The Middle East 4,000 years ago

I’ll probably do a #supernerd post at some point about why I chose to date my Joseph retelling during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty), but for now I don’t think anyone actually interested in dating the Bible would have any argument over the story taking place during the Bronze Age.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like setting a story during this time period would be much of an issue. After all, we’ve all seen Gladiator, or Ben Hur, or Cleopatra, or 300, or The Ten Commandments, etc. Just put a bunch of dudes wearing sandals and dresses walking around and no modern houses or weapons and you’re good. Right?


If you want to actually write a story set in the Bronze Age (and, for reference, the majority of those movies are actually set thousands of years after that, during the Iron Age) you run up against some very unusual problems.

The first issue I came across was actually a matter of vocabulary. One of my favorite expressions (picked up from my boy JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings) to use when writing in a more old-fashioned style is: “he steeled himself”. Translation: “he put his game face on”.

Only one problem, folks.

There’s no steel in this story because it’s The Bronze Age.

It took me a bit to realize that this expression originated from the very concept of steel and would not be available for me to use while writing this book. Honestly, it’s actually pretty easy to let this sort of mistake slip by – I once saw the term “emotional rollercoaster” used in a historical fiction story. Heh.

So, on to other weird problems.

Like writing. Yes, writing.

During the Bronze Age in the Middle East and surrounding environs, we had two main power centers – Egypt and whatever the heck civilization was in vogue at the moment in Mesopotamia (as in, we had a smorgasbord of multiple Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian Empires, etc.). Egypt wrote with hieroglyphs (and more, but we can talk about that later), and Mesopotamia thankfully stuck to using cuneiform despite playing constant Russian Roulette with the power structure.

But Canaan? The place where Joseph spent a lot of time growing up?

We have no recorded writing systems, period, for almost the entirety of the Bronze Age (be happy they finally figured it out though; the one they finally got around to making is the ancestor of the alphabet I’m using right now).

This left me up a narrative creek as there was no way I was going to have Joseph be a foreign, non-Egyptian speaking, illiterate slave and somehow end up in charge of his master’s house. That’s too many strikes against the guy and would just be goofy storytelling.

My way out was found by looking further back in the Genesis account. See, Joseph’s great-grandfather was a guy named Abraham. You may have heard of him. Guess where he was from?


Bingo! There aren’t many narrative gymnastics involved in assuming the family would teach each new generation the writing skills brought from their homeland.

The last thing I’ll be talking about today is money.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, in the Bronze Age there was no money.

You can probably imagine my groaning when I found that out.

Especially given the narrative in Genesis, where Joseph is specifically sold by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. At this point my head was spinning, trying to figure out how to reconcile all of this. What are silver coins doing at a time when there’s no coins?

You might have heard of the shekel. It’s the currency of the modern state of Israel, and the name of an ancient “monetary” unit seen over and over in the Bible and mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. Guess what the root of the word means? To weigh.

So get this. Any time “coinage” is mentioned in Genesis, it’s not coinage as we think of it. It’s a value based on the weight of the metal exchanged.

A similar system was present in ancient Egypt, called the deben. There could be copper deben, silver deben, etc. But the copper deben was way bigger than the silver deben, which would be bigger than the gold deben. There could even be lead deben (eek).

I hope this gives you a hint at just how very differently some aspects of society we take for granted were dealt with during the Bronze Age. Though I haven’t talked about the horses yet, have I?  

I’ll leave off here for now, and I think next time I’ll be talking about the horses (i.e. That Time I Stretched the Research).

Do you have any specific questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below and I’ll answer, or even make a post on it! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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