Joseph (2)

jo'-zef (yoceph, "He will add"; Septuagint Ioseph). The narrative (Ge 30:23,14) indicates not so much a double etymology as the course of Rachel's thoughts. The use of 'acaph, "He takes away," suggested to her mind by its form in the future, yoceph, "He will add," "And she called his name Joseph, saying, Yahweh add to me another son"):


1. An Independent Original or an Adaptation?

2. A Monograph or a Compilation?

(1) An Analytical Theory Resolving It into a Mere Compilation

(2) A Narrative Full of Gems

(3) The Argument from Chronology Supporting It as a Monograph


1. A Bedouin Prince in Canaan

2. A Bedouin Slave in Egypt

3. The Bedouin Slave Becomes Again the Bedouin Prince

4. The Prime Minister

5. The Patriarch


The eleventh son of Jacob. The Biblical narrative concerning Joseph presents two subjects for consideration, the Joseph story, a literary question, and the story of Joseph, a biography. It is of the first importance to consider these questions in this order.

Cheyne in Encyclopedia Biblica reaches such conclusions concerning the Joseph story that the story of Joseph is mutilated almost beyond recognition as a biography at all. Driver in HDB holds that the Joseph story was "in all probability only committed to writing 700-800 years" later than the time to which Joseph is attributed, points out that Joseph's name was also the name of a tribe, and concludes that "the first of these facts at once destroys all guarantee that we possess in the Joseph narrative a literal record of the facts," and that "the second fact raises the further question whether the figure of Joseph, in part or even as a whole, is a reflection of the history and characteristics of the tribe projected upon the past in the individual form." But he draws back from this view and thinks it "more probable that there was an actual person Joseph, afterward .... rightly or wrongly regarded as the ancestor of the tribe .... who underwent substantially the experience recounted of him in Genesis." In the presence of such critical notions concerning the literature in which the narrative of Joseph is embodied, it is clear that until we have reached some conclusions concerning the Joseph story, we cannot be sure that there is any real story of Joseph to relate.

See a list of verses on JOSEPH in the Bible.

I. The Joseph Story, a Literary Question.

1. An Independent Original or an Adaptation?:

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

This literary problem will be solved, if satisfactory answers may be found to two questions: Is it an independent original or an adaptation? Suitable material for such an adaptation as would produce a Joseph story has been sought at either end of the line of history: Joseph the progenitor and Joseph the tribe. The only contestant for the claim of being an early original of which the Joseph story might be an adaptation is the nasty "Tale of Two Brothers" (RP, series I, volume II, 137-46). This story in its essential elements much resembles the Joseph story. But such events as it records are common: why not such stories?

What evidence does this "Tale of Two Brothers" afford that the Joseph story is not an independent original? Are we to suppose that because many French romances involve the demi-monde, there was therefore no Madame de Pompadour? Are court scandals so unheard of that ancient Egypt cannot afford two? And why impugn the genuineness of the Joseph story because the "Tale of Two Brothers" resembles it? Is anyone so ethereal in his passions as not to know by instinct that the essential elements of such scandal are always the same? The difference in the narrative is chiefly in the telling. At this latter point the Joseph story and the "Tale of Two Brothers" bear no resemblance whatever.

If the chaste beauty of the Biblical story be observed, and then one turn to the "Tale of Two Brothers" with sufficient knowledge of the Egyptian tongue to perceive the coarseness and the stench of it, there can be no question that the Joseph story is independent of such a literary source. To those who thus sense both stories, the claim of the "Tale of Two Brothers" to be the original of the Joseph story cannot stand for a moment. If we turn from Joseph the progenitor to Joseph the tribe, still less will the claim that the story is an adaptation bear careful examination. The perfect naturalness of the story, the utter absence from its multitudinous details of any hint of figurative language, such as personification always furnishes, and the absolutely accurate reflection in the story of the Egypt of Joseph's day, as revealed by the many discoveries of which people of 700-800 years later could not know, mark this theory of the reflection of tribal history and characteristics as pure speculation. And besides, where in all the history of literature has it been proven that a tribe has been thus successfully thrown back upon the screen of antiquity in the "individual form"? Similar mistakes concerning Menes and Minos and the heroes of Troy are a warning to us. Speculation is legitimate, so long as it does not cut loose from known facts, but gives no one the right to suppose the existence in unknown history of something never certainly found in known history. So much for the first question.

2. A Monograph or a Compilation?:

Is it a monograph or a compilation? The author of a monograph may make large use of literary materials, and the editor of a compilation may introduce much editorial comment. Thus, superficially, these different kinds of composition may much resemble each other, yet they are, in essential character, very different the one from the other. A compilation is an artificial body, an automaton; a monograph is a natural body with a living soul in it. This story has oriental peculiarities of repetition and pleonastic expression, and these things have been made much of in order to break up the story; to the reader not seeking grounds of partition, it is one of the most unbroken, simply natural and unaffected pieces of narrative literature in the world. If it stood alone or belonged to some later portion of Scripture, it may well be doubted that it would ever have been touched by the scalpel of the literary dissector. But it belongs to the Pentateuch. There are manifest evidences all over the Pentateuch of the use by the author of material, either documentary or of that paradoxical unwritten literature which the ancients handed down almost without the change of a word for centuries.

(1) An Analytical Theory Resolving It into a Mere Compilation.

An analytical theory has been applied to the Pentateuch as a whole, to resolve it into a mere compilation. Once the principles of this theory are acknowledged, and allowed sway there, the Joseph story cannot be left untouched, but becomes a necessary sacrifice to the system. A sight of the lifeless, ghastly fragments of the living, moving Joseph story which the analysis leaves behind (compare EB , article "Joseph") proclaims that analysis to have been murder. There was a life in the story which has been ruthlessly taken, and that living soul marked the narrative as a monograph.

(2) A Narrative Full of Gems.

Where else is to be found such a compilation? Here is one of the most brilliant pieces of literature in the world, a narrative full of gems: (a) the account of the presentation of the brothers in the presence of Joseph when he was obliged to go out to weep (Ge 43:26-34), and (b) the scene between the terrified brothers of Joseph and the steward of his house (Ge 44:6-13), (c) Judah's speech (Ge 44:18-34), (d) the touching close of the revelation of Joseph to his brothers at last (Ge 45:1-15). The soul of the whole story breathes through all of these. Where in all literature, ancient or modern, is to be found a mere compilation that is a great piece of literature? So far removed is this story from the characteristics of a compilation, that we may challenge the world of literature to produce another monograph in narrative literature that surpasses it.

(3) The Argument from Chronology Supporting It as a Monograph

Then the dates of Egyptian names and events in this narrative strongly favor its origin so early as to be out of the reach of the compilers. That attempts at identification in Egyptian of names written in Hebrew, presenting as they do the peculiar difficulties of two alphabets of imperfectly known phonetic values and uncertain equivalency of one in terms of the other, should give rise to differences of opinion, is to be expected. The Egyptian equivalents of Zaphenath-paneah and Asenath have been diligently sought, and several identifications have been, suggested (Brugsch, Egypt under the Pharaohs, 122; Budge, History of Egypt, V, 126-27). That which is most exact phonetically and yields the most suitable and natural meaning for Zaphenath-paneah is by Lieblein (PSBA, 1898, 204-8). It is formed like four of the names of Hyksos kings before the time of Joseph, and means "the one who furnishes the nourishment of life," i.e. the steward of the realm. The name Asenath is found from the XIth Dynasty on to the XVIIIth. Potiphar is mentioned as an Egyptian. Why not of course an Egyptian? The narrative also points distinctly to conditions obtaining under the Hyksos kings. When the people were like to perish for want of food they promised Joseph in return for help that they would be "servants of Pharaoh" (Ge 47:18-25). This suggests a previous antagonism to the government, such as the Hyksos kings had long to contend with in Egypt. But the revolution which drove out the Hyksos labored so effectually to eradicate every trace of the hated foreigners that it is with the utmost difficulty that modern Egyptological research has wrested from the past some small items of information concerning them. Is it credible that the editor of scraps, which were themselves not written down until some 700-800 years later, should have been able to produce such a life-story fitting into the peculiar conditions of the times of the Hyksos? Considered as an independent literary problem on its own merits, aside from any entangling necessities of the analytical theory of the Pentateuch, the Joseph story must certainly stand as a monograph from some time within distinct memory of the events it records. If the Joseph story be an independent original and a monograph, then there is in reality to be considered the story of Joseph.

II. The Story of Joseph, a Biography.

It is unnecessary to recount here all the events of the life of Joseph, a story so incomparably told in the Biblical narrative. It will be sufficient to touch only the salient points where controversy has raged, or at which archaeology has furnished special illumination. The story of Joseph begins the tenth and last natural division of Gen in these words: "The generations of Jacob" (Ge 37:2). Up to this point the unvarying method of Gen is to place at the head of each division the announcement "the generations of" one of the patriarchs, followed immediately by a brief outline of the discarded line of descent, and then to give in detail the account of the chosen line.

There is to be now no longer any discarded line of descent. All the sons of Jacob are of the chosen people, the depository of the revelation of redemption. So this division of Gen begins at once with the chosen line, and sets in the very foreground that narrative which in that generation is most vital in the story of redemption, this story of Joseph beginning with the words, "Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren" (Ge 37:2). Joseph had been born in Haran, the firstborn of the beloved Rachel, who died at the birth of her second son Benjamin. A motherless lad among the sons of other mothers felt the jealousies of the situation, and the experience became a temptation. The "evil report" of his brethren was thus naturally carried to his father, and quite as naturally stirred up those family jealousies which set his feet in the path of his great career (Ge 37:2-4). In that career he appears as a Bedouin prince in Canaan.

1. A Bedouin Prince in Canaan:

The patriarchs of those times were all sheiks or princes of those semi-nomadic rovers who by the peculiar social and civil customs of that land were tolerated then as they are to this day under the Turkish government in the midst of farms and settled land tenure. Jacob favored Rachel and her children. He put them hindermost at the dangerous meeting with Esau, and now he puts on Joseph a coat of many colors (Ge 37:3). The appearance of such a coat a little earlier in the decoration of the tombs of Benichassan among Palestinian ambassadors to Egypt probably indicates that this garment was in some sense ceremonial, a token of rank. In any case Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a Bedouin prince. Did the father by this coat indicate his intention to give him the precedence and the succession as chieftain of the tribe? It is difficult otherwise to account for the insane jealousy of the older brethren (Ge 37:4). According to the critical partition of the story, Joseph's dreams may be explained away as mere reflections or adaptations of the later history of Joseph (compare PENTATEUCH). In a real biography the striking providential significance of the dreams appears at once. They cannot be real without in some sense being prophetic. On the other hand they cannot be other than real without vitiating the whole story as a truthful narrative, for they led immediately to the great tragedy; a Bedouin prince of Canaan becomes a Bedouin slave in Egypt.

2. A Bedouin Slave in Egypt:

The plot to put Joseph out of the way, the substitution of slavery for death, and the ghastly device for deceiving Jacob (Ge 37:18-36) are perfectly natural steps in the course of crime when once the brothers had set out upon it. The counterplot of Reuben to deliver Joseph reflects equally his own goodness and the dangerous character of the other brothers to whom he did not dare make a direct protest.

Critical discussion of "Ishmaelites" and "Midianites" and "Medanites" presents some interesting things and many clever speculations which may well be considered on their own merits by those interested in ethnology and etymologies. Many opinions advanced may prove to be correct. But let it be noted that they arc for the most part pure speculation. Almost nothing is known of the interrelation of the trans-Jordanic tribes in that age other than the few hints in the Bible. And who can say what manner of persons might be found in a caravan which had wandered about no one knows where, or how long, to pick up trade before it turned into the northern caravan route? Until archaeology supplies more facts it is folly to attach much importance to such speculations (Kyle, The Deciding Voice of the Monuments in Biblical Criticism, 221).

In the slave market in Egypt, Joseph was bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, "an Egyptian." The significant mention of this fact fits exactly into a place among the recovered hints of the history of those times, which make the court then to be not Egyptian at all, but composed of foreigners, the dynasty of Hyksos kings among whom an "Egyptian" was so unexpected as to have his nationality mentioned.

Joseph's native nobility of character, the pious training he had received in his father's house, and the favor of God with him gave him such prosperity that his master entrusted all the affairs of his household to him, and when the greatest of temptations assails him he comes off victorious (Ge 39:1-23). There is strong ground for the suspicion that Potiphar did not fully believe the accusation of his wife against Joseph. The fact that Joseph was not immediately put to death is very significant. Potiphar could hardly do less than shut him up for the sake of appearances, and perhaps to take temptation away from his wife without seeming to suspect her. It is noticeable also that Joseph's character soon triumphed in prison. Then the same Providence that superintended his dreams is leading so as to bring him before the king (Ge 40:1-23; 41:1-57).

3. The Bedouin Slave Becomes Again the Bedouin Prince:

The events of the immediately preceding history prepared Joseph's day: the Hyksos kings on the throne, those Bedouin princes, "shepherd kings" (Petrie, Hyksos and Israelite Cities), the enmity of the Egyptians against this foreign dynasty so that they accounted every shepherd an "abomination" (Ge 46:34), the friendly relation thus created between Palestinian tribes and Egypt, the princely character of Joseph, for among princes a prince is a prince however small his principality, and last of all the manifest favor of God toward Joseph, and the evident understanding by the Pharaohs of Semitic religion, perhaps even sympathy with it (Ge 41:39). All these constitute one of the most majestic, Godlike movements of Providence revealed to us in the word of God, or evident anywhere in history. The same Providence that presided over the boy prince in his father's house came again to the slave prince in the Egyptian prison. The interpretation of the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker of Pharaoh (Ge 40:1-23 through Ge 41:1-24) brought him at last through much delay and selfish forgetfulness to the notice of the king, and another dream in which the same cunning hand of Providence is plainly seen (Ge 41:1-57) is the means of bringing Joseph to stand in the royal presence. The stuff that dreams are made of interests scarcely less than the Providence that was superintending over them. As the harvest fields of the semi-nomadic Bedouin in Palestine, and the household routine of Egypt in the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker, so now the industrial interests and the religious forms of the nation appear in the dreams of Pharaoh. The "seven kine" of the goddess Hathor supplies the number of the cows, and the doubling of the symbolism in the cattle and the grain points to the two great sources of Egypt's welfare. The Providence that had shaped and guided the whole course of Joseph from the Palestinian home was consummated when, with the words, "Inasmuch as thou art a man in whom is the spirit of God," Pharaoh lifted up the Bedouin slave to be again the Bedouin prince and made him the prime minister.

4. The Prime Minister:

The history of "kings' favorites" is too well known for the elevation of Joseph to be in itself incredible. Such things are especially likely to take place among the unlimited monarchies of the Orient. The late empress of China had been a Chinese slave girl. The investiture of Joseph was thoroughly Egyptian--the "collar," the signet "ring," the "chariot" and the outrunners who cried before him "Abrech." The exact meaning of this word has never been certainly ascertained, but its general import may be seen illustrated to this day wherever in the East royalty rides out. The policy adopted by the prime minister was far-reaching, wise, even adroit (Ge 41:25-36). It is impossible to say whether or not it was wholly just, for we cannot know whether the corn of the years of plenty which the government laid up was bought or taken as a taxlevy. The policy involved some despotic power, but Joseph proved a magnanimous despot. The deep and subtle statesmanship in Joseph's plan does not fully appear until the outcome. It was probably through the policy of Joseph, the prime minister, that the Hyksos finally gained the power over the people and the mastery of the land.

Great famines have not been common in Egypt, but are not unknown. The only one which corresponds well to the Bible account is that one recorded in the inscription of Baba at el Kab, translated by Brugsch. Some scarcely justifiable attempts have been made to discredit Brugsch in his account of that inscription. The monument still remains and is easily visited, but the inscription is so mutilated that it presents many difficulties. The severity of the famine, the length of its duration, the preparation by the government, the distribution to the people, the success of the efforts for relief and even the time of the famine, as far as it can be determined, correspond well to the Bible account (Brugsch, Egypt under the Pharaohs, chapter vi). The way in which such famines in Egypt come about has been explained by a movement of the sudd, a sedgelike growth in the Nile, so as to clog the upper river (Wright, Scientific Confirmations, 70-79).

Joseph's brethren came "with those that came," i.e. with the food caravans. The account does not imply that the prime minister presided in person at the selling of grain, but only that he knew of the coming of his brethren and met them at the market place. The watchfulness of the government against "spies," by the careful guarding of the entrances to the land, may well have furnished him with such information. Once possessed with it, all the rest of the story of the interviews follows naturally (compare traditions of Joseph, Jewish Encyclopedia).

The long testing of the brethren with the attendant delay in the relief of the father Jacob and the family (Ge 42:1-38 through Ge 45:1-28) has been the subject of much discussion, and most ingenious arguments for the justification of Joseph. All this seems unnecessary. Joseph was not perfect, and there is no claim of perfection made for him in the Bible. Two things are sufficient to be noted here: one that Joseph was ruler as well as brother, with the habits of a ruler of almost unrestrained power and authority and burdened with the necessity for protection and the obligation to mete out justice; the other that the deliberateness, the vexatious delays, the subtle diplomacy and playing with great issues are thoroughly oriental. It may be also that the perplexities of great minds make them liable to such vagaries. The career of Lincoln furnishes some curious parallels in the parleying with cases long after the great president's mind was fully made up and action taken.

The time of these events and the identification of Joseph in Egypt are most vexed questions not conclusively settled. Toffteen quite confidently presents in a most recent identification of Joseph much evidence to which one would like to give full credence (Toffteen, The Historical Exodus). But aside from the fact that he claims two exodi, two Josephs, two Aarons, two lawgivers called Moses, and two givings of the law, a case of critical doublets more astounding than any heretofore claimed in the Pentateuch, the evidence itself which he adduces is very far from conclusive. It is doubtful if the texts will bear the translation he gives them, especially the proper names. The claims of Rameses II, that he built Pithom,. compared with the stele of 400 years, which he says he erected in the 400th year of King Nubti, seems to put Joseph about the time of the Hyksos king. This is the most that can be said now. The burial of Jacob is in exact accord with Egyptian customs. The wealth of the Israelites who retained their possessions and were fed by the crown, in contrast with the poverty of the Egyptians who sold everything, prepares the way for the wonderful growth and influence of Israel, and the fear which the Egyptians at last had of them. "And Joseph died, being 110 years old," an ideal old age in the Egyptian mind. The reputed burial place of Joseph at Shechem still awaits examination.

5. The Patriarch:

Joseph stands out among the patriarchs in some respects with preeminence. His nobility of character, his purity of heart and life, his magnanimity as a ruler and brother Patriarch make him, more than any other of the Old Testament characters, an illustration of that type of man which Christ was to give to the world in perfection. Joseph is not in the list of persons distinctly referred to in Scripture as types of Christ--the only perfectly safe criterion--but none more fully illustrates the life and work of the Saviour. He wrought salvation for those who betrayed and rejected him, he went down into humiliation as the way to his exaltation, he forgave those who, at least in spirit, put him to death, and to him as to the Saviour, all must come for relief, or perish.


Commentaries on Genesis; for rabbinical literature, compare Seligsohn in Jewish Encyclopedia, some very interesting and curious traditions; Ebers, Egypten und die Bucher Moses; "The Tale of Two Brothers,"RP , series I, volumeII , 13746; Wilkinson-Birch, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians; Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt.

M. G. Kyle

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

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