This month's "Bible Characters?" section
focuses on Jacob's son, Joseph. Mary Jane Chapin
Chaignot researched and compiled this material.
- 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
- 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
- Jacob's decision to send Joseph out to check
on his brothers opens the way for the brothers'
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary.
Collegeville, MN: Liturgical
Gibson, John. Genesis. Philadelphia: Westminster
Hamilton, Victor. The Book of Genesis. The
New International Commentary on the
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.
Hartlet, John. Genesis, New International
Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA:
Humphreys, W. Lee. Joseph and His Family,
A Literary Study. University of South
Lowenthal, Eric. The Joseph Narrative in Genesis.
New York: KTAV Publishing
McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary.
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary
on the Bible. Macon, GA:
Westermann, Claus. Joseph. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1996.
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