Joseph, son of Jacob

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Joseph interprets the dream of the Pharaoh, by Peter von Cornelius.

Joseph or Yosef (Hebrew: יוֹסֵף, Arabic: يوسف, Yusuf ; "The Lord increases") is a major figure in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). He was Jacob's eleventh son and Rachel's first.

Known best for his coat of "many colors" and his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous half-brothers. He worked under the Egyptian official Potiphar but was freed and became the chief adviser (vizier) to the Egyptian Pharaoh. His estranged brothers later reunited with him when they came to Egypt to buy grain during a famine, and thus Joseph became the central figure to lead the children of Israel (Jacob) during their course of exile in Egypt. Moses followed Joseph's pattern in rising from slavery to a position of royal favor in the court of the pharaohs, and would later lead the Israelites out of Egypt and back to the land of Canaan.

The historicity of Joseph's story is debated, with dates ranging from an early estimate beginning around 2000 B.C.E. during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, to a later time during the Hyksos Era (1648–1540 B.C.E.), and as recently as the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah about 1200 B.C.E.

The shrine called Joseph's Tomb in Nablus/Shechem is traditionally considered to be his tomb. In Jewish tradition, Joseph was the progenitor of the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, named for his two sons. More rabbinical literature has been generated concerning him than any of the other sons of Jacob, and he is also a significant figure in Islamic tradition.

The Genesis story of Joseph

According to the biblical account, Joseph was the son of Jacob by Rachel, the patriarch's favorite wife (Gen. 30:23, 24), who, on the occasion of Joseph's birth, said, "The Lord shall add [Heb. yosef] to me another son." (Gen. 30:24) He was born in Padan-aram when Jacob was about 90 years old. Joseph would have been approximately six years old when his family returned from Haran to Canaan. He was present at Jacob's famous reconciliation with his brother Esau. Soon, the family took up residence in the town of Bethel and later moved to Hebron. In the interim, Joseph's mother died giving birth to his brother, Benjamin.

Jacob beholds Joseph's bloodied coat.

Joseph was the favorite son of his father, who made him a richly ornamented coat. popularly referred to as a "coat of many colors." As a result, he was envied by his half-brothers. His brothers' jealousy grew when Joseph told them of his two dreams (Gen. 37:11) in which all the brothers, as well as his parents, bowed down to him.

After this, his brothers plotted against him and would have killed him had not his brother Reuben intervened. He persuaded them to throw Joseph into a pit and secretly planned to rescue him later. Judah, too, counseled against murder and convinced the brothers to sell Joseph to a company of Ishmaelite merchants, who bought him in exchange for 20 shekels of silver. The brothers then dipped Joseph's coat in goat's blood and, returning home, showed it to their father, who concluded that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild beast.

Joseph in Egypt

Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar, by Philipp Veit

The merchants, meanwhile, brought Joseph to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar, an "officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard" (Gen. 37:36). Joseph prospered in Potiphar's household and was eventually made head of the servants.

After Joseph rejected the attempts of Potiphar's wife to seduce him, she accused him of attempted rape, and he was cast into the state prison (Gen. 39:40), where he became the most trusted inmate and remained for at least two years. The story tells of two servants of Pharaoh's household who were in jail with Joseph and asked him to interpret their dreams. Joseph correctly predicted their futures: one would be reinstated in his post while the other would be executed. Joseph urged the first, a royal cupbearer, to get him out of prison once he was reinstated, but the cupbearer took no action on his behalf for two more years.

At the end of that period, the Pharaoh had a strange dream which none of his advisers could interpret. The cupbearer took this opportunity to inform the king of Joseph's gift and recommended his services. Joseph was brought from prison to interpret the king's dream. Joseph predicted seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine and advised the Pharaoh to appoint someone to store up surplus grain. Pharaoh was pleased with Joseph's interpretation and gave him authority to carry out the suggested policy (Gen. 41:46). He became the second most powerful man in all Egypt. At the age 30, Joseph married Asenath, the daughter of the priest of Heliopolis.

As Joseph had foreseen, seven years of plenty came, during which he stored up a great abundance of grain in granaries built for the purpose. These years were followed by seven years of famine "over all the face of the earth," when "all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy grain" (Gen. 41:56, 57; 47:13,14). Thus, "Joseph gathered up all the money that was in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the grain which they bought."

A strange reunion

Joseph embraces Benjamin, detail of a painting by Peter von Cornelius

During this period of famine, Joseph's brothers, except for Benjamin, also came down to Egypt to buy grain. At their first meeting, the brothers did not recognize him. Seeing only the powerful minister who controlled their lives and fortunes, they "bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground" (Gen. 42:6), thus fulfilling in part his earlier prophetic dream. Joseph disguised his identity and devised a plot to bring the rest of the family to him: He accused them of being spies and imprisoned them for three days. He then sent them away with grain, retaining Simeon as a hostage (Gen. 42:1-25), while ordering them not to return without Benjamin, the only one of his brothers born of Joseph's own mother, Rachel.

Upon their return to Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph received them kindly and prepared a feast for them. The narrative describes his emotional reaction upon seeing Benjamin: "Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there. After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, 'Serve the food'" (Gen 43:30-32). He then tested them further, by accusing Benjamin of theft. But Judah pleaded for Benjamin, offering himself as a slave instead. Convinced of his brothers' repentance and overcome with emotion, Joseph finally revealed himself to them. He forgave them and sent for Jacob and the entire household to come to Egypt.

The later reunion of Joseph with Jacob (Israel), though anti-climactic after two previous reunions with his brothers, is one of the most poignant in the Bible. Old and nearly blind, Jacob is overwhelmed with joy, saying: "I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too" (Gen 48:11). The scene is a fitting resolution to Jacob's own drama, in which his father, Isaac, had been old and blind when Jacob himself deceived deceived him in order to obtain his blessing, meant for Esau.

Joseph settled Jacob's growing clan with Pharaoh's blessing in the Land of Goshen (Gen. 47:29). After Jacob's death, Joseph received the Pharaoh's permission to travel with a great caravan to Canaan in order to bury the patriarch. "All Pharaoh's officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt—besides all the members of Joseph's household and his brothers and those belonging to his father's household... Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company." (Gen 50:7-9)

Joseph's own remains were reportedly taken by Moses with the Israelites during the Exodus (Exodus 13:19) and later buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32).


Jacob, before he died, blessed each of his sons and two of his grandsons, the two sons of Joseph. Indeed, he blessed Joseph's sons before all the rest. Though Manasseh was the older brother, Jacob placed his right hand on Ephraim, the younger, and gave him the greater blessing. He then gave his blessing upon all of his sons, and the blessing he gave to Joseph was the greatest of all:

Joseph is a fruitful tree by a spring
whose branches climb over the wall...
By the power of the Strong One of Jacob
by the name of the Shepherd of Israel,
by the God of your father—so may he help you!
by God Almighty—so may he bless you
with the blessings of heaven above
and the blessings of the deep that lies below!
the blessings of breast and womb
and the blessings of your father, stronger
than the blessings of the eternal mountains
and the bounty of the everlasting hills.
May they rest on the head of Joseph
on the brow of him who was prince among his brothers.' (Genesis 49:22-26)

Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh multiplied to become two separate tribes of Israel. Ephraim was one of the major northern tribes, just north of the territory of Judah. Half of Manasseh's tribe settled east of the Jordan, while the other half settled west of it. The two halves of Manasseh were often treated as two separate units in the biblical account. Both the term "Joseph" and the term "Ephraim" were also frequently used by the biblical writers to refer to the norther tribes generally or to the later northern kingdom, usually called Israel.

Joseph in rabbinical literature

Joseph occupies a very important place in Rabbinical literature, and no patriarch was the subject of so many Midrashic traditional narratives. Joseph is represented as a perfectly righteous man (tzadik gamur) and as the counterpart of his father Jacob. Not only did Joseph resemble his father in appearance, but the main incidents of their lives were parallel. Both were born after their mothers had been barren for a long time. Both were hated by their brothers. Both were met by angels at various times (Gen. R. 84:6; Num. R. 14:16). Joseph is also extolled by the rabbis for being a prophet, and for supporting his brothers. One opinion holds that the Holy Spirit dwelt in Joseph from his childhood until his death (Pirke R. El. 38).

One tradition holds that Jacob's other children came into the world only for Joseph's sake. It was because of his virtue that the children of Israel passed over the Red Sea and the Jordan dry-shod (Gen. R. 84). When Joseph and his mother bowed to Esau (Gen. 33:7), Joseph shielded his mother with his body (Targ. pseudo-Jonathan), protecting her from the lustful eyes of Esau (Gen. R. 78:13).

After being beaten by his brethren, Joseph was thrown by Simeon into a pit, among serpents and scorpions; but Joseph prayed to God and the reptiles retired to their holes (Targ. pseudo-Jonathan). When Joseph's half-brothers reached home after selling him, Jacob ordered them to arm themselves and capture the beast that had supposedly killed Joseph. They returned with a wolf, but when Jacob began to reproach the beast for its cruelty, the wolf answered, in human language, that she had not committed the crime, and that she herself was searching for her lost cub. Jacob therefore let the wolf go. Jacob did not wholly believe that Joseph was dead, because he could not forget him, while the dead are soon forgotten.

In Egypt, Joseph's character was antithetical to that of all the other slaves. They were rapacious, while Joseph never enjoyed anything that was not his (Zeb. 118b); they were given to lust, while Joseph was chaste and resisted temptation.

Some rabbis, however, charged Joseph with vanity, saying that, even before being sold, he took too much pains with his personal appearance (Gen. R. 84:7), and that he continued to do so as ruler over Potiphar's house, forgetting his father, who was mourning over his disappearance. God punished him, therefore, by setting against him Potiphar's wife (Gen. R. 87:3). Certain rabbis declared that Joseph was ready to yield to his mistress, but that his father's image suddenly appeared to him and called him to his duty (Sotah 36b; Gen. R. 87:9).

When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, the king asked him for a sign by which he might know that his interpretation was true. Joseph then told him that the queen, who was about to be delivered of a child, would give birth to a son, but that at the same time another of the king's sons, two years of age, would die—all of which came to pass exactly as Joseph predicted.

As the king's appointed viceroy, Joseph built himself a magnificent palace, placing in it a great number of slaves. He also equipped a considerable army, with which he marched to help the Ishmaelites against the Tarshishites (Gen. R. 90:5). He stored up in Egypt all the gold and silver of the world, and it was carried away by the Israelites when they left Egypt. According to another tradition, Joseph placed the gold and silver in three hidden treasuries, of which one was discovered by the Israelite villain Korah; one by the Roman Antoninus, son of Severus; and one yet undiscovered, which is being kept for the righteous in the future world (Pes. 119a; comp. Sefer ha-Yashar, section Wayiggash).

The majority opinion of the rabbis is that Joseph always kept in mind his father and brothers. Some declare that during the 22 years he was away from home he drank no wine (Shab. 139a; Gen. R. 94:25). Despite his wealth, most rabbis represent him as very modest, and was not vain of his power (Ex. R. 1:7). Knowing that his brothers would come to buy grain, Joseph gave orders that nobody should be permitted to enter until he had given in writing his own and his father's names.

According to most rabbinical authorities, Joseph's coffin was sunk in the Nile (Targ. Pseudo-Jonathan to Gen. 1:26). In the time of the Exodus, Serah, daughter of Asher, showed Moses where the coffin was sunk. Moses threw a pebble into the water there and cried out: "Joseph! Joseph! the time has come for the Israelites to be rescued from their oppressors; come up and do not cause us any further delay!" The coffin thereupon floated up (Ex. Rabbah l.c).

Joseph in Christianity and Islam

Joseph's story is recounted in some detail in the New Testament, during Saint Stephen's speech before the Sandhedrin in Acts 7. His prophetic powers are sited as an example of "faith" in Hebrews 11:22. Joseph is regarded as a saint by several Christian churches, including the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, which commemorates him as a patriarch on March 31.

A miniature Mughal painting depicting the tale of Yusuf and Zulaikha

The story of Joseph or Yusuf as it is told in Arabic literature has the same general outlines as the Biblical narrative; but in the Arabic account there is a wealth of accessory detail and incident. Many of these amplifications have been borrowed by rabbinical tradition. Joseph is regarded by Muslims as a prophet (Qur'an, suras vi. 84, xl. 36). He is also a type of manly beauty; so that one often finds the expression "a second Joseph," meaning one extraordinarily beautiful. Some believe that he built the city of Memphis, and that he was instrumental in building the obelisks and pyramids. In the Qur'an a whole chapter (sura xii) is devoted to Joseph; and Islamic commentators add many details to this "best of stories."

The story of Yusuf and Zulaikha was a favorite love song in the Near East. The Persian poet Firdowsi wrote an epic on this subject. Zulaikha is the wife of Kitfir (the Biblical Potiphar), through whose accusations Yusuf is thrown into prison. After his phenomenal rise to power, as he is passing through the street one day, his attention is attracted by a beggar woman whose bearing shows traces of former greatness. Upon stopping to speak to her, he discovers Zulaikha, who has been left in misery at the death of her husband. Yusuf eventually obtains permission to marry her, she having lost none of her former beauty nor any of her first love for him. Muslim theologians, especially of the Sufi tradition, use this story to symbolize the spiritual love between God and the soul.

Critical views

According to the Documentary Hypothesis Joseph's toy is a combination of two or more versions which were later combined into the current narrative. The two principle sources are the Yahwist and the Elohist versions, with a few details included as well from the Priestly source. In the Elohist version it is Rueben intervenes on Joseph's behalf, while in the Yahwist version it is Judah that saves him. In the Yahwist version Joseph is sold to Ismaelites, while in the Elohist (E) narrative it is Midianites who buy him. Similar theories are propounded to explain confusion in the narrative's parallel accounts of his slavery and imprisonment, as well as his and reunion(s) with his brothers, with Benjamin present in one, and absent in another. The Priestly source adds some statistics and gives a list of the people who went down to Egypt, while a later editor has supplied details to make the accounts appear as one, such as Joseph's subterfuge of sending the brothers back to Canaan first to get Benjamin, and later to get Jacob.

Modern critics have made various estimates of the historical worth of these narratives of Joseph. As the reputed ancestor of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, he is regarded by some as altogether legendary or even mythical by some critics. Others consider the story a semi-independent novella, which has been independently added to the biblical record.

The story of Joseph's near seduction by his master's wife bears a marked similarity to the Egyptian story of the Tale of Two Brothers, which was popular at the time of Pharaoh Seti II. It has also been suggested that there are similarities between the rise to power of Joseph, and Manethos' tale of Osarseph, who was Syrian born, and rose to be Vizier of Egypt, beginning his career under Pharaoh Merenptah and his son Seti II. Indeed the name Potiphar may even be a version of Merenptah's name (Poti = Ptah, Phar = Pharaoh). The "seven lean years" has been taken to refer to a Middle Eastern famine documented at that time.

Joseph in literature and culture

  • Thomas Mann retells the Genesis stories surrounding Joseph in his four novel omnibus, Joseph and His Brothers, identifying Joseph with the figure of Osarseph, and the pharaoh with Akhenaten.
  • More recently, Joseph figures prominently in Anita Diamant's novel The Red Tent, which retells the story of Dinah, his sister.
  • The musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is about Joseph's story. It was the first successful production in the career of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
  • The story of Joseph also inspired the popular autobiographical song "Coat of Many Colors," written and recorded early in the career of country icon Dolly Parton.
Children of Jacob by wife in order of birth (D = Daughter)
Leah Reuben (1) Simeon (2) Levi (3) Judah (4) Issachar (9) Zebulun (10) Dinah (D)
Rachel Joseph (11) Benjamin (12)
Bilhah (Rachel's servant) Dan (5) Naphtali (6)
Zilpah (Leah's servant) Gad (7) Asher (8)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. Westminster John Knox Press; 4th edition, 2000. ISBN 0664220681
  • Dever, William. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did they Come From? Grand Rapids, M.I.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. ISBN 0802809758
  • Finkelstein, Israel. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0684869136
  • Grant, Michael. The History of Ancient Israel. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984, ISBN 0684180812
  • Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition, 1999. ISBN 978-0195130881
  • Keller, Werner. The Bible as History. Bantam, 1983 ISBN 0553279432
  • Mann, Thomas. Joseph in Egypt. Knopf, 1938. ISBN 978-9998956919
  • Osman, Ahmad. The Hebrew Pharaohs of Egypt: The Secret Lineage of the Patriarch Joseph. Bear & Company, 2003. ISBN 978-1591430223
  • Redford, Donald. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton University Press, 1992. ISBN 0691000867.
  • Sweeney, Emmet John. The Genesis of Israel & Egypt: An Inquiry into the Origins of Egyptian & Hebrew History. Janus Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 978-1857563504

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.


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