Something doesn’t add up in Joseph’s visions

The writer no longer holds the following position (having been disabused of it by Luther). The post remains in place due to pack-rat compulsions.

What’s wrong with this prophecy?: “The sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.”

You might recognize this as one of the two visions that Joseph had prior to being sold to a party of Ishmeelites. To help you piece together what’s awry, here’s a redaction of the story:

At age 17 [1], Joseph had a pair of visions, which he described to his family: in the dreams,  inanimate objects make obeisance to him, sheaves of grain in the earlier and heavenly bodies in the latter. He was sold into Egypt, presumably before his next birthday. [2] His mother, Rachel, was still alive at that time, for her death was occasioned by the birth of Benjamin [3], whom Joseph never knew until his family reunion in Egypt. (The assertion that Rachel was still alive at the time supposes that Gen 35 and 37 are not given in chronological order. For a discussion of that see “Genesis 35 and 37 are out of order.”)

Evidence of Rachel’s earthly presence when Joseph was 17 comes in Jacob’s response to the latter of Joseph’s two visions. Joseph said:

Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.

Jacob rebuked:

What is this dream that thou has dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?

It’s remarkable that Joseph’s family had the same interpretation of his dreams that we have: that the elements of his dreams represented his family members, who should make obeisance to him. After all, if a son of yours shared such a dream with you, would you personalize it in this way? What if the number of items in his dream didn’t coincide with the number of members in your family?

You’ve already caught the first inconsistency: the dream alludes to Joseph’s mother (even Jacob reded it so). And we have no obeisance by Joseph’s family to him (even in any figurative sense) until their reunion with him in Egypt [4], and by that time, Rachel had been dead several years (Joseph was between 37 and 39 years old).

You might suggest that Rachel’s inclusion in the vision was not literal but was only intended for the sake of a holistic view of the family. But why, then, are there eleven stars? Benjamin was not born yet. Not counting Joseph, there were only ten sons of Jacob at the time of the dream. (Count ‘em: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, & Asher.)

It makes better sense for the vision to have {a sun, a moon, and ten stars} or {a sun and eleven stars}, but {a sun and a moon and twelve stars} is like trying to pick up a single end of two different sticks. Anyone have an explanation?


[1] Gen 37:2. Okay, so it’s not absolutely evident that the first three episodes in this chapter (evil report & coat of colours, Joesph’s visions, and sold into slavery) all took place at age 17, but it seems the intended message.

[2] Gen 37:25–28, 36. Okay, he was actually sold to Ishmeelites, who sold him to Midianites, who sold him to Potiphar of Egypt. Who knows how long all this arbitrage took?

[3] Gen 35:17–19

[4] Gen 42:6, 43:26,28. Okay, so we never have record of Jacob bowing to Joseph.

Image credit Lawrence OP

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6 Responses to Something doesn’t add up in Joseph’s visions

  1. Luther says:

    Wasn’t Benjamin born before Joseph was sold? It comes two chapters earlier (35 = Benjamin, 37 = selling). Joseph shows no surprise that there are 12 sons (Gen 42:13–14) nor that Rachel didn’t come with Jacob (46:28–34). If Benjamin is alive before Joseph is sold, then Joseph lived with 1 father (Jacob), 1 surviving mother (Leah), 2 father’s concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah), and 11 brothers (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, & Benjamin). That Bilhah and Zilpah were not included in the vision is no great surprise given the property-like role of concubines in those days.

    • Markham says:

      True that Benjamin’s birth comes 2 chapters earlier, but I think that’s out of chronological order. 3 bits of evidence suggest to me that Benjamin was not born at the time of cpt 37:

      1. Inclusion of Rachel in Jacob’s interpretation of Joseph’s dream
      2. Gen 37:3 says Joseph was “the son of [Jacob’s] old age.”
      3. Jacob witholds Benjamin from going down into Egypt, as though Benjamin were too vulnerable. But if he were alive when Joseph was 17, he must be at least 20 years old by this time (and why not older?).
      • Dave says:

        You are assuming a couple of things. Names are not mentioned in verse 10. “His father”, “Your mother and I”. Father could just as easily pertain to El/Yahweh. El’s wife was Asherah.

  2. Akanimo Uwan says:

    Though the NIV version’s footnotes implies that Leah was actually the mother that Jacob was referring to, since Rachel had already died while giving birth to Benjamin, my fervent belief is this, Rachel was still alive at the time of Joseph’s dream which and she was the “mother” Jacob was referring to. Here are the reasons why I believe so.

    1. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite child because he was the son of his old age (which meant Benjamin was not yet born)

    2. The dreams he had were a prophecy of what would occur in future. So, the eleven stars probably meant a future occureance of a major event in the life of Joseph.

    3. When his brothers came to Egypt and bowed to him, Joseph who recognized them, then remembered the dream he had earlier of his brothers bowing to him. Along with this when Jacob asks his sons: “Why dealt ye so ill with me, as to tell the man whether ye had yet a brother?”

    Their reply was this: 7 “The man asked us strictly about our state, and about our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father yet alive? Have ye another brother?’ And we told him according to the tenor of these words. Could we certainly know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?”

    So, in essence, Joseph remembered the dream that probably one of the eleven stars referred to his unknown brother. So, he probed them if they had another brother and the brothers innocently replied that they did. So Benjy

  3. Akanimo Uwan says:

    Truth is this: Benjamin was born after Joseph was sold. The dreams he had were prophetic occurences of what would transpire in his life in future. So, when had those dreams and his father asked him if he, his mother and the rest would bow to him, that is a clue that Rachel was still alive and Benjamin wasnt yet born, (Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin). When his brothers visited him in Egypt and bowed to him, it was then that Joseph remembered the dream of his brother bowing to him. Perhaps to ascertain the accuracy of the dream and the missing eleven stars, he probed them about their family and back home, Jacob asked his sons why they told the ruler that they had another brother. Their answer in Genesis 43: 7 was “He questioned us carefully about ourselves and our family. He asked us, ‘Is your father still alive? Do you have another brother?’ We just answered his questions. How could we know he would ask us to bring our other brother to him?” So when Joseph remembered the dream of his brothers and parents bowing to him after his brothers visited him, he probed inquisitively (perhaps to ascertain if this was truly a manifestation of the dream) if they had another brother. So, when they told him that they did, he ordered them to bring him on their next trip. Also on Jacob’s dying bed, he narrates to Joseph about the death of his mother, Rachel, who was his favorite wife. So, my strong guess is that Rachel was still alive when Joseph was sold. The story of Joseph and how it’s presented in the Holy Bible is one of my favorite verses.

  4. Jaqi says:

    It is my belief that Benjamin was born after Joseph was sold into slavery. For one, Joseph was sold while Jacob was still living near Shechem (Gen 37:12). Rachel did not die in childbirth until after Jacob had journeyed Luz in the land of Caanan (Gen 35:6) and then on to Ephrath where Rachel went into hard labour (Gen 35:16). Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son, but is not mentioned at all in chapters 35 or 36, and I believe the reason for this is that he was already presumed dead by his father while they were living in the land of Shechem.

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