Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

The Story of Joseph

Notes: This section of Genesis is stylistically like the Jahwist source; note the use of both terms “the Lord” and “God” though. This is a third source developing between the early Jahwist source and the late Priestly source, called the Elohist, a fragmentary 8th-century bce layer of Genesis. The Elohist begins with Abraham and supplies slightly higher ethical standards for the Patriarchs than the Jahwist does. The Elohist masterpiece is the story of Joseph.


  • Why do the brothers get hacked off at Joseph?
  • Why do they change their minds?
  • What is the significance of the coat of many colors?
  • Why is the butler restored and the baker decapitated? It seems pretty arbitrary.
  • Why does Joseph play games with his brothers? It seems rather sadistic.

Better Questions:

  • What is peculiar about the nature or style of the narrative itself?

    The narrative operates as a flat reporting of events, not the kind of narrative we are used to, not a narrative that’s very courteous to the reader (as when it recaps at tedious length). It denies us explanations or psychological motivations. It’s even skimpy with adjectives, so we can hardly sense any feelings involved. Instead, it’s a bare series of events that need theological significance or explanation imposed from the outside to make any sense. How is this type of narrative appropriate to the story of Joseph?

  • Is there an overall moral or lesson to the story?

    The attempted justifications sound lame. Harris says that the story shows “Yahweh’s will operating in the lives of unsuspecting individuals for the accomplishment of his predestined purpose” (68). So divine purpose is realized through the course of human events even though the individuals involved are unaware of this. But then Yahweh seems pretty arbitrary and sadistic, no?

    The Norton Anthology editors head in another direction, claiming that

    One of the essential points of this story is the distinction which it emphasizes between an external, secular standard of good and a spiritual, religious standard. In the eyes of the average person, prosperity and righteousness are connected, if not identified, and the sufferer is felt to be one whose misfortune must be explained as a punishment for his or her wickedness…. It is in fact a basic assumption of a competitive society — the view, seldom expressed but strongly rooted, that the plight of the unfortunate is the result of their own laziness, the wealth of the rich the reward of superior virtue. (48)

    The editors correctly state that this “attitude is still with us” (consider coming up with some examples), but they seem to be indicating that the story of Joseph unravels this equation or disproves such a crude notion. Does it? Hardly!

It makes more sense to think of how the medium is the message. What distinguished Joseph from all the other characters so that he is singled out for good fortune? Really, the only thing he’s got going for him is his gift of interpretation. The story indicates that the ability to interpret is a gift from God. This is what distinguishes Joseph and it’s recognized and highly valued across the boards here.

All this in a narrative that, as we said above, denies easy explanation and demands some kind of interpretation if it is to mean anything. Thus, the narrative interestingly forces the reader into the role of Joseph — it actually encourages one to exercise a divine gift: interpretation of what one reads.

Works Cited

Genesis 37, 39-46: The Story of Joseph. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999. 47-48, 61-72.

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 3rd ed. Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.

The Old Testament