Many people who read or even carefully study the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, fail to pay attention to details and as a result they miss much that is in the Bible, the brilliant way that it is written, its poetry, its references to other incidences, its use of metaphor, and much more. The drama of Joseph and the number two is an example.
The frequent use of the number two in the Joseph story
There are many uses of the number two in regard to Joseph and his family making it clear that the use of two was purposely employed. The following are some examples.
- Joseph’s father Jacob, who was a second son, had two wives and two concubines.
- Joseph was the son of Jacob’s second wife Rachel.
- Joseph’s Hebrew name Yoseph means “add.” The first instance of addition is one plus one equaling two.
- He was Jacob’s eleventh son. Eleven is made up of two number ones which equal two.
- Two court officials were imprisoned with Joseph.
- There are three instances of dreams in the story, each involved two. Joseph had two dreams where he lorded over his family. Each of the two imprisoned officials had a dream, a total of two. Pharaoh had two dreams. Joseph explained the last two sets of dreams, the story itself explains Joseph’s youthful dreams.
- The dreams of the two imprisoned officials had two parts, a prediction and an interpretation of the prediction (which apparently was in a code that Joseph had to interpret).
- Pharaoh had his two dreams two years after the dreams of his two officials.
- Pharaoh summoned two groups of people to interpret his two dreams, soothsayers and wise men.
- When Joseph was ordered to be brought to Pharaoh to decipher his dreams, two things were done to him, he was shaved and given a change of garments.
- Earlier, after being sold as a slave, he worked for Potiphar and was made second to Potiphar, doing all matters in Potiphar’s house except relations with his wife.
- The prison warden gave Joseph a second status assigning him the care of all prisoners in the prison.
- Later, Pharaoh made him second to him in regard to all matters in Egypt.
- Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name to a name in two parts.
- There were two instances concerning a coat. Both involved a difficulty for Joseph. In one, Jacob gave him a special coat which angered his brothers. After selling Joseph, his brothers used the coat to prove Joseph was torn by a wild beast. In the other, Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction; she seized his coat, was angry, and used it to prove that Joseph came to her house to bed her.
- After some 20 years of working for his father-in-law Laban, Jacob returned home. Fearing that his brother Esau would seek to kill him and his family for stealing their father Isaac’s blessing meant for him, Jacob divided his family and possessions into two groups so that if the first was attacked the second could escape, and placed what he considered important in the second camp. Joseph was set in this second camp.
- Jacob worked for his father-in-law Laban for twenty years. The number twenty has a two in it.
- It was only after twenty years since sold into slavery that Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food.
- During the Egyptian famine, Joseph gave Egyptian food on the condition that they give Pharaoh twenty percent of the yield of their cops.
- There were two men in the tale with similar names Potiphar and Potiphera.
- When Joseph’s sister Dinah was captured and raped, only two men are named as the abductors.
- Two of Joseph’s brothers revenged the rape of their sister Dinah.
- Two brothers of Joseph, Reuben and Judah tried to save Joseph when the other brothers tossed him into a pit.
- These same two brothers attempted to persuade Jacob to let them bring Benjamin to Egypt as Joseph commanded.
- Reuben pleaded with Jacob that if he failed to bring Benjamin home from Egypt, Jacob could kill his two sons.
- Two groups of people, Midianites and Ishmaelites were involved in taking Joseph from the pit and selling him as a slave in Egypt.
- Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers during the second year of the famine in Egypt.
- Two women were involved with him. Potiphar’s wife and the daughter of Potiphera an Egyptian priest whom he married. The two women were very different. One wanted to commit adultery. The other was the daughter of a priest, apparently moral.
- Joseph had two sons by his wife.
- His father Jacob seemingly erred in openly preferring Joseph above his older sons and repeated the act a second time when he gave a preferable blessing to Joseph’s second son.
- Two of Joseph’s brother Judah’s sons died because of improper sex.
- Judah had two sons by Tamar. As with Jacob and Esau, and Joseph’s two sons, there was a struggle which child would ascend to a higher position.
- The number 17 appears twice. Joseph lived with his father Jacob until he was kidnaped by his brothers for 17 years. Later, when Joseph was an official in Egypt, his father was with him again for 17 years.
- Joseph died at age 110, not 120 as Moses nor 147 as his father. The two ones in 110 add up to two.
Why was the number two used so frequently in the Joseph drama?
We do not know now and will never know. We can only guess. It is possible that two was seen as a symbol of a unity in a family, a loving husband and wife, a harmonious relationship. Perhaps the number is used here to highlight ironically that frequently there was disharmony during Joseph’s life.