Joseph was the elder son of Jacob and Rachel, born while his father was still serving in Laban (Genesis 30:22-25). Being the oldest sibling seems to dramatically influence his life. Being the child of Rachel, and «son of his old age» (Genesis 37:3), and also for his excellence of character, he was beloved by his father over his brethren. Add to this the fact that he reported to his father the misconduct of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, caused his brethren to hate him. His brethren’s jealousy was aggravated by what they saw as their father’s favoritism in giving Joseph a dress, probably a long sleeved tunic, like that worn by youth of the richer class (Genesis 37:2-4). A still greater provocation was the telling of his dreams, which seemed to foreshadow his preeminence in the family. (Genesis 37:5-11).
This was the relationship between Joseph and his brothers when his father sent him from the glen of Hebron to Shechem to inquire about their welfare. Joseph failed to find his brothers at Sechen, but instead found them at Dothan. His appearance infuriated their hatred for him, and, except for Reuben, they resolved to kill him. Reuben interfered on Joseph’s behalf, and persuaded his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit, with the intension «to deliver him to his father again.» They did this after striping him of his tunic. While they were eating bread a group of Arabian merchants (Ishmaelites [see Midianites]) appeared, and, at the suggestion of Judah when Reuben was absence, they sold Joseph to the merchants for twenty shekels of silver. Afterwards the brothers dipped the tunic in sheep blood and sent it to Jacob, that he might believe his favorite son had been torn to pieces by some wild beast. Their evil trick worked, and Joseph was mourned as dead. The merchants sold Joseph to Portiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh, and he became a slave (Genesis 37:12-36).
As an Egyption slave, in the service of Portiphar, Joseph conducted himself discreetly, and was so led by God, that he found the favor of his master, and was given charge of all his affairs. However, when refusing to satisfy the improper request of his master’s wife, Joseph was accused by her of unchastity and thrown into prison. Also here, with God’s help, Joseph won the favor of the governor of the prison who entrusted him with the care and supervision of all the prisoners (Genesis 39:1-23). During this time Joseph interpreted correctly the dreams of two fellow prisoners, the Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, disclaiming any human skill, and acknowledging that the interpretations were from God. These interpretations were fulfilled three days afterwards, on the king’s birthday (Genesis 40).
After two years the Pharaoh had two prophetic dreams which the magicians and wise men of Egypt were not able to decipher. The Pharaoh’s butler recalling Joseph’s previous skills suggested to his royal that he might put them to a test. Joseph was sent for and interpreted the dreams as foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He followed up this interpretation be advising the Pharaoh to «look out for a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.» The interpretation and advice pleased the Pharaoh and his ministers, who believed that Joseph possessed the spirit of supernatural insight and wisdom. Joseph was appointed ruler over Pharaoh’s house, and all the land; becoming grand vizier of Egypt, Pharaoh called him Zaphnath-paanah (savior of the world), and married him to Asenath, the daughter of Porti-pherah, the priest of On. His promotion occurred when Joseph was the age of thirty (Genesis 41:1-46).
In the seven good years Joseph planted abundantly and planned for the seven years of famine which were to follow. During this time his sons Manessah and Epharam were born (Genesis 41:47-52). When scarcity began Joseph, by previous planning, was able to supply all of Egypt and the surrounding nations. He placed all of Egypt under the Pharaoh-first the money, then the cattle, the land (excepting that of the priests), and eventually the Egyptians themselves became the property of the crown. The people were distributed according to the cities in which grain was stored, and were instructed to pay a tax to the crown of fifth of the product of the soil (Genesis 41:53-57; 47:14-26).
Early in the famine the brethren of Joseph, with the exception of Benjamin, went to Egypt to buy food. When applying Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him as the supreme controller of Egyptian stores, but he recognized them and apparently resolved to make them sense and acknowledge the wrong which they had done to him. He acted as a foreigner would toward them, speaking harshly, asking from where they came, and accusing them of being spies. This charge they abruptly denied, telling him particularly about their family. After placing them in a ward for three days he sent them home to bring back their youngest brother as proof of their veracity, keeping Simeon as hostage. With great difficulty they secured Jacob’s permission to take Benjamin, and a present of double money to repay the sum placed by order of Joseph in each man’s sack, then they returned to Egypt. When seeing his youngest brother Joseph was assured of his father’s welfare, and, yielding to his natural tendencies, he made himself known to his brothers. Then he inquired again about his father; telling them not to worry because of their sin of selling him; God had overruled it in their favor. Finally he instructed them to return to Canaan, and bring Jacob and their families to Egypt, and that he would provide for them during the remaining five years of famine. When the news of these events reached the Pharaoh, he approved of everything that Joseph had done, and gave a commandment that Jacob and his family should forthwith come into Egypt (Genesis 42:1-45:24).
When the brethren returned to Canaan they convinced Jacob that Joseph was alive; afterwards he went to Egypt to see for himself. He found himself tenderly welcomed, provided for, and placed in the land of Goshen. After his death Joseph had him embalmed, and carried him back to Canaan where he was buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Genesis 45:25-50:13).
When returning from Canaan Joseph found his brothers fearful because they thought he would now punish them for what they had done to him. He assured them that he had no such intention, and promised to help them. Joseph lived until he was a hundred and ten, and, when dying his brethren took an oath that they would carry his bones to the promise land. After his death he was embalmed and «put in a coffin in Egypt» (Genesis 50:14-26). This promise was religiously kept, as «Moses took the bones with him» (Exodus 13:19), and they were placed in their final resting place at Shechem (Joshua 24:32).
Both of Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim became founder of two Israelite tribes, reflecting the status of Joseph among his brothers. The story of Joseph inspired much aggadic discussion among rabbis, and has contributed extensively to artistic and literary works. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 606-607
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 510