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.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, thank you for this insight! The stone that the builders’ rejected became the chief cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). Joseph was the “grain” that was rejected by his brothers and discarded (transplanted to Egypt) and would later become the chief foundational grain around which his brothers (the builders) would gather/assemble.

  2. Joseph saved his family from temporal famine anciently. Joseph’s descendants in the latter-days through Ephraim and Manasseh will gather Israel spiritually. See Deuteronomy 33:16-17

  3. I wish I could influence everyone to read Gen.49:22through26 and then read your thoughts again, especially combined with reading Gen.50:25 in light of Ezekiel-37. But on a sad note, hours before reading this glorious study of ancient Hebrew, I saw 373 (37:3) in the nomenclature of Iran’s latest technology. Shalom.

    • It all depends on what you want to use it for. To learn Hebrew, to read devotionally? I use the Koren Bible as well as Artscroll Tanakh.

  4. Interesting. I don’t give much thought on my name, all I know is it means “to add”. That explains why I always get called upon to organize a reunion or to mend everything whenever theres conflict on my friends and family but it gets tiring to be a mediator.

  5. Wow! The hand of God was upon Joseph even from his naming (infancy.) This essay has opened a deeper appreciation of his words, “You meant (my bondage) for harm but God meant it for good.”
    Thank you.

  6. Wow – thank you! There is also meaning and great irony in that, as a foreigner, “he takes away” *everything* from the Egyptians (livestock/land/freedom), taxing and enslaving the entire nation while giving the best to his own family; the catalyst for their own later enslavement and preparation for God’s plan.

  7. Thank you Professor Shir,
    In addition to the significance of Joseph’s name meaning, I propose he was a reflection of the work Jesus would do. Both found themselves away from their genesis, both had a special gift from their father, and both saved the nation.

  8. I was merely curious about gematria-untill discovering the name Joseph was given in Egypt, in Hebrew, Strong’s H6847, equals 828. When has a life story ever been as clearly described by a verse as Joseph’s is by Rom.8:28? Then I believed both gematria and chapter-verse numbers to be Divine. Shalom.

  9. I’ve noted 7 years of feast and 7 famine as 7:14. With Joseph’s victory over fornication, running even, Isa.7:14 honors him. And in Gen.49:26 you can see 11:1, the one set apart from his brothers, and then 11:1 used where sexual sin gets the upper hand-1Kings11:1 and 2Sam11:1. Numbers speak.

  10. In Gen 50:25 Joseph made the Israelites swear and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” I read somewhere that the Talmud describes Egypt as that time as as “a silo emptied of its grain.” Its valuables/Joseph?

  11. I’m still thinking in numbers, like 73. If a=1 and z=26, Joseph=73–neat since 37(ch37)+73=110! And in the spring of 73, the World Trade Center opened, each 110 floors high! Next I contemplate Psalms 2&110, both pre-Second Coming wars with the same mysterious third person in the final verse. Shiloh? In-gathering?

  12. The Rabbis have me not only thinking in numbers(gematria), but also letter pictograms. “Lawgiver from between his feet” if gimel are feet and zayin is his sceptre, puts 373 in Shiloh’s verse, Gen.49:10. With 37 flipped mirrored, 7’s back to back make the zayin between opposing gimel feet quite obvious!

  13. If any of this still isn’t interesting, multiply 37 times 73. 2701 gives you the gematria for Genesis 1:1. HaShem has a plan. Thank you, Professor Shir for your part.
    The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Shalom.

  14. I’m sure many don’t like considering the sceptre leaves Judah, but we need Levites to build the Third Temple, so Shiloh being from Levy eases the trauma. Next, I consider 373 possibly Leviticus, Judges, Leviticus. And Haggi 37 about 3 temples! Was there a shaking before Herods? Has Hag.2:9 occurred?

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