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Koran and Genesis

A Comparison of the Joseph Narrative in Genesis and in the Koran

Both Genesis and the Koran give a history of the story of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers and taken into slavery. While the story appeared first in the Book of Genesis, the Koran offers a kind of commentary on the Hebrew history. This paper will compare and contrast the two versions of the story of Joseph, analyzing how the two narratives offer different interpretations for two different religious communities.

The story of Joseph is found in chapters 37-50 of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew history, known in Christianity as the Old Testament. From the perspective of the New Testament, Joseph takes on a symbolic nature. Like Jesus, Joseph is betrayed by his people, is presumed dead (by his father Jacob) but is "resurrected." Like Jesus he becomes a servant and then becomes a kind of ruler, and like Jesus, Joseph (through his gift of prophecy and charity) provides for the Gentiles.

The story of Joseph in the Koran, however, does not lend itself to a comparison with Christ, since for the Mohammedans Christ was not the Redeemer but only a prophet. Still, however, there are similarities in the narrative -- especially considering the fact that the Genesis account is the source for the Koran account. To compare these similarities, let us first look at the dreams of Joseph in both Genesis and the Koran.

Dreams

Genesis 37:2-11

Joseph has a great deal to do with dreams (first having his own and later interpreting the meaning of the Pharaoh's while enslaved). The dreams he has in Genesis while still living with his brothers and father are ones in which he apparently seems to have a special place in the world -- for which reason, Genesis tells us, his brothers hated him: "We were binding sheaves of grain…when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it" (Gen. 37:5). This notion of their brother being superior to them angered the brothers.

Joseph also has another dream which he shares with his brothers and that is of the sun and the moon and eleven stars all bowing down before him, indicating that Joseph will have a special place among God's people. Even Jacob is astounded by this dream -- yet, we are told that he "kept the matter in mind" (Gen. 37:10).

Koran 12:4-6

The Koran only speaks of one dream which Joseph shares with his brothers -- that of the planets bowing down to him: "O my father, I saw eleven planets, and the sun, and the moon; I saw them prostrating before me" (Kor. 12:4). Jacob -- in this version of the story -- warns Joseph not to tell his brothers of this dream lest they become envious and attempt to destroy him. Jacob appears to be wiser and more concerned about his son, forewarning him of the danger that awaits him.

The King's Dream

In both Genesis and the Koran, Joseph (following his enslavement in Egypt) becomes the royal interpreter of dreams. He first interprets the dreams of the prisoners, one of them a cupbearer who returns to the house of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh has a dream and no one can tell him what it means, the cupbearer tells Pharaoh of Joseph who correctly interpreted his dream and foretold events just as they actually came to pass. Pharaoh sends for Joseph and tells him his dream, which Joseph interprets as a message from God that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest followed by seven years of famine. Joseph goes to advise Pharaoh about what to do: "Let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land…They should collect all the food of these good years…and store up the grain…so that the country may not be ruined by the famine" (Gen. 41:33-36).

This narrative is also recorded in the Koran but in a much more abbreviated state. And rather than remarking with awe at the gift of the Hebrew (as he does in Genesis), the king in the Koran pledges to punish the women who sought to seduce Joseph. The wife who tried to seduce Joseph confesses and begs mercy. The emphasis is on the guiltiness of the women -- which is not where the emphasis is in Genesis. In Genesis the emphasis is on the goodness of God for revealing to Pharaoh through Joseph things to come.

The Father Figure

Jacob is the father figure in the beginning of the Joseph narrative in both the Book of Genesis as well as the Koran. However, his role is different in both accounts. In the Koran Jacob is portrayed as a wise father figure -- a man of wisdom. In both books, Jacob receives revelations from God (God tells Jacob not to be afraid to go down to Egypt, for instance, in Genesis 46:3) and in the Koran, Jacob senses the mystery concerning his son Joseph (12:68).

However, the father figure in the Book of Genesis is not possessed of the same wisdom and guidance as the figure in the Koran. In Genesis, even Jacob does not understand the dreams that Joseph has. Yet, we may say that he does possess a kind of wisdom in that he does not dismiss them completely -- but indeed keeps them in his heart to ponder them. He also obeys his God and follows his commands and even goes into Egypt although he fears for his life. Jacob, who is the father in the beginning of the narrative, becomes the supplicant towards the end of the narrative, being displaced as the father figure by his son Joseph, who becomes the new father figure of all of Israel. Joseph, who was the son now becomes the father and feeds his people and protects them. Here is another example of the way Joseph in the Old Testament foreshadows the Christ of the New Testament -- the Christ Who is the Son but also equal to the Father and feeds the people with His Own Flesh and Blood.

Such a typology is, of course, absent in the Koran since it is not a Christian book. Instead, the Koran concentrates on the aspect of the history that describes the way in the which the Israelites came to Egypt, and teaches its followers to glorify God and that the Koran is the provider of all knowledge (12:111). In this way, the Koran itself becomes a kind of father figure to the Mohammedans.

There is also the father figure represented by the king in the Koran and by the Pharaoh in Genesis: this father figure at first does not understand Joseph and thinks him a wicked seducer and casts him into prison, but then when the true nature of Joseph is discovered, the figure gives him a place of prominence. The father figure may be understood to be a kind of step-father, who takes care of Joseph, who has been betrayed by his own family. He is the Egyptian father, who takes Joseph under his wing (since Joseph has been so good as to take him under his by interpreting his dreams for him).

Sibling Rivalry

Joseph is Sold into Slavery (Genesis 37:12-36)

Both the Book of Genesis and the Koran are similar over the way in which Joseph's brothers seek revenge on him. However, many details are significantly different.

In the narrative found in Genesis, Joseph is (perhaps naively) sent by Jacob to find his brothers, who were missing from their duties. Because they do not like the fact that Joseph is calling them to return to where they should be, they decide to do away with him. To rid themselves of their brother, they sell him to a caravan which is on its way to Egypt. This caravan may be considered to be made up of the descendents of Ishmael (from whom the Mohammedans take their lineage).

Then the brothers practice to deceive their father of Joseph's whereabouts by putting the blood of a goat on a portion of Joseph's garment and giving it to their father, who incorrectly interprets the torn, bloody garment as an indication that his son has been attacked and killed by wild animals.

Jacob at that point begins to very bitterly mourn the loss of Joseph: "Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughter came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. 'No,' he said, 'I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.' So his father wept for him" (Gen. 37:34-35).

Joseph, of course, later has his chance to take revenge on his brothers but he does not because he is possessed of a more charitable spirit. While he does not reveal himself to them as a ruler of…[continue]

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