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13 | What is so mysterious about an Egyptian Guard?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this episode entitled, What is so mysterious about an Egyptian guard?, I will talk about the strangest passages in the Bible. Now I need to mention, I am the master of hyperbole and it is the strangest passage today. Next week another passage could be the strangest verse in the Bible.

But this passage answers one of the major questions in the Bible namely: Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?

If you have watched any movies such as the 1956 blockbuster hit, The Ten Commandments, we see that the Pharaoh, played by actor Yules Bryner, was Ramses. Even the 2014 version: Exodus: Gods and Kings, has Ramses as the Pharaoh.

But was Ramses actually the Pharaoh of Exodus?

That strange passage in Genesis suggests No.

But before we discuss that strange passage, we need a bit of background on Joseph who eventually ended up second in charge in Egypt. Joseph was the youngest and favoured son of Jacob and he came with an attitude. Joseph told his brothers of dreams where one day they all would be bowing down to Joseph.

Fed up with Joseph’s arrogance, the brothers threw Joseph into an empty well and then sold him into slavery to a passing band of Ishamelites (Genesis 37) who then promptly sold him at a slave market in Egypt.

So this leads to one of the Bible’s strangest passages, see if you can pick out what is so bizarre about it?

1. Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there.

2. The LORD was with Joseph, so he became a successful man. And he was in the house of his master, the Egyptian.

3. Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.

4. So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge.

5. It came about that from the time he made him overseer in his house and over all that he owned, the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD’S blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and in the field. (Genesis 39: 1-5 NASV)

So what is so bizarre about this passage that simply tells how Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s bodyguard?

Well it is this.

Did you notice the number of times that Potiphar is referred to as an Egyptian? In the space of five verses, he is described three times as an Egyptian – “an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh”, “the Egyptian” and even describes his home as the “Egyptian’s house.”

So what is so strange about that?

Well it is this. Everyone reading this passage would have instinctively presumed that the Pharaoh’s personal bodyguard was an Egyptian.

I mean who else would it be?

Moses did not even have to mention it once, we would have all just presumed he was an Egyptian.

It is like me telling you “did you know that the Prime Minister of Canada is a Canadian”, then a few seconds later jabbing you in the ribs and telling you once more time he is a Canadian and then saying a third time did you know he even owns a house in Canada.

But as bizarre as that sounds, in the space of five verses that is exactly what Moses did as he described Potiphar.

So why did Moses emphasize the captain’s Egyptian heritage so many times?

It’s obvious.

We have to conclude that Moses did this because it was odd that the Pharaoh’s body guard was Egyptian and Moses wanted to make sure we caught this important fact.

So what in the world is going on here?

The answer is this. For about three centuries, non-Egyptians ruled Egypt.

Around 1800 BC, a group called the Hyksos invaded Egypt. The Hyksos occupied the Northern part of the Nile delta and while many Egyptians remained in the North, the Egyptian leadership and thousands of its citizens fled south and occupied the southern half of the Nile delta.

Archaeologist have discovered that the Hyksos easily conquered the Egyptian because the invaders had advanced weapons that the Egyptians did not have. This included the smaller, more powerful composite bow and chariots.

So who were the Hyksos?

They were Semitic, essentially cousins of Jacob and his extended family, the Hebrews. They would have had a similar language as Jacob and his family, but with a different accent and words like we find with English, between US, Canada, Britain, Australia, Scottish (who barely speak English) and the Irish.

When the Hyksos took over northern Egypt, many of the Egyptians stayed behind and the Hyksos maintained the same political structure and even used the title of Pharaoh for their Hyksos leader.

Because Moses s0-over emphasized the Egyptian heritage of Potiphar, this would suggest that when Joseph arrived in Egypt, the Hyksos were in charge.

But this leads to the obvious question, why would a Hyksos leader have an Egyptian commanding his personal bodyguard?

Actually, it is quite common for conquering nations to do this and we see this same thing actually happened when Nazi Germany conquered France during World War II.

Though there was a strong resistance army in France that continued fighting the Germans after France’s defeat, there were also many French who collaborated with the enemy and the German Gestapo boasted that every morning their mailbox was filled with people turning in their fellow Frenchmen.

In his book, Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945, Tony Jude says that the Germans had only 7,500 administrators and military police in France running the country and used the French police and militia to control a country with a population of 34 million.

Yes, the French police and French militia worked with the Germans to help the Nazis control France.

And in the same way, Potiphar would have been an Egyptian collaborator who worked with the Hyksos. Because of his Egyptian background, Potiphar would have been well aware of any attempts to assassinate or overthrow the pharaoh.

Potiphar’s collaborator role in Egypt also helps us understand another unusual passage involving Potiphar’s wife.

In the account found in Genesis 39:11-15, Potiphar’s wife tries to get Joseph to sleep with her, but Joseph flees.

Angered by the rejection, she accused Joseph of trying to rape her.

So what does Potiphar do?

He throws Joseph in jail. As commander of the Pharaoh’s bodyguard why didn’t he have Joseph executed?

Well, in this situation Potiphar was the outsider and Joseph was connected with the Hyksos through a common language and culture, so the commander obviously felt it best not to overstretch his authority in this situation.

This decision very much annoyed Potiphar’s wife and she called her Egyptian household together and said:

“See, he [Potiphar] has brought in a Hebrew to us to make sport of us; he came in to me to lie with me, and I screamed.” (Genesis 39:14)

Notice two things here. She said that Joseph, the Hebrew, was mocking, or making sport of us? Notice how she used the word “us,” because what had happened to her was not just an offense to her as Potiphar’s wife but all the Egyptians in their household.

How could a slave an anyway be mocking or making fun of his masters?

This happened because Potiphar’s wife clearly saw the obvious cultural connection between Joseph and the Hyksos, Egypt’s occupying masters.

Joseph was a constant reminder of Egypt’s servitude and the reference to her husband suggests she and the household were not completely onside with Potiphar’s collaboration with the enemy.

This also explains in part how Joseph, with the anointing of God, so easily rose up in the Hyksos leadership because they had a similar language and culture.

It also explains why the Hyksos Pharaoh allowed Joseph’s family to settle in prime land around Goshen obviously displacing any Egyptians living there.

But by the time we arrive at the book of Exodus, we see that the good times are over for the Hebrews.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8 NASV)

What does it mean by a “new King?”

The Hebrew word “hadash” translated “new” means something new and different or not like the original. The word is used in Deuteronomy (32:17), to describe the new pagan gods that the Hebrews were worshiping that were completely different from Jehovah.

So this king was from a completely different line of kings than those that previously ruled Egypt.

But notice the strange wording, it specifically says that this new king did not know Joseph. In other words, the new King did not know the history of the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews now living in Egypt.

So what is happening here?

This verse is describing what happened around 1550 BC, when the Egyptians — under Amhose I – were finally able to drive the Hyksos out of northern Egypt. They had modernized their military that now included chariots which are actually mentioned in Exodus 14:23, when the Egyptian army was pursuing the fleeing Hebrews.

And after driving the Hyksos out of Egypt, Amhose turned his attention on the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews still living in Egypt.

Amhose says:

“Come let us deal wisely with them [the Israelites] or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” (v 9 NASV)

Amhose realized immediately these Hebrews had more in common with the Hyksos, than the Egyptians and notice how he was extremely nervous that they would join the Hyksos if they tried to retake Northern Egypt.

So he began to subject the Hebrews to slavery and even tried to kill off the baby boys when they were born to reduce the Hebrew’s military strength.

As the oppression grew, the Hebrews began calling out to God for deliverance and God sent Moses along with some plagues to deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt.

But Amhose was probably not the pharaoh that Moses confronted at the end when the Hebrews finally left Egypt.

A lot of time had passed between when Moses was found in the basket in the Nile River, grew up in the Egyptian court, his murder of the Egyptian guard, his exile and then eventual return.

Since this took place over several decades, it’s probable the Pharaoh at the time the Hebrews left Egypt was not Amhose, but more likely his son, Amenhotep I. Now it is entirely possible the plagues God judged Egypt with overlapped this father/son duo, starting with Ahmose and ending with his son.

In his article, Amenhotep, the Second King of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, Jimmy Dunn provides a bit of information on Amenhotep. Like his father, archaeology reveals he was a very active builder.

He built several temples along the Nile River and also finished off several projects his father had not completed.

This certainly fits the Biblical narrative that tells us that the Hebrews were used as slave labour under Amhose (Exodus 1:11) and again when Moses decades later returned from exile (Exodus 5:6-11).

But the similarity doesn’t stop there. In his article, Dunn adds this interesting point stating:

“Some information appears to indicate that Amenhotep I’s son died in infancy” and the Pharaoh died childless.”

This lines up with the final plague that records the killing of the firstborn, that included the Pharaoh’s son:

4 Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, 5 and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well. (Exodus 11:4-5)

This was all part of God’s plan. We read in Daniel 2:21 that God “removes kings and establishes kings.”

God allowed the Hyksos to take over the northern part of Egypt to provide a safe haven for Jacob’s heirs. But they were becoming far too comfortable in their adopted land and when it was time for them to continue their journey to the Promised Land, God allowed the Egyptians to regain control leading us to the Great Exodus.

So why do so many people believe that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Ramses who shows up on the scene about 300 years later. That is because the Bible says that the Hebrews helped build storage cities including one named Ramses. This would leave the impression that Ramses is the Pharaoh of the day. But in fact, this storage city was several centuries old and had gone through several name changes before this point. Archaeology even shows that the older parts of the city had been constructed using slaves.

It seems at some point, one of the later transcribers referred to the city by its current name, so everyone would know which one he was talking about.


  • Lead Image: Credit: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa/Flickr/Creative Commons

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