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.
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.
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 prisoners,
however, were simply being held in prison awaiting the decision
of the government as to what their punishment was to be. In
other words, they were waiting to find out if they were going to
be executed. This last category seems to be that of the two
individuals Joseph met while in prison, the Butler and the
were the two individuals? We are never told their names or their
crimes. The fact that one of them, the Baker, was eventually
executed, and the other, the Butler, was restored to office,
leads us to believe that they were accused of being involved in
some kind of plot against the king. Such things happened in
ancient Egypt. In such a case, once the king sorted out the
facts, the guilty would be punished and the innocent would be
exonerated. The Baker was executed (for treason) and the Butler
was restored to his position. But what was that position?
Tomb model of an ancient Egyptian bakery, Cairo Museum
get the term “butler” from the KJV translation of the Bible, and
it brings to our minds the very British concept of a man in a
tuxedo who answers doorbells and supervises household servants.
This does not reflect the situation in the Joseph story. The
Hebrew title is “Cup Bearer” (for a Middle Kingdom example, see
Vergote 1959:50). The duties of this personage involved
providing beverages to the king; hence we see the importance of
having someone trustworthy on the job.
Getting back to the prison itself, let us see what else the
Hayes papyrus tells us about it. The main prison was located at
Thebes (modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt, some 400 mi south of the
Nile delta and modern Cairo. Assuming Joseph was there and not
at some smaller prison (a correct assumption I believe since key
royal officials were imprisoned there too), we see that the
entire Joseph story cannot be confined to the delta area of the
Nile as some scholars would have us believe.
the Genesis account states, there was a “Warden” or “Overseer of
the Prison,” who was assisted by a large staff of clerks and
scribes. Record keeping at such an institution was as important
to the ancient Egyptians as it is in a modem prison. The actual
title Overseer of the Prison is not commonly found in Egyptian
inscriptions, but examples do exist from the Middle Kingdom, the
time of Joseph.
of the chief assistants to the Warden or Overseer was the
“Scribe of the Prison.” In Genesis 39:22 we are told that Joseph
was promoted to high office in the prison. Since Joseph was
literate, as we have seen from the fact that he served as
steward in the household of Potiphar, it seems probable that he
was promoted to Scribe of the Prison. As such, he would not only
have been the right-hand man of the Warden, but he also would
have been in charge of all the records of the institution.
matter how high in rank he became, Joseph naturally would have
valued his personal freedom more than a high office in the
prison. When he interpreted the dream of the Cup Bearer as
meaning that the Cup Bearer would be freed and restored to his
post, Joseph implored that individual to remember him when he
has the ear of Pharaoh. The Cup Bearer promises to do so, but
quickly forgets Joseph when he assumes his old position again.
It is only when Pharaoh himself dreams a dream that the Cup
Bearer remembers the young Hebrew who could, through the power
of God, interpret dreams. At that time, Joseph is called out of
Scribe’s pen and ink set, Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Joseph would
have used a set such as this in his duties as steward and prison
final point needs to be noted. Joseph, before going to the king,
has to change his clothing and shave (Gn 41:14). These are
significant details. Native Egyptians were very concerned about
personal cleanliness and the removal of all facial hair—the
beards worn by kings were false beards. If Joseph appeared
before a Hyksos, i.e. non-Egyptian Pharaoh, these factors would
not have been so significant. It is likely that the ancient
Hyksos were Amorites, and we have ancient pieces of art
indicating that the Amorites grew beards. This verse, therefore,
is further evidence that the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day was
Egyptian and not Hyksos, and that Joseph is correctly dated to
the Middle Kingdom period.