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Joseph (Hebrew Bible)

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Joseph (Hebrew Bible)

For the New Testament Joseph, see Saint Joseph.

Joseph (Hebrew: יוֹסֵף ‎, Standard Yosef Tiberian Yôsēp̄; "May Yahweh add";[1] Arabic: يوسف‎, Yūsuf ) is an important person in the Hebrew Bible and in the Quran, where he connects the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to the subsequent story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The Book of Genesis tells that Joseph was the 11th of Jacob's 12 sons and Rachel's firstborn,[2] and tells how Joseph came to be sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and rose to become the second most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. When famine struck Egypt, Jacob (Joseph's father) and Joseph's brothers came to the Land of Goshen in Egypt.



The Bible offers two explanations of name Yosef: first it is compared to the word asaf from the root /'sp/, "taken away": "And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach"; Yosef is then identified with the similar root /ysp/, meaning "add": "And she called his name Joseph; and said, The LORD shall add to me another son."[3]

Text analysis

19th century source criticism divided the Joseph story between the Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly sources of the documentary hypothesis.[4] In the early 20th century Hermann Gunkel demonstrated that, unlike the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob stories, the Joseph story formed a single unitary story with literary rather than oral origins.[4] In 1953 Gerhard von Rad made a detailed assessment of its literary artistry and drew attention to its identity as a Wisdom novella,[5] and in 1968 R.N. Whybray argued that unity and artistry implied a single author.[6] All three insights are now widely accepted,[7] and the majority of modern biblical scholars date the Joseph story in its current form to the 5th century BCE Persian era at the earliest.[8] There have been many attempts to trace the story's redaction history including work by Donald Redford. His theory states that a first "Reuben version" of the story originated in the northern kingdom of Israel and was intended to justify the domination of the “house of Joseph” over the other tribes; this was followed by a later “Judah-expansion” (chapters 38 and 49) elevating Judah as the rightful successor to Jacob; and finally various embellishments were added so that the novella would function as the bridge between the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob material in Genesis and the following story of Moses and the Exodus.[9]


Modern day scholars believe the historicity of the events in the Joseph narrative cannot be demonstrated.[10][11] Hermann Gunkel, Hugo Gressmann and Gerhard von Rad identified the story of Joseph as a literary composition,[12] in the genre of romance,[13][14] or the novella.[15][16][17] As a novella, it is read as reworking legends and myths, in particular the motifs of his reburial in Canaan, associated with the Egyptian god Osiris.[18] Others compare the burial of his bones at Shechem, with the disposal of Dionysus’s bones at Delphi.[19][20][21] For Schenke, the tradition of Joseph's burial at Shechem is understood as a secondary, Israelitic historical interpretation woven around a more ancient Canaanite shrine in that area.[22] The reworked legends and folklore were probably inserted into the developing textual tradition of the Bible between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. Most scholars[23] place its composition in a genre that flourished in the Persian period of the Exile.[24][25][26][27][28]

Some scholars, such as: Israel Finkelstein and Israel Knohl, claim Joseph to be a summarizing character of the Hyksos period, created as a referent of the glorious past of Hyksos which was still preserved by their descendents by the time of the Israelites' emergence during the Iron Age in Canaan. From these scholars' point of view the Hyksos' descendents were part of the Proto-Israelite groups which join to form the Biblical Israelite nation.



Joseph, son of Israel (Genesis 37:1-11)

Plot against Joseph

Joseph's half-brothers were jealous of him. They called him this dreamer.(Genesis 37:12-35)

Potiphar's house

The text of the biblical story is muddled over who sold Joseph into slavery - which of the brothers, Reuben or Judah, and whether he was sold to Genesis 39:1-20)

Joseph in prison

The warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners,[37] and soon afterward Pharaoh's chief cup-bearer and chief baker, who had offended the Pharaoh, were thrown into the prison.[38] They both had dreams, and Joseph offered to interpret them. The chief cup-bearer had held a vine in his hand, with three branches that brought forth grapes; he took them to Pharaoh and put them in his cup. The chief baker had three baskets of bread on his head, intended for Pharaoh, but some birds came along and ate the bread. Joseph told them that within three days the chief cup-bearer would be reinstated but the chief baker would be hanged.[39] Joseph requested the cup-bearer to mention him to Pharaoh and secure his release from prison,[40] but the cup-bearer, reinstalled in office, forgot Joseph.[41] After Joseph was in prison for two more years, Pharaoh had two dreams which disturbed him. He dreamt of seven lean cows which rose out of the river and devoured seven fat cows; and, of seven withered ears of grain which devoured seven fat ears. Pharaoh's wise men were unable to interpret these dreams, but the chief cup-bearer remembered Joseph and spoke of his skill to Pharaoh. Joseph was called for, and interpreted the dreams as foretelling that seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of famine, and advised Pharaoh to store surplus grain during the years of abundance

Vizier of Egypt

Pharaoh acknowledged that Joseph's proposal to store grain during the abundant period was very wise. Pharaoh then released him from prison and put him in charge over "all the land of Egypt" as Genesis 41:37-57)

The seven-year famine became so severe that toward the later period, even Egypt was feeling the effects. Because the Egyptians had used up all of their money to buy grain in the previous years, they began to pay with their livestock. As a last resort, all of the inhabitants of Egypt, less the Egyptian priestly class, sold their properties to Joseph for seed. As this land now belonged to Pharaoh, Joseph set a mandate that because the people would be sowing and harvesting seed on government property, a fifth of the produce should go to the Pharaoh. This mandate continued down to the days of Genesis 47:20-31)

Brothers sent to Egypt

In the second year of famine,Genesis 42:1-28)

The silver cup

The remaining brothers returned to their father in Canaan, and told him all that had transpired in Egypt. They also discovered that all of their money sacks still had money in them, and they were dismayed. Then they informed their father that the Vizier demanded that Benjamin be brought before him to demonstrate that they were honest men. Jacob became greatly distressed feeling that they treated him badly. After they had consumed all of the grain that they brought back from Egypt, Israel told his sons to go back to Egypt for more grain. With Reuben and Judah's persistence, they persuaded their father to let Benjamin join them for fear of Egyptian retribution. (Genesis 42:29-43:15)

Upon their return to Egypt, the brothers were received by the steward of the house of Joseph. When they were brought to Joseph's house, they became afraid because of the returned money in their money sacks. They thought that the missed transaction would somehow be used against them as way to induct them as slaves and confiscate their possessions. So they immediately informed the steward of what had transpired to get a feel of the situation. On the contrary, the Steward put them at ease telling them not to worry of the money, and then he brought out their brother Simeon. They all went into the house of Joseph and were received with hospitality. When the Vizier (Joseph) appeared, they gave him gifts from their father. Joseph saw and inquired of Benjamin and was overcome by emotion but did not show it. He retreated to his chambers and wept. When he gained control of himself, he returned and brought out the feast. Now as it was at that time, Egyptians did not allow Hebrews to eat with them at the same table, as that was considered loathsome. So when the Vizier (Joseph) brought food over to the table of the sons of Israel, they were astonished. (Genesis 43:16-44:34)

That night, Joseph ordered his steward to load the brother's donkeys with food and all their money. The money they brought was double what they had from the first trip. Deceptively, Joseph also ordered that his silver cup be put in Benjamin's sack. The following morning the brothers began their journey back to Canaan. At Joseph's command, the steward was to apprehend them and question them about the silver cup. When the steward caught up with the brothers, he seized them and searched their sacks. The steward found the cup in Benjamin's sack just as he had planted it the night before. This caused a stir amongst the brothers. However, they agreed to be escorted back to Egypt. When the Vizier (Joseph) confronted them about the silver cup, he demanded that the one who possessed the cup in his bag become his slave. In response, Judah pleaded with the Vizier that Benjamin be allowed to return to his father, and he himself be kept in Benjamin's place as a slave. (Genesis 44)

Family reunited

Judah appealed to the Vizier begging that Benjamin be released and that he be enslaved in his stead, because of the silver cup found in Benjamin’s sack. The Vizier broke down into tears. He could not control himself any longer and so he sent the Egyptian men out of the house. Then he revealed to them that he was in fact their brother, Joseph. He wept so loudly that even the Egyptian household heard it outside. The brothers were frozen and could not utter a word. He brought them closer and relayed to them the events that had happened and told them not to fear, that what they had meant for evil God had meant for good. Then he commanded them to go and bring their father and his entire household into Egypt to live in the province of Genesis 45:1-28)

Thus, Israel and his entire house of seventy,Genesis 46:1-34)

Afterward, Joseph’s family personally met the Genesis 47:1-47:12) The family was then settled in Goshen.

Father’s blessing and passing

Main article: Blessing of Jacob

The house of Israel acquired many possessions and multiplied exceedingly during the course of seventeen years, even through the worst of the seven-year famine. At this time, Joseph’s father was 147 years old and bedridden. He had fallen ill and lost most of his vision. Joseph was called into his father’s house and Israel pleaded with his son that he not be buried in Egypt. Rather, he requested to be carried to the land of Canaan to be buried with his forefathers. Joseph was sworn to do as his father asked of him. (Genesis 47:27-31)

Later, Joseph came to visit his father having with him his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Israel declared that they would be heirs to the inheritance of the house of Israel, as if they were his own children, just as Reuben and Simeon were. Then Israel laid his left hand on the eldest Mannasseh’s head and his right hand on the youngest Ephraim’s head and blessed Joseph. However, Joseph was displeased that his father’s right hand was not on the head of his firstborn, so he switched his father’s hands. But Israel refused saying, “but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he.” A declaration he made just as Israel himself was to his firstborn brother Esau. To Joseph, he gave a portion more of Canaanite property than he had to his other sons; land that he fought for against the Genesis 48:1-22)

Then Israel called all of his sons in and prophesied their blessings or curses to all twelve of them in order of their ages. To Joseph he declared:

"Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; His branches run over the wall. The archers have bitterly grieved him, Shot at him and hated him. But his bow remained in strength, And the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob (From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), By the God of your father who will help you, And by the Almighty who will bless you With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that lies beneath, Blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father have excelled the blessings of my ancestors, Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. They shall be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of him who was separate from his brothers.” - Genesis 49:22-26 NKJV

After relaying his prophecies, Israel died. The family, including the Egyptians, mourned him seventy days. Joseph had his father Genesis 49:33-50:14)

After their father died, the brothers of Joseph feared retribution for being responsible for Joseph’s deliverance into Egypt as a slave. Joseph wept as they spoke and told them that what had happened was God’s purpose to save lives and the lives of his family. He comforted them and their ties were reconciled. (Genesis 50:15-21)

Joseph's burial

Joseph lived to the age of 110, living to see his great-grandchildren. Before he died, he made the Genesis 50:22-26)

The children of Israel remembered their oath, and when they left Egypt during conquest of Canaan.

Dreams as motif and contribution to narrative

The motif of dreams/dream interpretation contributes to a strong story-like narrative.[50][51] One can see the structure of a story develop with the distinct episodes containing the dream motif. The exposition contains Joseph’s beginnings as a dreamer; this leads him into trouble as, out of jealousy, his brothers sell him to into slavery. The next two instances of dream interpretation establish his reputation as a great interpreter of dreams; first, he begins in a low place, interpreting the dreams of prisoners. Then Joseph is summoned to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh himself.[52] Impressed with Joseph’s interpretations, Pharaoh appoints him as second-in-command (Gen 41:41). This sets up the climax of the story, which many regard to be the moment Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers (Gen 45:3).

Jewish tradition

See also: Torah portions on Joseph: Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash, and Vayechi

Selling Joseph

In the midrash, the selling of Joseph was part of God's divine plan for him to save his tribes. The favoritism Israel showed Joseph and the plot against him by his brothers were divine means of getting him into Egypt.[53] Maimonides comments that even the villager in Shechem, whom Joseph inquired about his brother's whereabouts, was a "divine messenger" working behind the scene.[54]

A Medanites. The final group where a transaction is made, is amongst the Egyptians in the same verse.

After identifying these Hebrew names, Rabbi Judah claims that Joseph was sold four times: First his brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Yishma'elîm), then the Ishmaelites sold him to the Midianite traders (ʼnāshîm midyanîm sōĥrîm), the Midianite traders to the Medanites (m‘danîm), and the Medanites into Egypt. Rav Huna adds one more sale by concluding that after the Medanites sold him to the Egyptians, a fifth sale occurred when the Egyptians sold him to Potiphar. (Genesis Rabbah 84:22)

Potiphar’s wife

The reasons why Joseph did not have an affair with Potiphar’s wife was because he did not want to abuse his Master’s trust, he believed in the sanctity of marriage, and it went against his ethical, moral and religious principles taught by his father Jacob. According to the midrash, Joseph would have been immediately executed by the sexual assault charge against him by Potiphar’s wife. Arbarbanel explains that she had accused other servants of the same crime in the past. Potiphar believed that Joseph was incapable of such an act and petitioned Pharaoh to spare his life.[55] However, punishment could not have been avoided because of her class status and limited public knowledge when she screamed.

Silver cup for divination

Jewish tradition holds that Joseph had his steward plant his personal silver cup in Benjamin’s sack to test his brothers. He wanted to know if they would be willing to risk danger in order to save their half brother Benjamin. Since Joseph and Benjamin were born from Rachel, this test was necessary to reveal if they would betray Benjamin as they did with Joseph when he was seventeen. Because Joseph the Dreamer predicts the future by analyzing dreams, Jewish tradition attest that he practiced divination using this silver cup as the steward charged

Raising Joseph

In one Talmudic story, Joseph was buried in the Nile river, as there was some dispute as to which province should be honored by having his tomb within its boundaries. Moses, led there by an ancient holy woman named Serach, was able by a miracle to raise the sarcophagus and to take it with him at the time of the Exodus.

Christian tradition

Joseph is mentioned in the New Testament as an example of faith (Hebrews 11:22).

Joseph is commemorated as one of the Holy Forefathers in the Calendar of Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 26. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, he is known as "Joseph the all-comely", a reference not only to his physical appearance, but more importantly to the beauty of his spiritual life. They commemorate him on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (two Sundays before Christmas) and on Holy and Great Monday (Monday of Holy Week). In icons, he is sometimes depicted wearing the nemes headdress of an Egyptian vizier. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod commemorates him as a patriarch on March 31.

Typological interpretation

In addition to honoring him, there was a strong tendency in the patristic period to view his life as a typological precursor to Christ.[58] This tendency is represented in John Chrysostom who said that Joseph's suffering was "a type of things to come,"[59] Caesarius of Arles who interpreted Joseph's famous coat as representative of the diverse nations who would follow Christ,[60] Ambrose of Milan who interpreted the standing sheaf as prefiguring the resurrection of Christ,[61] and others.

This tendency, although greatly diminished, was followed throughout late antiquity, the Medieval Era, and into the Reformation. Even John Calvin, sometimes hailed as the father of modern grammatico-historical exegesis,[62] writes "in the person of Joseph, a lively image of Christ is presented."[63]

In addition, some Christian authors have argued that this typological interpretation finds its origin in the speech of

Islamic tradition

Main article: Joseph in Islam

Joseph ("Yusuf") is regarded by Muslims as a prophet (Qur'an, suras vi. 84, xl. 34), and a whole chapter (sura xii.) is devoted to him, it is the only instance in the Qur'an in which an entire chapter is devoted to a complete story of a prophet. It is described as the 'best of stories'.[65] Joseph is said to have been extremely handsome, which attracted his Egyptian master's wife to attempt to seduce him. Muhammad is believed to have once said, "One half of all the beauty God apportioned for mankind went to Joseph and his mother; the other one half went to the rest of mankind."[66] The story has the same general outlines as the Biblical narrative, but with certain differences [67] In the Qur'an the brothers ask Jacob ("Yacub") to let Joseph go with them.[68] The pit into which Joseph is thrown in a well,[69] and Joseph was taken as a slave by passing caravan (Qur'an 12:19).

In the Bible, Joseph discloses himself to his brethren before they return to their father the second time after buying grain.[70] The same is true in the Islamic story but they are compelled to return to Jacob without Benjamin, and the former weeps himself blind.[70] He remains so until the sons have returned from Egypt, bringing with them Joseph's garment which healed the patriarch's eyes as soon as he put it to his face (Qur'an 12:96).[70]

Baha'i tradition

There are numerous mentions of the narrative of Joseph in the Baha'i Writings. These come in the forms of allusions written by The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. In the Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh states "from my laws, the sweet-smelling savour of my garment can be smelled", while in the Four Valleys he states, "the fragrance of his garment blowing from the Egypt of Baha" referring to Joseph. Baha'i commentaries have described these as metaphors with the garment implying the recognition of a manifestation of God. In the notes of the Aqdas, the Báb refers to Bahá'u'lláh as the true Joseph and makes an analogous prohecy regarding Bahá'u'lláh suffering at the hands of his brother Mirza Yahya.[71]

Literature and culture

See also



External links

  • BBC - Joseph

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