Thursday, March 30, 2006

Continuing Education -- A Course on Ancient Egypt

I receive a nice little budget for my continuing education – to pay for books, classes, seminars, etc. I found the Teaching Company’s programs, and thought that this would be a great way to do some continuing ed on my own time. So, I sent in an order for the 48 lecture course on the History of Ancient Egypt, taught by Bob Brier.

I thought it would be fun to go through this with Tammy (shows you what kind of strange idea of fun I have) – so in the evenings, after the kids are down, we watch a session or two. However the lecture that really caught my attention was Prof Brier's excursis on Joseph in Egypt.

Realize, I expected skepticism toward the story – I expected a debunking of the story as a myth. After all, this is a famous Egyptologist (and expert on mummification) – and there’s very little hard archaeological data for the Joseph story – no steles with Josephs name for instance.

Baird surprised me when he said that since we had no hard external evidence, we had to look at the internal evidence of the story (Genesis 37-50) – does it hang together from an Egyptologist’s point of view? And then he went through 9 items that indicate that the story “rings true” for him:

1) The name Potiphar is a true Egyptian name. Likely a variant on Pa-di-Ra (meaning “given by the Sun god”).

2) The presence of Pharoah’s magicians – the Coptic word used for magician in this passage is “Sesperonch” (the Coptic language is basically ancient Egyptian written phonetically using greek characters) – This word is ancient Egyptian: ses per ankh “scribes of the house of life” – the House of Life, according to Dr. Baird was a theological college where temple priests were trained. Thus lending credence to the magicians in Pharoah’s court.

3) Priests interpreting dreams – Egyptians believed every dream was prophetic – the real skill was interpreting them. In ancient Egypt, the priests were interpreters of dreams. You went to the temple and asked the priests to interpret. However, the priests didn’t come up with an interpretation off the top of their heads, they consulted the books of dreams. The priests cannot answer not because they were stupid or thick in the head, but they didn’t have pharoah’s dreams in the book of the dreams. Joseph’s real gift is that he can interpret dreams without consulting a book.

4) The 7 years of famine. There is evidence that such a famine happened on a stele in Sehel Island in the middle of Nile. Such a thing could happen

5) When Joseph is made vizier, he is given a signet ring, which was indeed a custom of imparting authority to ambassadors and viziers in ancient Egypt.

6) The phrase “Abrek” that was shouted to Joseph as he went past. The best bet of Egyptologists is that this is three words; ib/ab – heart, re – to. K—suffix to you. It seems to be an egyptian pharase saying “Our heart goes out to you” -- a phrase that could easily be a greeting of affection.

7) The pharaoh collects all the land – except that of the priests. This holds true as Egypt goes forward. Pharoah didn’t take priestly land, and this priestly caste ultimately came to wield more power than Pharoah.

8) Mummies of Jacob – The Biblical text says they were embalmed 40 days but the mourning lasts a total of 70 days. Brier here rests on his expertise – a major part of the embalming process did take 40 days, but the whole process took 70.

Now Brier doesn’t say that this proves the story is true – just that it has the ring of truth from an Egyptologist’s ears. Whoever told the story really knew Egypt, he says. Even so, that’s a really great statement when we consider the naysayers who want to dismiss the Biblical stories as myth!

Soli Deo Gloria