The Hyksos were Semites from the Levant, probably from the northern Levant, ie Syria. The names of the Hyksos kings have no resemblance to the names of Israelites, except for one of their kings... "Jacob". Manetho the Egyptian historian of the first or second century BCE did not see them as Israelites. They worshipped other gods, and when someone died they quite often buried a horse alongside the body of the person. They were driven out of Egypt in about 1580 bc and Manetho says some of them went on to capture Jerusalem, so the Jebusites may have been Hyksos. It is sometimes supposed the Hyksos were Amorites.
Archaeological light on the life of Joseph
When Joseph left prison to appear before the pharaoh to give the interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream he first shaved himself lest he offend the pharaoh (Genesis 41:14). According to Eugene Merrill:
This is precisely what the Egyptian exile Sinuhe did when he returned to Egypt after living for years among the Semites of Syria. For Joseph to have shaved prior to appearing before a bearded Hyksos king would, of course, have been an insult rather than a concession. And when Joseph’s brothers came to him to request grain, not yet having learned their true identity, he set them apart at dinnertime because “Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews” (Gen 43:32). If Joseph had been representing himself as a Semitic official of a Hyksos king, it is strange that he would have segregated himself from fellow Semites. That he was acting in accordance with long-standing Egyptian tradition proves beyond question that the story has nothing to do with the Hyksos (“Kingdom of Priests”, (1987), page 52, 53).
When Joseph had interpreted the dream of the pharaoh he was given the name of “Zaphnath Paaneah” (41:45). If the king had been Hyksos there would have been no need to give Joseph an Egyptian name at all. According to Kenneth Kitchen the name he was given was very likely “Joseph who is called (I)pi-ankh”, with “zaphnath” meaning “who is called” and with the soft I being dropped and (I)pi-ankh meaning “giver of life”. (I)pi-ankh was not an uncommon name in the Middle Kingdom era if I understand Kitchen rightly. So his Egyptian name may have been "Joseph who is called Giver of Life". The name construct was common in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom era:
The Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 of circa 1730 bc has forty-eight “Asiatics” in its list of seventy-seven household servants, and twenty-eight of these show precisely the construction proposed here “X (Semitic name) who is called Y (Egyptian name).” One could hardly ask for a better pedigree than this. (“On the Reliability of the Old Testament” by Kenneth Kitchen, 2003, page 346).
Is there direct evidence for Joseph?
There is no direct evidence of the person Joseph in Egyptian history. But various events, names and titles of officials give strong evidence that the story of Joseph was written early by someone with a good knowledge of Egyptian society. Furthermore Hebrew words which are Egyptian loanwords are much more prevalent in the Pentateuch than in the rest of the Old Testament.
But… should we expect to find direct evidence of the Joseph himself? Many monuments, stele, statues, etc in ancient Egypt were paid for by the person themselves and were a consequence of the desire for self-aggrandizement of the person in question. Joseph was a godly, humble, believer in Yahweh, and would have eschewed such proud self-promotion. He chose not to have a permanent burial in Egypt, but chose rather that his bones should go back to the Promised Land when the Israelites left Egypt. He was an administrator, not the ruler, and probably would have thought it prudent not to promote himself and thus provoke the envy of those around him.
The chronology for Egypt from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom to the start of the New Kingdom is taken from the "British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt" compiled by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (1st edition 1995) with dates reduced by 2 years for a more precise fit of astronomical data:
Middle Kingdom 2053-1650
11th DYNASTY 2053-1983
Mentuhotep II 2053-2002
Mentuhotep III 2002-1990
Mentuhotep IV 1990-1983
Amenemhat I 1983-1953
Senusret I 1963-1918
Amenemhat II 1920-1876
Senusret II 1878-1872
Senusret III 1872-1853
Amenemhat III 1853-1806
Amenemhat IV 1806-1797
Queen Sobekneferu 1797-1793
13th DYNASTY 1793- after 1650
Some 70 rulers, of which the five more frequently attested are:
Sobekhotep IV c1725
14th DYNASTY 1750-1650
Minor rulers probably contemporary with the 13th dynasty.
Second Intermediate Period 1650-1575
(I have altered the dates from Shaw and Nicholson to the “High Chronology” for the start of the New Kingdom. Egyptologists are equally divided over which is correct, but the High Chronology fits the Scriptural chronology and the Low Chronology does not. For Egyptologists the Low and the High are equally possible.)
15th DYNASTY 1650-1575
Khyan c. 1585
Apepi c. 1580
16th DYNASTY 1650-1575
Minor Hyksos rulers contemporary with the 15th Dynasty
17th DYNASTY 1650-1575
Several rulers based in Thebes, of which the four most prominent examples are listed:
Taa II c. 1585
In the above list, there is by no means a consensus for either the reign lengths or dates of the 12th dynasty rulers: the dates are to be taken as approximate only. However, the radiocarbon and dendochronological dating of a funeral boat of Senusret III to 1887 bc (+ or – 11 years) gives some confidence the dates are in the right ball park.
When did Joseph rule? The Bible says that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years "to the very day" (Exodus 12:40, 41). This is usually taken to mean from the date that Jacob entered Egypt with all the family at the beginning of the third year of the famine.
There are two dates suggested for the Exodus, the late date of about 1250 bc and the early date of, say, 1446 bc. The 1250 date is arrived at by assuming that 1 Kings 6:1 is not to be understood literally, whereas for 1446 bc it is taken literally.
430 years back from 1250 is 1680 bc, which is just before the beginning of the Hyksos period; this was a period of relative weakness in Egypt's fortunes, when the land of Egypt probably split in two with the Hyksos ruling the north from Avaris and an Egyptian king ruling from Thebes in the south.
430 years before 1446 bc is 1876 bc which is right in the heart of the Egypt's glorious 12th Dynasty. This was a long time before the Hyksos era. It was an era when the pharaoh became very powerful.
During the years of plenty Joseph purchased the surplus grain on behalf of the pharaoh (at very low prices because no one else wanted it or had any where to store it). During the famine Joseph sold the grain that had been gathered up back to the Egyptians for money at a good profit (Genesis 47:13,14). When their money ran out Joseph bought all their livestock (47:16,17). When they had sold all their animals he bought all their land (47:20-23). In the process of buying all the land, the Egyptians now owned nothing, but were the servants of the Pharaoh. And so Joseph instituted an annual income tax upon the Egyptians of 20% (47:24-27). In this account obviously the Bible documents a huge centralizing of wealth and power away from the people and towards the Pharaoh.
Is there any evidence of this centralizing of power either in the 12th Dynasty or in the Second Intermediate Period? As said already, the Second Intermediate Period (about 1650 - 1575 BC) was a period of a lack of central authority and power in Egypt. However the Middle Kingdom is notable for the fact that at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom the power of the pharaoh was quite limited but by the end of the 12th Dynasty the pharaoh was supreme. This was because, at the beginning, a lot of power was held by the local “Nomarchs”. Ancient Egypt was divided into areas called Nomes (not to be confused with gnomes… they played no part in Egyptian history… (probably)). The Nomes were ruled by family dynasties and the ruler of the Nome was the Nomarch, leading to a political structure similar to feudal Europe with barons under a king. At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom the Nomarchs were very powerful. This power was much reduced during the reign of Senusret III in the 12th Dynasty. Quoting from “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” compiled by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (1995) on the entry for Senusret III:-
Since the Old Kingdom (2686-2181) the major threat to royal power had probably come from the nomarchs, the provincial governors; a shift in funerary patterns of the elite (a decline in provincial tombs) may indicate that Senusret III reduced their authority drastically by removing many of their established priveleges. The means by which this was achieved in unclear, but henceforth it was to be the King’s viziers who oversaw all branches of administration (page 259).
The evidence that the power of the nomarchs was drastically reduced is the dramatic reduction in the splendour of the provincial tombs of the nomarchs. Before Senusret III these tombs were very notable for their grandeur; grand tombs for the provincial nomarchs ceased during the reign of Senusret III. Though Egyptologists confess they do not know how Senusret III achieved this they are agreed there is no evidence it was achieved by any kind of civil war.
Another feature of his reign was a big increase in the bureaucracy of the pharaoh’s central administration, in the number and variety of official positions in the central royal administration (c.f. “Court Officials of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom” by Wolfram Grajetzki).
These changes in the political structure of the Middle Kingdom fit well with the Bible’s account of the famine and of the “purchase of Egypt” in exchange for grain by Joseph on behalf of the pharaoh.
During the years of plenty Joseph stored up the grain for the lean years. He would have needed new buildings for this storage. Also it is likely he would have tried to find ways to increase the quantity of land in Egypt under cultivation, or to store water during the good years to use it during the years of the low inundation of the Nile.
During the 12th dynasty the region of Egypt known as the Fayum (or Fayoum) began to be developed. Under the entry for Senusret II the British Museum Dictionary says:
He also inaugurated an ambitious irrigation system in the Fayum region, which enabled large areas of new agricultural land to be brought under cultivation.
Under Amenemhat III the same book says:
His reign evidently represented the most prosperous phase of the dynasty ... he is particularly associated with the economic and political rise of the Fayum region, where he completed a large-scale irrigation project inaugurated by his father [grandfather??] ....
Muslims living in the region of Fayum believe the canals, dams and the great lake were all built by Joseph. In ancient times the lake was truly huge, with the water level 85 meters higher than the level of today's lake, and thus covering a vast expanse of the fayum region.
The second mortuary complex of Amenemhat III, at Hawara on the borders of the Fayum region, includes the multi-roomed mortuary temple known to Classical authors as the "Labyrinth".
The Labyrinth, then, is also associated with Amenemhat III and consists of large rooms. The Labyrinth today is under the sand and only visible using modern sonar techniques. Running through a corner of the Labyrinth is a canal. What is striking is that some of the rooms of the Labyrinth run parallel to the canal; the canal is clearly part of the structure of the Labyrinth. This canal runs for a few hundred miles parallel to the Nile and then joins up the Nile to the lake in the Fayum region. In ancient times the Fayum region contained a huge lake called Lake Meoris. The canal that joins the Nile to the (current much smaller) lake in the Fayum region is called “Bahr Yussef” or the “Canal of Joseph” and the Egyptians say it was built by the Joseph of the Bible. (http://www.touregypt.net/fayoum.htm)
In my opinion the Labyrinth was built by Joseph to store grain: this explains the large size of the rooms. The grain was brought to the "Labyrinth" by boat and taken away by boat. One day excavations will be permitted into some of the rooms under the sand: what I expect will be found is a few grains of wheat in some rooms and barley in other rooms.
As has been said Jacob came to Egypt at the beginning of the third year of the famine in 1876 BC. Amenemhat II was the pharaoh who had the dreams and chose Joseph to rule Egypt, and who ruled during the years of plenty. Senusert II ruled during most of the years of famine. Senusert III began to reign in the final year of famine. The administrative changes and collapse of the power of the nomarchs is attributed to Senusert III possibly because some of the nomarchs had already prepared their mortuary splendour before the years of famine had kicked in: after all, Cheops took about 25 years to prepare his pyramid, the Egyptians took their dying and their fame arising from their burial remains very seriously!
A start date of 1872 for the reign of Senusert III fits all the astronomical data very well: for more on this see "Die chronologische Fixierung des agyptischen Mittleren Reiches nach dem Tempelarchiv von Illahun" by Ulrich Luft (1992); and "The astronomical evidence for dating the end of the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt to the Early Second Millenium: a reassessment" by Lynn Rose (free online). Much thanks to Rita Gautschy for her astronomical data on the Heliacal Rising of Sothis/Sirius at http://www.gautschy.ch/~rita/archast/sirius/siriuseng.htm (Google search "Gautschy" and "Sirius")and her data on lunar observations at http://www.gautschy.ch/~rita/archast/mond/mondeng.html (google search "last and first sightings of the lunar crescent gautschy"). In short there are 40 lunar observations and one heliacal rising of Sothis in the 7th year of Senusert III which need to fit: from these a number of possible years for the year of the beginning of the reign of Senusert III can be arrived at: I have chosen the only option which supposes that the events in the life of Senusert II and Senusert III, with regard to the Fayum region and with regard to the decline of the power of the nomarchs, relate to the life of Joseph. The year I have chosen for the start of Senusert III's reign is also the best fit in the sense that it assumes the heliacal rising of Sothis was observed from Memphis. Other options for the start of the reign of Senusert III assume that the heliacal rising in the 7th year of unnamed pharaoh on the Egyptian date IV Peret 16 was observed from a different location, which would have thus been in a different year. There is good evidence, however, that Memphis was always the town of observation of the heliacal rising of Sothis/Sirius.
So in the Twelfth Dynasty we have the collapse of the power of the nomarchs, and a great increase in the central administration of the royal court; we have the rise of the Fayum region both as a place to increase the amount of agricultural land and as a reservoir lake/sea to send back to the Nile for irrigating the fields in times of low innundation; we have the Bahr Yussef, the Canal of Joseph, which joined Lake Meoris in the Fayum region to the Nile, and which also passed through the Labyrinth with its large rooms for storage. The Twelfth Dynasty is by far the best period for seeing the handiwork of Joseph.
Joseph is often said to have been a "vizier"; for two reasons I think this is not the case: first, it comes as a surprise but we actually know the names of the viziers of the Twelfth Dynasty; and second, people wrongly equate vizier with a Prime Minister under a sovereign. In fact there were often two viziers in Egypt at the same time, and sometimes three. Each vizier administered a different region of Egypt. I think Joseph was above the viziers. Joseph had a unique position in Egyptian history, planning both the survival for the seven years of poor innundation/(poor rainfall in Ethiopia), and planning the long term administration of Egypt; viziers were going to be part of that long term administration.
How readers will view this information will really be decided by whether they want to have evidence for Joseph found by archaeologists or whether they do not. For me, the events of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt harmonize with the Biblical story of the rule of Joseph at this time. If so, what are the implications of this?
This period was well before the period of the Hyksos, so there is no evidence that Joseph was Hyksos himself or that he administered during the Hyksos period. But when the Hyksos peoples and other Semites came into Egypt there may have been some intermarriage with the Israelites.
If Joseph administered during the 12th Dynasty then this is yet further evidence supporting an Exodus around 1446 bc. For more on who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus see Who was Pharaoh when Moses lived in Egypt?