The two brothers (Genesis 39)

An Egyptian text called Papyrus D’Orbiney, dating to approximately 1225 B.C., contains a story tilted The two brothers. Vividly illustrating the fantastic nature of ancient storytelling, this tale is a curious example of a nonbiblical story having striking similarities to a Biblical text.

In this fictional account, Bata lived with and faithfully served his older brother, Anubis. One day Anubis’ wife tried to seduce Bata, who rejected her advances. Furious, she accused him of attempted rape, and the enraged Anubis prepared to kill Bata. But Bata, forewarned by a cow, fled in the nick of time. A lake filled with crocodiles magically appeared between the brothers, cutting off Anubis’ pursuit. Anubis returned home – and proceeded to kill his wife!

Meanwhile, Bata cut out his own heart and placed it high in a pine tree, an act rendering him nearly immortal. The gods fashioned a beautiful wife for Bata. An immoral woman, however, she entered Pharaoh’s harem and divulged to the Egyptians that Bata could be killed by cutting down the pine tree. They followed through, but Anubis, apparently prepared to reconcile with Bata, found his brother’s heart and restored him to life.

Bata in turn transformed himself into a bull and carried Anubis to Pharaoh’s court, where Bata’s alarmed wife persuaded Pharaoh to sacrifice the bull. Its blood caused two trees to sprout. Realizing that Bata still lived, his wife arranged to have the trees cut down, but a splinter flew into her mouth and she became pregnant. She bore a son, whom Pharaoh raised as his crown prince. The boy – Bata himself – in due course became the pharaoh and appointed Anubis to be his viceroy.

Outlandish as his tale may seem to us, many scholars have noted the amazing similarities between it and the Biblical account of Joseph. Obvious parallels include a rivalry between brothers, a fals accusation of rape and an ascent to power in Egypt. There is no reason, however, to surmise that the Biblical story may have been derived from the Egyptian tale. The bizarre quality of the Egyptian story contrasts strongly with the factual tone of the historical, Biblical narrative. At the same time, parallels between the stories may not have been accidental.

If composed after the time of Joseph, the Egyptian tale ma have been influenced by the Biblical reality.

If the Egyptian story existed prior to the time of Joseph (assuming that Papyrus D’Orbiney was not its earliest iteration), the obvious parallels included in the Joseph narrative may have been intended to signal the facts that the God of Israel could elevate a son of Israel to power, even in an Egyptian context. The argument could be made that the Biblical account shows that Joseph fulfilled even the Egyptian ideal of a hero.

It is impossible, in the final analysis, to speak definitively of literary dependence going either direction in this instance; there is simply not enough evidence to make an accurate judgement.

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