Prospectus: Joseph – Godly Character or Tyrant?

In class we talked a lot about the story of Joseph and how Joseph’s moral character affected how he is treated throughout the story. Is he arrogant about being his father’s favorite son? Is his personality a main cause of his rivalry with his brothers? Does his personality change as he’s presented with obstacles throughout the story?

Some scholars view Joseph as a character who makes godly choices in intense situations and under a lot of pressure. The article Joseph – Godly Character Under Pressure relays this view,

“Joseph’s life provides us with a beautiful example of a person who totally commits to living a godly life regardless of the circumstances encountered. Joseph exhibits the character of God through his faithfulness, integrity, purity, and mercy, even while he is forced to endure intense pressure and difficulty.”

However, Joseph is not always viewed this way. The articles Joseph the Unrighteous andThe case of Joseph: The strengths and hazards of narcissistic omnipotence both look at Joseph in a more critical light. They critique him as being ruthless and worried mostly about himself. Joseph the Unrighteous talks about Joseph in a political sense and sees Joseph’s power over the people like one of a tyrant.


There are many instances in the Old Testament where it’s possible to see the case for both the arguments of the godly Joseph and the more arrogant Joseph. These are times where Joseph seems to do the right thing, but it’s much harder to tell whether his motives for doing the right thing are moral or not. One of the best examples of this is when he refuses to be seduced by the wife of his master, Potiphar. Joseph chooses to do the moral thing of refusing her advances, but why does he do this? He states his refusal in Genesis 39:8, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands… How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” No where in this statement does he say that he has no desire for his master’s wife, which would be the moral reason, but instead refuses because of his personal obligation to his master.

Joseph’s rivalry with his brothers is another situation where Joseph could be looked at in two different ways. Joseph obviously is capable of getting along with his father since he is the favorite, but he seems incapable of consideration for his brothers. It almost seems as if he is using his dreams and father’s love as a way of showing his dominance over his brothers, evoking from them jealousy and frustration. Does Joseph use his dreams and his father’s favoritism as a way to brag to his brothers, or is he just naively telling them what he sees?

In my research paper I will look at Joseph’s growth psychologically throughout his story as well as his relationships with other people. I will look closely at Joseph’s relationship with his brothers and father and how their relationship compares to similar situations in the Old Testament. I will also talk about how Joseph reacts in stressful situations, how his reactions change, and whether his motives are ones of arrogance and tyranny or of his moral beliefs.

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7 Responses to Prospectus: Joseph – Godly Character or Tyrant?

  1. bethanyschuler says:

    I think that this topic is very interesting and not something that we would normally think about in the story of Joseph. I like the view that you’re taking and that the concept is an intriguing one. I never though about what affect Joseph’s personality has on the events of his life and analyzing his personality may help us understand his actions a lot better. Good prospect!

  2. zacharyruffing says:

    This is an excellent, ambitious, and well-thought out topic, the fact that you have already gathered and are already beginning to use scholarly sources is great. You already know exactly where you want to go with this and you are taking a definite stand,

    I personally have never really liked Joseph because I too see him as arrogant, and possibly even sadistic. When he torments his brothers in Egypt by lying to them and threatening them, I do not see a holy man testing his brothers but a sadist who delights in his brothers’ fear and misery. Perhaps that too can be put to some use.

  3. tdjohn8 says:

    I think you have something good going here, and cant say i’ve thought about joseph in that way. When you say “These are times where Joseph seems to do the right thing, but it’s much harder to tell whether his motives for doing the right thing are moral or not.” can bring up many very different opinions. As in when he gives his unknowing brothers the silver and coins back after buying the bread, does he do this to “help” them or is he just using it to show them that he is so wealthy now he doesnt need their money. This could also be related to many other instances as well. Overall seems to be a very interesting piece in progress.

  4. kevinrooney says:

    This is a very interesting topic. Though I think it would be wise to sort of define what you mean by moral.

    For instance you said, “No where in this statement does he say that he has no desire for his master’s wife, which would be the moral reason, but instead refuses because of his personal obligation to his master.” Even if he did have an underlying desire for his master’s wife (because maybe she was hot), he didn’t act on that desire. He actually fled the temptation, what would be the moral reason for doing this? If he was attracted to her, because he’s human, what reasons for refusing her advances would qualify as a “holy” or “moral” response?

  5. One thing that came to me when reading this is that when you set up a dichotomy between Godly righteousness and arrogance, you may be eliding the fact that God himself comes across as very arrogant at times in the Torah. I wonder if that observation could inflect your interpretation at all? A good start here!

  6. In a few days I will be speaking at the Shalem Center conference in Jerusalem, where I will place my critique of Joseph (“Joseph the Unrighteous”) in the context of a broader reading of the later chapters of Genesis.

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