The Story of Joseph is a unique literary phenomenon within the context of the Biblical Book of Genesis (chapters 37 through 50). It is unlike the stories of the Patriarchs which are constructed from separate units each of which can be understood independently, even though they are clearly linked by common threads and unifying elements. The Story of Joseph is one long and continuous narrative (albeit not from one source) which relates the events of Joseph’s life from his youth in Canaan until his death in Egypt.
The nature of the events during the course of Joseph’s life differs decidedly from that of the Patriarchs. Joseph does not “walk about the land through its length and its breadth,” does not dig wells in the land, does not establish relationships with other inhabitants of the land nor clash with them. The story of his youth is an account of his being uprooted from the Land of Canaan and smuggled down to Egypt. God never reveals Himself to Joseph or promises him countless descendants or the inheritance of the Land. The dreams of Joseph do not contain divine revelations or directives like in the case of the Patriarchs but rather puzzles to be deciphered or interpreted. While the wives of the Patriarchs occupy a prominent place in their stories, this is not the case with Joseph’s wife, Asenath daughter of Poti-phera. She is portrayed by the Biblical author as a silent figure without speech and deeds, except for her bearing of Joseph’s two sons. Also missing in Joseph’s story is the theme of barrenness which is so prominent in the stories of the Patriarchs. On the contrary, the opposite theme of fertility is emphasized when Joseph names his second son Ephraim because “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction” (41:52). The four wives of the Patriarchs were members of their families while Joseph’s wife Asenath was the daughter of the Egyptian Priest of On.
The story of Joseph has a mainly masculine focus. The important members of his family were his father, his brothers, and certainly his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The Egyptians, who propel Joseph up the social ladder toward his ultimate destiny, are men: Potiphar, the officer in charge of the dungeon, and Pharaoh. A special role is played by the two officers of Pharaoh whom Joseph encounters while in the dungeon: the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. Just as the events of Joseph’s life are of a different nature than those of the Patriarchs, his burial also differs. Only several generations after his death is he finally buried in the portion of the field purchased by his father Jacob in Shechem (Joshua 24:32).
In the stories of the Patriarchs, we find the motif of the younger son gaining preference over the older. The preferred younger son becomes one of the ancestors of the israelite nation while the older sons become the ancestors of other nations. Isaac, the preferred son becomes the second Patriarch while Ishmael, who is passed over, becomes the ancestor of 12 princes. Jacob, the preferred son becomes the third Patriarch while Esau, who is passed over, becomes the ancestor of Edom. Joseph, who is the favorite son of his father Jacob, is not the preferred of just two sons, but is favored over all of his brothers. However, this preference does not raise Joseph to the position of the fourth Patriarch and his rejected brothers do not become the ancestors of other nations. Unlike the stories of the Patriarchs, Joseph, together with his brothers, become the ancestors of the future twelve tribes of Israel.
The plot of the Story of Joseph contains three inseparable themes which interact one with the other and endow the narrative with both a unique character and a singularity of direction. These three themes are dreams, attire and sustenance.
Dreams and Attire
Three pairs of dreams appear in the story: Joseph’s two dreams; the dreams of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker; and the two dreams of Pharaoh. The abundance of dreams causes the story to alternate between reality and fantasy; between dreams which draw upon reality and reality which draws upon dreams. Each pair of dreams marks a turning point in the life of Joseph. Joseph’s two dreams result in his being cast into the pit by his brothers in Canaan; the dream of the chief cupbearer results in Joseph being released from the dungeon in Egypt; and the dreams of Pharaoh propel him to a position of political power. The dreams hurl him from the highest peak to the lowest pit and raise him back up again. Each transition is initiated and accompanied by a particular garment. The ornamented tunic which Jacob made for his favorite son was a princely garment and set Joseph apart as the chosen son. This garment of distinction transformed Joseph’s very nature. The internalization of its significance manifested itself in Joseph’s dreams which began on earth (the sheaves) and ended in heaven (the sun, the moon and the eleven stars). Joseph’s dreams reveal the secrets of his future. In the dream about the sheaves, he sees his brothers bowing down to his sheaf, a scenario which will come to pass when the brothers later come down to Egypt to acquire grain(Genesis 42:6, see also 43:26, 28). After Joseph’s first dream, the brothers exclaim, “Do you mean to reign over us, do you mean to rule over us?” The brothers thought they were asking a rhetorical question. They had no idea that Joseph would ultimately answer this question affirmatively when he reveals his identity to his brothers in Egypt, “So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household and ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (45:8). This ironic turn of events is further acknowledged by the brothers when they return home to their father in Canaan and exclaim, “Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt” (45:26). After this point, the fate of the brothers is completely in the hands of Joseph.
In chapter 37 where our story begins, Joseph’s ornamented tunic is very prominent. In the fields of Dothan, the brothers strip Joseph of his tunic and throw him into the pit. (The word pit [בּוֹר] is a key word in this chapter). Afterward, “they took Joseph’s tunic . . . and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said . . . “Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?” He recognized it, and said, “My son’s tunic! . . . Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins” (37: 31-34).
Joseph was then taken down to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he fled outside while she grabbed his garment and she ended up with it in her hand. (The word “his garment” [בִּגְדוֹ] occurs six times in 39:12-19.) Joseph was thrust into jail, where he interpreted the dreams of the chief baker and the chief cupbearer. When it became known that Joseph had a special talent for interpreting dreams, he was sent to Pharaoh: “He was rushed from the dungeon (הַבּוֹר). He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh” (41:14). He was made second to the king “and Pharoah had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck”(41:42). And when Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, he supplied them with presents of clothing (garments) as a sign of conciliation. This may be understood as a quid pro quo for the gift of the garment which Joseph received from his father and which became the object of his brothers’ jealousy and hatred (45:22).
Sustenance or “bread/לֶחֶם” is a motif which runs through the three pairs of dreams in our story like a scarlet thread. The first dream is about Joseph’s sheaves while the last dream is about Pharaoh’s seven ears of grain and between them is the dream about the bread of the chief baker. The chief baker’s failure to properly supply Pharaoh with bread anticipates the future difficulties of Pharaoh in providing bread to Egypt. Joseph, who is confined to the dungeon is summoned to the throne of Pharaoh, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is instantly elevated to a position of greatness. “You shall be in charge of my court (house)” asserts Pharaoh, “and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you”(41:40). Joseph’s task was to provide food for the people of Egypt during the seven years of famine. By carrying out God’s wishes to sustain His creatures with life, Joseph serves as God’s messenger or agent. “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither,” Joseph says to his brothers, “it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you”(45:5).
The sustenance fulfills an important function in the relationships between Joseph and his brothers. They went down to Egypt to acquire grain and Joseph is the provider of the grain. After the brothers threw Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat bread/לֶחֶם. The phrase, “they sat down to eat bread,” (37:25) is meant to display their cruelty. Joseph is in the pit, destined for death by hunger and thirst, and the brothers sit down separately to eat as an indication of their joy and relief at the opportunity to be rid of him. Later, the brothers appear before Joseph after they are sent by their father Jacob to go down to Egypt to acquire grain. This turn of events provides Joseph with the opportunity to invite his brothers to sit down and eat but he does not eat with them under the guise that he is an Egyptian. In Joseph’s words, we detect a reference to the event of the pit: “and he said – ‘give them bread/לֶחֶם.’” They served him by himself and them by themselves”(43:31-32). Again, the brothers eat bread separately, but this time, Joseph is not in a pit. Joseph’s authority as the provider of grain/bread/לֶחֶם enables him to eventually have his brothers bring Benjamin the youngest, his aged father and ultimately the entire House of Jacob to Egypt.
The story of Joseph is intended to explain why and how the critical event of the displacement of Jacob and his family from Canaan to Egypt took place. These factors are couched in terms of physical survival, human psychology and faith. The known world was gripped by an extended famine and only in Egypt was sustenance to be found. In order not to perish, Jacob and his family were forced to leave Canaan and descend to Egypt. This decision was reinforced by Jacob’s desire to be reunited with his beloved son whom he had given up for dead. This move to Egypt was divinely sanctioned and encouraged. God reveals himself to Jacob in a night vision and says to him, “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph shall place his hand on your eyes”(46:3-4). At the dramatic climax of the story, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, the author places the following words in his mouth: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:5-8). This dual causality which characterizes the relationship of Joseph and his brothers appears again at the end of the story. “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people” (50:20).
As Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers make their way from Canaan to Egypt, each is caught up and moved along by a unique array of trials and tribulations. The process takes place step by step and in ways that are surprising and unpredictable for all the protagonists. Jacob’s unbounded love for Joseph provides the gentle inertia, like the hovering of a butterfly’s wings, that starts the process. The ornamented tunic that Jacob made for his beloved son and Joseph’s dreams which follow provoked the envy and hatred of the brothers. The fever of this antagonism provided the energy which propelled Joseph toward the destination where he was fated to carry out God’s plan; “the survival of a multitudinous nation.”(50:20) Joseph was the first of the House of Jacob to reach Egypt. His journey was a result of his being mistreated with violence and cunning (39:1). His brothers tore off his tunic, cast him into the pit, ignored his supplications and ultimately sold him into slavery (37; 42:21). In a land which was to become a “House of Slavery” for the Children of Israel, Joseph’s life began as a slave. “He sent ahead of them a man, Joseph, sold into slavery. His feet were subjected to fetters, an iron collar was put on his neck” (Psalms 105:17-18).
Jacob allows his sons to travel to Egypt, although this was not the same Jacob who struggled with beings divine and human and prevailed (32:29). Ever since Joseph’s blood-stained tunic was brought to him, Jacob becomes the epitome of grief; preoccupied with bereavement, fear, illness and death. He mourned incessantly and refused to be comforted. He often described his mourning as a descent to Sheol (37:35; 42:4,38; 44:13). Jacob was obsessed with the safety of Benjamin (44:29) and was convinced that some mishap would befall him. “If I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved” (43:14). Jacob held his sons responsible for his despair: “It is always me that you bereave; Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” (42:36). Bearing the burden of guilt, the sons fear that their father would not survive. In Judah’s speech before Joseph, he pleads not for Benjamin’s welfare (that he might become a slave in Egypt) but rather for his father’s survival (who might die if Benjamin does not return). “The boy cannot leave his father; if he were to leave him, his father would die(44:22). “When he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief”(44:31). Even when Jacob discovered that Joseph was alive, he could not cast off the apprehension of death. “I must go and see him before I die” (45:28). And when Jacob finally met Joseph, he said to him: “Now I can die, having seen your face” (46:30). Jacob died in Egypt at the age of 147. He shared the last 17 years of his life with Joseph in Egypt just as he shared the first 17 years of Joseph’s life in Canaan (37:2; 47:28).
The brothers were not free of suffering in the course of their emigration from Canaan to Egypt. Joseph abused them, disavowed them, demanded that Benjamin be brought to him, held Simeon in jail as a hostage, and shuttled them back and forth from Egypt to Canaan. Although Joseph was concerned for their welfare while they were in Egypt, they were always in fear of him and afraid of being put to death (50:15-21).
In spite of the difficulties accompanying the emigration from Canaan to Egypt, Jacob’s family was given honor and respect. They did not enter Egypt as infiltrators. They were treated as members of the family of the viceroy of Egypt and even Pharaoh personally invited them and provided for them. He outfitted them with wagons and provided them with food for the arduous journey (45:16-21). He personally received Jacob and a delegation of the brothers. He granted them the region of Goshen, described as the “choicest part of the land” and gave them jobs in charge of Pharaoh’s livestock(47:1-12). This was a consequence of Joseph’s high position of authority in Egypt. Joseph’s beneficence was felt in Egypt even before he succeeded in relieving the people from starvation. Even when he was still a slave, it was said of Joseph that “God blessed the house of the Egyptian for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of the Lord was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside” (39:5). It appears that God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was realized in Joseph: that through their descendants, all the peoples of the world and the families of the earth will be blessed (12:3; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).
The story of Joseph ends with final ceremonies of bequest, death, funerals and burial. The death of Jacob closes the period of the Patriarchs and the death of Joseph closes the period of transition from Canaan to Egypt. With their death, ends the ancestral saga of the families of the Children of Israel and begins the history of the Children of Israel as a nation.
Image: Alexander Novoskoltsev, Jacob recognizes Joseph's clothing, 1880