What is the biblical account of Joseph?
Joseph was born to Jacob (son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham) and Rebekah when they still lived with Rebekah's father, Laban. Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons born to Jacob, and the first of two born to Rebekah. Rebekah was the favorite of Jacob's four wives/concubines and Joseph was his favorite son. When Jacob left Laban and approached his brother Esau (who had threatened to kill him years before), Rebekah and Joseph were at the end of a long line of livestock, wives, and children, in hopes that they would be protected. After Jacob and his family had returned to the Promised Land but before they had settled, Rebekah gave birth to Benjamin, Jacob's last child, and died in childbirth.
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Joseph had ten older brothers and one older sister. His mother was dead. But he knew his place in the family. At seventeen, he ratted out the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's two lesser wives, for their carelessness in shepherding. And his father made him a special coat — the famous "coat of many colors" — as a special honor. As if ignorant of the fact his brothers hated him, he recalled two dreams, one of sheaves of grain and one of the sun, moon, and stars, that basically prophesied that his family would one day honor him as their lord (Genesis 37:1-11).
This went over so well, his brothers decided to kill him. Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers while they were out with their sheep. The brothers saw him from a long way off and plotted to kill him, throw him in a pit, and tell their father that a wild animal ate him. Reuben, the eldest and the one who had slept with his father's concubine, convinced them to just throw him in the pit without killing him. Reuben's plan was to rescue Joseph later, but before he had the chance, the other brothers sold Joseph to Midianite traders who took him to Egypt. Reuben was horrified, but the brothers took the many-colored coat, smeared animal blood on it, and reported to Jacob that Joseph had been killed (Genesis 37:12-36).
Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard. God showed Joseph favor and blessed everything he did — to the point that Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his home and fields. Potiphar's wife was impressed with Joseph as well. But he refused her advances. Insulted, she claimed that Joseph had attacked her, and Potiphar threw him in prison (Genesis 39).
Before long, Joseph was put in charge of the other prisoners, including Pharaoh's baker and cup-bearer. The two men were each plagued by their own dream and came to Joseph for interpretations. Joseph revealed that the cup-bearer would be released from prison and restored to Pharaoh's court, while the baker would be executed (Genesis 40).
Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream about seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows. The forgetful cup-bearer finally remembered Joseph, and he was cleaned up and brought to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Joseph prophesied that Egypt would see seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. He then suggested Pharaoh prepare by stocking up on grain during the good years so they could survive the famine (Genesis 41:1-36).
Pharaoh not only took Joseph's advice, he put Joseph in charge. Joseph had authority over all Egypt in the name of Pharaoh and led Egypt in preparation. He also married the daughter of an Egyptian priest and had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When the famine came, not only Egypt but all the surrounding area came to Joseph for grain (Genesis 41:37-57).
The famine also struck the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his family still resided. Jacob sent his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain. They did not recognize their brother, as he was dressed as an Egyptian, but Joseph recognized them. Apparently, Joseph was afraid that they had treated Benjamin the way they had treated him. He accused them of spying, to get them off guard, and they revealed they had a younger brother. Joseph agreed to sell them grain, but insisted that if they returned, they needed to bring that brother. As a surety, he captured Simeon and held him. He also secretly returned their gold in their baggage, which led to no end of fear as the brothers realized it looked like they'd stolen the grain.
When the ten men returned and found all their gold, they realized they were in a bind. They needed to go back and return the gold, but they couldn't face the Egyptian official again unless they took Benjamin. Jacob refused to let Benjamin out of his sight, even when Reuben told him he could kill his own two sons if Benjamin didn't return safely.
Eventually, the famine became severe enough that Judah vowed Jacob would not see his face again until Benjamin was restored safely to his father. Jacob capitulated and, as a peace offering, sent balm, honey, myrrh, pistachios, and almonds with the money meant for the original purchase. When they arrived, Joseph invited them to a feast in his own home. After seeing Benjamin up close and hearing that his father was well, he had to excuse himself to get control over his emotions.
But Joseph needed further proof of their devotion to Benjamin. When the brothers left, he again restored the money in the bags of grain, but added his silver cup in Benjamin's sack. He then sent his steward to intercept the men on their way out of the city and bring them back. The cup was found in Benjamin's sack, promising imprisonment — or worse — but Judah begged to take the punishment and allow Benjamin to return home.
Finally convinced of their loyalty, Joseph revealed himself — which promptly overwhelmed his brothers with terror. But he explained that what they had meant for evil, God intended for good, and his slavery had led to the survival of the entire region. Pharaoh heard of the arrival of Joseph's brothers and invited the entire tribe to move to Egypt and be provided for.
After a dream of reassurance, Jacob moved his family to Goshen in Egypt and had a joyful reunion with his favorite son. After meeting with Pharaoh, Jacob settled to a much easier life (Genesis 42:1—49:27).
Meanwhile, Joseph continued in his shrewdness. The Egyptians and Canaanites had already spent all their gold to buy grain. When the gold was gone, Joseph started accumulating livestock and then land. Before the end of the famine, Pharaoh owned everything in Egypt — including the people — except for the priests. The people then worked the land they had owned, giving Pharaoh a fifth of what they harvested (Genesis 47:13-26).
As Jacob lay dying, he made Joseph promise to take his bones and bury them in Canaan. He then took Joseph's two sons as his own and blessed them, giving Joseph a double-portion. Jacob died and Joseph had him embalmed and mourned over in the practice of the Egyptians. After receiving permission from Pharaoh, he then took Jacob's body and an entourage of Pharaoh's household and Jacob's family to bury him in the family tomb east of Mamre (Genesis 49:28—50:14).
Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph's brothers started to get paranoid. Joseph reassured them he was no longer angry and they were safe (Genesis 50:15-21). Joseph died at the age of 110 and was embalmed in an Egyptian coffin. Over 400 years later, when Joshua led the Israelites back to Canaan, Joseph's bones were buried in Shechem, in the land Jacob had purchased when he had returned to Canaan from Laban (Genesis 50:22-26).
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