Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 35:24), is a vibrant character in the Hebrew Bible. We know that God is with Joseph through the ups and downs of his life, but we do not always notice the significance that the Bible assigns to his name. We identify with Jacob’s love for Joseph as we imagine him wearing an elaborate and colorful robe (Gen 37:3); we are shocked by his brothers’ jealousy and hatred when they sell him into Egyptian slavery (37:28); we are upset when he is falsely accused and thrown into Potiphar’s jail (39:20); and we rejoice in his vindication when Pharaoh appoints him to the highest post in his kingdom (41:38-39). Finally, after Joseph confronts the brothers who betrayed him and reveals his identity amidst an outpouring of emotion, we are deeply moved (45:1-3). All these important and impactful events become even more significant when we understand that Joseph’s name alludes to the idea of “gathering together,” so that the biblical figure fulfills God’s vision of unity and shalom.
Joseph’s name (יאֹסֵף; yosef) is a verb in Hebrew that literally means “he takes away.” What can be so significant in this meaning? Nothing on the surface. But ancient Hebrew is a root-based language and the root of his name is אָסַף (asaf), which means “to gather, collect, bring in, or assemble.” A key word with this same root is אָסִיף (asif), meaning “harvest” — that which is collected. Joseph’s name is related to the idea of “taking away” in a sense of “gathering” (taking the crops away from the field) as occurs in collecting a harvest.
Now ponder the dream of grain sheaves bowing to Joseph (Gen 37:7) in light of his name’s allusion to “gathering” and “harvest.” Suddenly, Joseph is “taken away” to Egypt (removed from his homeland). At Potiphar’s house, Joseph was put in charge of everything, the “household and field,” except the food his master ate (39:5-6). In jail, Joseph encountered the royal cup-bearer and a chief baker, people whose livelihood is directly associated with food and harvest (40:1). More, Pharaoh’s dream was about the harvest (41:26-27), and as a result of this dream, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt’s harvest and future food supply (41:47-49). Are you beginning to see a common thread running through these stories? There are so many more connections to the idea of “harvesting” and “gathering” in Joseph’s narrative!
In the end, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt because of a famine (a lack of harvested food) and, eventually, the entire family is gathered there. Thus, Joseph’s entire life reflects the notion of “gathering” and “harvesting” reflected in his Hebrew name! Considering the Hebrew terminology that stands behind these stories can help us to see Scripture in new and deeper ways. Perhaps it’s time that you committed to taking your first steps in the study of Biblical Hebrew.