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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEStory of Joseph in Five Religious Traditions
AUTHOR 1Jim Stokes
DATE_THIS1997 Spring
ABSTRACTThe parable of Joseph in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and Islam. Prefaced by comments by Moojan Momen.
NOTES I've prefaced the following two articles with some notes by Moojan Momen on the symbolism of the story of Joseph. These notes were originally posted to a Wilmette Institute private listserver on the Qur'an on Jan. 17 2001, and are included with permission.

See also The Story of Joseph in the Bábí and Bahá'í Faiths.

TAGS- Christianity; - Interfaith dialogue; - Islam; - Judaism; - Symbolism; Joseph (Prophet)
CONTENT Intro comments (not part of World Order article) by Moojan Momen
There are a number of points about the story of Joseph that have made it a prime vehicle for Muslim mystics to recast the story into a parable of the spiritual journey — hence it is known as "Ahsan al-Qisas" — the best of stories (v.3) for "Verily in Joseph and his brethren are Signs (or Symbols) for Seekers (after Truth)." (v.7)
  1. The first theme that is of relevance to the mystic quest is the theme of being lost and found again - the theme of being a stranger in a foreign land. In the Valley of Search Bahá'u'lláh writes: "How many a Jacob will he see, hunting after his Joseph"

  2. That which initially attracts the mystic is the fragrance of Joseph, the spiritual fragrances that come from the Manifestation of God. This fragrance is so strong that it permeates everything that comes into contact with the Manifestation - hence the fragrance of Joseph's shirt (qamis) - the true lover (Jacob) will discern it from a great distance (v.94).
    "And if, by the help of God, he findeth on this journey a trace of the traceless Friend, and inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph from the heavenly messenger, he shall straightway step into the Valley of Love"
    See also the reference to this in the Aqdas v. 4 and the note about this, note 1, p. 165

  3. The third theme revolves around the overwhelming beauty of Joseph — the guests at the banquet were so awe-struck at his beauty that they inadvertently cut their hands with their knives because they were not paying attention to what they were doing (v.31). Love arises in the individual as a result of the apprehension of beauty — in the spiritual path, this beauty is of course a spiritual beauty. Thus it is that Bahá'u'lláh is known as the Blessed Beauty.

    Hence Abdu'l-Bahá writes of Bahá'u'lláh: " When once He standeth revealed unto the assembled peoples of the world and appeareth with such comeliness, such enchantments — alluring as a Joseph in the Egypt of the spirit — He enslaveth all the lovers on earth. (Selections p. 64)

  4. The fourth theme is that of pain and betrayal — the True Joseph (Bahá'u'lláh) was betrayed by his brother and suffered great injury as a result (see God Passes By p. 23).

    But all are to some extent guilty of having "bartered away the Divine Joseph for the most paltry of prices." (Gleanings p. 208)

There are many other themes in the story that have been dwelt upon down the ages — the truthfulness of Joseph, the love of Zulaykha — who is not named in the Qur'an but is given this name in the Muslim Traditions.

The Story of Joseph in Five Religious Traditions
by Jim Stokes

      The story of Joseph is one of the oldest and most enduring stories in the world's religious and secular literature. It has been told and retold, and variously interpreted, serving as an endless reservoir of spiritual meaning for diverse cultures and religions. Most people in the West know the story from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament where it is generally recognized as "a masterpiece of biblical narrative" and the most sustained narrative in the Old Testament.[1] But it holds a no less significant place in the literature and teachings of Christianity, Islam, the Bábí religion, and the Bahá'í Faith; and it had analogues in ancient Egyptian literature and Zoroastrian texts as well. What is so important about this particular narrative that the Manifestation of God Muhammad Himself was moved to call it "the fairest of stories?"[2] `Why, thirteen hundred years after Muhammad's statement, would the Báb, the Founder of the Bábí religion in nineteenth-century Persia, choose to announce His prophetic identity and mission to the first of His followers by composing in that person's presence (as His main proof) the first chapter of a commentary on the Surih of Joseph from the Qur'án?[3]

      Tracing the story through its appearance and treatment in five of the world's religions that span a period of three millennia not only offers insights into the nature of the tale but also into the common literary and spiritual heritage of these several religions. To their founders and leaders, the story has always had significance lifting it above mere literary narrative. As Muhammad revealed: "it is not a tale forged [made by men] but a confirmation."[4] From that perspective the story also offers insights into the various modes by which five religiously inspired cultures and civilizations have sought to define and interpret reality--a process that continues to the present day. Above all, their respective responses to the story illustrate the ways in which each of the five religions understand the nature and role of the Manifestations of God themselves, those great and mysterious Beings at the center of each of the religions.

The Old Testament

      In the Old Testament the story of Joseph occupies the final lengthy section (chapters 37-50) of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch--the five books traditionally known as the books of Moses.[5]
The story of Joseph follows and completes the story of his father, Jacob, grandson of Abraham, and precedes Exodus, the story of Moses, the second book of the Bible. From a literary point of view the Genesis version of the story belongs to what literary scholars call the narrative genre of romance, especially as the form was used in the Middle Ages. That is, it is the story of a great life, episodically told, incorporating elements of adventure, mistaken identity, miraculous escapes, mysterious interventions, reunions, movement between geographically diverse settings, and, ultimately, the success and vindication of the hero. But in religious texts the story is also invested with deeper significance; it encapsulates the unique shape and meaning of the life of a Manifestation of God.

      In barest summary, the principal events of the story in Genesis are as follows. Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob. His mother, and the mother of his younger brother, Benjamin, was Rachel. When young Joseph incurred the wrath of his brothers by telling them, with innocent honesty, of two symbolic dreams portraying his eventual dominion over them, they conspired to kill "this dreamer" (Gen. 37:19-20) and to discredit his dreams by murdering him. His brother Ruben persuaded them, instead, to cast him into a well. Eventually they sold Joseph to traveling merchants who brought him into Egypt where they, in turn, sold him to Potiphar, the Captain of the Pharaoh's guard. Through Joseph's virtues and gifts he eventually rose to a position of great favor and responsibility; but, when Potiphar's wife, having failed in her efforts to seduce him, claimed that it was he who had tried to seduce her, Joseph was cast into prison. Even there, however, through his innate capacities, he rose to a position of favor (Gen. 39-41).

      Then begins a sequence of two sets of twin dreams that Joseph successfully interpreted. In the first set, the Pharaoh's butler and baker, having been cast into prison, sought Joseph's interpretation of their respective dreams. He complied, telling them that the butler would live and be restored to the Pharaoh's household but that the baker would die, both of which predictions came to pass. In the second set of dreams the Pharaoh dreamed first of seven fat cows and seven lean cows that came out of the river, then of seven good ears of corn that consumed seven bad ears. Joseph interpreted both dreams as a single imminent prophecy warning of the approach of seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine. He counseled the Pharaoh to take steps to prepare for these events. For these feats Joseph was made overseer of all the Pharaoh's land and goods (Gen. 39-41).

      The next episode--the central one of the tale--relates Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers when they came to Egypt seeking relief from the famine and Joseph's eventual reunion with his family. Through a series of stratagems he compelled the brothers, in stages and by degrees, to see the errors of their ways. He ordered them to return to Canaan and bring to Egypt their entire family (the eventual tribes of Israel), including their father. Before the brothers' returned to Egypt with their father after this second trip into Canaan God spoke to Jacob in a dream, assuring him that he had nothing to fear and counseling him to go into Egypt as bidden by Joseph (Gen. 42-47). The episode illustrates Joseph's true purpose--to awaken remorse in his brothers for their earlier misdeeds, and it dramatizes the forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and love that Joseph shows to his brothers, standing in transcendent contrast to their own earlier actions against him.

      To someone for whom the story is a symbolic dramatization of the life and mission of a Manifestation of God, leaving out any detail in summarizing it is potentially problematic. But it seems safe to say that two motifs-- dreams and garments--seem to be more important than others as symbols because of the way they recur, unify the story, and illustrate the station of Joseph. It is Joseph's own dreams and his ability to interpret dreams that sets him apart, whether his clear vision of his own eventual ascendancy or his ability to interpret the dreams of the prisoners and the Pharaoh. Further, the dream motif also demonstrates Jacob's spiritual station when God, in a dream, reassures Jacob and tells him to go as bidden into Egypt (Gen. 46:2-3); and though not a dream, Jacob's final act--a ceremony in which he places his hand on Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons, thereby selecting him for ascendancy over Joseph's first born son, Manassah, contravening the principle of primogeniture on behalf of innate worthiness--seems a mystically informed act (Gen. 48: 13-20). Obviously the dream motif illustrates a superior knowledge based on mystical union with God. Joseph is the source of guidance and protection for everyone he encounters, even when separated from everyone while he was in the darkness of the well or in the prison where he has been cast. In Jacob's dying words, he lauded Joseph's having received "blessings of heaven above" and "blessings of the deep that lieth under" and blessings of the womb (Gen. 49:25), seeming thereby to be saying that Joseph's knowledge transcends all place and time.

      The second major motif--garments--also seems to symbolize the rank of a Manifestation of God or divinely inspired teacher and His suffering. At the beginning of the story it is Joseph's coat of many colors (emblematic of his special rank) that his brothers strip from him and dip into the blood of a freshly slaughtered goat, telling Jacob that it is the blood of Joseph. Chapter 38, a digression that tells the story of Judah, the brother most bent on killing Joseph, seems to be about those who would usurp the Prophet's station. It uses imagery of garments as a negative symbol, specifically when Tamar, wife of Judah's deceased son put off her widow's garments and replaced them with those of a harlot to entrap Judah, by which means she conceived twins. In Egypt, when Joseph is summoned back from prison to interpret the Pharaoh's two dreams, he first changed his "raiment," and when the Pharaoh, in gratitude, elevated Joseph to a position second only to that of his own son, Pharaoh "arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck" (Gen. 41:14, 42). Finally, Joseph was described by his dying father as "a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall" (Gen. 49:22). Though not an overt image of garments, the bough can be seen as a metaphor related to the garments treated throughout as emblematic of blessings. All these images, like the dreams, seem designed as ways of repeatedly defining Joseph in terms of a spiritual ruler.

      On a literary level, the story of Joseph can be interpreted in many ways: as a tale of the separation of a lost child miraculously protected and eventually found; as a story of reunion; or as a story of forgiveness and reconciliation. As a religious text, each of these aspects can also be seen as metaphors illustrating the healing mission of a Manifestation of God. Whether viewed in literary or religious terms, Joseph is presented in The Old Testament as a chosen soul, gifted with special powers. His bond with the higher source of these gifts is never seriously threatened or questioned by Joseph or by the narrator. It is simply manifested in stages that successively and increasingly reveal his wisdom and love and the unquestionable primacy of his station. Moreover, he is the link in the chain of authority between Jacob and Moses. It is the other characters who suffer and grow in more traditional human ways, relative to their treatment of and attitudes toward Joseph. They are redeemed by him in spite of themselves.

      The traditional modes of interpreting the significance of the story within Judaism are too richly various and complex to present adequately, even if the author were able to do so. But several of the typical traditional approaches can be noted. One approach sees the biblical story as a form of evidence about Jewish history. Scholars generally agree that numerous details in the story resonate convincingly with what is known of Egyptian culture during the early to mid-second millennium B.C.E.--from the trafficking in slaves, to Egyptian names in the story, to the structure of Egyptian bureaucracy and the forms of titles, to the famine cycle, to details of clothing.[6] The biblical story, scholars say, seems clearly to be rooted in memory of an actual historical encounter by the Hebrews with the Egyptian empire.[7] Even some motifs in the story have analogues in contemporaneous Egyptian stories, notably one known as the "Tale of the Two Brothers," built on the core incident of a wife's attempt to seduce her brother-in-law, though the purpose, focus, tone, and moral climate of the two stories are thought to be so utterly different as to preclude direct influence.[8] But from an historical perspective, scholars have convincingly shown that the biblical author seems to be drawing brilliantly on the cultural matrix of his time to recast the material into a transcendent story exemplifying God's mysterious but benevolent design for the Jewish nation, a design that God chose to unfold through the interpretive powers of His chosen human vessel, Joseph, and the device of the dream.

      Earlier rabbinical commentators were generally less interested in pinning down historical details. Instead, they tended to view Joseph as an exemplar, an idealized model of human conduct who combined physical beauty and moral excellence.[9] The incredibly rich Jewish tradition of midrash (interpretation) mines every detail of the story for "object lessons in rabbinic homiletics" concerning "various social, religious and political aspects of life," sometimes critical of actions byJoseph and Jacob, more often filled with praise for his wisdom, righteousness, and loyalty.[10] In fact, after Genesis Joseph quickly fades from view in the Bible and is but fleetingly mentioned in the Old Testament, though he remains a symbol of righteousness.[11] The beginning of his decline seems to have coincided with the fall of the Northern Kingdom (associated with the descendants of Joseph) to the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E.[12] And the subsequent story of Moses, which tends to overshadow Joseph, is an overwhelming saga of liberation. Whatever the reason, in Jewish midrash Joseph, generally speaking, evolved into a permanent symbol of the wise man rather than remaining a clear and sustained symbol of a Manifestation of God.

      Finally, because the biblical version of the story is a uniquely articulated masterpiece of narrative, many modern Old Testament scholars want to see much of the story's meaning in the shape and features of the story itself. They search for redactions, analogues, and borrowings from folk traditions. Such features as the parallel dreams and the disappearance into the well and the prison lend themselves to symbolic interpretations. The classic collection of midrash by Louis Ginsberg, includes many symbolic and mystical interpretations for parts of the story.[13] For example, when the wolf who is blamed for the supposed death of Joseph is brought before Jacob, God causes it to speak and deny the killing of Joseph. Jacob's grieving for the loss of Joseph becomes a rumination about the loss of the Covenant with God; in fact, the underlying theme of God's plan for Israel recurs as an interpretation throughout the midrash.[14] Most striking is the treatment of the dreams in which Joseph consistently finds dual levels of meaning and prophecies--those concerning the fate of the dreamer and those bearing a message about the destiny of Israel, which only he perceives.[15] But in spite of this unifying recurrent symbolism, the effect of the midrash is not to interpret the story of Joseph as a perfectly articulated divine allegory but as a combination of historical narrative and religiously charged canonical text the ultimate signification of which remains mysterious and inchoate but spiritually attractive to many.


      While the story of Joseph was a major part of Genesis in the Old Testament, it is mentioned only three times in the New Testament (Mark 14:51-52) which may echo the episode of the cloak and Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39:11-12); Acts 7:9-17, which summarizes his career; and Hebrews 11:22, which lists him as a hero of faith. Yet the story had a prominent place in the development of early Christian theology as a symbol for the Christian Savior, and it continues to be both spiritually significant in Christianity and a rich imaginative source for artists.

      To understand the early Christian response to the story of Joseph it is necessary to understand something of the way in which the theology of early Christianity developed. During its formative stages, the Christian Faith was faced with two great issues (among others) for which it needed to develop responses. The first was the need to explain the relationship of the New Testament to the Old Testament. Was the earlier Jewish text wrong, or was it now superseded by the Christian Gospels? Or did the two instead share a continuing interrelated life of sustained and spiritual significance as divinely revealed texts? Implicit in that question was the more urgent one: How was Christ to be understood in relation to spiritual figures who had come before him? The answer would determine Christians' understanding of the shape and meaning of history. The second of these issues arose out of the encounter of the early Church with the Neoplatonism of Greek Hellenism, the dominant culture within which early Christianity developed.[16] Was the Church to agree with the Platonist view that this physical, temporal world is little more than illusory, an insubstantial shadow without reality? Or does the world, though admittedly lower than the higher spiritual kingdom of which Christianity teaches, somehow partake to some extent in the larger reality?

      The answer, the early Church fathers held, must be found within the New Testament, the portion of the Bible considered most important by Christians since it arose immediately from the life and teachings of Jesus. But both the New Testament and the Old Testament contained material that was by turns obscure, contradictory, at cultural odds with the emerging Christian culture, or otherwise confounding to those turning to it for guidance. The method of the early Church fathers in making sense of the Bible was to define it as an occult text--that is, a text in which the real meaning (or at least important parts of that meaning) lay beneath the surface of the mere letters and words themselves and which was, therefore, in need of interpretation.[17]

      The technique developed by the Church Fathers was a complex form of allegorical interpretation.[18] Allegory itself--the interpretation of episode-within-text as elaborately articulated mystical metaphors standing for something else--was a legacy of the ancient world, but their biblical source was St. Paul, who interpreted several biblical cruxes in allegorical terms. For example, in explaining the significance of the two sons of Abraham in Galatians (4:21-31), Paul said unequivocally that the two sons "are an allegory" standing for the two covenants associated with Abraham (4:24). From that foundation there developed a system for interpreting divine text allegorically that has come to be known as the fourfold exegetical method.[19]

      Essentially the method argues that religious texts have four equipresent levels of meaning. The first is the literal or historical. The next three are allegorical meanings of several kinds: the typological, the moral or tropological (from the word trope or figure of speech), and the metaphysical or anagogical.

      In the first of these three allegorical meanings--the typological--the thing described prefigures or stands for something else. This level gave Christianity the means to reinterpret everything in the Old Testament as a kind of prefiguring or rehearsal of events in the coming theophany of Christ. The tropological level interprets the event as a moral teaching directed toward improving the spiritual life of the individual Christian. In the anagogical or metaphysical level the event stands for a corresponding reality in a higher spiritual realm (which reflects aspects of Platonism). This fourfold scheme accounts for past, present, and future; for individual and institutional spirituality; for the relation of the physical and the nonphysical worlds; and for the relationship between successive religious dispensations.

      For example, the word "Jerusalem," literally and historically, could mean the city itself; typologically it could signify the Church of Christ (the New Jerusalem); tropologically it could signify the human soul made new in Christ; anagogically it could signify the heavenly City of God.[20] The fourfold method could be endlessly replicated and applied to every story and every detail in the Bible, allegorically knitting the Old Testament to the New Testament.

      The story of Joseph was interpreted by the early Church fathers in terms of the exegetical method as a way of better appreciating Christ as Savior. Of all the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose--described by St. Bernard as one of "the two pillars of the Church"-- endeavored in the fourth century to articulate the fourfold exegetical method in its greatest detail, and he was the one "to popularize the allegorical method in the West."[21] Allegorical allusions to Joseph occur in a number of his letters, but it is his exegetical treatise on Joseph that systematically presents a comprehensive allegorical interpretation of the entire story.[22] To Ambrose, Joseph, the model of purity and chastity, was a typological figure representing Christ. In him "the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that was to come was revealed."[23] Ambrose then meticulously shows that every incident and detail in the Old Testament life of Joseph prefigures a corresponding episode in the life of Christ. For example, the significance of Jacob's sending Joseph to inquire of his brothers whether the sheep were well is that of God sending His son, Christ, to inquire after the lost sheep of the house of Israel.[24] Joseph was sold for a number of pieces of silver; the same was done to Christ. Joseph was stripped of his garment and cast into a dark, dry pit as if dead; in like manner Christ was stripped of His mortal flesh and cast into hell, but nothing in that attempt to destroy Him and His message could kill His divinity and immortal life. Ambrose likens the dryness of the pit to the dryness of the Jews who had "abandoned the fountain of living water."[25] It must be noted that in this comment can be seen a strand of the incipient antisemitism in early Christianity that, unfortunately, endured into much later times. Ambrose was the master of the fourfold allegorical method, and some of his interpretations are elegant. Indeed, he quotes from some biblical passages that, in the context he gives them, seem veiled allusions to the story of Joseph--for example, in Psalms 88:6: "Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps."

      Of the famine in Egypt that Joseph foresaw, Ambrose says that it signifies Christ "taking pity on the hungers of the world" by opening the granaries of divine mysteries that would nourish mankind.[26] When Joseph saw his brothers again and spoke mildly to them, it was the Hebrews being seen by Christ, "who is the true Joseph," teaching them lovingly.[27] When Joseph told his brothers not to grieve but to go to their father and report that Joseph had been made master of Egypt, it is the resurrected Christ directing His followers to go into Galilee where they shall see Him.[28] When the brothers did so, they were like the apostles entering the synagogue and preaching of Christ to the Jews.[29] In the living Joseph reunited with his father is the resurrected Christ, "the interpreter of the Godhead."[30] This sampling illustrates but a small part of the meticulous working out of typological relationships, some of them much more subtle and ingenious than these. It was a method that won the European West with a rhetoric based on allegory.

      Joseph is one of seven topics chosen by Ambrose as subjects of his major exegetical works, thus reinvesting the story with a significance that it seems to have lost in later Jewish midrash. While not the central story of Christianity (that could obviously only be the story of Christ Himself), it was allegorically made to mirror that story. And it has continued to be explored by Christian mystics, philosophers, and artists into the twentieth century. As one source says, "Few biblical figures have inspired more extensive and more universal literary treatment than Joseph."[31] Notable among them are twelve English plays before 1560 and many continental dramas, Thomas Mann's novel cycle Joseph and His Brothers (1934-44), paintings by Rembrandt and other artists,[32] and the 1968 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Technicolored Dreamcoat. To appreciate the importance of the story of Joseph is to appreciate the particular contribution of Christianity by way of its spiritually inspired interpretive model of reality and to understand the nature and role of Christ as Christianity's universal Savior.


      With the advent of Islam in 622 C.E. the story of Joseph moves once again from the periphery to the center of religious text in a most extraordinary way--by the words of God as revealed by the Manifestation of God Muhammad.[33] In the Qur'án, the holy book of Islam, Muhammad signals the importance of the story of Joseph with words variously translated as "the fairest" or "the best" or "the most wonderful" of stories. To appreciate the profound significance of that appellation, it is necessary to understand something of the nature of the Qur'án itself.

      The Qur'án is divided into 114 súrihs or chapters variously revealed to Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina (and so identified in each case), arranged by length, and each given a name related to a motif within the chapter. The Qur'án's most striking feature is the dramatic nature of the súrihs.[34] In form they are dialogues between Muhammad and the Voice of God or, more properly, monologues by God as reported by Muhammad, along with His own responses, in which God delivers guidance via Muhammad to the world--guidance ranging from laws and injunctions, to interpretations, to warnings, to consolations. in short, for Muslims (and for Bahá'ís) the Qur'án is nothing less than the authentic Voice of God cutting through a contemporary welter of confusions and corruption with an uncompromising and healing message of renewal to humankind. As such, the Voice of God in the Qur'án is rhetorically intense, decisive, clear, and commanding.[35]

      Hence in the Qur'án the story of Joseph is framed by the Voice of God speaking to Muhammad. That Voice defines the story's nature and meaning. It opens by affirming that the Arabic Qur'án is itself but a sign of "the Manifest Book" (that is, it reflects a timeless original that is in Heaven) and that Joseph is the fairest of stories within that book (12:254). Just as impressively, the surih closes with the emphatic reiteration that the story is not "a tale forged" (that is, a human fable) but "a confirmation. . . a distinguishing . . . a guidance . . . a mercy. . . . sent again here as it has been before (12:264). At the end of the surih, speaking again to Muhammad, God once more affirms that the story is meant as a gift to bring understanding. Thus the Voice of God bestows on the story an emblematic, inherently symbolic status, making it a spiritual template of the first order and thereby giving it an enduring literary and spiritual significance in Islam. In fact, His words give narrative itself, and the symbolic mode, significance too. Above all, the Qur'án appears to say that the story signifies the nearly despairing experience not only of earlier messengers of God but of Muhammad Himself, to Whose teachings His people were not yet listening. In that sense, the Qur'án seems to be saying that Joseph is to be understood as a model for Muhammad in a way that is reminiscent of the earlier Christian typology that interpreted Joseph as a type of Christ (although Islam does not follow the fourfold exegetical model of early Christianity).

      As was the case in the Old Testament, the story of Joseph is the most detailed, narratively coherent episode in the Qur'án. But while the essential incidents of the story are the same in both holy texts, the presentation, the emphases, and the effect in the Qur'án are utterly different based on differences in the nature of the book itself A Western reader expecting to encounter a mirror of the biblical narrative may initially be shocked, even a little disappointed by the differences and by the lack of concern in the Qur'án for traditional Western literary devices and signposts. But seen on its own terms, the Qur'anic story is a masterpiece of reinterpretation of Jewish and Christian law comparable to that of Christ's reinterpretation of Jewish law in the Gospel of Matthew and part of a text so spiritually potent that it generated a new religion and civilization.

      In literary terms, the Qur'anic version of the story of Joseph strips away those elements of the Old Testament story that gave it a Hebraic focus, presenting it, instead, as a universal "tidings of the Unseen" (12:265) meant to quicken and awaken the hearts of all human beings and bring them to the straight path of belief. Aside from the names Jacob and Joseph and references to Egypt, the story is presented in the Qur'án as a kind of drama, a contest unfolding on a universal stage devoid of specificities that would tie it to one culture. Even the brothers of Joseph are never named; that would detract from the point of the story and from its focus on Joseph himself.

      In the Qur'anic version, the need to teach monotheism to the polytheistic peoples of Arabia (and to acknowledge and accept Muhammad as their Guide in this process) is the structural principle underlying the story. Each incident that is retained is shaped to illustrate that grand theme; every action by Joseph is intended to demonstrate the unwavering fidelity to the one true God that not only Joseph but Muhammad Himself and His followers must maintain in the face of the perfidies of Joseph's brothers (themselves seemingly symbolic of all unbelieving peoples--the universal "brotherhood" of humanity in its response to the Manifestation of God). A brief example will illustrate this unique focus in the Qur'án. When Joseph is imprisoned and two young fellow prisoners relate to him their dreams and ask him to interpret their meaning, Joseph does so (as in the Old Testament). But the incident becomes an opportunity for him to teach them about monotheism: "I have forsaken the creed of a people who believe not in God... . And I have followed the creed of my fathers. . . . Say, which is better, my fellow-prisoners--many gods at variance, or God the One, the Omnipotent" (12:258). His "sermon" to them continues, condemning the errors of judgment leading to polytheism. The meaning of the two prisoners' dreams of food, in the Qur'án, is that the one prisoner has chosen life-giving spiritual sustenance (by following the command to serve only one God) while the other prisoner has chosen spiritual death (the result of polytheism). The ultimate meaning of the dreams of the Pharaoh, and of Joseph's dealings with his own brothers, is interpreted in the same way--to illustrate the primacy of Joseph's knowledge and God's guiding hand. Awareness of this kind of reinterpretation helps one to appreciate the bold originality of Muhammad's thought.

      The metaphors of dreams and of garments are still present in the Qur'anic version, but are no longer the central metaphors of the story. Instead, the Qur'anic version emphasizes the unity of understanding and purpose shared by God, Jacob, Joseph, and his unnamed younger brother, in opposition to the other, also unnamed, brothers and the assorted Egyptians. Jacob, though still a figure of great suffering, has mystical insight throughout, similar to but more limited in its application than the mystical knowledge of Joseph. He understands the meaning of Joseph's childhood dream; he sees through the lies of the brothers who have sold Joseph into slavery. When the brothers return to Egypt as bidden by Joseph, Jacob counsels them to enter by separate gates, and the Voice of God comments that "he [Jacob] was possessed of a knowledge for that we had taught him" (12:262). When the brothers berate Jacob for grieving so deeply after the loss of Joseph and his younger brother, Jacob responds, "I know from God that you know not (12:263) and sends them out to search for the two lost brothers. At the moment when Joseph in Egypt gives his shirt to his brothers and instructs them to cast it over Jacob to restore his sight, Jacob (far away in Canaan) says, "Surely I perceive Joseph's scent (12:264), signifying his own mystical union with Joseph. Once reunited with his parents (in this version his mother is still living), Joseph explains to Jacob the meaning of the childhood dream and affirms that the author of his powers of understanding and interpretation was God (12:265). In the Qur'anic version it is not the literary symmetry of the succession of dreams that counts. Rather, the story is a drama of the testing of one's spiritual character and insight and one's ability to remain firm and united with God, Who here assumes the role of Teacher, Narrator, Supreme Interpreter. The Qur'anic version brings a major change to the story. Before the Qur'án, the value and meaning of the story could be variously understood--as fascinating tale, as veiled religious symbolism, as historical narrative. But its primary message--to Muslims--was now fixed and clear: It represents the Manifestation of God and His most urgent teachings.

      Because Muhammad gave such obvious signals of its importance, the story of Joseph subsequently assumed great importance in both the literature and the religious history of Islam. The literature of Islam is vast, encompassing numerous languages and cultures and developing in stages that mirror the growth and expansion of Islam itself. Floating on this vast sea of Islamic literature, like so many ships, are innumerable works exploring, retelling, or interpreting the story of Joseph. "Persian and Turkish literatures alone have produced close to a hundred" versions of the story, fifty by Persian poets, twenty-eight in Ottoman Turkish, and six in India.[36]

      The story of Síyávush from Zoroastrian sacred texts, told in a work entitled The Books of Kings, by the Persian epic poet Firdowsi (c. 940-1020 C.E.) was seen to parallel the Story of Joseph in the motif of "the Chaste Youth and the Lustful Stepmother with a philosophical worldview which transcends the individual and is directed toward the future."[37]

      The great Sufi poet Rumí, drawing on this earlier epic, wrote the most important of the literary retellings of Joseph, the long mystical romance, Joseph and Zulaykhá (1484 CE.). It was the first to so thoroughly interpret the story allegorically as a contest between uncontrollable human passion and idolatry (symbolized by Zulaykhá, the wife of Potiphar) and divine or mystical love (symbolized by Joseph) and to dramatize how the two are resolved and eventually harmonized in perfect union. He also treated the story as symbolically parallel to the mystical story of Majnun and Layli. From this seminal work by Jámí sprang "an impressive number of imitators" exploring this new theme.[38]

      Many of the works associated Joseph not only with Muhammad but with John the Baptist and, more important, with Imám Husayn, the martyred grandson of Muhammad. The Joseph story more than any other has also crossed and recrossed religious and cultural boundaries in recent centuries as Jewish and Islamic commentators have studied it, drawing on each other's traditions.[39] For millennial Muslims, the motif of return has been an inescapable component--and the most compelling one--of the diverse associations generated by the story, making it "the most popular of the biblical stories in Muslim Persia."[40] The inclination of the storytellers within that tradition is commonly to identify with Jacob, whose heart was lost in sorrow, seeking reunion with his Joseph, his Muhammad, his Husayn, and often to turn the story back into a romance (in the medieval literary sense). It stands at the very core of Islamic literary heritage.

      On the theological level, the story of Joseph has been particularly important in the eschatology (the branch of theology dealing with last things) of Shi'ah Islam, where the religious significance has remained close in spirit to that given it by Muhammad, and where it eventually culminated in historic events played out in the towns and countryside of nineteenth-century Iran. Soon after the death of Muhammad, Islam split into what eventually became two branches of the Faith--Sunni and Shi'ah which arose out of controversy concerning questions of succession and authority.[41]

      Both groups accepted the spiritual authority of the Qur'án and collections of hadith (the body of the sacred traditions of the Muslims), but Sunnis also accepted the authority of the Caliph, a temporal ruler chosen by other Muslim leaders but lacking prophetic or spiritual status, while Shi'ah Muslims believed that legitimate spiritual authority resided in `Alí, nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad, known to them as the first Imam (spiritual leader), and subsequently in the hands of his chosen descendants.[42]

      After `Ali was assassinated in 40 A.H./ 660 CE., eleven further Imams chosen from `Ali's immediate descendants successively assumed the mantle of spiritual leadership within Shi'ah Islam. Eventually Shi'ism became centered in Iran, first as an underground movement running counter to the ruling Sunni dynasty of the Abbasids, and eventually as the dominant sect of Islam within Iran.[43]

      The basic tenets of Shi'ah Islam took shape during the tenure of the twelve Imams. It is an article of Shi'ah belief that each of the first eleven Imams were murdered, and that, to escape being murdered, the twelfth Imam (known at various times as The Mahdi or The Qá'im or The Awaited One, or The Lord of the Age) went into "occultation"-- a state of being alive but veiled from the world and "miraculously prolonged until the day when he will manifest himself again by God's permission."[44]
Thus, inherent in Shi'ah Islam is a millennial dimension similar to that in some branches of Christianity and other religions, a belief that at the time of the end or Judgment Day, the Savior (in this case the Mahdí or Twelfth Imam) will return to assert His rightful authority, thereby returning God's justice onto the earth. Based on the words of Muhammad in the Surih of Adoration, Shi'ah scholars reckoned that time as the year 1260 A.H. or 1844 CE. Indeed, a great wave of millennial expectation, especially within the Shaykhi School founded by Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsá'í, pervaded some elements of Shi'ah Islam during the first half of the nineteenth century.[45]

      In the context of Shi'ih beliefs and expectations, it is obvious why, after more than a thousand years of literary, philosophical, and theological influence in Islam, the story of Joseph would assume special urgency and significance in the 1840s within the millennial communities of Shi'ah Islam. Muhammad had clearly designated the story a key, if not the key, repository of spiritual mystery; Joseph's lengthy disappearance into Egypt in the face of mortal danger could be interpreted as an occultation in its own right; the chief threat to Joseph, as it was with Muhammad and the Imams, was from envious members of his own family. Though he was the youngest of the brothers (the Twelfth Imam, too, was a child), Joseph was the one mysteriously anointed with intuitive, higher spiritual knowledge; and his return had harmonized spiritual and temporal power and authority just as would the return of the Mahdí. Yet the operative historical meaning and ultimate significance of the story remained a mystery that defied definitive interpretation. It is reported that, when Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashtí the successor of Shaykh Ahmad, was asked sometime before 1844 to write a commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, he declined, saying, "This is, verily, beyond me. He, that great One, who comes after me will, unasked, reveal it for you. That commentary will constitute one of the weightiest testimonies of His truth, and one of the clearest evidences of the loftiness of His position."[46]

      Thus he linked the story of Joseph to the appearance of a new religion, thereby clearly indicating the importance the story held for members of that element within Islam but also its difficult mysteries.

      Shortly thereafter, in 1844, the Bábi religion arose in Persia, followed nineteen years later by the Bahá'í Faith, together ushering in perhaps the most tumultuous religious episode of the nineteenth century. From the moment of the inception of the Bábi religion, the story of Joseph held central importance in it and, in fact, became part of its historical development. The story has no less importance in the Bahá'í Faith that followed. The role of the story in both those religions, and what makes it spiritually significant in our own times, is explored in the second part of this study.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Jim Stokes.

JIM STOKES is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. In 1996 the University of Toronto Press published his Somerset, a two-volume work including records of early English drama. In preparation are Lincolnshire, records of early English drama (also with the University of Toronto Press) and "The Effects of the Reformation on Traditional Culture in Somerset, 1532—1642." His examination of the story of Joseph, the first installment of which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of World Order, grew, in part, from teaching comparative literature and literature of the ancient world.

[1] D. L. Jeffrey, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W B. Ferdman's, 1992) 441.
[2] A. J. Arberry, trans., The Koran Interpreted (New York: McMillan, 1955) 254. All references to the Qur'án are to this translation.
[3] For a discussion of the Báb's use of the story of Joseph, see the second part of this article in a forthcoming issue of World Order.
[4] Arberry, The 266 Koran Interpreted.
[5] All citations from the Bible are from the Authorized (King James) version of 1611.
[6] B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) is an alternative designation corresponding to B.C. (Before Christ).
[7] For a discussion of the historical details, see "Joseph," in Encyclopedia Judaica 202-17.
[8] See "Joseph," in Encyclopedia Judaica 203.
[9] Jeffrey, Dictionary of Biblical Tradition 415.
[10] "Joseph," Encyclopedia Judaica 210.
[11] James L. Kugel, In Potiphar's House (San Francisco: Harper's, 1990) 26.
[12] Kugel, In Potiphar's House 16.
[13] Louis Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society of America, 1975).
[14] Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible 209-11
[15] Ginsberg, Legends of the Bible 225, passim.
[16] See Edward K. Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages (New York: Dover, 1928), especially chapter 1, "The Church and Pagan Culture"; and Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993).
[17] On the occult text, see David Norton, A History of the Bible as Literature, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993) 57-61.
[18] On the method of early Christian allegory, see Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture 225-30. and Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages 85-90.
[19] Norton, History of the Bible 57. For a discussion of John Cassian, who formalized the fourfold exegetical method during the fourth century, see Norton History of the Bible 58.
[20] Norton, History of the Bible 57-58.
[21] Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages 101, 85.
[22] See Sr. Mary Melchior Beyenka, trans., Saint Ambrose: Letters (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954) 84-87, 147, 288-89, 431, 491; Michael P McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America P. 1972) 187-240.
[23] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 191.
[24] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 193.
[25] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 198.
[26] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose2l6.
[27] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 220.
[28] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 230.
[29] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 234.
[30] McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose 237.
[31] Encyclopedia Judaica 213.
[32] Encyclopedia Judaica 213-16.
[33] C.E. (Common Era) is an alternative designation corresponding to AD. (Anno Domini).
[34] Richard Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an (Edinburgh: University Press, 1963) 59-62, 77-78.
[35] Bell, Introduction to the Qur'an 59-62, 77-78.
[36] Sa'id Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth: Literature Transformations of the Joseph Figure," diss., Princeton U, 1975, 29, 48.
[37] Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 32.
[38] Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 29; see also Paul Davis, et al., eds. World Literature in a World Context (New York: St. Martin's, 1995) 1444; H. M. Bayuzi, Muhammad and the Course of Islam (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976) 286; and Peter Heath, Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1922) 3-4
[39] Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 46, 54-55.
[40] Arbab-Shirani, "Shapes of a Myth" 47.
[41] Much of this historical summary is taken from Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985). On the problem of succession, see Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam 11-22.
[42] Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam 11-22.
[43] Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam 23-85.
[44] Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam 165.
[45] Nabíl-i-A'zam [Muhammad-i-Zarandí], The Dawn-Breakers; Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation, trans. and ed. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) 1-18
[46] Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers 59.
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