LEARNING BIBLE TODAY
From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan
by Michael J. Prival
JOSEPH IN EGYPT
CONTENTS OF CHAPTER III:
[Genesis 37:1 - 37:36]
Jacob and his family settled down in the land of Canaan. His son, Joseph, who was seventeen years old, helped some of his brothers take care of the sheep. Joseph would say bad things about his brothers to Jacob, their father. Now, Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a child of his old age. Jacob made a special long robe for Joseph. When the brothers saw that Jacob loved Joseph most of all, they hated him so much that they could not speak to him in a friendly way.
Once Joseph had a dream and told his brothers about it. He said to them, “I dreamed that we were binding bundles of grain in the field and all of your bundles bowed down low to my bundle of grain.” His brothers replied, “Does this mean that you intend to rule over us?” And they hated him more than ever.
One day Joseph’s brothers pulled his long robe off him and threw him into a pit with no water in it. They left him there to die. Then they sat down to eat. When they saw a band of Ishmaelites coming by, Judah suggested that they take Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites instead, so they would not be responsible for killing their brother. His brothers agreed. Then some Midianites came along. They pulled Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who took him with them to Egypt.
When Joseph’s brothers found that he was no longer in the pit, they took his long robe and dipped it in the blood of a goat. When they gave the blood-soaked robe to their father Jacob, he cried out “This is my son’s robe! An evil animal has eaten Joseph!” Jacob tore his clothes and mourned for his son for many days, and his children were unable to comfort him.
Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, a high official in the court of the Pharaoh in Egypt.
1. As we will see in later chapters, the twelve sons of Jacob (whose other name, you remember, is Israel), are presented in the Bible as the founders of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. What do you think of their behavior so far? Do they seem to be kind and friendly people, always thinking of others?
One of the most interesting things about the “heroes” in the Hebrew Bible is that none of them is all good. In fact, some of them do pretty nasty things. In this way they resemble real people, although the Bible heroes are often even less likeable than most real people.
This story shows how Jacob and his sons treat each other. Jacob lets his sons know clearly that Joseph is his favorite, something a good father would never do. Joseph tells his father bad stories about his brothers and lets his brothers know about his dream, which clearly indicates to them that he wants to rule over them. And the brothers first decide to kill Joseph, then to sell him into slavery. Then they let their father, Jacob, think that Joseph is dead. The kindest act in the whole story occurs when the brothers decide to sell Joseph rather than leaving him in the pit to die – and selling your brother as a slave can hardly be considered a great kindness!
Why is everyone in this story so rotten? Remember the earlier stories about Jacob, how he cheated his brother, Esau, and lied to his father, Isaac (chapter II-9 and chapter II-10). Do you think this may have something to do with the behavior of Jacob’s sons?
Traditional religious interpreters have read these same stories and concluded that both Jacob and Joseph were wonderful, virtuous people. According to the traditions of the ancient rabbis, for example, Joseph was considered to be a great scholar, who spent most of his time in his early years studying religious laws and principles, and even teaching them to his brothers. Although there is no mention of these acts in the Bible itself, the rabbis developed stories that add to the Biblical text and make the behavior of the characters seem more acceptable. Recall the rabbinic legend of “Abraham Smashes the Idols” (chapter II-2) and the legend about how Abraham visits Ishmael and Hagar mentioned in the discussion of “Ishmael and Hagar are Cast Out of Abraham’s House” (chapter II-6). These legends were designed to explain the actions of some of the Bible’s “heroes” in a way that was more acceptable ethically to the rabbis who developed them.
One point of view expressed in the stories about Joseph and his brothers is that their actions, which may seem nasty and unacceptable to us, were really designed to carry out God’s will. And what was God’s will? God’s will, according to the rabbis, was that the sons of Jacob (Israel) should travel to Egypt and live there, so that they could eventually be enslaved and, after many generations, then be freed – a set of experiences that will prepare the “children of Israel” to receive God’s laws and to establish their own nation in the land of Canaan. This story and the coming stories tell how Joseph and his brothers accomplish these goals. So far, Joseph has been brought to Egypt. In a later story, his brothers and father will follow him.
2. What is this “long robe” that Jacob gave to Joseph? The Hebrew in the Bible for this robe is “k’toh-net pah-seem.” The first word, “k’toh-net” means tunic. A tunic is a loose article of clothing, like a gown, that was worn in ancient times. We call it a “robe” in this story because this is a more commonly understood word than “tunic.”
Different people have different ideas about what the second word, “pah-seem” means. Some say it means “ornamented”; others think that it means that the garment was a “fine woolen tunic.” Other traditional translations include “embroidered robe” and a “long-sleeved garment.” The best-known English translation is “coat of many colors” but the word “coat” would mean that it was worn over other clothes to keep warm, and this would not usually be needed in the hot climate of the Middle East. The word “pah-seem” seems to actually mean the flat part of a hand or foot, that is, the palm or the sole. So a “k’toh-net pah-seem” probably was a tunic that was so long that it reached the hands or, perhaps, the feet. That is why we use the term “long robe” in this story.
How can there be words in the Hebrew Bible that no one really understands? Don’t the Jewish people know their own language? Well, in reality, Hebrew has been a language spoken by many Jewish people for only relatively short periods of history. After the Bible was written, the Jews stopped using Hebrew for everyday conversation, and for many centuries Hebrew was only used for Bible reading and prayer. Hebrew was not used again as a spoken language by large numbers of Jews until the 20th century, when it again became the language of the Jews who live in Israel. During the many centuries in which Hebrew was not generally used, the meaning of many Hebrew words was forgotten. Sometimes, especially when words appear more than once in the Bible, their meaning can be figured out from the surrounding words. But some words appear only once in the whole Bible, so their meaning has to be guessed at from other words that are spelled something like them. The word pah-seem which we are discussing, does appear elsewhere in the Bible to describe the clothes worn by the children of King David. Some have concluded from this fact that the word refers to a very fine piece of clothing suitable for the royal family.
While it may not be very important what the particular words describing Joseph’s tunic mean exactly, you can see from this discussion how difficult it is at times to translate the Bible into English and how different people can come up with different meanings for the same Hebrew words.
3. What about Joseph’s dream? Does it mean, as his brothers said, that Joseph wanted to rule over them? Was Joseph somehow to “blame” for having such a dream? Can you control what you dream about? Once he had this dream, should he have told his brothers about it?
We will see in a later chapter that the day actually does come when Joseph’s brothers do bow down to him as a result of his high position, just as the dream said they would. In this sense, the dream actually comes true. In the traditional religious viewpoint, therefore, the dream was a “prophecy,” a vision from God that enabled Joseph to predict the future. From this same viewpoint, the telling of the brothers about the dream caused them to hate him and helped lead to the events that brought him to Egypt. Thus, a religious explanation for why Joseph angered his brothers might be that he was helping to fulfill God’s will that Jacob’s sons move to Egypt. What do you think of this explanation?
4. Who are these various groups of people who come wandering by in the story? The Ishmaelites were people who lived in an area south and east of Canaan. Presumably the Israelites thought of them as close relatives, which is why they told the story in which Ishmael, like Isaac, is the son of Abraham. Just as the Israelites were thought of as the descendants of Isaac (and his son Jacob – “Israel”), so the Ishmaelites were thought of as the descendants of Ishmael. As was discussed previously (chapter II-6, “Ishmael and Hagar are Cast out of Abraham’s House”), many centuries after the time of these stories, the Arab Muslims (followers of the religion of Islam – see “Muhammad” on the time line in the Introduction) adopted the idea that they, the Arabs, are the descendants of Ishmael.
The Midianites were another group of people who lived not far from the Ishmaelites. They were also people to whom the Israelites must have felt related, since their ancestor, Midian, is also presented in the Bible as a son of Abraham. Midian was born to Abraham and his wife, Keturah, whom Abraham married after his wife Sarah died.
It is interesting to see how the writers of the Bible stories were able to express their feelings about different groups of people by writing stories about individuals who are supposed to be the founders of these groups.
5. It’s really not clear from the story what these different groups, the Ishmaelites and the Midianites, actually did. First it says that Joseph’s brothers agreed to sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites. Then, however, it seems that the brothers didn’t actually sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. The Midianites apparently took Joseph from the pit and sold him. As with many of the stories we have discussed, this is probably a case in which two different stories were combined – one in which the brothers agreed to sell Joseph and another in which the Midianites captured him from the pit and sold him. The story is confused even more where it says, in the final sentence, that the Midianites, not the Ishmaelites, sold Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt. Earlier it had said that the Midianites had sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites. In a later story (chapter III-6), Joseph will say that it was his brothers who sold him into slavery. All these contradictions are probably the result of two, or maybe more, stories by different authors being mixed together in the Bible text.
[Genesis 39:1 - 39:23]
After the Ishmaelites sold Joseph to Potiphar, who was a high official in the court of the Pharaoh, everything seemed to go well for Joseph. Yahweh made sure that he was successful in everything he did, and when Potiphar saw this he put Joseph in charge of his whole house, trusting him with all that he owned. So Yahweh blessed Potiphar’s house and saw to it that everything in it went well, so that Joseph would look good in the eyes of his master.
Now, Joseph had a beautiful body and a handsome face. Potiphar’s wife tried to get him to lie with her, but he refused. One day when he came into the house to work, she grabbed his robe and tried to get him to stay with her. He ran away, but she held on to his robe and it stayed in her hand. She showed his robe to the servants of the house and to Potiphar, her husband, saying, “Look, the Hebrew slave wanted to lie with me, but I screamed and he ran away, leaving his robe behind.”
Potiphar was so angry that he had Joseph put into prison. This was the place where the prisoners of the Pharaoh himself were kept. But Yahweh was with Joseph, and soon he was put in charge of all the other prisoners.
1. Joseph finds himself in the household of a high officer who serves the Pharaoh. “Pharaoh” was the title given to the ruler of Egypt, similar to a king.
Egypt is a nation in North Africa. It is important to understand that the Egyptians were one of the first people in the world to achieve a high level of civilization. Egypt became unified under a single king and its people were able to read and write as early as about 3000 B.C. (5000 years ago). This was a time that the writers of the Hebrew Bible thought of as being long before Noah’s flood which destroyed the whole world (see the time line in the Introduction). Egyptian civilization was centered around one river, the Nile. The water in this river would flood over its banks each year and make the surrounding soil rich and fertile. Most of the rest of Egypt was desert, which protected the Egyptians from other people who otherwise might have invaded.
Do you know the names of any Egyptian Pharaohs? One of the most famous ones today is sometimes called “King Tut,” but that was not his real name. Can you find out what his real name was and why he became so well known in the 20th century? He ruled Egypt in the 1300's B.C. (about 3300 years ago).
Egypt is on the continent of Africa. Do you know what continent Israel is on? Look it up; you will probably be surprised. It is interesting that most of the major religions of the modern world – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Baha’i, and Judaism – had their origins on the same continent – the one on which Israel is located.
2. In the previous story (chapter III-1, “Joseph and his Brothers”) Joseph seems to be having a very hard time of it. Even though he is his father’s favorite son, he ends up getting shipped off to Egypt as a slave. But now we find that, even when things seem to be going badly for him, Joseph rises to the top. Potiphar puts him in charge of his house with no restrictions, and even in jail he is put in charge of the other prisoners. These stories show that Joseph is a natural leader. The Bible text makes it clear, however, that Joseph’s successes come about only because he has a very important friend – Yahweh – watching out for him.
In the last story, Joseph was an immature boy, telling lies about his brothers to their father, angering his brothers with his dream, and being generally obnoxious. Now we have seen him develop into a mature young man, capable of thinking for himself, leading others, and resisting the advances of his master’s wife. How do you think this change came about? Could it be that the hard conditions of life he had to face, first as a slave and then as a prisoner, helped him to grow up quickly?
Do you think that Joseph was better off when he was living with his family or after he was taken to Egypt? Can a slave or a prisoner have a better life than a free person? Can a slave or a prisoner be a better person than one who is free?
How much freedom did Joseph really have in either of the two stories we have read about him? Remember that, although he was free in Canaan, he lost his freedom simply by making his brothers angry at him. As a slave, everything seemed to be going fine until his master got mad at him (through no fault of his own). As a prisoner, he is put in charge of the others, but he is still at the mercy of the warden of the prison. Do you think that Joseph will ever be free to do just do what he wants to, without fear of being punished?
[Genesis 40:1 - 40:23]
And it came to pass that the chief cupbearer and the chief baker of Pharaoh offended their ruler and he had them sent to the prison where Joseph was kept. One night each of these two prisoners had dreams that they could not understand. In the morning, Joseph said to them, “Tell me your dreams and God will interpret them.”
The cupbearer told Joseph, “In my dream I saw a grapevine with three branches. The vine suddenly blossomed and was covered with grapes. I pressed the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and gave the cup to Pharaoh.” Joseph said, “The three branches in your dream represent three days. The dream means that in three days Pharaoh will take you from this prison and you will return to your position as his cupbearer. When this happens, please ask Pharaoh to free me, because I have done nothing wrong.”
Then the baker told Joseph about his dream. He said, “In my dream there were three baskets of bread on my head. In the basket on top there was food for the Pharaoh, and the birds were eating the food.” Joseph said, “The three baskets in your dream represent three days. The dream means that in three days Pharaoh will cut off your head and hang you from a tree. The birds will eat your flesh.”
Three days later, the Pharaoh had a feast to celebrate his birthday. He returned the chief cupbearer to his old job, and he had the chief baker hanged from a tree, just as Joseph had told them he would.
And the chief cupbearer forgot about Joseph, and did not tell the Pharaoh about him.
1. In this story, dreams really do come true – although the baker’s dream is really more of a nightmare. Remember Joseph’s dream in an earlier story (chapter III-1, “Joseph and his Brothers”)? – that too will come true later.
What do dreams really mean? Can dreams really predict the future? Can we sometimes get a message from dreams about something we already know about, but cannot admit even to ourselves? Have you ever had a dream that later came true? How come this seems to happen so often in these stories?
2. Who is it that interprets the dreams in these stories? Remember what Joseph says before the cupbearer tells him his dream. God seems to be helping Joseph, but so far it has done him no good. He is still in prison and the cupbearer forgot to tell Pharaoh about him. But hold on. Things start looking up for Joseph in the next story.
[Genesis 41:1 - 41:57]
Two years later, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile River and out of the river came seven fat and healthy cows, and they ate among the reeds. Then there came seven thin and ugly cows who ate the seven fat and healthy cows right up. Then Pharaoh woke up.
When he fell asleep again he dreamed that seven thick and healthy ears of grain were growing on one single stalk. Then seven thin and sickly ears of grain came and ate the thick and healthy ears right up. Then Pharaoh woke up.
The Pharaoh could find no one who could tell him what these dreams meant. So the chief cupbearer told him about the Hebrew slave in prison who had the gift of interpreting dreams. Joseph was brought out from his prison cell. The Pharaoh told him about the cows and about the grain and Joseph said, “Both dreams have the same meaning. God is telling you what he is going to do. The dreams mean that Egypt is going to have seven years of great plenty and good harvests. These will be followed by seven years of famine, when the crops will not grow. This is what God is telling you by these dreams. So you should find someone to put in charge of the whole land of Egypt so that during the seven years of plenty food will be saved and stored. Then during the seven years of famine, the food can be distributed to the people so they will not go hungry.”
Pharaoh saw how the spirit of God was with Joseph and how God had made him wise, so he put Joseph in charge of the whole land of Egypt. He told Joseph, “I shall still hold the title of Pharaoh, but you shall rule over the land.” He gave Joseph his seal-ring, robes of fine linen, and a gold chain to put around his neck. And he gave Joseph a wife, whose name was Asenat. Joseph was thirty years old when this happened.
So Joseph travelled around the land of Egypt. During the seven years of plenty and good harvests, he stored up so much grain that it could not be measured. Joseph and Asenat had two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. During the seven years of famine Joseph gave out the stored up grain to the people so they could all have enough to eat.
The famine spread throughout the world. And people from other lands came to buy grain from Joseph in Egypt because the famine was so severe.
1. The situation has really turned around quickly for Joseph. One day he is a slave in prison, with no release date in sight; the next day he is put in charge of all of Egypt by the Pharaoh. Do you think that it is possible for someone’s life to change so quickly and completely? When Joseph told the Pharaoh what his dreams meant, why did Pharaoh believe him? Do you think he would have believed anyone who said the same thing that Joseph said? Was there something special about Joseph that made him more believable that others might be? What was that “something special”?
2. Is it possible that someone who was not an Egyptian could have been put in charge of all of Egypt? The answer to this question is very interesting. The historical fact is that Egypt was ruled by non-Egyptians for over 100 years at a time close to that of the story of Joseph. These foreigners, called Hyksos, were mostly from the general area where the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob travelled and lived, in the stories we have read about. Of course there were many other groups living in these areas also.
Some scholars have tried to find historical truth in the story of Joseph by linking it with the period of Hyksos rule. One idea has been that Joseph was himself a Hyksos leader. A more reasonable possibility is that, while Joseph himself was not a Hyksos leader, the Pharaoh in his story was. This might explain why the Pharaoh was willing to appoint a Hebrew to actually rule over Egypt. It seems unlikely that a Pharaoh who was an Egyptian himself would appoint a non-Egyptian to such an important position. However, if the Pharaoh was not an Egyptian, but a foreigner whose home was near the land where Joseph’s family was from, then the story becomes somewhat easier to believe.
There is, in fact, no historical or scientific reason to believe that the Israelites were part of the Hyksos people who ruled over Egypt, or that Joseph was made a ruler by a Hyksos Pharaoh. Actually, there is no historical or scientific reason to believe that the Israelites even existed as a group so early in history, or that Joseph was a real person. The Bible stories about Joseph are thought by some scholars to have been written during the time of Solomon, over 500 years after the time in which the stories are set (see the
time line in the Introduction). Others say that the writers of the story were “J,” “E,” and “P” (the “Yahwist,” the “Elohist,” and the “Priestly” writer whom we have discussed in earlier stories as the writers of most of the early stories in the Hebrew Bible). These writers lived even later in history than the time of King Solomon. Thus, the story of Joseph seems to contain some relation to historical facts (namely, the idea that foreigners ruled Egypt), but these stories were probably written so long after the events they talk about that we have no reason to accept any of the details in them as historically accurate.
Most of the ideas that people have about the historical accuracy of the early Bible stories are difficult or impossible to prove one way or another. Archaeologists and Bible scholars try to come up with the best ideas they can at any given time. But we should always remember that new scientific findings can, and often do, cause scholars to throw out older ideas that they had accepted as true. So if we read that “Joseph was a Hyksos leader” or “Joseph’s Pharaoh was a Hyksos” or “the stories about Joseph were made up by writers in King Solomon’s court,” we should try to examine the reasons why people believe these ideas. We should also remember that there are so few real scientific facts known about this period in history that any ideas that scholars have now are likely to be changed in the future.
When we are talking about events that happened so long ago and for which there are no good written documents from the time explaining what really was happening, there is no way to tell what actually happened. Even many of the statements about the Bible made in the Discussion sections of this book, while they are based on the best information available now, may become discarded when new scientific information is obtained.
[Genesis 42:1 - 42:38]
Jacob and his family, who were living in Canaan, were suffering from the famine, which had spread throughout the world. So Jacob said to his sons, “There is food in Egypt. Go down there and bring some back so that we may live, and not die.” So ten of the brothers went down to Egypt to obtain food, but Jacob kept Benjamin, the youngest, at home so that no harm would come to him.
When the brothers wanted to buy food, they went to see Joseph, but they did not recognize him. They bowed down very low to him, and he did not tell them who he was. He remembered his dream about them and said to them sternly, “You are not here to buy food. You are spies!” And they replied, “Oh no, we are not spies. We are brothers. Our father Jacob and our youngest brother are still in the land of Canaan.”
Joseph said to them, “To show that you are telling the truth, you will return to Canaan and bring your youngest brother to me. I will keep one of you here in prison while you are gone.” And the brothers said to each other, “This is our punishment for how we treated our brother, Joseph.” They did not know that Joseph could understand their words because he was speaking only the language of the Egyptians and using an interpreter to speak with them.
So they bought grain from Joseph. But Joseph ordered that the money that they used to buy the grain be put in the bags with their grain. The brothers departed from Egypt, leaving their brother Simeon behind, as Joseph had ordered them to do. When they discovered that their money was in the bags of grain, they were very afraid.
They reached Canaan and told Jacob what had happened to them in Egypt. When they said that they wanted to bring Benjamin with them back to Egypt so that their brother Simeon would be freed, Jacob said, “Joseph is gone. Simeon is gone. Now you want to take Benjamin away from me! You cannot have him.”
1. When Joseph sees his brothers, he lets them think that he is an Egyptian. He was such a powerful person in Egypt that he could have punished them for what they did to him many years earlier, but he doesn’t do this. If he wanted to forgive them, he could have done this right away, but he doesn’t do this either. Why doesn’t he tell them who he is? What is the dream he remembers before accusing them of being spies? What does the dream have to do with what he does in this story? Remember that dreams in the Bible are often seen as “prophecies,” or predictions of the future, and Joseph would want to act so as to make the prediction come true. Why can’t it come true without sending the brothers back to Canaan?
2. Joseph neither punishes nor forgives his brothers at this point in the story. Instead, he seems to be testing them. He learns something about their feelings toward him when they speak to each other, thinking that he cannot understand them. Do you think that he is glad to hear what they say?
When Joseph has the money returned to the brothers in their sacks of grain this also seems like a test of their character. Why do you think that the brothers are so afraid when they find that their money has been returned to them?
3. When Joseph was young, he was his father’s favorite son. Now that Joseph is gone, Jacob’s favorite son is Benjamin. Why is this? Joseph and Benjamin are not only the two youngest sons, but they are also the only sons of Rachel. Remember that Rachel was the woman that Jacob really loved and wanted to marry in the story “Jacob gets Married – Twice” (chapter II -12).
The other brothers were very mean to Joseph, but they do not seem to dislike Benjamin at all, even though he is now their father’s favorite. Can you think of any reasons why they would treat Benjamin better than they treated Joseph?
[Genesis 43, 45, 46, 47, 50:12 - 50:26]
The famine was so severe that it was necessary for Israel to send his sons back to Egypt for more food. Israel agreed to let Benjamin go with them because Joseph had warned them not to return to Egypt without their youngest brother. Israel told them to give back to the Egyptians the money that had been put in their bags of grain.
When Joseph saw that Benjamin was with them, he told the man in charge of his house to invite them to his house. They were afraid that Joseph would accuse them of stealing the money they had found in their bags of grain and make slaves of them.
They went to Joseph’s house and told the man in charge of the house that they had found the money in their grain sacks, and they now wanted to return it. But he said, “Do not be afraid. Keep the money. Your God has put it in your sacks. I already received your payment for the grain.” Then he brought their brother Simeon out to them.
When Joseph arrived, they gave him presents that they had brought for him. They bowed down low to him, all the way to the ground. When Joseph saw his brother Benjamin, he had such strong feelings toward him that he had to leave to room to weep. When their meal was served, Benjamin was given five times as much as the others.
Finally, Joseph could no longer control his emotions before his brothers. He ordered all of the Egyptians to leave the room, and began to cry. He called out to his brothers, “I am Joseph, your brother.” His brothers were so stunned that they could not speak. He said, “Do not be angry with yourselves because of what you did to me by selling me as a slave. This was part of God’s plan to save your lives. It was not you, but God who sent me to Egypt so that I could make sure that you had enough food during this great famine. Now go back to Canaan and get our father, Jacob, and bring him here to Egypt.
All of the brothers embraced Joseph and wept with him. Then they returned to Canaan and told their father that Joseph was alive and that he ruled over the whole land of Egypt. Jacob could not believe that Joseph was still alive. But the brothers told him what Joseph had said and showed him the gifts that Joseph had sent, and Israel cried out, “I must go to Egypt to see Joseph before I die!”
So they all went to Egypt, and when Israel saw his son Joseph he said, “Now that I have seen you, I can die.” And Pharaoh gave Joseph’s father and Joseph’s brothers the best land in all of Egypt, in the region called Goshen, to settle on and raise their sheep and cattle.
When Israel was about to die, he made Joseph promise to bury him in the land of his fathers, in Canaan. So Joseph took his father’s body to Canaan, and buried him in the cave where Abraham was buried, in the field of Makhpelah, facing Mamreh.
Joseph and his brothers continued to live in the land of Egypt. Many years later, when Joseph was ready to die, he made the Israelites swear that when they left Egypt they would take his body with them and bury him in Canaan. Now Joseph was one hundred and ten years old when he died.
1. Did you notice that in this story the prediction of Joseph’s dream about the bowing sheaves of grain finally comes true?
2. Remember in the discussion to the last story (chapter III-5, “Joseph Sees His Brothers Once Again”) we said that Joseph seemed to be testing his brothers by giving them back the money they paid to buy the grain. What was the purpose of this test? Do they seem to pass the test in this story?
3. Joseph waits a long time before telling his brothers who he is. Remember that when he last saw his brothers they were very mean to him. What does he learn about his brothers before he tells them that he is Joseph? He learns some things about them in the last story (chapter III-5, “Joseph Sees his Brothers Once Again”) as well as in this one.
4. Joseph forgives his brothers. Maybe he does this because of what he has learned about them from what they do and say (discussion point #3, above). But he says that he forgives them because they were not responsible for what they did to him – he says that God was responsible.
And why did God have Joseph sent to Egypt? Joseph says that it was to make sure that his family survived when the famine came. Does this really make sense? If God can do this, couldn’t he have just prevented the famine in the first place? What do you think?
5. Notice that this section often uses the name “Israel” for Jacob. Remember that Jacob was given the name “Israel” by the angel he wrestled with in an earlier story (chapter II-14). Why does the Bible now use the name “Israel” while it has been using the name “Jacob” up till now? The answer to this question, like the answer to so many questions we have about the Bible, is: No one knows. We cannot ask the Bible authors why they wrote the way they did, and they left us no other books explaining what they wrote in the Bible. So we have to try to guess or figure it out ourselves. Some possible reasons for using different names might be: (1) different authors who liked different names wrote the different sections; (2) the author wanted to remind us in the part about “Israel” that Jacob and his sons were the founders of the nation of Israel; (3) the author just felt like it. None of these possible explanations can be proven to be true or false; we can only try to develop arguments for and against them and then see which arguments seem to make the most sense. Can you think of any other possible reasons why the names “Jacob” and “Israel” are used for the same person in different parts of this story?
6. This story ends with the death of Joseph. We have now finished discussing the stories that are contained in the first book of the Bible. This first book is called Genesis in English. “Genesis” means the beginning, the origin, or the way something is created. What has been created in these stories in the book of Genesis? Many things have been created – the world and everything in it, including people; also the sky, the stars, the sun, and the moon. But the most important thing from the point of view of the Bible authors was probably that the nation of “Israel” has been created through “Israel’s” (Jacob’s) twelve sons. We will see in later stories how their descendants become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel, who eventually become the Jewish people.
The book you are reading summarizes and discusses the stories that are written in the first six books of the Hebrew Bible. We have only finished the first one of the six books so far, but with five more books to go we are already more than half-way through the stories. This is because most of the interesting stories are contained in this first book, Genesis.
Remember in the Introduction of this book we talked about how one of the main purposes for which the Hebrew Bible was written was to explain things about the world. The one most important thing that is explained in all of these stories is: “Where did the Jewish people (the Israelites, the Hebrews) come from?”
The children of Israel are now in Egypt. At this point, we begin the second book of the Bible, the book called Exodus in English. “Exodus” means a going out, and the book of Exodus tells how the descendants of Israel went out from Egypt. The rest of the stories will tell how they became an independent nation in the land of Canaan.
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Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival
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