From a psychological perspective, the story of Joseph portrays the pitfalls of sibling rivalry. Yet there is a deeper message to the tale. Joseph was a complex figure: a dreamer, a man of God, and a political operator par excellence.
According the Book of Genesis (Bereishit: Parashot Vayeishev, Mikeitz, Vayigash and Vayechi) Joseph (Yosef) was Jacob’s favourite son in Canaan. He aggravated his brothers’ natural envy by reporting their misdeeds to his father. He also told them of his dream in which they bow down to him. Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him. But one brother, Reuven, ensured he was only thrown into a pit; another, Judah, persuaded the others sell him to Ishmaelites.
Joseph became a slave and later an assistant to Potiphar, chief steward to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when Joseph resisted, she had him imprisoned for attempted rape. In prison, Joseph accurately interpreted the dream of another wrongly jailed man, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, which eventually won him his release. Brought before Pharaoh himself, he explained the ruler’s dream as a prediction of famine. Impressed, the monarch appointed Joseph as his chief economic planner.
Joseph was given the Egyptian name Zapenath-Paneah. He married Asenath, and had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph’s predicted famine arrived, and his brothers were forced to travel to Egypt and plead with him (unaware of his identity) to sell them food. Joseph decided to punish them for their earlier actions. Without revealing who he was he gave them food, but detained Simeon, and demanded that Benjamin be brought before him.
Joseph planted a golden goblet in the sack of Benjamin, his youngest brother, and then accused the brothers of theft. Judah pleaded for mercy, citing the impact Benjamin’s arrest would have on the aged Jacob. At last they had redeemed themselves, and Joseph revealed his true identity. After 22 years Jacob was reunited with his beloved Joseph. Pharaoh allowed the whole family to leave Canaan and settle in the Egyptian-ruled land of Goshen.
The rest of the narrative, the longest in Genesis, relates how Joseph established a better system of administration and taxation throughout Egypt. Joseph kept his promise to bury Jacob in Hebron, Canaan. The Israelites of Joseph’s time lived well in Egypt. Only centuries later were they enslaved.
Justice, virtue, retribution, diligence and faith in God; all these elements of the Joseph story continue to inspire Jews, Christians and Muslims. The many paintings, musical works and legends devoted to Joseph testify to the durability of his tale.