The Historical and Literary Complexity of the Joseph Story
Starting from the End: The Final form of the Joseph Account
Whoever composed or edited Genesis seems to have appreciated stories about Joseph not only for their literary or entertainment value but also for what they told about national formation, namely the transition from a Jacob Family (in Genesis) to a group of “tribes,” Sons of Jacob, then the nation Israel (in Exodus and beyond).
The Joseph tribes ceased to exist as a political body after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. It is thus likely that these stories were first told and collected before then, while the Joseph group still existed in the Northern part of the country. Yet, as we shall see, parts of the story feature Judah as a protagonist, and view him positively.
This is not surprising since most of the Hebrew Bible has come to us via Judean, or Jerusalemite lenses. It is likely that an earlier story, with Reuben as the other important brother, was taken over by scribes and editors of the Southern Kingdom shortly after its Northern (Joseph) kingdom’s demise, when the need for remembering, or manufacturing historical memory for the present and future, was keenly felt.
Some Source-Critical Insights: Who Wants to Save Joseph? Who Sells Him?
Two brothers save Joseph’s life. Reuben stops his brothers from murdering him by suggesting they throw Joseph into a pit and avoid spilling blood (37:21-22). Later, Judah suggests selling Joseph (37:26-27). The brothers agree to both ideas, yet when Reuben returns to the pit he is shocked to find Joseph gone (37:29-30). Why didn’t Reuben know they were selling him?
To add to this problem, the sale of Joseph is particularly confusing. He is picked up by Midianite merchants (37:28) but sold to the Ishmaelites (37:27, 28). He is then sold to Egypt by the Medanites (37:36), but also by the Ishmaelites (39:1).
These contradictions are noted and explained by most of the medieval parshanim. Rashi (1040-1105), for example, suggests that Joseph was sold twice: the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites who then resold him to the Midianites.Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (1085-1158), suggests that the brothers never actually sold Joseph, but that while they were deliberating, a group of Midianites came, pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.
More likely, the final form of Genesis has combined two versions of a similar story: a Judah and Ishmaelites version, and a Reuben and Midianites version. In the Judah story, the brothers are about to kill Joseph when Judah suggests selling him to the Ishmaelites, which they do. In the Reuben version, the brothers are about to kill Joseph when Reuben suggests throwing him in a pit. Later, Reuben sneaks back to the pit to save Joseph, but by then a group of Midianites have already found him and taken him away.
Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn (Genesis 29:32) who lost his primogeniture because he had sex with Bilhah, his father’s secondary wife (35:22, 49:3-4). This reflects the tribe of Reuben’s loss of prominence and eventual disappearance during the time when the Northern Kingdom was still in existence. Judah, Leah’s fourth son, comes into dominance later on and plays a decisive role in the family reunification in Egypt. The two versions here reflect the struggle between these two groups, with the redacted text reflecting Judah as winner. Nevertheless, the memory of the Reuben group’s dominance, long lost, persists.
Literary Doublets: Joseph’s Punishment
Joseph is punished in twos. For example, he is first thrown into a pit, then into prison. He is stripped naked twice: once his brothers take his ketonet (meaning of Hebrew uncertain), then he leaves his clothing to Madam Potiphar.
Literary Explanation 1: Multiplying Difficulties
These repetitions highlight the grave dangers that befall Joseph. The more difficulties the future hero faces, from his birth or even earlier, the more impressive his eventual achievements; the more obstacles he clears, the more competent he will be to lead; the more he withstands sexual temptation by married women, such as Madam Potiphar (chap. 39), the more trustworthy and ethical, the less impeachable, he would seem. From Sargon to Oedipus and beyond, the hero’s trajectory to power and authority is not complete without overcoming complications that would have reduced a lesser man. But this answer still feels insufficient. It makes sense that the text would multiply ordeals, but why two ordeals of the same nature?
Literary Explanation 2: Joseph Needs Two Rounds of Ordeals
As Bereshit Rabba (84:7-22; 86-88) and other later midrashim point out, Joseph starts out as an arrogant, foolish youngster, and throughout his stay at Potiphar’s house, it is not at all clear that he is completely blameless and free of conceit. He is still in need of education; in the language of the sages, he needs to undergo another test. He needs to show that he is either naturally righteous, never feeling temptation, or that he can control his desire with the Egyptian woman, along the lines of “Who is a hero? He who controls his desire” (Avoth 4:1).Thus, another round is necessary for the schooling process of this young man. He will be on trial until he learns humility, which he finally shows with the interpretation of the Egyptian courtiers’ dreams, which are also doubled.
The Meaning of Dreams in the Ancient Near East
Joseph tells two dreams that are one: both are symbolic visions of his future rule over his family members. His dreams do not require interpretation, as evidenced by the brothers’ resentment. The courtiers’ dreams are also paired: although they require interpretation—a different one for each—they prove correct in due course.
Since Freud, Jung and their successors, it is customary to interpret dreams as expressions of inner states of consciousness, processing past and present experience, wishes, fears and desires. Dreams in the ancient world are conceptualized otherwise: they are understood as predictions of the future, coming from God or gods as a divine portent.
The Doubling of the Dreams
But why are all the dreams (Joseph’s, the courtiers’, later Pharaoh’s) arranged in pairs, when the first pair always has wheat in it, and the second bolsters the meaning of the first?
The ‘wheat’ element functions as an early hint for Joseph’s later career, where he provides wheat for the Egyptians (Gen 41:47-57) and later for his brothers (Gen 42:19, 45:5-7). These repetitions do not derive from different sources, but are for emphasis, in order to foreground the single emphatic meaning of the double dream (Joseph’s, Pharaoh’s). That the middle pair – the courtiers’ dreams – is a variation, two dreams with contrasting meanings, strengthens the argument that the other repetitions serve a literary function.
Judah: A Story that is more than just about an Individual
Although Joseph is the main protagonist of the end of Genesis, the story in ch. 38 focuses on Judah, which seems intrusive here. Rashi writes (for 38:1) that the placement of the story here reflects the brothers’ displeasure at their father’s mourning, and consequently less respect for Judah because he advised selling Joseph instead of bringing him back to his father.
Rashi’s fundamental insight that the chapter’s place here reflects conflicts between the brothers seems sound. The Joseph story is about Joseph, but not only about him. It is also about Judah, and to a lesser extent about Reuben. It is not only a story about individuals and their jealousy, but also about related kin groups that jostle for power, prestige, political clout and land (food! wheat!). These conflicts are projected back on to their eponymous ancestors. We are, therefore, reminded at this point, and later in the next parashot, that Judah is still a contender for Jacob’s promise, although Joseph seems like his father’s preferred choice. But feelings about Judah—the ancestor of King David—are mixed: hence the ignoble tale about his illicit dealings with Tamar.
Conclusion—Some Methodological Reflections
Modern biblical scholarship has a wide variety of methods—it does not believe that one solution solves all problems. The Joseph story is unusually complex, both in terms of its contents and its long compositional history. It is rife with contradictions and doublets. Yet, one method cannot solve all of these problems; in some cases, diachronic solutions, suggesting that the text has developed over time, resolve the problems; while in others, synchronic solutions, suggesting that doublets reflect emphasis, are more satisfactory. Different readers, however, may prefer different solutions, or different combinations of solutions, to these same problems.
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December 7, 2014
October 20, 2020
Prof. Athalya Brenner-Idan is Professor (Emerita) of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament chair at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and is currently at Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University. She holds a Ph.D. from Manchester University, an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Bonn, and an M.A. from the Hebrew University. Among her publications are, I Am: Biblical Women Tell their own Stories and The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. She is also the editor of the series, A Feminist Companion to the Bible (19 volumes).
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