Patristic Evidence

'A Tale of Two Brothers' (1225 B.C.)

Review of: A Tale of Two Brothers,
from an ancient Egyptian Papyrus (1225 B.C.)

Page Index

Last Updated: Feb 15, 2009

Prologue: - Introduction to the Story

Review: - A Tale of Two Brothers: translation

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Possibly the Oldest Biblical Story of Adultery

According to the translator, John A. Wilson,

"This folk tale tells how a conscientious young man was falsely accused of a proposal of adultery by the wife of his elder brother, after he had adctually rejected her advances.

This part of the story has a general similarity to the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. The two chief characters are brothers named Anubis and Bata. These were [also] the names of Egyptian gods, and the tale probably does have a mythological setting.

However, it served for entertainment, rather than ecclesiastical or moral purpose. The story is colloquial and is so translated.

The Papyrus D'Orbiney is now in the British Museum as #10183. Facsimiled in Select Papyri in the Hieratic Character from the Collections of the British Museum, II (London, 1860), Pls. IX-XIX, and in G. Moller, Hieratische Lesestucke, II (Leipzig, 1927), 1-20.

The manuscript can be closely dated to about 1225 B.C. in the Nineteenth Dynasty. Transcription into hieroglyphic in A. H. Gardiner, Late Egyptian Stories (Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca, I. Brussels, 1932), 9-29. Translation in Erman, LAE, 150-61."

- The Ancient Near East, Ed. Pritchard (Princeton U. 1958) p. 12

The Two Brothers and the Biblical Story
of Joseph & Potiphar's Wife
(Gen. 39:1-20)

Obviously the two stories are similar, and the popularity of the earlier Egyptian story, as well as the Egyptian setting and plot-lines have caused some to suspect that the Genesis story is a plagarization of the Egyptian one, or at least the borrowing of a common motif. Also, the falsely accused hero later goes on in both stories to new fame and fortune.

Yet there are obvious and striking differences between the two stories as well. In the Egyptian story, the younger brother remains a free man by fleeing, and emasculates himself as a gesture of innocence and sincerity, a drastic remedy that shocks his older brother out of his jealousy and drives him to kill his wife instead. The little brother goes off to live in the forest. The tale continues, but appears to be a collection of originally unrelated folk tales.

The Joseph story is decidedly different, with Potiphar appealing to the rule of Law, and imprisoning Joseph. The woman is not punished, nor is the issue of false accusation really resolved. Instead, it is Joseph's talents at dream interpretation that restores his community status and freedom. The Biblical story describes entirely different cultural and social settings, as well as a different ethical and moral cast.

On the authenticity/historicity of the Joseph story, there has been new archaeological supporting evidence found. Some of this is discussed at the following site:

Biblical Archaeology Page: Egypt/Joseph <-- Click Here.

The Politics of Adultery

In spite of Wilson's insistence that the Egyptian tale is not a 'moral' one, but rather simple entertainment, this is hardly an adequate classification of a story that deals with such a serious moral subject, and one that must have been a common enough problem at least in the mind of a jealous spouse.

One thing the tale does do is give a warning that such adventures lead to misfortune, and it certainly also transmits to us the interests and ethical perceptions of the ancient Egyptians. Both the characters and their readers are all too human in their folly, which is why the story is as interesting today as it was then.

The Tale of Two Brothers then becomes one of the oldest in the series of several important Middle-Eastern/Biblical stories that span several millenia. A tentative list of these stories is as follows:

(1) The Tale of Two Brothers (Egypt, 1225 B.C )
(2) Lot's Daughters (Genesis 19:30-38)
(3) The Story of Dinah (Genesis 34)
(4) Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
(5) Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
(6) Samson and Delilah (Judges 16)
(7) The Levite's Concubine (Judges 19)
(8) David and Bathsheba (2nd Samuel 11-12)
(9) Amnon and Tamar (2nd Samuel 13)
(10) Susanna (Greek Daniel, LXX, c. 200 B.C.)
(11) The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 8:1-11, c. 60-90 A.D.)
(12) The Story of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50 c. 100 A.D.)

In several of these stories there is extreme violence, such as the case of Dinah, and the Levite's concubine.

In other cases, mercy seems to be ruling or message, such as that of Judah and Tamar, and the later case of Amnon and Tamar, although tragic consequences may still follow.

Many cases involve the vindication of the innocent, such as Judah and Tamar, Susanna, and the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Often the tale has a moral or warning, such as Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, or Amnon and Tamar.

One important observation is that sexual taboos are broken in a wide variety of ways, and the Biblical texts seem to treat each case uniquely on its own merits. Often harlots (prostitutes) are shown mercy, as in the case of those who hid the Israeli spies, or in the case of the women who contended over a baby. In other cases, mercy was not the order of the day, such as in the violent prophetic end of Jezebel.

The complexity of the circumstances of sin, and the moral condition of those attempting to impose punishment seems to have a great and profound bearing upon the question of relative guilt and outcome, and we would do well to be cautious in our own judgements.

The famous saying of Jesus, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." is an apt reminder of the weakness and precariousness of our position and the frailty of human nature. The summary advice and warning seem very valid today:

"Do as you would be done by:
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
(Luke 6:31, Matt. 5:7)

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A Tale of Two Brothers

Textual Notes:

Italics have been used to designate a doubtful translation of a known text, or for transliterations. Square brackets [like this] have been employed for restorations in the text. Round brackets (parentheses) have been put around interpolations made for a better understanding of the translation. Obvious scribal omissions have been placed between Scroll brackets {this style}

The text is based on John A. Wilson's translation (Ancient Near East Texts, = ANET 23-25)

The Tale of the Two Brothers

"Once upon a time there were two brothers, so the story goes, having the same mother and the same father. Anubis was the name of the elder, and Bata was the name of the younger. Now as for Anubis, he [possessed] a house and had a wife, [and] his younger brother was (associated) with him after the manner of a son, so that it was he (that is, the elder brother) who made clothes for him while he (that is, the younger brother) followed behind his cattle to the fields, since it was he who had to plow. It was he who reaped for him, and it was [he] who did for him every chore that was in the fields. Indeed, his younger brother [was] a perfect man: there was none like him in {the} entire land, for a god's virility was in him.

After many days following this, his younger brother / [was tending] his cattle according to his daily habit, and he would [leave work] for his house every evening laden [with] every vegetable of the field, [with] milk, with wood, and [with] every [good produce of] the field; he would place them before his [elder brother] while he was sitting with his wife, and he would drink and eat, and [he would leave to spend the night in] his stabel among his cattle [daily].

After dawn and the next day had come about, [he prepared foods] which were cooked, and he would place them before his elder brother, [and he would] give him bread for the fields, and he would drive his cattle to let them graze in the fields while he followed behind his cattle. [And th]ey [would] tell him: The herbage of such and such a place is good. And he would listen to all that they said and take them to the place / with good herbage which they were desiring. The cattle that were in his charge became so exceedingly fine that they multiplied their offspring exceedingly.

At plowing time his [elder] brother told him: have a team [of oxen] made ready for us for plowing, for the soil has emerged so that it is just right for tilling. Also, you are to come to the field with seed because we shall begin to cultivate tomorrow. So he said to him. Then his / younger brother made all preparations that his elder brother had told him to [make]. And after dawn [and the next] day had come about, they went to the field carrying their [seed] and began [to] plow with [their hearts] exceedingly pleased about their project as [they] began to work.

After many [days] following this, while they were in the field, they needed seed. He sent his younger brother, saying: You shall go and fetch us seed from town. His younger brother found the wife of his elder brother seated plaiting her (hair). he told her: Get up and give me seed / so that{I} may hurry off to the field, because it is for me that my elder brother is waiting. don't cause a delay. Then she told him: Go, open the magazine and fetch for yourself what you want. Don't make leave my hairdressing unfinished.

then the youth entered his stable and fetched a large vessel, since it was his desire to take out a lot of seed. he loaded himself with barley and emmer and came out carrying it. Then she said to him: how much is it that is on your shoulder? And he told her: It is / three sacks of emmer and two sacks of barley, totaling five, that are on my shoulder. So he said to her. Then she [spoke with] him, saying: There is [great] virility in you, for I have been observing your exertions daily. For it was her desire to know him through sexual intimacy. she got up, seized hold of him, and told him: Come, let's spend for ourselves an hour sleeping (together). Such will be to your advantage, for I will make you fine clothes.

Then the youth became like an Upper Egyptian panther in harsh rage over the wicked proposition that she had made to him, and she become exceedingly fearful. he argued with her, saying: Now look, you are (associated) with me after the manner of a mother, and your husband is (associated) with me after the manner of a father, for the one who is older than I it is who has brought me up. What means / this great offense which {you} have said to me? Don't say it to me again. but I shall tell it to no one, for I will not let it escape my mouth to anybody. he picked up his load and went off to the field. Then he reached his elder brother, and they began to work {at} their project.

Afterward, at evening time, his elder brother left work for his house, while his younger brother was (still) tending his cattle and [would] load himself with all produce of the field and bring back his cattle / before him to let them spend the night {in} their stable, which was in town. The wife of his elder brother was fearful {on account of} the proposition which she had made. She then fetched grease and fat and feigningly became like one who has been assaulted with the intention of telling her husband: it's your younger brother who has assaulted {me}. Her husband left work in the evening according to his daily habit. He reached his house and found his wife lying (down), feigning (to be) sick, so that she did not pour water upon his hand(s) according to his custom, nor had she prepared lighting for his arrival, so that his house was in darkness as she lay vomiting. her husband said to her: Who has quarreled with you? She said to him: No one has quarreled with me except your / younger brother. When he returned to take out seed for you, he found me sitting alone and said to me, "Come, let's spend an hour sleeping (together). You shall put on your wig." So he said to me, but I refused to obey him. "Isn't it so that I am your mother, and that your brother is (associated) with you after the manner of a father?" So I said to him. And he became afraid and assaulted {me} to prevent me from making a disclosure to you. Now if you let him live, I'll take my life. See, as soon as he returns, don't,,,him, because I denounce this wicked proposition which he would have carried out yesterday.

then his elder brother became / like an Upper Egyptian panther, and he had his spear sharpened and placed in his hand. His elder {brother} stood behind the door {of} his stable in order to kill his younger brother upon his return in the evening to let his cattle enter the stable. Now when the sun set, he loaded himself {with} all (sorts of) vegetables of the fields, according to his daily habit, and returned. the lead cow entered the stable and said to its herdsman: Look, your elder brother is standing in wait for you bearing his spear to kill you. You shall depart from his presence. He understood what his lead cow had said, and / the next one entered and said it also. He looked under the door of his stable and observed his elder brother's feet as he was standing behind the door with his spear in his hand. he set his load onto the ground and hastened to run off {in} flight, and his elder brother went in pursuit of him, carrying his spear.

Then his younger brother prayed to Pre-Harakhti, / saying: My good lord, it is you who distinguishes wrong from right. Thereupon Pre heard all his petitions, and Pre caused a great (gulf of) water to come between him and his elder {brother}, infested with crocodiles, so that one of them came to be on one side and the other on the other (side). His elder brother struck twice upon (the back of) his hand because he had failed to kill him. Then his younger brother called to him on the (other) side, saying: Wait there until dawn. As soon as the sun rises, I shall / be judged with you in his presence, and he shall deliver the culprit to the just, for I will never again be present in your company nor will I be present in a place where you are. I shall go to the Valley of the Pine.

Now after dawn and the next day had come about, Pre-Harakhti arose, and they observed each other. Then the youth argued with his elder brother, saying: What's the meaning of your coming in pursuit of me in order to kill {me} unjustly without having heard what I have to say? for I am still your younger brother, and / you are (associated) with me after the manner of a father, and your wife is (associated0 with me after the manner of a mother, isn't it so? When you sent {me} to fetch us seed, your wife said to me, "Come, let's spend an hour sleeping (together)." But see, it has been distorted for you as something otherwise. Then he informed him about all that had transpired between him and his wife. he swore by Pre-Harakhti saying: As for your {coming} in order to kill me unjustly, carrying your spear, it was on account of a sexually exhausted slut. he fetched a reed knife, cut off his phallus, and threw it into the water. The catfish swallowed {it}, and he / grew weak and became feeble. his elder brother became exceedingly grieved and stood weeping for him aloud. He could not cross over to where his younger brother was because of the crocodiles.

then his younger brother called to him, saying: If you have recalled a grievance, can't you recall a kindness or something that I have done on your behalf? Please depart to your home and take care of your cattle, for I shall not stay in a place where you are. I shall go off to the Valley of the Pine. now what you shall do on my behalf is to come and care for me if {you} find out that something has happened to me {when} I extract my heart and put it on top of the flower of the pine tree. and if the pine tree is cut down and falls to the ground, / you are to come to search for it. If you shall have spent seven years in searching for it, don't let your heart become discouraged, for if you do find it and put it into a bowl of cool water, then I will become alive in order that {I} may avenge the wrong done to me. Now you shall ascertain whether something {has happened} to me if a beaker of beer is delivered to you in your hand and produces froth. Don't delay upon seeing that this comes to pass with you.

then he went off to the Valley of the Pine, and his elder brother went off to his home with his hand(s) placed upon his head and his (body) smeared with dirt. Presently he reached his home, and he killed his wife, cast her {to} the dogs, and sat down in morning over his younger brother.

After many days following this, his younger brother was in the Valley of the Pine with no one with him while he spent all day hunting desert game. He returned in the evening to spend the night under the pine tree on top of whose flower his heart was. And after / many days followed this, he built for himself a country villa with his (own) hands {in} the Valley of the Pine, filled with all (sorts of) good things with the intention of establishing a home for himself.


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