I’ve just published a new video on my YouTube channel — this time about the story of Joseph. It’s based on this article I wrote a while ago, but as usual, it has some new material and a new approach to some issues.
Although a small minority of scholars still argue that the story of Joseph was written in the monarchic period, the modern consensus seems to be that it dates to post-exilic times and is linked somehow to the Jewish diaspora in Egypt. The canonical narrative begins and ends with a focus on the twelve sons of Jacob who are to become the twelve tribes of Israel; but as we know, the twelve-tribe motif is a fictional reinvention of Israel’s history that emerged quite late, and you don’t find individuals with those names in ancient inscriptions, ostraca, et cetera. At the very least, any part of the story involving the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel cannot be so ancient.
However, the name “Joseph” does seem to be older than most of the other names. Even in the Bible, there are places where Joseph is listed as a tribe or house that is distinct from other Israelite tribes, including Manasseh and Ephraim—oblivious to the verses in Genesis and Numbers that “replace” Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim in the twelve-tribe framework.
Two questions I pondered while I was revisiting the Joseph story were (1) could there be an older core of the story that concerns only the Joseph character, and if so, (2) what, in historical terms, did Joseph originally refer to? Was it just another name for the kingdom of Israel, or did it represent something else?
Reconsidering the unity of the Joseph story
Even a surface reading of the Joseph story reveals rough patches that are best explained by insertions of later material. These are addressed in detail by the books and articles of Redford, Römer, and others cited in my earlier article.
Can we go deeper than that? Can we separate the tale of a young Hebrew rising to power in the Egyptian court from the frame story of fraternal conflict and reunion? The core plot seems to draw from elements of a local Egyptian myth that appears in various forms on the famous Famine Stele, in the Book of the Temple, and elsewhere. They all share in common a seven-year famine connected with the Nile, a divine dream dreamt by the Pharaoh, and the intervention of a wise vizier. The parts of the Joseph story about his brothers, his special robe, and so on, seem disconnected from this myth, though they are important for connecting Joseph to the patriarchs and the biblical narrative of Israel’s origins.
The use of dreams, though seemingly a unifying element throughout the narrative, also hints at an incongruity between the setup of chapter 37 and the events that take place in Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph is a wise interpreter of dreams. But back in Canaan, he is the dreamer rather than the interpreter. These are opposing roles! The reader is lulled into accepting Joseph-in-Egypt as an expert in dreams without noticing the switcheroo.¹
And then there are Pharaoh’s two dreams. The first makes perfect sense, connecting the bountiful and lean harvests to the Nile River, which flooded every year to irrigate Egypt’s crops. The majority of chapter 41 is concerned only with famine in Egypt. After all, the conditions of the Nile River would not affect crops in Canaan or other nations.
There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. (Gen 41:39-30a)
Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. … That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine. (Gen 41:34, 36)
The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end. And the seven years of famine came, just as Joseph had said. (Gen 41:53–54a)
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” (Gen 41:55)
The statements in verses 54b and 57, clarifying that the whole world was also experiencing famine, feel secondary.
Pharaoh’s second dream concerns ears of grain withered by an “east wind” — which is part of the seasonal cycle in Palestine but not really relevant to Egypt. There are other inconsistencies with Pharaoh’s second dream as well, prompting some scholars (as outlined by Redford, p. 80) to suggest that it was a later addition:
- The dreams are recounted twice for narrative impact. The first (original) dream is embellished by Pharaoh in the second telling, but the second dream is retold nearly word-for-word without embellishment.
- The seam between the first and second dream in Gen. 41:22 is abrupt, with no mention of Pharaoh going back to sleep.
Without the second dream and its east wind, there is no reason for Joseph to interpret the famine as being worldwide. Without that dream, we would have only an Egyptian famine.² But once Joseph’s brothers became part of the story, some mechanism was needed for getting them from Canaan to Egypt.
I’m also bothered by the idea that ears of grain can gobble each other up. I get the sense that the ears of grain are simply patterned after the cattle that eat each other in the first dream, without concern for the details about how such a thing would work.
Joseph the Hebrew and the House of Joseph
While doing research for the video, I was pleased to discover an article by Lauren Monroe (Cornell University) that addressed many of my questions. (See the bibliography below for the full citation.) Monroe has done some research that could be groundbreaking if her conclusions are correct.
For starters, Monroe identifies Genesis 39–41 and parts of 47 as containing the core story of “Joseph the Hebrew” who becomes vizier of Egypt. In this story, the famine is confined to Egypt.
Monroe’s primary interest, however, is the origin of Israel and its relation to an entity in the Old Testament known as the House of Joseph (bet-josef). Sometimes it is named as a counterpart to Judah:
I will give victory to the House of Judah and triumph to the House of Joseph. (Zech. 10:6)
According to Monroe, scholars tend to make the mistake of interpreting House of Joseph in light of the Genesis story, equating it with the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh—and, by extension, the entire northern kingdom. However, the House of Joseph is not identified with Ephraim and Manasseh by the Bible itself,³ and it seems to exist as an entity distinct from the House of Jacob. Monroe says we should be looking at it the other way around: the House of Joseph was something separate from the kingdom of Israel, and the core Joseph story preserves an ancestor tradition about the House of Joseph. Only later did the myth of a Greater Israel with Jacob as its patriarch come into being.
A key passage for Monroe is 2 Samuel 19, in which Shimei ben Gera offers his allegiance to David on behalf of the House of Joseph:
See? I have come today, the first of the entire House of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the King. (2 Sam. 19:21)
Shimei is described as being “of the Yemini [Benjaminites] from Bahurim⁴”. He is not from Ephraim or Manasseh, and the northern kingdom of Israel does not exist yet at this point in the biblical narrative, so “House of Joseph” cannot refer to those entities. Monroe states:
Taking the text at face value, the name bet-yosef here seems to connote a substantial, recognized collective … to which Shimei of the Yemini belongs. The bet-yosef is at once distinct from and essential to the establishment of the “Israel” that David comes to rule. (p. 62)
Another important passage is 1 Kings 11:28, in which Jeroboam is appointed by Solomon “over all the forced labor of the House of Joseph”. Properly understood, the wording implies that the House of Joseph is a dominant entity with corvée (slave) workers at its disposal.
The third key passage is Judges 1:34–35, in which the House of Joseph enslaves the Amorites that were encroaching on Dan’s territory. Again, in this pre-monarchic context, it cannot be interpreted as signifying the kingdom of Israel.
Okay, so let’s grant that the House of Joseph wasn’t the kingdom of Israel. What was it?
The Bronze-Age political landscape
During the Late Bronze Age, before the kingdom of Israel existed, Canaan was largely under Egyptian hegemony. From analyzing the correspondence between Egypt and Canaanite leaders preserved in the Amarna archive, historian Brendon C. Benz has identified three different socio-political structures that existed in the Levant: city-states, lands with one centralized authority, and “multi-polity” coalitions of decentralized lands. These structures probably persisted for some time even after Egyptian power waned. The multi-polity organizations in particular were capable of organizing large-scale agricultural production and corvée workers without threatening the independence of their members.
Monroe proposes that the House of Joseph was one of these decentralized multi-polity groups — one that had close ties with Egypt. This would explain, for example, why Jeroboam took refuge in Egypt under pharaoh Shishak in 1 Kings 11. The House of Joseph by its nature would have included numerous local cities and tribes under its authority, including the Yemini, and it would have played a key role in the formation of the Iron Age Israelite kingdom. The Shimei incident retains some memory of this fact.
The original story of Joseph the Hebrew who ruled in Egypt might have served as a “myth of legitimation” for the authority that the House of Joseph enjoyed in Canaan (Monroe, p. 73). But in later literary developments, Israel was re-envisioned as a tribal federation, and Jacob replaced Joseph as the eponymous patriarch of Israel.
Monroe has a forthcoming book that explores the House of Joseph in much more detail. Hopefully, it will shed more light on this dimly understood period in Israel’s history.
- And if the reader has also read Daniel 2, the idea that a Hebrew boy in a royal court should be skilled at interpreting dreams is already familiar and taken for granted.
- The explanation offered by Redford for the addition of Pharaoh’s second dream is that it was “fabricated under the influence of the dictum that double dreams are an indication of the speed and certainty of fulfilment” (p. 80). He further suggests that the second dream is inspired by the dream of the sheaves in chapter 37.
- There is one exception, Joshua 17:17, that Monroe says is a harmonizing gloss in the Masoretic text.
- Bahurim was apparently a town in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
- Lauren Monroe. “Stripping off the Robe: New Light on ‘Joseph the Hebrew’ and the bet-yosef”, in The Joseph Story between Egypt and Israel. 2021.
- Brendon C. Benz, The Land before the Kingdom of Israel: A History of the Southern Levant and the People Who Populated It. 2016.