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Fine Details in the Joseph Narrative

The story of Joseph (Gen 37-50) is well known to even casual readers of the Bible. It is a well-constructed narrative which knits many elements together in an interesting way without extraneous details. Although it is a very familiar story, I have often read it without noticing some fine (or, minor) details that contribute to its overall meaning. Recently I began to read the story again in Hebrew. Reading the Bible in in the original languages forces a modern reader to read slowly and to give close attention to all details of the text. This blog article intends to bring to light a few of the fine details that can make the reading of the narrative more accurate, more interesting and perhaps more fulfilling.

Joseph and Potiphar. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and transported to Egypt where he was bought by Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh and “captain of the guard” [Hebrew, sar hattabbachim]. The BDB Hebrew Lexicon explains that this expression signifies “captain of the royal bodyguard.” It is used several times in the narrative (Gen 37:36; 39:1; 40:3; 41:10, 12), always referring to the same person, yet most often without mentioning the name Potiphar.

Joseph is subsequently placed in a prison [Hebrew, beth hassohar] under the supervision of the “captain of the guard” [sar hattabbachim] (Gen 40:3), i.e., Potiphar. I first became aware of this connection while viewing a 1995 television mini-series entitled simply, “Joseph.” The writers quite clearly recognized the connection and included Potiphar (played by Ben Kingsley) in at least one scene in the prison where Joseph (played by Paul Mercurio) was being held prisoner. The mini-series is well worth viewing for its accurate portrayal of the Biblical story.

It seems reasonable to assume that Potiphar may have been suspicious that Joseph was innocent of the wife’s charges and he continued to recognize that God was with Joseph. One commentator wrote that if Potiphar had believed his wife’s accusation, he could have called immediately for Joseph’s execution.

The keeper of the prison [Hebrew, sar beth hassohar] recognized Joseph’s abilities and placed him in charge of all the prisoners (39:20-22). Later, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were placed in the same prison where Joseph was interned. There they were in the custody of the “captain of the guard” [sar hattabbachim] (40:1), who appointed Joseph to attend to them. That is, Potiphar placed Joseph in a position of trusted responsibility.

That Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a high official of the Pharaoh, was certainly providential. That the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were placed in the same prison where Joseph was located was also providential. Joseph’s elevation to a high ruling position over all of Egypt was providential and is a key point to the entire story, as Joseph himself recognized when he said to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God, and He has made me … ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (45:8). God was controlling events at every step of the way.

The Torment of Joseph and His Brothers. When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they came to experience a bit of what they had caused Joseph to experience. Consider the following.

At one point they feared that they would be assaulted and forced into bondage as servants of the Pharaoh’s official, whom they did not recognize as Joseph. They said among themselves, “It is because of the money, which was replaced in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may assault us and fall upon us to make us servants and seize our donkeys” (43:18; cf. 44:9, 10, 16-17, 33).

The brothers suffered the torment of false accusations, just as Joseph had suffered due to the false accusation of Potiphar’s wife. They were falsely accused of being spies (42:9-12, 30). Then they were falsely accused of stealing Joseph’s silver cup (44:4-6, 14).

They were placed in prison (i.e., “under guard”) for three days (Gen 42:17). Did Joseph in this way achieve some “payback”? Three days is a very short period of time compared to the two years of Joseph’s incarceration in the Pharaoh’s prison. We may not know Joseph’s motives that came into play, but it seems that Joseph’s strategies ultimately led to a higher purpose. All the while the brothers were experiencing these things, the “Egyptian” Joseph was able to understand their Hebrew conversations and to evaluate their present disposition in respect of their earlier malicious actions against him. He came to realize that they regretted what they had done to him and so they believed that they were experiencing a just punishment from God for their misdeeds.

 

Joseph’s Interactions with His Brothers. Joseph’s activities in Egypt with the brothers might have caused them to suspect that the interest of this high government official was unusual. Note the following details.

Early in their dealings with him, Pharaoh’s official (i.e., Joseph) showed extraordinary interest in news about their father and youngest brother (42:20, 34; 43:27).

This “Egyptian” official seated the brothers at a meal according to their birth order so that the brothers became astonished (43:33). How could the “Egyptian” have known this information? A search of the brothers’ sacks on the return trip to Canaan was also done in the order “oldest to youngest” (Gen 44:12).

Joseph gave Benjamin five times the amount of food at the meal than what he gave to the other brothers (43:34).

It is also noteworthy that, while Reuben was the first-born of the brothers, it was Judah (fourth-born) that took the lead in negotiations with Joseph in Egypt and in discussions with Jacob to allow Benjamin to travel to Egypt (Gen 43:3, 8-10; 44:16-34). The significance of this detail seems to be that Judah’s leadership qualities were acknowledged in the text for the readers’ benefit. These qualities made him a suitable candidate to be the progenitor of the tribe that in the future would exercise royal leadership in Israel and would produce the ideal King of Israel. This became even more clear in Jacobs’ final blessing of his sons (Gen 49, especially verses 8-10).

Joseph’s Dreams Fulfilled. The final point to be raised here is not so minor. It brings closure to the story line in an exciting way. It is this: Joseph’s dreams as a youth came to be fulfilled in a very direct and literal way. The narrator brought this out very clearly in the text.

      Just for review, the content of the two dreams should be remembered. In the first dream, the sheaves of the brothers bowed down before the sheave of Joseph (37:5-8). In the second dream, the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph (37:9-10). The second dream is more symbolic than the first, but clear in its meaning. The eleven stars correspond to Joseph’s eleven brothers. Jacob, Joseph’s father, clearly understood that the sun and moon represented Joseph’s father and mother. Jacob rebuked Joseph with a rhetorical question: “Will I and your mother and your brothers really come to bow down to you?” Jacob’s question expressed serious doubt about a possible fulfillment of the dream. Joseph’s brothers reacted with jealousy and hatred. These dreams, in large part, were a motive for their cruel treatment of him at a later time. They even thought to put him to death, but instead sold him into captivity to remove him far away from their presence forever.

      How then were the dreams fulfilled? Before advancing to this it should be pointed out that Joseph was at least seventeen years old at the time of the second dream (37:2 ff.). His own mother had died several years earlier. The “moon” of the dream, then, could only represent Rachel in a figurative sense. Or the “moon” could represent one or all of the three surviving mothers of the family: Leah and the two handmaids. But all other elements of the dreams’ fulfilments were quite literally accomplished in the following manner.

      Joseph was appointed to the second highest governmental position in all of Egypt (Gen 41:40-41). His promotion was the direct result of his interpretations of the Pharaoh’s dreams. Dreams were the means of his descent into slavery and imprisonment; dreams were the means of his exaltation to royal authority and freedom.

      Joseph’s brothers bowed down before him in obeisance at least three times in the narrative. They bowed down to him when they appeared before him in Egypt to purchase grain the first time (Gen 42:6). In this context, Joseph remembered the dreams that he had concerning them in his early days (Gen 42:9). The brothers bowed down to Joseph again when invited to eat a meal with him on the second trip to Egypt (43:26). They fell down before him a third time after being accused of the theft of Joseph’s silver cup (44:14).

      It is not explicitly stated in the text that Joseph’s father or step-mothers bowed down to him. Jacob did “fall down” on Joseph’s next to embrace him with joyful tears when reunited with the son he had long thought dead (46:29). But Joseph exercised authority over his entire family to arrange their settlement in Egypt under his protection and the protection of the Pharaoh. So, there can be no doubt that Joseph’s were fulfilled in a very direct and obvious fashion.

Re-reading the Joseph Story. It is hoped that details presented here will help readers to notice details that can make the story more vivid and make the function of the supporting elements clearer. I encourage you to read the story again. Read all fourteen chapters in one sitting, but reading carefully and deliberately, giving attention to every detail whether substantial or “trivial.” I expect that a close reading will help you to appreciate the story and appreciate the way God worked in Joseph’s life to preserve life and to advance His program of salvation for all of humanity.

 

Theron Young is a lecturer at ACCS and holds a PhD in Biblical Hebrew. If you would like to study the original languages in which the Bible was written, ACCS offers a number of language subjects in our Theology or Ministry degrees, available fully online or in-class. See our Courses menu above for more information.

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