Thornton Chase, the First Western Baha'i, in his Study
Copyright © 2010 Baha'i National Archives, Wilmete, Used With Permission

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Further Reflections on the Story of Joseph

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most moving of stories, having inspired people for millennia.  It is found in the Book of Genesis, written several centuries before Christ; and in the Qur'an.

In 19th century Persia, a group of spiritual seekers became convinced that the Messiah promised to all religions would appear in their country.  One of the signs of His Prophethood would be that He would, unasked, reveal a unique and penetrating interpretation of the story of Joseph.  The revelation of the first chapter of His Commentary on the Story of Joseph was the first public act in the ministry of the Bab, and is told in more detail here.

The deeper meanings of the Holy Books were sealed up until the end times, as told to the Prophet Daniel.  The process of breaking those seals began with the Bab's Commentary on the Surah of Joseph, titled by Him the Qayyumu'l-Asma' and reached its maturity with Baha'u'llah's revelation of the Book of Certitude.  His Son Abdu'l-Baha, the appointed Interpreter of His teachings, applied the key Baha'u'llah provided in the Book of Certitude in His many explanations of Bible verses.

I have written a very brief article on this subject on the Huffington Post, and I would like to offer a more substantial explanation here.

If you are not yet familiar with the story of Joseph it will not take long to read it; the links are above in the first sentence, and I will assume the readers are basically familiar with its features and themes. I am here blending elements from both the Book of Genesis and the Qur'an.

The rendering of scriptural symbolism lends itself to more than one interpretation, as it moves through archetypal levels.  As explained by Nader Saeidi in his book on the Bab's Writings, in this commentary on the story of Joseph, the Bab explains that the dream of the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing before Joseph, signifies the recognition of the Bab by Muhammad and His successors the Imams; the women being attracted by the beauty of Joseph refers to the essential attractiveness of the Manifestation of God in every Age, to the human heart; the caravan refers to spiritual seekers; the brothers of Joseph recognizing him indicates the first people to recognize the Manifestation of God in every age, and symbolizes the Bab's own earliest disciples, “The Letters of the Living”; Joseph's authority refers to the sovereignty of each of the Manifestations of God over human hearts, and to the ultimate exaltation and sovereignty of the Cause of God in human society.

I would like to add my own personal understanding of various symbols in this, “The Best of Stories”:

Jacob entrusting Joseph to His brothers, and the brothers promising their father in return to take care of Joseph (in verses 11 and 12 of the Surah of Joseph in the Qur'an), signifies the Great Covenant between God and humanity, as explained here by the Bab and here by Abdu'l-Baha, to send Messengers to humanity, and humanity's promise to turn to Them. 

Jacob recognizing the scent of his son Joseph on his garment is a well-known and often-used symbol of recognition of the Manifestation of God. Rumi used it often, for example here, and Franklin Lewis, a Baha'i who is a professor of Persian literature who wrote a book about Rumi has provided a number of new English translations of Rumi's odes referring to Joseph: 

I was Venus, I am the moon
   I become celestial wheel
          with countless levels
I was Joseph, and now I engender Josephs (p. 352)

O Joseph (sweet the name!)
  is that you walking sweetly overhead
      along the roof?

Shatterer of my chalice
   Destroyer of my traps
     my light, my trumpet
       my victorious fortune!
         Stir up my ferment
           that my grapes may wine
(p. 369)

The women being attracted to Joseph's beauty (Qur'an 12:31) signifies humanity's attraction to the Manifestation of God.

The appearance of Joseph's brothers gathered before him signifies the great gathering of all humanity before their Lord at the Judgment Day (also Qur'an 83:6). 

Joseph's being cast into a pit, being sold into slavery, and being cast into prison, all indicate humanity's initial rejection of Him, violation of their Covenant with God to treat His Manifestations well, and specifically refers to Baha’u’llah’s imprisonment in the Black Pit of Tehran

The Pharaoh's realization of Joseph's spiritual powers to interpret dreams indicates humanity's dawning recognition of the powers of the Manifestation to unravel their mysteries, resolve their complexities, and solve their intractable problems.

The famine in the land signifies humanity's hunger for divine knowledge, and Joseph's position as being charged with distribution of food to the land signifies the eventual rise of the Manifestation to universal recognition by all humanity, which feasts on His Word.

Joseph giving full measure of corn to His brothers, and returning their payment to each of them, foreshadows the payment of the Right of God, the benefit of which reverts to the people themselves. It demonstrates the abundance of gifts God's Messenger gives to humanity, and to His Self-Sufficiency, being above any need of His creatures

Joseph's brothers wearing new clothes, a symbol also used in the Gospel, is a symbol of the people in every age who at first refused to recognize the Manifestation, but eventually recognize and accept Him, as Christ Himself implied; and as Baha'u'llah states in the Book of Certitude:

“O brother, behold how the inner mysteries of 'rebirth,' of 'return,' and of 'resurrection' have each, through these all-sufficing, these unanswerable, and conclusive utterances, been unveiled and unravelled before thine eyes. God grant that through His gracious and invisible assistance, thou mayest divest thy body and soul of the old garment, and array thyself with the new and imperishable attire.”

It also refers to humanity's acceptance of the new divine principles.

The brothers of Joseph eating bread with Him signifies drawing near to Him in faith. This symbol is explained here.  Likewise the disciples of Jesus, so long as they only used their rational faculty could not “recognize” Jesus; but after they used the power of faith, after they relied on the Scriptures, and after they “ate bread,” their “eyes” were opened and they “recognized” Him. Their eyes being closed, then being opened and recognizing Him after eating bread, signifies human beings who at first do not recognize the Manifestation, then after receiving His spiritual gifts, His divine grace, recognize Him. 

The brothers' mistreatment of Joseph at first, and their later bowing before Him with their faces to the ground, signifies humanity's initial rejection of the Manifestations of God in every Age, and in particular their rejection of the True Joseph, the Manifestation to succeed the Bab - and humanity's eventual universal acceptance of Him, also symbolized by "every eye seeing" Him

Joseph gathering one-fifth of the produce of the people symbolizes the Right of God, one of the laws of Baha'u'llah.

I hope these thoughts are of interest to the reader in coming to his or her own understandings of the Word of God.


  1. Wonderful and enlightening. Thank you. I always wanted to read the story of Joseph in this way, to have the references to the Bible, the Quran as well as the Baha'i readily available. I finally can put it all together. This one is definitely for sharing.

  2. Hello Brent, this is a very nice and succinct summary with thoughtful ideas. I had a few questions just as follow ups for your consideration: one is the central role that "Egypt" plays in this story. Egypt must function symbolically as a place-name. What do you think? Baha'u'llah references Egypt particularly when He self-identifies as Joseph. Secondly, if we take this story as an extended allegory of the coming of the Manifestation of God in any age, which I think is legitimate, then at what point is the resurrection identified, or centered? When are the dead "raised" in the symbolic sense in this story? Lastly, I noted that you didn't write about Joseph's interpretations of the three dreams described by the butler, the cupbearer, and the baker. There is a theme of three woven within this story in Genesis 40 including reference to the three days resurrection motif, it seems. Well, there is a lot of depth in the original story, for sure.

    Thank you again for this posting and for your others which are most welcome to read.