Recently I have been studying the life of Joseph in preparation for our continuing series through the book of Genesis. One of the key events in the life of Joseph occurs while he is in Egypt serving in the house of one of Pharaoh’s officers. The name of this officer is, of course, Potiphar, and he has a wife who attempts to sleep with Joseph. As is well-known, Joseph stands firm, and even flees from her presence when necessary. Of course Potiphar’s wife is not happy about this, and ends up falsely accusing Joseph of attacking her. Potiphar then throws innocent Joseph into prison. It is truly an astounding series of events with many lessons for the Christian.
One striking thing one notices, however, in spending any significant amount of time studying this text, is that it does not take long to discover that many find numerous striking similarities between these events in Joseph’s life, and other stories circulating in the Ancient Near East around this time period. These other stories in the Ancient Near East that involve a spurned seductress clearly have mythical elements in them. Needless to say, critics of the Bible grab on to these similarities as proof that the Bible’s account of Joseph’s life is also in the realm of myth. Yet, when one actually compares these stories, are they really as similar as many would have us think?
The Ancient Near Eastern story that probably most closely resembles the events of Joseph’s life came out of Egypt. It is often referred to as “The Tale of the Two Brothers.” The tale is found in a manuscript which probably should be dated sometime around 1225 BC. In the story there are 2 main characters who are brothers. The older brother’s name is Anubis, and the younger’s name is Bata. It should be noted that these were also the names of 2 Egyptian gods, so the tale seems to be describing the actions of certain deities acting like humans. Anyway, the younger brother, Bata lives with his older brother, Anubis and his wife. Bata is a very strong and good worker. He works with, and for, his brother and brings much success to the household through his good and wise work. One day the brothers were working in the fields together, and they ran out of seed. Anubis sends his younger brother, Bata, back to the house to get more seed. It appears that Bata impresses his brother’s wife with how much seed he can carry, and Anubis’ wife attempts to sleep with Bata. At one point she even grabs hold of him, but Bata will have none of this. He refuses out of loyalty to his brother. Anubis’ wife is of course very angry, so she pretends to have been attacked by Bata which enrages Anubis. Now, we must admit, up to this point at least, there do seem to be some similarities between the events in Joseph’s life and this Egyptian tale. However, let us continue with the Egyptian story. Anubis is so enraged that he plans to kill his brother. He takes his lance and hides behind one of the doors in the stable. As Bata approaches the stable, a talking cow warns Bata that his brother is waiting to kill him, and Bata flees for his life. Anubis chases him, but Bata prays to the Egyptian god, Re, for deliverance. Re places a massive body of water filled with crocodiles between Bata and Anubis which saves the life of Bata. Bata then speaks to his brother across the water and informs his older brother about the despicable actions of his wife. Bata is so serious about showing that he is innocent that he actually castrated himself to prove his innocence to his older brother! Anubis believes his younger brother, and returns home to his wife where he kills her and throws her body to the dogs! The end.
While this is indeed quite a story, and there are some similarities between the Joseph narrative and the Egyptian tale, it does not take an Ancient Near Eastern scholar to see how incredibly different these stories are as well. The events in the Egyptian story clearly veer off into the realm of mythology about Egyptian gods. As is often the case in this type of mythology the gods don’t act any better than humans do! When one reads the Joseph narrative there is a completely different feel. The Joseph events clearly sound like historical narrative as opposed to the mythological details in the Egyptian story. In the Joseph narrative people often behave in very wicked and foolish ways, but God is always holy and righteous. While critics of the Bible may try to make a mountain out of a molehill by emphasizing the similarities between the Joseph story and the Egyptian tale, it seems clear that the similarities really are cosmetic at best. The details of the stories really go in very different directions. To say that the similarities prove the Bible is a myth too really says more about the critics’ bias against the Bible than it does about any substantive similarities between the two stories. God’s Word is true, accurate, and historical. We can count on His Word to be true as history, but also to be true as it highlights areas of our life that need to change. God uses the truth of His Word to show how our great God works in human history, and how we have hearts that need to be changed by the truth of the Scriptures. Thank God for His true Word.
-Pastor Nathan Hogan