Joseph / Yosef יוסף
What imageries are included in the description of Joseph?
The artwork features interpretations from Joseph’s dreams such as the eleven sheaves of wheat bowing to his own sheaf as well as the sun, moon and eleven stars, which symbolize his father, mother and eleven brothers.
The background is Egypt; Joseph saved Egypt and his own family from famine by storing up grain, another symbolization of the stalks of wheat.
The waves symbolize the many struggles and hardships he has to endure as well as the eventual departing of the Sea hundreds of years later. Ultimately, Joseph did leave Egypt, when Moses carried out Joseph’s bones. The mighty waves of Egypt’s culture, practices, and even his powerful status could not harm or change Joseph. He remained steadfast, trusting G-d despite the circumstances, producing two sons, which were also untainted, even though they had Pharaoh’s daughter as their mom! Hence, the incorporation of the traditional emblems of his two sons—Ephraim pictured as an ox (shor) and Manasseh as a wild ox (R’em ). The Hebrew word R’em רֶאֵם apparently refers to an extinct species of wild ox which has two long forward pointing horns. Interestingly, the bright star in the Bull of the Taurus constellation represents its eye, which is the symbol of a seer (one who “sees”). Joseph was known as a great seer, or one with vision.
The emerald hue of the waves is the color of Joseph’s breastplate gem. The artwork also features grapes growing on a wall referring to Gen. 49:22, “Joseph is a fruitful vine… whose branches climb over a wall.”
The Meaning of the Name Joseph
In Genesis 30:22-24 we read: “And G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d listened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived, and had a son. She said, “G-d has taken away my reproach/humiliation.”and she called his name Joseph; and said, May G-d add yet another son to me.” Therefore, Joseph means: “increase,” or, “He will add.”
The Biblical Blessings for the Tribe
Jacob blesses Joseph in Gen. 49:22 by saying: “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over a wall.”
Moses’ blessing for the tribe of Joseph is found in Deut 33:13-17. “May the L-rd bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield;with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince amonghis brothers. In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are the horns of a wild ox. With them he will gore the nations, even those at the ends of the earth. Such are the ten thousands of Ephraim; such are the thousands of Manasseh.” A domestic ox is defined as “a steer of any breed of cattle, which is at least four years old, and is taught to work.
Joseph’s tribal symbols are grapes, wheat, an olive branch, a bundle of arrows, a R’em (Aurochs) or an antelope. Sometimes the tribe is featured as a unicorn. According to Rashi, Joseph consisted of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. The two symbols of Joseph mentioned in scripture are the bull (Bullock) and the unicorn. Deut. 33:17 reads: “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns… “ Numbers 24:8 states: “G-d brought him forth out of Egypt; he has as it were the strength of an unicorn…” The Midrash (Numbers Rabah 2:7) says that the unicorn is the symbol of Manasseh and the bull that of Ephraim. An interesting extensive description about the translation of the R’em is listed below under additional notes.
At its height, the territory of Joseph spanned the Jordan River. It was the northernmost Israelite group on the east of the Jordan. The tribe of Joseph occupied the land north of the tribe of Gad. The region extended from the Mahanaim in the south to Mount Hermon in the north. These regions abounded in water, a precious commodity in Canaan. The mountainous portions not only afforded protection, but happened to be highly fertile. The territory of Joseph was thus one of the most valuable parts of the country, and the House of Joseph became the most dominant group in the Kingdom of Israel.
A little more about Joseph
Joseph was born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, in Paddan-Aram after she had been barren for seven years. Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved his other sons and gave him a “coat of many colors.” This provoked jealousy. After Joseph shared this two dreams telling them that they would bow to him, it escalated to hatred. The brothers plotted to kill him, but he was sold for 20 pieces of silver instead. The traders took Joseph down to Egypt where Potiphar made Joseph his personal attendant, putting him in charge of the entire household. After Potiphar’s wife slandered him, Joseph was sent to a jail for the king’s prisoners. Again, he was put in charge over the other prisoners where he interpreted dreams. Two years later we was sent to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and due to his wise council he became second-in-command. He even received a wife named Asenath, who was the daughter of Poti-phera the priest of On. Joseph’s gathering and storing enormous amounts of grain from each city saved Egypt and eventually, his entire family who came to buy food to endure the massive famine. Joseph was blessed with two sons in Egypt. He named the first one Manasseh, meaning, “G-d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51). The second son he named Ephraim, meaning, “G-d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52). In the end he reconciled with his entire family, who came to live in Egypt and were given the best of the land by Pharaoh. After his father, Jacob, had lived in Egypt for 17 years, he called Joseph to him and made him swear that when he died, Joseph would not bury him in Egypt, but would take him to the burial place of his fathers in the cave of Machpelah. After Jacob’s death, Joseph then ordered his physicians to embalm Jacob. The Egyptians mourned the death of Jacob for 70 days. Joseph received permission to go to Canaan to bury Jacob. Returning to Egypt, Joseph took care of his brothers and his father’s household, who remained in Egypt. Joseph lived to be 110 years old. He told his brothers that G-d would one day bring them up from Egypt into the land that G-d promised their fathers. He made them swear to carry his bones out of Egypt into that land. Joseph died and was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt. When the Jews eventually left Egypt, Moses carried out Joseph’s request by taking his bones out of Egypt. Joseph was buried in Shechem, on a piece of land that Jacob had previously bought.
The Breastplate Gem for Joseph is a Shoham (Onyx or Emerald). The name of Ephraim was engraved in the Ligure stone which was considered to be a stone of mystery. The name Ephraim means to be doubly fruitful or productive. Joseph brought his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim to receive their blessing from Jacob before his death. Although Manasseh was the one that was to receive the blessing of the firstborn (Deut. 21:17) in Joseph’s family, Jacob crossed his hands and laid his right hand upon Ephraim imparting the double portion blessing (Gen. 48:14). This act by his father was most mysterious to Joseph and quite upsetting.
It is said that Joseph observed the Shabbat before the command to observe it was given.
The following is a very lengthy description of the word R’em mentioned in the Bible, and its varying translations.
The R’em (aurochs) is also called the “primitive ox” or “oxen of the plain”. The aurochs is the ancestor of all the bovidae. Once widespread in Europe, it lived in the plains and at the forest’s edge. It became extinct in Poland in 1627. It is interesting though that an old synagogue in Poland from that time period features an image with the Lion of Judah and a Unicorn instead of the R’em. The R’em is described as a massive and strong breed and has a dark coat with a light stripe down the spine. It has long lyre-shaped horns. An adult male weighs up to 900 kg. The aurochs bull had a shoulder height of 6 ½ feet, whereas today’s dairy cow is 4 ½ feet. The aurochs could be found in our country during the Ice Age and long afterwards. They lived in the woods as well as on the plains. For centuries, the Aurochs was a valuable prize of the hunt.
The R’em (Hebrew: רֶאֵם) is a beast mentioned nine times in the Bible (Job 39:9,10, Deuteronomy 33:17, Numbers 23:22 and 24:8; Psalms 22:21, 29:6 and 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7). It is translated to unicorn in the Authorized King James Version. Other versions translate it as “wild ox” and is also speculated to refer to the Arabian Oryx or the extinct aurochs. The Ethiopic translation of the scriptures renders R’em with Arwe Harish R’em—rhinoceros and some as monoceros, also rhinoceros. All agree that it was a powerful animal with a presence of a mighty horn.
Some think it was an imaginary animal. However, G-d points out in Job 39:9–12 that the unicorn, “whose strength is great,” is useless for agricultural work, refusing to serve man or “harrow (plow) the valley.” This visual aid gave Job a glimpse of G-d’s greatness. An imaginary fantasy animal would have defeated the purpose of G-d’s illustration. Modern readers have trouble with the Bible’s unicorns because we forget that a single-horned feature is not uncommon on G-d’s menu for animal design. (Consider the rhinoceros and narwhal.) The Bible describes unicorns skipping like calves (Psalm 29:6), traveling like bullocks, and bleeding when they die (Isaiah 34:7). The presence of a very strong horn on this powerful, independent-minded creature is intended to make readers think of strength.
The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.). Eighteenth century reports from southern Africa described rock drawings and eyewitness accounts of fierce, single-horned, equine-like animals. One such report describes “a single horn, directly in front, about as long as one’s arm, and a thick base. It had a sharp point; it was not attached to the bone of the forehead, but fixed only in the skin.”
Assyrian archaeology provides one other possible solution to the unicorn identity crisis. The biblical unicorn could have been an aurochs (a kind of wild ox known to the Assyrians as rimu). The aurochs’s horns were very symmetrical and often appeared as one in profile, as can be seen on Ashurnasirpal II’s palace relief and Esarhaddon’s stone prism. Fighting rimu was a popular sport for Assyrian kings. On a broken obelisk, for instance, Tiglath-Pileser I boasted of slaying them in the Lebanon Mountains. Extinct since about 1627, aurochs, Bos primigenius, were huge bovine creatures. Julius Caesar described them in his Gallic Wars as:“a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. Not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.” The aurochs’ highly prized horns would have been a symbol of great strength to the ancient Bible reader.
The importance of the biblical unicorn is not so much its specific identity—much as we would like to know—but its reality. The Bible is clearly describing a real animal. The unicorn mentioned in the Bible was a powerful animal possessing one or two strong horns—not the fantasy animal that has been popularized in movies and books. Whatever it was, it is now likely extinct like many other animals. To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean G-d’s Word, which is true in every detail.