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Joseph (dreamer)
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Joseph (dreamer)

Joseph (יוסף "The LORD increases", Standard Hebrew Yosef, Tiberian Hebrew Yôsēp̄), later called Zaphnath-paaneah or Tzáfnat panéach (צפנת פענח, Standard Hebrew Ẓáfənat paʿnéaḥ, Tiberian Hebrew Ṣāp̄ənaṯ paʿănēªḥ: Egyptian origin "Discoverer of hidden things"), is one of the best known Biblical figures, famous for his coat of many colours and his ability to interpret dreams. He was sold as a slave to Potiphar, was later freed, and became the chief adviser to the Egyptian Pharaoh around 1600 BC.

Table of contents
1 The historical Joseph
2 The Genesis story
3 Other versions

The historical Joseph

Almost nothing is known about the historical Joseph, and like many early Biblical figures, scholars disagree as to whether such a person ever existed. It seems unlikely that a non-Egyptian could become a member of the Pharaoh's court, although it is not impossible. There is no record of a Prime Minister in Egypt called Joseph.

The Biblical story was first written down roughly 1000 years after the events supposedly took place. There is no way to independently verify which, if any, aspects of the story are true. This article will therefore focus on the story as told in Genesis chapters 30 to 50.

The Genesis story

According to the story, Joseph was the elder of the two sons of Jacob by Rachel (Gen. 30:23, 24), who, on the occasion of his birth, said, "The Lord shall add [Heb. yoseph] to me another son" (Gen. 30:24). This was the reputed origin of his name. He was probably six years old when his father returned from Haran to Canaan and took up his residence in the town of Hebron. Joseph was a favorite son of his father's, and was envied by his brothers. They "hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him." Their anger was increased when he told them his dreams (37:11).

The story tells that his brothers plotted against him, and would have killed him had not Reuben interposed. They instead sold him to a company of Ishmaelite merchants for twenty shekels of silver. These merchants sold him as a slave to Potiphar, an "officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard" (Gen. 37:36). Potiphar is probably a rendering of the Egyptian name Pa-tu-pa-Ra, 'the gift of the sun-god.'

Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, and he was cast into the state prison (39; 40), where he remained for at least two years. The story tells of two members of Pharaoh's household who were in jail with Joseph, and asked him to interpret their dreams. When Joseph correctly predicted the future based on their dreams, one of the prisoners was impressed enough to recommed his services to the Pharaoh upon his release. At his suggestion Joseph was brought from prison to interpret the king's dreams. Pharaoh was well pleased with Joseph's interpretion and advice. Because of this, Pharaoh gave him authority over all the land of Egypt (Gen. 41:46), and gave him the name of Zaphnath-paaneah. This name is probably the Egyptian title Zaf-nti-pa-ankh, 'nourisher of the living one,' although other interpretations are possible.

Joseph then married Asenath, the daughter of the priest of On, and thus became a member of the priestly class. Joseph was now about thirty years of age.

As Joseph had foreseen, seven years of plenty came, during which he stored up great abundance of corn in granaries built for the purpose. These years were followed by seven years of famine "over all the face of the earth," when "all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn" (Gen. 41:56, 57; 47:13, 14). Thus "Joseph gathered up all the money that was in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan, for the corn which they bought." Afterwards all the cattle and all the land, and at last the Egyptians themselves, became the property of Pharaoh.

During this period of famine Joseph's brethren also came down to Egypt to buy corn. The history of his dealings with them, and of the manner in which he at length made himself known to them, is one of the most interesting narratives in Genesis. Joseph disguised his identity from his brothers, promised them a good deal of supplies, framed them for theft, and then revealed himself to them, forgiving them.

Jacob at length died, and in fulfilment of a promise which he had exacted, Joseph went up to Canaan to bury his father in "the field of Ephron the Hittite" (Gen. 47:29-31; 50:1-14). This was the last recorded act of Joseph, who again returned to Egypt.

Other versions

The story of Joseph is also told in chapter 12 of the Koran. This is not believed to be an independent source.

The "Story of the Two Brothers," an Egyptian romance written for the son of a 12th Century Pharaoh, contains an episode somewhat similar to the Biblical account of Joseph's treatment by Potiphar's wife. Scholars disagree as to whether the two stories shared a common source.