Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, is probably one of the most well-known modern retellings of the Biblical story of Yosef and his brothers. Each song of the play relates to a different section of the story, and in the retelling, often veers from the original. In contrasting the new with the old, the audience is led to question their original assumptions and understanding of the Yosef narratives. Below is a selection of songs from the play where the playwrights' choices highlight ambiguities, fill in omissions, or resolve other difficulties in the original text. Each section focuses on a number of individual points which serve as foils to Bereshit and can provoke discussion and thought.
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Why Did Yaakov Favor Yosef?
The song suggests that Yaakov favored Yosef since he reminded him of "Rachel, his beloved wife." Is there any basis for this idea in the Biblical text? According to Bereshit, "וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לו". What does the key phrase "כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים" mean? Is Yosef the baby of the family, the son of "Yaakov's old age"? But was Yosef really that much younger than Yaakov's other sons? See The Births and Ages of Yaakov's Sons for details. Did Jacob "live his youth again" through Yosef, as the song asserts? If so, how? Or, does "בֶן זְקֻנִים" here refer to some quality other than age, such as intelligence or responsibility?
A Technicolor Dreamcoat?
What did Yosef's coat look like? Was it a "dazzling coat of many colours "? The word "פַּסִּים" in modern Hebrew means stripes, but in Biblical Hebrew the word appears just in the context of a "כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים", making it hard to define. Could it just be an "elegant" coat of "tasteful style"? Commentators propose everything from a long sleeved tunic to an embroidered garment.1
What Was Yaakov Thinking?
The song asserts: "Jacob wanted to show the world he loved his son, To make it clear that Joseph was the special one." Was this really Yaakov's aim? Was the coat supposed to send a message to the other sons that Yosef was the chosen one? The only other place a "כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים" appears in Tanakh is in the story of Amnon and Tamar, where we are told that this was the clothing worn by virgin princesses. Did such a coat, in Yaakov's time, too, represent a certain status? If so, how did the brothers interpret the gift? Did they think that this meant that they, like Yishmael and Esav before them, were the rejected sons,and only Yosef would continue the line?2
Yosef the Show-off?
To what extent was Yosef himself partially responsible for the brothers' attitude towards him? The song portrays him as being somewhat egotistical, vain, and proud of his new coat: "I look handsome, I look smart, I am a walking work of art." Does Tanakh paint such a portrait of Yosef? Bereshit 37 opens with a less than favorable description, depicting Yosef as one who tattles on his brothers and shares with them his dreams of grandeur, even though he should have known his brothers would not be happy to hear them. The midrash, picking up on the phrase "וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה", goes farther and suggests that he was overly involved with his looks, prettying himself like a girl.3
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Did the Brothers Believe in Binyamin's Innocence?
Throughout the song, the brother's tell Yosef that "Benjamin is an innocent man." Did the brothers truly believe this? From the Biblical text, we actually do not know for certain whether the brothers think that Binyamin was framed or if they suspect him of the crime. How one answers this might affect how one understands Yehuda's plea to Yosef afterwards.
According to the song, the brothers try to convince Yosef not to take Binyamin as a slave by highlighting his honesty, and, thus, his innocence. Binyamin could not have stolen the cup, because "Benjamin is honest as coconuts..." Is this what lies at the core of Yehuda's defense in Tanakh as well? Interestingly, Yehuda actually does not relate to the crime at all in his speech. He makes no attempt to proclaim Binyamin's innocence and does not even allude to the theft. What, instead, is Yehuda trying to tell Yosef? See The Messages of Yehuda's Oration for several approaches.
Though Yehuda takes the lead in defending Binyamin, the song has the brothers participate as well. All claim together: "Take me. Benjamin is straighter than the tall palm tree." What role do the brothers play in Bereshit? Before the cup is found they all offer themselves as slaves if found guilty, but afterwards it is only Yehuda that speaks. In fact, it is not even clear if they are in the room at all when he makes his impassioned plea to Yosef. Did Yehuda alone, due to his promise to his father, feel responsible or did all the brothers back him up?4 See The Messages of Yehuda's Oration for elaboration.
"We Are the Criminal Guilty Ones"
In the calypso, when offering themselves as slaves in Binyamin's stead, the brothers say: "We are the criminal guilty ones…" Similarly in the Torah, Yehuda tells Yosef's servant: "הָאֱלֹהִים מָצָא אֶת עֲוֹן עֲבָדֶיךָ". What does Yehuda mean by this statement? Is he referring to the theft of the silver cup, telling the servant that he has no way of denying the claim? Or, as the song might suggest, is he referring to the brothers' previous crime, of having stolen and sold Yosef?