The Story of Joseph: Motives and Objectives [Essay Prompt]

Although some interesting efforts have been made to establish the literal historicity of the Joseph story – that Joseph was an historical personality and that the events regarding the famine correspond to historical dates that can be pinpointed – let us assume, for our purposes here, it survives as an ancient story (of the myth or parable type, though a bit longer than most) that existed in the oral tradition of the ancient Hebrews and was constructed and presented with certain motives and objectives for centuries at least before it was written down and included in the collection of stories known as the Torah or, more broadly, as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.

Our concern is with the story itself, as well as the storyteller.  What, to your mind as a modern reader, were the most significant motives and objectives of the storyteller?  What about the story, and what about the character of Joseph reinforce those motives and objectives?

[Obviously this is not a specific prompt, nor are these specific questions to be “answered,” so feel free to respond in a way that reflects your knowledge of the story and your response to it.  Resist the temptation to restate the prompt, insert lengthy quotations, or summarize the story.  Instead, just refer to the details of the plot, inserting brief quotations if you like, to support your observations regarding the motives and objectives of the tale.  This is your chance to reflect your “take” on the story]

The Joseph Story: Rewards of Critical Reading

The story of Joseph —  found in Chapters 37-50 of Genesis — concludes the opening “book” of a collection of ancient texts known as The Old Testament to Christians, or the Five Books of Moses, or the first book of theTorah, one of the founding religious documents of Judaism.  For our purposes, lets refer to this most significant of ancient cultural and religious texts as The Hebrew Bible. So, the Joseph story concludes the first “volume” of this collection, a volume that also includes the stories of the Creation, The Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, and introduces memorable characters such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and many others such as that of Esau and Jacob, the father of Joseph — stories that have traditionally been encountered over the centuries at the  base of Western cultural and religious literature.The text, incidentally, can be found in any Bible or can be downloaded in numerous translations from The Bible Gateway.  I suggest the more modern translations, since the language is more easily understood.The story of Joseph and his brothers has now for thousands of years been a vital part of texts used to accompany religious faiths such as Judaism, Christianity, and most recently (about 600+ C.E.) Islam.  Therefore, like many other passages from these ancient stories, its details have long been used selectively by each of these faiths to essentially further its causes.  Consequently, for secular readers (those such as us reading it for reasons not necessarily religious) it’s important that it be read carefully and critically.  Because it is also fragmented in its detail (not so much as that of Gilgamesh, obviously, but nevertheless fragmented) there are gaps in the narrative leaving the serious reader with lots of questions. A further caution: Don’t lose sight of the obvious fact that this story didn’t just appear out of the air.  There was a storyteller and he (or she, as some scholars have suggested) must have had a purpose in mind.  Furthermore, it appears significant that it was placed in the great collection of stories at the end of Genesis, the opening “book” of the beginnings as the title implies.  The next great hero for the ancient Hebrews would, of course, be Moses — a striking contrast to Joseph.  Finally, we will be considering the Joseph story with the Gilgamesh story in mind.

Questions For Our Final Sessions re Joseph

Once the prisoner whose dream Joseph interprets recalls his promise to recommend him to the Pharoah, the core of the story (that will eventually end with both Jacob and Joseph’s deaths) begins.

Although there are numerous details and issues in the story worthy of our consideration, I offer the following that I mentioned at the end of the podcast we heard in Tuesday’s session.  Let these be at least some of our topics for discussion during our last two sessions next week.  There will be both a quiz and a discussion board posted early next week.  Be prepared to offer your notes re the following next Tuesday.

These are not to be answered on Thursday, necessarily, just addressed.  Bring your notes to Tuesday’s class.

1. What, if anything, about Joseph is natural?  What might the storyteller have had in mind in blending Joseph’s special  and “natural” abilities?

2. How much, if any, of his “success” is the result of his “free will,” his personal decision to act in a certain way?

3. How do you react to the actions of Tamar?  How about the actions of Judah?

4. Does Joseph actually “give” his brothers anything?  How charitable is the “tenant farmer” arrangement?

5. What does the storyteller have in mind in having Jacob deliberately bless Joseph’s sons “incorrectly”?

6. What are we to make of the decision to “forgive” his brothers?  Is forgiveness (always) a positive/good action?

Find the time to examine the story critically and make notes re these questions before our next class meeting.

Outline of the Joseph Story


37   Introduction to the initial conflict:  Joseph, his father Jacob, his brothers actions

38   Judah and Tamar: the Levirate Law, Tamar’s actions, the ambiguous birth of twin boys

39   Joseph’s encounters with the wife of Potiphar: Joseph imprisoned

40   Joseph placed in charge of the prison and interprets the dreams of two prisoners

41   Joseph interprets the dream of the Pharoah/King: predicts famine: Joseph made governor of Egypt

42   Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase grain: brothers return to their home in Canaan

43   Brothers return to Egypt with their brother Benjamin

44   Joseph’s “game”: the missing cup, the confession of the brothers; brothers bow down to Joseph

45   Joseph reveals his identity

46   Godly intervention to Jacob/Israel

47   Acceptance by Pharoah: basic economics: supply and demand – business, not charity – Jacob’s final request

48   Jacob’s blessing of Joseph sons: deliberate break with tradition

49  Jacob’s final vision and prophecy

50   Joseph’s Request to bury his father: the brothers’ fear, restatement of his destiny