The Yosef narratives extend from Bereshit 37 through the end of the book, providing the reader with significantly more details about Yosef's life, personality, and interactions than any of the other tribes. His life progresses on a roller coaster of ups and downs, as his position as favored child morphs into that of degraded slave, then back to head of household, only to revert once more to forgotten prisoner. He finally emerges as second in command to Paroh, paving the way for the family's descent to Egypt.
Throughout, Yosef is a composite of opposites. He is both loved and hated, admired and disdained. He is a dreamer, but capable of facing harsh reality. He is an outsider who climbs to the top of society. He is a man who can control Egypt, but cannot hold in his tears. The various aspects of Yosef's character have invited multiple interpretations throughout centuries of exegesis, often resulting in contrasting portraits of the fascinating figure.
Bereshit 37 discusses both the brother's sale of Yosef, and the jealousy and hatred which led to it. At first glance, the chapter implies that all the brothers hated Yosef equally, telling us simply "וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם", without differentiating between the siblings. However, not all commentators agree, as certain verses suggest that the brothers were not a homogeneous group, and that they might not have unanimously detested Yosef.
- "וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה" – Commentators debate the meaning of this phrase and what it connotes about Yosef's relationship with the sons of the maidservants.
- Positive relationship – According to Rashi, Rashbam, and R. Avraham b. HaRambam, this verse teaches that Yosef spent his free time (his "youthful" activities) with the sons of the maidservants. As such, it implies that they might have had a positive relationship.
- Negative relationship – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Ramban explain that the sons of the maidservants served Yosef, while Ibn Ezra claims that Yosef served the sons of the maidservants.1 Either way, this soured their relationship.
- "וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם" – Commentators dispute whether Yosef slandered all of the brothers, or only some of them.2 This, too, might bear on his individual relationships with each sibling:
- "וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו" – Were all the brother equally upset by Yosef's sharing of his dreams of grandeur?
- Yes, all the brothers were bothered – This is the common understanding.
- Only the sons of Leah, who had what to lose, were upset – R. Yosef Kara
- The Sale of Yosef – Did all the brothers participate in the sale? For analysis and the motivations for each reading, see Who Sold Yosef?
- All of the brothers (except Reuven) – Most commentators
- None of the brothers – Rashbam claims that though the brothers intended to sell Yosef, the Midianites beat them to it. While the brothers sat to eat lunch as they awaited the arrival of the Yishmaelite caravan, these other merchants found Yosef and sold him first.
- Half of the brothers – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the brothers ate lunch in shifts. While Reuven and half the siblings shepherded, Yehuda and the others ate lunch, where they planned and executed the sale (without Reuven and the others' knowledge).
I. "כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ" – How is one to understand Yaakov's favoring of Yosef? Though many assume that Yaakov transferred his love for Rachel to Yosef, the verses offer a different explanation: "כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ". What does this term mean and what does it suggest about the reasons for Yaakov's love?
- Similar to father – Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan all suggests that Yaakov's favoritism stemmed from the similarity between father and son.
- Actions/ traits – Targum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, and Radak maintain that "בֶן זְקֻנִים" means "wise" and it was this trait which led to the extra love. Ramban instead, suggests , that Yosef was chosen to serve his father, and this created the close bond.
- Age-related – R. Avraham b. HaRambam and Shadal assert that, for several years until Binyamin's birth, Yosef had been treated as the youngest child and the favoritism remained even once he no longer had that status. Ralbag instead suggests that Yosef was similar to a child born in old age since was born after Yaakov had despaired of having a child by Rachel.
II. "עָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים" – What did Yaakov mean to signify in giving Yosef the cloak? Was he simply showing parental favoritism, or did he have other intentions?
- Show of love – Ralbag
- Sign of leadership or chosen status – Seforno, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, and R. Hirsch suggest that the cloak was a sign of stature. This reading might suggest that the siblings were not merely engaged in common sibling rivalry, but in a competition as to who was to be the "chosen son" and merit to continue the line of Avraham.4
Relationship to Family When in Egypt
It is difficult to understand what motivates the various actions taken by Yosef upon his becoming second-in-command and seeing his brothers in Egypt. Why does he not contact his beloved father after so many years apart? Why does he treat his brothers, and especially Binyamin, whom he had no reason to hate, so harshly? Why does he, simultaneously, put on a show of good will to his siblings, returning their money and giving them presents? Is he still angry or has time allowed him to forgive and forget? For a full discussion of these issues and abundant sources, see Yosef's Treatment of his Family and Why Did Yosef Frame Binyamin.
- Desire for reconciliation – According to many, Yosef had righteous motives, and his actions were meant to help him reconcile with his family. First, though, Yosef wanted to test the degree of his brothers' remorse (Philo, R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon and Abarbanel ), or aid them in attaining penance for their sins toward him (R. Avraham Saba, Abarbanel, and Keli Yekar).
- No desire for reconciliation – Others suggest that Yosef actually had no desire to reunite with his family and was acting only in his own self-interest. According to Radak, Yosef wanted to exact revenge on his brothers for their mistreatment of him. Y. Eldad and R"D Henshke, in contrast, assume that Yosef might have assimilated in Egypt and, though no longer angry, he simply had no desire to reconnect to his roots. Alternatively, he thought that he and Binyamin were destined together to constitute the chosen nation and fulfill the promise of "גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם", while everyone else was rejected.
- Hands Tied - A third approach suggests that Yosef felt compelled to act in the way he did. According to Ramban, Yosef's need to actualize his prophetic dreams guided all his actions, while R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and R. Yehuda HeChasid maintain that he was acting under oath, the brothers having sworn him to secrecy regarding the sale. Finally, R. Shemuel Feigenson maintains that all of Yosef's actions were guided by the mistaken assumption that he had been rejected and punished by his father.
"וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה" – Did Yosef marry a daughter of an idolatrous priest?5
How is Yaakov's blessing to Yosef to be understood? Does he speak to Yosef the individual, or to his tribal descendants? Does he refer to past or future events? Are the conflicts between Yosef and his brothers which get so much press space in Sefer Bereshit even alluded to in the blessing? See Yaakov's Blessing of Yosef for details.
- Personal Blessing – Several commentators assume that Yaakov was addressing Yosef himself, and referring to his overcoming of personal trials and tribulations. According to Ibn Ezra, the blessing alludes to Yosef's conflict with his brothers, while according to Rashbam it focuses on Mrs. Potiphar's attempted seduction.
- Tribal Blessing – In contrast, Ralbag and Hoil Moshe understand the blessing to refer to the future successes of the tribes of Yosef. Yaakov refers to Yosef's extensive progeny and double portion, the tribes' victories in war and vast borders, and Mashiach b. Yosef.
Was Yosef unique in his ability to decipher dreams? Why was no one else able to do the same?
- Gift of God – According to Ralbag, Yosef's ability to explain dreams stemmed from his having some level of prophecy. The Netziv similarly points to a God-given "סגולת הנפש", some special trait which is unconnected to an individual's wisdom or learning. According to both, then, Hashem gave Yosef an ability which was not shared by others.
- Human ability – Shadal implies that Yosef did not necessarily have any unique dream-reading abilities. Rather he was capable of applying external knowledge to correctly interpret them. Thus, for example, knowing (from his previous position in Potiphar house) that Paroh's birthday (a day which he granted pardons) was imminent helped him understand the dreams of the Butler and Baker. Similarly, it was not interpreting Paroh's dream which was unique but Yosef's ability to advise him afterwards.6
Bereshit 47 details the harsh measures Yosef takes to deal with the famine, resulting in the Egyptians pledging themselves and their land to Paroh in exchange for food. Commentators debate both whether Yosef's policies were necessary or overly draconian, and whether they earned him the admiration or disdain of the Egyptian populace [For elaboration, see Yosef's Economic Policies.]:
- Praiseworthy – R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon, Ramban, and R. S.R. Hirsch suggest that the famine called for austere measures, and that Yosef tried to ease the hardships caused to the Egyptians as much as possible, earning their favor.
- Overly harsh – In contrast, several modern exegetes,7 following R"Y Bekhor Shor, suggest that Yosef's enslavement of the Egyptians (and his simultaneous favoritism toward his family) backfired, ultimately paving the way for the Egyptian enslavement of the Children of Israel.
Bereshit 37:3 tells that Yosef spoke ill of his brothers to his father. Commentators debate both whether Yosef told the truth (i.e. whether the brothers were guilty of the actions reported), and how his tale-bearing should be evaluated regardless:
- Both sides did wrong – Bereshit Rabbah and Rashi imply that Yosef told the truth, but that nonetheless it was wrong to speak of his brothers.
- Only Yosef did wrong – Testament of Gad suggests that Yosef erroneously concluded that the brothers had stolen and killed a sheep to eat it, when, in fact, it had not been viable to begin with.
- Neither side did wrong – Moshav Zekeinim, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah attempt to mitigate the wrong-doing of both sides, with the goal of having all the brothers emerge in a positive light.
Vanity and Haughtiness
Should Yosef bear some of the blame for his brothers' treatment of him? Did his father's preferential treatment lead him to think highly of himself and act arrogantly towards his siblings? Is such a trait apparent in any of the later Yosef stories?
- "וְהוּא נַעַר" – Several sources read into this phrase the possibility that Yosef was somewhat vain, constantly curling his hair and the like. See Bereshit Rabbah 84:7 and Rashi.
- The dreams – What motivated Yosef to share his dreams of kingship with his brothers; was that not insensitive and arrogant?
- Yosef at fault – Radak, Tur, Ralbag, Netziv fault Yosef for his arrogance in sharing dreams of grandeur.
- Mitigate Yosef's fault – Seforno suggests that Yosef's actions came from the inexperience of youth.
- Defend Yosef – Moshav Zekeinim defends Yosef by suggesting that he was aware that his dreams were prophetic, and since one is not allowed to keep a prophecy to one's self, he felt he must share it (הכובש נבואתו במיתה).
- In Potiphar's house – What led to Yosef's fall from grace in Potiphar's house? Tanchuma suggests that his success went to his head, leading to vanity and Yosef's forgetting that his accomplishments were not due to himself but to Hashem's help.8
How did Yosef's detachment from his family and long sojourn in Egypt affect his religious identity? Did he remain "יוסף הצדיק" throughout, or did he begin to assimilate into Egyptian society?
- Yosef the Righteous – traditional view, Bereshit Rabbah, Bemidbar Rabbah, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Rashi,
- Yosef the Assimilated – perhaps Tanchuma,9 modern scholars10
- These sources view Yosef's naming of his child, Menashe, "כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כׇּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כׇּל בֵּית אָבִי" and Yosef's not contacting his father as evidence of his desire to turn his back on his family and heritage. For elaboration, see Yosef's Treatment of his Family.
- R. Z. Weitman further suggests that Yaakov's giving Yosef a double portion was a bribe, intended to keep an assimilated child in the fold. For more, see Yaakov's Retrospective and Yosef's Double Portion.
Comparison to Other Figures
- Yosef and Esther/Mordechai – Significant parallels between the Yosef and Esther narratives shed light on what it means to be a leader in exile. See Yosef and Megillat Esther.
- Yosef and Daniel – See Yosef and Daniel and Yosef, Esther, and Daniel for parallels and contrasts between the lives of these two dream interpreters.
- Yosef and Shelomo – Both figures are known for their intelligence and leadership. How else do they compare?
- Yosef and Moshe –
Yosef in the Arts
Yosef is a popular figure among artists and playwrights, whose works often serve as "modern midrash" on the Biblical text. The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the text and different possible interpretive stances, making a wonderful foil through which to study the original story. Some examples follow: