Did you know…?
- Although earlier generations of readers took the Joseph story to reflect actual historical facts, most modern interpreters consider the story a piece of ancient fiction.
- The pyramids, typical features of the Egyptian landscape, are completely absent from the Joseph story. The Nile is mentioned only briefly.
- When Joseph is summoned to the royal court, he has to shave his head to look like a real Egyptian.
- In the story, the king of Egypt is called “Pharaoh,” as if this were a personal name. It is actually a sobriquet that means “the great house,” thus forming a parallel to “The White House.”
- Joseph marries an Egyptian woman. Her name is Asenath.
- In antiquity, some Jews declined table fellowship with non-Jews. According to the Joseph story, it was the Egyptians, rather than Jews, who preferred to keep themselves to themselves when they ate.
- Egypt generally produced a substantial surplus of grain, the staple Mediterranean food, which was exported to cities such as Athens and Rome.
- Joseph inspired a number of successful works of literature and music, notably Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and His Brothers (1933–43) and the rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1973, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber).
Is Joseph a wizard?
In the world of the Joseph story, someone who knew how to foretell the future from dreams was a very powerful wizard. Joseph’s command of this extraordinary skill gave him a place near the top of the social hierarchy—he ranked next to the king of Egypt, who was the world’s most powerful man. Dreams figure prominently in the tale of Joseph. As fame of his prowess spread, Joseph was invited to interpret royal dreams.
Other indications lend support to the idea that Joseph is seen primarily as a wizard. As a boy, he foretold events. He owns a precious cup used for divination. Another item, mentioned at the beginning of the story, is the long-sleeved coat (traditionally rendered “coat of many colors”), a gift from his father. This could be the magic cloak he needed for his career as a diviner. When Joseph was sold by his brothers, he lost this cloak, but he did not lose his magical powers. As a wizard, Joseph is not an isolated figure in the Bible; he may be compared with Moses (whose wizardry surpasses that of the Egyptian sorcerers) and Daniel (who interprets the portentous dream of the king of Babylon).
Is Joseph a model hero whom one should imitate?
Joseph is presented as a man with a clear moral compass. Here are his rules: One, forgive others who have wronged you; forgiveness is superior to, and nobler than, revenge. Two, resist temptations, and, specifically, don’t let yourself be seduced by a married woman. (The wife of Joseph’s master, Potiphar, tries to seduce him; see
There is one aspect of Joseph’s character that can seem problematic to some modern readers: his cunning. Before the brothers depart, their sacks having been filled with grain, Joseph secretly gives orders for his silver goblet—a precious drinking cup that doubles as an instrument of divination—to be hidden in the sack of his brother Benjamin, to make sure that he was kept hostage in Egypt. Cunning, of course, was valued by ancient societies, and here this attribute is used to add another dramatic scene to a story based on unexpected twists and turns.