The Joseph Narrative
The Joseph Narrative
The Joseph narrative can be found in the book of Genesis chapters 37-50. It is slightly interrupted “by the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) and by the so-called Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:1-28)” (Skinner, 438). The story of Joseph is seen as unique because it has different characteristics than its counterparts in Genesis. Other writings in Genesis seem to be short, brief incidents, about family and tribal affairs. The Joseph narrative, on the other hand, is lengthy in nature “comprising some 300 verses” (Barton & Muddiman, 60). In fact, Joseph is “second only to Moses in the attention given to him in the Torah” (Spring & Shapiro, 260).
Some scholars consider the Joseph narrative to be an “originally independent literary composition, a kind of novella or short work of historical fiction…” that was integrated into Genesis later (Coogan, 69). Regardless of the origin of the narrative, its entertaining and well written story provides a strong basis for literary analysis. The story itself uses the literary technique of chiasmus in various spots. Foreshadowing also plays a prominent role. Besides the use of these techniques, various themes are established and carried throughout the narrative.
These themes include the use of dreams, and clothing to make the reader aware of certain points in the plot. A major theme that will be developed is the role of God throughout the story. All these elements that can be pulled from the narrative will give a deeper insight into the story of Joseph. To get a better understanding of the literary complexity in the Joseph narrative, it is important to look at a literary structure that is used within it. This structure is known as chiasmus. Chiasmus is defined as the “repetition of ideas in inverted order” (Burton). This concept is used effectively within the narrative.
“The uniqueness of the chiastic structure lies in its focus upon a pivotal theme, about which the other propositions of the literary unit are developed” (Ramey, “Literary Genius”). Although the chiastic structure is used throughout the Joseph narrative, the following example, found toward the beginning of the story (Gen. 37:3-11), shows the detail and effectiveness of such a structure. At the center of the chiastic structure, in this case, is the brother’s hatred toward Joseph (cfr. Ramey, “Literary Analysis”). The result is events leading up to this hatred, and the subsequent reoccurrence of these events in the opposite order.
This particular example starts with Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph, followed by the brothers dislike of Joseph, followed by their silence toward Joseph, followed by their reaction to the fact Joseph had a dream, followed by Joseph telling the dream, which leads to the center of the structure: the brothers hatred. These events then reoccur, but this time, in an opposite order. Joseph tells his second dream, followed by Jacob’s reaction to the dream, followed by Jacob’s talk with Joseph, followed by the brothers’ envy of Joseph, followed by Jacob thinking carefully about the dream (cfr.Ramey, “Literary Analysis”).
Although these events are not exactly the same, thez follow the same ideas, the same structure. This literary device is a good tool for seeing the careful design of the Joseph narrative, and how that design conveys a single important message. From a literary perspective, another technique used in the Joseph narrative is the foreshadowing of events and the repetition of similar structures and themes. As far as foreshadowing, this is shown most prominently through Joseph’s dreams. Repetition is also used heavily, as evidenced previously in the breakdown of the chiastic structure.
It takes the form of various themes including the continued use of clothing and dreams. The elements of foreshadowing and repetition provide deeper insight into the literary analysis of the Joseph narrative. First we will look at the importance of dreams in the narrative from both a structural standpoint and as a tool for foreshadowing. It is important to know that “In antiquity, dreams were thought to be signs from divine powers exposing their intent” (Plaut, 388). This view toward dreams makes Joseph’s gift very valuable.
Throughout the writing we see that “Dreams play an important role and hint at unusual developments” within the story (Plaut, 360). The dreams come in three different episodes, each episode contains two dreams. This is one form of repetition that is used with regard to the dreams (cfr. Humphreys, 97). The first set of dreams occurs at the beginning of the narrative. Joseph has a dream and he goes to share it with his brothers: “There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf” (Gen. 37:7).
The brothers are extremely disgusted with Joseph and they see his dream as a purposeful attempt to mock them and show his power over them (cfr. Levenson, 75). They already do not like him because he is the favorite son, but they hate him even more after his dream. The second dream which occurs within this episode is similar to the first. This time Joseph describes the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. Joseph’s brothers and father take exception to his dream. From a foreshadowing perspective, the first set of dreams has striking similarities to what will happen later in the narrative.
In the first dream, Joseph talks about harvesting grain and how the brother’s sheaves bowed down to his sheaf. When we analyze this dream we see that it resembles very closely what happens later in the narrative regarding the famine. A famine takes over the land; this is represented by the wheat in Joseph’s initial dream. Furthermore, the brother’s sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaf which represents when Joseph is the lord of Egypt and the brothers come bow down to him for nourishment (cfr. Levenson, 75). This development later in the story proves that Joseph has a special god-given power to predict the future through dreams.
The brothers must feel foolish for doubting Joseph. The second dream in which the sun, moon, and stars bow to him holds some predictive power as well. When the famine strikes, it is described as taking over the world: “The famine, however, spread over the whole world. So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations…” (Gen. 41:56-57). This seems to coincide at least partially with the claim that the sun, moon, and stars bowed to him. In addition, Joseph’s father initially was very upset with his son’s second dream saying, “What is this dream you have dreamed?
Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? ” (Gen. 37:10). Although the father is upset at the time, this appears to come true to an extent. Jacob ends up moving his entire family to Goshen in Egypt where they can survive the famine through the food provided by Joseph. The second set of dreams occurs when Joseph is in prison with the cupbearer and the baker of the King of Egypt. They both had a dream on the same night and were frustrated that they could not figure out the meaning. Joseph saw that they were upset and agreed to interpret the dreams for them.
The cupbearer told his dream to Joseph saying, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. ” (Gen. 40:9-11). Joseph’s interpretation is that the three branches represent the cupbearer’s release from prison in three days. He will then go back to serving the Pharaoh. Seeing this favorable interpretation the baker quickly shares his dream with Joseph.
“In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head. In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head. ” (Gen. 40:16-17). Joseph interprets this as meaning the baker will be impaled in three days and the birds will pick at his flesh. When the third day arrives, Joseph is again right with his dream interpretation. The cupbearer is returned to his role and the baker is killed. This is another example of foreshadowing. An interesting part of this set of dreams is the baker’s attempt to design his dream like that of the cupbearer’s.
The baker believes that if he structures it the same as the cupbearer he too will be able to get released in three days. What the baker does not understand is that Joseph draws his interpretations through God (cfr. Levenson, 80). This really drives home the point that Joseph is not simply interpreting dreams, but that under God’s will, these dreams are coming true. Structurally, the two dreams mirror each other with their mention of three days and Pharaoh’s decision on the third day. This seemed to be the case with the first set of dreams as well. Both were based on Joseph’s superior power.
There is also a mention of food again. This time the baker is carrying the food and he is killed. This may be another reference to the famine that is to come. The third and final set of dreams involves Pharaoh himself. Just like previously, there are two dreams for Joseph to interpret. Pharaoh dreams that he is standing by the Nile River when seven strong and healthy cows emerge. These cows are then eaten by seven weak and ugly cows. Pharaoh’s second dream is very similar in structure to the first. He dreams that seven ears of healthy grain sprout but then are swallowed up by seven more ears of weak grain.
Joseph is brought out of prison in order to interpret for Pharaoh. Joseph informs him that his dreams mean the same thing. The seven healthy cows and the seven healthy ears of grain represent seven years of plentiful food. The seven ugly cows and the seven dried up ears of grain represent seven years of famine that will follow the plentiful period. Joseph then recommends to the Pharaoh that during the seven years of abundance they store food so that it will be available when the famine hits. It is this very recommendation that gains Joseph the title of second-in-command to Pharaoh.
Of course, just as Joseph predicts, there are seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. The series of dreams presented throughout the Joseph narrative are used as a literary tool to foreshadow what will happen in the future. Each group of dreams carries an important part in the overall plot of the story. The structure of the dreams is well thought out. Each dream is matched in a pair based on similarities. There are also similarities between pairs. For example, each pair mentions food which may foreshadow the eventual famine (cfr. Levenson, 75). Also, each comes true just as Joseph has stated it will.
As discussed, dreams are not simply a foreshadowing device; they are also used in a repetitive literary manner to further the story of Joseph. Dreams, however, are not the only repetition in the Joseph narrative. There is also a repetition in the use of clothing as a way to mark important events in the story (cfr. Humphreys, 96). The importance of clothing is made obvious from the very beginning. It is clear that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son. This is represented through clothing: “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic” (Gen.
37:3). Later on, the brothers grow angry with Joseph because of his status as the favorite son. They sell him into slavery, and once again this event is marked by the use of clothing. The boys take Joseph’s tunic and stain it with blood to make Jacob think that Joseph is dead. The repetition of the use of clothing continues on numerous occasions. For example, even when Pharaoh calls Joseph out of prison to interpret his dreams, the author mentions that Joseph “had his hair cut and changed his clothes” before appearing before Pharaoh (Gen. 41:14).
Perhaps one of the most important instances of the author’s use of clothing is when Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. The passage is as follows: “And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck” (Gen. 41:42). Here the clothing acts as another benchmark in the story and it symbolizes Joseph’s rise to power. A final example of the use of clothing in the narrative is one of irony. It occurs after Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers as the lord of Egypt.
He tells the brothers to go to Canaan and bring Jacob and all his family back to Egypt with them. This will insure that everyone will be safe from the famine. As Joseph sends the brothers on their way, he gives each of them a change of clothing. This is ironic because, previously, Joseph was the one being stripped of his tunic by the brothers. In a reversal of roles, Joseph has the power and he is the one distributing the clothing (cfr. Coogan, 70). This is a subtle literary element, but it really helps bring the story to life. When reading the Joseph narrative, the theme of God’s involvement seems to establish itself as the most important.
This is not surprising because, after all, the Joseph narrative is included in the book of Genesis and therefore has great religious significance. Before developing this theme, understanding the documentary hypothesis can help categorize the story of Joseph and make it easier to interpret. The documentary hypothesis presented by Julius Wellhausen, a German professor, is used to differentiate between different types of writings or documents in the Pentateuch. It separates the Pentateuch into four sources: the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly (cfr.
Coogan, 42). The Joseph narrative is considered by many to be the result of the Elohist source. This source is known for its use of the divine title “God” (elohim). The Elohist source presents God as someone that is present but simply watches over day to day affairs. God does not interact directly with humans in this source. Instead, God reveals himself “indirectly through dreams, divine messengers, and prophets” (Coogan, 44). In the Joseph narrative, the main character, Joseph, has the ability to interpret dreams. He acknowledges this as a gift from God.
This is a perfect example of the Elohist source because God is making himself known through dreams. The Elohist source is also known for being used in writings that mention the northern kingdom of Israel. In the Joseph narrative there is mention of “Shechem, the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel” (Coogan, 63). In Genesis 37:14 Joseph is sent by his father Jacob to Shechem to check on his brothers who were monitoring Jacob’s flock. The characteristics of the Elohist source that are present in the Joseph narrative provide a good starting point for analyzing the narrative on a more detailed level.
Throughout the Joseph narrative there are examples of God’s presence with regard to Joseph. Part of this relationship with God is represented by the author’s wording within the narrative, and part is shown through the actual events that occur in the story. Through Joseph, God could make himself known. Joseph acted as an agent of God. This is contrasted in the narrative by the fact that Joseph’s brothers seemed to have little awareness of God’s presence and how he affected their destiny. The author portrays Joseph as someone who is consistently faithful to God.
On the other hand, Joseph’s brothers are portrayed as ignorant to the way of God. The narrative seems to be a way to open the brother’s eyes to a better understanding of their faith. It reinforces the fact that God has an impact on their everyday lives. In the following examples, the author shows God’s role in Joseph’s life versus that of his brothers. Specifically, the degree in which the characters respect God’s judgment, the acknowledgment of God in daily activities, and the character’s successes and failures with regards to God. Joseph shows his respect for God’s judgment on several occasions.
When in Egypt, Joseph is bought by Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and is allowed to stay in his house. Potiphar’s wife continually tempts Joseph to sleep with her. Joseph recognizes God’s judgment when he says: “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God? ” (Gen. 39:9). Joseph does not simply state that sleeping with Potiphar’s wife would be immoral; he holds concern for what God would think. Another example occurs when Joseph meets with his brothers in Egypt for the first time. He pretends he does not know them and treats them as spies.
Joseph gives the brothers an order to return to Egypt with their youngest brother, Benjamin, in order to prove they are truthful people. He proclaims, “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man” (Gen. 42:18). In contrast, when Joseph’s brothers become jealous and conspire to kill Joseph, they ask not how God will judge them, but rather how they can benefit from the act. Specifically, Judah reasons with his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…” (Gen. 37:26-27).
Although deciding to sell their brother into slavery would not be considered an act of kindness, it is certainly better than murder. The brother’s decision seems to be made based on what benefits them the most and there is no mention whatsoever of wanting to satisfy God or fearing God’s judgment. Through Joseph’s actions in the narrative we can see his faith in God and how God has an affect on his behavior. For instance, Joseph attributes his ability to interpret dreams as the work of God. When Joseph is imprisoned with two of Pharaoh’s servants, the cupbearer and the baker, he offers assistance in interpreting their dreams.
Instead of taking credit for the ability to understand the dreams’ hidden messages, Joseph makes clear that the power is not human, but divine, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams” (Gen. 40:8). While he could easily take the credit for his knowledge, Joseph instead views himself as a vehicle for God’s will. Similarly, Pharaoh learns of Joseph’s ability and asks him to interpret a dream that his magicians could not. Joseph agrees but states, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen. 41:16). Joseph goes on to interpret the dream, but it is easy to see that Joseph is putting God before him.
Pharaoh is able to recognize the workings of the divine within Joseph as he exclaims, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God? Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you” (Gen. 41:38-39). Pharaoh takes a liking to Joseph as he sees that the spirit of God is within him. While Joseph and even the Pharaoh consistently recognize God, the brothers don’t seem to acknowledge him. When Joseph has a dream that he will rule over his brothers they become annoyed with him (Gen. 37:8).
Instead of respecting his visions, the brothers mock Joseph as the “dreamer” and make plans to get rid of him (Gen. 37:19). Later in the narrative when the brothers do make the acknowledgement that God may be disciplining them for their earlier treatment of Joseph (Gen 42:21); the emphasis is on the punishment being instilled by Joseph. They do not reference any concern over the plan or power of God. Furthermore, in addition to Joseph’s belief that his own actions are those of God, the language of the author reflects the idea that God is by Joseph’s side.
In particular, the narrator reveals God’s presence in Joseph’s life through his many hardships. For example, when Joseph is sold to Potiphar, “The Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2), and again when Joseph is imprisoned, “The Lord was with him” (Gen. 28:33). In this way, the author shows that although Joseph is enduring adversity, God is still in his presence. While God stands by Joseph’s side, the narrator excludes similar language when describing the brothers. For example, the narrator does not mention where God is when the famine causes Joseph’s family to go hungry.
As we have seen, the brothers do not seem to live under the judgment of God or give God credit for the happenings within their lives. Here, in times of hardship they are not helped by God nor do they ask for God’s help. They go to Joseph in Egypt (although they are not aware that it is Joseph at the time) to keep from starving. Interestingly, as the provider of nourishment, this is yet another way in which Joseph is an agent of God. Another contrast between Joseph and his brothers can be found in their respective successes and failures. The author attributes Joseph’s successes to God’s presence in his life.
“The Lord was with Joseph and he was a successful man” (Genesis 39:2). Joseph does experience tough times, but he always seems to rise above them. Joseph’s hard times begin when he is sold into slavery. He quickly overcomes this as his master, Potiphar, makes him the head of household. This occurred because his master “saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD lent success to everything he undertook” (Gen. 39:3). Joseph’s suffering continues as he is accused of rape and put in jail. Nevertheless, by way of God’s presence, Joseph again earns responsibility and is put in charge of prison duties.
Joseph’s most important achievement is when he becomes “lord of all Egypt,” second-in-command only to Pharaoh, and distributes food to keep the world from starvation (Gen. 45:9). Unlike their brother, Joseph’s siblings seem to be plagued by misfortune. As mentioned before, they experience hard times during the famine and have to resort to Joseph for food. They also experience difficulty in satisfying their father Jacob. When Jacob asks his sons to go get food, they come back with the food, but they also come back with numerous problems.
They find that the money they were to use for the food has been returned to their sacks, making them look like thieves. They also have bad news to share with Jacob in regards to Benjamin. Joseph demands for Benjamin to come with the brothers on the next journey. Jacob is very upset because he fears that something will happen to Benjamin, his most prized son. Jacob believes that his old favorite son, Joseph, is dead and therefore regards Benjamin highly. The difference between the success of Joseph and the failure of the brothers is God’s presence.
Whereas Joseph can trust God’s plan to prevail and give purpose to his life, the brothers are not yet aware of God’s role. The theme of Joseph’s knowledge versus the ignorance of the brothers ties all the previously mentioned elements together. Thus the ultimate theme becomes the ability to see God versus blindness to his presence (cfr. Humphreys, 109). Though the author threads this theme throughout the entire narrative, he does not reveal the key to the puzzle until the end. We see the action of God in and through Joseph’s character and the lack of divine
recognition from the characters of the brothers. However, through the final three scenes, the narrator reveals the importance of God’s role in the Joseph story. In these scenes: Judah makes a plea on behalf of the brothers to keep Benjamin from slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity, and Jacob’s death reveals the brother’s continued doubt that Joseph has forgiven them. In the first scene, Judah begs Joseph to have mercy on Benjamin, who is being accused of stealing Pharaoh’s silver goblet. In reality, Joseph placed the goblet in his bag as a test (cfr. Levenson, 88).
Judah says, “Please my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh” (Gen. 44:18). Judah has a lot at stake because of his promise to his father that he would bring Benjamin back: “I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever” (Gen. 43:9). Judah tells Joseph the story of Jacob’s reluctance to part with his youngest son. He notes that enslaving Benjamin would certainly cause the death of his father due to grief.
Unknown to them, the brothers are put in an interesting situation as they try to satisfy their father and their brother. They are not aware that Joseph is acting through God to reconcile their sins and bring the family to unity. In the close of his speech, Judah asks to stay in place of Benjamin: “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Gen. 44:33). This shows that maybe the brothers have finally learned their lesson which was what Joseph had intended all along.
Joseph gets emotional with the situation and reveals his true identity. Joseph not only reveals that he is still alive, but he also opens his brother’s eyes to the fact that God has been working through him. “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 extraordinary deliverance.
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. ” (Gen. 45:5-8) Joseph makes clear that God is the actor: “God sent me,” “God has made me” (Gen. 45:7-8). Rather than the brothers being responsible for Joseph’s hardship, he makes it clear that God deserves the responsibility for the actions that now result in family unity and survival, not death. The idea that God has a purpose for everything that happens is brought to the forefront.
“Finally the brothers come to know what Joseph and the reader know, and all come to know through Joseph’s recognition that the tug and pull of this family’s story must be comprehended within a larger divine design, and the design is one that seeks to preserve life” (Humphreys, 125). The idea of God’s presence in the narrative is continued in the final scene. When Jacob dies, the brothers fear that Joseph’s compassion is untrue and he will still seek revenge upon them: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?
” (Gen. 50:15). They bow down in front of Joseph and say that they are prepared to be Joseph’s slaves. Joseph starts to cry and once again reiterates that it is not himself, but God, who is the master of their fate: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:19-21). As a whole, these final scenes help bring to a close the role of God’s involvement in the narrative.
This is shown through the contrasting themes of knowledge and ignorance by Joseph and his brothers respectively. Joseph has God with him and is aware of God, while the brothers lack this insight. In the end, the brothers are made aware of the greater involvement in their lives known as God. The Joseph narrative within Genesis is one of great importance. It separates itself from other Genesis readings because of its length and quality. The quality of the writing makes it a great platform for literary analysis.
The chiasmus literary structure was employed as a way to see the detail in the writing and how recurring ideas were used. Typical literary devices were also used including foreshadowing and recurring themes. The themes included the use of dreams, clothing, and the final overlying theme of God’s involvement. This theme was looked at through the eyes of Joseph and then his brothers. Thanks to Joseph, the brothers, who are at first blind to God, seem to understand God’s involvement in their lives by the end of the narrative. References Barton, John, and John Muddiman.
“The Story of Joseph. ” The Oxford Bible Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Burton, Gideon O. “Chiasmus. ” Silva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University, 22 Nov 2009. . Coogan, Michael. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Humphreys, W. Lee. Joseph and his Family: A Literary Study. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Levenson, Jon D. “Genesis. ” The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Plaut, W. Gunther. The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
Vol. 1. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974. 361-481. Ramey, William D. “Literary Analysis of Genesis 37:2b-11. ” In the Beginning. July 1997. 22 Nov 2009. . Ramey, William D. “The Literary Genius of the Joseph Narrative. ” In the Beginning. 22 Nov 2009. . Skinner, John. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis. 2nd ed. New York: T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1969. 438-540. Spring, Chaim, and Jay Shapiro. “The Enigma of the Joseph Narrative. ” Jewish Bible Quarterly 35. 4 (2007): 260-68. EBSCO Host. 22 Nov. 2009. .