Ancient Stories and Enactment

A previous post, One Thousand and One Nights, looked at how the classic Middle Eastern tale had much in common with the Biblical account of Esther and the origin of the Feast of Purim. In both accounts, the protagonist, the Queen, artfully delays the king and his judgement across several nights. In doing so, she not only spares her own life but the lives of many others.

These ancient tales reveal something of the way narrative and embodied narrative, almost pantomime a significant part of oral cultures. Lessons are enacted rather than spoken directly as in literate or more linear cultures.

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Another biblical tale that illustrates this exact point in the narrative of Joseph. Genesis 42 recounts the journey of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt during a crippling famine. They travel to the court of Pharoah to beg for grain and are presented before Joseph their brother, a man they do not recognise. Joseph, seeing them bow before him is reminded of the dream he had as a young boy. A few chapters earlier, ch 37 tells:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.


This jealousy had led the ten brothers to conspire to kill Joseph. Rather than shed blood however, the sell the boy to slavers who take him to Egypt. There is becomes a servant to the Prime Minister of Egypt and eventually to Pharoah himself.

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When confronted with his brothers however, Joseph does not reveal himself immediately. Instead he decides to toy with them. After quizzing them about their father and other living brothers, he tells them they are liars – and puts them in jail!!

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realizethat Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

Joseph understands that only a journey of personal discovery will help them feel what he felt, and bring them to not only a place of repentance for the wrong they did him, but of full understanding of the nature of the dream he had all those years ago.

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He sends them back to their father, retaining one brother Simeon in jail, and demanding they bring the youngest Benjamin with them. On the journey home they discover the silver with which they had paid for their grain had been hidden in their sacks, making them feel more dread of the consequences of facing the Egyptian Vizier again.

Once home they plead with their father to release Benjamin to go with them. Jacob an old man, one broken hearted by the loss of Joseph will not release the youngest, further making the brothers suffer. They know their aged father will perish if Benjamin comes to harm. Reuben even pledges the lives of his own sons if anything happens to Benjamin; however Jacob refuses.  Until they have no more food…..

Upon returning to Jospeh, the brothers fear the wrath of this Egytpian noble because of the silver that had been returned into their sacks. Againt the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph and this time he can barely handle his emotions at the sight of his brother Benjamin.

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Joseph, according to custom, eats separately from the foreigners but he has them seated in birth order at the table leaving them to look at each other in astonishment.  He also has Benjamin presented with a portion five times larger than the others.

The following day, the brothers set off with the grain they have purchased, however Joseph has a silver cup hidden in the sack of grain on Benjamin’s donkey.

As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys.They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’”

When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them. But they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servantsto do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”

10 “Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have itwill become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”

11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.

Joseph feigns fury at the theft and claims Benjamin as his slave. This is too much for the brothers and prompts a lengthy speech by Judah to intercede for his brother on behalf of their aged and frail father. Judah presents himself in the place of Benjamin, declaring that their father who had alreay lost a beloved son, would not survive if they return to tell him that Benjamin was also lost.


At this point Joseph knows that the Brothers have fully repented. They have been broken by the wrong they did him through the pain it brought their father. Several times they have bowed down to him, fullfilling the dream he had as a boy.

The tale shows an interesting feature of Ancient Near Eastern cutlure in which narrative and behaviour draw close together. Joseph acts out his message. He engages in a pantomime with his brothers, feigning fury, indignation, accusing them of being spies, thieves and liars. He imprisons them and sets them up as thieves, but he also honours them with feasts, silver and goods. Utterly confusing them, he confounds their pride and brings them to a place of contrite repentance for the evil they did against him.

Rather than wow them outright with his splendour and royal standing, he makes them take a journey in his shoes. He makes them face an ageing and grieving father and the pain they brought upon him by asking for Benjamin’s life as well. In all of this he does not seek to make them suffer, but to prepare them for the amazing revelation that it was not they that sent him to Egypt but God.

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He was destined to save them. He had been raised up at the right time to be “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. With five years of famine remaining, Joseph could provide land for this family, now numbering over 70 people, and their flocks in Egypt.

Moreover, the strict mores of Egyptian life, meant the Israelites would not intermarry with the Egyptians, a segregated culture who would not even eat with foreigners. Here in safety, the Israelite people could truly grow to become a nation.

Joseph and Judah – the story of redemption

Since the very popular ‘Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat’ stage musical was released in the 1970s, the story of Joseph has held fascination for a new generation. A farmer boy is betrayed by his family and  brought into the heart of the Egyptian empire as a slave, he is imprisoned, he serves in two noble households rising to highest rank in the nation besides the King, there he encounters his murderous brothers again and saves them fulfilling the very dream they sought to murder him for. It’s high drama.



It’s a narrative that forms over 25% of the book of Genesis, yet some scholars and theologians assume it is  simply a transitional story between the patriarchs and the Exodus. Some questions its significance to the progression of ‘salvation history’. Others have written about Joseph as a story in relation to wisdom literature, outlining godly character and courage under fire.  However, this doesn’t accord with the fact that the story has more in common with tragedy or high drama and the characters of the narrative are profoundly flawed: Reuben is ineffectual, Joseph bratty and immature, Judah cold and spiritually insensitive.

In line with earlier posts, I want to examine the story of Joseph from a literary perspective. It’s evident to me that while the Bible shows historical interests, the interests of the text are presented in an artistic and theological way.


  • The cycles of the Pentateuch

Genesis is comprised of ten ‘toledoth’ sections which function as cycles marking the book’s major divisions. Each account is not in fact about the ‘ancestor’ but rather about his descendants [Gen 2:4]. These cycles recount God’s covenant dealings with the patriarchs and look forward to the establishment of His plans. Thus, the Joseph narrative is seen as part of the larger historical narrative of Genesis which “repeatedly and emphatically explains that Israel’s God, the God of creation and the Lord of history has called Israel to take possession of Canaan and from that basis to bless the nations [12:1-3, 15, 17].”

Since it connects the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-36 to the account of the Exodus and since the brothers enter Egypt “as an embryonic nation” and leave it as a powerful nation, scholars have labelled the narrative, in fact a story of the birth of the nation of Israel. While the story transitions us from the fracture between Jacob and Esau, and ends with the family united in Egypt looking towards Canaan, however, it also closes with a question mark over the nature of the ‘reconciliation’ achieved. Gen 50:15-21, after the death of Jacob, has the brothers again begging for mercy of Joseph and facing years of exile in Egypt. A British scholar called David Clines has argued that the theme of the Pentateuch is “the partial fulfilment – which implies the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise or blessing of the patriarchs’. The book of Genesis ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.

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  • Salvation through Judgment. 

Hamilton suggest another pattern emerging through the bible, that salvation comes to the nation of Israel through the form of judgment. Evident in the Flood Narrative and later exile, this pattern shows how Israel is in fact preserved through hardship. Early in the narrative, [Gen 38:1-30] Judah threatens the family by intermarrying with the Canaanites.  Some scholars believe that the Egyptian pilgrimage is brought about by God to prevent their assimilation with the Canaanites, lest they lose their purpose to bless the earth [12:3; 24:3, 26:34-35; 27:46; 34:2]. To achieve this, God sends Joseph ahead into segregated Egypt [43:32; 46:34] a place where Hebrew distinctives will be fostered and not removed. The protagonist is here both enslaved and exalted at the right time, to bring about salvation for the people. The subsequent years of exile and slavery that proceed, forges a national identity and upon return to Canaan, the Israelites number over a million people.


  • Salvation through ‘the lesser born”

The very potent image of Genesis is of the ‘seed’ or the emerging Royal dynasty promised through Eve, down to Abraham and ending Genesis with Perez, Judah’s son [Gen 49:8-12]. However, a nuance to the dynastic line  is the motif of the election of the ‘younger son’ or the reversal of seniority.  Without exception, this election creates jealousy, strife and even murder. This conflict’ first manifests itself when Cain kills Abel in Genesis 4:8. The conflict continues; Isaac, the son of promise is hated by his older sibling Ishmael; Esau hates Jacob and Joseph’s brothers want to kill him [Gen 37: 4-5, 18-19]. Within the Joseph narrative, his dreams and paternal favouritism elicit murderous intent within his brothers. What is of particular interest to the Joseph narrative is the fact not that he is not the literal promised ‘seed’ of the patriarchal promises, in fact Judah is and from thenceforth, the line is carried through the first born. I believe the significance of this motif is not capricious election on behalf of a sovereign God, but has more to do with the motif of ‘salvation through judgement’. The election of the lesser born in these narratives subverts convention and so draws attention to a particular points about the type of servant God chooses. This servant is consistently one who suffers at the hands of a dominant and threatened “older sibling”.


  •  Character change, reconciliation and chiastic structures 

A curious element of Hebrew literature is the prevalence of chiastic structures creating parallel stanzas in poems or narratives. Elements at the beginning and end reflect each other and do so in increasing frequency to a point on which the narrative pivots – revealing a significant theological or artistic point. Within the Joseph narrative pivots are identified around the double centre on verses [44:1-34] in which the brothers pass the test of love for their brother and  [45:1-28] in which Joseph gives up his power over his brother.  Further parallels exist between ch. 37 and 50 in the chiasmus: Joseph’s dream is fulfilled when his brothers bow before him, and he is able to assuage their fears that God “intended it for good” [50:20].

In addition, ch 38 which interrupts the Joseph narrative to show Judah’s failure as a father-in-law and consequent conception of twins stands in direct opposition to ch 49 which contains Jacob’s prophecy of the royal line to continue through Judah.  Ch 38, while placed out of step with the chronological nature of the narrative, contains Judah’s confession of wrong against Tamar which occurs at a similar time chronologically to when all the brothers confess their wrong against Joseph [38:26; 42:21]. “This scene provides an essential piece in the characterisation of Judah, whose greater Son will rule the universe.”  His confessions of wrongs against Tamar and Joseph [38:26; 42:21] begin his faith journey peaking when the once callous slave trader of his young half-brother, offers himself as a slave in the stead of his youngest half-brother [44:18-33].


  • Emergence of a king

The notion of ‘kingship’ is mentioned throughout Genesis in relation to the main line of descent, the ‘seed’. Both Abraham [17:6] and Sarah [17:16] are promised that kings will come from them. In the Joseph narrative the brothers interpret Joseph’s dream as implying he will be king over them [37:8-11] aggravating their already potent hatred. It is the ‘seed’ however of the main family lineage which is associated with the divine promises which feature in the patriarchal narratives and by Gen 50 it is clear the ‘seed’ descends through Judah. As noted above, character change is what Genesis is all about.” As noted above, Judah emerges as the hero of the tale. While at the outset of the narrative, Judah along with his brothers conspires to kill Joseph, his transformation by chapter 44 shows he now accepts the painful reality of Joseph’s role in saving their lives without rancour.  “Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship – that the king serves the people, not vice versa.”  Judah is transformed from one who sought in hatred to kill the ‘lesser born’ for his prophesied ‘rule’ to one who sees with eyes of faith, one who exemplifies Israel’s kingship.


  • Contemporary Significance 

One of the most interesting sermons in the New Testament is given by Stephen at his execution. He neatly summarises stories from Joseph, Moses, the Prophets and the law to show the Jews how they are rejecting Christ [Acts 7:9; Acts 7:23-29].  Despite the persecution of their own people, both men brought deliverance for God’s people. Stephen’s argument is that the law typologically foreshadows Christ as the rejected prophet; thus those who reject him are also typologically foreshadowed by those who rejected Joseph, Moses and the prophets [Acts 17:2-3]. It’s a powerful case study.

In the same way, this pattern is fulfilled in Jesus, and it is a pattern of salvation that comes through judgement for God’s glory. God judged Joseph’s bothers [Gen 42:21-22;44:16], exalted Joseph [45:9] and through judgement brought the brothers to repentance [44:16, 18-34; 50:15-18] and all along what they meant for evil he meant for good [50:20]. Jesus is depicted as ‘Israel son-of-God,’ when as an infant he descends to Egypt, and back fulfils the words of the prophet Hosea 11:1. The events of Jesus’ life are the ‘recapitulation’ of Israel’s history.  Jesus and his family flee from Herod who is seeking to destroy him, a particularly potent example hatred on behalf of the “rightful ruler” to the “elect lesser born” prophesied to save and to rule. 



To sum up, the ‘Joseph narrative’ is rich with covenantal themes that resonate throughout Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch. From the ‘seed conflict’ established in Gen 3, to the patriarchal promises of Gen 12, the narrative does more than bridge to the Exodus, and more than simply preserving the nation of Israel from assimilation and destruction. The Joseph narrative sets up paradigmatic ‘salvation’ themes of ‘election of the lesser born’ and ‘salvation through judgement.’