Joseph's Coat Brought to Jacob, by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari

The Joseph Cycle (Genesis 37—50)

Chapters thirty seven through fifty provide an appropriate ending to the story of Israel’s earliest ancestors but also provide the setting for what we see at the beginning of the next book, the story of Moses. They give an account of how the Hebrew people came to be in Egypt where they are found in slavery at the beginning of Exodus.

The central character in these final chapters is Joseph—one of the two sons of Jacob and Rachel—and the narrative about him is more polished than the earlier ancestor stories. The theme of promise moves into the background, and God no longer speaks directly to the main character. Still, the narrative presupposes that God’s intention lies behind the chain of events that it relates.

Joseph’s Early Character and the Response of His Brothers (37:2—36)

Joseph is introduced as an arrogant, spoiled seventeen-year-old. He is clearly favored by Jacob/Israel over his brothers, the sons of Leah. When he tells them about his dreams which indicate that they will serve him, they decide to get rid of him (37:2—11). At first they consider killing him, but then Judah talks them into selling him into slavery (37:12—36).

Judah calls the traders to whom he and his brothers sell Joseph Ishmaelites (37:27). The narrator refers to them as Midianites in the very next verse (37:28). This suggests that the author was living at a time when the nation of Midian already existed, long after the time of the events being narrated. At the time of those events there were no more than three generations of descendants of Ishmael. They were not yet a nation.

The Judah and Tamar Interlude (Genesis 38)

Chapter 38 interrupts the main story to relate a tale about Joseph’s older brother Judah. In this story Judah has three sons. He finds a wife, named Tamar, for his oldest son. This son dies, so Judah commands his second son to marry Tamar (in accord with the principle of levirate marriage, 38:8). The second son also dies. Fearing that he might also loose his third son, Judah fails to comply with the cultural norm—the practice of a man marrying his deceased brother’s widow in order to provide for her and produce offspring to keep the family going.

In order to get what is rightfully hers, Tamar pretends to be a temple prostitute (38:15 and 21), and with her head veiled she seduces Judah. She becomes pregnant and Judah, not knowing that he is the father, demands that she be executed. Tamar reveals that Judah is the father, and he acknowledges, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah” (38:26).

This story serves to highlight the importance of levirate marriage as a right of the widowed woman. It also reflects negatively on Judah, the namesake of the most prominent southern tribe in the united kingdom of Israel. It is embedded within the larger narrative of Joseph, the father of both Manasseh and Ephraim, the namesakes of two powerful northern tribes. This suggests to many scholars that the story originated as a part of the Joseph narrative now located in Genesis 37—50 before that narrative became a part of the larger story of the book of Genesis.

The final paragraph of Genesis 38 tells of Tamar bearing twins. The birth order of the two boys is complicated in the same way as the birth order of Esau and Jacob in the earlier narrative. This unusual story is called to mind at the beginning of the New Testament as Tamar, Judah, and their twin sons are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:3.

Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 39—48)

In chapter thirty nine the narrative returns to the story of Joseph—a rags to riches story of a young man sent to jail for a crime he did not commit, freed for services he provided to the Pharaoh, and eventually put in charge of the distribution of food for the entire nation.

The Wife of Potiphar (Genesis 39)

Having been taken to Egypt by the “Ishmaelite” traders, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh. He quickly gains the respect of his master, who puts him in charge of the household.  Potiphar’s wife finds him attractive and attempts to seduce him, but Joseph refuses. Offended, she accuses him of trying to seduce her, and he is thrown in prison.

The narrator repeatedly assures the reader that Yahweh was with Joseph. This is why he prospered and gained the respect of his master (39:2, 5) and later gained the respect of his jailer (39:21—23).  While God is not pictured as speaking directly to Joseph, the presence of God is asserted repeatedly.

Joseph, Interpreter of Dreams (Genesis 40—41)

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, dreams are treated as a means by which God speaks and directs human activity. Many ancient peoples believed that dreams could reveal the future, and they were treated with great respect. In chapters 40 and 41 Joseph is presented as an interpreter of dreams, first for his fellow prisoners (chapter 40) and later for the Pharaoh (chapter 41). It is his interpretation of dreams that leads to his release from prison.

In chapter 40 Joseph remains in prison and is charged with the care of two other prisoners, the Pharaoh’s cup bearer and his baker. Joseph interprets the cup bearers dream as a good omen, signaling his imminent release from prison and restoration to his job, but he takes the baker’s dream to be a bad omen signaling his imminent execution. Both outcomes come about in three days. In chapter 41 the Pharaoh has two parallel disturbing dreams, but he can find no one to interpret them. The cup bearer tells him of Joseph’s ability, and he calls Joseph to interpret.

Joseph interprets the dreams as one and the same. They indicate seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He advises the Pharaoh to appoint an overseer to store up food during the years of plenty so that the land may survive the years of famine. The Pharaoh appoints Joseph to that position, giving him authority of all of Egypt. Joseph goes from prisoner to ruler in one short scene.

During the years of plenty Joseph travels throughout the land overseeing the collection and storage of food. When the years of famine begin, Egypt is prepared, but other countries are not, so people from the surrounding nations come to Egypt buy food.

Joseph’s Reunion with His Brothers (42—43)

In chapters 42 and 43 all of Joseph’s brothers except Benjamin, the only remaining son of Rachel as far as their father knows, are forced to go to Egypt in search of food. Benjamin stays behind with Jacob/Israel. As Joseph had been, his brothers are unjustly accused and imprisoned. They unknowingly fulfill Joseph’s childhood dreams by bowing down before him (42:6).

Joseph, whom they do not recognize, sells them grain, but demands that one of them (Simeon) stay behind while the others go and get their youngest brother (Benjamin) and bring him to Egypt as well. Joseph has their bags filled with grain and their money returned in the sacks (42:25), an act of grace that would frighten them when they later discovered the money (42:28, 35—36).

When the brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph tricks them and captures Benjamin by accusing them of taking his silver cup (44:1—13). Judah, the oldest brother, the one who had the idea of selling Joseph into slavery years before, begs Joseph to let him stay as a slave in Benjamin’s place (44:33; compare 37:26).

When Joseph sees that the one who had sold him into slavery is now ready to be a slave himself rather than let another brother suffer the same fate, he reveals his identity to his brothers and interprets the whole chain of events as the working of God (45:1—15; compare 50:20).

Winding Down the Narrative (Genesis 46—50)

Jacob then brings the whole family to Egypt and they settle in a sector called Goshen (46:1—47:12).  As Jacob/Israel lies dying he blesses Joseph’s two sons, giving the greater blessing to the younger son (Ephraim), in parallel to Jacob’s own blessing over his older brother Esau (48).

Chapter 49 includes a poem narrating Jacob’s “blessing” of his sons (49:2—27). The blessing does not speak positively of all of them and sounds more like a curse of some. After the poem, we hear a brief account of Jacob’s death and his instruction to bury him in Canaan rather than Egypt.

In the final chapter, Joseph and his brothers travel to Canaan to bury their father. His brothers begin to worry that with their father gone Joseph will pay them back for the wrong they did to him, but Joseph interprets their actions as guided by God.

50:20Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good, to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.

The book ends with a short narration of Joseph’s death in which he tells his brothers that his bones are to be returned to Canaan when the Hebrew people return there, hinting at the story to come in the book of Exodus.

Further reading on the Book of Genesis:

Terms and Concepts to Remember

Elohim The name of God used most frequently in the E source. The form of this name is plural, but it is often treated grammatically as singular.
El Elyon A name of God usually translated as “God Most High”
El Shaddai A name of God often translated as “God Almighty,” but sometimes more literally rendered as “God of the Mountain”
Henotheism Worship of only one god, without necessarily denying the existence of others (heno = one; theos = god; compare Monotheism below)
Ishmaelite A descendant of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar.
Jacob/Israel The “trickster” who outwitted his older brother Esau. Son of Isaac. Grandson of Abraham. Husband of Leah and Rachel. Namesake of the nation of Israel.
Joseph Eleventh son of Joshua/Israel; first son of Rachel; Great grandson of Abraham. Sold into slavery by his brothers.
levirate marriage The ancient practice of a man marrying his deceased brother’s widow in order to provide for her and produce offspring to keep the family going
Monotheism The belief that only one god exists (mono = one; theos = god)
Prehistory Stories relating events from a time before the invention of writing
Rebekah The second wife of Isaac. Mother of Esau and Jacob. A courageous woman who intervened to insure the fulfillment of God’s promise to her.
Tamar  Daughter-in-law of Judah. Her story highlights the tradition of levirate marriage.
YHWH The tetragrammaton, the four-letter designation of the divine name. The name was probably pronounced “Yahweh,” but is translated as “the Lord” in most English translations of the Bible (using small capital letters for the word “Lord”). This is done to show respect for the name.

Image Credit: The image at the top of this page is a photographic representation of Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob, by Dominico Fiasella (1589-1669). The image is in the public domain in the United States. Image source: Wikipedia Commons.