Joseph of Egypt
Who is Joseph of Egypt? He was Israel’s (Jacob’s) Favorite Son.
Joseph was born in Haran. He was the son of Jacob and Rachel. His name is either a contraction off Jehoseph or an abbreviation of Joseph-El. He was the eleventh son of Jacob and the first born of his mother, who was not able to have any children for a long period of time.
Joseph’s brothers were born to Jacob and from three other women: Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Leah was the first of Jacob’s wives (in this period and place, it was not unusual for men to have more than one wife). Bilhah was Rachel’s servant, and Zilpah was Leah’s servant.
By the time he was seventeen years old, Joseph worked as a shepherd on his father’s land in Canaan. His brothers did the same work, and all of them, including Joseph, worked equally hard. However, the other brothers did not like Joseph, as they could see that he was their father’s favored son. The brother’s jealousy festered when Jacob presented Joseph with a many-colored cloak. In addition, Joseph often reported to his father about some of the misdeeds his brothers committed.
Fueling his brothers’ hatred, Joseph liked to relate his dreams, especially the ones that revealed he would become an important person one day. In one dream, even the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph. But the dream even annoyed Jacob, who admonished his son for revealing such a self-important vision. His brothers questioned him sarcastically, asking Joseph if he really believed he would one day rule over them or that one day they would bow before him.
Family Joseph in Genesis
Joseph, son of Israel (Jacob) and Rachel, lived in the land of Canaan with eleven brothers and one sister. He was Rachel’s firstborn and Israel’s eleventh son. Of all the sons, Joseph was loved by his father the most. Israel even arrayed Joseph with a “long coat of many colors“. Israel’s favoritism toward Joseph caused his half brothers to hate him, and when Joseph was seventeen years old he had two dreams that made his brothers plot his demise. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain. Then, all of the grain bundles that had been prepared by the brothers gathered around Joseph’s bundle and bowed down to it. In the second dream, the sun (father), the moon (mother) and eleven stars (brothers) bowed down to Joseph himself. When he told these two dreams to his brothers, they despised him for the implications that the family would be bowing down to Joseph. They became jealous that their father would even ponder over Joseph’s words concerning these dreams. (Genesis 37:1-11)
Plot against Joseph
Joseph’s half-brothers hated him so much, especially for his dreams, that they even called him this dreamer. While in Dothan, when they were feeding the flocks, the brothers saw Joseph from afar and plotted to kill him. However, the eldest brother Reuben, did not want Joseph to die. He suggested to have Joseph thrown into an empty water hole until they could figure out what to do with him. He intended to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. Unaware of their intent, Joseph approached his brothers. They turned on him and stripped him of the coat his father made for him, and threw him into the cistern that Reuben had suggested. As they pondered what to do with Joseph, the brothers saw a camel caravan of Ishmaelites coming out of Gilead, carrying spices and perfumes to Egypt, for trade. Judah, the strongest, thought twice about killing Joseph and proposed that he be sold. The traders paid twenty pieces of silver for Joseph. The brothers were responsible for their missing brother, and they had to answer to their father. So they put male goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat  and showed it to Jacob, who deeply mourned for his son, believing him dead. (Genesis 37:12-35)
Due to various translations and views regarding Genesis 37:28, there is some debate as to who sold Joseph into slavery. It is muddled between the brothers, Midianitetraders, Ishmaelite traders or these traders as one and the same. What is clear is that Joseph was sold to serve Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. While serving in Potiphar’s household, Yahweh was with Joseph so that he prospered in everything he did. Joseph found favor in the sight of Potiphar and so he became his personal servant. Then Joseph was promoted to oversee Potiphar’s entire household as a superintendent. After some time, Potiphar’s wife began to desire Joseph and sought to have an affair with him. Despite her persistence, he refused to have sex with her for fear of sinning against God. After some days of begging for him, she grabbed him by his cloak, but he escaped from her leaving his garment behind. Angered by his running away from her, she took his garment and made a false claim against him by charging that he tried have sex with her. This resulted in Joseph being thrown into prison. (Genesis 39:1-20)
Joseph interpreting the dreams of the baker and the butler, by Benjamin Cuyp, ca. 1630.
Joseph in prison
The warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners, and soon afterward Pharaoh’s chief cup bearer and chief baker, who had offended the Pharaoh, were thrown into the prison. They both had dreams, and they asked Joseph to help interpret them. The chief cup bearer had held a vine in his hand, with three branches that brought forth grapes; he took them to Pharoah and put them in his cup. The chief baker had three baskets of bread on his head, intended for Pharoah, 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. Joseph requested the cup bearer to mention him to Pharaoh and secure his release from prison, but the cup bearer, reinstalled in office, forgot Joseph. 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
Joseph made ruler in Egypt, early 1900s Bible illustration
Pharaoh acknowledged that Joseph’s proposal to store grain during the abundant period was very wise. So before Joseph was even 30 years old, Pharaoh released him from prison and put him in charge over “all the land of Egypt” as Vizier. The Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph’s hand, then clothed him in fine linen and put a gold necklace around his neck. He was then renamed Zaphnath-Paaneah  and was given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah who was the priest of On, to be his wife. During those seven years of abundance, Joseph ensured that the storehouses were full and that all produce was measured until there was so much that it became immeasurable. In the final year of abundance, Asenath bore two children to Joseph: Manasseh and Ephraim. When the famine came, it was so severe that people from surrounding nations “from all over the earth” came to Egypt to buy bread as this nation was the only Kingdom prepared for the seven year drought. The narrative also indicates that they went straight to Joseph or were directed to him, even by Pharaoh himself, so as to buy from him. (Genesis 41:37-57)
The seven year famine became so severe that toward the later period, even Egypt was being strangled. Because the Egyptians had used up all of their money to buy grain in the previous years, there was no more money left. All they had was their livestock and even that dwindled down to nothing. As a last resort, all of the inhabitants of Egypt, less the Egyptian priestly class, sold all of their properties to Joseph for seed. These properties now became the property of the Pharaoh, or in another words,government property. Joseph also set a mandate that because they will be harvesting seed on government property, a fifth of the produce shall go to the Pharaoh. A fifth to the Pharaoh has continued down to at least the days of Moses. (Genesis 47:20-31)
Brothers sent to Egypt
In the second year of famine, Joseph’s half brothers were sent to Egypt, by their father Israel, to buy goods. When they came to Egypt, they stood before the Vizier but did not recognize him to be their brother Joseph. However, Joseph did recognize them and did not receive them kindly, rather he disguised himself and spoke to them in the Egyptian language using an interpreter. He did not speak at all to them in his native tongue, Hebrew. After questioning them as to where they came from, he accused them of being spies. They pleaded with him that their only purpose was to buy grain for their family in the land of Canaan. After they mentioned that they had left a younger brother at home, the Vizier (Joseph) demanded that he be brought to Egypt as a demonstration of their veracity. This brother was Joseph’s blood brother, Benjamin. He placed his brothers in prison for three days. On the third day, he brought them out of prison to reiterate that he wanted their youngest brother brought to Egypt to demonstrate their veracity. The brothers conferred amongst themselves speaking in Hebrew, reflecting on the wrong they had done to Joseph. Joseph understood what they were saying and removed himself from their presence because he was caught in emotion. When he returned, the Vizier took Simeon and bound him as a hostage. Then he had their donkeys prepared with grain and sent the other brothers back to Canaan. Unbeknownst to them, Joseph had also returned their money to their money sacks. (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. Israel 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)
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 Goshen, because there were five more years of famine left. So Joseph supplied them Egyptian transport wagons, new garments, silver money, and twenty additional donkeys carrying provisions for the journey. (Genesis 45:1-28)
Thus, Israel and his entire house of seventy, gathered up with all their livestock and began their journey to Egypt. As they approached Egyptian territory, Judah went ahead to ask Joseph where the caravan should unload. They were directed into the province of Goshen and Joseph readied his chariot to meet his father there. It had been twenty-two years since Joseph had seen his father. When they met, they embraced each other and wept together for quite a while. His father then remarked, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:1-34)
Afterward, Joseph’s family personally met the Pharaoh of Egypt. The Pharaoh honored their stay and even proposed that if there were any qualified men in their house, then they may elect a chief herdsman to oversee Egyptian livestock. Because the Pharaoh had such a high regard for Joseph, practically making him his equal, it had been an honor to meet his father. Thus, Israel was able to bless the Pharaoh. (Genesis 47:1-47:12)
Father’s blessing and passing
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 Amorites. (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 embalmed, a process that took forty days. Then he prepared a great ceremonial journey to Canaan leading the servants of the Pharaoh, and the elders of the houses Israel and Egypt beyond the Jordan River. They stopped at Atad where they observed seven days of mourning. Here, their lamentation was so great that it caught the attention of surrounding Canaanites who remarked “This is a deep mourning of the Egyptians.” So they named this spot Abel Mizraim. Then Joseph buried Israel in the cave of Machpelah, the property of Abraham when he bought it from the Hittites. (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 lived to the age of 110, living to see his great-grandchildren. Before he died, he made the children of Israel swear that when they left the land of Egypt they would take his bones with them, and on his death his body was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:22-26)
The children of Israel remembered their oath, and when they left Egypt during the Exodus, Moses took Joseph’s bones with him. (Exodus 13:19) The bones were buried at Shechem, in the parcel of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor (Joshua 24:32), which has traditionally been identified with site of Joseph’s Tomb, before Jacob and all his family moved to Egypt. Shechem was in the land which wasallocated by Joshua to the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the tribes of the House of Joseph, after the conquest of Canaan.
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. Maimonides comments that even the villiager in Shechem, whom Joseph inquired about his brother’s whereabouts, was a “divine messenger” working behind the scene.
A midrash asked, how many times was Joseph sold? In analyzing Genesis Chapter 37, there are five different Hebrew names used to describe five different groups of people involved in the transaction of selling Joseph, according to Rabbi Judah and Rav Huna. The first group identified, are Joseph’s brothers when Judah brings up the idea of selling Joseph in verses 26 and 27. The first mention of Ishmaelites (Yishma’elîm) is in verse 25. Then the Hebrew phrase ŉāshîm midyanîm sōĥrîm in verse 28 describes Midianite traders. A fourth group in verse 36 is named in Hebrew as m‘danîm that is properly identified as 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)
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 Israel. 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. 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 Dreamerpredicts the future by analyzing dreams, Jewish tradition attest that he practiced divination using this silver cup as the steward charged and as Joseph himself professed to in Genesis 44:15.
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.
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. He is said to have been very handsome. Muhammad is believed to have once said, “One half of all the beauty God apportioned for mankind went to Joseph; the other one half went to the rest of mankind.” One significant departure in the Qur’an is the use of an unspecified King in place of the Biblical Pharaoh. The story has the same general outlines as the Biblical narrative, but with a wealth of additional detail and incident. In the Qur’an the brothers ask Jacob to let Joseph go with them. The pit into which Joseph is thrown is a well with water in it, and Joseph was taken as a slave by passing-by travelers (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. The same is true in the Islamic story but they are compelled to return to Jacob without Benjamin, and the former weeps himself blind. 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).
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.