Yosef – Overview

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Overview

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.

Family Life

Sibling Relations

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.
  • "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?
  • 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 brothersRashbamBereshit 37:2-3About R. Shemuel b. Meir 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 brothersR. Yosef Bekhor ShorBereshit 37:2-3About 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). 

Father's Favoritism

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?

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?

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.

Marriage

"וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה" – Did Yosef marry a daughter of an idolatrous priest?5

Father's Blessing

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.

Unique Traits

Dream Interpretation

Was Yosef unique in his ability to decipher dreams? Why was no one else able to do the same?

  • Gift of God – According to RalbagBereshit Toalot 40:9About R. Levi b. Gershom, Yosef's ability to explain dreams stemmed from his having some level of prophecy. The Netziv Bereshit 40:8About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlinsimilarly 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 – ShadalBereshit 40:13Bereshit 41:8About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto 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

Administrative Skills

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.]:

Possible Flaws

Tale-bearing

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:

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?

Religious Identity

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?

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:

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