This passage is a turning point of not only in Joseph’s life, but also in the book of Genesis. In this passage, we see the offspring of Abraham demonstrate how wicked humanity can be and the depravity of even God’s supposed chosen people. However this passage, like all parts of the Old Testament and Bible, should never be read in isolation. The events here lead on to the birth of the nation of Israel and growth of God’s chosen nation.
This paper will continue the work done by an earlier preparation paper and delve deeper into the details of this passage. The goal is to articulate clearly the meaning of the passage and impact it has on modern theology.
In this passage, all references to the Bible will come from The Jewish Study Bible, edited by Adele and Brettler.
It is generally accepted that chapters 37-50 have hallmarks of the Yahwist (J) source. Speiser points to the conclusion of Jospeh section where the author highlights the fact that Joseph seems to be the master of his own destiny but at the mercy of the supreme power. Speister writes, in particular chapter 44:
J’s art rises perhaps to the greatest heights in the handling of the real climax of the Joseph story. (Speister 1964, pg XXVII-XXVIII)
Inside this text, there is seems to be obvious contradiction or mistake which highlights the need for careful analysis of the text and source which made contest whether or not the Joseph novella is made up of two sources or just one. In verse 25. 27 and 28, the traders are identified as Israelites while in in verse 36, and also oddly in verse 28, the traders are identified as Midianites. Berlin explains this with:
Although arguments have been made that Midianites and Ishmaelites are the same group (c.f. Judg. 8.24), many modern scholars think the explanation lies in source analysis: Rueben and the Midianites derive from the E version of the story, and Judah and the Ishmaelites from the J version… (Levenson 2014, pg 94)
On the out of place mention of Midianites in verse 28, Coates describes the phrase “the Midianite traders passed by” as a “gloss” which sought to shield the sons of Jacob from the charge of committing the serious crime of selling the brother into slavery. Coats explains:
If these words were noting the text, then the brothers would be the subject of the verse in v29. (Coats 1992, pg 979)
Usually this might be the argument for two sources but Coats argues that the doublet disappears when the “gloss” is identified. This is would apparently clear the brothers of committing the crime, as it may be the Midianites who sell Joseph, and thereby point towards a single source. However, it does not explain why the Midianites who eventually sell Joseph to Potiphar.
Chapters 37-50 sits in the Ancestral Saga of the book of Genesis where the offspring of Abraham seem to continually be blessed by God. Coates suggests that there are two important pieces of extra biblical evidence that that help determine to which period the novella i set. Firstly, Coats refers to the Amarna Letters. The Amarna letters are archives written clay letters that contained correspondence between Egyptian administration and representatives who were in Canaan during the New Kingdom and Late Bronze period. Coats notes that the word “haibru” was widespread during the time. Potiphar’s wife seems to use the same word, although in a derogatory manner.
Coats also writes that during 1700-1550 BC, Egypt was controlled by a Semetic people called the Hykos who may have favoured Joseph and his family. In the book of Exodus, the reference to the pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” could point to a time when the Hykos people lost power.
However, while it is reasonable to set the novella in the Late Bronze period, nothing is certain. Accurate description of culture and history cannot fully deny or establish the Joseph novella.
On the topic of authorship date, if one accepts that this novella is dominantly Yahwist, it would be dated to the exilic period. Kugler writes this while covering chapters 12-50 of Genesis:
From this thematic perspective the Yahwist’s account of the ancestors is dated most easily to the Exilic period. (Kugler 2009)
Throughout the Old Testament, the name of Joseph is mentioned but mostly as an alternative to the tribes of Israel. In Psalm 105, Joseph’s predicament into Egypt is briefly mention but most other references to Joseph are used as an alternative to various tribes of Israel, when compared with Judah. For example in Psalm 78:65-68
The Lord awoke as from sleep, like a warrior shaking off wine.
He beat back His foes, dealing them lasting disgrace.
He rejected the clan of Joseph;
He did not choose the tribe of Ephraim.
He did choose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loved.
In this example, the Psalmist is directing praise to the tribe of Israel and scorning what is the hero of the novella. This descendants of Joseph, the tribe of Ephraim, became the dominant tribes of Israel yet are humbled via the might of Assyria.
The name of Joseph is mentioned only once in the New Testament. In Revelations 7, Joseph is included in the list of tribes of Israel and seems to replace Ephraim.
On the genre, Coats writes:
A consensus is that the Joseph story is a novella, a genre category that facilitates the original conceptions of an artist rather than the patterns of a traditional folk story handed down from one generation to the next. (Coats 1992, pg 980)
Throughout the entire Joseph saga, it is clear that the author uses imaginative and creative methods to capture the reader throughout the narrative. The build up towards the climax, where Joseph reveals himself to the brothers, and is a process that the reader will be able to relate to the struggles of Joseph. The author had not just writing merely for record keeping, but intends to bring meaning and purpose with the story telling. In doing this, readers can appreciate the “rags to riches”, which ultimately is the story of Israel through history.
This passage has a relatively simple plot structure but has turns and twists that throw Joseph’s life in and out of danger for dramatic effect.
Firstly, Joseph is sent away by his father with no apparent threat to his well being. However, his well being is threatened as the brothers declare they want to kill him in verse 18-20. Joseph will receive some luck with Reuben intervening and changing the minds of his brothers in verse 21. Though may his intentions may not be noble, it can be seen that Reuben seeks to save Joseph. The final plot turns back to Joseph’s demise again in verse 25 when Judah and the other brothers puts Joseph back in harm when he suggests to sell them to the Ishmaelites. Rueben bemoans his misfortune but can do little to help swing things back to Joseph’s favour and the passage ends with Joseph’s fate in the hands of the Egyptians.
Joseph plays the dutiful favourite son here. Speiser writes that Joseph’s response “I am ready” is literally “here I am”. He connects this with 22:1 when Abraham responds to God, asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In that moment, Abraham was potentially about to lose his favoured and only son, though the sacrifice never eventuated. In this passage, Israel is about to lose his favourite son. Levenson also points out the same rhetoric is used when Isaac calls Esau in 27:1, another favoured son.
Joseph is asked to travel from the valley of Hebron to Shechem. Levenson notes that there is a long distance between the two places and it is odd that Jacob does not foresee any sort of danger. He writes:
Shechem being quite a distance from Hebron, there is room to wonder why Jacob did not foresee danger, even before his beloved son reached his angry brothers. (Levenson 2014, pg. 94)
Original readers may have understood the distance between the two places and may have suspected the worst for Joseph on route to his brothers. However, there would be and has not been any indication that his biggest threat would be from his own blood.
Upon arriving safely, the reader may be shocked that Joseph’s downward would come from his brothers. Speiser writes that the word “conspires” translates to “sought/weighed clever schemes”. This is a plot truly devised out of pure hate that had been caused by Joseph’s dreams.
Here Rueben seems to be the only one who shows any compassion, though ill intended it may be. The brothers seem to accept the words from the eldest and immediately set upon Joseph. The very coat, that is Israel’s token of affection and favour, is violently taken off him and Joseph is thrown into a pit. The reader may assume that this is only a temporary measure since Reuben’s intention was revealed.
The plot shifts against Joseph again. The Ishaelites enter the scene while the brothers are in a meal together. Levenson comments on this meal as such:
The brothers’ meal displays their extraordinary callousness and insensitivity to human life (Cf Esth 3.15). (Levenson 2014, pg 94)
The parallel for later in the novella is striking. Here we see Joseph separate in a pit, beneath his brothers. Later, the brothers will still be eating but Joseph will be above them in a position of power. The dramatic storytelling is continued and maintained through the novella.
Judah now takes on the role of the eldest, in the absences of Reuben. It is then not clear, without certainty, who pulls the Joseph out of the pit to be condemned. In any case, Joseph’s fate is sealed and Rueben’s chance for redemption is carried away by the slave traders.
The brothers lean towards Judah, away from Reuben, is not only prophetic for what is to come later on in the novel, but also in the history of Israel.
Reuben returns and bemoans the situation and Jacob, now his name reverts back to original, is inconsolable. Upon seeing the gift that was given to his favourite covered in blood and without Joseph, Jacob mourns dramatically but appropriately for the culture and weight of losing what is symbolically the eldest.
While there is no description of Jacob cross examining his sons , it is expected that Jacob eventually discovers the brothers’ role. Cohen points to the final blessings of Jacob to apparently reference each of the brothers’ role in the conspiracy towards Joseph.
How else was he able to describe Joseph as having been hated, as sailed and attacked by hostile forces namely, “the archers” of 49:23? (Cohen 2010, pg146)
Finally, the last verse points that there is more to the story as Joseph arrives in the house of an Egyptian official, scared but alive.
History of interpretation
This passage is often interpreted in the context of the final outcome of the novella. For Mcconville, this is both a testimony to God’s ability to lift his people high and also a tale of great forgiveness.
The Story thus told illustrates, at one level, the providential hand of God overruling events in such a way to bring good out of evil (Joseph twice makes this point in retrospective explanation: 45:5-8, 50:202-21). (McConville 2013, pg 638)
Kim, after arguing for that Genesis 37-50 should be read as a Diaspora narrative, also calls for a God centred heart that flows outwardly into our neighbours:
Reading the Joseph story as a Diaspora narrative, we may summarize the fundamental theme of this novella (Genesis 37-50), in light of the larger framework within the entire Pentateuch, with the following concept: it reminds us of a coherent teaching of the Torah concerning “relationship” in that our love of God (Deut 6:4-5) is demonstrated by our love of our kin, neighbors, and outsiders as ourselves… (Kim 2013, pg 238)
While these views are not specifically interpretations solely out of verses 12-35, the sit at the backdrop of the unfortunate events that happen. Likewise, the lesson is for all believers to forgive those who do them harm. However, it is not without the reality that the God of the Bible enables that by providing us the means and opportunity to do so by lifting people out of the low.
In the preparation paper, the following question was asked:
What purpose is there to describe the fathers of the tribes of Israel in such a negative light? In particular, Judah is described as one of the leaders of the conspiracy and is the one that suggests something considered so criminal in the eyes of Law of Moses.
After careful analysis of the passage, Judah still remains a villain. Even if one isolates solely to the Yahwist source, Judah’s actions still remained to be condemned. However, it can be seen that the passage works towards Judah taking on the eldest role away from the lacking Reuben. As the novella continues to build up, it can be seen that Judah takes on a more influential role. The introduction serves as an appropriate curtain raiser for a dramatic story.
This passage is no doubt an influential and significant part of the Old Testament. However, it is clear that it is only the start of a very eventful and dramatic saga that would be close to the hearts of Jewish and Christian readers. It is here we can see someone, despite being brought low, being lifted high by the providence of God.
Coats W. G. “Joseph” in Freedman (ed.), Herion G. A. (ed.), Craf D. F. (ed.), Pleins J. D. (ed.) The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 3 H-J (1992), New York, New York, Doubleday. Print.
Levenson J. “Genesis” in Berlin A. (ed.), & Brettler M. Z. (ed.) (2014). The Jewish Study Bible. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. Digital.
Cohen, J. M. (2010). Early traditions on the kidnapping and sale of Joseph part I. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 38(2), 106-114. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001782671&site=ehost-live.
Cohen, J. M. (2010). Early traditions on the kidnapping and sale of Joseph part II. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 38(3), 143-148. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001796726&site=ehost-live
Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The book of Genesis. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans,. Print.
Kim, H. C. P. (2013). Reading the joseph story (genesis 37-50) as a diaspora narrative. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 75(2), 219. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/1356624549?accountid=10344
Kugler, R & Hartin P. (2009). An Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans,. Digital.
McConville, J. G. (2013). Forgiveness as private and public act: a reading of the biblical Joseph narrative. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 75(4), 635-648. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001955354&site=ehost-live.
Speiser, E. A (1964). Genesis. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday,. Print.