The Joseph Narrative: Literary Analysis and the Role of God
The Joseph narrative can be found in the book of Genesis chapters 37-50. It is slightly interrupted “by the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38) and by the so-called Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:1-28)” (Skinner, 438). The story of Joseph is seen as unique because it has different characteristics than its counterparts in Genesis. Other writings in Genesis seem to be short, brief incidents, about family and tribal affairs. The Joseph narrative, on the other hand, is lengthy in nature “comprising some 300 verses” (Barton & Muddiman, 60). In fact, Joseph is “second only to Moses in the attention given to him in the Torah” (Spring & Shapiro, 260). Some scholars consider the Joseph narrative to be an “originally independent literary composition, a kind of novella or short work of historical fiction…” that was integrated into Genesis later (Coogan, 69). Regardless of the origin of the narrative, its entertaining and well written story provides a strong basis for literary analysis. The story itself uses the literary technique of chiasmus in various spots. Foreshadowing also plays a prominent role. Besides the use of these techniques, various themes are established and carried throughout the narrative. These themes include the use of dreams, and clothing to make the reader aware of certain points in the plot. A major theme that will be developed is the role of God throughout the story. All these elements that can be pulled from the narrative will give a deeper insight into the story of Joseph.
To get a better understanding of the literary complexity in the Joseph narrative, it is important to look at a literary structure that is used within it. This structure is known as chiasmus. Chiasmus is defined as the “repetition of ideas in inverted order” (Burton). This concept is used effectively within the narrative. “The uniqueness of the chiastic structure lies in its focus upon a pivotal theme, about which the other propositions of the literary unit are developed” (Ramey, “Literary Genius”). Although the chiastic structure is used throughout the Joseph narrative, the following example, found toward the beginning of the story (Gen. 37:3-11), shows the detail and effectiveness of such a structure. At the center of the chiastic structure, in this case, is the brother’s hatred toward Joseph (cfr. Ramey, “Literary Analysis”). The result is events leading up to this hatred, and the subsequent reoccurrence of these events in the opposite order. This particular example starts with Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph, followed by the brothers dislike of Joseph, followed by their silence toward Joseph, followed by their reaction to the fact Joseph had a dream, followed by Joseph telling the dream, which leads to the center of the structure: the brothers hatred. These events then reoccur, but this time, in an opposite order. Joseph tells his second dream, followed by Jacob’s reaction to the dream, followed by Jacob’s talk with Joseph, followed by the brothers’ envy of Joseph, followed by Jacob thinking carefully about the dream (cfr. Ramey, “Literary Analysis”). Although these events are not exactly the same, they follow the same ideas, the same structure. This literary device is a good tool for seeing the careful design of the Joseph narrative, and how that design conveys a single important message.
From a literary perspective, another technique used in the Joseph narrative is the foreshadowing of events and the repetition of similar structures and themes. As far as foreshadowing, this is shown most prominently through Joseph’s dreams. Repetition is also used heavily, as evidenced previously in the breakdown of the chiastic structure. It takes the form of various themes including the continued use of clothing and dreams. The elements of foreshadowing and repetition provide deeper insight into the literary analysis of the Joseph narrative.
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