The “king who knew not Joseph”

Exodus 1:8 says, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Who was that king? The quick answer is that his name was Ahmose. If you’re curious how we know that, keep reading.
The first five books of the Bible refer many times to the kings of Egypt, but never by name. They either refer to him as “king” or as “pharaoh.” In fact, no king of Egypt is named in the Hebrew Bible until Shishak (Shoshenq), who attacked Israel a few years after the death of Solomon (1 Kgs 14:25; cf. Acts 7:18). Incidentally, “pharaoh” just means “Great House” in Egyptian, a polite way of referring to the king without using his other titles or names.
The identification of the “king who knew not Joseph” can be deduced from even a general overview of Egyptian history and a knowledge of when the Israelites were there. Joseph had come to Egypt as a slave in the early part of the 12th Dynasty, during a period of Egyptian strength known as the Middle Kingdom. His family came down to join him in 1875 BC, perhaps during the reign of Amenemhet II. I say “perhaps” because there is still a degree of uncertainty about the dates of the Egyptian kings of this time, with estimates varying by up to 50 years one way or the other. At any rate, the 12th Dynasty slowly weakened, and eventually people filtering in from Canaan in the north, referred to by the Egyptians as “Hyksos,” came to power. Egyptologists refer to this as the Second Intermediate Period, mainly because it was a time of upheaval, weakness, and division. Incidentally, the Hyksos kings were probably favorable toward the growing Israelite clan. They came from the same region. The Second Intermediate Period lasted for about 220 years, from 1760-1540 BC.
The Hyksos were eventually kicked out by native Egyptians. The Egyptians were initially led by a man named Khamose, but he was killed in battle, and his brother Ahmose took over and succeeded defeating and removing the Hyksos. Ahmose became the first king of the newly minted 18th Dynasty, which also ushered in a new period of Egyptian strength known as the New Kingdom (1540-1080; see chart below). This was the king who did not know of Joseph. In fact, he was (justifiably) concerned about having any Asiatics (either Canaanites or Israelites) in his land, which led to his enslavement of them and his attempt to reduce their numbers by killing all the baby boys. Ahmose came to the throne around 1540 BC, and Moses was born a few years later, in 1525 BC, during the middle of the reign of Ahmose (see Ex 2:1-10).

Chronological chart of select Egyptian periods and the Bible.

Some interesting relics from the personal possessions of Ahmose have been found. They can be identified as once having belonged to him because they are marked with his name. One is this gold finger ring.

Gold signet ring of Ahmose; photo by AD Riddle.

Another is a ceremonial dagger, made with a bronze blade, an ivory pommel, an ebony handle, and with decorations of gold. The cover photo for this blog post shows a closer view of the pommel, with it’s cartouche bearing the name of Ahmose.

Dagger bearing the name of the Egyptian king Ahmose.

The mummy of Ahmose is thought to have been discovered as part of the Deir el-Bahri Cache in 1881, although some have questioned this identity. The mummy is on display at the Luxor Museum.

Mummy of Ahmose, at the Luxor Museum.

    Comments

    1. Avatar for Kris Udd John Comstock : February 4, 2022 at 5:16 pm

      Cool stuff, Didn’t the Hyksos from Canaan live in the promised land before Israel was in that region?

      • Yes, that seems to be the case. The name “Hyksos” is Egyptian, and simply means “foreign king.” Material remains from recent excavations, especially those at the Hyksos capital of Tel el-Dhaba in the Delta, indicate pretty strongly that they were what we would call Canaanites. Its not certain how early the term Hyksos was used by the Egyptians, but they interacted with Canaanites from a very early period, even before Abraham. So yes, their ancestors lived in Canaan before Israel was a nation. By the way, the term doesn’t appear in the Bible; but then, the Bible doesn’t describe much of anything during the 400 years from Joseph to Moses, and the foreign kings that we refer to as Hyksos appeared and disappeared from Egypt during that time.

    2. Interesting. I’ve always understood the king to be Salitis, the first Hyksos king….How does this explain the turn on the Israelites – Joseph was powerful and saved Egypt – had favor of Pharaoh – it seems odd that Egypt would turn and begin to annihilate them (but, stranger things have happened).

      • If it had been the Hyksos who enslaved the Israelites (which would be odd, given that they were fellow Semites), one would have expected them to be liberated when the Hyksos were kicked out. Also, it would be odd for the Hyksos to be concerned about the Israelites turning on them in battle, both because they were fellow Semites and because the Israelites would not have been very numerous at the start of the Hyksos period, at least in comparison with the end of it. Also, the new king is concerned that the Israelites might “depart from the land” (Ex 1:10), which does not sound like something a foreign ruler would say. It is probably true that the Hyksos rulers were not familiar with Joseph either (like Ahmose and the subsequent kings of the 18th Dynasty), but they wouldn’t have had the other concerns (Israelites turning on them in war; Israelites leaving the land). I think the explanation for why Ahmose turned on the Israelites is the amount of time that had elapsed. The memory of Joseph’s work to help Egypt had been lost during the Second Intermediate Period; his view (correctly) was that the Israelites were non-Egyptians, akin to the Hyksos, and he feared they were a threat. The Hyksos would have been much more likely to enslave native Egyptians than fellow foreigners. Also, the flavor of the text seems to be that Moses was born not long after the initial edicts regarding slavery and killing the male offspring of the Israelites.

    3. I won’t pretend that I understand all of this, but it’s still fascinating to me. Thank you for posting!

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