Joseph

This article refers to Joseph, son of Jacob. For Mary's husband, Joseph, please see Joseph, Mary's Husband. For other men named Joseph see the Joseph (Disambiguation) Page.
See also The Joseph Story, a Literary Question and Joseph, a Biography
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Joseph (יוֹסֵף; LXX Ιωσήφ; He [God] will add). Joseph was the first son of Rachel, Jacob]’s favorite wife. While in [[Paddan-aram, Jacob saw and loved Rachel, and arranged to work seven years for her (Gen 29:17, 18). Laban, her father, gave Leah, his oldest daughter, to Jacob, insisting that custom demanded that the oldest daughter be married first. Jacob worked seven more years for Rachel. Leah, however, bore children, but Rachel was barren until the birth of Joseph. As the first son of the favorite wife, Jacob was partial to Joseph. Evidence of this is seen in the coat which he gave to Joseph, alone, of all his sons (Gen 37:3). The antagonism of Joseph’s brothers grew when Joseph told them of dreams which he had, suggesting that they, along with his father and mother, would one day bow before him. When Joseph was seventeen years old, his father sent him to Shechem to inquire about the welfare of his brothers. They had gone on to Dothan, where Joseph found them. The brothers saw him approaching and determined to kill him, but Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob, persuaded his brothers to spare the life of Joseph and instead to cast him into a pit. Reuben hoped to rescue Joseph from the pit, but before he could do so a company of Ishmaelite merchants passed. While Reuben was away, the other brothers sold Joseph as a slave to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. The brothers then dipped Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat, and told their father that they had found his blood-soaked coat. Jacob concluded that a wild animal had killed Joseph.

In Egypt, Joseph was sold to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, Potiphar. As a trustworthy worker, Joseph was given a responsible position. Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph and attempted to seduce him. When Joseph spurned her advances, she accused him of being the aggressor, with the result that he was imprisoned for several years.

In prison, Joseph again proved himself worthy of a position of trust. He interpreted the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker, the first of whom was restored to Pharaoh’s confidence, and the second, beheaded. After two years Pharaoh had a dream, and the chief butler remembered how Joseph had correctly interpreted the dreams. Joseph was sent for, and he explained that the Pharaoh’s dreams foretold seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph that he appointed him superintendent of the royal granaries. Joseph was now second in rank to Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:39-44). He married Asenath, daughter of a priestly family at On (Heliopolis). Before the famine began, Joseph had two sons: Manasseh, and Ephraim. When the famine came, the entire world of the eastern Mediterranean lands suffered, but Joseph’s advice saved Egypt. Joseph’s brothers came from Canaan to buy food, but they did not recognize him. He recognized them, however, and questioned them closely concerning their family. The welfare of Jacob, his father, and Benjamin, his full brother who had remained at home, was his prime concern. Keeping Simeon as a hostage, Joseph permitted his brothers to return home. On their second visit they brought along Benjamin, and Joseph plotted to find an excuse to keep Benjamin with him. Joseph ordered that a silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s bag. This was done and Joseph then sent his men after the caravan to search for the supposed thief. When the cup was found in Benjamin’s bag, all returned. Judah, however, insisted that Benjamin must return home. Jacob had lost his favorite son already, and the loss of the second child of the beloved Rachel would be too much for him. Judah offered to remain himself if Benjamin were permitted to go with his brothers home to Jacob. Years before the brothers had been jealous of Joseph to the point that they were prepared to kill him. Now, however, th ey were willing to indulge their father in his special love for Benjamin. Joseph was so moved at Judah’s words that he could contain his emotions no longer. He ordered his courtiers out of the room, and revealed himself to his brothers. They were frightened, feeling that he would seek revenge for their treatment of him, but he assured them that he saw the hand of God in all that had happened. Joseph urged them to bring their father and settle in the eastern delta region of Egypt—in the land of Goshen. Jacob, who had difficulty believing that Joseph was really alive, joined his sons in moving down to Egypt. They were settled near Joseph’s palace and enjoyed a favored position. Jacob thus died a happy man. Joseph lived to the age of 110—the ideal life span in Egyptian thought. At the Exodus, the mumified remains of Joseph were taken from Egypt and, following the Conquest, they were buried at Shechem (Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32).


The Sinuhe Story tells of the adventures of an Egyptian who left Egypt for political reasons, and spent many years in Canaan and Syria. Sinuhe married the daughter of a Bedouin chief, and prospered in his adopted country. In old age, however, he had the opportunity to return to his native land, and did so. He was properly embalmed and buried in a pyramid. Joseph, on the other hand, gave orders that his remains should be returned to his native land. In accord with Egyp. custom, Joseph, too, was embalmed. Subsequently his body was taken from Egypt to the Shechem area for burial.

Additional Material

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JOSEPH (jō'zĕf, Heb. yôsēph, may God add). The eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the firstborn son of Rachel, who said when he was born, “May the Lord add to me another son,” and therefore called his name Joseph (Gen.30.24). He became the ancestor of the two northern tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim. The account of his birth is told in Gen.30.22-Gen.30.24, and the account of the rest of his life is found in Gen.37.1-Gen.37.36-Gen.50.1-Gen.50.26. He was born in Paddan Aram when his father was ninety years old; he was his father’s favorite child because he was Rachel’s child and the son of his old age. The father’s favoritism was shown in his getting for Joseph a coat of many colors, which was probably a token of rank indicating that it was his intention to make Joseph the head of the tribe. This favoritism naturally aroused the envy of Joseph’s older brothers. Their ill will was increased when he somewhat imprudently told them two dreams he had that were suggestive of his future greatness and their subservience to him. When he was seventeen years old, his father sent him to see how his brothers were doing at Shechem, where they were feeding their flocks; but when he arrived, he found that they had gone on to Dothan, and he followed them there. When they saw him coming, they planned to kill him, and thus make impossible the fulfillment of his dreams. Reuben, however, persuaded them not to kill him but to throw him alive into a pit, intending to rescue him later and restore him to his father. When Reuben was absent for a short time, the brothers saw a caravan of Ishmaelites making their way to Egypt and decided that instead of allowing Joseph to die in the well, they would sell him to these merchantmen. They sold Joseph and then took his coat of many colors, smeared it with the blood of a goat they had killed, and took it to Jacob with the story that they had found the coat and assumed that their brother was dead, torn to pieces by some wild beast. The aged father, grief-stricken and disconsolate, mourned the loss of his son for many days.

In the meantime, Joseph was taken to Egypt by the Ishmaelites and sold in the slave market to an officer of Pharaoh, an Egyptian named Potiphar. The young slave proved himself to be so intelligent and trustworthy that his master soon entrusted to him all the affairs of his household, which prospered under Joseph’s administration. But on the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife, whose improper advances Joseph had rejected, he was cast into prison, where he remained for years. God was with him, however, and the providence that had previously saved his life now brought him to the favorable attention of the pharaoh. The prison keeper, finding he could put implicit confidence in Joseph, committed to his charge the other prisoners. Among these were two of the pharaoh’s officers, his chief butler and chief baker, who had been imprisoned for offending the king. Joseph interpreted for them two dreams they had had; and three days later, on the king’s birthday, as Joseph had foretold, the chief baker was hanged and the chief butler restored to his office (Gen.40.5-Gen.40.23).

After two years, during which Joseph’s circumstances remained unchanged—the chief butler had forgotten his promise to mention him to the king—Pharaoh had two dreams that no one could interpret. They had to do with fat and lean cows and full and withered heads of grain. The chief butler now remembered Joseph and told the king of Joseph’s skill in interpreting dreams. Joseph was sent for. He told Pharaoh that each dream had the same meaning: Seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. He then suggested that preparation be made for the years of famine by storing up the surplus produce during the seven years of plenty against the years of famine. Pharaoh immediately made Joseph head of the royal granaries and invested him with the authority necessary to carry out his proposals. As the head of the department of state, Joseph became one of the officials next in rank to the pharaoh (Gen.41.39-Gen.41.44), and as a further mark of royal favor, he was given an Egyptian name and was married to the daughter of the priest of the great national temple of On. Joseph was now thirty years old. During the seven years of plenty he amassed corn in the granaries of every city, and his wife bore him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The famine that Joseph predicted affected not only Egypt but all the known world, so that all countries came to Egypt to buy corn. Joseph’s brothers came also. They did not recognize him, but he knew them; and when they prostrated themselves before him, he saw the fulfillment of the dreams that had aroused their intense jealousy years before. The climax of the episode is reached when Joseph, after testing their character in various ways, made himself known to them, told them that he bore no ill will for the wrong they had done him, and persuaded them and their father to settle in Egypt. The pharaohs reigning in Egypt during that era were probably members of the Hyksos dynasty and were Semites, like Joseph; and the present pharaoh consequently cordially welcomed Jacob and his family to Egypt.

In the years that followed, Joseph brought about a permanent change in the Egyptian system of land tenure because of the famine and the consequent poverty of the people, so that almost all the land became the property of the pharaoh, and the previous owners became his tenants. Jacob lived with Joseph in Egypt seventeen years. Before he died, he adopted Joseph’s two sons, putting them on the same level as his own sons in the division of the inheritance. Joseph lived to the age of 110. Shortly before he died he expressed his confidence that God would some day bring the children of Israel back to Canaan, and solemnly directed that his bones be buried there. His wishes were carried out, and his bones were buried finally in Shechem, in the plot of ground bought there by Jacob (Josh.24.32). He became the ancestor of the two tribes Manasseh and Ephraim, the latter being the most powerful and important in northern Israel. Joseph presents a noble ideal of character, remarkable for his gentleness, faithfulness to duty, magnanimity, and forgiving spirit, so that he is often regarded as an Old Testament type of Christ.