The Famine in Egypt (2296 AM-2303 AM, or 1708 BC-1701 BC) was a seven-year period during which no grain grew in Egypt, or indeed anywhere in the ancient Near East. It is a pivotal event in the history of the Israelites and the subject of continuing controversy in secular archaeology and Egyptology.

Biblical narrative

In 2289 AM (1716-15 BC), the reigning Pharaoh (probably Sesostris I) had two strange dreams every night. In one, seven fat cows were grazing on the banks of the Nile, and then seven starving cows came out of the Nile and ate the fat cows—and still remained famished. In the next, Pharaoh saw seven healthy ears of wheat growing from a single stalk. Then seven blasted ears ate the good ears, but remained as blasted as before.

None of Pharaoh's advisers could interpret this dream for him. Then his cupbearer, whom Pharaoh had released from prison two years before, remembered a fellow prisoner who had demonstrated a remarkable facility for interpreting dreams. Pharaoh sent for this prisoner, Joseph, at once.

Joseph did not suggest that he could interpret dreams by himself, but said that God gave him the interpretations. Pharaoh told him his dreams, and Joseph answered with a dire prediction. For the next seven years, Egypt would produce food in abundance. After that would come seven years of famine so severe that men would forget the years of abundance. In fact, Egypt might not survive.

Pharaoh asked urgently what he should do. Joseph first suggested that Pharaoh name a single adviser to set all policy regarding farming, the storage of grain, and the distribution of grain. Then he made a specific policy recommendation: that Pharaoh have the fifth part of all the grain harvests stored for the next seven years, so that when the famine struck, Egypt would have food sufficient to sustain itself.

Pharaoh's other advisers could suggest no better candidate than Joseph to be that plenipotentiary adviser. So Pharaoh chose Joseph, and in fact made him second-in-command in all the realm—effectively a viceroy. The language used ("only in matters of the throne will I be greater") makes Joseph's position quite clear.

During the next seven years, the farms of Egypt produced large quantities of grain. As he had promised, Joseph reserved twenty percent of all harvests in storehouses throughout Egypt.

Then the famine began, and the people of Egypt cried out to Pharaoh for relief. Pharaoh instructed them to speak to Joseph, and Joseph opened the granaries and began his distribution program. (Genesis 41 )

As the famine continued, eventually the people of Egypt ran out of money, and so Joseph allowed them to pay the government in livestock for grain. Then even the livestock ran out, so that the people then signed over their land. Thus all land other than those of the priests of the Egyptian religion became crown property.

Extrabiblical evidence

Secular archaeologists and Egyptologists have found the dating of the Biblical famine difficult. In 1890, Charles Wilbour discovered a stela on the island of Sahal that described a seven-year drought that occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser, said to have reigned during the classical Third Dynasty. However, this stela does not mention a preceding seven years of abundance, or any adviser who ordered that one-fifth of the produce be held in reserve. In fact, it tells a story of anarchy and mutual robbery, hardly in keeping with the Biblical story of how order prevailed in all stages of the crisis, no matter how dire the need became. The stela does mention an increased tribute to be paid to the Egyptian god Khnemu after the famine had ended; that might be more in keeping with the Biblical narrative.[1][2]

In 1783, Mount Laki, a volcano in Iceland, erupted and caused 9,000 casualties. Scientists at Rutgers University suggested that this eruption caused a drought in northern Africa. This drought diminished the flow of the Nile, so that its annual inundations were insufficient to irrigate the land of Egypt.[3]

This event suggests that famines in the Near East happened more than once. The Bible, of course, records two similar famines that affected Canaan in Abraham's time, and one that affected the land in the time of Isaac. (Genesis 12 ) Thus Pharaoh Djoser could have faced the situation described in the Sahal stela, and this need not have been the only such famine that Egypt suffered. The remarkable feature about the Biblical famine is that Egypt had responsible leadership that kept order during the crisis.

Perhaps the one reason why dating the famine has been so difficult is that Egyptian chronology, once regarded as settled, is now anything but settled. The theory mentioned here, that the Pharaoh of the famine was Sesostris I, has its basis in the new creationist chronology of Tas Walker, who proposed a model more in keeping with the other Biblical narratives, including that of the Great Flood, which sets an upper limit on the length of recorded history.


  1. McDevitt, April. "The Seven Years' Famine." Ancient Egypt: The Mythology, March 25, 2008. Accessed November 10, 2008.
  2. Roeder, Günther. "The Famine Stele on the Island of Sehel." Translated from the German by Dunn J, 1996. Accessed November 10, 2008.
  3. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. "Icelandic Volcano Caused Historic Famine In Egypt, Study Shows." ScienceDaily, November 22, 2006. Accessed November 10, 2008.

See Also

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.