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The Role of Extra-biblical Texts in the Joseph Story

Extra Biblical texts in Joseph Story
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The Joseph Story is one of the central narratives of the bible. It connects the narratives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the Israelite journey into and eventual exodus from Egypt (Coogan, 2006, p. 83; Romer, 2018, p. 64) . One role of extra-biblical texts in the Joseph Story is to better inform us about the origins of the Joseph narrative and its author. Extra-biblical texts allow us to see how elements of folklore from neighboring peoples have been woven into the fabric of the biblical tale of Joseph.

I. The Joseph Story

It is useful to define what is meant by the Joseph Story, before further examination. The

content of the Joseph Story can be found primarily in the book of Genesis, chapters 37-50. Much of the Bible is thought to be a tapestry of writings composed by different authors (Coogan, 2006, pp. 23-27). However, many scholars believe the majority of the Joseph Story was written by one author because of its internal consistency(Blum, 2017, p. 510; Romer, 2018, p. 65; Schipper, 2018, p. 72) .

The Joseph Story begins with Joseph’s father, Jacob. Jacob has twelve sons, but only two, Joseph and Benjamin, from his favored wife, Rachel. Jacob loved Joseph more than the others, and Joseph’s brothers became jealous. After Joseph shared his dreams of his family bowing down, subservient to him, his brothers became even more angry and plot to kill him. Reuben, the eldest, persuaded them instead to capture Joseph. The others agree, but then sell Joseph to the neighboring Ishmaelites, who, in turn sell him to merchants on their way to Egypt. The brothers led Jacob and the eldest brother, Reuben to believe that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Joseph was then taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, assistant to Pharaoh. Joseph was able to succeed in Egypt with God’s help, until Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him. When Joseph rejects her, she tells her husband that it was in fact Joseph who tried to rape her. Joseph is thrown in jail, where he interprets the dreams of two other prisoners, Pharaoh’s butler and baker. The butler later remembers Joseph and recommends that he interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph predicts seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh, impressed with Joseph, appoints him prime minister on Egypt, and puts him in charge of preparation for the approaching years of famine. When the famine affects Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food. They bow to Joseph, as he had predicted many years earlier, although they do not recognize him. Joseph demands the brothers return to Egypt with their youngest brother, Benjamin. Once Benjamin is brought to Egypt, Joseph reveals his identity, reconciles with his brothers, and the family continues to live comfortably in Egypt for many years (Genesis Ch 37-50).

II. When did the author of the Joseph Story live?

The Joseph Story, like the rest of the bible, is difficult to trace to a specific time and place in

history. Many years of oral tradition predate any physical text of the bible (Brettler, 2005, p. 22). In addition, the Joseph story contains a number of ancient motifs from extra-biblical texts of neighboring traditions (The Ancient Near East, 1958, pp. 1-24). A closer examination of these texts allow one to make an educated guess about the time and place in which the author may have lived. Some scholars have theorized that the author of the Joseph story lived in the Egyptian diaspora colony of Elephantine in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period (Blum, 2017, p. 511; Romer, 2018, p. 65; Schipper, 2018, pp. 79-80), while others believe he lived many centuries earlier in the Northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of king Jeroboam II (Blum, 2017, p. 520).

A. Joseph Story as Diaspora novel – Late Persian or Early Hellenistic Period

Some scholars have dated the author of the Joseph Story to the Elephantine colony of the late Persian or early Hellenstic time period (Blum, 2017, p. 511; Romer, 2018, p. 65; Schipper, 2018, pp. 79-80). At this point in history, the colony of Elephantine was a mixed Judahite and Aramaic colony as well as a Persian military garrison, a place where people from many neighboring countries came together. People in the Elephantine community would have been quite familiar with Egyptian folklore (Schipper, 2018, p. 78).

The Joseph story also contains many themes that would be relevant to an Israelite audience living in the diaspora including Joseph’s marriage to an Egyptian, Aseneth, and his ability to have a successful career in the foreign land of Egypt (Schipper, 2018, p. 78). The tomb of Aper-el could also support the notion that a Hebrew foreigner could rise to power in Egypt (Booth, 2003). The name Aper-el is thought to be the Egyptianized version of a Hebrew name. The official, Aper-el, like Joseph, rose to power to become the vizier for King Amenhotep III, and later his son, King Akhenaten.

B. Joseph Story as North-Israelite Narrative

Others believe the Joseph Story was written in the Northern Kingdom of Israel many

centuries earlier (Blum, 2017, p. 520). Blum and Weingart, in their article, “ the Joseph Story: Diaspora Novella or North-Israelite narrative?” believe the Joseph Story to be different from other works written in exile, and more similar to an older Egyptian traveler’s tale, the tale of Sinuhe (Blum, 2017, pp. 513-515). They also believe the author lived in the Northern kingdom of Israel because of the importance he places on the reunification of Benjamin and Joseph by their brother Judah (Blum, 2017, p. 518).

Other exilic works like the books of Esther or Daniel emphasize the importance and distinctive nature of Israelite religious practice as compared to neighbors in the diaspora. However, the story of Joseph makes little mention of Joseph’s personal religious practice (Blum, 2017, p. 516). Instead, the main themes are Joseph’s rise to power, his intellectual gifts, and his relationship with his brothers and his integration into Egyptian culture.

There is also precedent for traveler’s tales with a foreign setting that were not written in a foreign land (The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 5; Blum, 2017, p. 513). One well known example is the Egyptian story of Sinuhe, written in the Middle Kingdom, which takes place primarily outside the land of Egypt (The Ancient Near East, 1958; Blum, 2017, p. 513). Blum and Weingart believe the author of the Joseph Story was influenced by the tale of Sinuhe because they share many thematic elements in addition to a setting in exile (Blum, 2017, p. 513).

The text of the Joseph Story also devotes a great deal of material to a subplot of the main story, the relationship between the two sons of Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin (Blum, 2017, pp. 518-519). These two sons represent the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while the other brothers, particularly Judah, are thought to represent the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Blum, 2017, p. 518). When Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, he welcomes them in and fills their sacks with food. When Joseph’s royal goblet is found in Benjamin’s sack, Joseph demands Benjamin stay behind in Egypt as a slave (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, p. 95). Judah gives an impassioned speech, begging Joseph to let Benjamin go, offering himself as a slave instead (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, pp. 96-97). Joseph ultimately relents, reveals his identity and reconciles with his brothers (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, pp. 97-98). This subplot would have political significance to a Northern Israelite audience (Blum, 2017, p. 519). The two Northern heroes, Benjamin and Joseph, rule over a unified NORTHERN Israel (Blum, 2017, p. 519). Outside the Northern Israelite kingdom, the subplot would have little significance to the reader.

III. The Joseph Story: Unique Creation or Tapestry of Borrowed Motifs

Whether the Joseph Story is old or new, written in exile or pre-exile, the author was clearly

familiar with Egyptian culture and borrowed heavily from Egyptian traditions. Many motifs in the Joseph Story appear in other Egyptian writings and paintings, including the Beni Hasan Tomb, the tomb of Anktifi, the tale of Sinuhe, the tale of Two Brothers, the Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt.

In the Joseph Story, Joseph’s family travels from their homeland, Canaan, to the land of Egypt. Evidence of Canaanites traveling to Egypt can be found on in illustrations on the wall of the Beni Hasan Tomb(Booth, 2003). Canaanites are depicted with beards and striped clothing, while Egyptians are shown as clean shaven with plain clothing (Booth, 2003).

One of the central elements of the Joseph Story is a great famine that plagues Egypt and neighboring Canaan. Reference to such a famine is found in both the tomb of Anktifi, and the Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt (The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 24). Both describe a devastating seven-year famine in the region. The tomb of Anktifi describes a famine so severe, that one was driven to eat “his own children” (Booth, 2003).

The Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers describes a seduction scene between Bata and his older brother Anubis’ wife (The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 12). The scene is strikingly similar to that of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, even using a similar pattern of dialogue. In the tale of the Two Brothers, the wife of Anubis (ANPU?) attempted to seduce Bata, and said to him, “ Come, let us spend an hour lying together…” (The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 13). When Bata refused, the wife of Anubis covered herself in fat and grease to appear as if she had been attacked (The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 14). She then told Anubis that his younger brother came to her telling her to, “ come, let us spend an hour lying together”(The Ancient Near East, 1958, p. 14).

In the Joseph Story, Potiphar’s wife came to Joseph and said, “lie with me...” (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, p. 83). When Joseph refused and fled, Potiphar’s wife grabbed his garment and Joseph left it behind (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, p. 83). Potiphar’s wife then showed the garment to her husband and told him Joseph “came into me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice” (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, p. 83). The series of events are quite similar, and in both scenes, the seductress used her words in the mouth of the protagonist when retelling the story.

The Joseph Story also shares many motifs with the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe (Blum, 2017, p. 514; King, 1987, p. 578). Sinuhe, like Joseph, was an advisor to the king of Egypt. When the king died, Sinuhe fled Egypt and rose to a foreign land among an Asiatic tribe, the Retjenu. Both Sinuhe and Joseph experienced their journeys as part of a divine plan. Both Sinuhe and Joseph were well received by the leader of a foreign land, married the ruler’s eldest daughter, and rose to power as the second in command to the ruler. Both had sons borne of a foreign wife, who eventually become leaders themselves. The new Egyptian king invited Sinuhe back to Egypt, where he was warmly received and lived out the rest of his life as a member of the Egyptian elite (Blum, 2017, p. 514). In contrast, Joseph’s family followed him to Egypt, where they are permitted to live peacefully among the Egyptians (JPS Hebrew-English Tanach, 2000, p. 111).

The Joseph Story is one of the most familiar narratives in the bible. Scholars believe the Joseph Story was written primarily by one author, in contrast to other portions of the bible. Extra-biblical texts aid in learning more about the author of the Joseph Story. Some scholars believe the author lived in the Northern kingdom of Israel, while others think the Joseph story was a diaspora novel written in the Persian period. Whether it was written in Israel or in the diaspora, the Joseph Story borrows motifs from many extra-biblical texts including, the Tale of Two Brothers, the Tale of Sinuhe, and the Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt.


The Ancient Near East. (1958). (James B. Pritchard Ed. Vol. I): Princeton University.

Blum, E & Weingart, K. (2017). The Joseph Story: Diaspora Novella or North-Israelite Narrative? Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 129(4), 65.

Booth, Jim (Writer). (2003). Joseph and His Multicolored Coat. In Jim Booth (Producer), BBC Bible Mysteries BBC Manchester/Discovery Channel

Brettler, Marc Zvi. (2005). How to Read the Bible. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society

Coogan, Michael (2006). The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures: Oxford University

JPS Hebrew-English Tanach. (2000). Jewish Publication Society.

King, J Robin. (1987). The Joseph Story and Divine Politics: A Comparative Study of a Biographic Formula from the Ancient Near East. Journal of Biblical Literature, 106(4).

Romer, Thomas. (2018). The Role of Egypt in the Formation of the Hebrew Bible Journal of Ancient Egypt Interconnections.

Schipper, Bernd. (2018). Joseph, Ahiqar, and Elephantine: The Joseph story as a Diaspora Novella. .Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 18.

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