From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

Adrien Guignet, Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream, 19th century

The story of Joseph stands out in the book of Genesis as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Its position in the Pentateuch also makes it a bridge between the stories of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. Differences of style, narrative contradictions, details that don’t line up with the surrounding narrative, and other issues call into question the authorship and original purpose of the story, however. What can we learn from taking a closer look?

I cannot possibly cover or even read all existing research on the Joseph story, so this analysis will be based mainly on the following prominent works of scholarship: A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph (1970) by Egyptologist Donald B. Redford, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (1987) by Thomas L. Thompson, and several recent articles and lectures by Thomas Römer.

Story Outline

The story of Joseph starts in Genesis 37 and continues with a few interruptions until the end of the book. Briefly summarized, it goes as follows:

  • Young Joseph is unpopular among his brothers because of his father’s favouritism and because of his dreams, which foretell a future in which he will rule over his family.
  • One day, his brothers grab him with the intention of killing him. Instead, however, a caravan of traders takes him to Egypt and sells him as a household slave. His father is made to think he was devoured by a wild animal.
  • While in Egypt, he is imprisoned on false charges of trying to seduce his master’s wife. In prison, he interprets the dreams of some former officials of the Pharaoh.
  • His ability to interpret dreams gets him an audience with the Pharaoh. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as a prediction of a coming famine, and he is then put in authority over Egypt to oversee preparations.
  • Joseph’s brothers, sans Benjamin, visit Egypt to obtain food. Joseph, whom they do not recognize, accuses them of being spies and instructs them to bring Benjamin, holding Simeon hostage in the meantime.
  • When they return with Benjamin, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin as a slave and send the others home. Eventually, he ends the prank and reveals his identity.
  • The brothers are sent back to fetch their father Jacob. The whole family comes and settles in Egypt.
  • Joseph uses the famine to take possession of all the land and livestock in Egypt and enslave the people of Egypt to the Pharaoh.
  • Joseph’s father dies and is taken back to his ancestral land for burial.

The Story of Joseph by BIagio d’Antonio, c. 1482

The Genre of the Story

The story of Joseph stands out from its surroundings — a literary masterpiece amidst an eclectic collection of legends, folktales, genealogies, and religious material. Redford writes:

All commentators, no matter how far they diverge on the subject of its origins, are unanimous in their judgment that the Joseph Story is a masterpiece of story-telling, perhaps unequaled in Biblical literature. No apology is needed for so sweeping a statement. One need only investigate the extent to which the Joseph Story itself (and not simply the motifs on which it draws) occurs in midrash and paraphrase in the later literatures of the East to learn that it rapidly became one of the most popular of all Biblical tales. (Redford, p. 66)

The fact that it is a unified, well-plotted whole also sets it apart from the patriarchal tales, which are often unrelated traditions simply strung together. But what is it, exactly? History? Legend? Allegory? How we approach the text depends to some degree on its genre. According to Redford, an important hint is the way the story is self-contained; all character names and all locations except the general Egyptian setting are “incidental to the plot” (p. 67). A handful of character names occur once or twice; but aside from Joseph and his family, most are just known simply by their function: butler, baker, captain of the guard, Pharaoh, and so on. This would not describe most Bible narratives.

Redford lists a number of well-known Egyptian stories that resemble the story of Joseph more closely — particularly one called the Tale of Two Brothers that we’ll come back to. He describes its genre as falling “midway between the Märchen [fairytale] and the Novella” (p. 67). It is a fairytale because of its timeless and its marvellous elements, and a novella because it has some real-world grounding. Other scholars agree with this assessment (e.g. Soggin 1993, p. 337).

Konstantin Flavitsky, Children of Jacob sell his brother Joseph, 1855

Dating the Story

Early scholarship proposed a wide range of dates for the story, some going back to the Solomonic period. However, a large number of factors lead Redford to conclude that the story was written in the Saite period (664–525 BCE) or later, and even then he is being conservative. An incomplete list of Redford’s reasons (pp. 192ff) are as follows:

  • The products carried by the Ishmaelites — gum, balm, and myrrh — are mentioned in texts of the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BCE) and not earlier.
  • Ishmaelites only appear in late Old Testament texts (Judith, Chronicles, Psalms).¹  They and similar nomads inhabited the Negeb after Judah as a kingdom ceased to exist.
  • Domesticated camels were not introduced to the region until the late ninth century.
  • It is only in the Late Period (664–331 BCE) that we have evidence for an international slave trade.
  • Palestine only came to be called “the land of the Hebrews” (Gen. 40:15) in the Saite period.
  • The apparent knowledge of the zodiac in Joseph’s second dream indicates a late date. The earliest known reference to the twelve zodiacal signs is dated to 419 BCE.
  • The term “overseer” (peqidim) used in Gen. 41:34 gained its technical meaning around the fifth century.
  • The three Egyptian names that appear in the story best fit the Late Period (664–331 BCE).
  • The implied racial hostility between Egyptians and Hebrews could not apply any earlier than the Saite period.
  • Joseph’s actions that enslaved the Egyptian peasants to the Pharaoh best reflect the situation in the Saite period and later.
  • The “virtually complete silence of the rest of scripture on … the Joseph Story” strongly suggests that the narrative did not exist when the historical and prophetic books were written (Redford, p. 250).

Römer recognizes more clues that the text is late:

  • One of Pharaoh’s officials is hanged, but the ancient Egyptians used impalement for capital punishment. Hanging fits the Hellenistic period better. (Römer 2016d, 41:00)
  • Close parallels to the famine can be found in a description of a seven-year famine on a stele found near Aswan (Elephantine), where there was a Jewish colony. The stone was produced around 187 BCE, and tells of Pharaoh Djoser consulting with the wise man Imhotep, who has been associated with the biblical Joseph by some scholars in the past.
  • The story’s narrator never suggests any divine intervention, making it most similar to other late novellas like Esther (and I would add Ruth and Judith) in which God’s agency is left up to the reader’s interpretation. (Römer 2015, p. 193)
  • Numerous details in the section on Joseph’s agrarian reforms point to the Ptolemaic period. I will discuss these further below.

Römer’s view is that the tale originated in the late post-exilic period as a diaspora story and was probably written by a Jewish community in Egypt.

J.A. Soggin adds these observation in two papers:

  • Joseph’s charge of spying assumes that Canaan belongs to an enemy power. The only historical period that really fits is the early second century BCE, when Palestine was part of the rival Seleucid empire. (Soggin 1993, p. 339)
  • Several Akkadian loanwords in the story suggest that it was written by a Jewish community that had returned from Babylonian exile. (Soggin 2000, p. 16)
  • The toponyms of Goshen and On (Heliopolis) are both contemporary to the Hellenistic period. (Soggin 2000, p. 18)

Based on these and other observations that the story contains no firsthand information at all about ancient Egypt’s history, institutions, and economy, Soggin concludes that it was constructed in the late post-exilic period — possibly as late as the first or early second century BCE! (Soggin 1993, pp. 343-344) Soggin goes so far as to question the conventional wisdom that the Pentateuch was already complete and translated into Greek by 250 BCE (Soggin 2000, p. 19).

Hortus Deliciarum, Josef wird von seinen Brüdern nach Ägypten verkauft, c. 1180

Identifying Insertions and Revisions

Under the traditional Documentary Hypothesis, the use of Elohim versus Yahweh has often been used to detect when the text changes from one source to another. Passages that call the divinity “Yahweh” can be understood to come from J (the Yahwist writer), and those that call him “Elohim” are considered to originate with E (the Elohist writer) or P (the Priestly writer). The flood story, which I wrote about here, is a clear example of a passage that can be separated into sources this way.

Redford shows that older attempts to divide the Joseph story into J and E versions do not yield useful results. According to him, the story is a unitary creation at its core; it did not exist as variant traditions merged into one narrative. Many of the apparent doublets in the story, like Joseph’s two dreams and his brothers’ two trips to Egypt, were intended from the start. However, the story has undergone numerous expansions that cause problems in the continuity and logic of the narrative. Some of the clearest instances are as follows. (If you want to follow along in the text, download this PDF file.)

Which Brother Saved Joseph’s Life: Reuben or Judah?

When Joseph’s brothers see him coming in chapter 37, they initially conspire to murder him. What exactly happens next is confusing, however. 

Initially, Reuben comes to Joseph’s rescue, insisting that Joseph be thrown into a cistern he has found rather than be killed outright. “We must shed no blood,” he tells his brothers. The idea is that Joseph’s death will come about indirectly (through starvation or perhaps drowning) instead through direct violence. But Reuben’s suggestion is a ruse, for he intends to return in secret later and rescue Joseph from the cistern. So they throw Joseph in a cistern.

But then Judah sees a caravan of Ishmaelites and proposes selling Joseph instead of killing him, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Joseph has already been dealt with. Everyone agrees to this new plan.

And then, suddenly, it is Midianites who pass by, and they pull Joseph from the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites. And later, when Reuben returns in secret, he is inexplicably confused by the empty cistern. Was he not aware of the plan to sell Joseph to the caravan?

The solution to these problems is simple: the verses concerning Judah’s intervention and the Ishmaelites were later additions meant to make Judah, rather than Reuben, the good older brother. To read the original Reuben-story, we must remove the Judah-story, verses 25 to 27 and 28b.

There is a second insertion by a redactor that must also be removed. Verses 19 to 21 preemptively summarize — and quite clumsily disrupt — the story by elaborating a plot to kill Joseph and throw his corpse into “one of the cisterns”, even though Reuben has not yet pointed out the cistern nor suggested Joseph be thrown into it. These verses muddle Reuben’s role in Joseph’s rescue and awkwardly anticipate Jacob’s deduction that Joseph was killed by wild animals, even though the matter of dipping Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood to fool Jacob seems to be an after-the-fact cover-up attempt devised later on (v. 31).

With these verses also removed, we have a fully coherent and rather good first act.
1. The brothers plan to murder Joseph.
2. Reuben suggests a less direct action: throwing Joseph into a cistern. They follow his advice.
3. Later, Midianite traders come to the cistern, discover Joseph, and take him as a slave.
4. Reuben returns to the cistern in secret to rescue Joseph but, to his dismay, finds him gone already.
5. Reuben goes along with his brothers’ cover-up, and Joseph ends up in Egypt, unbeknownst to everyone.

This original version also works better with the fact that later on in the story, none of the brothers have any idea that Joseph is still alive and in Egypt. Similarly, Joseph’s complaint that he was “stolen out of the land of the Hebrews” (40:15) refers to this original story (Thompson, p. 120). The statement in 37:36 that the “Medianites”² sold Joseph to an officer of Pharaoh also seems to be ignorant of Joseph’s sale to the Ishmaelites.

The same hand that wrote the Judah additions here has inserted other readily identifiable material later on in the story, particularly in chapters 42–44. These additions expand Judah’s role in the story, and they use the name ‘Israel’ rather than ‘Jacob’ for the brothers’ father. Like the matter of Joseph’s capture, they often introduce contradictions that I won’t go into for the sake of space.

Joseph Sold Into Egypt by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902

Joseph’s Confusing Prison Situation

There is some confusion in chapters 39 and 40 about Joseph’s location and status, as well as the identity of his master.

Gen. 37:36 and 39:1 tell us that Joseph was sold to an officer of Pharaoh (named Potiphar) whose position was captain of the guard. Joseph soon gains his favour and is made the overseer of his household. Then we get to the part in which Joseph is falsely accused of trying to seduce his master’s wife. Here, Joseph’s master is simply called his master, and the chapter ends with Joseph being thrown into a prison. The prison is overseen by the keeper of the prison, and Joseph, after gaining the favour of him as well, is put in charge of all the prisoners, despite being one himself — a rather strange situation, to be frank.

In chapter 40, Pharaoh becomes angry with his cupbearer and baker and has them confined in the house of the captain of the guard. A parenthetical comment in verse 3 tells us this house is the prison where Joseph is also confined. Wait a second. So…the prison where Joseph was sent also happens to be the house of the captain of the guard, his former master? Are we supposed to understand that the captain of the guard is the same person as the keeper of the prison? This makes little sense given the way the previous chapter unfolded.

In the verses that follow, Joseph interprets the two officials’ dreams, and nothing in this passage really suggests that Joseph is being held captive in a prison. The “keeper of the prison” is never mentioned again. Instead, the text continues to tell us that these events occur at the house of the captain of the guard, Joseph’s master (40:7, 40:14, 41:9, 41:12). In chapter 41, after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he is put in charge of Pharaoh’s house. The story seems to have forgotten about Joseph’s crime and incarceration by this point; no pardon or release from prison is ever mentioned. Joseph’s change in status is more like a job promotion.

Redford and Römer (2016c, 2018) convincingly show that this passage has been altered twice by insertions. The original story consisted of 39:1, 40:1a, 2–3a, 4–5a, 5c–15a. The important point to understand is that there was no sub-plot about Joseph being falsely accused and imprisoned. Joseph was simply the household overseer for his master, the captain of the guard. Pharaoh confined his out-of-favour officials in the house of Joseph’s master, not in a prison. (Prisons, in fact, probably did not exist in Egypt until Ptolemaic times. See Römer 2016c, 46:45.) It makes sense, then, that the detainees were put in Joseph’s charge.

A later writer, perhaps mistakenly thinking that Joseph was also a prisoner, introduced the story of the seductress to explain it. He may have adapted the Tale of Two Brothers, a well-known Egyptian folktale with a similar plot (Römer 2016c, 11:00 and 50:00). This addition accounts for 39:6b–20 and a few scattered remarks in ch. 40. Römer, citing Jean Louis Ska, notes that this sub-plot is incomplete from a narrative point of view; it is missing a satisfactory conclusion, since Joseph is never actually vindicated, nor is his accuser ever brought to justice (Römer 2015, p. 187; Ska, p. 68).

A third writer, perhaps realizing that Yahweh’s agency was absent throughout the entire Joseph story, added 39:2–6a and 39:21–23. These two insertions clarify that Yahweh’s blessing was responsible for Joseph’s success at finding favour with his masters, and the second insertion introduces the keeper of the prison, who is mentioned nowhere else (Römer 2016c, 11:00).

Guido Reni, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, c. 1630

Joseph’s Agrarian Reforms

In chapter 47, after the story has seemingly reached its conclusion with Joseph’s family settled in Egypt, we get a strange flashback that describes how Joseph managed the famine, taking advantage of the desperation of the starving populace in order to transfer all the land and livestock of Egypt to the Pharaoh’s control and to impose serfdom on all the people. These policies are implemented by Joseph over the course of two years, and it’s not clear whether they are meant to be the initial two years of the famine or a later two-year period.

It’s widely understood that this passage is a later insertion (cf. Römer, 2019). Its purpose is less clear. While it does not accurately describe any single historical event, it depicts the state of Egypt in the Ptolemaic period with rough accuracy. The inclusion of Canaan as part of Egypt’s administration may reflect the Ptolemaic empire’s Levantine expansion between 320 and 315 (Römer 2019, p. 31). The transfer of the populace to the cities (MT 47:21) could reflect urbanization and resettlement that took place under the Ptolemies (ibid.).

According to Römer, Joseph in this passage could be loosely based on a governor named Cleomenes who ruled part of Egypt under Alexander the Great:

…Joseph, in this passage, also somewhat resembles Cleomenes of Naucratis, an administrator of Alexander’s, the builder of Alexandria, and the originator of a mint in Egypt. In fact, it was he who, until his dismissal, held power in Egypt. While famine raged in the Mediterranean basin, he first prohibited the export of Egyptian wheat, and then greatly increased taxes on it in 329 BC. In a certain way, he obtained a sort of monopoly of wheat, which he would buy for 10 drachmas and sell for 32 drachmas. He inaugurated the control of the wheat trade by the Ptolemies. Cleomenes also seems to have been in conflict with the priests over the question of the maintenance of the temples. (Römer 2019, p. 32, my translation)

Joseph’s role in economic management also resembles the office of the diocete, the official who controlled economic affairs on behalf of the king during the Ptolemaic period. Römer remarks, “The addition of this passage may well reflect the economic changes in the Ptolemaic era that the author wants to attribute, either with pride or irony, to Joseph.” (Römer 2019, p. 34, my translation)

PIeter Lastman, Joseph Selling Corn in Egypt, 1612

Judah’s Great Digression

As I have covered in another article, the text takes a strange detour in chapter 38 right after Joseph is taken to Egypt. An entirely different story about Judah has been inserted here—one that cannot be reconciled with the story of Joseph. 

Judah abandons his brothers and settles in the region of Canaan later associated with the tribe of Judah. He finds a wife and has three sons who eventually all grow up. The first two, Er and Onan, are killed by Yahweh for their wickedness. Judah’s own wife eventually dies. Judah refuses to let his third son impregnate Er’s widow Tamar, so Tamar poses as a prostitute, sleeps with Judah, and bears twins. 

Then the story of Joseph resumes in chapter 39, and everything we have read about the life of Judah is forgotten. Once again, he is one of eleven brothers who live with their father in Beersheba. He seemingly doesn’t even have children, since Reuben the eldest is able to offer his sons to Jacob as surety for Benjamin (42:37), while Judah is only able to offer himself (43:9) (Redford, p. 17). Thus, chapter 38 is almost certainly a later insertion that the author(s) of the story of Joseph were not aware of, but that the editor of Genesis felt compelled to include (Redford, p. 18).

Juda and Tamar by Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem, 1596

Psalm 105 and a Multiplicity of Joseph Stories

Psalm 105 includes a brief version of the Joseph Story that does not perfectly agree with the Genesis version. Redford points out the following disagreements:

  • In the Joseph Story, being a slave does not involve being confined by fetters in prison. (Ps. 105:18)
  • Joseph was not confined in prison until a prediction of his came true, whereupon he was released. (Ps. 105:19)
  • Joseph did not teach Pharaoh’s elders wisdom. (Ps. 105:22)

Some of these observations might seem trivial given the highly condensed nature of the story in Psalm 150. However, Redford reasonably considers the psalm to be a reworked version of the story that emphasizes the “motif of the discredited chief minister”, which is found in numerous other stories within the Bible (e.g. the exaltations of Daniel and Mordecai) and in non-biblical stories. He also suggests that there might have been numerous stories about Joseph circulating among the Jews that originally had no connection with Joseph. These include the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which Redford thinks was independent before its insertion into the biblical story, and the story of Joseph’s agrarian reforms, which we have already seen is out of place in the biblical story. (Redford, pp. 180–181)

Redford draws the parallel of Sesostris, a legendary Egyptian king who, over time, was written into stories that originally had nothing to do with him due to his popularity. He believes that Jews similarly introduced the newly popular character of Joseph into pre-existing stories, and that this explains some of the narrative divergences we find in the biblical version.

A Coat of Many Conundrums

No discussion of this story would be complete without examining Joseph’s famous coat. According to Gen. 37:3, Jacob loved Joseph more than his other children “because he was the son of his old age”, and so he made for Joseph a ketonet passim. This unusual term describes some kind of garment, but the precise meaning is elusive. A ketonet is an article of clothing, but passim presents some difficulty. In modern Hebrew, pas means ‘stripe’, but in biblical Hebrew it meant ‘extremity’, ‘border’, or ‘vanishing’. Rabbinical commentators apparently imagined a light, delicate fabric. Modern translators often imagine a robe that extended “to one’s extremities”, i.e. hands and feet (Bledstein, p. 66). For example, the NRSV calls it a ‘long robe with sleeves’.

The common conception that it was a ‘coat of many colours’ (as the KJV describes it) probably comes from the Septuagint, which calls it a chiton poikilon, or ‘many-coloured coat’. But as E.A. Speiser bluntly stated many years ago, “The traditional ‘coat of many colors’ and the variant ‘coat with sleeves’ are sheer guesses from the context; nor is there anything remarkable about either colors or sleeves.” (Speiser, p. 289, quoted by Bledstein p. 67)

What’s interesting, though, is that a ketonet passim is mentioned one other time in the Bible: in 2 Samuel 13, Tamar the daughter of King David is wearing one when she is raped by her half-brother:

Now [Tamar] was wearing a ketonet passim, for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times. …Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the ketonet ha-passim that she was wearing. (2 Samuel 13:18a, 19a)

What should we make of this connection? Some scholars contend that the garment was plainly a girl’s dress, and that the story might be trying to feminize Joseph. (Cf Jennings, pp. 177–196, who calls it “a curious case of transvestism”.) Jennings points out other parallels that imply some significance to the parallels between Joseph and Tamar:

The parallels in the garment episodes are quite striking. Both play a role in the distinguishing of the wearer; both are worn by figures to whose beauty the reader is directed, and both wearers are assaulted by their brothers. Both garments become signs of mourning and violation. These multiple resonances of the long robe with sleeves prevent us from supposing that it is simply incidental that both Joseph and Tamar are depicted as wearing the same fashion statement. (Jennings, p. 180)

Joseph’s clothing continues to play a symbolic role in his changing fortunes, with his elevation by Pharaoh being marked by fine linen garments in which Pharaoh himself clothes Joseph (Gen. 41:42).

The Tamar connection is also interesting given the insertion of the story about Judah and Tamar in chapter 38. Graeme Auld believes this is no coincidence, as the stories of Israel’s monarchy influenced both the Joseph story and the Judah-Tamar story: 

Gen 38 was no cuckoo intruded into the nest of the Joseph story, for both the Judah and Tamar story and the wider account of Jacob’s sons were heavily indebted to the troubled stories of David’s family. …we should deduce that the books of Samuel were a resource, a spring, from which the authors of Genesis drew not once, but repeatedly.” (Auld, pp. 461–462)

Dutch Old Testament scholar Jan-Wim Wesselius adds another twist to the matter. According to him, the story of Joseph is partially based on Herodotus’s biography of Cyrus, who was raised in a shepherd’s household, hidden from his family for years, and learned about his future through dreams. Cyrus too had a distinctive multi-colored garment as a child, and that garment was used to fake his death (Histories I.113). Wesselius proposes that the author of the Joseph story, having borrowed the coat and other details from the story of Cyrus, “looked for a good link within the stories about David, and came up with the nice invention of making Joseph wear a typically feminine coat.” (Wesselius, p. 75; see also pp. 8–16) If Wesselius is correct (and the parallels are striking), it suggests to me that the Septuagint translator was aware of the connection and was guided by the Cyrus story in his translation of the garment.

Brian Hatton, Jacob with Joseph’s Coat, 1912

Other Historical and Geographical Concerns

There are some additional matters related to the history and geography of the story that are worth examining briefly.

The Famine

Soggin (1993, p. 342) observes that septennial cycles of rich harvests followed by famines should be understood as a “fairytale motif” that is used to support the narrative, and not as a historical event. As noted above, this motif could very well have been inspired by or related to the Djoser inscription by Ptolemy V, dated c. 187 BCE, which was found at Elephantine – where we know an early colony of Judaeans and Israelites existed alongside an Israelite temple and a scribal tradition.

Redford also highlights the contrived nature of an extended famine that affects both Egypt and Canaan, since “what produces a famine in Egypt (viz. the failure of the river to flood) does not have the same affect [sic] in Palestine” (Redford, p. 98).

The Ishmaelites

For those wanting to treat the Joseph story as history, it is a fairly obvious problem that it features the Ishmaelites as a well-established ethnic group inhabiting the region. In the patriarchal stories that come before it, Ishmael is an individual who belongs to the generation immediately before Joseph’s. But in chapter 37, as Redford notes, “his descendants are already a numerous people, engaged in an occupation they were not to know until well along in the First Millennium” (Redford, p. 248).

Ephraim and Manasseh

I have noted in another article that Chronicles presents a history of Ephraim and Manasseh that cannot be squared with the story of Joseph. In this story, Joseph’s two sons are born to him and his Egyptian wife, and they presumably die during the 400 years that the Israelites spend in Egypt. However, 1 Chronicles 7 has an older tradition in which Ephraim and Manasseh both live in northeastern Palestine — settling the land, establishing cities, and intermarrying with the neighboring Arameans. As Redford observes:

Outside the Joseph Story there is not the slightest trace of an Egyptian origin or Sojourn for these two tribes!” (p. 248) …The geographical distribution of the “Joseph Tribes” in Palestine conforms well with an Aramaean origin, since it seems to presuppose a movement from the north-east to the south-west, originating somewhere in Golan or beyond. That the Joseph Story should play so cavalierly with this long-standing tradition by implying that in fact Ephraim and Manasseh were half-Egyptian, and came from Egypt, shows how unhistorical the narrative really is. (p. 248 n. 5)

Notes on Names

Potiphar and Potiphera

The story only names three Egyptians, and two of them have nearly the same name: Potipher, Joseph’s first master, and Potiphera, Joseph’s father-in-law. In fact, they are the same name in Egyptian (Redford, p. 136) and in the Septuagint (‘Petephres’). According to Thompson (p. 117), the naming of the captain of the guard as Potiphar in Gen 37:36 is “extremely jarring in its context”, and as the character is otherwise referred to anonymously, Thompson believes it is a gloss derived from the name Potiphera (Gen 41:45 and 46:20). Römer and Redford come to similar conclusions (Römer 2018, p. 74; Redford, p. 136).

Ancient commentators were apparently confused by the names. The Testament of Joseph treats them as the same person, stating that Joseph took as his wife the daughter of his master (18:3). Jubilees 40:10 appears to conflate the two characters as well. One odd passage in the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 13b) apparently teaches that Potiphar bought Joseph as a sexual plaything and became known as Potiphera after the angel Gabriel castrated him (see Drinkwater).

Joseph and Osarseph

Russell Gmirkin has made the interesting argument that Joseph is partially based on Osarseph, a renegade priest allied with the Hyksos in Aegyptiaca, a now-lost quasi-historical work by Manetho (c. 3rd century BCE). The two characters’ names are basically the same if you replace the theophoric component Osar– (Osiris) with Jo– (Yah). Other similarities include the fact that Osarseph was a priest from Heliopolis like Joseph’s father-in-law, and the fact that Joseph brought his family of shepherds to settle in Goshen, while Osarseph summoned the Hyksos (the “shepherd-kings”) who subsequently settled in Avaris, which is generally equated with the biblical Ramesses, a city in Goshen (Gmirkin, pp. 211–212, 223).

Tomb of Joseph at Shechem by David Roberts, 1839

The Purpose and Moral of the Story

The placement of the Joseph story at the end of Genesis suggests that its purpose is to explain why the Israelites had to be brought out of Egypt if the patriarchs already inhabited the Promised Land. However, it is hard to draw this conclusion from the original core of the story itself, especially if the story originated independently of the Pentateuch. Redford, for example, thinks the original story had nothing to do with the role it now fulfills. It is even debatable whether the original story intended for Joseph’s family to stay in Egypt after the famine ended, since the passages that reinforce their permanent resettlement can all be attributed to later insertions (Redford, pp. 160–161). Concerning the story’s original function, he concludes:

…It may perhaps be misleading to maintain that the Joseph Story was composed in answer to the question, how did Israel get to Egypt? The “Judah-expansion” and the final redaction of Genesis do indeed answer this question; but the original Joseph Story seems to be nothing more than the Hebrew version of the common motif of the boy who dreamed great things. (Redford, p. 251)

Römer believes that the story is best understood within the context of the late Jewish diaspora, an idea originally put forward by German scholar Arndt Meinhold:

It is easiest to explain the attention given to describing the Egyptian integration and career of Joseph if one assumes that the Joseph story is a “diaspora novella” and was conceived in order to reflect the possibilities for a life outside of the land. […] It is the best hypothesis to understand the historical setting and the intention of the narration. (Römer 2015, p. 192)

According to Römer, the theme of reconciliation between Joseph (representing the north) and his brothers (representing the south) imply a “pan-Israelite” ideology similar to what is found in post-exilic prophetic texts concerning the restoration of Joseph and Judah, particularly Ezek. 37:19 and Zech. 10:6 (ibid., p. 195).

In giving his interpretation, Soggin draws particular attention to 45.4-8 and 50.19-21, in which Joseph states that although his brothers intended evil toward him, it was really God directing events the whole time in order to save Egypt and Israel.

And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. […] So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Gen. 45:5, 8)

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. (Gen. 50:19)

Soggin argues that the story was written “sometime in late post-exilic Judaism” to reassure Jews that despite trying times — the failure of Jewish hopes for independence and the willingness of the priesthood to compromise with occupying powers — everything was being directed by God and would turn out for the best.

‘Most authors agree on the importance of the phrases 45.4-8 and 50.19-21. Their content is, further, confirmed by the addresses given by Joseph to the two officials in prison, 40.8, and later to the Pharaoh, 41.16: it is the God of Israel who grants wisdom to the faithful and who directs human acts, even wicked ones, in order that good should finally come out of them as a result. […] So one could summarize the main thesis of the story with the words of the Nicene fathers: things happened ‘hominum confusione, sed Dei providentia’, a rather unusual thesis, by the way, in the Hebrew Bible.’ (Soggin 1993, p. 344)

Concluding Thoughts

What we seem to find in the story of Joseph is a late tale probably originating with the Judaean diaspora in Egypt. The hero of the story is unknown to earlier biblical writers, and there are numerous literary and historical models that can be plausibly put forward as the basis for Joseph: the Tale of Two Brothers, Cleomenes of Naucratis, Cyrus of Persia, the priest Osarseph, Djoser’s chancellor Imhotep, and so on. As Reford puts it, “The character Joseph, the hero of the Märchen in Genesis (as distinct from the eponymous ancestor) is being adapted to older literary, mythological, and aetiological works, independent in origin of the Joseph Story, which are set in Egypt.” (Redford, p. 181)

The story maintains remarkable cohesion despite the narrative problems we find on close inspection, and its enduring popularity in modern media and entertainment, from numerous film adaptations to the famous Broadway version, is a testament to the skill of its original authors.

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902


Additional Resources

In order to write this article, I prepared a document that used colour-coding to indicate the various possible sources of the Joseph Story. It’s far from perfect, but I’m providing it for interested readers to download. Here’s a PDF version.

Footnotes

  1.  Not to mention the fact that in the patriarchal narratives, Ishmael was Jacob’s uncle. It does not make sense for the descendants of Ishmael to already be a numerous people engaged in commerce by the time of Joseph.
  2. It’s not clear why the spelling diverges here. Are the Medianites supposed to be the same group as the Midianites?

References

Donald B. Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph, 1970.

Thomas Römer (2015), The Joseph Story in the Book of Genesis: Pre-P or Post-P?, The Post-Priestly Pentateuch: New Perspectives on its Redactional Development and Theological Profiles, 2015.

Thomas Römer (2016a), Joseph’s Dreams and his Descent to Egypt (Genesis 37), March 3, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-03-03-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2016b), Joseph’s Dreams and his Descent to Egypt (Genesis 37) (cont.), March 10, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-03-10-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2016c), Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar (Genesis 39), March 17, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-03-17-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2016d), Joseph and his Brothers in Egypt (Genesis 42-43), March 24, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-03-24-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2016e), Benjamin, a New Joseph? An Incomplete Reconciliation (Genesis 44-45), March 31, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-03-31-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2016f), Jacob’s Descent to Egypt. Joseph Invents Capitalism (Genesis 46-47), April 7, 2016, https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-thomas-romer/course-2016-04-07-14h00.htm

Thomas Römer (2018), Joseph and the Egyptian Wife (Genesis 39): A Case of Double Supplementation, Supplementation and the Study of the Hebrew Bible, 2018.

Thomas Römer (2019), Joseph, inventeur du capitalisme (Gn 47,13-26): enjeux économiques et politiques dans un ajout à l’histoire de Joseph, Bible et Politique: Hommage au Professeur Olivier Artus pour son 65ème anniversaire, 2019.

J.A. Soggin (1993), Notes on the Joseph Story, Understanding Poets and Prophets: Essays in Honor of George Wishart Anderson, 1993.

J.A. Soggin (2000), Dating the Joseph Story and other Remarks, Joseph Bibel und Literatur: Symposion Helsinki / Lathi 1999, 2000.

Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel, 1987.

J.L. Ska, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch, 2006.

Elizabeth Hayes, More than just a Pretty Coat: The Story of Joseph the Dreamer from Jewish, Christian and Islamic Perspectives, Prophecy and Prophets in Stories: Papers Read at the Fifth Meeting of the Edinburgh Prophecy Network, Utrecht, October 2013, 2015.

Jan-Wim Wesselius, Origin of the History of Israel, 2002.

John Kaltner, Steven L. McKenzie, and Joel Kilpatrick, The Uncensored Bible: The Bawdy and Naughty Bits of the Good Book, 2008.

Adrien Janis Bledstein, Tamar and the ‘Coat of Many Colors’, Samuel and Kings (Feminist Companion to the Bible).

E.A. Speiser, Genesis, 1964.

Graeme Auld, Reading Genesis after Samuel, Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research, 2011.

Gregg Drinkwater, Joseph’s Fabulous Technicolor Dreamcoat (Parashat Vayeshev), https://www.keshetonline.org/resources/josephs-fabulous-technicolor-dreamcoat-parashat-vayeshev/, December 16, 2006. 

Russell Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus, 2006.

Theodore W. Jennings Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, 2005.

21 thoughts on “From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

  1. Bad writing by ancient authors who had little or no precedent is acceptable.

    Bad reading by modern believers is their own damn fault.

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  2. Great stuff, as always. And not the first time you’ve drawn attention to the relatively neglected Egyptian diaspora. A number of questions:

    “Soggin goes so far as to question the conventional wisdom that the Pentateuch was already complete and translated into Greek by 250 BCE”; so presumably he is questioning the conventional dating of the Septuagint. Are there good grounds to do so?

    “Ishmaelites only appear in late Old Testament texts (Judith, Chronicles, Psalms).” Ishmael, and the distinction between his inheritance and that of Isaac, are prominent in the Abraham story, in which God tells Hagar that Ishmael will also give rise to a great nation. This makes sense for material written either before, or not too long after, the Babylonian exile, as part of staking the Israelite/Jewish territorial claim, but surely that was no longer necessary centuries later.

    Surely the charge of spying would make sense at any time at all after Egypt had lost control of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, which happened in the late Bronze Age.

    “the verses concerning Judah’s intervention and the Ishmaelites were later additions meant to make Judah, rather than Reuben, the good older brother.” A recurrent theme, with obvious political significance.

    “older attempts to divide the Joseph story into J and E versions ” This gave me an idea that I’m sure many people have had already. J and E were originally distinct, but after a certain time (when?), the Jews, as we can by then call them, were using both names as near-synonyms in the same document.

    ” Ishmael is an individual who belongs to the generation immediately before Joseph’s.” Two generations, surely. Ishmael was a brother of Isaac. It was Esau/Edom (another and more historically based territorial rival and older brother) who belongs to Jacob’s generation.

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    • Insightful questions as always, Professor.

      presumably he is questioning the conventional dating of the Septuagint. Are there good grounds to do so?

      If you’re asking me, that’s more than I can tackle here, though I’d like to in a future article. Soggin doesn’t go into it at length, but here’s a fuller statement from his article:

      “One must therefore be surprised to find in a review by a learned colleague (L. Schmidt 1999) the remark that the Joseph story cannot be as late as I suggest, because already around 300 B.C.E. the Pentateuch had canonical value and about 250 it was translated into Greek, according to an opinion, as he says, generally held by scholarship. Are these figures, according to contemporary scholarship, as safe as L. Schmidt declares?”

      Surely the charge of spying would make sense at any time at all after Egypt had lost control of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, which happened in the late Bronze Age.

      I think the point is that the charge makes the most sense (even as a bluff) if Canaan is occupied by a significant power hostile to Egypt, and there weren’t many times during the proposed dating of the story when this would have been true. Here’s a longer quote from Soggin:

      “All this cannot refer to any situation of the second millennium BCE, when the whole of Palestine and the southern part of Syria were under Egyptian sovereignty; it hardly fits into the first half of the first millennium BCE, when Israel and Judah relied heavily on Egyptian help against Assyria first and Babylon afterwards; it can refer only to much later times, when the region was politically independent from Egypt which had become an enemy power. There is only one period in which such a situation is clearly known: the beginning of the second century BCE, when Syria and Palestine had been incorporated into the Seleucid empire; another one could perhaps be identified a few centuries earlier, when Egypt was in a frequent state of rebellion against its Persian overlord.”

      Redford also uses the spying motif in his estimation of dating but is less precise, simply stating that the charge does not make sense any earlier than 700 B.C. when the Assyrians and their successors began exerting power over the region. Of course, Redford was writing in 1970, when proposing a Hellenistic dating would have been unthinkable, so he settles on Saite-period dating even though many of his strongest arguments point to later times.

      It was Esau/Edom (another and more historically based territorial rival and older brother) who belongs to Jacob’s generation.

      Yeah, I’m actually using Redford’s phrasing there, and I assume he means that Ishmael was still alive and well during the generation prior to Joseph’s. My math puts Ishmael at 74 when Jacob was born, and he would have lived another 63 years. That means he was alive for most of Jacob’s life but deceased 28 years before Joseph was born.

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      • Not my area, but I don’t see how Soggin makes sense when he says “the second millennium BCE, when the whole of Palestine and the southern part of Syria were under Egyptian sovereignty; it hardly fits into the first half of the first millennium BCE, when Israel and Judah relied heavily on Egyptian help against Assyria first and Babylon afterwards; it can refer only to much later times”.

        Surely the collapse of the buffer states of Israel and Judah brought Egypt into close contact with the Assyrian Empire, and then into direct contact with the Babylonian. Redford, here, seems highly credible.

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        • I would take his point to be that during much of the first millennium, the various states of the Levant were sometimes vassals of Assyria/Babylon and sometimes in rebellion against Assyria/Babylon with Egyptian backing, but Palestine itself was not under the firm control of an empire hostile to Egypt.

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        • “during much of the first millennium … Palestine itself was not under the firm control of an empire hostile to Egypt”As I said, not my area, but surelly the fall of the Kingdom of Israel in 720 BCE, and especially of Judah in 587, brought first Assyria and then the Babylonian Empire dangeruslly close to Egpt’s borders

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        • This is an area I too need to study more. My impression is that the Neo-Babylonian empire didn’t so much occupy Judah as they simply destroyed it, leveling its cities and leaving it without any political structures that could oppose Babylonian authority. The population of Palestine during this time was almost negligible. (Again, if I have my details correct.) No Egyptian ruler would be concerned about an invasion from Palestine under those conditions.

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  3. The failure of earlier writers to refer to the story of Joseph is an interesting clue to the late origins of the story. But is it also possible that early Jews just weren’t that interested in the character? The early Christians clearly had access to the story (and perhaps had typological reasons to be interested in Joseph) but rarely mentioned him.

    Could Amos 6:6 be an allusion to Jospeh’s betrayal by his brothers? Or perhaps an inspiration for the tale?

    Elijah and Elisha are also rarely mentioned by the Biblical tradition. Where do you think that leaves them historically speaking?

    Sorry for all the questions. Thanks for the thought-provoking article as always.

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    • In rabbinical Judaism, Elijah has an enormous role as the prophet who will come again as herald of the arrival of the Messiah. I don’t know the new Testament at all well, but isn’t there a clear reference there to this belief?

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    • Joseph’s story is so foundational to the biblical history of Israel that the utter silence is, in my humble opinion, hard to fathom if the story was known since the days of ancient Israel. Even the New Testament, largely written for a Greek audience with little practical interest in Israelite history, mentions Joseph more often (mainly a few times in Acts and Hebrews).

      I think Amos 6:6 is simply referring to the destruction of Israel.

      I think the historicity of Elijah and Elisha is shaky. At any rate, they are specifically associated with a relatively small region within Samaria, and you could probably argue that those stories are fairly late as well. Among the prophetic texts, only post-exilic Malachi seems to be aware of Elijah, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. I always wondered why Joseph (perhaps a more noble and important man than some of the other Patriachs) is never mentioned among the Patriarchs. YHWH is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

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  4. I had a class taught by Donald Redford at PSU! And one taught by his wife, Susan, an Ancient Near Eastern mythology class well worth trudging through the snow for. They’re both excellent scholars.
    Great article, glad to see you’re posting again.

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  5. If Joseph’s robe was a literary borrowing from the Davidic stories, then we have more support for Saite or later composition. The story of Tamar’s rape by Amnon (later avenged by Absalom and setting the stage for Absalom’s rebellion) is part of the Succession Cycle that is initiated by David’s taking of Bathsheba and ends with Solomon’s rise to the throne. The Bathsheba Affair — Was It Only Persian Era Gossip? brings evidence from John Van Setters that places the Bathsheba story no earlier than the Persian era.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting and well sourced. I’m sure you’re aware of this too but I find the list of Jacob’s family that comes to Egypt in Genesis chapter 46 interesting in this regard too. To read the story literally, Joseph is sold at age 17 and his brothers and entire family join him in Egypt at 39, so 22 years elapse. In that time Judah is able to marry and have 3 children who all grow up to an age they can marry, then two marry Tamar consecutively, then Tamar seduces Judah and has Perez, who is also able to grow up and have Heston and Hamul (Gen 46:12). So in 22 years Judah has 3 grown kids, then after that starts over with two more children (Tamar’s) who are old enough by Gen 46 to give him grandchildren, all in 22 years.

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    • Following the same assumptions (that Genesis is the literally true account of a real family), Judah is likely only about 6 years older than Joseph, so even if someone claims Judah already started his family by the time Joseph was sold, he didn’t have that much of a head start. Unless all the ‘men’ involved married at 13 or so.

      The timeline for Judah and Joseph’s births is based on Genesis 29-31. Jacob spends a total of 20 years in Aram Genesis 31:38-41), at the end of which Joseph is already born. First 7 years he was not yet married, he was just yearning for Rachel (29:20). Then for 7 years he is married only to Leah, and the last 6 years he was also married to Rachel. Genesis 29:31-35 says Leah has 4 sons, with Judah being 4th, and then stops having children for a while. I take that she stopped having children because that was when Jacob married Rachel, and stopped paying attention to Leah. We also see in 30:14-16 that it took some dealing for Leah to have access to Jacob once Rachel was in the picture.

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