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Bible Characters

This month's "Bible Characters?" section focuses on Jacob's son, Joseph. Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot researched and compiled this material.

Bible Characters?

  • Joseph was the son of Jacob and his beloved wife, Rachel, born to them while they lived in Haran, north of Canaan (30:23-24). Scholars aren't certain on the etymology of his name. It could mean: God has removed my reproach, or may God add another son.

  • Joseph might have been about six years old when Jacob returned to the land of Canaan and made peace with Esau.

  • Rachel died in childbirth on the way to visit Isaac. Joseph's new brother was named Benjamin, meaning "son of good fortune."

The Joseph Narrative begins at Gen. 37:2

  • Joseph was seventeen years old when his section of the story begins.

  • The note indicating he was out in the field with the sons of the handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, might suggest that Leah's sons maintained a higher status within the family structure. If Joseph was relegated to working with the sons of the slaves, it might explain why he felt the need to 'tattle' on his brothers.

  • Jacob, however, dearly loves Joseph, the son of his beloved wife, Rachel, and shows partiality towards him by fashioning for him a "coat of many colors," an act that infuriates Joseph's other sons. (Gen. 37:3)

  • Hebrew tradition maintains the translation "coat of many colors," but it could also be translated as "a long-robe with sleeves." It doesn't so much matter what it was, but what it symbolized. The wearer of such a garment might be hindered in fulfilling outdoor jobs. It would be the attire of a wealthy man, who had others do his work for him. It would essentially elevate Joseph above the other brothers.

  • Naturally the brothers were filled with envy, and they hated Joseph.

  • Sons in ancient families were taught to honor and revere their parents, which is why they didn't get angry with Jacob and instead opted to take out their frustrations on Joseph, who was an easier target.

  • Matters worsened when Joseph shared his dreams about his brothers' sheaves bowing to his. This was only compounded by his second dream wherein the sun and moon (dad and mom) joined his eleven brothers in bowing before him. (Even his dad was upset with the implications of this one.)

  • At this point in their patriarchal society, the notion of some human beings ruling over others was simply abhorrent. They have no kingdoms, and no kings or rulers. Their only ruler is God.

  • Jacob's decision to send Joseph out to check on his brothers opens the way for the brothers' treacherous acts.

  • Reuben, as the eldest, would have been responsible for the safety of his younger brothers, which is probably why he balked at the plan to kill Joseph outright. In searching for a compromise, he suggested that they throw him into a deep well. Scholars, trying to give Reuben the benefit of the doubt, have him return later, as if to retrieve Joseph to send him back to his father.

  • The decision to sell Joseph to the Midianite merchantmen rather than have him die in the cistern spared his life but permanently sealed his fate. The sale price of 20 pieces of silver was the going rate for a male slave.

  • Reuben was not with his brothers when the transaction occurred, which is why his grief knew no bounds when he returned to find the cistern empty. Apparently his brothers never told him what actually happened. The ruse was sealed when they bloodied Joseph's pretty coat and agreed to tell Jacob that a wild animal had eaten him.

  • Joseph was bought by Potiphar, an Egyptian, the captain of Pharaoh's guard for an undisclosed amount of money.

  • And the Lord was with Joseph (Gen. 39:2). In no time at all, Joseph had proved his mettle and Potiphar made him an overseer in his house. The Lord continued to bless Potiphar's household.

  • An overseer would have had charge over all domestic duties. Indeed, Potiphar delegated everything to Joseph except preparation of the food Potiphar ate.

  • Potiphar's wife tried to convince Joseph to "lie with her" day after day. Her request is made in two short words in Hebrew. Joseph's refusal is more expansive.

  • Joseph refused, out of respect for both Potiphar and God. The issue for Joseph has to do with trust and loyalty towards his master and God.

  • One day Potiphar's wife grabbed him when no one else was around. He fled, losing his garment, which she kept as evidence and accused Joseph of trying to rape her. When she told Potiphar, she reminded him that he was the one who had "brought this slave" into their house.

  • Potiphar could have had Joseph killed on the spot. Instead, Joseph was thrown into prison with the Lord's prisoners. (Perhaps Potiphar didn't totally believe the story his wife told him, but he had to do something to save face.) Potiphar's job was to oversee these prisoners.

  • And the Lord was with Joseph. (Gen. 39:21). Soon Joseph was an overseer of the other prisoners. When Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker were thrown into prison, Joseph was assigned to them.

  • The cupbearer was an important office in Pharaoh's palace and was typically a trusted advisor to him.

  • When the cupbearer and the baker had disturbing dreams, they were terribly upset that no one was around to interpret them. Dreams were generally regarded as omens that could only be understood by other visionaries.

  • Joseph believed interpretations belonged to God and he was empowered to relay the message. His interpretations were correct: The baker was hanged; the cupbearer was released from prison and restored to his previous position.

  • Two whole years passed before Pharaoh had the troubling dream whereby seven sleek cows were eaten by seven scrawny cows and seven big ears of corn were swallowed by seven thin ears of corn. No one could help him interpret this dream.

  • THEN, the cupbearer remembered Joseph's skilled interpretations (Gen 41:12). Joseph was sent for and interpreted the dream, saying seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine.

  • Pharaoh would have viewed this as divine revelation, an opportunity to wisely care for his people. He needed to act responsibly for his country.

  • Out of gratitude, Pharaoh hired Joseph on the spot, giving him his signet ring (a symbol of authority), a new name (Zaphenath-paneah, meaning either God speaks and he lives, or that God has said: he will live), and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, Priest of On.

  • Joseph was 30 years old at this time, and all that he had predicted had come to pass. During the seven years of plenty, Joseph and Asenath had two sons -- Manassah and Ephraim.

  • Manassah and Ephraim are Hebrew names, respectively meaning: "one who causes to forget" and "God who blesses."

  • Joseph's job was to store up grain for the famine to come. After seven years, the famine hit.

  • The ancient Egyptians had a long practice of maintaining government granaries. In telling this story, Israel links economic planning to God's activity. God was in charge of everything.

  • Extra-biblical records attest to a seven-year famine due to the Nile being low.

  • While Joseph was gathering grain in Egypt, Jacob and his sons were suffering in Canaan. They had no grain. Jacob decided to send the oldest 10 to Egypt to buy grain, though we don't know how it became known that there was grain in Egypt. But the brothers were reluctant to go. Perhaps they were remembering how they had sent their brother off to Egypt 20 years earlier.

  • Jacob only sent 10 sons because he wanted to keep Benjamin home. He could not risk the loss of Rachel's second son.

  • In an ironic twist, the brothers appeared before Joseph (who recognized them, but they did not recognize him). As they bowed before him, Joseph couldn't help remembering his first dreams. He spoke harshly to them, accusing them of coming to spy out the weakness of the land.

  • Accusations of spying were common in the OT. The brothers were aliens in a foreign land. Their only defense was to plead a familial alliance, not a political one.

  • The brothers pleaded their innocence and swore they were honest men (Really! These are the same brothers who lied to their father about Joseph's "death").

  • In order to increase the pressure, Joseph offered to test them -- one of them could go back home to get their youngest brother (his real brother, Benjamin). The others would remain confined.

  • This encounter with Joseph and his brothers parallels their last encounter with him. They threw him in a pit, then changed their minds and sold him to Midianites. He threw them in jail for three days, then changed his mind and sent all but one back home to get Benjamin.

  • This was probably all a ruse for him to be able to meet Benjamin.

  • It was Reuben who ultimately made the connection that they were finally reaping their punishment for hurting Joseph. This is consistent with "an eye for an eye" OT justice.

  • Simeon, Leah's second-born son, was chosen to stay.
    As the remaining nine prepared to leave, Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and return all their money.

  • During a stop on their way home, the brothers discovered the money in their bags. They attributed these findings to God's hand. Terrified, they had no choice but to continue on their way to inform their father about all that had happened.

  • Jacob rejected the idea of letting them go back with Benjamin. Now he mourned the loss of Joseph and Simeon.

  • Benjamin is probably in his 20's by now. Joseph had been gone 20 years before their first visit to Egypt. It is unknown how many years have passed since then or how old Benjamin was when Joseph was sent out to check on his brothers.

  • But the famine continued. The day came when they needed more grain. Jacob told his sons to go back to Egypt. The brothers stood up to Jacob and refused to go without Benjamin. A big argument ensued, but eventually Jacob realized there were no other options. He was distraught, but had to agree and sent them off laden with gifts for the "man in Egypt." (Gen. 43:11)

  • Joseph invited them all to dine with him. The brothers were so fearful that it would be a trick, but Joseph's steward kept reassuring them that God was behind it all (Gen 43:23).

  • Simeon was brought out of prison to rejoin his brothers. Joseph met Benjamin and was overcome with emotion but managed to hide it.

  • The brothers could not speak to Joseph until he gave them permission to do so. Then they feasted -- but separately, as it was forbidden for Egyptians to eat with Hebrews.

  • Again the brothers were given grain, plus their money. Joseph told the steward to put his silver goblet in Benjamin's sack.

  • Not only was it Joseph's silver goblet, but it was the one he used for divination. Oil would have been poured into water in the cup (or vice versa). The resulting configurations were then studied and interpreted by diviners. This was a common practice in Egypt (and abhorred by Hebrews).

  • The brothers left bright and early the next morning. Shortly afterwards, Joseph told his steward to go after them and ask, "Why have you returned evil for good?" (Gen. 44:4)

  • The brothers were caught totally unaware and swore they had done nothing wrong. Bags were searched and the goblet was found in Benjamin's bag. They hastily returned to Egypt to beg for mercy since they had previously offered to slay the offender -- thinking of course, that no offense had been committed.

  • Joseph offered to let them go -- if Benjamin remained behind as his slave. That should have been good news, since he could have imposed a death sentence.

  • This time the brothers did the right thing. Judah pleaded for the life of Benjamin, telling Joseph their father would die if they left Benjamin behind. He offered himself for the life of Benjamin.

  • It was this righteous act that was too much for Joseph. He sent all Egyptians away so he could make himself known to his brothers. He forgave their sending him to Egypt, saying God meant it for good. Hugs and kisses completed the revealing.

  • It was Pharaoh who told Joseph to have his family move to Egypt.

  • The brothers returned with the good news to Jacob, who could hardly wait to pack up and go see his long lost son.

  • Jacob and sixty-six of his descendants moved to Egypt. After Jacob met Joseph, he said, "Now I can die." (Gen. 46:30)

  • The famine continued. By now most everyone had already spent all their money for grain, and still they needed more. Joseph set up a program whereby he started buying the people's cattle and land. This allowed them to have money to buy more grain, but in the process they lost their land. By the time the famine was over, Pharaoh owned everything in Egypt, except the land of the priests. The people were now tenants on Pharaoh's land and were required to give him one-fifth of everything they grew.

  • When Jacob was about to die, he made Joseph swear he would not leave his "bones" buried in Egypt. Jacob blessed his sons and grandsons.

  • After Jacob's death, the brothers were concerned Joseph might now wreak his revenge upon them. Joseph reassured them that nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Joseph lived until the age of 110 and was buried in Egypt.



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     Press, 1998.

Gibson, John. Genesis. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982.

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Hartlet, John. Genesis, New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA:
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Humphreys, W. Lee. Joseph and His Family, A Literary Study. University of South
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Lowenthal, Eric. The Joseph Narrative in Genesis. New York: KTAV Publishing
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