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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Archaeologists Confirm Ancient Famine: Déjà Vu Joseph All Over Again

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Guido Reni (Wikipedia)

On Easter Sunday, April 1, “Faced with Drought, the Pharaohs Tried (and Failed) to Adapt” appeared in the news section of the New York Times (the online version was posted March 30). According to the article, the famine among the Hittites in modern Turkey was so bad, the Queen was forced to reach out to longtime former enemy Egypt for grain.

The article reports that the Egyptians had anticipated the crisis and planned ahead unlike the now-starving Hittites desperate for food. The reporter’s source for this information was a study published in this year’s edition of the journal Egypt and the Levant [note -actually vol. 27, 2017]. The study cited research at Tel Aviv University conducted by Israel Finkelstein and his colleagues. They determined through archaeological evidence that Egypt had foreseen and planned for the drought that lasted from 1250 to 1100 B.C. covering from the middle of the reign of Ramses II until a few decades after the Egyptians had withdrawn from its empire in the land of Canaan.

According to the newspaper article, the Egyptians had:

1. Ordered increased grain production in the greener parts [of its Canaanite empire]
2. Crossbred cattle to produce a heat-resistant plow animal.

In addition tthe archaeologists discovered at Megiddo:

1. Sickle blades used for harvesting grain
2. An unusually high frequency of cattle bones suggesting animals that had been used for plowing and not food.

By putting the pieces together, the archaeological team concluded that Egypt had prepared for the drought while the Hittites had not.

I confess that I was not familiar with this unnamed article. However I was able to locate and download the article in the volume noted above. Its title is “Egyptian Imperial Economy in Canaan: Reaction to the Climate Crisis at the End of the Late Bronze Age” by Israel Finkelstein, Dafna Langgut, Meirav and Lidar Sapir-Hen. I hesitated before printing and reading it because it seemed familiar as if I read it before. So I went to my Late Bronze Age folder and found an article “Climate and the Late Bronze Collapse: New Evidence from the Southern Levant,” by Dafna Langgut, Israel Finkelstein, and Thomas Litt (Tel Aviv 40 2013:149-175). So a related article by some of the same authors had appeared four years earlier (which does not mean I had read it four years ago).

For me, the words Egypt, drought, and food, call to mind the story of Joseph. In that story, Pharaoh has a dream:

Genesis 41:1 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows sleek and fat, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, gaunt and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the gaunt and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

As the story plays out, Joseph ,who is providentially in Egypt at that time, turns out to be the one and only person capable of explaining the meaning of the dreams to Pharaoh. But he doesn’t merely explain the dreams, he provides a solution. He informs Pharaoh what must be done to mitigate the pending disaster:

Genesis 41:33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take the fifth part of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. 35 And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine which are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

So let it be written; so let it be done. Pharaoh wisely selects the dream-interpreter to be the solution-implementer as well and everything come to fruition as predicted and planned for.

As a result, we now have two incidents of people preparing for food shortages – the story of Joseph and archaeology in Canaan – just as we had two 400-year stories – the Hyksos and the brethren of Joseph in Egypt until Pharaoh forgot Joseph for having saved Egypt. Previously I suggested that the two 400-year stories were related and part of the secular reality that the Levites were Hyksos (Were the Levites Hyksos? – No! That Would Mean Having to Take the Exodus Seriously as a Secular Event in History).  Now, what if anything does the Joseph story have to do with the archaeologically-confirmed time of plenty in the land of Canaan? We are all used to the reverse condition of a food shortage in Canaan necessitating sojourning to Egypt for food. In fact, that exact situation occurs later in the Joseph story.

Genesis 41:57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
Genesis 42:1 When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live, and not die.”

Perhaps, the story and the archaeology refer to two different time periods. Perhaps not.

The first consideration is to recognize the cultural memory of the Israelites. That memory included events that were not part of the direct Israelite experience as Israelites but were memories that subsequently became part of the Israelite heritage. I can think of five such examples:

1. Middle Bronze Age destruction of Sodom (Lot cycle)
2. Middle Bronze Age Amorite settlement in Haran (patriarchal stories)
3. Late Bronze Age onset of Egyptian empire in the Land of Canaan by Thutmose III at Megiddo (Song of Deborah and prose story)
4. Late Bronze Age 400-Year Stela by Ramses II of the Hyksos in Egypt (Exodus)
5. Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age famine in the eastern Mediterranean (Joseph)

I suggest that each of these oral memories became part of the written tradition of Israel. It happened not necessarily at the same time or for the same reason. In each instance it is necessary to determine what the trigger was that caused the written narrative to come to be.

In this instance, the New York Times article serves as an excellent case study for what happened in ancient times. The reporter does not appear to have an archaeological background. Nor was the article written as history. Some research into previous articles by the reporter indicates stories about climate change and global warming. Indeed, a close reading of the text, the NYT article, reveals that the article is really about climate change. Consider the following passages by the reporter:

[T]he study shows how recognizing and preparing for climate disaster can make societies more resilient.

The lesson for our own civilization — which is likely to face increasingly severe droughts as humans change the climate far faster than nature has ever done — is to plan ahead, Dr. Finkelstein said. “This collapse of the Late Bronze Age is not just a matter of ancient history that has no relevance to us,” said Eric H. Cline….Just as drought was among the “stressors” leading to famine and war during the Bronze Age, Dr. Cline said, today’s drought could amplify existing problems.

Slightly over three of the six columns of the printed article are devoted to climate change and the leadership failure to address this looming crisis to human civilization. The article ends with Cline warning us that we may be no better the Hittites. How exactly the NYT reporter became aware of this academic journal article and its connection to climate change is not specified although I can make a guess.

By the way with all the focus on Assad, Islamic terrorism, and geo-politics with Russia and Iran, we tend to forget or overlook the drought in Syria that helped generate the Arab Spring revolt there in the first place.

The bottom line is that an article with an archaeological headline and data really is a political polemic against the failure of political leadership to deal with a crisis. The article gives the appearance of one thing at first glance but turns out to be quite another once one examines it. I suggest the exact same thing happened with the original story of Joseph. It was not written as a history of the Israelite people in Egypt or even an explanation for the background to the Exodus. We need to put aside the additions to the original story about the political relationships among the tribes of Israel, within the tribe of Joseph, the Hyksos, and the Exodus. Instead we should focus on the original core story of an individual advising the person in power of the course of action to take in the present.

Seen in this light, the original story is not about what happened in Egypt; it is about what is happening in Israel at the time it was written. So why set the story in Egypt? Why use well-known Egyptian motifs? What adapt an Egyptian story? Who in the Israelite audience would even recognize the Egyptian allusions? Who in the Israelite audience in a position of power would even recognize the Egyptian allusions? To recognize the story as a political polemic necessitates an audience who would understand it. Who was that audience?

Pharaoh’s daughter, queen of Israel, that’s who. The answer to the questions is the woman behind the throne who was the real power after Bathsheba died. Pharaoh’s daughter recognized the Egyptian allusions (and she was not the Potiphar’s wife character). Solomon lacked the wisdom and leadership skills to act in the way envisioned of the king by the Joseph story. But the Egyptian woman could help steer the action just as Rebekah did with the patriarch who could not see.

The suggestion that Pharaoh’s daughter actually was queen of Israel naturally is rejected in biblical scholarship since there is no archaeological evidence for it. Once upon time 400 years earlier, a Pharaoh had said no intermarriage for Egyptian daughters of the king. Presumably the idea of an Egyptian queen reaching out for a Hittite prince to marry or an Egyptian king marrying a Hittite princess once must have seem equally farfetched as well although both then did in fact happen. Pharaoh’s daughter marrying Solomon doesn’t violate the laws of science; it violates the idea that Solomon didn’t exist and didn’t have a wealthy kingdom, the preferred idea in biblical scholarship. That’s a preference not a proof and I prefer a different interpretation.

I am not suggesting that there was famine in the land at the time of the writing of the original Joseph story. I am suggesting that someone had the foresight to know that no matter how good things were today there would come a time when there would be famine in the land:

1 Kings 18:2 So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria.

As prophecies go, the prediction in the mid-10th century BCE that there would be a famine a century later is a bit of a stretch. People tend to want their prophecies to be about something that is going to happen now or in the immediate future and not a century or more away. Be that as it may, the call for preparing for the future instead of simply waiting for it to occur generally is sound advice.

The questions then arise who would author such a political polemic and for what purpose. In my previous blog (Massacre Survivor David Hogg and the Origin of Biblical Prose Narrative Writing)  I suggested that Saul was catalyst for the development of the alphabet prose narrative. I then suggested that Abiathar was the ancient David Hogg, massacre survivor, who became the father of the alphabet prose narrative with his political polemics against Saul. I went on to say that he wrote throughout his life on multiple occasions in the time of Saul, David, and Solomon. I stated there is an opportunity to study and trace the writings of a single individual over time, a rare if not impossible act for the ancient world. Here we have an example of writing towards the end of his life in the time of Solomon.

In the original Joseph story, we can see how Abiathar, a Hyksos Levite in exile sought to return to power. He used the figure of the falsely-accused-and-imprisoned Joseph to represent himself. Joseph could see the truth of what was best for the kingdom. The king’s advisors (Zadokites and Aaronids) who opposed Abiathar could not. Abiathar wrote the original story of Joseph to plea for an end to his exile and to be restored to the good graces of the crown. He claimed he saw something which needed to be done for the long-term best interests of the kingdom. He drew on the memory of events two centuries earlier. He hoped Pharaoh’s daughter would be wise enough to see that truth and welcome him back to the capital. The effort failed just as Adonijah’s had with Bathsheba. Abiathar remained in exile until he died and the glory days of the united monarchy were soon over. Rehoboam wasn’t any good at taking sound advice either.

I will conclude with the same sentiments I expressed at the conclusion of the previous blog. 10th century Israel is the best documented century in the ancient Near East for the quantity of writing, quality of writing, and diversity of views expressed. Just as American historians can analyze the writings of Hamilton and Jefferson to reconstruct American history, so biblical scholars have the opportunity to analyze the writings of Abiathar, his rivals, and his successor to reconstruct the history of 10th century Israel.

5 thoughts on “Archaeologists Confirm Ancient Famine: Déjà Vu Joseph All Over Again

  1. I am always astounded at the parallels you bring to in your blog. Although not a biblical scholar or historian, your writing awakens my curiousity in a way about contemporary subjects that I would not have expected. I wish our current administration was led by someone like Pharoh who was willing to listen

    1. Thank you kind stranger. As you may recall, an earlier blog compared our current President to King Rehoboam who was only willing to listen to Fox and Friends leading to the division of Israel into two countries.

  2. Thanks for your earlier email about Aaron and his family ie Levites and now this. When I read the article in the Times, I actually went back to the original study. Also relevant to the pre“Jews” in Egypt is the plague which entered Avaris around 1715.

    Best,

    Michele

  3. Hi Peter — Just fyi, not sure what your “guess” was going to be, but Ha’aretz had published an article on the same topic and based on the same academic article back on 1 March; that’s how the NY Times reporter found out about it — I know that for a fact, because she told me that when she called to interview me. Here’s the link: https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-how-ancient-egypt-saved-the-rest-of-the-middle-east-3-000-years-ago-1.5866318 … Cheers and all best wishes, Eric

    1. Hi Eric,

      Thanks for the information. It also was a topic at the SBL conference in November but I think I missed it.

      S19-204Archaeology of the Biblical World
      11/19/2017
      1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
      Room: Constitution Ballroom (Second Level) – Sheraton Boston Hotel (SB)

      Theme: The Megiddo Excavations: New Studies Reflecting on the Archaeology and History of Ancient Israel and Beyond

      Lidar Sapir-Hen, Tel Aviv University
      Ancient DNA evidence and other clues for Egyptian-initiated expansion of dry-farming in Canaan as reaction to the dry climate crisis, ca. 1250-1100 BCE (20 min)Ancient DNA evidence and other clues for Egyptian-initiated expansion of dry-farming in Canaan as reaction to the dry climate crisis, ca. 1250-1100 BCE

      We will discuss four datasets that provide evidence for expansion of grain-growing in Canaan in the second half of the 13th century and the 12th century BCE: the faunal and flint records from Megiddo, the pollen diagram for the Sea of Galilee and the ancient DNA study of Bronze and Iron Age cattle in the Levant. Efforts to expand dry farming in Canaan were probably related to the dry climate event in the later phases of the Late Bronze Age, which has recently been detected in several pollen records from the Eastern Mediterranean. We discuss textual evidence related to drought and famine that struck the Near East at that time. We then suggest that the Egyptian administration in Canaan initiated the extension of dry farming in order to stabilize the situation in the southern and eastern fringe areas of the Levant and supply grain to areas in the northern Near East which, according to textual data, were badly afflicted by the climate crisis.

      Peter

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