The Story of Joseph

The famous biblical dreamer.

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The story of Joseph is found in the Book of Genesis, from chapters 37 though 50. Joseph's saga is both expansive and integral to the overall narrative of the Israelites' descent into Egypt. His progression from dream-interpreting shepherd to minister of Egypt is one of the more layered and elaborate stories in the Torah.

Family Life

Joseph's life is a series of highs and lows--literally and figuratively. In his father's house, Joseph is the favored son: "Israel (another name for Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age" (Genesis 37:3). Joseph likely also has this status because he is the eldest child of Jacob's favorite (deceased) wife, Rachel. To demonstrate this preference, Jacob gifts Joseph with the famous kitonet passim, translated as both a garment with long sleeves, or a fine woolen tunic. (Commentators extrapolate that it had stripes of different colors.) This preferential treatment from their father elicits much jealousy from Joseph's 10 older brothers.

the biblical story of joseph

Tissot's "Joseph Reveals
His Dream to His Brethren"

As a teenager, Joseph does little to ingratiate himself to his brothers. To find more favor with his father, he would report back unkindly about his older brothers' activities while tending to the flocks (37:2). Joseph also tells his family about two dreams he had, the first in which 11 sheaves of wheat bow down to his, and a second where the sun, moon, and 11 stars all bow to him as well. In each case, Joseph interprets the dream as meaning that one day he will rule over his family (37:5-11).

Eventually the brothers act on their emotions. Seeing the "dreamer" approach on a shepherding trip, they ambush Joseph and throw him into a pit--the first of the great depths to which Joseph will sink. The brothers soon sell him to Midianites who in turn sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan headed down to Egypt, continuing Joseph's descent. The brothers then tear up Joseph's special coat, dip it in goat's blood, and present it to Jacob as proof of his son's death.

Joseph in Egypt

Joseph's time in Egypt is even more tumultuous than his life in Canaan. The Ishmaelite traders sell him as a slave to Potiphar, a wealthy Egyptian merchant. Joseph finds great fortune with Potiphar, but his promotion through Potiphar's household attracts the attention of Potiphar's wife, who repeatedly tries to seduce him. When her attempts fail, she accuses Joseph of rape, which lands him in prison.

Though now in the deepest of his life's trenches, God is still with Joseph (39:21). His fellow inmates, Pharaoh's former butler and his former baker, both dream symbolic dreams, and Joseph's skills as a dream-interpreter are put to use. He predicts that the butler will be exonerated in three days and restored to Pharaoh's service, and that the baker will be put to death. Joseph's interpretations come true.

Joseph asks the butler to remember him once he's back in Pharaoh's service, but the butler doesn't fulfill his promise until Pharaoh himself has a series of disturbing dreams two full years later. These dreams prove to be Joseph's ultimate turn of good luck. He is brought to the court to interpret two famous dreams of Pharaoh: one in which seven sickly cows consume seven healthy cows, and a parallel dream in which seven sickly ears of grain consume seven lush ears of grain.

Joseph tells Pharaoh: "Seven years are coming, a great abundance through the land. Then seven years of famine will arise" (41:25-30). With this knowledge in hand, Pharaoh prepares Egypt for famine. Joseph, at the age of 30, is appointed second-in-command to Pharaoh.

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.