The Joseph Cycle*

Dorsey (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament) says Genesis 37-50 “is made up of fourteen episodes or narrative segments, all of which are well marked by shifts in scene, characters, time, and place.”  He says there are foursimuwltaneously applied organisational  schemes

  1. Linear – chronological
  2. Parallel in pairs
  3. Symmetric – whole story
  4. Symmetric – each half is a seven part symmetry.

A Introduction (key words – bow down, hate, speak kindly) (37:2-11)

B grievous mourning in Hebron (Joseph goes from Canaan to Egypt)(37:12-36)

C reversal of elder and younger sons of Judah as “firstborn” (string tied to hand)(38:1-30)

D Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt (sold, purchased, servant, find favour in the eyes of, master, second only to, bread) (39:1-23)

E Disfavour at Pharaoh’s court (life and death)(40:1-23)

F Joseph’s revelations of Pharaoh’s dreams (second to Pharaoh) (41:1-57)

G brothers come to Egypt for food (42:1-38)

G’ brothers come to Egypt for food (43:1-44:3)

F’ Joseph reveals his identity (second to Pharaoh) (44:4-45:15)

E’ favour at pharaoh’s court  (life and death) (45:16-47:12)

D’ Joseph’s ensalvement of Egyptians(sold, purchased, servants, find favour in the eyes of, master, second only to Pharaoh, bread) (47:13-26)

C’ reversal of elder and younger sons of Joseph (hands) (427-49:32)

B’ Grievous mourning near Hebron (Joseph goes from Egypt to Canaan) (49:33-50:14)

A’ Conclusion(bow down, hate, speak kindly) (50:15-26)

First half

A Joseph’s dreams (brothers see and speak) (37:2-11)

B Brothers cruel treatment because of dreams (in pit, out of pit, Potipher) (37:12-36)

C Tamar languishes in father’s house (plight forgotten, falsely accused, death spared)(38:1-30)

D Joseph’s integrity (YHWH was with Jospeh) (39:1-23)

C’ Joseph languishes in prison (plight forgotten, falsely accused, death spared)(40:1-23)

B’ Pharaoh’s kind treatment of Joseph when he interprets the dreams (in pit, out of pit, Potiphera) (41:1-57)

A’ Joseph’s dreams come true (brothers see and speak)(42:1-38)

Second half

A Brothers return to Egypt from Canaan and bow to Joseph  (fear, slaves, speak kindly, don’t be afraid) (43:1-44:3)

B Joseph’s great weeping when he hears Jacob is alive (weeps, kisses, Egyptians)(44:4-45:15)

C Jacob comes to Egypt with all 12 sons (Jacob can die in peace)(45:16-47:12)

D. Joseph’s exaltation over all of Egypt (47:13-26)

C’ Jacob blesses all 12 sons in Egypt (47:27-49:32)

B’ Joseph’s great weeping when Jacob dies (weeps, kisses, Egyptians)(49:33-50:14)

A’ brothers return to Egypt from Canaan and bow to Joseph (fear, sales, speaks kindly, don’t be afraid, weeps)(50:15-26)

other views

William Ramey suggests


Introduction (37:1-2)

A Hostility of brothers to Joseph (37:3-11)

B Apparent death of Joseph, Jacob mourns (37:12-36)

C Interlude: Judah and Tamar (38:1-26)

D Unexpected Reversals (38:27-39:23)

E Wisdom of Joseph (40:1-42:57)

F Movement to Egypt (43:1-46:7)

X The Genealogy of Israel (46:8-27)

Fí Settlement in Egypt (46:28-47:12)

Eí Wisdom of Joseph (47:13-26)

Dí Unexpected Reversals (48:1-22)

Cí Interlude: Jacob blesses his sons (49:1-28)

Bí Death of Jacob, Joseph buries him (49:29-50:14)

Aí Joseph reassures brothers (50:15-26)


G A Rendsburg offers the following in “Redactional Structuring in the Joseph Story: Genesis 37-50,” in V. L. Tollers and J. Maier, eds., Mappings of the Biblical Terrain: The Bible as Text, Bucknell Review 33:2 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1990), pp. 215-232.

A Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Joseph part (37:1-36)

B Interlude: Joseph not present (38:1-30)

C Reversal: Joseph guilty, Potiphar’s wife innocent (39:1-23)

D Joseph hero of Egypt (40:1-41:57)

E Two trips to Egypt (42;1-43:34)

F Final test (44:1-34)

F’ Conclusion of test (45:1-28)

E’ Two tellings of migration to Egypt (46:1-47:12)

D’ Joseph hero of Egypt (47:13-27)

C’ Reversal: Ephraim Firstborn, Manasseh Second Born (47:28 – 48:22)

B’ Interlude: Joseph nominally present (49:1-28)

A’ Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Joseph part (49:29-50:26)



One thought on “The Joseph Cycle*”

  1. It is really interesting to see what a muddle we can get into if we do not recognise chiasmus :-

    In “Redactional Unity in Genesis 37-50” George W. Coats, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), pp. 15-21 wrote;

    “A basic unit of narration appears in Genesis 37-50. These chapters constitute a collection of traditions unified around “Jacob and his sons,” itself a theme in a larger narration of traditions about Jacob stretching from Gen 25:19 to Gen 50:14 (15-26). Yet, despite a general unity of theme, Genesis37-50 shows no marked unity of structure. The focal element of the collection, the Joseph story, sets the pace of movement and continuity. The remaining elements gravitate to the Joseph story, adapting its plot as a framework without contributing intrinsic structural bonds to its development. They are, in effect, structural parasites. The following outline illustrates the structural disunity …”

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