Q&A: Literary Structure of the Joseph Stories

Literary Structure of the Joseph Stories

What is the broader literary structure of the Joseph story in Genesis chapters 37 through 50?

High Definition Video Standard Definition Video
Loading...

(Right click this link to download video.)

Answer

When we take a look at the broader literary structure of the story of Joseph, it's actually quite different from the rest of the book of Genesis. When you think about, say, the section on Abraham, you get a very strong sense that these are individual episodes but that the episodes all fit together very loosely; same thing with the story of Jacob. But by the time you come to the story of Joseph, what we find is what many people call a "novella," actually a short story, a little story, a unified story that goes all the way from chapter 36 all the way to chapter 50.

And what's wonderful about this is that this story rises and falls just like you would imagine most stories do. It begins with some kind of initial problem in chapter 36, which is the disharmony among the brothers, but then that disharmony is resolved at the end of the story in chapters 47–50 where the brothers are harmonious together. It's really lovely to see that that creates bookends then on this entire novella, this entire short story given over to Joseph. As you move forward in that you get a sort of rising action where things become a little more complicated in chapter 38–41 because this is where Joseph is rising to power, but it creates threats for the brothers. The brothers are not really happy about this. I mean, Joseph's rise to power in Egypt is going to threaten them. But then when you come to the end of the story, the next to the last section of the story in chapter 47, what you have is Joseph ruling, and but in this case, while he's ruling in Egypt, it's to the benefit of his brothers.

So, you can see the contrast; the beginning and end and then these middle sections as well. And then in the very center of the story you have this very dramatic time, this poignant moment when Joseph and his brothers are actually reconciled in chapters 42–47. It's complicated in the sense that Joseph keeps testing them to see what kinds of people they are, but at the same time it ends up with reconciliation. So, there's this rise of tension and a turning point in the center and a flow down to the resolution of that tension, and that creates a unified story throughout all of these chapters that focus on Joseph and his brothers.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.