Joseph and Sinuhe

Mummy from the time of Sinuhe (12th Dynasty)

Mummy from the time of Sinuhe (12th Dynasty)

How does Ancient Egyptian literature help us understand the bible? The Egyptian story The Tale of Sinuhe helps us understand better the narrative of Joseph in the book of Genesis.

The Tale of Sinuhe tells of an Egyptian royal official who runs away to Syria, becomes powerful, rich and respected, marries and has a family. But, Sinuhe longs to be back in Egypt, and is eventually reconciled with the king, who brings him home and builds him a pyramid so that he can live properly after death.

There is a general (although not universal) consensus that Sinuhe is essentially a fiction; that is, the main character didn’t really ever exist. But, this still means that it tells us a great deal about the time in which it was written and Egyptian attitudes to life, death and foreigners! Like, for example, the film Apocalypse Now is a fiction, but if it was all we had would still give us quite a lot of information about the Vietnam war, and how it was perceived by at least some Americans.

The narrative of Joseph in Genesis tells of a favoured young man who is sold into slavery in Egypt, but becomes powerful, rich and respected, marries and has a family. He is then reconciled with his estranged family and dies, having made them promise to bury him in his native land.

There are obvious similarities between the two narratives. Meltzer (p79 in God’s word for our world ed. Ellens et al) notes that Joseph and Sinuhe

present reversed or mirror-image examples of the same motif

As Meltzer notes, both go from their native land, settle, have families and do well in their foreign setting and then eventually return to their homeland: in Sinuhe’s case shortly before his death and in Joseph’s long after (Joshua 24:32).

Again, this doesn’t say anything about whether it is true or not. Apocalypse Now was inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s story The Heart of Darkness. Both are structured as a journey into darkness. But, that doesn’t say anything about their truth or otherwise. So, for example, Conrad’s story was closely based on his experiences in Africa and the people that he met there.

The link that particularly interests me is the inversion of the desire to be buried in ‘their’ land. This doesn’t seem to have been particularly recognised by the commentators I’ve looked at, but it seems to me to be a crucial difference.

Joseph dies at the age of 110. As McKeown notes (Genesis Two Horizons Commentary 2008:192), this was the ideal age of death for Egyptians. So, again, this foreigner is acting like a good Egyptian. After death, Joseph’s body is embalmed – like any good Egyptian. And then, he makes his family promise to bury him in the promised land, in Canaan. This is deeply subversive.

In the Tale of Sinuhe, the decree of the pharaoh telling Sinuhe to return focuses on his death and burial far more than his life (translation by Parkinson The Tale of Sinuhe 1997:36f):

Return to Egypt! …
For today you have already begun to be old, have lost your virility,
and have in mind the day of burial,
the passing to blessedness. …
Think of your corpse – and return!

This is assurance of “eternal homecoming” (Parkinson 1997:49), as opposed to an impermanent and unclean burial in a foreign country (Parkinson 1997:49,24). And the Tale ends with this promise being fulfilled (translation by Parkinson 1997:41f):

A pyramid of stone was built for me,
in the midst of the pyramids. …
All the equipment to be put in a tomb shaft –
its share of these things was made.
I was given funerary priests …
My image was overlaid with gold …
I was in the favours of the king’s giving,
until the day of landing came.

This underlies the importance of dying and being buried in Egypt for Egyptians. But, Joseph, that leading Egyptian with an Egyptian family who died at the right age rejects this. Twice within two verses, Joseph stresses the impermanence of the Israelites residence in Egypt, both for him and his descendants (Genesis 50:24f):

Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.’

I think that this shows how our understanding of the biblical text can be enriched by understanding the context into which it was written. I think that this is also a good example of how we should live our lives: working for the good of our countries, but challenging people that this is not enough.

Edited to add: I’ve now explored how understanding Egyptian literature helps us understand Psalm 104 better; again, the author is reacting against an Egyptian worldview.


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