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Joseph identified by his brothers by Charles Thévenin.

Joseph or Yosef (Hebrew: יוֹסֵף ‎, Standard Yosef Tiberian Yôsēp̄, Arabic: يوسف‎, Yusuf ; "May Yahweh add"[1]) was the eleventh of Jacob's twelve sons.[2] According to the biblical narrative he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but rose to become the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh. He then brought his entire family down to Egypt, where they were settled in the land of Goshen.


The Bible relates the birth of Joseph at Genesis 33:26-29:

God remembered Rachel: God heeded her and unclosed her womb. She conceived and bore a son, declaring, "God has removed my disgrace." She named him Joseph, meaning "May Yahweh add another son for me!"[3]

The verse gives two explanations of Joseph's name: the first, from the Elohist source, bases it on the root /'sp/, meaning "taken away," while the second, from the Jahwist, cites the similar root /ysp/, meaning "add."[4]

Biblical narrative


Joseph was the eleventh of the twelve sons of Jacob and the first of the two sons of Rachel. He was favorite son of his father, who arrayed him in a "coat of many colors,"[5] but his brothers' hatred was excited by his father's favouritism and Joseph's own dreams which predicted that they would one day bow down to him.(Genesis 37:2-11)

From slavery to viceroy

Joseph interprets the dream of the Pharaoh by Peter von Cornelius.

One day, when Joseph was seventeen,[6] his brothers plotted to kill him. But Reuben, the eldest brother, advised them to throw Joseph into a pit, intending to rescue him later.[7] And so the brothers stripped Joseph of the coat of many colours and threw him into the pit. A caravan of Ishmaelites passed by, and Judah, another of the brothers, suggested that they sell Joseph to the merchants. Some Midianites were passing by and took Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver and they took him to Egypt.[8] When Reuben came back to the pit he found Joseph gone. The brothers dipped Joseph's coat in the blood of a goat and showed it to Jacob, who mourned for Joseph, believing him dead.[9] The Midianites (or Ishmaelites, at 39:1) sold Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard.[10] (The confusion as to the events leading to Joseph coming to Egypt as a slave exists in the biblical text itself, and is also reflected in the Septuagint.)

Potiphar appointed Joseph superintendent of his household, and they both prospered.[11] But Potiphar's wife conceived a passion for Joseph, and, when her advances were repulsed, brought a false accusation against him before her husband, and Joseph was thrown into prison.[12] The warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners,[13] and soon afterward Pharaoh's chief cup bearer and chief baker, who had offended the king, were thrown into the prison.[14] One morning they both told Joseph their dreams of the previous night, which they were unable to interpret, and Joseph told them that the chief cup bearer would be reinstated within three days but that the chief baker would be hanged.[15] Joseph requested the cup bearer to mention him to Pharaoh and secure his release from prison,[16] but the cup bearer, reinstalled in office, forgot Joseph.[17]

After Joseph was in prison for two years, Pharaoh had several dreams which disturbed him. He dreamt of seven lean cows which rose out of the river and devoured seven fat cows; and, of seven withered ears of grain which devoured seven fat ears. Pharaoh's wise men were unable to interpret these dreams, but the chief cup bearer remembered Joseph and spoke of his skill to Pharaoh. Joseph was called for, and interpreted the dreams as foretelling that seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of famine, and advised Pharaoh to store surplus grain during the years of abundance. Before Joseph was 30 years old, Pharaoh made him viceroy over Egypt,[18] renamed him Zaphnath-Paaneah and married him to Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On.[19] Joseph had two sons with Asenath, Manasseh and Ephraim,[20] and Egypt became prosperous under his care.

Family reunited

Joseph gave orders to his servants to fill their sacks with wheat: illuminated Bible by Raphaël de Mercatelli, Ghent, late 15th century

The years of famine arrived, and people came from the surrounding lands to Egypt to buy grain.[21] Among those who came were ten of Joseph's eleven brothers, the youngest, Benjamin, remaining with their father Jacob in Canaan.[22] Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Joseph received them roughly and accused them of being spies, and sent them back to their father, demanding that they return with Benjamin. And so the brothers returned to Jacob in Canaan, with Reuben lamenting that they had not listened to him and spared the life of their brother Joseph.[23]

Jacob sent his sons again to Egypt for grain. As Joseph had commanded them not to appear before him again without Benjamin, Jacob was compelled to let Benjamin go with them. And they were amazed when this time the viceroy received them kindly, and took them to feast in his own house, inquiring after their father and their youngest brother Benjamin.[24] But while they feasted, Joseph gave orders to his servants to fill their sacks with wheat and put his silver goblet in Benjamin's sack. On the following morning the brothers departed, but before they had gone far a messenger overtook them, accusing them of stealing the goblet. And when the messenger searched their sacks he found the goblet in Benjamin's sack, and ordered them to return. In front of Joseph, whom he still did not know, Judah pleaded that Benjamin be allowed to return to his father, and he himself kept in Benjamin's place.[25]

Joseph and His Brethren Welcomed by Pharaoh, watercolor by James Tissot (ca. 1900).

Overcome by Judah's appeal, Joseph disclosed himself to his brothers, assuring them that in treating him as they did they had been carrying out the will of God. He then urged them to return home quickly and bring all their families to Egypt, to live in the land of Goshen. And Pharaoh, when he heard of this, rejoiced, and gave to Joseph and his brothers the best that Egypt could offer.[26]

And so Jacob and all his family came to Egypt, seventy persons plus their wives.[27] All except for Joseph and his sons settled in the Land of Goshen.[28] Then Joseph presented Jacob and five of his brothers to Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.[29]

And as the famine continued in Egypt, Joseph bought up all the land, which became Pharaoh's, and the people farmed it for Pharaoh, giving him one-fifth of the produce.[30]

The blessing of Jacob

After being settled for 17 years in Egypt, when Jacob felt his end was approaching he called Joseph to him, and made him swear to bury him not in Egypt, but with his fathers.[31] Jacob blessed Manasseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph, giving them equal inheritance with his own sons. But despite protests by Joseph, Jacob blessed Ephraim the younger first above Manasseh.[32]

Jacob then gave his blessing upon all his sons.[33] Though he blessed them in order by their age, the blessing he gave Joseph was greater than the others:

'Joseph is a fruitful tree by a spring, whose branches climb over the wall. The archers savagely attacked him, shooting and assailing him fiercely, but Joseph's bow remained unfailing and his arms were tireless by the power of the Strong One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd of Israel, by the God of your father-so may he help you! By God Almighty-so may he bless you with the blessings of heaven above, and the blessings of the deep that lies below! The blessings of breast and womb and the blessings of your father are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains and the bounty of the everlasting hills. May they rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of him who was prince among his brothers.'

Joseph had Jacob's body embalmed and taken back to Canaan, with the twelve sons carrying their father's coffin and many Egyptian officials accompanying them, (Genesis 50:1-14) and Jacob was buried in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had bought, and in which Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rachel, and Jacob's first wife Leah were buried.

Then Joseph's brothers implored his forgiveness for their past actions, but Joseph allayed their fears and promised that he would continue to provide for their wants. (Genesis 50:15-21)


Symbol of the Tribe of Joseph.

Joseph lived to the age of 110, living to see his great-grandchildren. Before he died, he made the children of Israel swear that when they left the land of Egypt they would take his bones with them, and on his death his body was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:22-26)

The children of Israel remembered their oath, and when they left Egypt during the Exodus, Moses took Joseph's bones with him. (Exodus 13:19) The bones were buried at Shechem, in the parcel of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor (Joshua 24:32), which has traditionally been identified with site of Joseph's Tomb, before Jacob and all his family moved to Egypt. Shechem was in the land which was allocated by Joshua to the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the tribes of the House of Joseph, after the conquest of Canaan.

Later traditions

In one Talmudic story, Joseph was buried in the Nile, as there was some dispute as to which province should be honored by having his tomb within its boundaries. Moses, led there by an ancient holy woman named Serach, was able by a miracle to raise the sarcophagus and to take it with him at the time of the Exodus.

Joseph is commemorated as one of the Holy Forefathers in the Calendar of Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 30. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, he is known as "Joseph the all-comely", a reference not only to his physical appearance, but more importantly to the beauty of his spiritual life. They commemorate him on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (two Sundays before Christmas) and on Holy and Great Monday (Monday of Holy Week). In icons, he is sometimes depicted wearing the nemes headdress of an Egyptian vizier. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod commemorates him as a patriarch on March 31.

Joseph ("Yusuf") is regarded by Muslims as a prophet (Qur'an, suras vi. 84, xl. 36), and a whole chapter (sura xii.) is devoted to him. He is believed to have been very beautiful. Prophet Muhammad once said, "One half of all the beauty God apportioned for mankind went to Joseph; the other one half went to the rest of mankind." One significant departure in the Qur'an is the use of an unspecified King in place of the Biblical Pharaoh. The story has the same general outlines as the Biblical narrative, but with a wealth of additional detail and incident.[34] In the Qur'an the brothers ask Jacob to let Joseph go with them.[34] The pit into which Joseph is thrown is a well with water in it,[34] and Joseph was taken as a slave by passing-by travellers (Qur'an 12:19). In one account, Joseph's face possessed such a peculiar brilliancy that his brothers noticed the different light in the sky as soon as he appeared above the edge of the well, and came back to claim him as their slave.[34] This same peculiarity was noticeable when they went to Egypt: although it was evening when they entered the city, his face diffused such a light that the astonished inhabitants came out to see the cause of it.[34]

In the Bible, Joseph discloses himself to his brethren before they return to their father the second time after buying corn.[34] The same in the Islamic story but they are compelled to return to Jacob without Benjamin, and the former weeps himself blind.[34] He remains so until the sons have returned from Egypt, bringing with them Joseph's garment healed the patriarch's eyes as soon as he put it to his face (Qur'an 12:96).[34]

Literature and culture

Thomas Mann retells the Genesis stories surrounding Joseph in his four novel omnibus, Joseph and His Brothers, identifying Joseph with the figure of Osarseph known from Josephus, and the pharaoh with Akhenaten.

The long-running musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice is one of the few major British musical theatre shows with hardly any spoken dialogue, being sung-through almost completely


  1. verse, note and commentary on Genesis 30:24, The Anchor Bible, Volume 1, Genesis, 1964, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York
  2. - JOSEPH
  3. Genesis 30:23-24, The Anchor Bible, Volume 1, Genesis, 1964, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York
  4. Richard Elliott Friedman, "The Bible With Sources Revealed", HarperSanFrancisco, (2003), p.80
  5. A more accurate translation would be "coat with long sleeves" - see "A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature", 1903. ISBN 1-932443-20-7
  6. Genesis 37:2
  7. Genesis 37:18-22
  8. Genesis 37:25-28
  9. Genesis 37:29-35
  10. Genesis 37:36
  11. Genesis 39:1-6
  12. Genesis 39:7-20
  13. Genesis 39:21-23
  14. Genesis 40:1-4
  15. Genesis 40:5-22
  16. Genesis 40:14-15
  17. Genesis 40:23
  18. Genesis 41:40-44
  19. Genesis 41:45-46
  20. Genesis 41:50-52
  21. Genesis 41:53-57
  22. Genesis 42:1-5
  23. Genesis 42
  24. Genesis 43:47
  25. Genesis 44
  26. Genesis 45
  27. Genesis 46:26-27
  28. Genesis 46
  29. Genesis 47:1-11
  30. Genesis 47:13-26
  31. Genesis 47:28-31
  32. Genesis 48:1-22
  33. Genesis 49
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 34.5 34.6 34.7 Differences of Tradition

See also

External links

Children of Jacob by wife in order of birth (D = Daughter)
Leah Reuben (1) Simeon (2) Levi (3) Judah (4) Issachar (9) Zebulun (10) Dinah (D)
Rachel Joseph (11) Benjamin (12)
Bilhah (Rachel's servant) Dan (5) Naphtali (6)
Zilpah (Leah's servant) Gad (7) Asher (8)