Was Yuya Really Joseph?

In 1987 Ahmed Osman published the book Stranger in the Valley of the Kings, in which he proposed that the ancient Egyptian nobleman named Yuya was actually the Biblical figure Joseph. The book sold well and granted Osman status as one of the gurus of the pseudo-scientific secrets of Ancient History. Contemporary Egyptologists however saw the book’s claims as extreme and some, most notably Donald Redford, attacked Osman with scathing reviews. In spite of and perhaps due to this criticism Osman has been able to go on and publish additional books asserting even more amazing connections between the story of the Hebrew Patriarchs in the Bible and Egyptian History. Now even though 25 years has passed the supporters of Osman and his critics still remain entrenched in their arguments. Perhaps a generation is enough time for a new theory to spring from this ground so fertile with discourse.

A Middle Ground

Ahmed Osman may have been guilty of many scholarly errors which have allowed his critics to find footing for their arguments but his worst mistake was overreach. Simply put Osman chose to explain too many riddles in too few pages. Not to slight Mr. Osman’s proclivity as a writer but what has been needed is not more work by the theories proponent but actual unbiased analysis of the subject material in light of legitimate questions. Someday it may be possible to say with certainty if the historical Yuya was in any way connected to the Biblical Joseph but as of today it is impossible to make absolute claims. Therein lays the problem of both existing schools of thought on this subject. Osman’s supporters argue that, no matter what misgivings, Yuya is Joseph and his critics argue that, no matter what evidence, Yuya is not Joseph.

Both sides in the argument will cede that the Biblical stories cannot be taken as literal accounts due to the fact that they were first transmitted as oral narratives for generations before being written down. However both sides in the argument also use literal interpretation of the Bible to support their side of the story. Since the foundation of Osman’s claim to fame is the real world revelation of a Biblical persona he must be forgiven for comparing the facts of history to the ancient narrative of the Bible. However he could have spared himself much criticism (as well as fame) by simply proposing that instead of an equation there was instead an influence of the real world Yuya on the story of the legendary figure of Joseph. This more reasonable claim is warranted by considerable evidence.

Damiano_Mascagni_Joseph_Sold_Into_Slavery_by_His_Brothers

Joseph being sold into slavery. Damiano Mascagni (1600)

Joseph as a Legend

From a historical perspective the Patriarch Joseph should be seen as a legendary archetype and not an actual persona. Therefore instead of arguing whether or not Yuya was the same exact person as Joseph it could be reasoned that Joseph was a composite character based upon centuries of encounters between the people of Canaan and Egypt. Then we could study Yuya as an influence on this archetype. This approach aligns what we know of the complexities of history to the simplicity of the Biblical Narrative.

One of the main obstacles to such a comparison between Egyptian History and Biblical History is that the necessary cross-disciplinary approach requires a mastery of several ancient as well as modern languages and a knowledge base worthy of multiple PHDs. It is certainly no surprise that the handful of people qualified to opine on this topic are silent or adversarial. Therefore the only way forward is by a reliance on the established facts which allows us to form some basic links between the Biblical Joseph and the Historical Yuya.

As to the aforementioned criticism of Osman’s theories the standard has been the review written by Donald Redford in the “Biblical Archaeology Review”. This harsh appraisal of Osman’s work raises no less than ten errors in the book Stranger in the Valley of the Kings. However even such seemingly damning bits like Redford’s statement that, “needless to say, it is not generally thought, as Osman claims, that monotheism had its origins in Yuya”, do not address the core relationship between Yuya and Joseph. And so it is with an acknowledgment of these criticisms that a clearer case can be created to show not an unequivocal identification of Joseph but rather evidence that Joseph’s story in the Bible had its roots in real historical events.

The first thing that can be clearly said about Yuya was that he was buried in the Valley of the Kings during the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III somewhere around the year 1360 BCE. His wife was Tuya an important lady at the royal court and his daughter was Tiye the Great Wife of Amenhotep III. Beyond these few basic facts the most striking thing about this individual are the various renditions of his name found in his tomb. The many variations suggest that scribes were struggling to render a foreign name for which there was no established spelling. The physical appearance of Yuya’s mummy has been described as possibly Semitic and not typically Egyptian. Given these facts it is generally agreed upon that Yuya was indeed a foreigner who rose to power in Egypt.

Foreigner At The Royal Court

Joseph was of course also a foreigner who rose to power in Egypt. This phenomena was likely not uncommon as we know of several foreign dynasties that came to rule in Egypt, and so it is easy to imagine many foreigners finding employment in the vast imperial administration. What was unique in the case of Joseph was that he was sold into slavery by his brothers and then rose from slave to co-ruler. However slavery in ancient Egypt was based primarily on prisoners of war who were relocated to become vassals and there was not a slave trade as existed later in antiquity. In fact the entire story of Hebrew slavery in Egypt is a distortion of what we know about ancient Egypt and appears to have been largely anachronistic. Since the pharaoh could call upon thousands of laborers to serve as loyal subjects there was simply no need for large scale slavery therefore the bond of slavery can be seen as a symbol of the distasteful memory of vassal servitude. Of course for a laborer being forced to work by a sovereign the difference between his lot and that of a true slave might just be a matter of perspective.

Joseph and His Brothers Welcomed by Pharaoh,  by James Tissot (c. 1900).

Joseph and His Brothers Welcomed by Pharaoh, by James Tissot (c. 1900).

This leaves us looking for a deeper meaning than just the simple idea of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery out of jealousy. The entire narrative of Joseph’s interaction with his brother’s is of course meant as a morality tale with the righteous Joseph surviving in turn to place judgment on his brother’s. Now while it is impossible to know how the historical Yuya entered Egypt there was a program in place during the 18th Dynasty wherein children of the rulers of vassal states were taken into Egypt partially as hostages but also to be educated as Egyptians. These young boys were known as Children of Kap, so named after the military school which they attended in Memphis.

It is worth noting that when Joseph entered servitude it was to a military man, the Captain of the Guard named Potiphar. Although much has been made of the identity of Potiphar the simple translation of his name to He whom Ra gave places it in context with other allusions to the Solar Cult that connects with the record of Yuya. The story of a son being sold to slavery could then be seen as a euphemism for a more complicated tradition of vassalage that was out of date when the Biblical narrative was written but nevertheless had forever left its mark on the region.

The Dreamer

Perhaps the most striking detail of the entire Joseph narrative is the account of dream interpretation. The only other place in the Bible which compares is the Book of Daniel. The Joseph account in Genesis 41:1-32 makes it clear that these abilities are not only rare but are actually just what the current pharaoh is in need of as he has been troubled by mysterious dreams.

In Egypt there is a well known stele near the Sphinx which dates to the reign of Tuthmoses IV (1479-1424 BCE) the predecessor of Amenhotep III. The inscription on this stele recounts how the pharaoh had slept under the Sphinx and had a prophetic dream. The stele tells that the god behind the inspiration was an aspect of the Heliopolitan sun-god, Horemakhet. It is widely accepted that Yuya was of an advanced age when he died so it is  reasonable to assume that he was in his prime around the time when the Dream Stele was erected around the year 1400 BCE.

A replica of the Tuthmoses IV Sphinx Stele.

A replica of the Tuthmoses IV Sphinx Stele.

High Priest of On

Once Joseph had established his worth to the pharaoh he was given an Egyptian name and bride. His wife was the daughter of the High Priest of On. Now know by its Greek name as Heliopolis or the “City of the Sun” this cultic center was called Yunu in Ancient Egypt and it was the long established center of the Solar Cult.

Yuya is believed to have had two sons, the eldest son Annen was also high priest of the sun god and may have even been based in Yunu. Given the possible tradition of the eldest son following in the professional footsteps of his matriarchal grandfather this places Annen in the same job we might expect from Joseph’s oldest son. Additionally Yuya is believed to have had another son named Ay who would rule briefly as pharaoh, this matches with the two sons attributed to Joseph in the Bible. Furthermore there is a recurring theme in the Bible of the younger son inheriting more directly from the father’s estate and it has been established that Ay followed Yuya into service in the chariotry and he also assumed other titles identical to Yuya.

The Titles of Yuya

In Yuya’s tomb the list of his titles are extensive. He is identified as having enjoyed a particularly favored status among the court nobility. He was a lt. general of the chariotry and master of horse. Both of these titles demonstrate the presence of a chariot corps within the Egyptian Army. This development of a separate branch of the army devoted to chariots was a relatively new occurrence in Egypt and is usually believed to have begun during the 18th Dynasty. Emphasizing the importance of these military titles was the discovery a war chariot amongst Yuya’s grave goods.

Yuya's Chariot.

Yuya’s Chariot.

Joseph for his part was said to have ridden in the pharaoh’s second chariot (Genesis 41:43) which places the stories inspiration at no earlier than the 18th Dynasty. However it is another title of Yuya’s that is even more striking, that being “God’s Father”. Although it is impossible to know for certain what this title meant it is generally regarded as denoting a close relationship, possibly father-in-law, to the pharaoh. When Joseph explains to his brothers how he became second only to pharaoh in Egypt he says that “[God] has made me a father to pharaoh.” Yuya’s title appears to have been inherited by his son Ay who would demonstrate the title’s importance by using it as his throne name when he became pharaoh. Interestingly the title was also used by an obscure individual named Yey (Jacob?) who preceded Yuya and was passed on to yet another relative by Ay when he ascended the to the throne.

The Golden Chain

Another detail of the Joseph narrative explains that Joseph was arrayed with the robes and devices of his office. He was given the pharaoh’s ring, presumably bearing a royal seal and he had a golden chain placed around his neck. (Genesis 41:42) Yuya was found with a chain of golden and lapis lazuli beads that had fallen behind his head in his coffin when the thread was broken by tomb robbers. If it was such a golden beaded necklace that inspired Joseph’s legendary chain of office then it is not surprising that the lapis lazuli beads have been forgotten. The Bible only makes a handful of references to the blue stone and that is only if one expands the meaning of the ancient Hebrew word Cappiyr to mean lapis lazuli along with its usual translation as Sapphire.

The Solar Cult

In modern times many historians have associated Yuya with the Aten Religion that rose to prominence under his grandson the pharaoh Akhenaton. The Aten cult’s rise can likely be traced to the reign of Tuthmoses IV, the pharaoh of the Dream Stele. Yuya was himself a priest of the fertility god Min he was also the administrator of the god’s cattle. As bovine cattle was primarily used as a source for leather and leather was one of the key components of chariot manufacture Yuya’s temple duties should be seen as part of his duties as an administrator and not a religious job. In fact the priests in Egypt’s temples carried out a variety of necessary functions for the state and did not serve as ministers of a liturgy as priests do in a modern sense.

The mummy of Yuya

The mummy of Yuya

Nevertheless the fact that Yuya’s mummy appears with its hands together under the chin pointing upwards as if in prayer has sparked speculation that this man may have somehow been behind the rise of the Aten. No other Egyptian mummy has been found in a similar pose. As for the burial of Joseph the biblical account clearly states that he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. Whereas some pains where taken to bury Jacob, Joseph’s father, back in the land of Canaan, Joseph was initially laid to rest in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26)

The momentous event of Joseph’s death brings to a close the Book of Genesis. Joseph enacts a pledge from his family to rebury his bones in Canaan when the family returns there. (Genesis 50:26) In the Exodus 13:19 Moses is said to have taken the bones of Joseph into exile with him and this would seem to contradict any evidence that points to the discovery of Joseph in Egypt. However the accounts involving the retrieval of bones could possibly be a later redaction to the narrative. Nevertheless it is clear that there was a tradition of relocating ancestral bones. In fact the relocation of these relics was a common part of the burial practices of ancient Syria while embalming and coffins with the remains staying in place was part of the Egyptian tradition.

So What is Going On Here?

In addition to the Joseph legend some additional details point to a broad connection between the Old Testament Patriarchs and Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. For example when Amenhotep III published scarabs engraved with political pronouncements not only did he mention Tiye and her parents Yuya and Tuya but the scarabs also define the boundaries of the empire as stretching from central Sudan to northern Mesopotamia. In Genesis 15:18-21 the Promised Land to be given to Abraham’s descendents is said to stretch from the river of Egypt (the Nile) to the Euphrates which describes the same territory as the scarab.

Other Biblical clues may provide an avenue for unraveling the greater mystery of how a tribal people from Canaan became relations of Egypt’s royal house. There are two accounts in Genesis that relate a strange tale of how Abraham had his wife Sarah, whose name means “princess”, pose as his sister in order to protect him from first the pharaoh of Egypt and then from Abimelech the king of Gerar who both desired her. (Genesis 12:13 and 20:2) Yet another account relates similar events with Isaac and Rebekah. (Genesis 26:7) This strongly suggests that the story is symbolic of something else and it should not be taken literally. Both the pharaoh and Abimelech take Sarah from Abraham, and in the case of the pharaoh Abraham is greatly rewarded. In both cases the pharaoh and the king find out that they have cursed themselves by taking the wife of another.

Sarah is then returned to Abraham and immediately following the account with Abimelech Sarah is pronounced to be pregnant with Isaac. (Genesis 21:2) A great deal is made of the fact that Sarah had been unable to previously give her husband a son so the coincidence of her pregnancy following her association with another man must at least cause a second look.

Sarah-taken-to-Pharoh

Sarah is taken into the pharaoh’s harem.

It was based on this suspicion that Osman proposed that Tuthmoses III, Egypt’s great conqueror, came to be the father of a son born into another royal household. This son was then brought into Egypt and married into the established nobility where he eventually provided a daughter who was wed to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was then the joining of these two families that gave rise to the rulers whom legend has handed down to us as the Patriarchs of Genesis. We do know based on such sources as the Amarna Letters that Egypt’s 18th Dynasty did in fact bring princesses of foreign birth into the royal harem as part of diplomatic marriage alliances so such events are entirely possible.

Adventurism in the Levant

The idea that the legend of Abraham may be based on the career of a political adventurer who made an alliance with Egypt’s royal family flies in the face of thousands of years of Judeo-Christian belief but it does ring true historically. In fact the region of the Near East known as the Levant which is the primary stage for the Biblical narrative has a rich tradition of adventurism.

During the 15th century BCE in Aleppo a deposed kings son named Idrimi fled into exile and with little more than his chariot became a leader amongst the Hapiru in Canaan. He then turned north where he established the Kingdom of Mukish on the Syrian Coast. Idrimi then quickly set up an alliance with Parrattarna the Hurrian King of Mittani who was overlord in the region.

In another account from 150 years later Shattiwaza, a Hurrian prince fleeing the collapse of the Mitanni Dynasty made his way to Hittite territory, also with little more than a chariot and swore allegiance to the Hittite king Suppililiuma. The Hittite king then provided troops for Shattiwaza to retake his father’s kingdom.

Indeed the exploits of the Biblical King Saul also have all the aspects of a warlord set upon carving his own kingdom but yet forced to acknowledge the sovereignty of an overlord. In the Bible of course the overlord was Yahweh the God of Israel. There is even an historical figure who mirrors many of the aspects of King Saul. He was known in the Amarna Letters as Labaya which means the “lion of [God].” This Lion King Of Canaan rose to power during Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. He was an avowed vassal of the Egyptian King as well as a kingdom builder in Canaan. It is even possible that he was a relative of Yuya, representing a part of the Patriarchal family that had remained in Canaan.

Rethinking Exodus

A royal bloodline connecting the Hebrews and the Egyptian royal house would also explain the need for the literary device of the Moses being placed in a basket in the Nile as an explanation for a how a prince of Egypt was also of Hebrew descent. There is more to the story than is apparent as In fact the name Moses, the founder of Judaism, is widely recognized to be a Hebrew form of the Egyptian word for ‘son’, mesu. Osman has gone on to expound his theories on these grounds by proposing that Moses and Akhenaten might be the same person. With Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution representing a break in Egyptian tradition that eventually gave rise to Judaism.

While this might seem to be a leap it is worth mentioning a further connection. In Exodus it is clear that a large part of the labor done by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt was brick making. (Exodus 5:18) One of the most well known large scale brick making enterprises in all of Egyptian history was in the building of Akhetaten, Akhenaten’s new capital city that was built from the ground up in only a few years. This effort is known to have involved the forced relocation of thousands of people to accommodate the pharaoh’s designs. Then before two decades had passed the site was abandoned causing another relocation of thousands of people.

These people who left Akhetaten had just been part of a religious experience that stands out amongst all of ancient history. The pharaoh had attempted to turn Egypt from a land of many gods into a land of just one, the Aten, the solar god of the royal cult. The “Great Hymn to the Aten,” found carved on the wall of Ay’s tomb at Akhetaten has been compared by C.S. Lewis and others to the Biblical Book of Psalms. Given the nature of Ay’s connection to Yuya this comparison might now be seen as more than just a modeling of literary style and we can pause to wonder just what it was that happened at Akhetaten over 3330 years ago.

An excerpt from the hymn clearly shows the aspired universalism;

O sole god, like whom there is no other! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts, Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet, And what is on high, flying with its wings.
The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt, Thou settest every man in his place, Thou suppliest their necessities: Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
A drawing of the Great Hymn of the Aten as found in Ay's tomb at Amarna.

A drawing of the Great Hymn of the Aten as found in Ay’s tomb at Amarna.

Unraveling the Mystery

One possible avenue of further study is the enigmatic title of God’s Father used by a sequence of relatives to the royal family. This title was unique to the late 18th Dynasty and it may prove to be an equivalent to the word Patriarch in that it was used to designate the person understood to be the head of the family even though that person may not have been king themselves. If in fact the territory covered by a family was an empire with many kings within its borders than such a title would make a good deal of sense.

And so the debate continues. Has history begun to uncover the secret identity of the Biblical Patriarchs? At this point there are many questions and a seemingly unending thread of coincidence but it can be hoped that the future eyes of scholarship will be bent to these mysteries.

To be clear the Judeo-Christian Bible is one of history’s great treasures and the modern tradition of critical analysis only serves to increase its cultural value. In the case of the origins of the Patriarchs of Genesis there is the added benefit of a narrative rich with romance and intrigue that truly provides a glimpse into the events of antiquity. If at times it seems that those Biblical events are humbled by connecting them to the historical world then that can be discounted against the rich rewards of our modern society being fully versed in its ancient past.

Sources

Davis, Theodore, (The Tomb of Iouiya and Touiyou with the Funerary Papyrus of Iouiya, Duckworth, London, 2000)

Moran, William, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)

Osman, Ahmed, The Hebrew Pharaohs of Egypt. Bear and Company, Rochester, 2003. – originally published as Stranger in the Valley of the Kings.

Redford, Donald, Akhenaten The Heretic King, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984.

Roaf, Michael, Cultural Altas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Andromeda Books, Oxford, 2004.

The Story of Joseph (The Bible, Genesis 37-50)