Historical context is everything. To gain a richer understanding of these biblical events, we need to be familiar with the time the people lived. Today we read about ancient Egyptian culture to understand what context Joseph and his family lived in. The following has been adapted from Meant for Good.
1) The word pharaoh means “great house.”
An Egyptian pharaoh served as the primary overseer and ruler over all the land. Along with being the ruler over Egypt, a pharaoh was viewed as the religious leader of the people. Egyptians believed pharaohs to be divine intermediaries between their Egyptian gods and themselves. Archaeologists have discovered that, among other tasks, pharaohs participated in religious ceremonies, created and imposed laws, declared war, levied taxes, and generally had control over everything throughout Egypt.
2) Egypt wasn’t always one kingdom.
Originally starting out as several independent cities along the Nile River, Egypt was formed from an Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which unified around 3100 BC. Egypt was one the largest kingdoms of the ancient world and led the charge regarding cultural and economic influence until it was conquered in 332 BC by the Macedonians.
3) Joseph lived in the Middle Kingdom time period.
The Middle Kingdom lasted roughly 2000–1786 BCE. This is considered one of Egypt’s greatest eras. Joseph most likely began serving under Sesostris III (1878–1841 BC). Joseph lived in Egypt for seventy-one years and died in approximately 1805 BC, under the reign of Amenemhet III (1841–1797 BCE).
4) Joseph was likely a vizier.
Sesostris III was the fifth of eight ancient Egyptian kings who reigned during Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty. He was instrumental in reshaping the government of Egypt and even extended Egypt’s holdings into Nubia, just to the south.
During Sesostris III’s reign, he created powerful government departments that were put under the watch of his vizier (or prime minister). These included departments of treasury, agriculture, war, and labor. The vizier kept strict accounts of the kingdom’s income and expenses, which remained standard practice over the next one hundred years. This is likely the role Joseph held, though it cannot be absolutely confirmed through historical records.
5) Egypt’s government changed after the death of Joseph.
The pharaoh Joseph served under granted permission for Joseph to move his entire family to Goshen, the lushest and most fertile land in all of Egypt. However, after Joseph’s death (where our study ends), “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). And by God’s design, Israel endured harsh slavery during the last decades of their four hundred years in Egypt.
Then, in God’s perfect timing, God liberated His people from Egypt in arguably the most dramatic display of His power and glory in all of Scripture, apart from the resurrection.
Blog post adapted from Meant for Good: A Study of Joseph © 2023 Donna Snow. Published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To learn more about God’s plan for Joseph, read Meant for Good.