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Jason Tron





Joseph: The Making of a Prophet





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Jason Tron





Joseph: The Making of a Prophet








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Joseph: The Making of a Prophet

The Torah is silent about the nature of Joseph’s dreams: What do they mean?  Do they come from God? This ambiguity is part of the literary artistry of the story, which relates Joseph’s “coming of age” as a prophet.


Joseph: The Making of a Prophet

Joseph’s Dream Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis Date: 1907

God’s Relationship with Joseph and Vice Versa

The Torah’s narratives are not considered prophetic literature. Nevertheless, Abraham is called a prophet (Gen 20:7), and God speaks to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on more than one occasion, making promises to them about their futures and the future of their offspring. The Joseph stories seem even less like prophetic literature: although Joseph has dreams that seem prophetic in the sense that they are fulfilled, God does not speak to Joseph explicitly concerning the meaning of these dreams.

Joseph’s story can be contrasted with the narratives of Abraham, Jacob, or Moses, where God delivers clear messages to the stories’ protagonists, informing them of his plans or of a planned reward for faithful service.[1] This explicit contact between the deity and the prophet appears in many other biblical narratives as well, such as God speaking with Joshua (Josh 6:2), Gideon (Judg 6:14), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4-14), or Elijah (1 Kings 19:15).

Contact between God and a person is even clearer in prophetic call narratives, in which God explicitly appoints a prophet and tells him his mission, such as Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Ezekiel 1. But our story is different: God never speaks with Joseph, never tells him the meaning of the dreams, or what God’s purpose was in choosing Joseph to be a leader.

Joseph the Wise

The lack of direct divine communication with Joseph, in combination with the absence of many religious elements characteristic of the patriarchal narratives such as the foundation of holy places or encounters with angels,[2] has led some scholars to emphasize its connection with wisdom literature, which emphasizes rules of nature and the central importance of people navigating the world wisely.[3]

To be clear, wisdom literature is not “secular” in the modern sense. In wisdom literature, wisdom stems from God, and there is great emphasis on piety and not just intelligence. Joseph expresses his piety when turning down the advances of his master’s wife, invoking both the need to express gratitude and the fear of acting impiously before God:

בראשית לט:ח …הֵן אֲדֹנִי לֹא יָדַע אִתִּי מַה בַּבָּיִת וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ נָתַן בְּיָדִי. לט:ט …וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹהִים.
Gen 39:8 “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. 39:9 …How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?”

Avoiding seduction by a married woman is a theme in wisdom literature (see esp. Prov 7).

YHWH was with Joseph

Nevertheless, the Joseph story cannot be described as entirely wisdom in its theology, since the story, in several places, describes God’s actively intervening, albeit from behind the scenes.[4]

When Joseph is rising in the estimation of his master, the text states explicitly that this is because YHWH is with him and that his master sees this is the case.

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:גוַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה.
Gen 39:2 YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. 39:3 And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… 39:5 And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside.

YHWH’s involvement is repeated when Joseph is put in prison, and with the same effect:

בראשית לט:כא וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֵּט אֵלָיו חָסֶד וַיִּתֵּן חִנּוֹ בְּעֵינֵי שַׂר בֵּית הַסֹּהַר… לט:כג אֵין שַׂר בֵּית הַסֹּהַר רֹאֶה אֶת כָּל מְאוּמָה בְּיָדוֹ בַּאֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וַאֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ.
Gen 39:21 YHWH was with Joseph: He extended kindness to him and disposed the chief jailer favorably toward him…39:23 The chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because YHWH was with him, and whatever he did YHWH made successful.

Thus, the theology of the Joseph story shows divine involvement, though only in a behind-the-scenes way.

Double Causation: Moshe Weinfeld’s Reading

In his commentary on Genesis, Moshe Weinfeld notes how the Joseph story is written on two levels:

בהשוואה לסיפורים הקודמים, נושאים סיפורי יוסף אופי חילוני וארצי יותר. הכוח המניע את גלגלי המאורעות הוא על טהרת המניעים האנושיים ולכאורה – ללא התערבות האל….
In contrast to the preceding narratives, the subject matter of the Joseph story bears more of a secular and down-to-earth quality. The active force behind events are described as purely human, and, ostensibly, as occurring without the involvement of God…
למרות זאת אין הדברים מתרחשים מכוח עצמם. ברגעי שיא מעיר הכתוב כי המאורעות המתגלגלים בדרך טבעית כביכול אינם אלא מימוש התכלית האלוהית…
Nevertheless, the events don’t actually take place for no reason beyond the obvious causal factors. At certain climactic points, the text explains that the events only appear to take place naturally, but that they are actually the result of a divine plan…
בדומה למקומות אחרים במקרא… ניכרת אף כאן סיבתיות כפולה: מחד גיסא – השתלשלות הגיונית, מכוח סיבות טבעיות, ומאידך – יד נעלמה הכוונת את המאורעות לקראת מימושה של התכלית האלוהית.
In a similar way to other biblical texts…, a double causation is in evidence here: On one hand, the logical consequences or natural processes; on the other hand, a hidden hand directing events towards the fulfillment of the divine plan.[5]

The idea of “dual causality,” as it has been called in scholarship, is that an event can be understood naturally and as stemming from God at the same time.[6] According to this, we need to constantly read the Joseph story both as a natural tale about human interactions and as a story about God’s setting his plan for the world into action.

Dreams: A Form of ANE Wisdom

In the ancient Near East, interpreting dreams was a specialized field of knowledge or wisdom, and thus, Joseph’s abilities place him squarely in the position of a wise man, albeit of a specialized type.[7] This wisdom aspect of dream interpretation is apparent in the accounts of the dreams of the ministers and Pharaoh, in which Joseph repeatedly emphasizes how his abilities are a gift from God.

First, when the baker and wine-steward tell him they had disturbing dreams, Joseph responds:

בראשית מ:ח …וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי.
Gen 40:8 …So Joseph said to them, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].”

Then again, when Pharaoh calls Joseph and requests an interpretation of his dreams:

בראשית מא:טו וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַאֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר תִּשְׁמַע חֲלוֹם לִפְתֹּר אֹתוֹ. מא:טז וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה.
Gen 41:15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” 41:16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”

Pharaoh, subsequently, adopts Joseph’s discourse and declares Joseph to be the consummate wise man:

בראשית מא:לט וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֵי הוֹדִיעַ אֱלֹהִים אוֹתְךָ אֶת כָּל זֹאת אֵין נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ.
Gen 41:39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you…”

Dreams: Riddles for Wise Men

Moshe Weinfeld, although admitting that the story functions on both the natural and divine levels, declares that the dream sections of the Joseph story should be read as purely wisdom in character:

…דווקא במקומות שניכר בהם שיתוף עם סיפורי האבות, כגון בעניין החלומות בולט השוני בין סיפורי האבות לסיפורי יוסף. חלומותיהם של האבות הם נבואיים, האל מתקלה לפניהם ומודיע להם במישרין את דבריו או את הבטחותיו…
…Precisely in places in which [the Joseph story] has themes in common with the patriarchal stories, such as the matter of dreams, do the differences between the patriarchal stories and the Joseph story stand out. The dreams of the patriarchs are prophetic. God appears before them and informs them directly of his words or promises…
לעומת זאת החלומות בסיפור יוסף, הן לחומותיו שלו והן אלה של פרעה ושריו, הם בבחינת חידות שיש לפתרן בכוח חוכמה ותבונה, הגם שתכונות אלה הן מתת שהעניק אותה האל (מ:ח, מא:טז, כה, לט).
In contrast, the dreams in the Joseph story, whether his dreams or the dreams of Pharaoh and his ministers, are essentially riddles that must be solved through the power of wisdom and insight, even if such abilities are gifts granted [to Joseph] by God (40:8; 41:16, 25, 39).

For Weinfeld, the dreams in the Joseph story, including his own dreams, are riddles that need to be solved by a shrewd mind and are not part of the theological message of the story that God is behind the scenes pulling the strings.

Between Prophetic and Symbolic Dreams

Weinfeld may be overstating the case here, as I believe we need to distinguish between the dreams of Pharaoh and his officials, which Joseph interprets, and Joseph’s dreams, which can be understood as prophecies, for the following reasons:

Riddles for Prophets

Dreams that do not come with clear messages from God can be described as prophetic, as we learn from God’s description of non-Mosaic prophecy in God’s rebuke of Miriam and Aaron for speaking badly about Moses:

במדבר יב:ו וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ. יב:ז לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. יב:ח פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת יְ-הוָה יַבִּיט…
Num 12:6 and He said, “Hear these My words: When a prophet of YHWH arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. 12:7 Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. 12:8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of YHWH…

In keeping with this point, Ruth Fidler of Haifa University points out that although dreams can be divided into prophetic dreams, in which God speaks explicitly, and symbolic dreams, in which the divine message is hidden, this does not mean that prophetic dreams only go to prophets and riddles only to non-prophets.[8] In fact, she notes that the non-Israelite “villains” Abimelech (Gen 20:6-7) and Laban (Gen 31:24) received prophetic dreams, though they are not prophets. The inverse, I would argue, is equally true, Israelite “heroes,” such as Joseph, can receive symbolic dreams as a subtle form of prophecy.

Not a Standard Symbolic Dream

Certain elements of the Joseph story imply that his dreams were not a standard ANE symbolic dream. First, in the ANE, a dreamer does not know the meaning of the dream and must consult an expert. Prophets, however, are expected to understand their visions (or the vision is accompanied by God’s explanation). As Joseph does not consult a dream interpreter, the text implies that he is supposed to understand the message on his own, like a prophet. In fact, the end of the Joseph story implies that he does eventually understand the dreams, and that he sees them as God’s communication of the divine plan to him.[9]

Joseph’s Dreams of Leadership

Joseph’s two dreams appear at the very beginning of the Joseph saga, immediately after the reader is informed that his brothers hate him (37:4):

בראשית לז:ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ. לז:ווַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם שִׁמְעוּ נָא הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. לז:ז וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי וְגַם נִצָּבָה וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי.
Gen 37:5 Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more. 37:6 He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: 37:7 There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.”

It is unclear what kind of reaction Joseph was expecting, but the brothers, who already dislike him, react very unfavorably.

בראשית לז:ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אֶחָיו הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ אִם מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ עַל חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל דְּבָרָיו.
Gen 37:8 His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.

The brothers understand the dream to mean that Joseph will rule over them, and they assume that he knows that this is what the dream means and that he is trying to lord it over them. But Joseph is lacking in maturity and sophistication here. He is either not bothered by, or blissfully unaware of, their anger, because he proceeds to tell them about a similar dream in the very next scene, and to the same effect:

בראשית לז:ט וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי.
Gen 37:9 He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

This time, Joseph also shares his dream with his father, who reacts with annoyance.

לז:י וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל אָבִיו וְאֶל אֶחָיו וַיִּגְעַר בּוֹ אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ אָרְצָה.
37:10 And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?”

Like the brothers, Jacob interprets the dream to mean that Joseph believes his family will bow before him in the future. It is unclear whether Jacob and the brothers assume that this is a divine communication to Joseph or just Joseph’s own fantasies, but the verse seems to imply the former:

בראשית לז:יא וַיְקַנְאוּ בוֹ אֶחָיו וְאָבִיו שָׁמַר אֶת הַדָּבָר.
Gen 37:11 So his brothers were envious of him, and his father kept the matter in mind.

Earlier, Joseph’s brothers react simply by hating him more, but here they are described as envious, which may signify that they had begun to believe the dreams might be true.[10] Similarly, Jacob’s keeping the matter in mind, likely means that he was open to the possibility that this was a prophecy. Joseph himself never offers an interpretation of his own dreams.[11]

The dream is a message from God to Joseph, but Joseph is too immature at this stage to receive an explicit prophecy, as evidenced by his behavior in chapter 37. The way the text has Joseph twice tell the dreams to his jealous brothers implies a certain naïveté on his part, either about their meaning or about how his family would react to hearing about them.[12]

Joseph’s Dreams Fulfilled

Joseph’s life turns out to be a roller coaster. He is sold into slavery, becomes an important person in his master’s house, is sent to prison, is brought to Pharaoh as a dream interpreter, and becomes the second in command in Egypt and presides over the food during the famine. It is at this point, when his brothers appear in Egypt to purchase provisions, that his brothers actually bow before him, as depicted in the dreams:

בראשית מב:ו וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה…
Gen 42:6 Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground…

This act on the brothers’ part causes Joseph to remember his dreams:

בראשית מב:ט וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם…
Gen 42:9 Joseph recalled the dreams that he had dreamed about them…

Even here, however, we are not told explicitly what Joseph thinks their import is. Instead, Joseph acts enigmatically, accusing his brothers of being spies (מרגלים) coming to see the vulnerability of the land (ערות הארץ), and insisting on their bringing Benjamin to him.

Later on, however, as a result of Judah’s plea for Benjamin and his promise that he and all the brothers (except Benjamin) will be Joseph’s slaves—again, reminiscent of the dreams and their message—Joseph breaks down, tells the brothers who he is, and, importantly, his personal interpretation of his life’s events:

בראשית מה:ז וַיִּשְׁלָחֵנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם לָכֶם שְׁאֵרִית בָּאָרֶץ וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לָכֶם לִפְלֵיטָה גְּדֹלָה. מה:חוְעַתָּה לֹא אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 45:7 God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. 45:8 So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

That Joseph interprets not only his sale as God’s plan but his dreams as foretelling this plan can be supported by one of the final scenes in the Joseph story, in which Joseph’s brothers, afraid of Joseph’s possible retribution upon their father’s death, bow before him a second time:

בראשית נ:יח וַיֵּלְכוּ גַּם אֶחָיו וַיִּפְּלוּ לְפָנָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ הִנֶּנּוּ לְךָ לַעֲבָדִים.
Gen 50:18 His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.”

Again, the brothers are bowing, and again, they agree to be his slaves. In response, Joseph repeats his interpretation in different words:

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב..
Gen 50:19 But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? 50:20 Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.

Joseph specifically offers this interpretation when his brothers bow to him, as they symbolically do in the dream, implying that Joseph is not merely speaking about God’s plan in general but interpreting his dream in these two scenes. In other words, what appeared when he was young to mean that he would be the dominant brother in the family, now appears to him to mean that he was destined to be a dominant person in Egypt, and his family would bow before him in gratitude for saving them.

Thus, Joseph’s dreams about his future role (ch. 37) and his reflections on their meaning at the end of the story (in chs. 45 and 50) punctuate and even bookend the Joseph story, with virtually the entire narrative standing between the dreams and their interpretation. We are only told what Joseph thinks about his dreams after they have already been fulfilled, and even this is never stated explicitly but needs to be inferred.

Literary Artistry and Gap-Filling

The use of the symbolic dream genre in support of a story about God and God’s message to Joseph is an example of literary artistry. Obviously, the dreams imply that Joseph will be dominant over his brothers, but the narrative leaves the precise meaning open, and the readers get the pleasure of deciphering the riddle on their own, and at the exact moment that Joseph himself seems to, when the brothers bow before him in Egypt.

Moreover, like the brothers and perhaps like Joseph himself, the reader of ch. 37 may be left wondering whether Joseph’s dreams are indeed from God. Perhaps, they are a teenager’s delusions of grandeur, as R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) suggests was the brothers’ understanding (Gen 37:8):

ויוסיפו עוד שנא אותו – כי אמרו: רעיונך על משכבך סליקו, כך אתה מחשב להיות מושל עלינו בשביל שאבינו אוהב אותך, ומה שאתה חושב ביום אתה חולם בלילה.
“And they hated him even more” – for they said: “Your ideas come upon you in your bed. You imagine yourself ruling over us because our father loves you, and that which you fantasize about during the day you dream about at night.”

It takes Joseph and his brothers a lifetime to find out whether the dreams will indeed come true and if so in what form. Much like Joseph who gets no explanation from God in Gen 37, the reader of the book must wait until much later in the story to learn the answer as to whether the dreams are from God and what exactly they foretell, a literary technique that Meir Sternberg calls “gap-filling.”[13]

In this case, the gap is partially filled when the brothers bow before Joseph, and further filled in Joseph’s speeches to his brothers about God’s plan in chapters 45 and 50. When the gap is filled, the reader understands the mission God revealed to Joseph in his dreams in Genesis 37. But this is only part of the picture.

A Prophetic Coming of Age Story

The Joseph story opens with an unflattering description of Joseph as a youth:

בראשית לז:ב …יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה נְשֵׁי אָבִיו וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם.
Gen 37:2 …At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, and he was a lad with (or “a helper to”) the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.

The story then continues with the disastrous sharing of dreams, which led to the brothers turning on him and throwing him in the pit. As he grows older in Egypt, Joseph becomes a successful servant, a righteous man who balks at the advances of his master’s wife, and eventually a dream interpreter and high-level administrator in Pharaoh’s government. Thus, the story of Joseph is about a young man who matures through great hardships to emerge as Israel’s leader.[14]

But I suggest that the Joseph narrative is not merely a coming of age story but specifically a story of Joseph “coming of age” as a prophet. Joseph eventually understands that God was calling to him and giving him a mission, but only later in life. In this sense, part of the literary artistry of the story is that Joseph’s grasp of his role as a prophet matures over time as he does.[15]

At the beginning of the story (ch 37), whether willfully or out of ignorance of its meaning, Joseph shares the message with his jealous brothers, causing them to be angry and hurt. At the end of the story (ch. 50), however, Joseph shares his understanding of God’s mission for him to console his brothers and make them feel safe:

בראשית נ:כא וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם.
Gen 50:21 And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” In this way, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Joseph is a teenager who stumbled into the prophecy, but who will eventually learn how to read the divine signs and translate them into human language when he stands before Pharaoh in the Egyptian court. Eventually, as his brothers bow before him as they did in the dreams, he understands the meaning of God’s message and that all that he suffered at the hands of his brothers and all he accomplished in Egypt was in order to fulfill the divine command to save his family, the children of Israel, from the famine.


December 27, 2017


Last Updated

May 18, 2024


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Dr. Jason Tron holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Claremont School of Theology. He received his M.A. in Biblical Studies from the University of Haifa and his B.A. from Oranim College. His dissertation deals with visions in the book of Genesis.