Joseph, head of Pharaoh’s household

Visiting King Tut

The Science Museum of Minnesota is featuring a new exhibit, Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. I visited there on Friday, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit. While driving home, I began to think about the story of Joseph, who rose to be head of Pharaoh’s household.

Tchay, servant of the king
Tchay, servant of the kingImage by bthomso via Flickr

This show focuses on the Pharaohs and life in their households.  The results of modern science, especially DNA testing, have revealed relationships among them – which married a non-royal queen. Most recently, it has been shown that Akhenaten (a religious innovator who abandonned the worship of the traditional gods to focus on Aten, the Sun God) was the father of Tutankhamun – who restored the traditional religions.

Pharaohs and their servants

The exhibit describes high and honored officials in the rule of various pharaohs. Some statues show the child of a pharaoh held by a caregiver – usually a man. Others show the scribes, priests, architects, and other officials.  The statues are often found in tombs, and show that these high officials, like the pharaohs, were preparing for themselves in the afterlife.  These servants of pharaohs experienced the music, the artistry, the beauty of this great ancient civilization.

I thought of Joseph, sold into Pharaoh’s service by nomadic traders while still a boy. He must have mastered the language and the manners of this different culture quickly. We know from the scripture accounts that his integrity and faith brought him success. What did he think of this great culture, of a king who ruled a vast and prosperous land?

Joseph – herdsman in the court of pharaoh

Joseph’s family was wealthy by the standards of his land – but it was a wealth of sheep and goats, of good harvests and of lands. Joseph and his brothers tended the animals themselves.  A woven coat of many colors was such a prized object that jealousy broke out among them when his father Jacob gave the coat to Joseph.  The family was only recently settled from its nomadic lifestyle; their faith had no grand temples or elaborate rites.

When Joseph’s brothers came to see him during the 7 years of drought, Joseph had completely integrated himself into this new culture. He was competent and comfortable deciding who could receive grain and who could not. He had control – perhaps ownership – of so much land that he could provide land and housing for his father, all his brothers and their wives and families. He had the trust of the Pharaoh, one of the richest and most powerful men on earth.  Perhaps the same traits that his brothers hated – his dreaming and his sense of his own importance – enabled him to rise to this level and to function comfortably there.

The moment of memory

The moment when Joseph first saw his brothers is most telling.  It is as though he woke up from the dream of this glorious culture,  with its intricate glass and alabaster jars, fragrances and adornment far more sophisticated than the robe of many colors which was the occasion of his downfall. His brothers probably looked shabby in the courts of pharaoh’s household: simple clothing now dirty and worn from their travel.

In that moment, Joseph could have thought about how far he had risen, how much better had had become. He could have thought that his dreams were true: he really was better than these brothers.  But he did not.  His first thought was one of unity: this is my family, whom I have missed in this long separation. My long suffering is worthwhile and rewarded: it was preparation to be able to care for them.

The Lord was with Joseph

Early in his captivity, Genesis tells us that the Lord was with Joseph – but the story unfolds through human activity.  The Lord’s presence is seen in that moment of recognition between Joseph and his brothers.  He acts like the vizier that he has become, giving commands and making demands.  Yet there is a loving-kindness acting through the frightening demands: a love that provides the chance for the brothers to offer themselves in slavery to save another brother, a love that brings about unity and forgiveness.

Rag-tag Canaanites as guests of the Pharaoh

It wasn’t until I spent time with the beauty and grandeur of ancient Egyptian culture at the King Tut exhibit that I realized the great social distance between Pharaoh – and Joseph his Vizier – and the disorganized band of herdsmen from the distant land of Canaan.  We are used to thinking of Jacob as the great patriarch, descendent of Abraham, honored in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.  How different they must have looked to Pharaoh! What must he have thought when Jacob gave him a blessing?

The faith of Joseph

The Lord seems to have been with Joseph through all of this, assuring him that there was a purpose.  We don’t know what this Abrahamic faith was like – before Moses, before the Ten Commandments or the giving of the law.  Seeing the wealth and the attractiveness of the culture into which Joseph moved makes it even more clear that Joseph’s awareness of the Lord – of what he asked and of his provision -was constant and powerful.

Visit King Tut

If you have a chance to see the exhibit – it will be in St. Paul through September 5 – it is worth the effort.  Take time, before you go, to think of the stories – scriptural especially but myths as well – that intersect this great culture. Your experience will be far the richer!

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  1. I believe the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time may have been from the Hykos dynasty- an invasion rule of Egypt. (Not actually Egyptians) If so, they were considered “Shepherd Kings” and would have had their own herds. Hence, it explains why the Pharaoh gave Jacob and his sons good grazing lands once they arrived in Egypt during the famine. Thanks. :-)

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