The Story of Joseph

Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar by Guido Reni Italian, about 1630
Oil on canvas  Getty Center Los Angeles

     The story of  Joseph, detailed in the final thirteen chapters of the Bible's first book, is perhaps the most complete depiction in the Hebrew Bible of an early heroic figure. For an extensive consideration of historical elements in the story check Joseph, (which might fail to work, but the article can be found with a bit of effort) and for a complete text with a choice of  translations check the  Bible Gateway. (Note: you have a choice of translations here, so try several for one you find to your liking.  Although much of the traditional sound of the poetry of the King James version is still favored by many readers, generally readers find the more recent "modern" translations more closely attuned to their ears.

The Book of Genesis

     The book that for over two thousand years has meant to millions of readers the beginning of the Bible was in time of composition very far from the beginning.  [The books of Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos, for example, are hundreds of years older than Genesis.]

     The present version of Genesis was finally assembled sometime about the middle of the fourth century B.C.E.  The authoritative listing of what is know today as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament was assembled by rabbinical councils somewhere between C.E. 70 and 135.

     Genesis is actually not one separate book but rather several ancient documents combined.  Biblical scholars have identified from the language and early manuscripts the work of at least three separate authors which have been labelled the "E," "J," and "P" writers.  [It is interesting to note that Professor Harold Bloom in his The Book of J theorizes that the "J" writer was the author of the Joseph story and that the writer was female, an interesting detail to keep in mind when encountering the tale of Tamar in Chapter 38.]

     Joseph as an Epic Hero

          The story of Joseph contains shadows of an heroic archetype:  Joseph possesses a special god-given gift, and his efforts and actions are sanctioned (indirectly, perhaps) by God.  He suffers abuse at the hands of his brothers as a young man, but even after being sold into slavery he rises to achievement, power, and nobility.  The story survives as a moral model with epic qualities (in this case those representing the ideals and values of  the culture of the ancient      Hebrews).

                                                                                                                                                             The Family of Joseph in Egypt, Lorenze Ghiberti, Baptistry, Florence
Related Readings:
Bloom, Harold. The Book of J
Dershowitz, Alan. The Genesis of Justice
Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote the Bible?
Pagels, Elaine. Adam and Eve and the Serpent
____________ The Gnostic Gospels