The biblical story of Joseph, who was sold into Egyptian slavery, has resounded for centuries. Several ancient Jewish pseudepigraphical works, such as “Joseph and Asenath,” retell it.
Handel based an oratorio on it; Richard Strauss composed a ballet about it; Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice turned it into the musical extravaganza “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”; the great 20th-century German writer Thomas Mann (winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature) was inspired by it to write the four-novel series “Joseph and His Brothers.” It’s been the source of a made-for-television movie and an animated musical from Dream Works.
Joseph appears in Hebrews 11:22 as an exemplary man of faith. The early “fathers” of the Christian church saw in his seeming defeat and ultimate triumph a prefiguration of Jesus. “In the person of Joseph,” the reformer John Calvin later agreed, “a lively image of Christ is presented.”
As with the Savior, those who turn Joseph over to slavery and death are, in fact, saved by him and, in a very real sense, by the events that they themselves had wickedly set in motion. “Tho craven friends betray thee,” the Latter-day Saint hymn lyrics of Karen Lynn Davidson say about Jesus in "O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown," “they feel thy love's embrace; the very foes who slay thee have access to thy grace.” Joseph’s brothers receive grain and refuge in Egypt during a famine. Jesus’ unworthy brothers and sisters, if faithful, receive through the Atonement the bread of life and salvation in the kingdom of heaven.
Joseph’s biography also figures prominently in the Islamic world. The story of Joseph and Zulaykha — the name of Potiphar’s wife in Persian legend — has been popular for at least a thousand years. In 2008, Joseph even served as the basis for an Iranian television series.
More significantly, the 12th surah or chapter of the Quran, known in Arabic as “Surat Yusuf,” is the only chapter of the holy book of Islam entirely devoted to a single narrative account. The Quran pronounces it “the best of stories.”
Readers acquainted with the biblical narrative in Genesis will find the Quran’s retelling of the story quite familiar. All of the well-known elements are there — young Joseph’s prophetic dreaming, the jealousy of his brothers, the attempt of Potiphar’s wife to seduce him, his imprisonment, his interpretation of the dreams of his two fellow prisoners, pharaoh’s prophetic dreams, Joseph’s rise to prominence in the Egyptian court, and, finally, his testing of and eventual reconciliation with his siblings.
There are, however, some interesting differences. His Egyptian master, for instance, knows almost immediately that Joseph has told the truth about the attempted seduction, and Joseph doesn’t go to prison immediately. In the interim, though, the wife’s female friends mock her for her infatuation with a Hebrew slave.
So, to punish their insults, she arranges a banquet for them and gives each of them a knife among the utensils. Then she calls for Joseph to come out to them, and they’re so stunned by his physical beauty that they inadvertently cut themselves. “This is no mortal man,” they exclaim. “This is a noble angel!”
There is at least one difference, however, that is theologically significant. In the Bible, Jacob is clearly taken in by his 10 scheming sons. When, having dipped Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat, they present it to him, he exclaims “It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:33-34).
In the Quran, by contrast, Jacob is never fooled. He immediately sees through their fraud, and resolves simply to suppress his grief and to endure what has happened patiently until God sees fit to make things right. Thus, he illustrates true “islam,” which, in Arabic, means “submission” to God’s will. And, when his returning sons tell him that Joseph is still alive, Jacob isn’t surprised. “Did I not tell you that I know from God that which you do not know?” (12:96). In Islam, prophets are divinely protected against error.
“We touch with Our mercy whom We will,” God is quoted as saying in the Quran, “and We do not allow to be lost the reward of those who do good” (12:56). “Certainly there are signs in Joseph and his brothers for those who ask” (12:7), “instruction for those of understanding” (12:111).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs the Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.
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