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Joseph, a Biography

See also The Joseph Story, a Literary Question and Joseph

The Story of Joseph, a Biography

It is unnecessary to recount here all the events of the life of Joseph, a story so incomparably told in the Biblical narrative. It will be sufficient to touch only the salient points where controversy has raged, or at which archaeology has furnished special illumination. The story of Joseph begins the tenth and last natural division of Ge in these words: "The generations of Jacob" (Ge 37:2). Up to this point the unvarying method of Ge is to place at the head of each division the announcement "the generations of" one of the patriarchs, followed immediately by a brief outline of the discarded line of descent, and then to give in detail the account of the chosen line.

There is to be now no longer any discarded line of descent. All the sons of Jacob are of the chosen people, the depository of the revelation of redemption. So this division of Ge begins at once with the chosen line, and sets in the very foreground that narrative which in that generation is most vital in the story of redemption, this story of Joseph beginning with the words, "Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren" (Ge 37:2). Joseph had been born in Haran, the firstborn of the beloved Rachel, who died at the birth of her second son Benjamin. A motherless lad among the sons of other mothers felt the jealousies of the situation, and the experience became a temptation. The "evil report" of his brethren was thus naturally carried to his father, and quite as naturally stirred up those family jealousies which set his feet in the path of his great career (Ge 37:2-4). In that career he appears as a Bedouin prince in Canaan.

A Bedouin Prince in Canaan

The patriarchs of those times were all sheiks or princes of those semi-nomadic rovers who by the peculiar social and civil customs of that land were tolerated then as they are to this day under the Turkish government in the midst of farms and settled land tenure. Jacob favored Rachel and her children. He put them hindermost at the dangerous meeting with Esau, and now he puts on Joseph a coat of many colors (Ge 37:3). The appearance of such a coat a little earlier in the decoration of the tombs of Benichassan among Palestinian ambassadors to Egypt probably indicates that this garment was in some sense ceremonial, a token of rank. In any case Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a Bedouin prince. Did the father by this coat indicate his intention to give him the precedence and the succession as chieftain of the tribe? It is difficult otherwise to account for the insane jealousy of the older brethren (Ge 37:4). According to the critical partition of the story, Joseph’s dreams may be explained away as mere reflections or adaptations of the later history of Joseph (compare PENew TestamentATEUCH). In a real biography the striking providential significance of the dreams appears at once. They cannot be real without in some sense being prophetic. On the other hand they cannot be other than real without vitiating the whole story as a truthful narrative, for they led immediately to the great tragedy; a Bedouin prince of Canaan becomes a Bedouin slave in Egypt.

A Bedouin Slave in Egypt

The plot to put Joseph out of the way, the substitution of slavery for death, and the ghastly device for deceiving Jacob (Ge 37:18-36) are perfectly natural steps in the course of crime when once the brothers had set out upon it. The counterplot of Reuben to deliver Joseph reflects equally his own goodness and the dangerous character of the other brothers to whom he did not dare make a direct protest.

Critical discussion of "Ishmaelites" and "Midianites" and "Medanites" presents some interesting things and many clever speculations which may well be considered on their own merits by those interested in ethnology and etymologies. Many opinions advanced may prove to be correct. But let it be noted that they arc for the most part pure speculation. Almost nothing is known of the interrelation of the trans-Jordanic tribes in that age other than the few hints in the Bible. And who can say what manner of persons might be found in a caravan which had wandered about no one knows where, or how long, to pick up trade before it turned into the northern caravan route? Until archaeology supplies more facts it is folly to attach much importance to such speculations (Kyle, The Deciding Voice of the Monuments in Biblical Criticism, 221).

In the slave market in Egypt, Joseph was bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, "an Egyptian." The significant mention of this fact fits exactly into a place among the recovered hints of the history of those times, which make the court then to be not Egyptian at all, but composed of foreigners, the dynasty of Hyksos kings among whom an "Egyptian" was so unexpected as to have his nationality mentioned.

Joseph’s native nobility of character, the pious training he had received in his father’s house, and the favor of God with him gave him such prosperity that his master entrusted all the affairs of his household to him, and when the greatest of temptations assails him he comes off victorious (Genesis 39). There is strong ground for the suspicion that Potiphar did not fully believe the accusation of his wife against Joseph. The fact that Joseph was not immediately put to death is very significant. Potiphar could hardly do less than shut him up for the sake of appearances, and perhaps to take temptation away from his wife without seeming to suspect her. It is noticeable also that Joseph’s character soon triumphed in prison. Then the same Providence that superintended his dreams is leading so as to bring him before the king (Genesis 40; 41).

The Bedouin Slave Becomes Again the Bedouin Prince

The events of the immediately preceding history prepared Joseph’s day: the Hyksos kings on the throne, those Bedouin princes, "shepherd kings" (Petrie, Hyksos and Israelite Cities), the enmity of the Egyptians against this foreign dynasty so that they accounted every shepherd an "abomination" (Ge 46:34), the friendly relation thus created between Palestinian tribes and Egypt, the princely character of Joseph, for among princes a prince is a prince however small his principality, and last of all the manifest favor of God toward Joseph, and the evident understanding by the Pharaohs of Semitic religion, perhaps even sympathy with it (Ge 41:39). All these constitute one of the most majestic, Godlike movements of Providence revealed to us in the word of God, or evident anywhere in history. The same Providence that presided over the boy prince in his father’s house came again to the slave prince in the Egyptian prison. The interpretation of the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker of Pharaoh (Ge 40-41:1-24) brought him at last through much delay and selfish forgetfulness to the notice of the king, and another dream in which the same cunning hand of Providence is plainly seen (Genesis 41) is the means of bringing Joseph to stand in the royal presence. The stuff that dreams are made of interests scarcely less than the Providence that was superintending over them. As the harvest fields of the semi-nomadic Bedouin in Palestine, and the household routine of Egypt in the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker, so now the industrial interests and the religious forms of the nation appear in the dreams of Pharaoh. The "seven kine" of the goddess Hathor supplies the number of the cows, and the doubling of the symbolism in the cattle and the grain points to the two great sources of Egypt’s welfare. The Providence that had shaped and guided the whole course of Joseph from the Palestinian home was consummated when, with the words, "Inasmuch as thou art a man in whom is the spirit of God," Pharaoh lifted up the Bedouin slave to be again the Bedouin prince and made him the prime minister.

The Prime Minister

The history of "kings’ favorites" is too well known for the elevation of Joseph to be in itself incredible. Such things are especially likely to take place among the unlimited monarchies of the Orient. The late empress of China had been a Chinese slave girl. The investiture of Joseph was thoroughly Egyptian--the "collar," the signet "ring," the "chariot" and the outrunners who cried before him "Abrech." The exact meaning of this word has never been certainly ascertained, but its general import may be seen illustrated to this day wherever in the East royalty rides out. The policy adopted by the prime minister was far-reaching, wise, even adroit (Ge 41:25-36). It is impossible to say whether or not it was wholly just, for we cannot know whether the corn of the years of plenty which the government laid up was bought or taken as a taxlevy. The policy involved some despotic power, but Joseph proved a magnanimous despot. The deep and subtle statesmanship in Joseph’s plan does not fully appear until the outcome. It was probably through the policy of Joseph, the prime minister, that the Hyksos finally gained the power over the people and the mastery of the land.

Great famines have not been common in Egypt, but are not unknown. The only one which corresponds well to the Bible account is that one recorded in the inscription of Baba at el Kab, translated by Brugsch. Some scarcely justifiable attempts have been made to discredit Brugsch in his account of that inscription. The monument still remains and is easily visited, but the inscription is so mutilated that it presents many difficulties. The severity of the famine, the length of its duration, the preparation by the government, the distribution to the people, the success of the efforts for relief and even the time of the famine, as far as it can be determined, correspond well to the Bible account (Brugsch, Egypt under the Pharaohs, chapter vi). The way in which such famines in Egypt come about has been explained by a movement of the sudd, a sedgelike growth in the Nile, so as to clog the upper river (Wright, Scientific Confirmations, 70-79).

Joseph’s brethren came "with those that came," i.e. with the food caravans. The account does not imply that the prime minister presided in person at the selling of grain, but only that he knew of the coming of his brethren and met them at the market place. The watchfulness of the government against "spies," by the careful guarding of the entrances to the land, may well have furnished him with such information. Once possessed with it, all the rest of the story of the interviews follows naturally (compare traditions of Joseph, Jewish Encyclopedia).

The long testing of the brethren with the attendant delay in the relief of the father Jacob and the family (Genesis 42-45) has been the subject of much discussion, and most ingenious arguments for the justification of Joseph. All this seems unnecessary. Joseph was not perfect, and there is no claim of perfection made for him in the Bible. Two things are sufficient to be noted here: one that Joseph was ruler as well as brother, with the habits of a ruler of almost unrestrained power and authority and burdened with the necessity for protection and the obligation to mete out justice; the other that the deliberateness, the vexatious delays, the subtle diplomacy and playing with great issues are thoroughly oriental. It may be also that the perplexities of great minds make them liable to such vagaries. The career of Lincoln furnishes some curious parallels in the parleying with cases long after the great president’s mind was fully made up and action taken.

The time of these events and the identification of Joseph in Egypt are most vexed questions not conclusively settled. Toffteen quite confidently presents in a most recent identification of Joseph much evidence to which one would like to give full credence (Toffteen, The Historical Exodus). But aside from the fact that he claims two exodi, two Josephs, two Aarons, two lawgivers called Moses, and two givings of the law, a case of critical doublets more astounding than any heretofore claimed in the Pentateuch, the evidence itself which he adduces is very far from conclusive. It is doubtful if the texts will bear the translation he gives them, especially the proper names. The claims of Rameses II, that he built Pithom,. compared with the stele of 400 years, which he says he erected in the 400th year of King Nubti, seems to put Joseph about the time of the Hyksos king. This is the most that can be said now. The burial of Jacob is in exact accord with Egyptian customs. The wealth of the Israelites who retained their possessions and were fed by the crown, in contrast with the poverty of the Egyptians who sold everything, prepares the way for the wonderful growth and influence of Israel, and the fear which the Egyptians at last had of them. "And Joseph died, being 110 years old," an ideal old age in the Egyptian mind. The reputed burial place of Joseph at Shechem still awaits examination.

The Patriarch

Joseph stands out among the patriarchs in some respects with preeminence. His nobility of character, his purity of heart and life, his magnanimity as a ruler and brother Patriarch make him, more than any other of the Old Testament characters, an illustration of that type of man which Christ was to give to the world in perfection. Joseph is not in the list of persons distinctly referred to in Scripture as types of Christ--the only perfectly safe criterion--but none more fully illustrates the life and work of the Saviour. He wrought salvation for those who betrayed and rejected him, he went down into humiliation as the way to his exaltation, he forgave those who, at least in spirit, put him to death, and to him as to the Saviour, all must come for relief, or perish.

LITERATURE. Commentaries on Genesis; for rabbinical literature, compare Seligsohn in Jewish Encyclopedia, some very interesting and curious traditions; Ebers, Egypten und die Bucher Moses; "The Tale of Two Brothers," RP, series I, volume II, 13746; Wilkinson-Birch, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians; Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt.