‘Abdiel: Egyptian Vizier and “Servant of the God El”

Parallel for Joseph in the Bible?


The Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel. Made of wood and decorated with gold, glass, and paint, ‘Abdiel’s outer coffin was excavated from the burial chamber of his tomb. Could this vizier from ancient Egypt illuminate the story of Joseph in the Bible? Photo: © Hypogées (P. Chapuis/MAFB).

Who is the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel?

In 1980, Egyptologist Alain Zivie began excavating a rock-cut tomb in Saqqara, Egypt (near Cairo). He and his team quickly discovered that this was no ordinary complex. Replete with hidden chambers, the tomb had four levels. While battling collapsing rocks due to water erosion on the cliff above, they carefully uncovered the various rooms. Finally, in 1987, they discovered the tomb’s burial chamber with the remains of the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, his wife Tauret, and his son Huy. Each had been buried in three coffins.
Extraordinary grave goods filled the room: canopic jars, a diadem, and a wood cubit listing some of ‘Abdiel’s prestigious titles, to name a few. These items, along with the tomb’s inscriptions and illustrations, help paint a picture of ‘Abdiel’s importance in ancient Egypt.

In his article “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” published in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Alain Zivie explores this intriguing figure, the Egyptian vizier ‘Abdiel, who lived in the 14th century B.C.E. and who likely served two pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (better known by his later name Akhenaten).

‘Abdiel’s name is unusual. In Egyptian, it is ‘Aper-El. ‘Aper is the Egyptian way to render the Semitic word ‘abed, which means “servant.” So, Alain Zivie believes that the vizier’s name actually would have been pronounced “‘Abdiel.” The second part of his name consists of the name of the god El, the head of the Syro-Canaanite pantheon. Thus, “‘Abdiel” means “servant of [the god] El.” El is also the generic Semitic term for “god” and one of the names of the Israelites’ deity in the Hebrew Bible.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

‘Abdiel had many titles, including “chief of the town, vizier,” “general of the horses,” “chief in the entire land,” “messenger of the king” (ambassador), and “father of the god” (senior advisor who knew the pharaoh as a child). ‘Abdiel is the only vizier in the history of ancient Egypt to be called “child of the kap” (someone raised or educated in the palace). He also bears the title “first servant of Aten in …” Although this title’s ending is not readable, the surviving part shows that ‘Abdiel was connected to the Egyptian god Aten, whose worship rose to prominence during Akhenaten’s reign.

An official (possibly of foreign origin) with a Semitic name, meaning “servant of [the god] El,” who became a vizier in ancient Egypt, may remind many of the figure of Joseph in the Bible. Alain Zivie is quick to clarify that he is not identifying ‘Abdiel with Joseph, nor is he claiming that Joseph was a historical person.

In the Bible, Joseph, son of Jacob (also called Israel) and Rachel, is born in Haran (northern Levant). His family settles in the land of Canaan (southern Levant), and he grows up there until his brothers sell him into slavery (around age 17). He ends up in the household of an Egyptian officer named Potiphar, who was captain of the guard. Joseph excels in Potiphar’s household until Potiphar’s wife frames Joseph for attempted assault. Joseph then lands in prison, where he stays for several years. During that time, he interprets dreams for two members of Pharaoh’s household. Joseph’s interpretations come true, and two years later, when Pharaoh has disturbing dreams, Joseph’s skill of interpreting dreams is remembered. Joseph is summoned from prison and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams—predicting a severe famine. Pharaoh then makes Joseph (at age 30) second-in-command of Egypt and puts him in charge of storing provisions for the famine. In this role, Joseph is later reconnected with his brothers, who go to Egypt to buy grain, and eventually with his entire family. Joining Joseph, they take refuge from the famine in Egypt (Genesis 30–47).

There are similarities between the Biblical figure of Joseph and the vizier ‘Abdiel. Both have Semitic names (and likely origins) and rise to prominent positions in Egypt. However, although these commonalities are striking, it is not possible to correlate the two—based on the existing archaeological evidence.

Nevertheless, the vizier ‘Abdiel was an important, intriguing figure in 14th-century Egypt. Learn more about his identity and tomb in Alain Zivie’s article “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full article “Pharaoh’s Man, ‘Abdiel: The Vizier with a Semitic Name” by Alain Zivie in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Joseph and Esarhaddon of Assyria

Akhenaten and Moses
Did the monotheism of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten influence Moses?

Jacob in the Bible


15 Responses

  1. raymondg29 says:

    The guy clarified that he is not saying abdiel is Joseph what’s more he isn’t even imputing that Joseph is a historical personage so split hairs over what’s not there

  2. Colin says:

    I stopped reading when it pointed out that his name is actually Aper-El.

  3. Pavel says:

    It should be 18th BC, not 14th BC. Plus, his bones were later moved to Shechem. So it cannot be Joseph. The end.

  4. Cara Haustrem says:

    Joseph’s bones were carried to Egypt. If the sarcophagus is empty that could be conclusive.

    1. DColes says:

      Should read carried FORM Egypt to Canaan

  5. David Crossman says:

    A most intriguing speculation arises from this brief article: Setting aside the likelihood that the following conjecture will put a serious twist in the knickers of many mainline archaeologists and Biblical scholars, let’s just allow, for even the briefest moment, the possibility that Abdiel is, indeed, Joseph – after all, the evidence supports the hypothesis. If so, and he was vizier for Amenhotep IV, mightn’t it be he – Abdiel/Joseph – and his worship of one god, El, who influenced Amenhotep/Akenaten with the concept of monotheism, rather than Moses borrowing the notion from the Egyptian archives centuries later? Certainly a possibility worthy of discussion.

  6. Vok says:

    God forbid having a routine DNA test that could show if there is any truth in this interesting theory. If done it could clearly show if the so called Abdiel had or not semitic origins.

  7. Helen Spalding says:

    If you find one group of people are great at managing things, why would you not go back to that “well” for a new adviser? There were many generations betw Joseph and the pharaoh who did not know Joseph!

    This man could well have been a Hebrew as Joseph was a Hebrew.

  8. Christopher Simpson says:

    “Each had been buried in three coffins.”


    1. Helen Spalding says:

      One coffin stacked inside the next. It was a common practice for those deemed worthy of being embalmed.

    2. Helen Spalding says:

      Canopic jars were used for key internal organs. So, there was a sort of dismemberment…

  9. terrys70 says:

    There are far more correlations between the life of Imhotep and Joseph than suggested in this article. Studying a stela in the museum at Saqqara that explain how the Hyksos were attracted to Egypt during a period of famine and championed by a Semitic non-Egyptian (Imhotep) who had attained a high rank in Pharoah Dzoser’s cabinet. Abdiel seems to fit better the time period of Ankhenaten and Moses (also with many correlations). We’re these one and the same… or was Egyptian and Israelite history so intertwined that similar figures, responding to similar events, during the same time periods are confused with one another.

  10. Veli Voipio says:

    If the patriarchal date was in 14th century, this may fit. Some scholars like Rendsburg support that chronology. The dead sea level was low in the 14th century, thus there were pits mentioned in the Abraham story could have been there, like nowadays around the Dead Sea.

  11. Lindsay says:

    Even though there might be similarities, this couldn’t be Joseph because when the Hebrews left Egypt in exodus they took his body with them. So he would not be buried in Egypt. The egyptians had a thing with adopting foreigners.

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