Joseph story

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Joseph is sold to Egypt by his brothers - illustration from the Hortus Deliciarum by Herrad von Landsberg (12th century)

The Joseph story in the Hebrew Bible , also known as the Joseph story or Joseph novella , can be found in Genesis / 1. Book of Moses chap. 37-50. In the larger context, the text builds a bridge from the world of the patriarchs ( Abraham , Isaac , Jacob / Israel ), who live in Canaan , to the story of Moses (2. Book of Moses / Exodus).


The son Joseph preferred by the progenitor Jakob dreams of omnipotence, d. H. that parents and brothers prostrate themselves in awe to him, and thereby incurs the hatred of his brothers and the at least reserved reaction of the father. The brothers try to drown Joseph in a cistern ; when that fails, they want to sell it - but in the end a passing caravan beats them. It is she who sells Joseph so that he can go to Egypt .

In Egypt Joseph works as a servant in Potiphar's house and because he is a God-fearing man, God gives him success in everything he does. Potiphar's wife casts an eye on Josef and becomes intrusive on several occasions. When he refuses to accept the Potiphar's wife, she accuses him of attempted rape. Josef is locked in prison. Thanks to his ability, he was able to achieve a high post there and made a name for himself as a dream interpreter with the head baker and the head bavarian of the Pharaoh - both also imprisoned. Joseph correctly predicts their fate after God revealed it to him. When - after another two years - the Pharaoh also had puzzling dreams, Josef was brought in on the advice of the head cupbearer. Joseph can also interpret these dreams through God: seven years of plenty and seven years of famine will come. Joseph is made viceroy to face the crisis and marries Asenat, the daughter of the priest of On .

After the period of abundance, the famine spreads to Palestine, and even "to the whole world". The brothers move to Egypt to buy grain, because storage facilities had been set up there on Joseph's advice. The brothers do not recognize Joseph. He checks his brothers with an unfounded espionage charge and recognizes through their behavior that they have changed: They no longer expel an individual (who was currently imprisoned as a pledge) from their community. Joseph finally reveals himself and asks the brothers to bring the father and the extended family to Egypt. The famine is escalating. Joseph can cope with the problem with drastic measures and is celebrated by the Egyptians for this. The father takes Joseph's oath to be buried in the land of his fathers, blesses his sons and grandchildren and dies in Egypt, where he receives a state burial from the Pharaoh and is led back to the land of his ancestors. Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. Joseph stayed in Egypt until the end of his life, the brothers were assigned Goschen , the Nile Delta, as fertile, water-rich pastureland .

Text history

The analysis of the text of the Joseph story has long been linked to that of the Pentateuch . Julius Wellhausen even assigned a key role to the Joseph story: the theories and hypotheses that are considered to be correct for the description of the Five Books of Moses must be able to be verified specifically in the Joseph story. If this does not succeed, the evidence of the Pentateuch sources would also be obsolete outside of the Joseph story. In essence, it is about that in Gen 37-50 one believes to recognize primarily the work of the Pentateuch source Elohist (among other things because so much is dreamed - that is a characteristic of the Elohist; the divine designation Elohim occurs instead of Yahweh , but Rare). But in addition, passages of the Yahwist are integrated into the final text that you get to read today . So there were two Joseph stories that - along with some other ingredients - are now nested in one another. That would explain some duplications that are undoubtedly present.

In Gen 37–50, Joseph's father is referred to as Jacob or Israel , the naming changes repeatedly and without motivation. A stylistically plausible reason for the change has not yet been found. If reference is made to the text, the father's name is usually given with Jacob . The reason is probably that the Joseph story completes the series of Jacob stories. However, a renaming of Jacob to Israel had already been reported in Gen. 32 . And in Gen 37-50, Israel seems to be better anchored (see below).

Another observation related to chapters that seem like foreign bodies: Does Gen 38 ( Tamar ) really belong to the Joseph story? What is the function of the chapter? What about the long list of names of all those who, according to Gen 46, should have moved to Egypt? It is widely accepted that Gen 49 (blessings for the individual brothers) is also not part of the basic content of the story.

Another type of observation could point to multiple double occurrences: Joseph dreams twice at the beginning of Gen 37, as does the Pharaoh at the beginning of Gen 41. At the beginning of Gen 45, Joseph seems to reveal himself twice to the brothers. In Gen 42/44 the brothers get their grain money back in their sacks; that seems to be over at the end of Gen 43 (festival). At the beginning of Gen 44, the complication is varied again with a hidden cup without motivation. The brothers commute back and forth between Canaan and Egypt several times.

God's names are used implausibly: In the context of the seduction story (Gen 39), “Yahweh” is mentioned several times (support formula), otherwise “God” is used unspecifically and very rarely.

From the group of brothers stand out speakers who are named by name. The focus of Reuben and Judah in competition to each other without their narrative would give.

Research history

By Julius Wellhausen , Hermann Gunkel until the 1970s an explanatory model was and researchers of the 19th and 20th centuries used the example in the story of the Flood (Genesis 6-8) works well: Two sources were worked. In the case of the Joseph story, however, doubts remained, which in the past 150 years has led to new proposals for solutions. All logically conceivable positions were put forward:

  • (a) Two text variants have been merged into one text,
  • (b) From the start there was only one story of Joseph, which was subsequently edited several times - without these edits being based on a complete text of their own.
  • (c) There are no problems: the Joseph story as it was narrated is acceptably legible

Another observation is that the original Joseph story (with the exception of item (c)) became shorter and shorter in the researchers' opinions. Your goal of action was then no longer in Gen 50, but was brought forward, for example to Gen 47, or - finally - to Gen 45. Suffice it to say that Joseph was reunited with the family (especially with the father). Depending on how radically the cutting was carried out, such cutting accepted that important narrative strands (conflict with the brothers, reunion with the father, coping with the famine) would remain unprocessed or did not come to a narrative satisfactory conclusion.

Harald Schweizer worked with a team to create a completely reconstructable prototype of the Joseph story - published in 1991. In the Bible editions, however, this prototype is covered by the same amount of text edited again. The effect: when reading the text, literary breaks are constantly irritating , which - because they are not immediately recognizable to laypeople - quickly spoil the desire for the text. The massive editorial corrections were apparently intended to neutralize and cover up the tendency of the original to be critical of theology and cult. In literary terms, such additions are mostly insignificant. In terms of content, however, it is often effective - which can be demonstrated by authors like Thomas Mann . The Joseph story was also defused by its early placement (after the patriarchal stories) : it meant that it could no longer criticize the Jerusalem temple, because it did not yet exist. The distorted narrative is now degraded to the preliminary stage of the Exodus - although many common strings of words show that the Joseph story explicitly creates a counter-model to the Moses story : the Exodus texts must have been largely available to the author of the Joseph story so that he could distance himself from it.

The original version was made relatively late: around 400 BC. At a time when the people tried to understand themselves as "idealized Israel". The author also seems to take up what was happening at the same time in Egypt (dissolution of the pharaohs' empire) and in Greece (subject of “democracy”). Explosive: the figure "Israel" = Joseph's father is reported in detail and solemnly about death. The original version promoted the diaspora, spiritual opening, for suppressing the power of the "shepherds / pastors" = theologians.

The story of Joseph in the Koran

Yusef and Zuleikha
Joseph in the well; Mughal painting , 1616

The story of Joseph is mentioned in detail in the Koran ( Sura 12 ) , but in a different form. It tells of the brothers 'jealousy of Joseph and the attempt to drown him in the well, Joseph's experiences in Egypt, the seduction story with Potiphar's wife (literarily edited in the story of Yusef and Zuleikha ), and the brothers' appeal to Egypt during the Famine. Sura 12 is shorter than the biblical text and gives the Joseph story a doctrinal aspect.

Reception in art, music, literature and in liturgical texts

The Joseph story was taken up artistically in many ways - many Gothic cathedrals in France have a "Joseph window". The scene of Joseph's seduction by Potiphar's wife is extremely popular in the visual arts.

The text plays only a minor role in liturgical use. In both the Catholic and the Protestant reading order there are at best small set pieces.

→ see also the history of the impact of the Joseph story


  • Walter Dietrich: The Joseph story as a novella and historiography: at the same time a contribution to the Pentateuch question (Biblical-theological studies 14). Neukirchener, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1989, ISBN 3-7887-1306-2 .
  • Rüdiger Lux:  Joseph story. In: Michaela Bauks, Klaus Koenen, Stefan Alkier (Eds.): The Scientific Biblical Lexicon on the Internet (WiBiLex), Stuttgart 2006 ff.
  • Lennart Möller: The Exodus Files. New discoveries about the exodus from Egypt Inner Cube, Düsseldorf 2010, ISBN 978-3-942540-00-1 .
  • Hans-Christoph Schmitt: The non-priestly Joseph story: a contribution to the latest Pentateuch criticism. de Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 1980, ISBN 3-11-007834-1 . (Supplements to the Journal for Old Testament Science 154)
  • Harald Schweizer : The Joseph story. Constitution of the text. Part I: reasoning; Part II: Text volume (THLI 4). francke-Verlag, Tübingen 1991, ISBN 3-7720-1953-6 .
  • Harald Schweizer (Ed.): Computer-assisted text interpretation. The Joseph story is described and interpreted in three steps: syntax - semantics - pragmatics. Part I: Text description and interpretation; Part II: Appendices to the text analyzes; Part III: Methodological Appendix. (THLI 7 / i-iii). francke-Verlag, Tübingen 1995, ISBN 3-7720-1957-9 .
  • Harald Schweizer: Koranic update of a Hebrew text - Hermeneutic considerations based on the figure of Joseph. In: Biblical Notes. New series 143 (2009) pp. 69–79.
  • Harald Schweizer: The Joseph story in the Koran and in the Hebrew Bible. Synoptic comparison. In: Biblical Notes. New part 144 (2010), pp. 15–39.
  • Horst Seebass: Historical time and theonomous tradition in the Joseph story. Mohn, Gütersloh 1978, ISBN 3-579-04082-0 .
  • Peter Weimar: Studies on the Joseph story. Catholic Biblical Works, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-460-06441-6 . (Stuttgart Biblical Essays 44)

Web links

Commons : The Joseph story in the visual arts  - collection of images, videos and audio files