan. Most claim that his tomb is near Nablus in Palestinian territory, a site regarded as holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Tomb is located at the eastern entrance to the valley that separates Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. It is about 750 feet north of Jacob's Well, on the outskirts of Nablus, near biblical Shechem.

There is another Islamic tradition that places Joseph’s tomb in Haram al-Khalil in Hebron, in the tomb of the Patriarchs. This is the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a heavy rectangular building that encloses the underground Cave of Machpelah which was explored in 1967. This is the land and cave in Mamre that Abraham purchased for the burial of Sarah.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Joseph's Tomb at Nablus was to be accessible to Jews and Christians. However, following peace talks at Camp David in September 2000, Arafat initiated his intifada in the West Bank. In October 2000, Fatah gunmen attacked the tomb repeatedly, killing two and injuring dozens, prompting Israel to evacuate Judaism's third holiest site on October 6, 2000. The attackers burned Jewish prayer books and repainted the white dome roof Muslim Green, transforming Joseph's resting place into another Muslim holy site and anachronistically pronouncing Joseph a Muslim.

Joseph does not fit the typical picture of an Israelite or an Arab. He was Horite Hebrew, a ruler-priest caste of devotees to Re, Hathor, and Horus. He married Asenath, the daughter of a Horite Hebrew high priest. She grew up at Heliopolis on the Nile.

Priest's daughters were raised at water shrines or river temples where their fathers served as priests. These were women of high rank but they did not live pampered lives. Zipporah was drawing water for livestock when she met Moses. Rebekah was likewise engaged when Abraham’s servant arrived to contract a marriage between her and Isaac. It is important to note that these priestly daughters had two sons:

Rebekah – Esau (oldest) and Jacob (youngest)
Rachel – Joseph (oldest) and Benjamin (youngest)
Asenath – Manasseh (oldest) and Ephraim (youngest)
Tamar – Zerah (oldest) and Perez (youngest)

In each case, the younger son was tagged as an ancestor of the Messiah. However, this does not mean that the older son was not an ancestor of Messiah since the Hebrew priestly lines intermarried. The elevation of the youngest son is a common theme in the Bible: David was the youngest son of Jesse. Abraham was the youngest of Terah's 3 sons; Haran, Nahor, and Abraham. 

Related reading: Joseph and Judah: Instruments of DeliveranceAncient Canaanite InscriptionsThe Urheimat of the Canaanite Y; Moses' Horite Hebrew Family; The Pattern of Two Wives; Hebrew, Israelite, or Jew?; Sent-Away Sons


Mairnéalach said...

Alice, your description of "preparatory grace" in the patterns of Egyptian religious life reminds me of a book I read years ago to great profit, "Eternity in their Hearts", by Don Richardson. If you have not already read this I think you would really enjoy it.

Jonathan said...

Does the research you have done on Asenath and her probable origins help in any way to settle a question we may have, about whether her father Poti-phera, the priest of On (Gen. 41:45), might have been the very same man as Poti-phar, an officer of Pharoah (Gen. 39:1)?

Alice C. Linsley said...

They may be the same person, though I doubt this.

We may have two traditions. One tradition says that Potiphar was an officer of the guard in Pharaoh's court and the other says that he was a priest and Joseph's father-in-law. The idea of two distinct traditions is developed in D. B. Redford's A Study Of The Biblical Story Of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), 1970, E. J. Brill: Leiden, pp. 136-137. What is intriguing here is the suggestion that Joseph is associated with the name/title Potiphar in both traditions. This is something that requires further investigation.

Go for it! Let me know what you discover.

Anonymous said...

Since the Yoruba people switch the seniority of twins upon birth, my hypothesis is that Jacob was aware of this practice which would account for the way he blessed the two sons of Joseph.

Perhaps there is a scientific explanation. It would be interesting to investigate whether or not this practice of switching seniority for twins was observed also by the Egyptians and Nubians before or during the time of Jacob whom I doubt to be the first twin. Maybe Isaac and Rebecca were not initially aware of this tradition and they were the first to observe it.


Alice C. Linsley said...

YT, The theme of the elevation of the younger son above his elder brother runs throughout the Bible. These were the youngest sons and all were chosen by God to lead: Abraham, Moses and David.

AlDahir said...


You mentioned that Arabic was helpful in understanding the meaning of Biblical names. It is helpful because the Masoretes were Arabic speaking Hebrews who edited and back translated their texts under the auspices of the Arab caliphs between the 7th and 11th Centuries in Tiberias, Jerusalem and Babylonia. Mishnaic Hebrew had not been spoken for at least 200 years when the Masoretes attempted to standardized or bowlderize their texts, so they relied on Arabic to bridge the gap. These are the texts in use today as the standard Hebrew texts.
There is a major Arabic gloss in Genesis which has puzzled scholars for centuries if not millennia and that is Joseph's Egyptian name. In the Septuagint, the name is psonthomphanech which makes no sense in any language so the Masoretes used the Arabic phrase (تصاف باءنة)tsafeen ba'nh and transliterated it into Hebrew as (צָֽפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ)or tsophnath paneah. The phrase means a dowry settlement. The circumstances surrounding the phrase,’ Tsaphenath-Paneah’ or ‘tasafeen ba’nh’, is proof that this interpretation is correct. According to Gen 41:41-45:

”So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way, Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. The Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt.” Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Tsaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.”

So, the phrase, tsaphenath paneah (tsafeen ba'nh) means that Djoser bestowed a dowry settlement upon Joseph which included the tokens of Pharaoh’s ring and a chain of office indicating Joseph’s new position when he married an Egyptian wife, Asenath, who was the daughter of the priest of On. So, you see, Arabic is very useful as a tool for Biblical interpretation.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Arabic is very useful. I agree.

H. Abdul Al-Dahir said...

Here is an update on Joseph's Egyptian name:

According to the Masoretic texts, Joseph's name was (צָֽפְנַת  פַּעְנֵחַ) or tsfnt pa'nch. According to the Septuagint, his name was Ψονθομφανηχ.The name (צָֽפְנַת  פַּעְנֵחַ) is meaningless in Hebrew but when it is transliterated into Arabic (بائِنَه) (تصفية) – tsfeenyat ba'nah- means 'dowry settlement'. However, Joseph's original name as transliterated from the Egyptian into Greek was Ψονθομφανηχ The original Egyptian name was PsSw nthy m pnq (Gardiner's Sign List: O3-O34-D37-G43-Y1-Z2-A1 or PsSw & N35-Y1-Z4 or nthy & G17 or m & Q3-N35-N29-D36 or pnq). This word transliterates into Greek as Ψονθομφανηχ or Psonthomphanech in English. This Egyptian phrase means 'the aribitrer whose position is to expend provision.' That was Joseph's title because he was put in charge of the granaries where he was to dole out provision in the time of famine. Unfortunately. The Arabic speaking Masoretes could not make sense of the Greek word  Ψονθομφανηχ because they had no Egyptian dictionary to help them figure out the Greek transliteration, so they used the closest Arabic phrase that resembled the Greek word Ψονθομφανηχ. That phrase (بائِنَه) (تصفية) described the action of Pharaoh bestowing a dowry on Joseph, i.e., a high position, a ring and a chain of office. The Masoretes were wrong but the phrase  (צָֽפְנַת  פַּעְנֵחַ) clearly demonstrates that the Masoretes, who 'standardized' the Biblical texts under the ausjpices of the Arab caliphates, were transliterating Arabic words and phrases into Hebrew. BTW, the Arabic words tsfeenyat and ba'eenah reversed themselves in this blog. I can't undo the error. Sorry

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thank you, Sir, for this helpful information. This explains a great deal.

There are other words found in the Bible that are meaningless in Hebrew because they are not Hebrew words. Often they are Old Arabic or Ancient Egyptian.

I have the impression that many Ancient Egyptian words or words of Nilotic origin have been forced into meanings that fit the Rabbis' agenda.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Lexicons of Ancient Egyptian words and Akkadian words are available at the blog Biblical Anthropology.