BIBLE SLAVERY - Joseph in Egypt               BIBLE WOMEN: RACHEL - The mother who loved him  




                      JOSEPH, OLD TESTAMENT, BIBLE  




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Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, was one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Despite the jealousy of his brothers and some very bad luck, Joseph triumphed. He had a high opinion of himself and did not know when to keep his mouth shut, but he also had superlative administrative skills, quick intelligence and the ability to impress the right people. In other words, a man who was bound to succeed.

Joseph was the elder son of Jacob's favorite wife Rachel. He seems to have been Jacob's favorite son too.
From an early age he showed promise. He was clever, sensible, trustworthy. But he was also spoiled and cosseted, so that his brothers became furiously jealous of the favor he was shown. One example of this cosseting was the long-sleeved coat his father gave Joseph  - a coat designed so that the wearer could not do any heavy work. This meant his brothers had to carry Joseph's share of the work as well as their own, and they could not have been happy about this. He also told tales about them to their father, and got them into trouble.

Joseph had dreams, and he was always interested in the meaning of these dreams. Twice he dreamt that he  dominated his whole family, including his father and mother. Unfortunately he did not keep quiet about these dreams, but shared them with his brothers, who became increasingly irritated by what they saw as his conceit and arrogance.

One day his father Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers who were in the fields shepherding their flocks. The brothers saw him coming in the distance, and before he had reached them they had determined to kill him. Reuben, the eldest, tried to head them off. He was successful insofar as they did not kill Joseph, but instead threw him down into an empty water cistern. 

Then the brothers sat down to eat, but as they ate they saw a caravan of camels approaching. Judah, another of the brothers, suggested they sell Joseph to these traders, instead of killing him - he was, after all, their brother.

This was what they did. They sold their young brother for twenty pieces of silver, the going rate for a male slave. To cover up what they had done, they killed a goat and smeared its blood on Joseph's coat. Then they took it to Jacob and told him Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Jacob was distraught, and could not be comforted at the loss of his beloved son.

The traders had taken Joseph to Egypt, where they sold him to a wealthy official called Potiphar. It was a good buy, Potiphar found. Joseph had great talent as an administrator, and soon rose to a position of importance in the household. He was so good at what he did that quite soon Potiphar was able to leave the running of his estates to Joseph, and divert himself with other pleasures - notably, food.

Joseph was young, clever and handsome. Potiphar had a wife who was rich, bored and lonely. Before long, the inevitable happened. She fell violently in love with Joseph, and could think of nothing else but him - the Egyptians had a frank and uninhibited interest in sexual love, as their poetry shows.

'Lie with me', she said. 

Joseph was in a dilemma: he could not betray his master, but he could not avoid his master's wife. One day she cornered him and pulled the loose cloak off his body, leaving him naked. He ran away, but she was furious at the rebuff - a woman scorned. So she shouted 'Rape!' and told the other members of the household that Joseph had attacked her. She pointed to the cloak as proof.

When her husband came home, she told him the same story. He was enraged, and had Joseph put in prison. (For more on the story of Potiphar's wife, see  BIBLE WOMEN: POTIPHAR'S WIFE)

 But even in prison Joseph prospered. The jailer saw how capable Joseph was, and entrusted the prisoners to him.


One day she cornered him and pulled the loose cloak off his body, leaving him naked. He ran away, but she was furious at the rebuff - she was a woman scorned. So she shouted 'Rape! 






Now Joseph administered the prison, and while doing so he made friends with some of the prisoners. Among them were two important officials, Pharaoh's cup-bearer and his baker. They had each had a strange dream, and Joseph was able to successful interpret their dreams, telling the men what was about to happen to them. One of them was freed and restored to his former position. The other was sentenced to death and executed. Joseph had been right about the future of each man.

Two years later Pharaoh himself had a dream, and asked his wisest men to interpret it. They could not. Then the cupbearer remembered Joseph, and told Pharaoh about this Hebrew man who could interpret dreams. Pharaoh sent for Joseph and told Joseph the dream he had had. Joseph immediately knew what it meant, and told Pharaoh. It was a warning of a famine that was soon to happen. But there would be seven good years first, giving Pharaoh time to prepare stores of food for the seven bad harvests that would follow. 

Pharaoh was impressed by Joseph's interpretation, and believed it. He decided to organize food storage on a grand scale, and looked round for someone who could supervise this immense task. His eye fell on Joseph, who was given the task. They would collect all the surplus from the good years and keep it in reserve against the seven years of famine that were to follow.

Pharaoh took off his signet ring and gave it to Joseph. Now only Pharaoh was more powerful than Joseph.

The seven good years followed, and then came the seven years of famine, just as Joseph had predicted. It hit not only Egypt, but Israel as well. Joseph's family were affected as much as the Egyptian were, and Jacob sent the ten older brothers down into Egypt to see if they could find grain there.

Unknown to them, Joseph was now in charge of selling grain, and when he saw them he recognized them immediately. They did not recognize him. 

He was not friendly to them, accusing them of being spies come to reconnoiter the land. They groveled, insisting on their innocence. He repeated the accusations, and put them in prison. Only if they brought the youngest brother, who had been left at home with Jacob, would he believe them. He harried and tormented them before he finally revealed his identity - and then he wept so loudly that Pharaoh was informed of what was happening. 

The reconciliation was complete. They sent for their father Jacob, who hardly believe his son Joseph was still alive. Jacob came to Egypt, reunited with the son he had loved so much, and met Joseph's two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. 

It was a wonderful moment. He spoke to all his children, told them he wished to be buried in the filed that Abraham had bought as a burial site for his descendents. Then he 'drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people'. Joseph was overcome with grief. He had had so little time with his father. Then he had his father's body embalmed, and he and a great company of relatives and servants accompanied the body on the journey.

When Jacob had been buried, Joseph and his brothers all moved back to Egypt, where they settled, and where eventually Joseph died.





Genesis 37:1 - 50:26



Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel. The last to be born while Jacob served Laban
Rachel, Joseph's mother who died giving birth to her second son Benjamin, Joseph's only full brother
Reuben, eldest son of Jacob and Leah, who tried to save Joseph's life
Potiphar, the Egyptian official who bought Joseph as a slave
Pharaoh, Egyptian ruler who recognized Joseph's ability to interpret dreams



'Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, and he made him a long robe with sleeves.' Genesis 37:3
'Lie with me' she said. 39:7
'There will be seven years of great plenty, and after them will come seven years of famine....' 41:29




 INTERESTING WEBSITES - stories, pictures, information

Potiphar's wife as one of the Top Ten Bad Women of the Bible

Slavery in the Bible, with a case study of Joseph

Famous paintings of the seduction scene

The stories of Joseph's parents



Slaves and the Law
Make a search for ancient laws governing the treatment of slaves, for example in
·     Deuteronomy 23:15-20, on fugitive slaves or
·     The Code of Hammurabi

Slavery then and now: a debate
Topic: That wage slavery in the modern world is the same as slavery in past ages.
Divide into two sides.
Decide which side will support the proposal and which will oppose it.
In small groups on each side, draw up a list of at least three points to support your argument.
Share the points between groups, and decide which points should be argued most strongly.
Nominate the people who will speak, and a chairperson.
Team members meet and prepare their arguments.
Go over the rules for a debate, what may or may not be said and done.
Conduct the debate.
Hold a debriefing/discussion.

In depth study of one person's story
Choose one of the people whose stories are told on this site and develop a PowerPoint presentation about them.
The presentation must be at least 10 slides long and should include 
 *  a supporting image/picture/painting of each person 
 *  a map of Israel showing the cities and areas where the story took place.  
You may call up other websites to support your ideas.

In your presentation (approximately 10 minutes), answer the following questions:

1. What are the main events of the person's life? Tell the story.

2. What were their main qualities? What made them stand out from the crowd?

3. What obstacles did they face? Did they overcome them, or go with the flow? Explain.

4. How did they use their abilities to do God’s work?  

5. Which part of their story appeals to you most? Why?

You must include three short quotations from the Bible texts to illustrate the points you are making. 


Focus Questions
1. What are the most interesting moments in Joseph's story? 
2. In the story, who speaks and who listens? Who acts? Who gets what they want? If you were in the story, which person would you want to be friends
with? Which person would you want to avoid?
3. What is God's interaction with the main characters? What does this tell you about the narrator's image of God? Do you agree with this image?
4. What is happening on either side of the story, in the chapters before and after it? Does this help you understand what is happening?
5. The narrator/editor has chosen to tell some things and leave other things out. What has been left out of the story that you would like to know?
6. Are the characteristics and actions of the people in the story still present in the world? How is the story relevant to modern life, especially your own? 



'Particularly in Genesis 39-42, Egyptian life and institutions are described in astonishing detail and color. The narrator relishes reporting the exotic customs of the Egyptian court to entertain and instuct his readers. Clearly he was someone well informed about Egypt. Indeed, according to Vergote, he must have had experience living in Egypt, for his knowledge extends to the smallest details (Vergote, Joseph en Égypte, p209). The names of people in the story, Potiphar, Asenath, Zaphenath-Paneah are well-known types of Egyptian names. The rise of Semites to high positions in the Egyptian court is well attested. The description of Joseph's investiture corresponds well with Egyptian paintings of such ceremonies. The dreams are full of authentic Egyptian color; their importance and that of official dream interpreters are also true to life. The comments on land tenure in Egypt, that all land except for the priests' holdings was held by the Pharaoh, is also an apt generalization. Finally, the mummification of Jacob and Joseph is typtically Egyptian; and Joseph's age at death, 110, was the ideal span of life in ancient Egypt.'
(Quoted from World Bible Commentary: Genesis 16-50, Gordon Wenham, p.xxvi)


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Bible Stories: People of the Old Testament; Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel; Bible  Study Resource