The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Joseph, the name of several men who figure prominently in the biblical narrative.

1 The oldest son of Rachel, favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph appears in the tradition as one of the fathers of the tribes of Israel (Gen. 49:22-26). The tribe of Joseph divided into Ephraim and Manasseh when, in the history of the tribal league, Levi left the tribal structure (Gen. 48:8-22).

Joseph plays the central role in a novella, Gen. 37:1-47:27, and in a collection of narrative traditions in Gen. 47:28-50:26. One problem in the history of Pentateuchal traditions is the relationship between the saga tradition about the patriarchs in Genesis (Jacob in Canaan) and the saga tradition about Moses in Exodus (the sons of Israel in Egypt). The Joseph novella constitutes a link between those two saga traditions.

As is typical for the tradition about the patriarchs in Canaan, the Joseph novella builds its plot around a problem created by strife in the patriarchal family. The narrative characterizes each member of the family as a party to the strife. Joseph appears initially as a spoiled son, favored by his doting father, proud of his pre-eminence. The father adds to the explosive atmosphere of the family by giving his favorite son a piece of clothing that marks his pre-eminence and by freeing him from the responsibility carried by the other sons for work with the family flocks. The brothers succumb to sibling jealousy and seek an occasion to rid the family of their troublemaker. Their resolve increases when Joseph reports dreams that confirm his pre-eminence. Their anger breaks into open violence when Joseph leaves the protection of the father in order to seek out the brothers’ condition. Their initial plan to kill him changes to a more economically advantageous plan to sell him to passing merchants; yet the sale is tantamount to killing him.

The narrator alerts the audience that the issue has not yet been resolved, however. The merchants sell Joseph in Egypt. Genesis 39-41 constitutes a self-contained story about Joseph as the wise and prudent administrator who rises from servant in a private household to vizier in Pharaoh’s court. As second in command over the entire kingdom, Joseph receives responsibility from Pharaoh to administer grain reserves in a time of famine. But specifically, the story depicts the standards for judging an effective administration in the king’s court. All administrators should be as wise and prudent as Joseph. This story about the ideal administrator derives from royal wisdom tradition, a guide for developing effective court officials. As a distinct story, it was available for use by the author of the Joseph novella as an explanation of Joseph’s transition from brother at the mercy of jealous brothers to brother with power over jealous brothers.

Joseph administers the grain reserves during the famine for the benefit of the Egyptians and, indeed, for all the people of the world. Ironically, the famine forces Joseph’s brothers to travel to Egypt in order to buy enough grain to sustain their families. In Egypt they stand at the mercy of Joseph whom they do not recognize but who recognizes them. After two accounts depicting the brothers as subject to the whim of Joseph, Joseph finally reveals his true identity. Reconciliation between the brothers occurs, and Jacob with all the families in Canaan comes to Egypt. The family reunion effects reconciliation of a family once at war within itself.

The storyteller affirms that the reconciliation occurs by the hand of God (45:7, 8, 9). God led Joseph to Egypt, to his place of power, so that the family might live through the famine. Now, brothers who once hated Joseph embrace him and share news of their father. Joseph, who lost his position in the family because of the brothers’ jealousy, provides for the entire family and, indeed, saves them from death in the famine. If the strife in Israel characteristic for an entire history is represented by the strife in the family at the beginning of the Joseph story, then the reconciliation at the denouement represents a reconciliation for the striving brothers of Israel. In the view of the theologian who composed the novella, God intends his people to be together, a single family. Joseph, the ancestral father of the leading tribe in the north, effects that reconciliation. The narrative framework for the Joseph story, however, suggests that the reconciliation effected by the Joseph transaction did not work. The narrative from the end of the Joseph novella to the end of Genesis depicts the family as deceptive and distrusting, indeed, as untrustworthy. When the father dies, the brothers approach Joseph with a plea for pardon based on a request of the father before he died. The tradition, of course, contains no such request from Jacob and clearly asserts that the brothers have manufactured their story to Joseph just as earlier they manufactured their story to Jacob. The author of the framework argues that reconciliation has not yet occurred, that the family is as broken as it ever was. Reconciliation cannot be found, according to the larger context, in the patriarchal traditions.

2 The father of the Igal who was one of the spies Moses sent into Canaan (Num. 13:7).

3 A musician in the service of David (1 Chron. 25:2, 9).

4 A priest in the time of Joiakim (Neh. 12:14).

5 One of the sons of priests who in the time of Ezra put away the foreign women they had married (Ezra 10:42).

6 The son of Jacob (Matt. 1:16) or Heli (Luke 3:23), the husband of Mary (Matt. 1:16), and, in the eyes of his compatriots, the father of Jesus (Luke 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42). A descendant of David (Matt. 1:20), his unwillingness publicly to set aside his pregnant betrothed showed him to be a just man (Matt. 1:19). The notion that he was an older man when he married Mary has no basis in the Gospel accounts—this tradition probably arose to account for Joseph’s absence in the Gospel narratives about the mature Jesus.

7 A high-ranking (Luke 23:50), rich (Matt. 27:57), and honorable (Mark 15:34) Jew who wrapped the body of the crucified Jesus in a linen shroud and buried him in a tomb newly cut from rock (Luke 23:53), perhaps the tomb he had had prepared for himself (Matt. 27:60). That he was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38) is not mentioned by either Luke or Mark.

8 The name of three ancestors of Joseph, the husband of Mary (Luke 3:26, 30, 34).

9 A follower of Jesus, also called Barsabbas, surnamed Justus, who was not chosen to replace Judas as one of the twelve disciples when he, along with Matthias, was put forward for that position (Acts 1:23).

10 An early Christian, surnamed Barnabas (Acts 4:36), who along with Saul (Paul) was sent on a missionary journey by the church in Antioch (Acts 13:2). A later dispute over a traveling companion led them to go their separate ways (Acts 15:36-39).

11 One of the sons of Mary and a brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55) who bore the Greek rather than the Hebrew form of the name (Joses; Mark 6:3). Perhaps the Joses mentioned as a son of Mary in Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40, 47 is the same brother of Jesus.

To explore all the members of Jesus' immediate family who are mentioned in the New Testament, browse:


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer