The story of Joseph in the Bible is a well-formed, coherent narrative. Intending to tell us why bad things happen to good people, the writer uses the way of storytelling, which is often used in the Bible to convey the message from God to people through the words of different persons, to embed the answer into the lifelong experience of Joseph. In this way, the story is easier to understand and is able to draw more people’s interest.

The composition of the story, I think, is done after delicate arrangement of those events that happen to Joseph.

All the parts of the story are interlinked. The former lead to the latter; the latter prove the former. For instance, the dream of Joseph at the very beginning brings all the misfortunes later in his life; but near the end of the story, when he is given the power second only to the pharaoh, when his initial dreams are realized, everything is clear and by then we get a happy ending.

Joseph suffers from those ups and downs in life a lot. In his childhood, he is Jacob’s favourite son. He is sold to slavery then. Later he gains his position as Potiphar’s overseer. If the story ends here showing us mischief might befall on one even if he has done nothing evil, it is not dramatic enough to impact us. Actually the story continues and Joseph is imprisoned for over two years. That is quite unfair to a person who does nothing against God’s will. However, as written in the story, “the Lord was with Joseph”[1]. So he, after a long time, rids the imprisonment though he would have been released much earlier if the chief butler had not forgotten the interpreter God sent there. Finally, Joseph reaches the zenith as he becomes “ruler over all the land of Egypt”[2]. The twists and turns are so dramatic that one could hardly notice the logical causality everywhere in the whole story. Joseph’s reveals it at last in case people don’t have read so deeply (in fact most people need this reminder). Here are his words[3]:

And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

He regards all of these as God’s will. This explains the whole story and makes sense. By saying all these he has answered the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” “In short, it’s God’s will.”

Joseph’s trust in God is the intrinsic thread of the story. If we look at the story and its structure, we can find something else working as a motif.

“Dreams form the central motif of this story.”[4]

The first two dreams in the story are prophecies of God that Joseph will reign over his brethren. Joseph’s telling his dreams to his brethren, apparently and certainly, increases their envy and hatred of him. It is terrible for him that all his ten brothers do not like him and that he is destined to be a tragic person. Another thing to notice here is that after Joseph tells his father “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me”[5], the meaning of which is obvious, “his father observed the saying”[6] though he rebukes and questions Joseph for his offensive words. Jacob, probably, has already felt that the dream is more than just “offensive” at that moment. The story itself has not proved this. Historians may find the evidence. Jacob’s reaction does not fit for that particular time, during which one must not offend elder people in the family and violating the rule leads to stiff punishment.

Next are the two dreams of the chief butler and chief baker. For the first time Joseph himself acknowledges that his interpretations “belong to God”[7]. The interpretations of the dreams alone are not that important. What matters is that they all come true. By then we may probably ask if Joseph’s interpretation of the first two dreams would come true likewise.

The dream of Pharaoh is also important. Joseph’s being brought out of the dungeon, his conveying God’s interpretation of the dream and his being given the power over Egypt all result from the very dream. This dream which “there was none that could interpret”[8] is weird and is split into two related scenes. Why is there no one in Egypt that can interpret the dream? The kine, seven fatfleshed and seven leanfleshed, and the ears, seven rank and seven thin, certainly represent something. But it is the dream of Pharaoh so that misinterpretation can lead to disastrous consequences. Only Joseph, God’s messenger to “give Pharaoh an answer of peace”[9], therefore, has the courage to tell Pharaoh the meaning of the dreams directly for God is with him.

Dreams are the causes of events and the realisation of them are the results.

“Another motif was Joseph’s clothing.”[10]

At first, he wears “a coat of many colours”[11]. That cloth shows Jacob’s favour to him and causes his brethren to envy him. “They stript Joseph out of his coat”[12] before they cast him into the pit; “They sent the coat of many colours, and brought it to their father”[13] since the rent cloth is the sign of Joseph’s death.

In Potiphar’s house, his garment leads to the imprisonment. This perhaps has some kind of relation to that one must give up his possessions before he can go with God since these possessions cause troubles.

And at last, his “vestures of fine linen” match his high position in Egypt and is a proof of his power.

The changes of Joseph’s clothing reflect the changes of his life from one angle.

The gains and losses of different people also deserve attention.

Joseph’s ten brethren who “conspired against him to slay him”[14] make me think of Cain, the first murderer. Cain commits the crime and is cursed and condemned to a life of wandering. The ten brethren surely do a wicked thing selling Joseph to slavery. It, however, is not as wicked as murder since Reuben has stopped the murder. Actually, as Joseph later says, “God did send me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth…”[15], the sufferings of Joseph can be seen as a blessing in disguise. The punishment on the ten brethren, therefore, is consequently much more lenient.

In contrast with the ten who have done evil, Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brethren, has not taken part in their conspiracy, and actually has not stolen the silver cup. Let’s see what he has as the rewarding for doing no evil: “To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver, and five changes of raiment”[16]. Josephs’ brethren once get “twenty pieces of silver”[17] when they sell him to the Midianites merchantmen, but at last, this turns out to be their loss. This is in a way similar to the “thirty pieces of silver” Judas gets.

The Pharaoh, through giving Joseph the power to rule over Egypt, has his people saved from the seven-year disaster. Because he does not enslave Joseph and shows enough respect to God, he gets a fairly good final. Following the story there is the exodus in which Moses and Ramses. What Ramses does is totally different from this Pharaoh, and the outcome is bitter.

For all these, we can say that, after all, good people get happy endings no matter how hard it may be in the course. Even if the happy ending comes after death, being in the paradise with God is still the happiest thing and is more than enough to compensate for all the sufferings.


[1] Venturing Into the Bible, Siu May Kuo, Nanjing University Press, 1989, p82~86

[2] KJV Bible, course online resources

Qing Pei


May 21, 2007

[1] KJV Bible, Gen 39:2

[2] KJV Bible, Gen 41:43

[3] KJV Bible, Gen 45:4~ Gen 45:8

[4] Siu Mei Kuo, p 82, Para 2

[5] KJV Bible, Gen 37:9

[6] KJV Bible, Gen 37:11

[7] KJV Bible, Gen 40:8

[8] KJV Bible, Gen 41:8

[9] KJV Bible, Gen 41:16

[10] Siu Mei Kuo, p 82, Para 3

[11] KJV Bible, Gen 37:3

[12] KJV Bible, Gen 37:23

[13] KJV Bible, Gen 37:32

[14] KJV Bible, Gen 37:18

[15] KJV Bible, Gen 45:7

[16] KJV Bible, Gen 45:22

[17] KJV Bible, Gen 37:28