Joseph’s dream of sun and moon and 11 stars

Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, was aged 17, when, one night, he had a dream, which he described to his family. In an astonishing vision, the heavenly bodies were coming to bow in obedience to him. Then, he was sold into Egypt, presumably before reaching his eighteenth birthday. This is the dream:

“After that, he had still another dream, and he related it to his brothers: “I have had another dream. This time the sun and the moon and 11 stars were bowing down to me.” Then he related it to his father as well as his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him: “What is the meaning of this dream of yours? Am I as well as your mother and your brothers really going to come and bow down to the earth to you?”  Genesis 37:9-10

Father and mother didn’t bow

If we continue reading the book we will see that ten of Joseph’s brothers bowed before him. But it is sure that Joseph’s father and mother didn’t bow because later we read that Joseph himself bowed in front of his father, while Rachel was no longer alive.

After having met his brothers (they came into Egypt in search for food), Joseph sorted out to search his father.  “And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen; and he presented himself unto him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while.” Genesis 46:29 (ASV)

So, the question is, how the dream is fulfilled and what is represented by the sun and the moon. You could probably imagine the story does not have a literal value. Is that true? Let’s examine Joseph’s family life. When he became grand vizier over the land of Egypt, Pharaoh gave him a wife, Asenath,  the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On.

Let’s introduce Pharaoh’s speech: “Pharaoh then said to Joseph: “Since God has caused you to know all of this, there is no one as discreet and wise as you. You will personally be over my house, and all my people will obey you implicitly. Only in my role as king will I be greater than you.”


On was a city that the Greeks called Heliopolis, meaning “City of the Sun”. It was the chief center of Egyptian sun worship. The Egyptian name is thought to mean “City of the Pillar,” perhaps referring to the obelisks for which the city was famous; or the name may relate to the sacred stone connected with the worship of the sun-god Ra. The name Potiphera itself includes the name of Ra, the sun-god. Connected with its temple to the sun, a school was operated for training priest and for the teaching of medicine. Medicine was exerted by priests who were also those practicing the embalming of the dead. The prophet Jeremiah referred to the city as Beth-shemesh, which means “House of the Sun”.

The city of the house of the sun

On was a center of idolatry, of course. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a yet-future time when God would unite five cities by means of one language: “In that day five cities in the land of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan [i.e., Hebrew] and swear by the LORD of hosts; one will be called the City of Destruction” (Isaiah 19:18). Commentators suggest that it is in allusion to Heliopolis, that Isaiah is punning on “city of the sun”. He does it  by using a Hebrew word similar to that for “sun” but which actually means “destruction.”

The Masoretic text, in fact, refers to one of the “five cities in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan and swearing to Jehovah” as “The City of Tearing Down [Heb., ʽIr ha-Heʹres].” The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah has ʽIr ha-Cheʹres, meaning “City of the Sun,” thus pointing to On or Heliopolis. Here there may be an intentional play on words, Heʹres (tearing down) being substituted for Cheʹres (another Hebrew word for “sun,” less common than sheʹmesh) in view of God’s intention to destroy the idolatrous city of On. This way you can clearly understand the point: knowing of the sun that was coming to bow to Joseph’s feet was not such an ominous situation.

Umbelici mundi

Heliopolis was considered to be one of the umbelici mundi. It was known as the city of the pillar, the place of the advent of “being” and the beginning of all existence. Egyptians had different creation myths which included a pyramid shaped-mound, called the Benben which was the first thing to emerge from the primeval waters. It was the emergence of life from the original chaos. The sun was closely associated with this myth, and it was said to have first risen from the mound as the sun-god Ra.

In Heliopolis, they believed creation had begun with the first appearing of the sun Atum. Priests worshiped Atum as the creator who, according to their myths, had risen here from a state of nonbeing to a state of being; such myths served to enhance the reputation of Heliopolis as a place of origins. The pharaohs adorned the temple in Heliopolis with many obelisks. They were designed to catch the first rays of dawn and represented what Egyptians referred to as “the creation mound.” Thus Heliopolis was known as the “city of the pillar.”

When a place comes to be the center of the earth it becomes the residence of its divinity. It becomes the axis mundi, the meeting point of the earth, the sky and the underground. Heliopolis stands as the origin of a cosmogony. As the human embryo is at the origin of a baby, the creation of the earth is compared, in the book of Psalms, to the solid fixing of an embryo to the uterine wall. Psalm 119


In the book of Genesis, we read that Pharaoh gave Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob a wife, the daughter of Poti-Pherah, priest of On (Genesis 41:45). This was not a priest of the God of Israel but, as the end of his name in all probability indicates, a priest of Ra. His daughter was called Asenath, a name that some associate with the goddess Neith, mother of Ra in Egyptian mythology. By this marriage, Joseph, son of Israel, and Asenath, daughter of the priest of On, had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Asenath and Isis-Neith

Moreover, let’s consider the situation concerning Joseph and the moon. Asenath, the name of Joseph’s wife was obviously linked with Isis-Neith, a goddess of the night, a lunar personage connected with the dead and corresponding to the Greek Artemis. What’s the meaning of all this? There’s just one answer: all Jacob’s family, all the twelve, would soon fall under the influence of the Egyptian idolatry, bowing to the sun and the moon.

Jacob’s funeral service

Is there any proof to support this sort of reasoning? You could read the last chapter in Genesis where Joseph is told to have commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. All the service is modulated according to the traditional mourning Egyptian rites. There are only two cases specifically called embalming in the Bible and both of these are related in the same chapter of Genesis.

One is referred in occasion of Joseph’s death, the other is connected to  Jacob. When he died, the inspired record states: “After that Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel, and they took fully forty days for him, for these many days they customarily take for the embalming, and the Egyptians continued to shed tears for him seventy days.” Joseph died at the age of 110 years, “and they had him embalmed, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” The account reads that, after Jacob’s mummification, the procession started toward the land of Canaan.

An Egyptian great mourning

“Chariots and horsemen also went up with him [Jacob], and the camp was very numerous.  Then they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is in the region of the Jordan, and there they carried on a very great and bitter mourning, and he kept mourning for his father seven days. The inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw them mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, and they exclaimed: “This is a great mourning for the Egyptians!” That is why it was named Abel-mizraim, which is in the region of the Jordan.”

Preserving the body of the dead

Today, just as different religions have different traditions for worship and weddings, funeral traditions tend to vary quite widely. There are differences in the preparation of the body and in the funeral service. Anyway, quite all religions focus on the concept of a spiritual life after death. Egyptians did the same. Funerals in ancient Egypt were a complex process. It was important in their religion to preserve the dead body in as life-like a manner as possible. Such elaborate burial practices might suggest that the Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death. On the contrary, they wanted to be sure life would continue after death. The soul was believed to be immortal and the human body had to be preserved so that the soul might return and use it on occasion.

Funeral processions

Funeral processions for wealthy people would have been an elaborate event. Members of the nobility and officials received important funerary services. Relatives stayed at either end of the coffin, which was usually drawn along by oxen. Two of the female relatives or priestesses were acting the role of goddesses Isis and Nephthys. Some participants carried canopic jars, while others were mourners, dancers, musicians, and priests.

Dust you are and to dust, you will return

The Bible in Genesis 3:19 explains death as a simple disintegration of the body: “For dust you are and to dust, you will return.” So, the Egyptian funerary traditions were in deep contrast with the Jewish concepts of death. The Bible never supports the immortality of the soul. When Joseph introduced Jacob’s family into Egypt something in their beliefs was slightly to change. The Egyptian way of considering life and death was under the sign of the worship of Isis and Osiris, ultimately the belief of a constant dying and returning to life.

An ambiguous situation to manage

Joseph had certainly become somewhat a different man since the beginning of his career in Egypt. The Bible is an amazing book in this: it relates honestly about facts and events. Joseph had started as a young dreamer, an adolescent sold to a band of Midianite merchants, a bright boy. God was giving success to everything he was doing. Anyway, becoming an Egyptian man of power, that was an ambiguous situation for a Jew. The Egyptian high society was a place full of dangers for a differently believing man.

For this Hosea declares: “The loving kindness of you people is like the morning clouds and like the dew that early goes away. That is why I shall have to kill them by the sayings of my mouth. And the judgments upon [them] will be as the light that goes forth…But they themselves, like earthling man, have overstepped covenant. There is where they have dealt treacherously with me.” Hosea 6:4-5,7

Exemplarity in the Bible

This is why the Law placed near the Ark was meant to be a witness against the people. “For I, I well know your rebelliousness and your stiff neck…You have proved rebellious in behavior toward Jehovah…For I well know, you will certainly turn aside from the way about which I have commanded you.” De 31:26-29

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we imagine that the characters described inside its pages were wholly integer and exemplary. Sometimes they intended to be that kind of people and they really managed to be like that. Sometimes they failed and were out of the target. We have to understand that actually, God chose his people because he knew their heart. It was not because their allegiance was unshakable. David, for instance, was a man according to God’s heart. Anyway, sometimes he failed, as in the case of Bathsheba. So we cannot imagine the Israelites living in Egypt without falling under the Egyptian influence. This way we can understand the sort of funeral Jacob and Joseph received,  on the part of Israelites and Egyptians.

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