Potiphar the Egyptian

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.
Genesis 39:1

Joseph’s brothers had sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites who were on their way to Egypt.  When the Ishmaelites reached Egypt they sold Joseph to Potiphar.   We are told two things about him: he was the captain of Pharaoh’s  guard and he was an Egyptian.  Saying  he was captain of the guard makes sense.  It gives us some information about who Potiphar was.  But saying he was an Egyptian seems redundant.  He lived in Egypt and was an officer of Pharaoh.  What could he be except an Egyptian?

Calling Potiphar an Egyptian would only make sense if Egypt were ruled by a foreign people.  It would identify him as a native Egyptian and not one of the foreign rulers.  At one time Egypt was ruled by a group of people called the Hyskos.  Joseph’s enslavement might have taken place during their rule.

The Hyksos were a group of mixed Semitic-Asiatics who settled in northern Egypt during the 18th century BC.  In about 1630 they seized power, and Hyksos kings ruled Egypt as the 15th dynasty (c. 1630-1521 BC).


(I wonder how the other Egyptians felt  about Potiphar.  Did they consider him a traitor because he served their rulers?)

The fact that the Hyksos were Semitic means they were more closely related to Joseph and his family than they were to the native Egyptians.  This would explain why Pharaoh was willing to promote Joseph to a position of authority and welcome his family to settle in Egypt.

It might also explain why a later Pharaoh was so hostile to their descendants.

 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Exodus 1:8-10

Perhaps this Pharaoh was not a descendant of the one who favored Joseph but a native Egyptian who had ousted the Hyksos from power.  He would naturally look on the Israelites as enemies because of their friendship with Egypt’s conquerors.

Posted on August 1, 2015, in Bible study and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is an excellent article. Though not dogmatic, it provides some solid possibilities that make sense of the text and fit the facts. I personally had always thought that the Hyksos had invaded after Joseph, thus making sense of the saying that a Pharaoh knew not Joseph. However, that little nuance about calling Potiphar an Egyptian would not make sense in my original line of thought.

    Your explanation makes sense of both aspects. As one who loves Egyptian history, I enjoyed this article.


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