(c. 1562 - 1452 BCE)
The biblical Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob. He was born to
Jacobs favorite wife, Rachel,
in Paddan-Aram after she had been barren for seven years. Joseph
fathered two of the twelve tribes of Israel: Ephraim and Manasseh. Information about Joseph is found in Genesis chapters 37-50.
At the age of 17, Joseph was a shepherd alongside
his brothers. Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved his other sons.
Joseph would report his brothers misdeeds to his father and Jacob
gave Joseph a "coat of many colors." The other brothers
were jealous of Joseph and hated him. Joseph only further provoked
this hatred when he told his brothers about two of his dreams. In the
first, sheaves of wheat belonging to his brothers bowed to his own
sheaf. In the second, the son, moon, and 11 stars bowed to him.
One day, Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem to check on
his brothers. Joseph went to Shechem and, when his brothers were not
there, followed them to Dothan. When the brothers saw him, they
plotted to kill him and throw him into a pit. The oldest brother,
Reuben, suggested that they merely throw Joseph into the pit, so
Reuben could secretly save Joseph later. When Joseph approached, the
brothers took his coat and threw him into the pit. They sat down to
eat and saw a caravan of Ishmaelite traders from Gilead in the
distance. Judah came up with the idea to sell Joseph into slavery.
Joseph was sold for 20 pieces of silver. The brothers then dipped his
coat into the blood of a slaughtered goat and brought it back to
Jacob. Jacob recognized the coat and concluded that a beast had
killed his son. He mourned for many days and was inconsolable.
Meanwhile, the traders took Joseph down to Egypt
where Potiphar, an officer and head of the kitchen of Pharaoh, bought
him. Joseph was successful there and Potiphar made Joseph his
personal attendant, putting him in charge of the entire household.
Joseph was well built and handsome and after some time
Potiphars wife tried to seduce him. She approached Joseph day
after day but he refused her each time, citing loyalty to Potiphar and
to God. One day, Joseph came into the house to work. Potiphars
wife grabbed his coat and he ran away. She then pretended that Joseph
had tried to seduce her and slandered him first to her servants and
then to her husband. Potiphar was furious and sent Joseph to a jail
for the kings prisoners.
In prison, the chief jailor liked Joseph and put
him in charge of all the other prisoners, including Pharaohs
butler and baker. One night both the butler and the baker had strange
dreams. Joseph interpreted the dreams, saying that in three days time
the butler would be recalled to his former position while the baker
would be killed. Sure enough, three days later, Pharaoh restored the
butler to his job and killed the baker. Joseph asked the butler to
mention his name to Pharaoh in the hope that he would be freed, but
the butler forgot about Joseph.
Two years later, Pharaoh himself had two dreams
that his magicians could not interpret. The butler then remembered
Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Pharaoh sent for the 30-year-old
Joseph. He appeared before Pharaoh and told him in the name of God
that the dreams forecasted seven years of plentiful crops followed by
seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to make a wise man
commissioner over the land with overseers to gather and store food
from the seven years of abundance to save for the years of scarcity.
Josephs prediction and advice pleased Pharaoh and he made Joseph
his second-in-command. He gave Joseph his ring and dressed him in
robes of linen with a gold chain around his neck. Pharaoh gave him
the Egyptian name Zaphenath-paneah and found him a wife named Asenath,
daughter of Poti-phera the priest of On.
Joseph traveled throughout Egypt, gathering and
storing enormous amounts of grain from each city. During these years,
Asenath and Joseph had two sons. The first Joseph named Manasseh,
meaning, "God has made me forget (nashani) completely my
hardship and my parental home" (Genesis
41:51). He named the second son Ephraim, meaning, "God has
made me fertile (hiprani) in the land of my affliction" (Genesis
41:52). After seven years, a famine spread throughout the world,
and Egypt was the only country that had food. Joseph was in charge of
rationing grain to the Egyptians and to all who came to Egypt.
The famine affected Canaan and Jacob sent his 10
oldest sons to Egypt to get food, keeping only Benjamin, Rachels
second son and Jacobs youngest child, at home out of concern for
his safety. Josephs brothers came and bowed to Joseph, who
recognized them immediately but pretended they were strangers. He
asked them where they were from and accused them of being spies. They
denied his claim but he continued to speak harshly to them and
interrogate them. They told him they had a younger brother at home.
Joseph then locked them in the guardhouse for three days before
commanding the brothers to go home and bring their youngest brother
back with them to prove that they were telling the truth. The
brothers spoke among themselves lamenting that they were being
punished for what they had done to Joseph, who overheard them, turned
away and wept, but then continued his act. He gave them grain and
provisions for the journey, secretly returned their money and kept
Simeon in jail pending their return.
The brothers returned to Canaan and told Jacob all
that had happened in Egypt. They asked Jacob to send Benjamin down
with them but he refused, "Joseph is no more and Simeon is no
more, and now you would take away Benjamin" (Genesis
42:36). Even Reubens offer that Jacob could kill Reubens
two sons if Benjamin did not return safely did not move Jacob.
Eventually, they finished the rations from Egypt and the famine
became so severe that Jacob no longer had a choice. Judah told Jacob
to send Benjamin in his care and if Benjamin did not return, "I
shall stand guilty before you forever" (Genesis
43:9) So Jacob sent the brothers back to Egypt with Benjamin,
along with a gift for Joseph and double the necessary money to repay
the money that was returned to them.
When the brothers arrived, Joseph brought them to
the entrance of his house and instructed his servant to prepare a
meal. The brothers were scared and told Joseph they did not know how
the money got back in their bags. Joseph replied that their God must
have put it there because he received their payment. The brothers
then went inside and waited for Joseph to come eat with them. When he
returned, they gave him the gifts and bowed to him. He asked about
their father, and they responded that he was well, and bowed a second
time. He asked if Benjamin was their brother, and left the room,
overcome with emotion after seeing his brother again. He then
returned and ate and drank with his brothers, giving Benjamin more
food than the others. He then instructed his servant to fill the
brothers bags with food, return each ones money a second time,
and put his own silver goblet in Benjamins bag.
As soon as the brothers left the city, Josephs
servant overtook them and accused them of stealing Josephs goblet.
He said that whoever had the goblet in his possession would be kept
as a slave, while the others would go free. He searched their
possessions and found the goblet in Benjamins bag. All the
brothers returned to the city and threw themselves on the ground
before Joseph. Judah expressed their willingness to become Josephs
slave. Joseph answered that only the one in whose possession the
goblet was found would become a slave. Judah then pleaded with
Joseph, telling him of Jacobs reluctance to send Benjamin and of
his own responsibility for Benjamin. He told of the sorrow that would
overtake Jacob if Benjamin did not return. At this point, Joseph
could not longer control himself. He sent away all of his attendants,
began to cry loudly and revealed his true identity to his brothers.
Josephs first query was about his father, but
the brothers were too shocked to answer. He reassured them that it
was Gods providence that sent him to Egypt to ensure their
survival during the famine, and he was not angry with them. He sent
them back with instructions to tell Jacob what had become of Joseph
and to bring Jacob and his household to the nearby town of Goshen
where Joseph could care for them during the next five years of
famine. He then embraced Benjamin, kissed all of his brothers and
Pharaoh heard that Josephs brothers had come
and told them to bring their households to Egypt where he would give
them the best of the land. Joseph gave each of them a wagon,
provisions for the trip and a change of clothing. He gave Benjamin
300 pieces of silver and several changes of clothing. He also sent a
large present back for his father.
At first Jacob did not believe that Joseph was
alive. After he saw the wagons that Joseph sent, however, he realized
it was true. Then Jacob, at age 130, set out for Goshen with the 70
members of his household. He sent Judah ahead of him so Joseph knew
that his father was coming. Joseph went to meet him and they embraced
and cried. Joseph told Pharaoh that his brothers and father had
arrived. The brothers informed Pharaoh that they were shepherds and
Pharaoh put them in charge of his livestock. They lived in the best
part of Egypt, in Rameses, and Joseph provided them with bread.
As the famine continued, the Egyptians eventually
ran out of money. They begged Joseph for food and he gave them bread
in exchange for their animals. After a year, their animals were gone
and Joseph made a new deal with the people. He gave them seed to
plant on their farms and in exchange they gave Pharaoh one-fifth of
their crops. He nationalized all farmland except that belonging to
the priests, and turned the people into serfs.
After Jacob had lived in Egypt for 17 years, he
called Joseph to him and made him swear that when Jacob died, Joseph
would not bury him in Egypt, but would take him to the burial place
of his fathers. Joseph swore to this. Soon after, Joseph was told
that his father was sick. He brought his two sons to Jacob. Jacob
assured Joseph that he would consider Ephraim and Manasseh to be his
sons just like Reuben and Simeon were when it came to the inheritance
that God had promised Jacobs offspring. Jacob then blessed Ephraim
and Manasseh. Although Manasseh was the first-born, Jacob put his
right hand, the stronger hand, on Ephraims head. When Joseph
corrected him, Jacob said he did it on purpose and predicted that
Ephraim would surpass Manasseh in greatness. Jacob told Joseph that
he was about to die, but reassured him that God would be with him. He
also assigned him an extra portion of his inheritance, a privilege
usually given to the first-born.
Jacob blessed all of his sons, giving the longest
blessing to Joseph. He instructed them to bury him in the cave
of Machpelah, and then he died. Joseph flung himself at his
father, cried and kissed him. Joseph then ordered his physicians to
embalm Jacob. The Egyptians mourned for 70 days. Joseph received
permission to go to Canaan to bury Jacob. He took his brothers and
his fathers household, along with all of Pharaohs officials and
dignitaries, and left Egypt in a large group. When they came to Goren
ha-Atad, he observed a seven-day mourning period. Joseph and his
brothers then continued to the cave of Machpelah where they buried
Jacob. They then returned to Egypt.
Once Jacob was dead, the brothers were scared that
Joseph would take revenge on them for selling him. They sent a
message to Joseph saying that before his death Jacob had instructed
them to tell Joseph to forgive them. They then offered to be his
slaves. Joseph reassured them, saying that God intended for Joseph to
go down to Egypt to ensure the survival of many people, and Joseph
would take care of them and their children. So Joseph, his brothers
and his fathers household remained in Egypt.
Joseph lived 110 years. He saw great-grandchildren
from both his sons. Before he died, he told his brothers that God
would one day bring them up from Egypt into the land that God
promised their fathers. He made them swear to carry his bones out of
Egypt into that land. Joseph died and was embalmed and put in a
coffin in Egypt.
When the Jews eventually left Egypt, Moses carried out Josephs bones. Joseph was buried in Shechem, on a
piece of land that Jacob had previously bought. Josephs two sons
both became tribes in Israel and the northern Israelite kingdom is
many times referred to as the "House of Joseph."
Sources: >"Joseph" Encyclopedia
Britannica Online; Encyclopedia
Judaica. "Joseph". CD-ROM Edition, Judaica
Multimedia (Israel) Ltd; The World Book Encyclopedia. "Joseph". Vol. 11, 1988