Joseph in Potiphar’s House (Genesis 39) and its Egyptian Literary Parallels?!

Old Testament specialists have a tendency to love ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature.  This is not always the case, but it does seem to be often the case.  I once heard a very unofficial statistic, that were it not for OT studies, perhaps 95% of the students currently taking Akkadian in American university classrooms would be doing something else with their time!

But there are two main things I’ve noticed about literature from the ANE; 1.) It is really interesting; 2.) Nobody else seems to find it even remotely interesting.

I will occasionally read through a couple of the Amarna letters in translation and try to find an excuse to blog about them, but simply cannot find a way to make them relate to what we do over here at the Reformed Reader.  And so I usually share some tidbits with my wife who finds them as interesting as my theorizing about strategy in professional bike racing and then file them away in my brain, hoping to run into an Assyriologist by chance in line at Costco.

Well, today I finally found an excuse to blog about an ANE text.  In studying for some preaching I hope to do from the Joseph narratives in Genesis, I noticed that several books mention the Egyptian “Story of Two Brothers” when talking about Joseph in Potipher’s house.  In light of this, I pulled down my copy of The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures by James Pritchard and gave the Egyptian text a read.

After finishing the text, frankly I was floored that anyone would mention it in connection with Genesis 39!  My conclusion is that biblical scholars who mention “The Story of Two Brothers” when writing about Joseph in Potiphar’s house are giving into the overwhelming desire to tell someone, ANYONE! about this interesting literature they are reading, even though it doesn’t usually relate well and few (if any) others will find it interesting.

Let me give a summary and some comments about “the Story of the Two Brothers.”

There are two things that I found in “The Story of the Two Brothers” that have commonalities with Genesis 39.  First, just like Potiphar, the older brother entrusted the younger brother with many responsibilities and the younger brother, like Joseph, seemed eager to be a good servant and worker.  Second, just like Potiphar’s wife, the wife of the older brother seeks to seduce the younger brother who, like Joseph, flees the enticement and is subsequently framed by the woman whose adulterous moves were “dissed.”

The rest of the story, however, did not strike me as being related much at all to Joseph in Potiphar’s house.  In “The Story of Two Brothers,” the setting is agricultural.  The younger brother, named Bata, was sent back to the barn by his older brother, named Anubis, to get some more seed for the field.  When he arrived at the farm house, his brother’s wife was busy combing her hair.  Bata asked her to get some seed for him, but she was not really in the mood to stop combing her hair, so Bata did it himself.  The wife, however, thought he was quite the stud lifting five heavy sacks on his shoulder, and decided she would stop combing her hair if Bata would spend an hour (yes, the text says “an hour”) committing adultery with her.

Like Joseph, Bata was an appreciative man and was fiercely loyal to Anubis.  He explained to her that she was like a mother to him and that Anubis, his brother, was like a father.  He exhorted her to never breech the subject with him again, although to spare her some shame, he also promised to not mention it to anyone else either.  The wife apparently felt pretty guilty for the whole suggestion but rather than letting bygones be bygones, or even doing the noble thing of asking Anubis for forgiveness for her infidelity in thought, she decided to eat a bunch of fat and grease to make herself sick, then blame the sickness on Bata whom she claimed beat her up when she refused to sleep with him.

Now of course, Anubis is not pleased with this one bit.  And so one would expect him to go confront his brother and talk things out, right?  Wrong.  He decided to confront him with a spear!  Luckily – and I am not making this up – Bata’s cows decided to start talking that day and warned him about Anubis’ plan to spear him.  Well, Bata made for the hills and Anubis gave chase.  But Bata did what any of us would do if being chased by a man with a spear, he prayed to the Re-Harakhti who suddenly created a giant lake filled with alligators between them.  I’ve always found those alligator lakes to be helpful when I’m in a pinch.

From across the lake, Bata told Anubis that in the morning, the sun disc would judge the case and determine whether he was guilty or not.  (Now here is where the story gets REALLY weird.)  In the morning, Bata hollers at Anubis, calling his wife a name, and accusing him of being ready to spear him simply on the word of his wife.  Then Bata does what apparently Egyptians though was a reasonable sounding thing to do in such a situation; he castrates himself and throws it to the fish who were living in the alligator lake!

Well Anubis, standing across the alligator lake, weeps aloud, recognizing that his wife had lied to him and that Bata had done the unthinkable to prove his innocence.  And so the two brothers part ways.  The younger brother, Bata, hobbles off to some place called the Valley of the Cedar where perhaps he intends to start his own farm, maybe assisted by his herd of talking cows.  The older brother, Anubis, then returns home, kills his wife, and feeds her to the local dog population.

And they all lived happily ever after … again, I just can’t emphasize this enough – I AM NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP!

So in conclusion, I invite the reader to ask the question: of what possible use is it to compare the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39 with the story of Bata and the wife of Anubis in “The Story of the Two Brothers”?  Are we really to think that the motif of a master’s wife, seeking to seduce a household servant is so rare that it must be directly borrowed from an Egyptian source, even one with ridiculous amounts of discontinuity to the target story?  Is this scenario that difficult to imagine?  Perhaps Michael J. Fox’s 1987 movie “The Secret of my Succe$s” utilized “the Story of the Two Brothers” as well?

Look, I love ANE literature and will continue to love it.  But I’m afraid that we in OT studies need to realize when our ANE interests just don’t match quite as nicely with our biblical interests as we’d like.  And while we shouldn’t become overly skeptical about OT and ANE parallels, we also should not naively accept them without question either.

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

7 thoughts on “Joseph in Potiphar’s House (Genesis 39) and its Egyptian Literary Parallels?!”

    1. That is the key thing … I really think that there are no meaningful parallels between the two texts, other than the two items I mentioned. This is why it puzzles me to find some commentators referring to this story in their comments on Genesis 39. Even the Pritchard volume lists Genesis 39 in the margins of “The Story of Two Brothers.”

      But again, for those of us who really enjoy ANE literature, it is tempting to try to talk about it even in places where it is not all that appropriate!



      1. As an ANE guy what would you say about all these propositions that Genesis in particular 1-11 are polemical? What of the large ages of the patriarchs?


        1. Het Trent – great question. My comment is a bit long, but hopefully it will be some grist for the mill!

          First off, I’m not sure what to say about the patriarchal ages. There are different opinions (e.g., different environmental conditions pre-flood, age as symbolic rather than literal, etc.) but all of these depend on a host of other control beliefs. I can’t really weigh in on that right now … I’ll have to do some thinking/study.

          As for Genesis 1-11 being polemical, I would say “yes” and “no” in order to avoid two extremes. One extreme is over assimilation. It says that the ancient writers were just ancient people who swam in this kind of environment. This was the only way they knew how to think and talk about things – using these kinds of primal-historical images and categories. I think that Peter Enns represents this view, especially with his new position on Adam’s historicity. (Although with that, Enns seems to be talking more about Paul than about ANE people.) Some feel that there was no overlap with modern historical and scientific thinking in the ancient world. My sense is that this is a huge overstatement. Sure it can be understated (people claiming that the ancients were actually moderns!), but I’m not sure this is the typical reaction these days.

          The other extreme is extreme discontinuity. The ancient writers knew the worldviews and literary grammar of the ANE to a “t” and explicitly rejected every drop of it, hook line and sinker, and only ever used imagery common to ANE literature because they wanted people to see them thumbing their noses at it.

          I think we’re best sticking somewhere in between. At times, there is definitely polemic. I think the plagues are a great example of polemic against Egyptian religion. Also, the story of the Baal prophets in 1 Kings is a pretty solid polemic against Syrian Baal stories. Even the flood story could be called “polemical” in the sense that it is offering up the *true* account of the flood viz a viz the accounts of the surrounding nations.

          But whether this polemic is specifically aimed at known literary works or writers – I think this is just unknowable. There has to be a mechanism for getting these ancient stories (usually written in cuneiform on tablets) to Israelite writers. Since most of these stories were more like scribal exercises than oral performances, it is hard to suggest that soldiers would have been telling them sitting around the fire at night, or that the servants sent along as part of diplomatic envoys would be sharing these stories with Judean servants who would somehow convey them to the scribes and biblical writers.

          There is often appeal to Moses’ Egyptian education, and this has some merit, although I’m not sure what kind of education this would have been – specifically if it would have been a scribal education devoted to writing and translating cuneiform and/or hieroglyphics. Scribalism was not an aspect of a royal “liberal-arts-type” education in the ANE, it was a trade – like pottery making or textile weaving. If Moses learned writing skills in Egypt, which is possible, I don’t know that he would have been translating Hittite Treaties (as I’ve heard people suggest) or Mesopotamian creation stories. If instead he was receiving a broadly humanistic education in Egypt (something I know very little about). He may have been interacting with some of these concepts then … but again, it is hard to tease out when these kinds of concepts or categories are being used polemically, or when they are just sort of the mode of expression of the ancient world.

          Being here in Southern California, surf and skate culture likes (or at least used to like) the expression “sick.” (I.e., the break was “sick” at the Wedge today … or we had a great session over at the skate park earlier, it was totally “sick.”) But if I see an epic finish to a famous bike race and I refer to it as “sick,” it is more just because the word has become a typical SoCal mode of expression and I’m just part of that SoCal linguistic milieu. I’m not indicating that I’ve been trained in skateboarding or surfing, nor am I trying to reclaim the expression from the surf and skate community. It just sort of “is”!

          Anyway, these are some thoughts about polemics and ANE literature. There is definitely more to say – and a more organized way to say it! – but hopefully there are some ideas for thinking about the discussion.


  1. Reblogged this on ACTIVE/didactic and commented:
    Andrew Compton at Reformed reader shares a stunning corollary between the historical account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and the Ancient Near Eastern text, “The Story of the Two Brothers”:


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