Comparing and Contrasting the Qur'anic and Biblical Perceptions of Prophet Joseph
This article is adapted from Louay Fatoohi's book "The Prophet Joseph in the Qur'an, Bible and History", pages 226-235
Instead of generally referring to the shortcomings in the Bible, let us identify flaws in the story of Joseph specifically. The following flaws differ in their significance. Some of them may be seen as weaknesses, but the majority are fundamental flaws. The order in which they are listed here does not reflect their relative significance, but often the order in which they occur in the text of the Old Testament.
1) The Old Testament claims that seventeen-year old Joseph was well aware of his brothers' envy of him, yet that did not prevent him from recounting his dreams to them. Even their bad reaction to hearing the details of the first dream did not make him refrain from relating the second dream to them!
2) When describing Joseph's dream, the Qur'an mentions the eleven stars before the sun and moon: "O my father! ! saw eleven stars, the sun, and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me." I have mentioned in my comment on verses 12.4 and 12.100 that this reflects the fact that the prostration of Joseph's brothers' before him was going to happen before his parents', as shown in the Qur'anic story. Having failed to notice this subtle reference, the writers of the Old Testament used the traditional style of mentioning the two luminaries before the planets: "Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me" (Genesis, 37:9). They did that despite their explicit statement that Joseph's brothers prostrated before him in the two visits they made to Egypt to buy corn, i.e. before the arrival of Jacob to Egypt: "and Joseph's brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth" (Genesis, 42:6), "And when Joseph came home, they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house, and bowed themselves to him to the earth" (Genesis, 43:26).
3) The Old Testament states that Jacob reprimanded Joseph for his dream, as if he was responsible for seeing it: "And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?" (Genesis, 37:10)! This accuses Jacob, implicitly, of being ignorant of the fact that such dreams are divine visions, and that the person has no control over seeing them. At the same, the Bible points out that Jacob understood from the dream that the sun stood for himself and the moon for Joseph's mother; he realized the truthfulness of that dream and knew its interpretation. The Biblical writers have fallen in an obvious contradiction.
4) One major weakness in the Biblical account of the story of Joseph is its complete omission of the prostration of Jacob and Joseph's mother to their son, although it is mentioned in the dream and in Jacob's successful interpretation! This omission has great significance, because dreams play such a major role in the story of Joseph; the failure of the Biblical writers to mention the realization of one of them represents a failure to recount essential details of the original story
5) In my comment on verse 12.10, I point out that the decision of Joseph's brothers to cast him down the well represented a rejection of the suggestion to kill Joseph. They adopted the alternative plan of abandoning him in a land far from where his father lived, as some caravanners would pick him and take him away. Joseph's brothers cast him in the well instead of trying to give or sell him directly to those travelers because Joseph was bound to resist such a plot and expose his brothers in front of the potential buyers. This was going to undermine Joseph's brothers' plan, and perhaps land them in trouble. The Qur'anic story is absolutely consistent.
In the Old Testament, we find one of Joseph's brothers convince his brothers not to kill Joseph and to cast him in the well instead: "And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again" (Genesis, 37:21-22). The Old Testament claims that Reuben's aim was to rescue Joseph and return him to his father; it does not explain why the rest of Joseph's brothers agreed to that suggestion. When a group of merchants passed by that place, one of Joseph's brothers said: "What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?", which indicates that although they threw Joseph in the well, they were still thinking of killing him. This clear contradiction prompts the question about their consent to cast Joseph in the well in the first place!
Joseph's brothers then sold him to Midianite merchants. This is another contradiction with the fact that they threw him in the well. The cause of these contradictions and weaknesses is simple. The Biblical writers knew from the original story that Joseph was put in the well, and that he was picked up by the caravanners. They did not understand, however, the causes of these events and their connection with each other. When they mentioned them and tried to link them to each other as they thought fit, the narrative came out weak and discrepant.
6) According to the Qur'an, this was Jacob's reaction to seeing the blood-stained shirt: "[No,] rather your souls have suggested to you [doing] something [evil]; so: [my course is] perfect patience. And it is Allah whose help is sought against what you describe" (from 12.18). In contrast, this was Jacob's reaction according to the Old Testament: "And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him" (Genesis, 37:33-35). The immense difference between the Qur'anic account and its Biblical counterpart reflects the great difference between the image of Jacob in the two books.
As I have already mentioned in §1.3 and §12.1, the Old Testament portrays the prophets of Allah in a way that often does not distinguish them from ordinary people, ignores their revered status, and shows little respect toward them. Note how Jacob's reaction in the Qur'an reflects his knowledge that his sons have plotted an evil scheme and that their account was untrue: "[No,] rather your souls have suggested to you [doing] something [evil]"; his perfect, prophetic patience, "[my course is] perfect patience"; and his reliance on Allah to reveal the truth: "And it is Allah whose help is sought against what you describe."
Conversely, the Old Testament portrays Jacob as being ignorant of the truth of what his sons claimed. It even claims that Jacob did not believe his sons at the beginning when they came back from Egypt with the news that Joseph was still alive: "And they went up out of Egypt, and came into the land of Canaan unto Jacob their father, And told him, saying, Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt. And Jacob's heart fainted, for he believed them not. And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said unto them: and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived: And Israel said, It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive: I will go and see him before I die" (Genesis, 45:25-28).
In addition to accusing Jacob of ignorance, the Old Testament portrays Jacob as lacking any patience at Allah's tests. Jacob's behavior makes one wonder about the difference, if any, between this prophet and any other person! The Bible claims that Joseph himself doubted his father's knowledge when he blessed his two sons. He was displeased to see his father bless his younger son before the elder, so he tried to move his father's hand from his younger to the older son: "And when Joseph sow that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him: and he held up his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head unto Manasseh 's head. And Joseph said unto his father, Not so, my father: for this is the firstborn; put thy right hand upon his head. And his father refused, and said, I know it, my son, I know it: he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations" (Genesis, 48:17-19).
Note also the Old Testament's claim that it was Jacob who sent Joseph to his brothers. The Qur'an, on the other hand, stresses that Jacob was reluctant to allow Joseph to go with his brothers because he was concerned over his sons' attitude toward Joseph, as clear in his sons' words to him: "Why do you not entrust us with Joseph?" (from 12.11). He agreed to his sons' request to take Joseph only after much persistence from them. He hoped that this would improve their relationship with Joseph, as I have explained in my interpretation of verse 12.15.
7) The Qur'an is absolutely clear about the reason behind the 'Aziz's wife's complaint to her husband that Joseph tried to seduce her. Her husband arrived to the house when she was trying to seduce Joseph. He saw how his wife and Joseph looked, and noticed that Joseph was trying to escape from the house with a torn shirt. This exposed what was happening, so the 'Aziz's wife rushed to accuse Joseph in order to repel the charge away from herself: "And they raced with one another to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind; and they met her lord at the door. She said: 'What is the punishment of he who intends evil for your wife other than imprisonment or a painful torment?'" (12.25).
The imprisonment of Joseph was mainly intended to force him to obey the evil calls of the wife of the 'Aziz and the other women: "Then it occurred to them after they had seen the signs that they should certainly imprison him for a while" (12.35). The 'Aziz himself had an interest in putting Joseph in prison, as I explained in my interpretation of verse 12.35.
The Biblical account does not explain at all why the wife of the 'Aziz accused Joseph of making advances toward her. It only says that the wife of the 'Aziz tried one day to seduce Joseph when "there was none of the men of the house there within" (Genesis, 39:11), and that he fled the house leaving his shirt in her hands. Unlike her role in the Qur'anic story, the wife of the 'Aziz was not under any pressure to explain away a situation that involved her and Joseph to have to accuse him in defense of herself. She looks to have accused him with no reason!
Unlike the Qur'an, the Old Testament does not say that the injustice that caused the imprisonment of Joseph was exposed later on.
8) The Qur'an explains why Joseph returned to his brothers their goods in the following verse: "And he said to his servants: 'Put their goods in their luggage so that they may recognize them when they return to their family, so that they may come back'" (12.62). As explained in my comment on verse 12.65, Joseph had two goals. First, he wanted to give his brothers goods that they can exchange for grain to enable them to return to him quickly. Second, he used that to influence his father so that he would allow his sons to take Benjamin to Egypt. Witnessing the unplanned situation of his sons finding their goods gave Jacob more confidence in them and in their description of the kindness of the 'Aziz. This made him overturn his earlier decision and agree to let Benjamin go with his brothers: "And when they opened their baggage, they found that their goods had been returned to them. They said: 'O our father! What more can we ask for? Our goods have been returned to us, and we shall bring grain for our family, protect our brother, and have an additional measure of a camel load; this is an easy measure to get' (12.65). He said: 'I will not send him with you until you give me a firm covenant in Allah's name that you will certainly bring him back to me unless you become completely powerless'. And when they gave him their covenant, he said: 'Allah is in charge of what we have said' (12.66)."
The Old Testament says: "Then Joseph commanded to fill their sacks with corn, and to restore every man's money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way" (Genesis, 42:25), but without explaining why Joseph did that! Note also the following Biblical statement "And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man's bundle of money was in his sack: and when both they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid' (Genesis, 42:35). This means that the writers were aware that there was a link between Joseph's return of the goods to his brothers and the latter finding the goods at home in the presence of their father. It is equally clear that the Biblical writers did not know Joseph's aim, so they did not say that Joseph wanted his brothers to find the goods at home. Joseph's decision to return his brothers' goods stayed in the text, but in the absence of any mention of the fact that it was part of Joseph's plan and of its role in that plan.
9) The Bible claims that Joseph kept one of his brothers as a hostage so that his brothers would bring Benjamin to him: "and [Joseph] took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes" (Genesis, 42:24). It also mentions Jacob's sorrow for losing that son: "And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me" (Genesis, 42:36). The Biblical writers, however, ignored this major event completely afterward!
Genesis 43 starts as follows "And the famine was sore in the land. And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said unto them, Go again, buy us a little food. AndJudah spake unto him, saying, The man did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you" (Genesis, 43:1-3). Note how Jacob and his sons, or more appropriately the Biblical writers, overlooked the fact that Simeon was kept as a hostage by Joseph! In fact, Jacob ordered his sons to go to Egypt only to bring more provisions after they finished their stock!
10) Jacob sent his sons again to Egypt because "the famine was sore in the land' (Genesis, 43:1), yet the presents that he sent to Joseph indicate that they had anything but a famine: "take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds" (Genesis, 43:11)!
11) I have said that the following two verses indicate that Joseph had a private place to which he admitted special guests: "And when they entered Joseph's place, he admitted his brother to his private place and said: 'I am your brother, so do not be grieved at what they have been doing'" (12.69), and "then when they entered Joseph's place, he admitted his parents to his private place and said: 'Enter into Egypt, Allah willing, secure'" (12.99).
This private room is referred to in the Biblical account, but in a different context: "And they answered, Thy servant our father is in good health, he is yet alive. And they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother's son, and said, Is this your younger brother, of whom ye spake unto me? And he said, God be gracious unto thee, my son. And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there. And he washed his face, and went out, and refrained himself and said, Set on bread' (Genesis, 43:28-31). The Biblical writers knew that Joseph's private room played a role in the story, but they had no clue what that role was. They assigned to it the completely insignificant role of being the place in which Joseph wept.
12) In the Qur'anic story, Joseph's plan to keep Benjamin with him aimed at ensuring that he would not lose contact with his father and brothers should the latter discover his identity and decide not to come back to him. In the Biblical story also, Joseph carries out the plan of accusing Benjamin of robbery. The whole plot, however, ends up with him revealing his real identity to his brothers during the same visit! The Bible portrays Joseph's plan to accuse Benjamin as completely goalless. This is yet another real event which the Biblical writers knew of but did not know its role and significance, so they ended up mentioning it as a goalless event!
13) The Qur'an points out that Joseph's brothers asked him to take one of them as a slave instead of Benjamin, so that they could return the latter to their father and not break their covenant with him: "They said: 'O 'Aziz! He has a father who is a very old man, therefore retain one of us instead of him; surely we see you to be one of the good-doers'" (12.78). The Old Testament indicates that Joseph's brothers asked him to take them "all" as slaves "in addition to Benjamin": "And Judah and his brethren came to Joseph's house; for he was yet there: and they fell before him on the ground. And Joseph said unto them, What deed is this that ye have done? wot ye not that such a man as I can certainly divine? And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord's servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found" (Genesis, 44:14-16)! The offer of Joseph's brothers was not only of no benefit whatsoever for them, but was also an invitation to Joseph to harm them!
The Old Testament then refers to a later event in which Judah asked Joseph to take him as a slave instead of Benjamin so that the latter can return to his father: "Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren" (Genesis, 44:33). This is clearly closer to the real event than the earlier account.
14) The Biblical story does not mention at all Jacob's loss of sight and Joseph's miracle of restoring it. There are references in the Old Testament, however, that could have originated from that ignored part of the original story. These references are the Lord's promise to Jacob: "and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes" (Genesis, 46:4); Jacob's words to Joseph after they met: "now let me die, since I have seen thy face" (Genesis, 46:30); and the clause "now the eyes of Israel were dim for age" (Genesis, 48:10).
There are many more contradictions and inaccuracies in the Biblical story of Joseph. Its feeble structure is also all too evident to require highlighting. One example is the silly details in Genesis 47 about how Joseph bought the Egyptians and all their properties and lands in return for the grain that he provided them with. Another instance is the Bible's reference to Joseph giving seeds to people to plant and give a fifth of the harvest to Pharaoh when the years of the famine had not yet elapsed (Genesis, 47:24).
There are also excessive details about the names of Jacob's descendants and how long they lived. This kind of information, which permeates much of the Old Testament, reflects the special interest of this race-focused book in the Israelites whom it promotes as "the chosen people of God." There are many details in the Bible that make it more of a book of history than one of religion, and show its similarity to the kind of historical records that ancient civilizations used to keep of their history and daily life.
The discussion above shows that the Biblical story of Joseph contains many, substantial shortcomings. More important, comparing that weak and contradictory story with the consistent Qur'anic story of prophet Joseph sheds more light on miraculous aspects of the Qur'an. This comparison exposes the preposterous suggestion that the Qur'an was copied from the Old Testament. It also proves that the Qur'an's implicit claim that religious books such as the Old Testament have been written by people who made use of some authentic information but much more inauthentic details.
O Messenger! Let not them grieve thee who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, of such as say with their mouths: "We believe," but their hearts believe not, and of the Jews: listeners for the sake of falsehood, listeners on behalf of other folk who come not unto thee, changing words from their context and saying: If this be given unto you, receive it, but if this be not given unto you, then beware! He whom Allah doometh unto sin, thou (by thine efforts) wilt avail him naught against Allah. Those are they for whom the Will of Allah is that He cleanse not their hearts. Theirs in the world will be ignominy, and in the Hereafter an awful doom
Of the Jews there are those who displace words from their (right) places, and say: "We hear and we disobey"; and "Hear what is not Heard"; and "Ra'ina"; with a twist of their tongues and a slander to Faith. If only they had said: "What hear and we obey"; and "Do hear"; and "Do look at us"; it would have been better for them, and more proper; but God hath cursed them for their Unbelief; and but few of them will believe.
Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby.
It is not (possible) for any human being unto whom Allah had given the Scripture and wisdom and the prophethood that he should afterwards have said unto mankind: Be slaves of me instead of Allah; but (what he said was): Be ye faithful servants of the Lord by virtue of your constant teaching of the Scripture and of your constant study thereof.
Have ye any hope that they will be true to you when a party of them used to listen to the word of Allah, then used to change it, after they had understood it, knowingly?
And because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them and made hard their hearts. They change words from their context and forget a part of that whereof they were admonished. Thou wilt not cease to discover treachery from all save a few of them. But bear with them and pardon them. Lo! Allah loveth the kindly.
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