The Bible in the British Museum
This is Senusret III, also known as Sesostris III. This statue is in Room 4 in the British Museum.
All our sculptures of Sesostris III have two distinctive features. The first is the expression on his face, which different people have described as “care-worn,” “somber,” or “grave” — no one knows why.
The second? His statues have massive ears (click through on the picture to see better). Other Twelfth Dynasty Pharaohs have big-eared statues, so he isn’t unique, but Sesostris III seems to set the standard. Again, no one knows why — but there may be a story here, if he is the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time.
Joseph’s Pharaoh? The Dates Seem to Match
This statue of Sesostris / Senusret III (also in Room 4) is more famous than the one above — I thought I’d give both.
Was this the Pharaoh who knew Joseph? No one knows, but there are reasons to believe it might have been “Big Ears.”
Babylonian records date Jerusalem’s fall in 586 B.C. Using the records of Kings and Chronicles, the start of Solomon’s reign was 970-960 B.C. Then, I Kings 6 takes us back 480 years to the Exodus from Egypt, about 1445 B.C.:
I Kings 6:1
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.
Israel was in Egypt 430 years, starting in 1875 B.C.:
40 Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.
41 And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.
Here (1875 B.C.) is where it is a little uncertain. Galatians 3:17 could mean this date is Abraham’s. Or, it may be the date Jacob (rather than Joseph) entered Egypt. So it isn’t ironclad — but 1875 B.C. is probably near the time Joseph entered Egypt.
If Biblical dating has some uncertainty, so also does Egyptian chronology. The most common guess is that our big-eared Pharaoh, Senusret III, reigned from about 1880 to 1840 B.C. (partly co-regent with his son) — about the same time as Joseph.
Senusret’s Egypt and Joseph’s Egypt
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.
Joseph (an Asiatic) was a household slave. A papyrus (Brooklyn Museum) from this period shows that Asiatic slaves in Egypt in the XII-XIIIth Dynasty often had less onerous tasks than native Egyptian slaves, and many had the title “Household Servant” (Associates for Biblical Research).
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.
The same papyrus tells of prisons in Egypt in this time-period. This was very rare in the Ancient Near East — if there was a prison, it was usually a debtor’s prison.
Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.
Senusret III (as with all native Egyptians) is clean-shaven — Egyptian Pharaohs wore false beards. Joseph shaved before appearing before Pharaoh (suggesting a native Egyptian Pharaoh, which fits Senusret’s date for Joseph).
And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s.
Senusret broke the power of the feudal nobility (Encyclopaedia Britannica) — no one knows how. If Senusret III was Joseph’s Pharaoh, perhaps Genesis 47:20 explains it.
So, was Senusret III the Pharaoh who knew Joseph? We can’t know for sure, but many things in the Biblical account fit his time period.
Edwards and Anderson speculate that Senusret’s statues may have had huge ears because he wanted to be known as a ruler who listened to his people. Joseph’s Pharaoh listened to wise counsel, and showed concern for his people by putting aside food for them for the lean years to come. He listened even when a Hebrew slave came out of prison with a message from a foreign God — a God who could send dreams, and give their interpretation.
A wise ruler who listens just might be able to unite his people, quell fractious nobles, become one of the most powerful Pharaohs ever, conquer enemies, and bring in peace and prosperity — and that’s what Sesostris III accomplished. We don’t know for sure who Joseph’s Pharaoh was, but maybe there really is something to those big ears.
Sources for this series:
- T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum: Interpreting the Evidence
- Peter Masters, Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum
- Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson, Through the British Museum with the Bible
Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum