Surah 12: Joseph, Part 2

Last week I followed the linear events of Surah Yusuf up until ayah 57. We saw Joseph guided by God through favorable and unfavorable seasons, ultimately leading to his appointment to a position in Pharaoh’s court. Throughout these times Joseph was sustained by divine inspiration from God that protected him from fear, sin, and doubt. That first half concluded with a two-ayat epilogue which connected Joseph’s worldly ascendancy with God’s promise to never neglect rewarding people’s goodness, and also gave a reminder that the after-life will provide the ultimate reward for those who hold the right beliefs and attitudes for God.

Although living out his earthly reward, Joseph still has two divine revelations to see fulfilled –one in which his family bows before him, and another in which he gets to indict his brothers of their sins. In this second half of the narrative, Joseph is going to become more active in God’s plan. Whereas before he survived trials while sustained by divine inspiration, now his divine inspiration is going to show up implicitly as he uses his new political power to bring God’s promises into fruition.

The Brothers and the Other Brother

When the brothers first come to Egypt to buy provisions to survive the famine, we get little interaction between them and Joseph. We know that Joseph recognizes them but that they do not recognize him. This robs us of some of our picture. How does Joseph feel? What does he plan to do? Then again, perhaps the idea is that Joseph, being divinely inspired, is already prepared for this moment. We know he foretold the famine and even requested his position within Pharaoh’s court as keeper of the granaries, so it is possible that at this point he is playing out a strategy to draw his brothers to him. Perhaps Joseph’s only emotional reaction upon seeing his brothers is gratification and eagerness, “The time is now.”

Joseph demands that the next time his brothers come for provisions they must bring along “a brother of yours from/of your father.” Here we must backtrack a bit to clarify the collective known as “the brothers.” There is a passing mention in ayah 8 of another brother who Jacob favors alongside Joseph. It is easy to miss that other brother, since the brothers only take action against Joseph. That same ayah clarifies that the unfavored brothers consider themselves “a clan,” demonstrating that the other brother (it’s easier upon me to use his Biblical name, Benjamin) is not included in their actions. This leaves us with little knowledge of Benjamin except that he is other. We’ll soon see him receive preferential treatment from both Jacob and Joseph, which implies that Benjamin is virtuous. From the Genesis account we know that Joseph and Benjamin were only half-brothers to the others (as indeed, many of the others were only half-brothers to each other), and that their favoritism derived solely from being born of Jacob’s favorite (and late) wife. This half-brother relationship isn’t explicit in the surah, but potentially can be read into various phrases, such as “brother of yours from/of your father.” The main thing that keeps that phrase from being explicit on the topic is that Benjamin is in Jacob’s custody, and so the phrase could reference that Benjamin needs to be brought “from” Jacob.

The [ten] brothers still show consistent failure of moral character. Joseph understands and manipulates them as such by hiding their payments within their purchased supplies. The result is as desired, the brothers find the payments and foresee gaining easy profits in their trips to Egypt. They bully Jacob into sending Benjamin with them so that they can approach ʕaziiz, a title Joseph now carries, for more provisions. Jacob distrusts his sons both because they failed in their promises to protect Joseph and also because he believes them to have lied about Joseph’s fate. He does give in to their bullying however, and makes them swear oaths that they will return with Benjamin unless driven apart by desperate circumstances.

If God Wills

Next is an interesting moment that has some comment on the human emotional need to feel control in a God-controlled world. Jacob has the brothers enter the supply-city by different gates. Perhaps there is worry in Jacob’s mind (though not explicitly stated, and certainly not in the brothers’ minds) that the returned payments might have been given by accident and the brothers might be arrested for theft at the gates. Thus the point of the plan could be that one group might get arrested while another group gets through fine, with a chance that Benjamin is in the latter group. Yet Jacob grants that such scheming is futile, as whatever happens is in God’s hands. Nothing happens at the gates, yet the Quran also takes time to confirm that such scheming is futile since God’s will is the only relevant factor. The use of strategy is conceded to Jacob’s soul as an act that gave him emotional comfort even though it was impractical and irrelevant.

I’m not sure I get the point of this digression. It doesn’t have any narrative impact, therefore there must be some spiritual point being made. Perhaps this teaches that believers are allowed to avoid risk even though they know God’s predestination is the only factor that matters. This passage about Jacob is fatalist on an intellectual level, but it also stands up for the validity of human emotions. Having fears is thus differentiated from having doubts. Believers might know that God’s will is the only thing that matters, but taking precautions and allaying fears is granted as something believers are allowed to do within that knowledge.

Extremely fatalistic predestination is often portrayed in the media as central to Islam. I remember the film Hidalgo portrayed a devoutly Muslim rider, Sakr, dying in the quicksand and refusing help because he had concluded his death was God’s will and thus could only be accepted but not fought. The Quran speaks in this vein frequently enough, but it has also encouraged believers to caution. Muhammad was told to organize prayers in shifts when travelling, so that they would not be caught unawares. Jacob’s plan makes the same allowances for caution. Thus the Quran could be teaching that knowing of God’s predestination shouldn’t negate the human need to make careful choices, even though its benefit might only address emotional needs. In the future I’ll devote a post to exploring this conundrum in Abrahamic religions.

Joseph Punishes the Brothers

When all eleven brothers are in Joseph’s presence again, Joseph takes Benjamin aside and confides his identity. This is yet another time in the surah where we have seen a select character be prepared for their circumstances with special knowledge. Benjamin is totally vacant of reaction, and we don’t know what he makes of his situation at any point in the surah. Joseph’s excuse for revealing his identity is to to ease Benjamin’s grief, but we might further assume it was intended to prime him for what happens next: Joseph frames Benjamin for theft.

Having hidden a gold measuring bowl in Benjamin’s bag and sent the brothers on their way, Joseph then declares the bowl stolen and announces an award for whoever finds it. Ayat 70-76 are a little confusing, as it is unclear who is accosting the brothers. At first it sounds like a bounty hunter or public official, but then Joseph himself does the searching. In this scene, the brothers both incriminate themselves (“Surely [Benjamin] steals, as had his brother before,”) and show a little moral strength (offering that one of their own number should take Benjamin’s place, for their father’s sake). The explicit point of all this, as given in ayah 76, is so that Joseph can take custody of Benjamin within Pharaoh’s legal bounds and in accordance with God’s will. Thus the arrest of Benjamin is more of a kidnapping, though one in which Benjamin might be complicit. Later on Joseph will ask the brothers what they think about what they used to do to him and Benjamin, requiring us to believe that the brothers have tormented Benjamin in some way, and that perhaps Joseph was delivering him by taking him hostage.

Implicit to the story is also that Joseph has divine knowledge, perhaps including knowledge that the brothers used the same promises to gain Benjamin’s custody from Jacob as they used to gain Joseph’s custody before. Thus when the brothers go back to Jacob, they will have to face the fact that their word means nothing to their father, even when they are telling the truth (as they know it). Thus Joseph is forcing them to face more consequences for having cried wolf before. In fact, the eldest brother recognizes this and refuses to leave the city until either Jacob beckons for him or God settles the matter. He sends the brothers back to Jacob in order to try and convince their father they are telling the truth and that Benjamin was caught stealing.

The eldest’s predictions are correct: although the brothers are not responsible for Benjamin’s enslavement (though at first, when they were confident that all in their party were innocent, they had settled with Joseph that enslavement was the proper punishment for theft), Jacob immediately accuses them of having pulled something sneaky again and resolves to be patient for God’s resolution. That Jacob does not immediately understand what is happening is a break from the pattern of our heroes being handed all the right knowledge. He wrongfully accuses the brothers of having done something underhanded to Benjamin. That God allows this could be read as part of the brothers’ punishment, but it still is surprising to have an example of God letting someone righteous be in the wrong.

I couldn’t help but note that Jacob shows no concern at all for his eldest son.

Trials and Resolution for Jacob

Remembering his grief for Joseph, Jacob’s eyes go white, that is, blind. Translation of the ayah has a lot of variety. Some say that his eyes are blinded because he was a suppressor [of grief]. Others say that he went blind and was suppressed/choked [with grief]. It all depends on how you interpret one conjunction in the sentence (فـ, fa-) that could mean “and,” “then,” “so.” I don’t know enough about the grammar there to pick my preferred interpretation.

What exactly is going on here is beyond me, except that Jacob has made his grief a private matter between him and God. He turns away from his other sons as he grieves, excluding them from his emotions. Jacob’s experiences are interesting because they involve suffering at the hands of one’s own faith. Past suffering in the Quran has been done at the hands of unbelievers who torment those who have faith. There is some of this in Jacob too, with neighbors (and his sons, depending on how you read the tone of ayah 85) chastising him for holding on to the hope that Joseph is alive. But Jacob’s suffering is also inflicted upon himself. If we interpret that his eyes turned white because he was suppressing his grief, then we can interpret his plight as another conflict between his emotions and his knowledge. Jacob knows that God has a plan for Joseph, and yet he struggles with grief to the point that it makes him blind and ill. One idea could be that this passage warns that emotions have a valid place even when they conflict with faith, since Jacob has driven himself blind in suppressing them. Another idea could be that this passage exemplifies denying feelings in favor of knowledge, since Jacob is sacrificing himself while holding to his knowledge. No explicit commentary is made in the surah.

But Jacob is withholding more than his emotions from his sons, he is also withholding his knowledge. Jacob still has the special revelation of Joseph’s first dream, one in which eleven stars/sons were bowing to Joseph, and this dream is still sustaining him as he hopes for Joseph’s and Benjamin’s welfare. One wonders why he has not shared this knowledge with his sons, a choice not consistent with the role of prophet. Instead he just flaunts to them that he has information that they do not. It is only at this moment that he hints some of his divine knowledge by sending the brothers back to Egypt to ask about both Joseph and Benjamin, encouraging them not to despair: “Only disbelievers despair of relief from God.”

The resolution is very quick: the brothers grovel before Joseph for further rations to survive the famine, Joseph asks them about what they think of their past crimes towards himself and Benjamin, and the brothers suddenly recognize him. From there they accept that God favors Joseph (which must be particularly hard if their motivations are derived from a feeling of neglect) and acknowledge their sins. Joseph, showing more divine knowledge, sends the brothers back with a shirt of his that will restore Jacob’s vision. The brothers go and cast the shirt over Jacob’s head, restoring his vision. Jacob gets to crow his vindication and declare these events were all part of the secret he had been keeping.

Something interesting is that the brothers do not first pray directly to God for their own forgiveness. Rather they confess their sins to two prophets, Joseph and Jacob, and ask for their prayers. In Surah an-Nisa and Surah at-Tawba we saw that hypocrites were to ask Muhammad to pray for their forgiveness before they could be restored to the community. Both these passages regard returning hypocrites into submission under their authorities, while understanding that those authorities are acting for God. Joseph’s brothers fall into the category of hypocrites, since they were raised into Jacob’s religion and yet show a flippant understanding of God, so it makes sense that they would need to follow the hypocrite’s path of repentance. Now, there are plenty of instances in the Quran where this kind of prophetic intercession wasn’t needed for repentance, but it is a case where I wonder how these passages are applied in modern Islam. Should lax or errant Muslims go through a process of confession-intercession with some authority figure to rectify their faith? (Shia view here.)

Joseph’s whole family is brought to Egypt and bows before his throne, thus fulfilling his dream. Joseph prays to God at this and praises Him for the way He works. His last request is that he will die a Muslim and join the righteous. The last ayat return their focus on Muhammad’s ministry, decrying the ignorance and resistance of the unbelievers around him.


Throughout this story, it struck me how completely assured all our heroes were of their circumstances. Joseph, as I noted last week, was walked through his scenarios, sustained with the special knowledge he had of and from God. Jacob was able to identify deceit and weather internal grief and external criticism because he had received knowledge. Benjamin is also clued in to Joseph’s identity and thus we guess that he was immune to distress when Joseph had him arrested.

Contrast the knowledge of Jacob, Joseph, and Benjamin to the ignorance of the brothers. The brothers never show substantial faith in God until their humiliation. Whereas Joseph could resist seduction because of his knowledge of God, the brothers end up bartering with the voice of temptation and commit betrayal. While Jacob’s knowledge of Joseph’s dream leads him to always be looking and waiting for Joseph’s return, the brothers are blind to Joseph when he is in front of them. While Benjamin knows who Joseph is, the brothers do not know that they are being tormented at the hands of the brother they had betrayed. It isn’t until they are humbled and until Joseph gives them knowledge that they understand what is happening to them.

Both in declaring this story and referencing this story the Surah emphasizes its character as divine knowledge. The surah opens itself by calling the signs/verses within clear scripture. It is emphasized before and after the narrative that Muhammad knew nothing about Joseph and co. until God revealed it to him. The role of the prophet is to bring people to divine insight and cure them of ignorance, but it warns the strength of ignorance is enough to make prophets almost despair. The final ayah tells Muhammad that these stories are not invented, and that there are in them lessons to be learned, putting a final bow on the moral that divine knowledge it the key to everything.

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