Joseph in Egypt -- By: Charles F. Aling

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 15:4 (Fall 2002)
Article: Joseph in Egypt
Author: Charles F. Aling

Joseph in Egypt

Third of Six Parts

Charles F. Aling

As all who are familiar with the Biblical account will remember, Joseph, while still in the household of Potiphar, was falsely accused of adultery with the wife of his master and thrown into prison. The normal punishment for adultery in ancient Egypt was death; the fact that Joseph did not suffer execution is interesting and perhaps indicates that Potiphar doubted the veracity of his wife, who had made the accusation. In any case, Joseph spent time in an Egyptian prison.

The Biblical mention of Joseph serving time in a prison is noteworthy in itself. To us in the 20th century, serving time in a prison as punishment for a crime seems quite natural. But in the ancient world, this was not the case. The death penalty, a fine, or even bodily mutilation were the usual means of making people suffer for their crimes in the ancient Near East.

Prisons were rare in the ancient world. To see this, one need only look at the Old Testament Law. There is nothing there about serving a prison sentence for any sin or crime, and in fact there is nothing Biblically or archaeologically that would lead us to believe that the Hebrews even had prisons as we know them. The importance, then, of the prison sentence of Joseph is that the author of the book of Genesis is recording correct information, for Egypt was one of the few nations in the ancient Near East that had prisons in the classical sense of the term.

We are very fortunate to have an Egyptian papyrus, translated and published by the Egyptologist W. C. Hayes, that deals at length with Egyptian prisons (Hayes 1972). We have mentioned it also deals with Asiatic slaves in Middle Kingdom Egypt. Let us look at what this papyrus tells us about prisons and prison life in Egypt in the days of Joseph (Hayes 1972:37–42).

Ostracon (pottery sherd with writing) from the Chief Baker of the Temple of Amun at Thebes acknowledging the receipt of wheat.

The main prison of Egypt was called the “Place of Confinement.” It was divided into two parts: a “cell-block” like a modern prison, and “a barracks” for holding a large number of prisoners who were forced into serving as laborers for the government. What kinds of sentences were given to prisoners? We know little about specific sentencing procedures. It does not seem that criminals were given a number of years to serve in prison. Perhaps all sentences were life sentences. In any case, some of the prisoners in the Place of Confinement were “serving time” for their crimes, as Joseph presumably was. Other prison...

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