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The Joseph Story

Tremper Longman III on the literary, theological, and historical aspects of the Joseph narrative.

If somebody asked me whether the Joseph story had any connection to history and is simply a literary fabrication, the first thing I would say is that the Joseph narrative is an incredible literary masterpiece.  It is often referred to as a novella.  It’s very nicely structured in order to draw the reader into the story, and it does so for theological reasons.  At the end of the Joseph narrative, Genesis, chapter 50, verse 19 and 20, Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil.” Because of course, they had sold him into slavery.  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good for the saving of many people.”  And of course, as you then go back and read the Joseph story, you can see how the story serves the interest of that theological message. 

Now that said, I wouldn’t be quick to divorce the Joseph story from history; and indeed, some of the leading Egyptologists today, who are also conversant in Biblical studies, people like Kenneth Kitchen and Jim Hoffmeier, have studied the Joseph narrative.  And of course, they have pointed out that there is no direct proof of the Joseph narrative.  Nowhere is Joseph mentioned, indeed, one of the problems in situating this story in history is that the Pharaoh’s not mentioned by name. But they do point out that the details of the text comport well with Egyptian history of the approximate time period of Joseph.  To give two examples, you have, as Kitchen points out very nicely, even though it’s a detail, that in Genesis, chapter 37, verse 28, Joseph is sold as a slave for 20 shekels.  And of course, Kitchen has studied slave prices through the centuries; and he shows that it’s only in this to early second millennium that slaves are sold for that amount of money.  And then, both Hoffmeier and Kitchen have studied the names and showed—that is the Egyptian names in the text—and have shown that they also fit well, within an Egyptian context, but even more specifically, in the early second millennium.

  • Tremper Longman III is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. Longman has authored or co-authored over twenty books and numerous articles that approach the study of the Bible through literary criticism. His interest in history and historiography is expressed in his book A Biblical History of Israel (co-authored with Iain Provan and Phil Long; Westminster John Knox, 2003). He has also written commentaries on Song of Songs (Eerdmans), Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans), and Daniel (Zondervan) among others; he wrote Introducing the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2012) for lay audiences.