The Joseph Story, a Literary Question

See also Joseph and Joseph, a Biography

Joseph (yoceph, "He will add"; Septuagint Ioseph). The narrative (Ge 30:23,14) indicates not so much a double etymology as the course of Rachel’s thoughts. The use of ’acaph, "He takes away," suggested to her mind by its form in the future, yoceph, "He will add," "And she called his name Joseph, saying, Yahweh add to me another son"):

The eleventh son of Jacob.

Cheyne in Encyclopedia Biblica reaches such conclusions concerning the Joseph story that the story of Joseph is mutilated almost beyond recognition as a biography at all. Driver in HDB holds that the Joseph story was "in all probability only committed to writing 700-800 years" later than the time to which Joseph is attributed, points out that Joseph’s name was also the name of a tribe, and concludes that "the first of these facts at once destroys all guarantee that we possess in the Joseph narrative a literal record of the facts," and that "the second fact raises the further question whether the figure of Joseph, in part or even as a whole, is a reflection of the history and characteristics of the tribe projected upon the past in the individual form." But he draws back from this view and thinks it "more probable that there was an actual person Joseph, afterward .... rightly or wrongly regarded as the ancestor of the tribe .... who underwent substantially the experience recounted of him in Genesis." In the presence of such critical notions concerning the literature in which the narrative of Joseph is embodied, it is clear that until we have reached some conclusions concerning the Joseph story, we cannot be sure that there is any real story of Joseph to relate.

The Joseph Story, a Literary Question

An Independent Original or an Adaptation?

This literary problem will be solved, if satisfactory answers may be found to two questions: Is it an independent original or an adaptation? Suitable material for such an adaptation as would produce a Joseph story has been sought at either end of the line of history: Joseph the progenitor and Joseph the tribe. The only contestant for the claim of being an early original of which the Joseph story might be an adaptation is the nasty "Tale of Two Brothers" (RP, series I, volume II, 137-46). This story in its essential elements much resembles the Joseph story. But such events as it records are common: why not such stories?

What evidence does this "Tale of Two Brothers" afford that the Joseph story is not an independent original? Are we to suppose that because many French romances involve the demi-monde, there was therefore no Madame de Pompadour? Are court scandals so unheard of that ancient Egypt cannot afford two? And why impugn the genuineness of the Joseph story because the "Tale of Two Brothers" resembles it? Is anyone so ethereal in his passions as not to know by instinct that the essential elements of such scandal are always the same? The difference in the narrative is chiefly in the telling. At this latter point the Joseph story and the "Tale of Two Brothers" bear no resemblance whatever.

If the chaste beauty of the Biblical story be observed, and then one turn to the "Tale of Two Brothers" with sufficient knowledge of the Egyptian tongue to perceive the coarseness and the stench of it, there can be no question that the Joseph story is independent of such a literary source. To those who thus sense both stories, the claim of the "Tale of Two Brothers" to be the original of the Joseph story cannot stand for a moment. If we turn from Joseph the progenitor to Joseph the tribe, still less will the claim that the story is an adaptation bear careful examination. The perfect naturalness of the story, the utter absence from its multitudinous details of any hint of figurative language, such as personification always furnishes, and the absolutely accurate reflection in the story of the Egypt of Joseph’s day, as revealed by the many discoveries of which people of 700-800 years later could not know, mark this theory of the reflection of tribal history and characteristics as pure speculation. And besides, where in all the history of literature has it been proven that a tribe has been thus successfully thrown back upon the screen of antiquity in the "individual form"? Similar mistakes concerning Menes and Minos and the heroes of Troy are a warning to us. Speculation is legitimate, so long as it does not cut loose from known facts, but gives no one the right to suppose the existence in unknown history of something never certainly found in known history. So much for the first question.

A Monograph or a Compilation?

Is it a monograph or a compilation? The author of a monograph may make large use of literary materials, and the editor of a compilation may introduce much editorial comment. Thus, superficially, these different kinds of composition may much resemble each other, yet they are, in essential character, very different the one from the other. A compilation is an artificial body, an automaton; a monograph is a natural body with a living soul in it. This story has oriental peculiarities of repetition and pleonastic expression, and these things have been made much of in order to break up the story; to the reader not seeking grounds of partition, it is one of the most unbroken, simply natural and unaffected pieces of narrative literature in the world. If it stood alone or belonged to some later portion of Scripture, it may well be doubted that it would ever have been touched by the scalpel of the literary dissector. But it belongs to the Pentateuch. There are manifest evidences all over the Pentateuch of the use by the author of material, either documentary or of that paradoxical unwritten literature which the ancients handed down almost without the change of a word for centuries.

(1) An Analytical Theory Resolving It into a Mere Compilation.

An analytical theory has been applied to the Pentateuch as a whole, to resolve it into a mere compilation. Once the principles of this theory are acknowledged, and allowed sway there, the Joseph story cannot be left untouched, but becomes a necessary sacrifice to the system. A sight of the lifeless, ghastly fragments of the living, moving Joseph story which the analysis leaves behind (compare EB, article "Joseph") proclaims that analysis to have been murder. There was a life in the story which has been ruthlessly taken, and that living soul marked the narrative as a monograph.

(2) A Narrative Full of Gems.

Where else is to be found such a compilation? Here is one of the most brilliant pieces of literature in the world, a narrative full of gems:

(a) the account of the presentation of the brothers in the presence of Joseph when he was obliged to go out to weep (Ge 43:26-34), and

(b) the scene between the terrified brothers of Joseph and the steward of his house (Ge 44:6-13),

(c) Judah’s speech (Ge 44:18-34),

(d) the touching close of the revelation of Joseph to his brothers at last (Ge 45:1-15).

The soul of the whole story breathes through all of these. Where in all literature, ancient or modern, is to be found a mere compilation that is a great piece of literature? So far removed is this story from the characteristics of a compilation, that we may challenge the world of literature to produce another monograph in narrative literature that surpasses it.

(3) The Argument from Chronology Supporting It as a Monograph

Then the dates of Egyptian names and events in this narrative strongly favor its origin so early as to be out of the reach of the compilers. That attempts at identification in Egyptian of names written in Hebrew, presenting as they do the peculiar difficulties of two alphabets of imperfectly known phonetic values and uncertain equivalency of one in terms of the other, should give rise to differences of opinion, is to be expected. The Egyptian equivalents of Zaphenath-paneah and Asenath have been diligently sought, and several identifications have been, suggested (Brugsch, Egypt under the Pharaohs, 122; Budge, History of Egypt, V, 126-27). That which is most exact phonetically and yields the most suitable and natural meaning for Zaphenath-paneah is by Lieblein (PSBA, 1898, 204-8). It is formed like four of the names of Hyksos kings before the time of Joseph, and means "the one who furnishes the nourishment of life," i.e. the steward of the realm. The name Asenath is found from the XIth Dynasty on to the XVIIIth. Potiphar is mentioned as an Egyptian. Why not of course an Egyptian? The narrative also points distinctly to conditions obtaining under the Hyksos kings. When the people were like to perish for want of food they promised Joseph in return for help that they would be "servants of Pharaoh" (Ge 47:18-25). This suggests a previous antagonism to the government, such as the Hyksos kings had long to contend with in Egypt. But the revolution which drove out the Hyksos labored so effectually to eradicate every trace of the hated foreigners that it is with the utmost difficulty that modern Egyptological research has wrested from the past some small items of information concerning them. Is it credible that the editor of scraps, which were themselves not written down until some 700-800 years later, should have been able to produce such a life-story fitting into the peculiar conditions of the times of the Hyksos? Considered as an independent literary problem on its own merits, aside from any entangling necessities of the analytical theory of the Pentateuch, the Joseph story must certainly stand as a monograph from some time within distinct memory of the events it records. If the Joseph story be an independent original and a monograph, then there is in reality to be considered the story of Joseph.