We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.

Donate

Stay updated with the latest scholarship

You have been successfully subscribed
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Zev Farber

(

2015

)

.

Joseph in Custody: Enslaved or Imprisoned

.

TheTorah.com

.

https://thetorah.com/article/joseph-in-custody-enslaved-or-imprisoned

APA e-journal

Zev Farber

,

,

,

"

Joseph in Custody: Enslaved or Imprisoned

"

TheTorah.com

(

2015

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/joseph-in-custody-enslaved-or-imprisoned

Edit article

Series

Symposium

Joseph in Custody: Enslaved or Imprisoned

Joseph, sold by two different groups (Midianites and Ishmaelites), seems to have been bought by two different men (Potiphar, captain of the guard, and an unnamed Egyptian man), leading to two discrete storylines, each of which place Joseph in a different position when he meets the cupbearer and the baker.

Print
Share

Print
Share
Joseph in Custody: Enslaved or Imprisoned

Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company  1907

Who Bought Joseph?

The problem of the double sale of Joseph is well-known, as is the source critical solution.[1] In this piece I wish to unravel a problem that occurs later in the story, but to do so, we must begin with the identity of the Egyptian man who bought Joseph

Sold by Midianites to Potiphar (E version)‍

In one version of the disappearance of Joseph story, Reuben convinces his brothers not to kill him but to throw him into a pit. While the brothers sit down to eat, a group of Midianites notice him and remove him from the pit. They then bring Joseph to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar, captain of the guard:

לז:לו וְהַ֨מְּדָנִ֔ים מָכְר֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ אֶל־מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפֽוֹטִיפַר֙ סְרִ֣יס פַּרְעֹ֔ה שַׂ֖ר הַטַּבָּחִֽים:
37:36 And the [Midianites][2] sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.[3]

This version is generally identified as being part of the E text.

Sold by Ishmaelites to (Potiphar) an Egyptian Man (J Version)‍

In the other version of Joseph’s disappearance, the brothers take Joseph and tear off his tunic. Seeing a band of Ishmaelites passing by, Judah convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him to the Ishmaelites. They do so, and the Ishmaelites bring Joseph to Egypt and sell him there to Potiphar, again identified as the captain of the guard, though here he is in addition called “an Egyptian man.”

לט:א וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּקְנֵ֡הוּ פּוֹטִיפַר֩ סְרִ֨יס פַּרְעֹ֜ה שַׂ֤ר הַטַּבָּחִים֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מִיַּד֙ הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹרִדֻ֖הוּ שָֽׁמָּה:
39:1 Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian man bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.

This version of the sale, and what follows, is generally identified as the J story.

Potiphar or an Egyptian Man

As already noted by traditional exegetes, the way verse 39:1 refers to the man who purchased Joseph—“Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guards, an Egyptian man”—seems like overkill, especially following 37:36. Particularly odd is the note that he was “an Egyptian man”—would we expect anything else from an officer of Pharaoh and a captain of the guards?

Traditional Explanations

Midrash Aggada translates the word מצרי (Egyptian) as “sneaky (ערום),” thus avoiding the superfluity problem.[4] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the term literally, but suggests that it is meant both to remind the reader of the contrast between the craven Egyptians and the pious Joseph as well as to emphasize how impressive a foreign slave like Joseph must have been to receive such a promotion in a foreign land.[5]

A Redactional Gloss

Both of these commentators realize that “an Egyptian man” is out of place, and assume that it functions as a gloss on “Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guards.” It is more likely, however, that in the original J text, the Ishmaelites sell Joseph to an unnamed Egyptian man, who employs, becomes impressed with, and promotes Joseph to the administrator of his household. A later redactor, working with the combined version of the Joseph story, added the phrase “Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guards” to the verse, to make the two sales—that of the Midianites and that of the Ishmaelites—appear to be one.  The redactional link is indented and italicized below:

וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּקְנֵ֡הוּ
Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and
פּוֹטִיפַר֩ סְרִ֨יס פַּרְעֹ֜ה שַׂ֤ר הַטַּבָּחִים֙
Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard,
אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מִיַּד֙ הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹרִדֻ֖הוּ שָֽׁמָּה:
an Egyptian man bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.[6]

Joseph’s Unnamed Egyptian Master (J Story)‍

That the name Potiphar is a redactional gloss in 39:1 is substantiated by the fact that in the rest of the chapter the man is always referred to without a name, either as “an Egyptian” or “his (=Joseph’s) master.”

לט:א וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּקְנֵ֡הוּ…  אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מִיַּד֙ הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹרִדֻ֖הוּ שָֽׁמָּה: לט:ב וַיְהִ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְהִ֖י אִ֣ישׁ מַצְלִ֑יחַ וַיְהִ֕י בְּבֵ֥ית אֲדֹנָ֖יו הַמִּצְרִֽי: לט:ג וַיַּ֣רְא אֲדֹנָ֔יו כִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה יְ-הֹוָ֖ה מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ:לט:ד וַיִּמְצָ֨א יוֹסֵ֥ף חֵ֛ן בְּעֵינָ֖יו וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹת֑וֹ וַיַּפְקִדֵ֙הוּ֙ עַל בֵּית֔וֹ וְכָל יֶשׁ ל֖וֹ נָתַ֥ן בְּיָדֽוֹ:לט:ה וַיְהִ֡י מֵאָז֩ הִפְקִ֨יד אֹת֜וֹ בְּבֵית֗וֹ וְעַל֙ כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶשׁ ל֔וֹ וַיְבָ֧רֶךְ יְ-הֹוָ֛ה אֶת־בֵּ֥ית הַמִּצְרִ֖י בִּגְלַ֣ל יוֹסֵ֑ף…
39:1 Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and… an Egyptian bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 39:2 Yhwh was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 39:3 His master saw that Yhwh was with him, and that Yhwh caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 39:4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, Yhwh blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake….

The same holds true for every mention of the master’s wife, who—as Baruch Schwartz astutely noted in a Society of Biblical Literature talk—is never referred to as “Potiphar’s wife” in the Bible.

Joseph Jailed by his Master and Given over to the Chief Jailor (J Story)

Thanks to Yhwh’s assistance, Joseph is exceedingly successful in his master’s house. But things take a turn for the worse after Joseph refuses the advances of his master’s wife and finds himself accused of sexual assault.

לט:כ וַיִּקַּח֩ אֲדֹנֵ֨י יוֹסֵ֜ף אֹת֗וֹ וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֙הוּ֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁר [אֲסִירֵ֥י] הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ אֲסוּרִ֑ים וַֽיְהִי שָׁ֖ם בְּבֵ֥ית הַסֹּֽהַר: לט:כא וַיְהִ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיֵּ֥ט אֵלָ֖יו חָ֑סֶד וַיִּתֵּ֣ן חִנּ֔וֹ בְּעֵינֵ֖י שַׂ֥ר בֵּית הַסֹּֽהַר: לט:כב וַיִּתֵּ֞ן שַׂ֤ר בֵּית הַסֹּ֙הַר֙ בְּיַד יוֹסֵ֔ף אֵ֚ת כָּל הָ֣אֲסִירִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר וְאֵ֨ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֤ר עֹשִׂים֙ שָׁ֔ם ה֖וּא הָיָ֥ה עֹשֶֽׂה:לט:כג אֵ֣ין׀ שַׂ֣ר בֵּית הַסֹּ֗הַר רֹאֶ֤ה אֶֽת כָּל מְא֙וּמָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה יְ-הֹוָ֥ה מַצְלִֽיחַ:
39:20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 39:21 But Yhwh was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 39:22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 39:23 The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because Yhwh was with him; and whatever he did, Yhwh made it prosper.

Accepting his wife’s claim as true, Joseph’s master has Joseph imprisoned, away in a prison controlled by a chief jailor (not Joseph’s master). As Joseph moves up the ladder in the prison, the way he did as the slave of his previous master, he finds favor in the eyes of the chief jailer, who promotes him and leaves the running of the prison in his hands.

The Continuation of the Potiphar Story (E Story): Just a Slave

The continuation of the E story, which features Potiphar, is in chapter 40:[7]

לז:לו וְהַ֨מְּדָנִ֔ים מָכְר֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ אֶל מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפֽוֹטִיפַר֙ סְרִ֣יס פַּרְעֹ֔ה שַׂ֖ר הַטַּבָּחִֽים:// מ:א וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָ֥טְא֛וּ מַשְׁקֵ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ מִצְרַ֖יִם וְהָאֹפֶ֑ה לַאֲדֹנֵיהֶ֖ם לְמֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרָֽיִם: מ:ב וַיִּקְצֹ֣ף פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣י סָרִיסָ֑יו עַ֚ל שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל שַׂ֥ר הָאוֹפִֽים: מ:ג וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתָ֜ם בְּמִשְׁמַ֗ר בֵּ֛ית שַׂ֥ר הַטַּבָּחִ֖ים אֶל בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אָס֥וּר שָֽׁם: מ:ד וַ֠יִּפְקֹד שַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֧ים אֶת יוֹסֵ֛ף אִתָּ֖ם וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹתָ֑ם וַיִּהְ֥יוּ יָמִ֖ים בְּמִשְׁמָֽר:
37:36 And the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. // 40:1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt. 40:2Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 40:3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison, the place where Joseph was confined. 40:4 The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody.

Here Joseph is in the house of the captain of the guard again. And yet, the details in this paragraph are hard to square with each other.

  • Custody or Prison – The two men are put in “custody (משמר)” in the house of the captain of the guard, and in “prison (סהר)” where Joseph is locked up.[8]
  • Absence of the Chief Jailor – The captain of the guard puts Joseph in charge of the men. But if the men are in jail, shouldn’t the chief jailor be in charge of them (as he is of Joseph at the end of chapter 39)?
  • Double Opening – The opening of the story reads awkwardly and seems to contain a doublet. In verse 1, the cupbearer (משקה) and the baker (אופה)—the word “chief (שר)” does not appear—sin (חטאו) against “the king of Egypt (מלך מצרים).” Then, in verse 2, we are told that Pharaoh became angry (קצף) at his two eunichs (סריסיו), the chief cupbearer (שר המשקים) and the chief baker (שר האופים).

Ibn Ezra’s Suggestion‍

To solve some of the tension, ibn Ezra (40:4) suggests that the jail was inside the captain of the guard’s house, and that Potiphar, the captain of the guard, had direct control over the goings on in this jail.[9] This suggestion, however, seems to fly in the face of the simple reading of the verses in chapter 39 which imply that the jail was under someone else’s command. It also contradicts the simple meaning of the opening verses of chapter 40, which imply that Potiphar, the captain of the guard, has direct control over where Joseph is and seems to be unaware of any such person as the chief jailor. Finally, his suggestion does not explain the double opening.

Why the Chief Baker and Butler Dream Story is Perplexing  

These three problems point to the possibility that the text contains more than one version of the story.

מ:א וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָ֥טְא֛וּ מַשְׁקֵ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְהָאֹפֶ֑ה לַאֲדֹנֵיהֶ֖ם לְמֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרָֽיִם:
40:1 Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.
מ:ב וַיִּקְצֹ֣ף פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣י סָרִיסָ֑יו עַ֚ל שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל שַׂ֥ר הָאוֹפִֽים: מ:גוַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתָ֜ם בְּמִשְׁמַ֗ר בֵּ֛ית שַׂ֥ר הַטַּבָּחִ֖ים
40:2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 40:3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard,
אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אָס֥וּר שָֽׁם:
in the prison, the place where
Joseph was confined.
מ:ד וַ֠יִּפְקֹד שַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֧ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֛ף אִתָּ֖ם וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹתָ֑ם וַיִּהְ֥יוּ יָמִ֖ים בְּמִשְׁמָֽר:
40:4 The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody.

In the indented version, the cupbearer (משקה) and the baker (אופה) sin against the king of Egypt (מלך מצרים), who sends them to prison, where they happen to meet Joseph, also a captive there. This is the J story, the remainder of which appears to be lost until after Joseph’s appointment as vizier.[10]

In the other version, Pharaoh becomes angry with his chief cupbearer and chief baker, and sends them into custody at the home of the captain of the guards, where Joseph happens to be a slave. In this version, Joseph was never promoted, was never accused of assaulting his master’s wife, and is not a prisoner. He is simply a slave in the household of Potiphar, captain of the guards, and happens to have the power of interpreting dreams. This is the E story.[11]

Assuming the phrase ויתן אתם is an example of a phrase that existed in both sources but used only once in the composite text,[12] the two sources would have read as follows:

Joseph in Prison (J)

וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה חָ֥טְא֛וּ מַשְׁקֵ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ מִצְרַ֖יִם וְהָאֹפֶ֑ה לַאֲדֹנֵיהֶ֖ם לְמֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרָֽיִם, [וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתָ֜ם] אֶל בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֑הַר מְק֕וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אָס֥וּר שָֽׁם:
Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt, [and he put them] in the prison, the place where Joseph was confined.

Joseph as a Servant in Potiphar’s House (E)

וַיִּקְצֹ֣ף פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַ֖ל שְׁנֵ֣י סָרִיסָ֑יו עַ֚ל שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל שַׂ֥ר הָאוֹפִֽים, וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתָ֜ם בְּמִשְׁמַ֗ר בֵּ֛ית שַׂ֥ר הַטַּבָּחִ֖ים: וַ֠יִּפְקֹד שַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֧ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֛ף אִתָּ֖ם וַיְשָׁ֣רֶת אֹתָ֑ם וַיִּהְ֥יוּ יָמִ֖ים בְּמִשְׁמָֽר:

Pharaoh became angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody.

The E story continues with Joseph interpreting the two men’s dreams,[13] proving he has this gift, and asking the chief cupbearer, who will be restored to his position in the palace, to bring his name up to Pharaoh (40:14-15). Such a request only makes sense for an untainted slave wishing for freedom; it would be more than a little presumptuous of a prisoner accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife (for more on this verse, see the appendix). Nevertheless, the chief cupbearer forgets about Joseph (40:23) until the episode of Pharaoh’s dreams two years later in Parashat Mikketz.  

The Chief Cupbearer’s Description of Joseph: A Slave

Pharaoh has a set of dreams that awaken him in a panic. In the morning, he asks his advisors to tell him the meaning of the dreams but to no avail. At this point, his chief cupbearer makes a confession:

מא:ט וַיְדַבֵּר֙ שַׂ֣ר הַמַּשְׁקִ֔ים אֶת פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אֶת חֲטָאַ֕י אֲנִ֖י מַזְכִּ֥יר הַיּֽוֹם:מא:י פַּרְעֹ֖ה קָצַ֣ף עַל עֲבָדָ֑יו וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אֹתִ֜י בְּמִשְׁמַ֗ר בֵּ֚ית שַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֔ים אֹתִ֕י וְאֵ֖ת שַׂ֥ר הָאֹפִֽים: מא:יא וַנַּֽחַלְמָ֥ה חֲל֛וֹם בְּלַ֥יְלָה אֶחָ֖ד אֲנִ֣י וָה֑וּא אִ֛ישׁ כְּפִתְר֥וֹן חֲלֹמ֖וֹ חָלָֽמְנוּ: מא:יב וְשָׁ֨ם אִתָּ֜נוּ נַ֣עַר עִבְרִ֗י עֶ֚בֶד לְשַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֔ים וַנְּסַ֨פֶּר ל֔וֹ וַיִּפְתָּר לָ֖נוּ אֶת חֲלֹמֹתֵ֑ינוּ אִ֥ישׁ כַּחֲלֹמ֖וֹ פָּתָֽר: מא:יג וַיְהִ֛י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר פָּֽתַר לָ֖נוּ כֵּ֣ן הָיָ֑ה אֹתִ֛י הֵשִׁ֥יב עַל כַּנִּ֖י וְאֹת֥וֹ תָלָֽה:
41:9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. 41:10 Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard.  41:11 We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning.  41:12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream.  41:13 As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and he (=the baker) was hanged.”  

The chief cupbearer describes Joseph as a young Hebrew, and a servant of the captain of the guard. The chief cupbearer and the chief baker were in custody (משמר) in the captain of the guard’s house. We do not hear about a chief jailer, or the word prison (סהר). We further do not hear anything about Joseph being a prisoner or working for the chief jailer, just his position as a servant to the captain of the guard. This has all the telltale signs of the E story.

Here, Pharaoh (not “the king of Egypt”) was angry with his servants, the chief cupbearer and chief baker, and sent them into the custody (not the jail) of Potiphar the captain of the guards, where Joseph happened to have been a slave (not a prisoner). As they get to know the poor lad who brings them their food, he offers to interpret their dreams and they learn that he has this ability.

In this version, Joseph was never actually sold by his brothers, but was “stolen” from his homeland, after his brothers left him to die in a pit, and wound up a lowly slave in an important house. This version knows nothing about a thwarted affair with his master’s wife and nothing about a prison, and nothing about Yhwh making Joseph favorable in the eyes of his masters.  In this version, God’s intervention is merely God’s granting of Joseph the uncanny ability to accurately interpret prophetic dreams. Nevertheless, this proves sufficient for Joseph who, making use of this skill, will rise to the position of Pharaoh’s second in command during Egypt’s time of crisis.

Appendix

The Pit Problem

Joseph is twice described as being in “the pit (בור).” This raises a significant problem, since these verses are in the E version, but the notion that Joseph was in trouble characterizes the J story.

Joseph pleads with the chief cupbearer to speak to Pharaoh about him:

מ:יד כִּ֧י אִם זְכַרְתַּ֣נִי אִתְּךָ֗ כַּאֲשֶׁר֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְעָשִֽׂיתָ נָּ֥א עִמָּדִ֖י חָ֑סֶד וְהִזְכַּרְתַּ֙נִי֙ אֶל פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְהוֹצֵאתַ֖נִי מִן הַבַּ֛יִת הַזֶּֽה:
40:14 But remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place.
מ:טו כִּֽי גֻנֹּ֣ב גֻּנַּ֔בְתִּי מֵאֶ֖רֶץ הָעִבְרִ֑ים וְגַם פֹּה֙ לֹא עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי מְא֔וּמָה כִּֽי שָׂמ֥וּ אֹתִ֖י בַּבּֽוֹר:
40:15 For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon. (NRSV)

Joseph begins by asking to be removed from this “house,” namely Potiphar’s house; this fits well with the E story. Yet, Joseph ends with a defensive claim, stating that even here, in Egypt, he has done “nothing” to deserve being placed in this “pit.” This does not fit well with the E story, since in this version he is not in a prison and no one ever accused him of doing anything wrong.

The pit theme returns after the chief cupbearer does speak with Pharaoh, two years later, and Pharaoh wishes to ask Joseph to interpret his dream.

מא:יד וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח פַּרְעֹה֙ וַיִּקְרָ֣א אֶת יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְרִיצֻ֖הוּ מִן הַבּ֑וֹר וַיְגַלַּח֙ וַיְחַלֵּ֣ף שִׂמְלֹתָ֔יו וַיָּבֹ֖א אֶל פַּרְעֹֽה:
41:14 Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. He shaved himself and changed his clothes, and he came in before Pharaoh.

Again, this appears to be part of the E story, since it follows the chief cupbearer’s confession and refers to Egypt’s king as Pharaoh. And yet, it assumes that Joseph was in a pit and needs to be cleaned up before he can be brought before Pharaoh.

A number of possible explanations may resolve this problem.

  1. The pit theme is part of the lost J text, and was included as part of the combined text by the redactor.
  2. The pit theme is redactional, trying to tie the J story, most of which was cut, into the E story.

Both of these suggestions suffer from the same problem. If this was cut from J or was a redactor’s attempt to mimic J, why not use the same term J uses throughout, i.e., “prison (בית הסהר)?” Why use “pit”? It is possible that the redactor chose this term because earlier in the E story Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his brothers, but perhaps this is too clever.

  1. The pit is part of yet another source, perhaps the P source, which has been preserved here in only a handful of fragments.

This seems possible but, since there is nothing Priestly about it per se, and we don’t even know what P’s storyline was for this section (if it had such a section), the possibility remains so speculative that is hard to say anything more about it.[14]

In short, every solution brings with it its own problems. Perhaps further scholarly discussions and analysis will help elucidate this problem.

Published

December 8, 2015

|

Last Updated

November 16, 2019

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter, BZAW 457) and the editor of Halakhic Realities: Collected Essays on Brain Death (Maggid).