Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

Joseph: Portraits through the Ages


The complex and dramatic story of Joseph is the most sustained narrative in Genesis. Many call it a literary masterpiece and a story of great depth that can be read on many levels. In a lucid and engaging style, Alan T. Levenson brings the voices of Philo, Josephus, Midrash, and medieval commentators, as well as a wide range of modern scholars, into dialogue about this complex biblical figure.

Levenson explores such questions as: Why did Joseph's brothers hate him so? What is achieved by Joseph's ups and downs on the path to extraordinary success? Why didn't Joseph tell his father he was alive and ruling Egypt? What was Joseph like as a husband and father? Was Joseph just or cruel in testing his brothers' characters?

Levenson deftly shows how an unbroken chain of interpretive traditions, mainly literary but also artistic, have added to the depth of this fascinating and unique character.


I have a deep affection for the Joseph narrative. and so do many others, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who praise Joseph as one of the greatest stories of all times. That is an extraordinary claim given that the biblical text of Joseph comprises just thirteen chapters (Genesis 37–50), making Joseph the most sustained narrative in Genesis, but still a very small work. the literary genius of Joseph will get much attention in the following pages, hopefully fostering an appreciation of the interpreters of Joseph from biblical times until today. But this book cannot be an exhaustive survey of Joseph traditions; that would require more learning and more patience than I possess—and many, many more pages.

A reader might expect an inquiry into the historical Joseph. I devote relatively meager space to this issue for the simple reason that little can be said about Joseph with certainty. This is a portrait, not a biography. We are not dealing with a David or Solomon, both acknowledged by ancient texts, who left physical remains for archaeologists to argue about, or even a multilayered biblical account that can be read against itself, as historians read conflicting contemporaneous documents. the Bible’s account of David and Solomon contains histories, counterhistories, a pious retelling in Chronicles, and an awareness of other sources, now lost, but once available for inspection.

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