Joseph – A story of envy, dedication, loyalty and reward. What can we learn?


The story of Joseph in the Old Testament’s 1st Book of Moses, Genesis, is an enticing story which seems to have  historic truth behind it. Also when it’s interpreted for a modern present context it might teach us something both of our ancestors globally and of ourselves. I’ll come to that later. What’s called the Old Testament by Christians is by the Jews, (who really “owns” the story and the texts originally), called TaNa’Kh. That’s an abbreviation of Torah, Neviim uKhtuvim, i.e. “The Teachings, the Prophets and the Writings.” I will here give you an account of the story in the Bible, archeological findings, but also some ideas of how we might interpret and use the story in our own present day in a modern and progressive context.

The painting you see above I made when I was a youth and it shows Joseph and his brothers when they out of envy rob him of his long-sleeved, multi-coloured coat and throw him into a well, (Genesis 37: 22). The five books of Moses that make up the written Torah are called Bereshit/Genesis, Shemót/Exodus, VaYiqrá/Leviticus, BaMidbar/Numbers, and Devarím/Deuteronomium. At the end of Bereshit/Genesis we find the story of Joseph and this is roughly how it goes. Jacob/Ya’aqov had 12 sons and Joseph was the eleventh of them, 10 with  Leah and the two last with Rachel. Of all his 12 sons Jacob loved Joseph the most, and favoured his second youngest in different ways. Joseph had a skill. He was good at interpreting dreams and he at one point had a dream where he said that he would become the king over his older brothers. That vexed them. Joseph also got a long-sleeved multi-coloured coat when he was 17 years old by his father, which made the others very angry.

One day he was told by Jacob to go to his brothers who were herding the sheep near Shechem. The brothers decided to get rid of their annoying dreaming brother for good. To kill him, throw the body in a well and tell their father that a wild animal killed him. The brother Ruben though hindered the others from killing the boy, but they tore Joseph’s coat from his body and threw him in the well, (Genesis 37: 23-24). The brothers, except Ruben, then sold Joseph to some passing Ismaelite merchants, (ancestors of the Arabs) for 20 shekels. When Ruben discovered what the others had done he tore his own clothes from grief, but they took Joseph’s cloak and dipped it in blood from a slaughtered lamb to fool their father.

The Ismaelite merchant caravan sold Joseph in Egypt to a wealthy nobleman called Potifar. Then Joseph became a slave and served Potifar well for some years. Potifar’s wife however got a crush on the young foreigner and wanted to seduce him. Joseph rejected her and as a punishment she said to her husband that Joseph had tried to violate her. Potifar got furious and sent Joseph in prison. There Joseph showed his good side, became liked by the prison chief and was given responsibilty for the other prisoners. At one point two new prisoners arrived who had been working for the Pharao: a butler and a baker. Those two also had dreams which Joseph interpreted. He foresaw that the butler would get his old job back after three days, while the baker would be hanged. That also happened.

Later the Pharao also had a period of troubled dreams. He dreamed repeatedly that seven thin cows ate seven fat cows. Then the butler remembered Joseph and his prophecies and Pharao called for him. Joseph interpreted Pharao’s dreams and said that first there would be a period of seven good years with good harvests, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph told the Pharao that he ought to appoint someone to be in charge of the gathering of food supplies the next good seven years. The Pharao appointed Joseph as vizeer, gave him a ring, a necklace and the new Egyptian name Safenat Paneach.  Now Joseph had a high-status job, and began his task at the age of 30. Joseph got a wife, Asenath, and with her the sons Menasseh and Ephraim, (Genesis 41:5). Joseph had grain stored and when the famine arrived, and the starving people came to Pharao, they were directed to Joseph for supplies.

As the famine continued it affected also the land of Canaan, Joseph’s homeland in today’s Israel.  Joseph’s brothers, except the youngest son Benyamin, came to Egypt for supplies. When Joseph saw them he recognized his brothers and wanted to test them. He invited them and asked his brothers about the situation back home, and if their father still was alive. He also wanted to test and punish them a bit for selling him those years earlier. As they left Joseph went out and wept. The brothers were given sacks of grain. Then Joseph accused them of being spies on the Pharaoh, and they were imprisoned for three days. Joseph asked them to leave one brother in custody and go back home to their father in Canaan before they arrived again. They did so, puzzled and was asked by their father Jacob to return to Egypt. When they were back with Joseph he had first some money placed in one of the sacks with grain they got,  and later a goblet. Joseph had guards sent after the brothers who were sent back to him. They were accused of theft again and the goblet was taken up from one of the sacks. The brothers were horrified, and said that they were innocent.


Joseph then couldn’t restrain himself and told the frightened men who he actually was. He invited them for real and asked them to go back to Shechem and fetch the old Jacob and the remaining youngest brother. They did so and Jacob was happy to hear that Joseph lived and had become vizeer of Egypt. Jacob and his sons moved to Egypt and settled there with Joseph/Safenat Paneach who lived at a beautiful estate for his good services to the Pharao. Their descendants would later increase in Egypt, and some hundred years later be victims of a genocide by another Pharao and led out of Egypt back to Canaan/Israel. Read more about that in my text “The story of Passover – Truth or fiction?”.

Is there any historical truth in the story above? Maybe, even likely. One detail which rings true is the selling of Joseph to the Ismaelites for 20 shekels. That sum is accurate according to ancient Egyptian sources for the period ca 1850-1750 BCE, which seems to be the period of Joseph. There’s also a parallell story to the one of Potifar’s wife who wanted to seduce Joseph and then as revenge accused him of violation. That is the story of the two Egyptian brothers Anpu and Bata in the ten leaves of the Orbiney papyrus from around 1215-1185 BCE. In that story the wife of Anpiru tries to seduce Bata, but fails and then tries to take revenge in several ways.

More importantly though is the Bahr Yusef. What is that? Bahr Yusef/The Waterway of Joseph is a man-made 15 kilometre long and five metre deep canal from the lake Birket Qarun in the region of El-Fayyum, central Egypt to the River Nile.  This to keep the land fertile and avoid further famine. It was made during the era of Pharao Moeris/Mery Ke Re, also called Amenemhat III (1844-1797 BCE) in the 10th dynasty. It is said that this huge flood- and irrigation project was made on the orders of someone called Joseph, hence the name. This canal and lake still exists and is still called Bahr Yusef. It has also been called Mer Wer/The Great Canal. Climatologists have proven when looking back in time that there was a severe drought in Egypt during the seven years 1799 and 1792 BCE, which is an interesting equivalent to the supposed time span we are talking about.


The Egyptologist David Rohl has mentioned this fact in his studies, but also the finds of remnants of an ancient mansion and a mausouleum just south of the small palace containing a big statue of a man in the outskirts of what was the ancient city of Avaris. The statue has been demolished, but the foundation, bits of the body, the head and shoulders still exists, as do remnants of the colours. This statue has had red hair, a bronze-coloured skin, and a coat in Canaanite style with red, black and white stripes. According to David Rohl this could well be Joseph’s mansion, his tomb in Egypt and a statue of his likeness. The bones from that tomb has been removed, and according to the Bible Joseph’s descendants, Moses and his followers, took the bones of Joseph with them to the land of Canaan. One holy shrine for Jews through the ages has been Kever Yoséf/Joseph’s Tomb outside Shechem/Nablus, a site fought over by Israeli Jews and Palestinians not long ago.


What can we learn from all this? Well, most likely many things. First of all that conflicts always have existed: rivalry, jealousy, hard work and tough times. This is nothing new. We also learn that the conflict in the Middle East is ancient, but it affects us all. According to the Bible Joseph was true to God and therefore succesfull. For many Jews the story of Joseph is part of their heritage, but since the Bible has spread all over the world and evolved into the creed of Christianity as well, and also a different version of the Joseph story in the Quran, this is a story known by a huge amount of people. We also see in the story a migration of people, how Joseph had to adapt to a new surrounding, a difficult but necessary thing for any migrant also in our days. Joseph was given a new name, Safenat Paneach, (a phenomenon used by the rulers of an area or a culture worldwide for millennia). However he also was given trust and responsibility in the new country. Therefore it’s no surprise that many immigrants try to adapt in a new country, even though they don’t flee their homeland just for fun. Joseph didn’t forget his roots, and neither do any of us. It is not racist to be proud of one’s origins, nor for ordinary Swedes or any other nationality. The problem is how it’s manifested, and where the lines for “us and them” are drawn. If he did exist, which these pieces of evidence certainly indicate, Joseph must have been involved in many severe traumas, and nice moments too, just like many of us today. He nevertheless was rewarded for his hard work, his ambition and loyalty in ancient Egypt.

Now in July 2013, ca 3 800 years later, there are new demonstrations and violent protests in Egypt between the “dethroned” Mohamed Mursi’s followers, vs the military, the secular, feminist and liberal movements. It is said that new elections will be held this coming winter, which the Mursi-followers detest. The Christian Copts and the Jews in Egypt today are persecuted, so are the Christian Palestinians on the Gaza strip, in Israel, in Iraq, Pakistan and other countries. The tension is also harsh between today’s Israel on the one side, the Palestinians and different Muslim states on the other who want to eradicate that country from the map and kill all the Jews or convert them. However peace-talks may be at hand,  but the conflict in the Middle East and about the world as such is severe on many places on Earth. These conflicts and fights concern natural resources, ideologies, belongings and identities. We are many and we are diverse.

Nevertheless, what I personally would like to see is better attempts for peace between us, where we actually help each other and try to see the brother, sister, son, daughter, companion, friend or partner-in-love in a wider range of people. The biggest loyalty we have here on Earth is the one to a common ancestry which all we humans share way back in time. To our loved ones, but also to the world we live in. If we continue hating our differences and kill our humanity this will hardly be a good thing for any of us, especially since the Lord God wants us to love each other, even our enemies,. We must be able to love and to forgive, if we want the Lord Jesus to forgive us for our own transgressions. Let us at least try to love and help each other. Either we’ll get to Heaven as a reward in the next dimension, or we ‘ll end up in the eternal flames for our stubborness, our inequities and infidelity against the the Eternal Light, and Blemishfree Creator of our Universe… And that is something we do not want. That is why it is exceedingly important to turn to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and invite Him into our life while we walk here on Earth, ask for His forgiveness, and on a daily basis follow his commands.

Anders Moberg, June 27th 2013

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