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Portion of hieroglyphic transcription of D'Orbiney Papyrus

Similarities between the classical Egyptian Tale of the Two Brothers and the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt and Potiphar have long been noted by biblical authors (J.R. Porter, Illustrated Guide to the Bible, Oxford University Press US, 1998, 50). I will here develop that idea further with a comparison of the two so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

The analysis of the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers suffers from several main obstacles:

  • 1. As with any myth or legend, the Tale of Two Brothers exists in various versions with some differences. Perhaps the best known comes from the Papyrus D'Orbiney, as popularized by Charles Moldenke. The hieratic text with hieroglyphic transcription and Moldenke's translation is available here.
  • 2. Some of the texts are incompletely preserved and are missing significant portions which may contain relevant details. The missing portions of the text make translation more difficult because of missing context. To be sure, this does not by any means invalidate the existing translations, although it may make translations less precise than would be desired.
  • 3. The story itself appears to be very ancient, although the accounts we have are later ones. The Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar is estimated to have occurred cerca 1650 BC, at least if Biblical timelines are believed, although revisionist chronologists have posited the Joseph story as late as 1250 BC. The Papyrus D'Orbiney is associated with the end of the 19th Dynasty cerca 1185 BC. However, in either case we see that the Joseph story is attributed to a period pre-dating the Papyrus D'Orbiney, suggesting that Joseph was the origin of the Egyptian Tale and not the reverse.
  • 4. This length of five centuries between the events and the first Egyptian record of them (or less, if one accepts revisionist dating regarding Joseph) raises concern about the likelihood, even inevitability, of various alterations which have occurred over time as history has been transformed into folk tale. In looking at the core essence of the story, we must not be distracted by fabulous elements or later interpolations which we see time and again in Egyptian history, religion, and legend. The fact that flood stories from around the world diverge on some details does not detract from the existence of substantial commonalities, nor does the later deification of early pharaohs detract from their historical personage. Few stories have not undergone significant alteration in their telling over the generations as history becomes legend and legend becomes myth.
  • 5. Authors writing from different perspectives or for different purposes often tell the same story in very different ways. The Genesis account contains sparse detail, but the account which it provides appears to be reliable. The Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers provides considerable detail. Some of these details may fill in true elements which are missing from the Genesis story, whereas others may represent later embellishments. As we sift the fabulous from the accounts, we arrive at a core story which shares compelling commonalities.
Below I have listed Budge's version of the Tale, adjacent to relevant elements from the Genesis account. Several types of marking are used in analyzing the similarities and differences. Blue text marks significant similarities between the passages. Black text marks details present in one version but not another which neither strengthen nor detract from the similiarities. Red text marks mutually incompatible contradictions between the two stories. Green text annotates elements of the Tale which are obviously mythic or fantastic.

It has been pointed out (D. Stewart, Sr.) that the title "elder brother" and "younger brother" in ancient languages were used as honorifics for master and servant respectively; this is preserved to the present day in Chinese. I also note that the use of "elder brother" as an honorific for a master dates from the earliest times; we see in the records of Sumerian, the first written language, that a master or professor was referred to by his pupils as "big brother" (Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, Third Edition, 1981, 7, 15). We read in the Sumerian composition Enmerkar and Ensukushsiranna, a dispute between two rival rulers, that the capitulation of Ensukushsiranna Lord of Aratta to Enmerkar is accompanied with nomenclature referring Enmerkar as the "big brother," that is, master:

"You are the beloved of [the goddess] Inanna, you alone are exalted...From the lower (lands) to the upper (lands) you are their lord, I am second to you, From (the moment of conception), I was not your equal, you are the 'big brother,' I cannot compare with you ever." (Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 230.

Turkish" agabey" (lit. "elder brother") also means "master." Thus what a literal interpretation would render "elder brother" and "younger brother" often means "master" and "servant" in context.

The context of the Tale of Two Brothers supports the belief that the two men were master and servant rather than literal brothers; beyond the first line the passages suggest a close mentorship or adoptive type of relationship rather than direct family relationship. At the very beginning the tale notes that the younger brother was "like a son" to the "older brother," and the "younger brother tells the older brother's wife: "I have looked upon thee in the light of a mother, and thy husband in the light of a father to me." Why would the younger brother have to explain that his older brother was "like a father" to him if he was already a direct family member?

In the passages below of Budge's translation, I have therefore inserted in brackets MASTER for elder [brother] and SERVANT for younger [brother].

Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, Dwellers on the Nile, 115-120

Tale of Two BrotherGenesis 39Comments
There were two brothers, children of one mother and of one father.
Anpu was the name of the elder brother [MASTER], Bata that of the younger brother [SERVANT]. 1. And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.
Anpu had a house and a wife, and his younger brother [SERVANT] was like a son to him. He followed after the cattle, he did the ploughing and all the labours of the fields.
Now while the younger brother [SERVANT] was with the cattle every day in the fields, taking them home each evening, and while he was in the stables, the elder brother sat with his wife and ate and drank.
And when the day dawned, and before his brother rose from his bed, he [SERVANT] took bread to the fields and called the labourers to eat in the field.
Behold his younger brother was so good a labourer that there was not his equal in the whole land.
2 And the Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.
3 And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand.
4 And Joseph found grace in his sight, and he served him: and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he had he put into his hand.
5 And it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.
6 And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. And Joseph was a goodly person, and well favoured.
The cattle told him where the best grasses were, and he understood their language.This has no counterpart in Genesis 39, but the parallel of the "younger brother" being able to understand the language of the cattle has obvious parallels to Balaam's speaking donkey (Numbers 22). The concept of speaking animals does not seem to be an indigenous Egyptian concept, and to my knowledge does not appear to be evidenced in other ostensibly "historical" Egyptian narratives.
And when it was the season for ploughing, the elder brother said, 'Come, let us take our teams for ploughing, for the land has made its appearance; go and fetch seed for us from the village.'
And the younger brother found the elder brother's wife sitting at her toilet. And he said, 'Arise, and give me seed that I may go back to the field, because my elder brother wishes me to return without delay.' Then she, said, 'Go open the bin, and take thyself whatever thou wilt, my hair would fall by the way.' So the youth entered his stable; he took a large vessel, for he wished to take a great deal of seed, and he loaded himself with grain and went out with it.
And she spoke to him saying, 'What strength is there in thee, indeed. I observe thy vigour every day.' She seized upon him and said to him, 'Come let us lie down for an instant' 7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said, Lie with me.
The youth became like a panther with fury on account of the shameful discourse which she had addressed to him.
He spoke to her, saying, 'Verily I have looked upon thee in the light of a mother, and thy husband in the light of a father to me. What a great abomination is this which thou hast mentioned to me. Do not repeat it again to me, and I will not speak of it to any one; verily I 'will not let any thing of it come forth from my mouth to any man.'
8 But he refused, and said unto his master's wife, Behold, my master wotteth not what is with me in the house, and he hath committed all that he hath to my hand;
9 There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
10 And it came to pass, as she spake to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.
11 And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within.
12 And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out.
Although the Tale treats her approach as a one-time event, internal evidence of the Tale supports the validity of the Genesis account that the master's wife tried to seduce Joseph on multiple occasions until the final event. Specifically, the "younger brother" said: "Do not repeat it again to me, and I will not speak of it to any one; verily I 'will not let any thing of it come forth from my mouth to any man.'" The elder brother's wife would have had little reason to attempt to have the younger brother killed after he had already sworn silence; the Genesis account makes more sense that Joseph fled and left his garment when she became aggressive after her previous advances were declined, creating a situation which was not easily diffused or ignored.
Behold, the wife of his elder brother [MASTER] was alarmed at the discourse which she had held.
She made herself like one who had suffered violence, for she wished to say to her husband, 'It is thy younger brother [SERVANT] who has done me violence.' Her husband returned' at evening, and found his wife lying as if murdered by a ruffian. And she said, 'No one has conversed with me except thy younger brother; when he came to fetch seed for thee, he found me sitting alone, and said insulting words to me. But I did not listen to him. Behold am I not thy mother, and thy elder brother is he not like a father to thee? This is what I said to him, and he got alarmed, and did me violence that I might not make a report to thee; but if thou lettest him live I shall kill myself.' And the elder [MASTER] became like a panther;
he made his dagger sharp, and took it in his hand, and placed himself behind the door of the stable to kill his younger brother [SERVANT] on his return at evening to bring his cattle to the stable.
13 And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth,
14 That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice:
15 And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out.
16 And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home.
17 And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me:
18 And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out.
19 And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled.

When the sun was set, the younger brother [SERVANT] loaded himself with the herbs of the field and came home. And when the first cow entered the stable she said to him, 'Verily thy elder brother is standing before thee with his dagger to slay thee. Betake thyself from before him.' The second beast spake "after" the same manner, and when he looked he saw the two feet of his elder brother who was standing behind the door, and placing his burden upon the ground he fled. In his flight the young man prayed to the Sun-god, who straightway caused the two brothers to be divided by a river full of crocodiles, and each brother stood upon an opposite bank. At daybreak the younger brother declared his innocence, and told his brother the true story. 20 And Joseph's master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king's prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison. That Joseph was imprisoned instead of being killed in the Biblical account when accused of attempted adultery contrasts with the death penalty for such accusations in societies of the time. The more lenient punishment of Joseph has suggested to other scholars that Potiphar may have had reason to doubt his wife's story. Rutgers University professort Gary Rendsburg observes: "The fact that [Potiphar] places [Joseph] only in prison suggests that he did not fully believe his wife" (Gary Rendsburg, "The Book of Genesis," The Teaching Company, Lecture 39, 18:35).

In the Egyptian Tale, we have another parallel to the Balaam story of Numbers 22 with livestock not only speaking but warning the principal character to save him from death.

The story of the Tale and of scripture here, although different, are not mutually exclusive. In view of Potiphar's power, the crime of which Joseph was accused, the lack of meaningful rights of slaves and servants, and the jurisprudence of the time which often sentenced men to death for far lesser crimes, the Genesis account fails to explain why Joseph was not killed on the spot. It is likely that both histories are correct: Potiphar may have first tried to kill Joseph, and failing that because of miraculous deliverance, had Joseph arrested and cast into prison.

At this point the narrative takes numerous fabulous turns which break with the generally plausible elements up until this point, suggesting later embellishment of an original true history. Previously there have been no fabulous elements except for the animals warning the "younger brother" just as the donkey warned Balaam. At this point the Tale diverges substantially from the story of Joseph which the narrative to this point has closely matched, further corroborating the belief that this was added later.

he [younger brother] then mutilated himself, and declared his intention of going to the Cedar mountains. But before going the younger tells the elder brother what will happen in the following words: 'I shall take my heart, and place it in the top of the flower of the Cedar, and when the Cedar is cut down it will fall to the ground. Thou shalt come to seek it. If thou art seven years in the search of it, let not thy heart be depressed, and when thou hast found it thou shalt place it in a cup of cold water. Oh! then I shall live (once more), and fling back a reply to an attack. And this thou shalt learn, namely, that the things have happened to me. When thou shalt take a jug of beer into thy hand and it turns to froth, then delay not; for to thee of a certainty is the issue coming to pass.' So the young man went to the Cedar mountain, and the elder brother went home.

Arrived there, he [MASTER] strews dust upon his head, kills his wife and throws her to the dogs, and then mourns for his brother. Meanwhile the younger brother spent his time in hunting, and in building for himself a most beautiful house.

And it fell out one day that the company of the gods met him, and one of them asked him why he stayed there alone. seeing that his brother's wife had been slain. Then they pitied him, and the god Chnum made him a wife, a most beautiful woman, in whom was the whole godhead; but the seven Hathors when they saw her declared with one voice that she would die a violent death.

Then the days multiplied, and they lived very happily together, and the young man said to her before he went out hunting, 'Do not go out, lest the Sea carry thee off, for my heart is on the top of the flower of the Cedar, and if anyone finds it I shall be overcome by him.' So the young man hunted as usual, and one day while he was away the Sea saw her and chased her; but she fled and reached her house. And the Sea said to the Cedar, '0 that 1 could seize upon her I ' And the Cedar carried off one of her fragrant locks and carried it to Egypt, and deposited it where the washers of the king were. Then the odour of this lock diffused itself among the king's clothes, and one day when the chief of the washers was walking by the sea, he saw the lock of hair, picked it up, and finding the odour exceedingly delicious, he took it to the king. When the doctors and magicians saw it they said, 'This lock belongs to a daughter of the Sun-god; the essence of the whole godhead is in her. Send envoys to every place to seek her, but send a number of troops with the envoy who is to go to the Cedar mountain.' This was done, and after a time all the envoys returned; but those who had gone to the Cedar mountain returned not; for the young man Bata had slain them. Then the king sent more troops to the Cedar mountain, who brought back Bata's wife with them, and she advised the king to cut down the Cedar, for then Bata would be destroyed. So the Cedar was cut down, and Bata fell dead.

The following day the elder brother Anpu went into his house, and sat down to drink beer, but the beer in the jug became froth; and when he saw the fulfilment of his younger brother's 'prophecy he set out on a journey to the Cedar mountain. When he came there he found his brother dead upon the floor, and went out forthwith to look for his brother's heart under the Cedar where he used to lie in the evening. For three years he searched for the heart, and, quite disheartened, he determined to go back to Egypt ; but going to take a final look at the place, he found a pod, and under the pod his brother's heart. He took the heart and dropped it into water, and the heart absorbed the water. When all the water had been drunk up, Bata, the younger brother, became alive, and-the two brothers embraced each other. Bata said to his brother, Anpu, 'I am going to become a great bull with all the sacred marks; do thou sit upon my back, and when the Sun rises we shall be in the place where my wife is.' On the following day Bata became a bull, and he and his brother arrived at the place where his wife was. Then the king made a great festival and honoured the elder brother greatly. After a while the bull entered the sanctuary and stood near the princess, and said, 'Look upon me, I am alive indeed.' The Princess asked, 'Who art thou then?' He answered, 'I am Bata, I am a Bull.' Then she was horribly afraid, and one day when the king sat at meat with her she said, 'Come swear to me by God that you will grant whatever I ask.' The king promised, and she asked to eat the liver of the Bull. Then the king was sad, but all the same he gave orders to slay the bull. As they were killing him, two drops of blood fell upon the two door-posts; and they grew up into two mighty Per sea trees, each of which stood alone. After some time the King and the Princess went out to see the Persea trees, and as the latter was sitting under one of them, it said, 'Ho! thou false one, I am Bata, I am living still, I have transformed myself.' At this the Princess asked to have the Persea trees cut down; and the King gave orders to have this done, while she looked on; but a splinter flew into her mouth. And after a time it was told the King, There is born to thee a male child.' When the child grew up he was made Prince of Ethiopia, and afterwards hereditary prince; and when the King died he summoned all the princes and nobles of his majesty and narrated all that had happened to him. His wife also was brought to him, and he had a reckoning with her in presence of them, and they spoke their speech.

Then he appointed his elder brother Anpu to be hereditary prince, and he himself became king. And when he [younger brother] had completed thirty years of life, his elder brother arose in his place, on the day of his death.

It is easy enough in this case to separate the plausible historic portion of the story from the fantastic due to a clear transition and discontinuity in the story. The multiple fabulous elements in this latter portion of the story include: the "younger brother" taking out his heart and the "older brother" subsequently searching for it, the death of the "younger brother" when the forest was cut down, the transfiguration of "younger brother" into a bull, and so forth. In contrast to the speaking animals, these are all common themes in Egyptian magic. The latter portion of the story with its reference to the Cedar mountain is reminiscent of several lines in the Sumerian epic Lugalbanda in the Wilderness (Vanstiphout, Epics of Sumerian Kings: The Matter of Aratta, 115), which declares: "Let my body not perish in the Cypress Mountains!" and contains imagery of "the bull of the land," the star of the "Holy Calf," the rising sun, mentions the "bull of the land," and a mystical storyline with at least some (although distant) commonalities with the Tale which suggest common motifs although they are clearly not the same story.

Yet even this latter, mythified portion of the Tale of Two Brothers contains significant motifs which cannot help but remind us of the Joseph story, even if the surrounding context has become hopelessly garbled by myth:

  • Seven years searching for the younger brother's heart, compared to the seven years of feast and then famine prophesied by Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41).
  • The younger brother married "a most beautiful woman." Although Asenath's beauty is not mentioned in Genesis, Josephus notes that "He [Joseph] also married a wife [Asenath] of very high quality" (Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 6), and Jewish legends speak of Asenath's great beauty, and Genesis attests to the beauty of the wives of the early patriarchs. Sarah was "a woman of beautiful appearance" (Genesis 12:11 YLT). Rebecca was "anexceedingly comely maid, and a most beautiful virgin" (Genesis 24:16 Douay-Rheims); and "Rachel had a beautiful figure and beautiful features." (Genesis 29:17 God's Word Translation).
  • The "younger brother" ascended to the position of King of Egypt with sovereignty over his former master; Joseph became "ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Genesis 41:43).
  • "When he [younger brother] had completed thirty years of life," the elder brother arose in his place as king of Egypt. "Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt" (Genesis 41:46)
  • Some elements are plausible, although not corroborated by scripture, such as the fate of Potiphar's wife when he learned the real story, or the statement that the younger brother elevated the elder when he became king.

Other Parallels

In the Iliad, Homer tells the story of "peerless Bellerophon," to whom "the gods granted beauty and manly appeal. The wife of Proteus, lovely Anteia, longed with mad passion to lie in secret love" with Bellerophon. Yet "wise Bellerophon, who discerned what was proper." Anteia accused Bellerophon of attempting to seduce her, and her husband proteus believed her. Similar themes are found in the tale of Peleus and Cretheis told by Apollodorus, the story of Phrixus and Biadice, and Tenes and Philonome.

We also find elements of the Sumerian Gilgamesh story in the mythical later part of the Two Brothers saga, specificially in the imagery of traversing the mountains to find the 'cedar of his heart.' Kramer summarizes this passage of the Gilgamesh epic as follows:

"In the course of their journey they cross seven mountains, but it is not until they have crossed the seventh that Gilgamesh finds 'the cedar of his heart.' He fells it with his ax, and Enkidu cuts off its branches while his followers heap them up into a mound. But this act has aroused and disturbed Huwawa, the monster who guards the 'Land of the Living,' and he succeeds in having Gilgamesh fall into a heavy sleep or coma from which he is awakened only after considerable time and effort" (Kramer, Sumerians, 191).

Some of the later mythical elements of the Tale appear to be derived from the Egyptian myth regarding the death and resurrection of the god Osiris (Erman, Adolph. Life in Ancient Egypt. Dover Publications, 1971, 379).