Joseph, whose name means “May God give increase,” was the son of Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 30.22–24), and the eponymous ancestor of the house of Joseph, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Genesis 37–50 portrays Joseph as a patriarch through whom the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are transmitted to later Israel. The God of the ancestors is not, however, called the God of Joseph, and Joseph the patriarch is seldom mentioned in the Bible outside Genesis.
The Joseph story begins in Genesis 37.1, “Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan,” and comes to its preliminary end in 47.27, where the opening formula is transformed, “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen.” Its unity comes not from a single theme, but from sophisticated art, narrating the interaction of the human characters; God's direct action is hardly mentioned.
The story begins with the young, self‐centered Joseph announcing to his father and brothers his double dreams of their obeisance to him. The doubling of his dreams here and later (41.1–8) proves their divine origin. Joseph later goes out to visit his brothers who are caring for their father's flock, apparently a rare event since he does not even know where they are camped (37.12–17). As he comes upon his brothers, they decide to kill him, but at the intercession of Reuben and Judah, he is spared; he ultimately falls into the hands of traders who sell him to the Egyptian Potiphar, captain of the guard. His brothers, however, tell Jacob that his son is dead, and offer as evidence his blood‐stained garment, a preferential gift from his father (37.3, traditionally, although probably erroneously, translated as “a coat of many colors”). As if to indicate the passing of time and to build suspense about Joseph's fate, chap. 38 tells the story of Judah, the ancestor of the southern kingdom, a counterbalance to Joseph, the ancestor of the northern kingdom. Chap. 39 opens with Joseph as overseer of Potiphar's house. Even in prison, to which he is unjustly condemned, God protects him. His ability to interpret dreams brings him to Pharaoh's notice (40.1–41.14). He interprets Pharaoh's dream correctly as seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and he is put in charge of preparing for the seven years of famine (chap. 41). That famine causes Jacob to send all his sons but Benjamin (the other son of his beloved Rachel) to Egypt to buy grain. In the first visit of his brothers (chap. 42), Joseph tests them by treating them roughly, holding Simeon as hostage, putting their money back in their grain sacks, and demanding that they return with Benjamin on their next visit. Joseph, the cool courtier, wants to learn his brothers' attitude toward him, his full brother Benjamin, and their father. The second visit of the now uneasy brothers is even more eventful (chaps. 43–45): Joseph surprises them by seating them at a banquet according to the order of their birth, Benjamin is arrested on a ruse, and, finally, Judah as spokesman for the group expresses the pain the family disunity has caused (44.18–44). Joseph, by now emotionally drawn into the family's crisis, reveals himself to his brothers, acknowledging that God, despite the selfish behavior of the family members, “sent me before you to preserve life” (45.5). The last chapters narrate Jacob's blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh (chap. 48), his testament (chap. 49), his death, and Joseph's final days (chap. 50).
At one level, chaps. 37–50 explain how the sons of Jacob got to Egypt through the agency of Joseph. On a deeper level, the chapters tell movingly how God kept a disintegrating family united by the repentance and restraint of its members. The lesson is an important one for Israel because its unity is often threatened by the claims of one tribe against another.
The tribe of Joseph is divided into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48; Num. 26.28–37; Josh. 14.4). “House of Joseph” may designate the northern kingdom as distinguished from the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Sam. 19.20; Ps. 78.67–68), or it may designate all Israel (Pss. 77.15; 80.1–2).
In the New Testament, Hebrews 11.22 lists Joseph as a hero of faith; Stephen in his speech summarizes his career in Acts 7.13–17. Some have seen in Mark's episode of the youth who left his cloak behind (Mark 14.51–52) an echo of Genesis 39.11–12. Among noteworthy modern retellings of the Joseph story is Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers.
Richard J. Clifford