[b-hebrew] The Name "Joseph"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Dec 21 11:04:51 EST 2007

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III:
1.  You wrote:  “Isaac and Ishmael, "And Abraham said to God, 'O that Ishmael 
might live in thy sight!'”
Yes, that is a critical line of text.  That indicates that Ishmael was Abraham
’s favorite son.  What about Esau and Joseph?  We may be onto something here. 
 And compare the opposite situation of the winning candidate in each 
generation in that regard:  Isaac, Jacob and Judah.  So even before we get to the odd 
puns on the name “Joseph”, we may be starting to discover some important 
attributes of the winning candidate for the coveted role of being named the leader 
of the next generation of the new monotheists.
Yet there is another aspect about Ishmael that scared Rachel more than did 
the fact that Ishmael was a favorite son, in Rachel’s ruminations as to whether 
her son would be able to become the leader of the next generation of the new 
monotheists.  It’s real obvious regarding Ishmael, but routinely overlooked 
regarding Joseph.  It has to do with who is the reigning Patriarch’s main wife 
#1.  As we shall see, that troubling issue must have been on Rachel’s mind when 
she chose the strangely unimpressive name “Joseph” for her son.
2.  You wrote:  “Jacob and Esau, "The elder shall serve the younger"? 
(Genesis 25:23)”
My understanding, which I hope some of the true experts in Biblical Hebrew on 
this list may confirm, is that in Hebrew, that famous sentence is 100% 
ambiguous.  That is to say, in Hebrew it could mean “the elder shall serve the 
younger”, but it could also mean the opposite:  “the elder shall be served by the 
Indeed, the story makes much more sense if this sentence is ambiguous.  
Rebekah doubtless told that dream to Isaac.  Isaac’s likely response was that such 
dream was ambiguous, and that he would select which twin son would become the 
next leader of the new monotheists without regard to that ambiguous dream.  
Rebekah had 27 regular years to think it over.  It is likely that Rebekah spent 
a lot of time contemplating why Isaac had been the proper selection over 
Ishmael in the previous generation.  Rebekah, who arguably is the most intelligent 
woman in the entire Bible, and who was certainly smarter than Isaac, 
presumably decided that Jacob was the right choice over Esau in large part because of 
her evaluation of Abraham’s selection of Isaac over Ishmael, not solely on the 
basis of that ambiguous dream.
But the dream’s emphasis on birth order does cause us to ask:  were winning 
candidates Isaac, Jacob and Judah the previous Patriarch’s firstborn son?  What 
about losing candidates Ishmael, Esau and Reuben?
 3.  You wrote:  “Judah and Joseph, The blessing was divided between Judah 
and Joseph as is seen in Genesis 48:1-22;  49:8-12.”
Only one person could be the leader of the next generation of the new 
monotheists.  Judah’s blessing in chapter 49 of Genesis is unequivocal that Judah 
will be the one and only leader of the next generation of the Hebrews:
“Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise;  thy hand shall be on the neck of 
thine enemies;  thy father's sons shall bow down before thee.”  Genesis 49: 8
By stark contrast, Joseph’s long blessing in chapter 49 of Genesis (which you 
do not mention) is a surprisingly mediocre blessing, being a longwinded 
explanation of why Joseph has not been selected to be the leader of the next 
generation of the new monotheists.
And when we look at the verses that you do cite in chapter 48 of Genesis, we 
find that Joseph strongly wanted Joseph’s firstborn son to be Joseph’s 
primary heir, but Jacob absolutely refuses, and insists on putting Joseph’s younger 
son ahead of Joseph’s firstborn son.  Jacob is (properly) thwarting Joseph’s 
own wishes there, not conferring leadership upon Joseph.
So Rachel’s fears end up coming true.  Rachel tried her best to help out her 
son’s case, by coming up with that odd name “Joseph”.  But in the end, Jacob/“
Israel” decided that he must abide by the pattern established by Abraham and 
followed by Isaac in selecting which son should be named the leader of the 
next generation of the new monotheists.  We shall see that all three Patriarchal 
successions follow the same criteria.
The puns the author of the Patriarchal narratives gives us on the name “Joseph
” are very important.  Indirectly, they point to the never-varying criteria 
that are used in each generation to select the Hebrews’ next leader.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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