October 2009 - Vol. 33

The Joseph Story by by Patrick Henry Reardon


1  I omit here any discussion of the history and transmission of the text, as well as all purely technical questions. If, for example, one hopes to find in these lines an adequate solution to the question of the shape or color of Joseph’s coat in Genesis 37:3, I hereby prophesy his consummate disappointment.

2  Indeed, even in contrast to his brothers. Note, for example, that the description of Joseph’s chastity 39:7–20 follows close on the story of Judah’s deficiencies in that respect in chapter 38.

3  Famous is Augustine’s desperate attempt to explain away this deception by asserting that “it was not a lie but a mystery” (non mendacium, sed mysterium).

4  It is curious, though, that later, in 48:22, Jacob seems to claim credit for those incidents.

5  Indeed, it is more accurate to say that the Bible’s interest in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the other patriarchs is, in general, marked by relatively little ethical interest. These are stories about the righteous judgments of God, not about good or bad men.

6  The clear exception is the recognition, in 44:5, that Joseph used a divining cup, a practice otherwise abhorrent in Holy Scripture. Even though the Bible passes no moral judgment on Joseph’s fiscal and social policies in chapter 47, many modern readers, and certainly most American readers, will nonetheless be offended by his systematic concentration of Egypt’s wealth, resources and even civil rights into the hands of the government, and the passage seems to have bothered some earlier authors as well. For example, Flavius Josephus mitigates the negative impression by his claim that Joseph restored the Egyptians’ land to them (Antiquities 2.7.7). Gregory Nazianzen, on the other hand, reading exactly the same biblical account, speaks of Joseph’s “philanthropy”: Orationes Theologicae 43.36 (PG 36.545).

7   Ambrose, Epistolae 2.19–22 (PL 16.884–5); 37.9–10 (1086); Augustine, De Civitate Dei18.4 (PL 41.563); Gregory the Great, Moralium, Praef. 6.13 (PL 75.524B).

8  Pseudo-Clement, Epistolae ad Virgines 2.8 (PG 1.436); Origen, Contra Celsum 4.46 (PG 11.1104); Basil, Epistolae 2.3 (PG 32.223C); 46.4 (377A); Gregory Nazianzen, Orationes Theologicae 24.13 (PG 35.1184C); Zeno of Verona, Tractactus 1.4 (PL 11.299); Ambrose, In Psalmum CXVIII 15.11 (PL 15.1414B); In Lucam 3.47 (PL 15.1610B); De Officiis 1.17.66 (PL 16.43A); 2.5.19 (108C); Exhortatio Virginitatis 13.88 (PL 16.362A); Epistolae 48.12 (PL 16.1181B); Juvencus, In Genesim 39 (PL 19.373); John Chrysostom, In Primam ad Thessalonicenses 4.5 (PG 62.421–2); Homiliae in Genesim 62.4 (PG 54.537–8); Augustine,Sermones 318.2 (PL 38.1439); 343.6 (PL 39.1509); 359.3 (1592); Prosper of Aquitaine,Carmen de Providentia Divina 363 (PL 51.625B); Gregory the Great, Moralium 6.18.29 (PL 75.745C); 27.10.17 (PL 76.408B); 30.10.38 (545–46).

9  Ambrose, De Officiis 2.16 (PL 16.124–26); Gregory the Great, Epistolae 35 (PL 77.937C).
10  Gregory the Great, In Ezechielem 2.9.19 (PL 76.1055A).

11  Origen, In Matthaeum 15.24 (PG 13.1325); Basil, In Isaiam, Proem. 4 (PG 30.125A); Ambrose, De Joseph Patriarcha 3.9 (PL 14.676A); Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram 12.9.20 (PL 34.461A); Prosper of Aquitaine, Expositio Psalmorum 104 (PL 51.299); Procopius of Gaza,In Isaiam, Proem. (PG 87.1820). Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, however, is likewise called a prophet in Genesis 20:7; cf. also Psalm 104 (LXX):15.

12  Clement of Rome, Prima ad Corinthios 4 (PG 1.216B); Cyprian, De Bono Patientiae 10 (PL 4.629A); De Zelo et Livore 5 (PL 4.64lB–C); Zeno of Verona, Tractactus 1.6 (PL 11.316C); Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 8.4 (PG 33.629A); Ambrose, In Psalmum CXVIII 11.30 (PL 15.1371–72); De Officiis 1.24.112 (PL 16.56D); 2.11.59 (118B–C); 215.74 (112B); John Chrysostom, In Secundam ad Thessalonicenses 2.1 (PG 62.471–73); Homiliae in Genesim 63.2 (PG 54.542–43); Jerome, In Ephesios 3.5 (PL 26.560).

13  I use this adjective in the arbitrarily restrictive sense of a narrative that gives an idealistic, even celestial, picture of a moral character. Its purpose is a vision of holiness rather than an accurate biographical likeness as we usually understand the latter. Taken in this sense, hagiography is of the same inspiration as iconography, which also aims at an ideal and heavenly rather than a merely earthly likeness. A single example may illustrate my meaning: Every photograph I’ve seen of the Russian martyr, Theodore of Volokolamsk, shows him wearing eyeglasses, but he is never so portrayed in Orthodox iconography. In heaven, you see, he doesn’t need them anymore!

14  Of the other few examples that come readily to mind, only Jonathan, Nehemiah, Daniel and perhaps Stephen are subjects of long, detailed narratives.

15  Thus, for instance, Sarah becomes a model of faith in Hebrews 11:11, something we might not have anticipated from a simpler reading of, say, Genesis 18:12.

16  Dante places Mrs. Potiphar in hell with the false witnesses: “L’una è la falsa ch’acccusò Giuseppo” (Inferno 30.97).

17  Other examples include the alteration of inside and outside the palace in the Book of Esther, and the simultaneous revelations in Joppa and Caesarea in Acts 10.

18  In this respect the Joseph story resembles the courting of Rebekah in Genesis 24. There, too, the setting is entirely non-sacral, but God nonetheless “speaks” in his guidance of the events; see especially vv. 48–51.

19  Cyril of Alexandria, In Joannem 5.8.36 (PG 73.869B).

20  Procopius of Gaza, In Genesim 50 (PG 87.512B).

21  Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos 10 (PL 2.626B); Adversus Marcionem 3.18 (346).

22  Cyprian, Testimonia 1.20 (PL 4.689A); cf. also his De Laude Martyrii 29 (802B).

23  Cyril of Alexandria, In Genesim 6.1 (PG 69.285B) and passim; Sophronius of Jerusalem,Triodion (PG 87.3901C); Germanus of Constantinople, Oratio 1 (PG 98.236–37); 2 (280).

24  Ambrose, Apologia Prophetae David 3.12 (PL 14.856); In Psalmum XLIII 16–17 (PL 14.1098–9); 43 (1110); De Joseph Patriarcha 3.9 (PL 14.676C) and passim; Augustine,Quaestiones in Heptateuchum 1.148 (PL 34.588); Enarrationes in Psalmos 80.8 (PL 37.1037); 104.40 (1404); Pseudo-Augustine, Sermones 13–16 (PL 39.1765–74); 93.1 (1924); Gregory the Great, Moralium 2.36.59 (PL 75.585A); Homiliae in Evangelium 2.29.6 (PL 76.1217A).

25  Origen, In Matthaeum, “Series” 78 (PG 13.1727D)
26  Rufinus, Benedictio Joseph 2 (PL 21.328). On Joseph as a prophet of the Resurrection, see Ambrose, De Joseph Patriarcha 2.7 (PL 14.675).

27  The Lenten Triodion, translated by Mother Mary and Archmandrite Kallistos Ware, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978, p. 507. See also pp. 508, 509, 513, 516.

28  See also Patrick Henry Reardon, “Of Joseph, Especially His Bones,” in Jack C. Knight and Lawrence A. Sinclair, ed., The Psalms and Other Studies on the Old Testament Presented to Joseph I. Hunt, Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1990, pp. 153–157.

29  Origen, In Joannem 13.26 (PG 14.445A).

30  Jerome, Quaestiones in Genesim 48 (PL 23.1004B).

31. In a verse taxing to commentators, Acts 7:16 suggests that all of Jacob’s sons were buried at Shechem. The traditional site for the burial of the other brothers was, however, Hebron; cf. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 2.8.2; the Midrash Mekilta on Exodus 18:19; Genesis Rabba 100; The Palestinian Talmud, “Sota” 1.17; and the Midrash of Deuteronomy 33.7.

32. John Chrysostom, Homiliae in Genesim 67.5 (PG 54.578); Pseudo-Augustine, De Mirabilibus Sacrae Scripturae 1.15 (PL 35.2163).

33. Mishnah, “Sota” 1.9.

34. Unaccountably omitted from the “famous men” of Sira 44–50, Joseph does find a place in the lists in Wisdom 10:13f; 1 Maccabees 2:53; 4 Maccabees 18:11; Acts 7:9–16; Clement of Rome 4.9.

35. In thus rendering emnemoneusen I follow the majority of English translations. But it could also mean “remembered” and refer back to the prophecy in Genesis 15:14. John Chrysostom read it exactly that way (Homiliae in Hebraeos 26.2).

36. The word in Hebrews 11:22 comes right from the LXX of Genesis 50:26.

37. Cf. James Swetnam, S. J., Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (Analecta Biblica 94), Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1981, pp. 88f.

38. Wisdom 3:2; Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.2; Philo, De Virtutibus 77; Epictetus, 4.4.38.

39. Cf. the sources cited by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I–IX) (Anchor Bible 28), Garden City: Doubleday, 1979, p. 800.

40. Mark 14:12 and par.; John 1:19,35; 18:28; 19:14; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6; 7:14; 13:8; Ad Diognetum 12:9; Justin, Dialogum 72.1; also the Christian interpolation in The Testament of Joseph 19.

This article was originally published in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Winter, 1996. Touchstone is a monthly ecumenical journal which endeavors to promote doctrinal, moral, and devotional orthodoxy among Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Copyright © 1996 the Fellowship of St. James. Used with permission.

For an excellent in-depth study on Joseph, see Fr. Reardon's new book, Creation and the Patriarchal Histories: Orthodox Reflections on the Book of Genesis, Part 6, The Joseph Cycle. .

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