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The eleventh son of Jacob, the firstborn of Rachel, and the immediate ancestor of the tribes of Manasses and Ephraim. His life is narrated in Genesis 30:22-24; 37; 39-50, wherein contemporary scholars distinguish three chief documents (J, E, P). (See ABRAHAM) The date of his eventful career can be fixed only approximately at the present day, for the Biblical account of Joseph's life does not name the particular Pharaoh of his time, and the Egyptian customs and manners therein alluded to are not decisive as to any special period in Egyptian history. His term of office in Egypt falls probably under one of the later Hyksos kings (see EGYPT). His name, either contracted from Jehoseph (Psalm 81:6, in the Hebrew) or abbreviated from Joseph-El (cf. Karnak inscription of Thothmes III, no. 78), is distinctly connected in Genesis 30:23-24, with the circumstances of his birth and is interpreted: "may God add". He was born in Haran, of Rachel, Jacob's beloved and long-barren wife, and became the favourite son of the aged patriarch. After Jacob's return to Chanaan, various circumstances made Joseph the object of the mortal hatred of his brothers. He had witnessed some very wicked deed of several among them, and they knew that it had been reported to their father. Moreover, in his partiality to Joseph, Jacob gave him an ample garment of many colours, and this manifest proof of the patriarch's greater love for him aroused the jealousy of Joseph's brothers to such an extent that "they could not speak peaceably to him". Finally, with the imprudence of youth, Joseph told his brothers two dreams which clearly portended his future elevation over them all, but which, for the present, simply caused them to hate him all the more (Genesis 37:1-11). In this frame of mind, they seized upon the first opportunity to get rid of the one of whom they spoke as "the dreamer". As they fed their father's flocks in Dothain (now Tell Dothain, about fifteen miles north of Sichem), they saw from afar Joseph, who had been sent by Jacob to inquire about their welfare, coming to them, and they at once resolved to reduce to naught all his dreams of future greatness. At this point the narrative in Genesis combines two distinct accounts of the manner in which the brothers of Joseph actually carried out their intention of avenging themselves upon him. These accounts present slight variations, which are examined in detail by recent commentators on Genesis, and which, far from destroying, rather confirm the historical character of the fact that, through the enmity of his brothers, Joseph was brought down to Egypt. To protect themselves they dipped Joseph's fine garment into the blood of a kid, and sent it to their father. At the sight of this blood-stained garment, Jacob naturally believed that a wild beast had devoured his beloved son, and he gave himself up to the most intense grief (xxxvii, 12-35).
While thus bewailed as dead by his father, Joseph was sold into Egypt, and treated with the utmost consideration and the greatest confidence by his Egyptian master, to whom Genesis 37:36, gives the name of Putiphar ["He whom Ra (the sun-god) gave"] and whom it describes as Pharaoh's eunuch and as the captain of the royal body-guard (cf. xxxix, 1). Quick and trustworthy, Joseph soon became his master's personal attendant. He was next entrusted with the superintendence of his master's house, a most extensive and responsible charge, such as was unusual in large Egyptian households. With Yahweh's blessing, all things, "both at home and in the field", became so prosperous under Joseph's management that his master trusted him implicitly, and "knew not any other things, save the bread which he ate". While thus discharging with perfect success his manifold duties of major-domo (Egyp. mer-per), Joseph was often brought in contact with the lady of the house, for at that time there was as much free intercourse between men and women in Egypt as there is among us in the present day. Oftentimes she noticed the youthful and handsome Hebrew overseer, and carried away by passion, she repeatedly tempted him to commit adultery with her, till at length, resenting his virtuous conduct, she accused him of those very criminal solicitations wherewith she had herself pursued him. The credulous master believed the report of his wife, and in his wrath cast Joseph into prison. There also Yahweh was with His faithful servant: He gave him favour with the keeper of the prison, who soon placed in Joseph implicit confidence, and even committed to his charge the other prisoners (xxxix, 2-23). Shortly afterwards two of Pharaoh's officers, the chief butler and chief baker, having incurred the royal displeasure for some reason unknown to us, were put in ward in the house of the captain of the guard. They also were placed under Joseph's charge, and as he came in to them one morning, he noticed their unusual sadness. They could not catch the meaning of a dream which each had had during the night, and there was no professional interpreter of dreams near at hand. Then it was that Joseph interpreted their dreams correctly, bidding the chief butler to remember him when restored to his office, as indeed he was three days after, on Pharaoh's birthday (xl). Two years rolled by, after which the monarch himself had two dreams, the one of the fat and lean kine, and the other of the full and withered ears. Great was Pharaoh's perplexity at these dreams, which no one in the realm could interpret. This occurrence naturally reminded the chief butler of Joseph's skill in interpreting dreams, and he mentioned to the king what had happened in his own case and in that of the chief baker. Summoned before Pharaoh, Joseph declared that both dreams signified that seven years of plenty would immediately be followed by seven years of famine, and further suggested that one-fifth of the produce of the years of plenty be laid by as provision for the years of famine. Deeply impressed by the clear and plausible interpretation of his dreams, and recognizing in Joseph a wisdom more than human, the monarch entrusted to him the carrying out of the practical measure which he had suggested. for this purpose he raised him to the rank of keeper of the royal seal, invested him with an authority second only to that of the throne, bestowed on him the Egyptian name of Zaphenath-paneah ("God spoke, and he came into life"), and gave him to wife Aseneth, the daughter of Putiphares, the priest of the great national sanctuary at On (or Heliopolis, seven miles north east of the modern Cairo).
Soon the seven years of plenty predicted by Joseph set in, during which he stored up corn in each of the cities from which it was gathered, and his wife, Aseneth, bore him two sons whom he called Manasses and Ephraim, from the favorable circumstances of the time of their birth. Next came the seven years of dearth, during which by his skilful management Joseph saved Egypt from the worst features of want and hunger, and not only Egypt, but also the various countries around, which had to suffer from the same grievous and protracted famine (xli). Among these neighbouring countries was counted the land of Chanaan where Jacob had continued to dwell with Joseph's eleven brothers. Having heard that corn was sold in Egypt, the aged patriarch sent his sons thither to purchase some, keeping back, however, Rachel's second child, Benjamin, "lest perhaps he take harm in the journey". Admitted into Joseph's presence, his brothers failed to recognize in the Egyptian grandee before them the lad whom they had so cruelly treated twenty years before. He roughly accused them of being spies sent to discover the undefended passes of the eastern frontier of Egypt, and when they volunteered information about their family, he, desirous of ascertaining the truth concerning Benjamin, retained one of them as hostage in prison and sent the others home to bring back their youngest brother with them. On their return to their father, or at their first lodging-place on the way, they discovered the money which Joseph had ordered to be placed in their sacks. Great was their anxiety and that of Jacob, who for a time refused to allow his sons to return to Egypt in company with Benjamin. At length he yielded under the pressure of famine, sending, at the same time, a present to conciliate the favour of the Egyptian prime minister. at the sight of Benjamin Joseph understood that his brothers had told him the truth at their first appearance before him, and he invited them to a feast in his own house. At the feast he caused them to be seated exactly according to their age, and he honoured Benjamin with "a greater mess", as a mark of distinction (xlii-xliii). Then they left for home, unsuspecting that at Joseph's order his divining cup had been hidden in Benjamin's sack. They were soon overtaken, charged with theft of that precious cup, which, upon search, was found in the sack where it had been hidden. In their dismay they returned in a body to Joseph's house, and offered to remain as his bondmen in Egypt, an offer which Joseph declined, declaring that he would only retain Benjamin. Whereupon Juda pleads most pathetically that, for the sake of his aged father, Benjamin be dismissed free, and that he be allowed to remain in his brother's place as Joseph's bondman. Then it was that Joseph disclosed himself to his brothers, calmed their fears, and sent them back with a pressing invitation to Jacob to come and settle in Egypt (xliv-xlv, 24).
It was in the land of Gessen, a pastoral district about forty miles north-east of Cairo, that Joseph called his father and brothers to settle. There they lived as prosperous shepherds of the king, while in their misery the Egyptians were gradually reduced to sell their lands to the Crown, in order to secure their subsistence from the all-powerful prime minister of Pharaoh. And so Joseph brought it to pass that the former owners of landed property — with the exception, however, of the priests — became simple tenants of the king and paid to the royal treasury, as it were, an annual rent of one-fifth of the produce of the soil (xlvi, 28-xlvii, 26). During Jacob's last moments, Joseph promised his father that he would bury him in Chanaan, and caused him to adopt his two sons, Manasses and Ephraim (xlvii, 25-xlviii). After his father's demise, he had his body embalmed and buried with great pomp in the Cave of Machpelah (l, 1-14). He also allayed the fears of his brothers who dreaded that he should now avenge their former ill-treatment of him. He died at the age of 110, and his body was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt (l, 15-25). Ultimately, his remains were carried into Chanaan and buried in Sichem (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32).
Such, in substance, is the Biblical account of Joseph's career. In its wonderful simplicity, it sketches one of the most beautiful characters presented by Old-Testament history. As a boy, Joseph has the most vivid horror for the evil done by some of his brothers; and as a youth, he resists with unflinching courage the repeated and pressing solicitations of his master's wife. Cast into prison, he displays great power of endurance, trusting to God for his justification. When raised to the rank of viceroy of Egypt, he shows himself worthy of that exalted dignity by his skilful and energetic efforts to promote the welfare of his adopted countrymen and the extension of his master's power. A character so beautiful made Joseph a most worthy type of Christ, the model of all perfection, and it is comparatively easy to point out some of the traits of resemblance between Jacob's beloved son and the dearly beloved Son of God. Like Jesus, Joseph was hated and cast out by his brethren, and yet wrought out their salvation through the sufferings they had brought upon him. Like Jesus, Joseph obtained his exaltation only after passing through the deepest and most undeserved humiliations; and, in the kingdom over which he ruled, he invited his brethren to join those whom heretofore they had looked upon as strangers, in order that they also might enjoy the blessings which he had stored up for them. Like the Saviour of the world, Joseph had but words of forgiveness and blessing for all who, recognizing their misery, had recourse to his supreme power. It was to Joseph of old, as to Jesus, that all had to appeal for relief, offer homages of the deepest respect, and yield ready obedience in all things. Finally, to the Patriarch Joseph, as to Jesus, it was given to inaugurate a new order of things for the greater power and glory of the monarch to whom he owed his exaltation.
While thus recognizing the typical meaning of Joseph's career, one should not for a moment lose sight of the fact that one is in presence of a distinctly historical character. Efforts have indeed been made in certain quarters to transform the history of Joseph into a story of a tribe of the same name which, at some remote period, would have attained to great power in Egypt, and which, at a much later date, popular imagination would have simply pictured as an individual. But such a view of the Biblical account is decidedly inadmissible. To careful scholars it will always appear more difficult to think of Joseph as a tribe that rose to power in Egypt than as an individual who actually passed through the experiences which are described in Genesis. Again, they will always look upon the incidents narrated in the sacred record as too natural, and too closely related, to be entirely the product of fiction. The same historical character of the Biblical narrative is powerfully confirmed by the substantial agreement which contemporary critics feel bound to admit between the two principal documents (J, E), which, according to them, have been used in its composition: such an agreement points manifestly to an earlier oral tradition, which, when committed to writing in two distinct forms, was not materially affected by the altered circumstances of a later age. It is finally put beyond the possibility of a doubt by the Egyptian colouring which is common to both these documents, and which will be presently described. This Egyptian element is no mere literary dress with which the popular fancy of a later date and in a distant land could have vested more or less happily the incidents narrated. It belongs to the very core of the history of Joseph, and is plainly a direct reflection of the manners and customs of ancient Egypt. Its constant truthfulness to things Egyptian proves the existence of an ancient tradition, dating as far back as the Egyptian period, and faithfully preserved in the composite account of Genesis.
The extent of the Egyptian colouring just referred to in the history of Joseph has been closely investigated by recent scholars. The brown-skinned children of Israel, who brought camels richly laden from the East to the Nile, are drawn to life on the Egyptian monuments, and the three kinds of spices they were carrying into Egypt are precisely those which would be in demand in that country for medicinal, religious, or embalming purposes. The existence of various overseers in the houses of Egyptian grandees is in perfect harmony with ancient Egyptian society, and the mer-per or superintendent of the house, such as Joseph was, is in particular often mentioned on the monuments. To the story of Joseph and his master's wife, there is a remarkable and well-known parallel in the Egyptian "Tale of the Two Brothers". The functions and dreams of the chief butler and chief baker are Egyptian in their minute details. In the seven cows which Pharaoh saw feeding in the meadow, we have a counterpart of the seven cows of Athor, pictured in the vignette of chapter cxlviii of the "Book of the Dead". Joseph's care to shave and change his raiment before appearing in the presence of Pharaoh, is in agreement with Egyptian customs. His advice to gather corn during the seven years of plenty falls in with Egyptian institutions, since all important cities were supplied with granaries. Joseph's investiture, his change of name at his elevation, can be easily illustrated by reference to the Egyptian monuments. The occurrence of famines of long duration, the successful efforts made to supply the corn to the people year after year while they lasted, find their parallels in recently discovered inscriptions. The charge of being spies, made by Joseph against his brothers, was most natural in view of the precautions known to have been taken by the Egyptian authorities for the safety of their Eastern frontier. The subsequent history of Joseph, his divining cup, his giving to his brothers changes of garments, the land of Gessen being set apart for his father and brethren, because the shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians, Joseph's embalming of his father, the funeral procession for Jacob's burial, etc., exhibit in a striking manner the great accuracy of the Biblical account in its numerous and oftentimes passing references to Egyptian habits and customs. Even the age of 110 years, at which Joseph died, appears to have been regarded in Egypt — as is shown by several papyri — as the most perfect age to be desired.
APA citation. (1910). Joseph. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08506a.htm
MLA citation. "Joseph." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08506a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Paul T. Crowley. Dedicated to Mr. Michael Crowley and Mr. Neal Crowley and Families.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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