The saint forefather Joseph is the eldest son of Jacob and Rachel.
The Book of Genesis tells that Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, gave birth to Joseph after many years of barrenness. Jacob “loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors” (Genesis 37: 3). Joseph had an ability to interpret dreams. Once he told his brothers a dream in which he foretold that his family would be bowing down to him. The brothers hated him and plotted to kill him. But, seeing a caravan of merchants heading for Egypt, they sold Joseph into slavery telling his father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
In Egypt, Joseph was re-sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, who promoted him to oversee his entire household as a superintendant. Joseph was so attractive that Potiphar’s wife began to desire him. Despite her persistence, Joseph refused to have sex with her and then the woman maligned her slave. The young man was thrown into prison but the Lord did not leave him: Joseph was put in charge of the other prisoners.
One day Pharaoh’s chief cup bearer and chief baker were thrown into prison for offending the Pharaoh. They both had dreams which Joseph interpreted to them. Joseph foretold them that the chief cup bearer would be reinstated but the chief baker would be executed. The chief cup bearer who had promised Joseph to get him out of prison, remembered him only two years later when Pharaoh called his wise men and demanded that they interpret the meaning of his strange dreams. Having heard about Joseph, the Pharaoh ordered to send for him. Joseph interpreted his dreams as foretelling that seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of famine and advised Pharaoh to store surplus grain during the years of abundance. Pharaoh realized that Joseph’s proposals were very wise and “took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, ‘Make way!’ Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt” (Genesis 41: 42–43).
When famine struck the land, Joseph was ordered by Pharaoh to open storehouses and sell grain. The entire world came to Egypt to buy grain; Jacob, too, sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. Not recognized by his brothers, Joseph demanded that they send his maternal half-brother Benjamin. Jacob did not want to send his son to Egypt but was forced to do so as famine was becoming more severe.
When Joseph saw Benjamin, he was so overcome with emotion that he enslaved him under false pretences. But brothers’ sorrow was so great that Joseph had to reveal to them his true identity. “And he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck” (Genesis 45: 14). “To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.” (Genesis 45: 22).
The brothers returned to their father and told him what had happened to them. Jacob decided to go down to Israel with all of his family, property and the flock. They came to Joseph and bowed to him as he had predicted.
Joseph died at the age of 110. Before his death he foretold his brothers that the Lord would lead them out of Egypt to the land “he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and made them swear that they would carry his bones up from this place (Genesis, 50: 24–25).
In iconography Joseph is depicted as a young man among the Old Testament forefathers and fathers. Such depictions had been originally encountered in temple mural paintings, such as those at the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the St. Therapont Monastery (Dionysius, 1502–1503). Since the 16th century icons depicting the Old Testament forefathers with scrolls in hands have been placed in a separate forefather row of the iconostasis, as for example, on the 1600 icon of St. Forefather Joseph from the iconostasis at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius.
The saint forefather Joseph is commemorated on the Sunday of the on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and Fathers.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
1. Воронцова Л. М. Иконы и фрески Троицкого Собора. Свято-Троицкая Лавра, 2003.
2. Костромская икона XIII – XIX веков. М., 2004. Илл. 173 (№112).
3. Вера и Власть эпохи Ивана Грозного. М., 2007. С. 83.