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Who Was the Pharaoh Who “Knew Not Joseph”?
TitleWho Was the Pharaoh Who “Knew Not Joseph”?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1987
AuthorsSarna, Nahum M.
Issue Number12
Date PublishedDecember 1987
KeywordsAncient Egypt; Joseph (of Egypt)

The biblical account of Goshen, slavery, brickmaking, and midwives matches well with current knowledge about Egypt, according to a modern scholar.


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Who Was the Pharaoh Who “Knew Not Joseph”?

By Nahum M. Sarna

The biblical account of Goshen, slavery, brickmaking, and midwives matches well with current knowledge about Egypt, according to a modern scholar.

Israel sojourned 430 years in Egypt. Recent archaeological discoveries and increasing knowledge about languages and cultures have helped us understand that sojourn as never before.1 The biblical account accurately portrays two ancient civilizations, which were at first allies, then bitter enemies. It takes us from Joseph, who rose to power under the Egyptian dynasty known as the Hyksos, up to dire bondage two dynasties later under the Pharaoh Ramses II.

The Hyksos were Asiatics who ruled Egypt for about a century and a half.2 The name itself means “Rulers of Foreign Lands.” The Hyksos were a conglomeration of ethnic groups who infiltrated Egypt over a long period in ever-increasing numbers, probably coming from Canaan.

By about 1720 B.C.., they controlled the Eastern Delta of the Nile and had established their capital at Avaris.3 By about 1674 B.C., a Hyksos king with the Semitic name Salitis occupied Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt. The Hyksos constituted the XVth and XVIth Dynasties, adopting the style and bureaucratic institutions of the traditional pharaohs. Gradually, Semites replaced Egyptians in high administrative offices. The rise of Joseph to power and the migration of the Hebrews fits in well with what is known of the era of Hyksos rule.

The Hyksos never seemed to have dominated Upper Egypt, where a native family retained control. This family became the XVIIth Dynasty and operated out of Thebes. One of the last kings of this dynasty, Seqenen-re II, began to organize the resistance against the Hyksos. From the state of his mummy, which showed that he died at about age forty from a series of horrible head wounds, and from the fact that he received the title “The Brave,” it has been assumed that he fell in battle.

His son, Kamose, continued the struggle and succeeded in driving the Hyksos out of Upper Egypt and in recovering Memphis. Amose, brother of Kamose, completed the liberation of Egypt. He inflicted a crushing defeat on the Hyksos by capturing Avaris and driving them back into Canaan. Amose (ca. 1552–1527 B.C.) founded the XVIIIth Dynasty of pharaohs and inaugurated the New Kingdom, in the course of which the country reached the height of its power and magnificence.

The Hyksos occupation was a humiliation for the Egyptians that had a profound effect upon the national psychology. Thenceforth, Egypt was acutely conscious of the perils lurking in the outside world. The danger of foreign invasion, especially from Asia via the Eastern Delta, could never again be smugly ignored or underestimated. Furthermore, the Semitic population was not driven entirely from that region and was perceived as a danger to the security of Egypt.

In light of this situation, the anxiety of the new pharaoh about the rapid growth of the Israelite presence in the strategic Delta region is understandable: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us then deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:9–10; Scriptural quotations are from the Jewish Publication Society’s new translation of the Bible.)

A close reading of the final pages of Genesis uncovers intimations of a deteriorating situation. The domicile of the Israelites in Egypt is not regarded as permanent. Most striking is the contrast between the private funeral of Joseph and the public state funeral earlier accorded his father, Jacob. Joseph’s family did not have the influence with the Egyptian authorities to secure for him a similar privilege. Moreover, Joseph himself seems to have been aware of the gathering storm clouds, for his dying words are “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. … When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” (Gen. 50:24–25.)

The kings of the XVIIIth Dynasty (ca. 1552–1306 B.C.) lived in Upper Egypt and operated out of Memphis or Thebes. They neglected the Delta, apparently begrudging any expenditure on the region that had been the base of the hated Hyksos. However, toward the end of this period attitudes began to change. Haremhab (ca. 1333–1306 B.C.), the last pharaoh of the dynasty, renovated the temple of the local god Seth in the Eastern Delta.

The first effective king of the XIXth Dynasty, Sethos (Seti) I (ca. 1305–1290 B.C.), built himself a summer palace just north of Avaris. Ramses II, successor to Sethos I, wholeheartedly shifted the center of Egyptian government to the Eastern Delta.4 Not long after his coronation, he announced the foundation of a new capital city to be built around his father’s palace near Avaris.

The new capital was named after himself, Pi(Per)-Ramesse, “Domain of Ramses.” The first element was often dropped, so that the city was known simply as “Ramses” (Raamses). One text reports it to be “a beautiful district, without its like. … It is full of supplies and food every day, its ponds with fish, and its lakes with birds. Its meadows are verdant with grass; its banks bear dates; its melons are abundant on the sands. … Its granaries are so full of barley and emmer that they come near to the sky. … Its ships go out and come back to mooring.”5

This lavish praise bestowed upon the city of Ramses recalls the words of Genesis 47:5–6, 11: “Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, … ‘The land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen.’ … So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Ramses.” [Gen. 47:5–6, 11]

In other words, Ramses II built his capital in the very area of Israelite settlement.6 This pharaoh achieved an unrivaled reputation as a vigorous builder on a prodigious scale. His vast public projects required an unlimited supply of labor, a high degree of organization, and the constant production of brick, masonry, and other building materials. The pharaoh could find a large pool of manpower at hand in the Israelite population, and he proceeded to exploit it fully:

“So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.” (Ex. 1:11.)

The enslavement of the Israelites was not domestic bondage, the type in which an individual becomes the chattel of a private master and lives in his household. What we are dealing with is state slavery, the organized imposition of forced labor upon the male population for long and indefinite terms under degrading and brutal conditions. The men so conscripted received no reward for their labors; they enjoyed no civil rights, and their lot was generally much worse than that of a household slave. Organized in large work gangs, they became an anonymous mass, losing all individuality in the eyes of their oppressors.7

From Egyptian texts we can surmise that the Israelites were requisitioned to maintain the irrigation ditches, dikes, and canals, having to clean out the mud deposited by the inundation of the Nile. They were also put to work in the fields. The lives of the Israelites were especially “embittered with harsh labor at mortar and brick.” (Ex. 1:14.)

The frantic building activity in the region of the Eastern Delta called for the organization of a brickmaking industry of unprecedented dimensions.8 The brick walls that encircled towns often reached a height of sixty feet. The ordinary private dwellings and the administrative buildings were mostly constructed of brick. Studies done on the pyramids of Sesostris III at Dahshur calculate that the structures took about 24.5 million bricks to construct.

Egyptian papyri and paintings yield a clear picture of the work and techniques involved. The industry would be located by a plentiful supply of water, usually a pool or canal. Some laborers would do nothing but cart the water back and forth all day. Others would be employed in the collection of stubble from the fields. The artisan who actually molded the bricks would receive from the workers baskets of water-soaked clay mixed with stubble. He would then shape the material either by hand or in a rectangular wooden mold. The brick would be left to dry for about three days and then would be turned over; the entire process took about a week.

A practiced artisan in present-day Egypt, where the same brickmaking technique as employed from time immemorial can still be observed, is capable of turning out about three thousand bricks in the course of a seven- to eight-hour working day. Such a quota imposed on raw slaves would constitute an intolerable burden. A leather scroll from the fifth year of Ramses II tells of forty men who were each assigned a quota of two thousand bricks, making a total supply of eighty thousand. The text shows that the target was rarely reached by any of them.

One inscription accompanying wall paintings from the days of Thutmosis III (ca. 1490–1436 B.C.) depicts Asiatics making and laying bricks and bears the ominous line from the mouth of a taskmaster, “The rod is in my hand, do not be idle.” The “Satire on the Trades” says this of the brickmaker and builder:

“He is dirtier than vines or pigs from treading under his mud. His clothes are stiff with clay; his leather belt is going to ruin. … His sides ache, since he must be outside in a treacherous wind. … His arms are destroyed with technical work. … What he eats is the bread of his fingers, and he washes himself only once a season.”9

One by-product the pharaoh hoped to achieve through this enslavement was a reduction in the male Israelite population, but it did not happen: “The more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out.” (Ex. 1:12.)

Accordingly, the king resorted to more barbarous measures. To achieve immediate and certain regulation of the population, he decreed the murder of all newborn Israelite males. The obligation to commit this infanticide was thrust upon the midwives. (See Ex. 1:15–16.)

Midwifery in Egypt was one of the few professions open to women. Its practitioners seem to have been held in esteem. It must have been a regular institution in Israel, to judge by the matter-of-fact way in which the presence of the midwife is mentioned. (See Gen. 35:17; Gen. 38:28.) It would appear that in addition to attending the mother at the time of birth, the midwife cut the umbilical cord, washed the baby in water, rubbed its skin with salt, and swaddled it. In the case of twins, she had to testify as to which was the firstborn.10

In issuing his decree to the midwives, the king obviously relied upon the ease with which the baby could be killed at the moment of delivery by means not easily detectable in those days. What is not clear is whether these midwives were Israelite or Egyptian women, for the Hebrew text can be rendered “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives of the Hebrew women.”11

It would have been strange for the king to have expected the Israelites to kill the males of their own people. Another oddity is that only two midwives are mentioned for such a large population. Either they were the overseers of the practitioners and were directly responsible to the authorities for the women under them, or the two names, Shiprah and Puah, are those of guilds or teams of midwives called after the original founders of the order.12 At any rate, the names are Semitic.

What is remarkable is that the names of these lowly women are recorded, whereas, by contrast, the all-powerful reigning monarch is veiled in anonymity. In this way the biblical narrator expresses his scale of values. All the power of the pharaoh, the outward magnificence of his realm, the splendor of his court, his colossal monuments—all are, in the ultimate reckoning, insignificant, and they must crumble into dust because they rest on foundations empty of moral content.

Seven times in this brief episode the term midwife is repeated, an index of the importance that scripture places upon the actions of the women in their defiance of tyranny and in their upholding of moral principles. “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Ex. 1:17.)

Faced with an irreconcilable conflict between obedience to the sovereign’s depraved law and allegiance to the moral law of God, the midwives chose morality. Their noncompliance with the law, however, was not publicly announced but privately effected. They could not disclose the truth in response to the pharaoh’s interrogation because they would have been removed from a situation in which they could save lives.

Thwarted once again in his evil designs, the pharaoh then enlisted “all this people” in a national effort to annihilate the people of Israel. All newborn males are to be drowned in the River Nile. (Ex. 1:22.) That decree is ultimately tinged with irony, for the very agency of destruction that he chose—water—eventually carries the instrument of his own punishment, the infant Moses, into the arms of his sister.

Nahum M. Sarna is emeritus professor at Brandeis University, where he was Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies for twenty years. He is general editor of the Jewish Publication Society’s forthcoming Bible commentary.


  1. Most of this article is from chapter 1 of Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel by Nahum M. Sarna. It is printed here with permission from the publisher, Schocken Books. Copyright © 1986 Nahum M. Sarna.
  2. On the Hyksos, see J. van Seters, The Hyksos: A New Investigation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); W. C. Hayes, “Egypt: From the Death of Ammenemes III to Seqenenre II” and “Egypt: Internal Affairs from Tuthmosis I to the Death of Amenophis III,” in Cambridge Ancient History, 3d ed., 2 vols., ed. I. E. S. Edwards et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), 2:54–73, 313–416; and T. G. H. James, “Egypt: From the Expulsion of the Hyksos to Amenophis I,” in Cambridge Ancient History, pp. 289–312.
  3. On the site of Avaris, see van Seters, pp. 127–51.
  4. A. H. Gardiner, “The Delta Residence of the Ramessides,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 5 (1918): 127–38, 179–200, 242–71.
  5. J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955), pp. 470–71; and A. Erman, The Ancient Egyptians: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), pp. 206, 270.
  6. On Goshen, see P. Montet, Egypt and the Bible, trans. L. R. Keylock (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), pp. 8, 57–59; S. Yeivin, The Israelite Conquest of Canaan (Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Institut in het Nabije Oosten, 1971), pp. 243–46; and M. Har-El, The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus in the Light of the Historical Geography of the Sinai Peninsula (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1973), pp. 90–91, 139, 173, 194–96.
  7. See A. Bakir, Slavery in Pharaonic Egypt, Supplément aux Annales du Service des antiquités de l‘Egypte, no. 18, (Cairo: Impre. de l‘Institut français d’archéologie, 1952), pp. 1–4, 7, 88, 114; W. C. Hayes, “Egypt: Internal Affairs,” pp. 372–81; and J. Baines and J. Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Phaidon, 1980), p. 100.
  8. On brickmaking and brickbuilding in Egypt, see L. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 4th ed., rev. and enl. J. R. Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1962), pp. 48–50, 74–75; K. H. Kitchen, “From the Brickfields of Egypt,” Tyndale House Bulletin 27 (1976):136–47; and A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt (Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris and Phillips, 1979).
  9. Pritchard, p. 433. Cf. M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3 vols., (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973), 1:187; Erman, p. 69.
  10. See J. Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, trans. and ed. F. Rosner (New York and London: Sanhedrin, 1978), p. 107f.
  11. See M. Greenberg, Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman House, 1969), p. 26.
  12. H. Rand, “Figure-Vases in Ancient Egypt and Hebrew Midwives,” Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970): 209–12.