Joseph’s Famine – a Catastrophe Forewarned

 

The Joseph Story as found in the Bible and Koran is not the only version of a seven-year famine in antiquity. The others may be less well known but offer additional detail for us to examine. Do all these stories have a common source? Or do they each independently record a real ancient climate phenomenon? Here is a brief review of some of the sources and the related science that may explain how a seven-year climate rhythm could be created.

 

Firstly, to establish that the enquiry herein is historical and scientific in nature and expresses no opinion as to religious beliefs. We find versions of the famine of Joseph in all the main religions of the middle east; Christian, Jewish and Islam. We need not doubt that the faithful of all religions accept the truth of the events described – it is only rational modern science that might seek to question it as a mythological tale. In doing so, they evade responsibility to explain how a seven-year cyclical famine could occur and when it might have happened.

The version that we find in Genesis 39-42 within modern versions of the Bible need only be summarised as everyone surely knows the details from childhood. We hear of how Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and is later imprisoned. He correctly interprets the dreams of his fellow captives, Pharoah’s butler and baker, who had displeased him somehow. When, two years later, the king is troubled by bad dreams that his advisors cannot interpret, the butler remembers Joseph and recommends his skill to the (unnamed) Pharoah.

Pharoah perceives seven fatted cows in a lush meadow, but then seven thin and malnourished cattle appear and eat-up the fattened beasts. Next, he dreams of seven ears of ripe corn; but these are followed by seven more withered stalks blasted by a strong east wind.

Joseph interprets the two dreams by the same prediction. He tells Pharoah that the dream warns of seven years of abundance and excess produce of the Nile that will be followed by seven years of famine, more severe than has ever been known. Again, we are told of the east wind. He advises Pharoah to store the excess grain of the good years to prepare for the famine.

Pharoah appoints Joseph to oversee the storage of the grain harvest; and the seven good years and the seven bad years evolve as predicted. We are told that famine affected the entire world (or at least the region around the eastern Mediterranean) and that people came from every land to buy Egypt’s corn. It also brings Joseph’s family to Egypt and so the story continues.

Variant forms survive in other religions, but we need only focus here on the climate details and the description of the famine.

According to Biblical scholars the era of the Patriarchs was the third millennium BC and that of Joseph in Egypt should be placed around 2000 BC. This date would correspond to the 11th Dynasty of the early Middle Kingdom as the Egyptologists would have it. However, very little about Egyptian chronology can be considered as proven fact. We also find evidence of Asiatic traders known as Aamu visiting Egypt during the reign of Senusret II (c.1897-1878 BC). [1]

The kings of the twelfth dynasty (Middle Kingdom) widened the flow of a natural waterway that runs parallel to the Nile, into a canal known as the Bahr Yussef (Arabic: "the waterway of Joseph"). The canal would channel the excess flood waters from the upper Nile into the Fayum basin thus creating a reservoir that Herodotus called Lake Moeris. According to his description and others, this was much more extensive than the modern Birket Qarun. [Herodotus II,147-50] The creation of a reservoir is the very opposite of a famine and so would not corroborate a belief that the climate crisis associated with Joseph occurred during this dynasty. However, it does tell us that the need to provide for years of scarcity had become an acute problem compared to the wealth of the Old Kingdom. Rulers of the Middle Kingdom may have been fully aware of the warnings embodied in the Joseph story.

The East Wind

The present author’s method is to look for ‘mythological fossils’ in an ancient historical narrative or legend. These would be precise numbers, names, or additional details that are not strictly needed to support the story. When an author devises a fictional plot then every detail serves a purpose to the main story or sub-plot; however, a true history may also contain extra elements and digressions that have no obvious relevance. We find few of these in the story of Joseph; it resembles a structured fictional plot. The only precise numbers offered are the seven years. The king is not named nor any details that would help us establish his dynasty. We know not where his palace lies; is it in the delta or the upper valley? However, we are told about a persistent east wind. Why is this detail present?

In Pharoah’s dream it is the east wind that destroys the crops during the seven bad years. Is this the cause of the famine or is it merely one of the symptoms? We may see that we could remove this reference and the storyline would proceed just as well. Later, within the Exodus story we hear that an east wind brings the plague of locusts [Exodus 10.13] and later it accompanies the parting of the Red Sea. [Exodus 14.21] Perhaps a meteorologist could confirm exactly the conditions needed to produce such abnormal weather in the eastern Mediterranean.

Strong folklore has evolved around winds from the east that bring ill fortune: “when ere the wind be in the east, it brings no good to man nor beast”! For Britain and Ireland, it is the east wind that brings heavy winter snow as occurred in 1987. Between 24 February and 4 March 2018 western Europe experienced the Beast from the East, a week of incessant east wind (not gusts) that blew down fences and any poorly built structures. Dubbed Anticyclone Hartmut by the European meteorologists, it seems to have been triggered by ice melt in the abnormally warm Barents Sea. In the northern hemisphere, the winds circulate in a clockwise direction around an anticyclone and when coupled with a normal cyclone to the south it can channel continental cold air all the way from Siberia.

The prevailing climate of Egypt, for at least the past five-thousand years, is hot and dry, dominated by the influence of the desert. Mild rain falls only on the coast in winter and winds are light, usually from the northwest. An east wind is a rare phenomenon in Egypt and is normally considered mild and refreshing. However, in the Levant and further east, as in Europe, the east wind has accumulated a negative folklore since ancient times. The Biblical famine story should therefore be regarded as an Israelite or Babylonian view of the climate rather than Egyptian. [2]

Intermediate Periods in Egypt

There is every reason to believe that the during the Old Kingdom Pyramid Age the full desert conditions had not yet set-in and the immediate proximity of the Nile remained more like the savannah that had prevailed throughout the Sahara during earlier millennia. In the collapse that followed the long reign of Pepi II we find conditions of severe famine recorded in the Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage as found in the Ipuwer papyrus. This most likely corresponds to events of the 7th to 10th dynasties of Manetho that have long been known as the First Intermediate Period. Other sources would confirm that central authority broke down for nearly two centuries and power lay in the hands of warring regional nomarchs. The composition of the text is thought to date from the early part of the Twelfth Dynasty and so was written after conditions had improved. It is important to note that the source papyri are later copies. [3] We see no evidence within the extant versions of any respite or warning of what was to come. However, this long period of recurrent scarcities would have been comparatively recent history to the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty.

Many commentators would prefer to link the events in the Ipuwer Papyrus to the Biblical Exodus, upon which I shall add no further comment here. We may perhaps see the unusual climate conditions of the Joseph story better recorded in the Prophecies of Neferti  where we hear of foreigners from Asia and Libya raiding the fields and the ploughmen are prevented from doing their work. Neferti complains that no-one can determine the time of day because the sun is veiled by so much cloud. The river  is reduced to a trickle and people can wade across. Curiously, we also hear that the course of the river has changed and ships cannot navigate:

 

…for their course has become the riverbank and…the place of water has become a riverbank…

 

and

 

…the south wind will oppose the north wind, and the sky will not be with one single wind. *

 

These are valuable climate indicators that have long been neglected. [4]

 

Although we need not doubt the deprivations at this period, there is no direct confirmation to equate the First Intermediate Period to the seven good years and seven bad years of Joseph. The Biblical account evokes a unified administration under a strong king, not the chaos that we hear of in the sage’s warnings.

The Famine Stela

There are reasons to suggest that the memory of seven good years and seven bad years is centuries older than the First Intermediate Period. There is another account of a seven-year famine in the Famine Stela on Sehel Island (first cataract) near Aswan. Although believed to be an artefact of Ptolemaic age the inscription records a seven-year famine during the reign of King Djoser, builder of the Step Pyramid, right at the start of the Old Kingdom (c.2750 BC).

The inscription contains elements that are analogous to the Biblical Joseph and when first discovered in the nineteenth century, scholars were quick to view it as confirmation of the Bible. Conservative modern Egyptologists would now be more cautious; however, there is no reason to regard the inscription as a later forgery – any more than a historical papyrus would be so considered. We may consider it as another variant of an ancient warning that, when famines occur, they will usually last for seven years.

To summarise the inscription, the king Neterkhet (Djoser) was troubled that the Nile flood had failed for seven years, and the grain stores were near empty. The people were dying and there were foreigners everywhere. He sends Imhotep south to discover the source of the Nile and assess why the flood does not come. However, Imhotep reaches only as far south as Elephantine Island, just before the cataract, and here it is Imhotep rather than Pharoah himself who receives the revelation from the god Khnum in a dream; he returns to inform the king that it is Khnum who controls the waters. Djoser restores the temple of Khnum at Elephantine and soon the Nile flood returns to normal.

We may perhaps view the Sehel engraving as a replacement for a lost earlier inscription, to remind later generations of the importance of maintaining the temple on Elephantine.

Ishtar and Gilgamesh

We find a parallel reference to a seven-year famine preceded by a period of plenty within the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh as discovered on cuneiform tablets from the ruins of Nineveh (seventh century BC). Anu, the father of the gods, reluctantly grants the request of Ishtar, goddess of fertility, to unleash the Bull of Heaven, saying:

If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle?

Ishtar replies:

I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle, for seven years of seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough. [5]

 

Ishtar unleashes the ‘Bull of Heaven’ which causes great destruction on the Earth, until the hero Gilgamesh slays the Bull. Scholars are unsure what this heavenly bull represents, but one may venture that it recalls an astronomical phenomenon, perhaps in some way associated with the constellation of Taurus.

Although seven good years before the famine are not specifically mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic, the reference is so similar to the Joseph story that we may be sure it comes from the same root Babylonian tradition as would later find its way into the Hebrew Bible. The historical king Gilgamesh was a king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk at the beginning of the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period (c. 2900 – 2350 BC). We would therefore have to regard the famine warning as at least this old. However, the composition of the epic in its extant form is usually placed later, around 2100 BC, contemporary with the First Intermediate Period in Egypt.

A Famine in Ancient Lydia

Herodotus also tell us of an eighteen-year famine in Lydia (Turkish Aegean coast) that took place some unspecified number of centuries before the Trojan War. [Herodotus I, 94-96] The famine was so severe that half the population were forced to emigrate. This could record the same period of scarcity as in the Joseph Story; but other dating indicators would suggest that it better belongs to the later second or third intermediate period, during the second millennium BC. However, even if it is not the same climate episode the underlying cause could be the same. A famine enduring for (at least) 18 years at the Aegean coast would not rule out that the respite of seven years of milder conditions caused quite different problems in Anatolia; or perhaps the bad years came before the good years, leaving no opportunity to prepare. It may be that the famine records the beginning of a permanent climate adjustment. Unlike Joseph’s famine, Herodotus does not mention an east wind.

Irish Legends and Newgrange

We also find a seven-year weather phenomenon recorded within Irish sources, as in the legend called The Wooing of Etain. Scholars have tended to treat Irish legends as less authentic and reliable than stories of eastern Origin as they were preserved orally by bards and only written down in early Christian times. The precise meaning of details within oral history may fade and wander over time or their meaning may be ‘lost in translation’. Long-standing academic prejudices also disparage any attempt to analyse myths and legends as anything other than imaginative fantasy. Many Irish (and Welsh) mythological stories must be regarded as oral fiction designed to preserve the important details of history rather than as precise chronological history. The bards knew that if history were not made interesting to their audience then it would be forgotten.

The story of Etain takes place a generation after the construction of Newgrange and the other passage graves at the Bend in the Boyne. Place name legends record that Newgrange was built by the Dagda, a god-king of ancient Ireland who is associated with some strange astronomical events. However, the Newgrange mound has been archaeologically dated to 3150±100 BC. [6] Recent DNA evidence has confirmed that Ireland was rapidly repopulated by new immigrants around this time. [7] This confers a degree of authenticity to the story of Etain, which may hold a garbled record of events taking place in the years around 3100 BC.

The important elements of the story again concern the details of climate. We hear of the beautiful princess Etain who incurs the enmity of the powerful druidess Fúamnach when she steals the love of her husband Mider. She turns the princess into a scarlet fly (see note 2) and then summons-up seven years of lashing winds to blow away the fly. When the winds cease the fly returns, so she lets loose seven more years of strong winds, and this time the poor princess is forever lost.

We may ponder what the original symbolism of this scarlet fly may have been, but the important details here are the two periods of seven years and the memory of incessant winds occurring shortly after the building of Newgrange. One may wonder why the Irish should consider the wind to be so important to record. Anyone who knows Ireland, or the Atlantic coast of Scotland, will appreciate that wind and rain from the west is the norm and it is the warm sunny days that are remarkable. Although the legend does not specifically describe an east wind, it is clear that the story was structured to preserve the memory of the seven-years of wind; it does not refer to the typical Atlantic storms, rather to an incessant period of abnormal wind. **

The significance of this story is that it again gives us a memory of two consecutive seven-year periods plus high winds, as is found in the Joseph story. The added value comes with its link to an archaeologically dated monument with astronomical alignments; associated with legends of astronomical anomalies that took place around the time of its construction.

Conclusions

The famine story of Joseph was a warning to future generations that if a period of abnormal plenty arises then the people should prepare for it to be followed by the opposite. The Pharaoh and some events in the story may be fictional but they embody the recollection of a real climate event. This need not require that Joseph or the patriarchs should be fictitious characters, merely that the warning was deliberately inserted there by the Biblical chroniclers so that it would be remembered for as long as the history survived. The coincidences are compelling:

  • The story most likely recollects an astronomical event that occurred during the Egyptian predynastic (late fourth millennium BC) or at the very beginning of the dynastic era.

 

  • The synchronism with the Irish legends of Newgrange would set this event around 3100 BC. It would seem to be stretching probability too far if the memory of a seven-year climate rhythm associated with severe winds, coming from two independent and geographically distant sources, were not to recall the same real climate phenomenon.

 

  • The climate fluctuation was a worldwide event rather than a local weather feature. The third indicator: that the memory of a seven-year famine predates both the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian pyramids, would further reinforce the independent Irish dating marker.

 

There are a number of ways to look at these indicators. If Biblical scholars have the correct era for the Patriarchs, then either we must view the Joseph Story as a fictional addition, or as a real event misplaced at this era by later chroniclers. The second alternative is that the true era from Abraham to Joseph should be set earlier, concurrent with the Egyptian predynastic and First Dynasty, when there is some evidence of an earlier period of Egyptian hegemony over the Levant. [8] A hybrid of this scenario would be that the true date of the Patriarchs was earlier, but the famine story built into the Joseph narrative recalls a later event.

The most realistic physical explanation for these events would be a wobble of the Earth’s rotation, an instance of the Chandler wobble as known to geophysicists, but of a greater amplitude to the insignificant polar motion that is observed today. A significant wobble should be accompanied by other unusual phenomena such as pole tides which would manifest as changes to the coastline and the flow of rivers. [9] I leave open here the cause of such an event, which I have discussed many times elsewhere. [10]

The seven good years would accompany a mild period of reduced seasonality (i.e., the obliquity was temporarily reduced by the wobble) whereas the severe famine and east wind was caused by increased seasonality, which triggered arctic melting, thus producing the abnormal conditions needed for a persistent east wind. However, in Egypt and the near-east its effects were relatively mild; people survived the catastrophe and recorded it. Other parts of the world were less fortunate; nobody survived to remember it other than as confused myths. The memory of an east wind preserved within the stories of Joseph’s famine and the Exodus leaves open the possibility that less severe episodes of the Chandler wobble recurred at later periods of prehistory. ***

* Note 1

The Egyptian prophecies of Neferti are reminiscent of those found in the so-called ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ in the British pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth and supposedly drawn from an ancient Celtic source. These similarly warn of climate disasters and that ‘the arena of the winds will be opened once more’.

 

** Note 2

The most likely explanation would be that this scarlet fly recalls the Monarch butterfly, known in Britain and Ireland as the Milkweed, a rare migrant that is sometimes carried across the Atlantic by the prevailing westerly winds. An easterly wind would blow the butterfly back to America. At some point in the retelling of the Irish tale the symbolic link between the red butterfly and the east wind has been lost.

 

*** Note 3

In 2022 researchers announced the discovery of a seven-year rhythm in the magnetic field emanating from the Earth’s core. The researchers remained unable to explain the cause of the waves.

 

Relevant Hyperlinks

https://www.academia.edu/4536995/Chronology_of_Biblical_Patriarchs

https://www.academia.edu/1824221/The_Aamu_of_Shu_in_the_Tomb_of_Khnumhotep_II_at_Beni_Hassan

https://www.academia.edu/9849857/The_Fayum_in_Egypt_and_the_Lake_of_Moeris_in_Herodotus_

https://www.theweatheroutlook.com/twoother/twocontent.aspx?type=libgen&id=1503

https://worddisk.com/wiki/2018_British_Isles_cold_wave/

https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wea.3467

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-interaction-of-Cyclone-Emma-nearing-from-the-SW-and-Anticyclone-Hartmut-covering_fig4_350673667

https://rsc.byu.edu/abinadi/east-wind-old-new-world-perspectives

https://www.worldhistory.org/article/981/the-admonitions-of-ipuwer/

https://www.academia.edu/5301324/Prophecies_of_the_Prophet_Neferti_of_Ancient_Egypt_transcribed_from_a_grave_find_ancient_papyrus

http://www.attalus.org/egypt/famine_stele.html

https://www.gotquestions.org/Joseph-Imhotep.html

https://study.com/academy/lesson/ancient-egyptian-god-khnum-temple-symbol-facts.html

https://wiki.harvard.edu/confluence/display/k104639/The+Epic+of+Gilgamesh+-+Pulkit+Agrawal

https://bardmythologies.com/midir-and-etain/

https://www.third-millennium.co.uk/irishgodkings

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674984716300349

https://trs.jpl.nasa.gov/bitstream/handle/2014/46897/CL%2316-3115.pdf?sequence=1

https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2115258119

 

References

1    Kamrin, Janice (2009) The Aamu of Shu in the Tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, Vol. 1:3, 2009, 22–36 http://jaei.library.arizona.edu

2    Hull, Kerry (2018) “An “East Wind”: Old and New World Perspectives,” in Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise, ed. Shon D. Hopkin (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018), 167–208.

3    Faulkner, R.O. (1972) Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, in William Kelly Simpson (ed) The Literature of Ancient Egypt, Yale Univ. Press. (see pp 210-229)

4    Faulkner, R.O. (1972) Prophecies of Neferti, in William Kelly Simpson (ed) The Literature of Ancient Egypt, Yale Univ. Press. (see pp 234-40)

5    N.K. Sanders (1972) The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin, Harmondsworth (translation on pp 87-88)

6    Ray, T. P. (1989) The winter solstice phenomenon at Newgrange, Ireland, accident or design? Nature, 337, 343-5

7  Cassidy, L.M., Maoldúin, R.Ó., Kador, T. et al. A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society. Nature 582, 384–388 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2378-6

8    Andelkovic, Branislav (2012) Hegemony for Beginners: Egyptian Activity in the Southern Levant during the Second Half of the Fourth Millennium B.C, Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology, n. s. Vol. 7. Is. 3 (2012) https://www.academia.edu/6409058

9    Gross, Richard (2016) The Ocean Pole Tide: A Review, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena; a presentation at the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society, 13th Annual Meeting, July 31 to August 5, 2016, in Beijing, China

10  Dunbavin, Paul (2003) Atlantis of the West, Constable & Robinson, London, ISBN: 1-84119-716-5;
https://www.third-millennium.co.uk/atlantis-of-the-west

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Tags: Joseph famine, first intermediate period, seven-year famine, east wind, Lake Moeris, Birket Qarun, Chandler wobble, nearly diurnal wobble, pole shift, Admonitions, Neferti, Gilgamesh, patriarchs, Egyptian chronology

 

Citation: Publication pending in Prehistory Papers Volume II in 2022, ISBN: 978-0-9525029-5-1

 

Copyright: Paul Dunbavin & Third Millennium Publishing, June 2022, V 1.2