J o s e p h Egypt AND The Hyksos

This "worth-your-time" page contains some of the most clear-thinking theories about the life and times of the biblical character, Joseph:


There can be no doubt that an Israelite Exodus from Egypt occurred. However, a number of significant historical and geographical questions remain concerning events prior to and during the Exodus. On the historical side, one is prompted to ask, Who is the "new king" of Exodus 1:8  who "came to power in Egypt" and "did not know Joseph"? Was this new pharaoh Egyptian or Hyksos? What was the identity of the pharaoh who initially refused, but eventually was obliged to acquiesce to Moses' demand that the Israelites should be released from bondage?

In the geographical column are questions like: Where were located the cities of Ra'amses, Pithom, Succoth (about 15-20 miles S/SW of Tanis on map below -- above the Red Sea), and Etham, places through which the Israelites passed as they began their eastward trek toward the "Red Sea"?

Perhaps a passing historical footnote is in order. Around 1720 B.C., a group of foreigners referred to as Hyksos, invaded the land of the Nile and erected their capital at Avaris (Tell ed-Dab'a) Though they penetrated Egypt at a time of political disintegration that had resulted in a proliferation of local rulers throughout Lower Egypt (the western delta had already seceded to form an independent kingdom), the success of Hyksos imperialism should be attributed largely to their exploitation of a number of Asiatic technological innovations. Those may have included the horse-drawn war chariot, the battering ram, and the composite bow. Soon after 1560 B.C., however, the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt by native princes, and the so-called New Kingdom period of Egyptian history was inaugurated. During that time, a concerted effort was mounted to rid Egypt of any trace of Hyksos influence. One illustration of that is found in the historical records of Thutmosis III. This sovereign appears to have launched at least twenty-one military campaigns against the Hyksos and their Asiatic allies (Amorites, Hurrians), and in a few of those he boasted that he even crossed the Euphrates River to rout the enemy and to free Egypt from its influence.


At the end of the 12th dynasty a people called "Hyksos" settled down in the eastern delta. After a presence in the country for about 150 years another hyksos dynasty (15) made a fortified capital of Avaris.

The Hyksos were foreign invaders who overran Egypt in the 17th century BC and established two contemporaneous dynasties. The 15th dynasty (1674-1567 BC) of the great Hyksos kings dominated the Hyksos vassal chiefs of the 16th dynasty (1684-1567 BC). Egyptians called these kings "rulers of foreign lands," translated in Egyptian as "hega-khase". Greek authors later rendered this as "Hyksos," which was mistranslated as "shepherd kings." For this reason many scholars believed the Hyksos to be the Hebrews, although there is no archaeological basis for this assumption. They were probably city dwellers from southern Canaan (later called  Palestine by the Romans).

The period of their rule was a time of peace and prosperity for Egypt. They respected the native religions, maintained ancient Egyptian as the official language of the government, and allowed many Egyptians to serve in the high levels of the administration of the state. They taught the Egyptians new military techniques and introduced the use of the horse and chariot. 

The Hyksos were unable to quell the feelings of Egyptian nationalism. They held the southern lands in check with an alliance with the Nubian kingdom of Cush. Despite this, the southern Egyptian city of Thebes finally began a war of independence that culminated with the expulsion of the Hyksos by Ahmose I in 1567 BC.

The rather peaceful dynasty 14 was hereby ended (like the Egyptian dynasty 13) and the new rulers of Avaris (possibly a new wave coming from the Palestinian region) were acting in a more expansive and military active way. They had their own gods but never imposed these on the indigenous people and the language in the administration continued to be Egyptian. They only one domestic god they worshipped was - Set, who they identified as their own god of storms.  They seem to have adopted Egyptian manners, laws, and had trade relations with the Minoans and Babylonians. They were recognized by later Egyptians and listed as legitimate kings, but no tombs from these half a dozen rulers have been found and their personal names were non-Egyptian.

The kings claimed themselves pharaohs with all the regalia and tradition attached to that title and the more than hundred years they ruled northern Egypt was mainly a time of peace and prosperity.

A big advantage in combat was their introduction of horses (a new animal to the Egyptians), previously unknown elements in the Egyptian army and they also introduced improved weapons. At most they had control down to the middle Egyptian town of Hermopolis and thus divided the Nile Valley into two parts with the Egyptian dynasties 16 and 17 ruling the south.

No hostility seems to have been between the two parts until the last 20 years after a century of relatively peace. The 16th dynasty (possibly from the Abydos region) may by time have been vassals to the 15th and then were taken over by the 17th from Thebes. From there came the liberation war, initiated by Amhose I and completed by Thutmoses III, that finally wiped out the Hyksos dynasty.

In a word, it appears that the biblical, historical, and archaeological data are best served by theorizing that it was a Hyksos monarch before whom Joseph stood as an interpreter of dreams (Gen. 41:14-37) and who later ceded a choice parcel of land (Goshen) to Joseph's family (Gen. 47:6). According to such a theory, the "new king" of Exodus 1:8 would have been one of the native Egyptian monarchs of the New Kingdom who, as part of his Hyksos purge, resolutely refused to recognize the validity of the Goshen land grant. Discerning in the Israelites a multitude who might very well join with his Asiatic enemies in war, this new king moreover acted quickly to enslave the Israelites.

The above-mentioned theory also fits well with the historical profile attested in the book of Genesis. The patriarchs moved in and through Palestine for some 215 years (cf. Gen. 12:4; 21:5; 25:26; 47:9), seemingly with the greatest of ease, mobility and freedom. Yet, it is inconceivable that their movements should have gone unnoticed (e.g., Gen. 14:14). That bespeaks a political climate in Palestine that would have been free from any sort of national or international domination, which is truly characteristic of that period between 1850 and 1550 B.C. The theory might also humanly explain how Joseph, a non-Egyptian, was able to rise to a position of Grand Vizier in a foreign land -- the court itself would not have been Egyptian, but Hyksos. It also might explain why there is no historical mention of Joseph.

This is obviously not the place for a detailed discourse concerning the date of the Hebrew Exodus. However, an interpretation of Exodus 12:40 does impinge upon our discussion, and it must be  addressed at least briefly. Does the mention there of 430 years designate the amount of time that the Israelites spent in Egypt (so the Masoretic text) or in Canaan and Egypt (so the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, though the order is inverted in the latter text)? Prior statement should make it clear that we have given historical and textual preference to the latter view (cf. Gen. 15:13; Gal. 3:17). And, accordingly, we could advocate that the patriarchal sojourn in Egypt took place between approximately 1660 and 1445 B.C. and that the patriarchal sojourn in Canaan encompassed approximately the dates 1875-1660 B.C. Thus, some 430 years elapsed while the early Israelites lived in Canaan and Egypt.

This would mean that Joseph was promoted about 1670 B.C., in the middle of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt. But it is impossible to identify the individual before whom Joseph appeared, because the dating and succession of Hyksos kings remains indemonstrable today. In addition, the Bible provides virtually no clues for the length of time the Israelites suffered under Egyptian bondage, so it seems hazardous to speculate on the identity of the pharaohs of Exodus 1:8, aside from identifying him as a native Egyptian. The biblical narrative locates the beginning of the Israelite trek at the city of Ra'amses (Ex. 12:37; cf.1:11), from which they journeyed first to Succoth (13:20), then to Etham, to Pi Hahiroth (14;2, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal-zephon), finally to the body of water where the biblical parting of the waters took place (cf. Num. 33:5-8).

Of all those sites, it is the location of of Ra'amses and Succoth that is established beyond reasonable doubt. Though earlier sought in the eastern delta at the site of Zoan/Tanis (San el-Hagar), Ra'amses must be placed at Qantir (Tell ed-Dab'a), some 17 miles to the southwest (see map above). Furthermore, it seems conclusive that that was also the site of the Hyksos capital, known in the period as Avaris. Excavators have discovered archaeological remains at Tell ed-Dab'a indicating that it was a large habitational site in the Hyksos era and into parts of the New Kingdom period. The artifacts dug up at the site (pottery, utensils, burial wares, etc.) do not conform to Egyptian typology, but rather to what is found in contemporary layers in Palestine. In The Ancient Near East: A History, the authors comment, "Archaeologically, it is as if the site were actually in Palestine."  Just north of the tell a tile factory was found where glazed blue tiles were manufactured for use in the palatial estates of the pharaohs. And in the environs of this installation were found certain ostraca that actually bear the name of Ra'amses. This was the locale in which the Israelites lived and from which the Israelites began their journey.

The above information is from a variety of sources, but mainly from a section of The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands, Barry J. Beitzel, Ph.D)



"In the last verses of Genesis it is told how Joseph adjured his relatives to take his bones back to Canaan whenever God should restore them to their original home, and in Joshua 24:32 it is told how his body was indeed brought to Palestine and buried in Shechem. For centuries there was a tomb at Shechem reverenced as the Tomb of Joseph (see photo to left). A few years ago the tomb was opened. It was found to contain a body mummified according to the Egyptian custom, and in the tomb, among other things, was a sword of the kind worn by Egyptian officials."

-- Prophets, Idols and Diggers
book by John Elder

"...the price of twenty shekels of silver paid for Joseph in Genesis 37:28 is the correct average price for a slave in about the 18th century B.C.   Earlier than this, slaves were cheaper (average ten to fifteen shekels), and later they became steadily dearer. This is one more little detail true to its period in cultural history."

-- Ancient Orient and Old Testament, by K.A. Kitchen


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