Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition, which begins with the services of the Bridegroom, links the movement of Christ toward his sacred Passion with the Old Testament figure of Joseph, the chaste and beloved son of Israel/Jacob. Joseph, known by tradition as “the most comely” (beautiful) became, like Christ, the object of envy on the part of his brethren. Also like Christ, he was lain in a pit, sold for thirty pieces of silver, and descended into Egypt (a figure of Hades). Desired for his beauty by the wife of Petephres (Potiphar), Joseph's first master in Egypt, Joseph demonstrated his purity and freedom from the passions (Gen 39), in time being glorified and crowned as lord and prince over Egypt itself.
The following discourse, On the Most Comely Joseph, is at the heart of many ancient and medieval traditions surrounding the person and story of Joseph. A metrical sermon that expands and dramatizes the biblical story of Joseph, this discourse has long been attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian. Coming down to us in a very large number of manuscripts, this re-telling of the story of Joseph is a staple of the Orthodox liturgical and monastic tradition, being copied and read continually by Christians throughout the ages, in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Georgian, and Slavonic. The present translation is by the late Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, slightly modified. The original version can be downloaded on his webpage, here.
The Illustrations below are taken from a 14th century Byzantine manuscript of On the Most Comely Joseph: British Library, Egerton MS 3157.
ON JOSEPH THE MOST COMELY
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, blessed God, who chose the holy seed of your own servants who love you, as you are good, grant that there may flow in me the streams of grace in great abundance, that I may be able to recount the radiant and mighty spectacle of the most virtuous Joseph, who had become the ever revered support of the profound old age of the patriarch Jacob. For this youth from his earliest years depicted the two comings of Christ: the first was from the Virgin Mary, the other the one that is going to terrify the universe.
So now, beloved, beloved by Christ, let us be firmly fixed, rejoicing in soul, to hear and to contemplate without distraction great deeds of a most noble youth. But I, my brothers, do not only say that the youngster is most noble, but that he is wondrous, and a fount of chastity, a valiant victor, a wondrous trophy. And so truly a type he became of that future Coming of the Lord.
Let each cast out from his own soul every care for earthly things, and receive with longing lyrical songs; for they are spiritual, giving joy to the soul.
Joseph as a Type of Christ
For just as the Lord was sent to us from the Father’s bosom, to save us all, so the youth Joseph from Jacob’s bosom was sent to enquire about his own brothers. And just as Joseph’s harsh brothers, as soon as they saw him approaching, began to devise evil against him, though he was bringing them peace from their father, so the Jews also, ever hard of heart, as soon as they saw the Saviour, said, “This is the heir, let us kill him, and all will be ours.” And just as Joseph’s brothers said, “Let us do away with him, and let us be set free of his dreams,” in the same way too the Jews said, “Come, let us kill him and lay hold on his inheritance.”
Joseph’s brothers, while eating, sold him, slaying him in intent. In the same way too the abominable Jews, while eating the Passover, slew the Saviour.
The descent of Joseph into Egypt signifies the descent to earth of our Saviour. And as Joseph within the marriage chamber trampled down all the strength of sin, putting on the bright prizes of victory against the Egyptian woman, his mistress, so too the Lord, the Saviour of our souls, by his own right hand, descending into Hell, destroyed there all the power of the dread and near invincible tyrant.
When Joseph had conquered sin he was put in prison until the hour of his crowning; so too the Lord, that he might take away every sin of the world, was placed in a grave. Joseph in prison spent two whole years, passing his time in great freedom; while the Lord, as powerful, remained in the tomb for three days, not undergoing corruption.
Joseph, on Pharaoh’s order, was brought out graciously from prison, as a true type, when he easily interpreted the meaning of the dreams, indicating the abundance of grain that was going to be; while our Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by his own power, despoiling Hell, offering to the Father our liberation, proclaiming resurrection and everlasting life. Joseph took his seat in Pharaoh’s chariot, having received authority over the whole of Egypt; while our Saviour, king before the ages, ascending into heaven on a cloud of light, took his seat with glory at the Father’s right hand, above the Cherubim, as Only-begotten Son.
When ruling over Egypt, Joseph having received authority against his enemies, his brothers were brought willingly before the tribunal of the one who had died through them; they were brought to prostrate with fear and trembling before the one who had been sold by them to death; and with fear they prostrated before Joseph, whom they had not wanted to be king over them. But Joseph, recognising his brothers, revealed them as murderers by a single word; but they, when they realised, stood dumbfounded in great shame, not daring to utter, not having anything at all to say in their defence, knowing exactly their own sin at the moment when they sold him; while he, who seemed to have been destroyed by them in Hades, was suddenly found to be ruling over them. So too on that fearful day, when the Lord comes on the clouds of the air, he takes his seat on the throne of his kingdom, and all his enemies are brought bound by fearsome angels before the judgement seat, all those who did not want him to rule over them. For the lawless Jews thought then, that if he were crucified, he would die as a human; the wretches not being persuaded that God had come, for salvation, to save our souls. Just as Joseph said quite openly to his brothers, making them fear and tremble, “I am Joseph, whom you sold into slavery, but now I rule over you, though you did not want it.” So too the Lord shows the Cross in an image formed of light to those who crucified him, and they recognize the Cross itself and the Son of God who was crucified by them. Know how accurately Joseph became, a true type of his own Master.
The Story of Joseph, Hated by his Brothers
Since his virtue flowered from his youth, by free choice, making a start we shall come to relate in full, by our exposition, the virtues of the holy youth. This blessed youth passed a period of seventeen years in his father’s house, advancing each day in the fear of God by both good behaviour and honour of his parents. Observing unseemliness with regard his brothers, he reported to his father a little of many things, for truly virtue cannot exist alongside wickedness; for that is unseemly. For this they hated Joseph, since he was a stranger to their evil. Being a virtuous youth, having dreams, he saw what was going to happen to him through the dispensation of God most high.
While his father Jacob, ignorant of the hidden hatred of Joseph, with simplicity of heart loving Joseph, because of the flower of virtue which was always evident from his early youth.
Sold by his Brothers
While they were grazing the sheep in Sychem, it happened that Joseph was with their father. Their father Jacob, as a loving father, was anxious about them, and he says to Joseph, “Come, child, go to your brothers and enquire closely of their well-being, and that of the flocks at the same time; and return with speed.” Joseph, accepting his father’s order, left with joy for his brothers, bringing peace from their father’s person, and at the same time the concern he had for them. When he had left, he lost the way, not finding his brothers with their shepherds.
As he was grieving and groaning for them, a man found him and showed him the way. When Joseph saw them from afar off, he went with joy, longing to embrace them all. As he approached, they saw him and like wild beasts wanted to destroy Joseph; while he, like an innocent lamb, went to fall into the hands of the most ferocious wolves. When he drew near them, he greeted them kindly, bringing peace from the person of their father.
They, however, immediately rising up like wild beasts, stripped him of the coat of many colours he was wearing, and each one gnashed his teeth to swallow him alive, savage and merciless in their hostility, and that honourable and holy youth they tormented in divers ways through their own madness.
Joseph, seeing he was among wicked men— not a single one of them had pity—turned then to entreaty and gave vent to tears and groans, and lifting up his voice he besought them, saying,
“Why are you enraged? I beg all of you to bear with me a little that I may entreat you, my brothers.
My mother has gone to her rest, and Jacob until now grieves for her each day, and do you wish to add another grief to our father, while the former still endures and has not yet passed. I beg all of you to bear with me a little, that I may not be parted from Jacob, that his old age may not descend with pain into Hades.
I adjure you all therefore, by the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who from the beginning called Abraham and said, “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go to the country that I will show you and give you. And I will multiply your seed like the stars of heaven, and like the sand that is by the sea shore that cannot be numbered.”
The God most high, who gave Abraham endurance willingly to offer his only son Isaac in sacrifice, that endurance might be reckoned to Abraham as a boast; the God who delivered Isaac from death and gave a ram instead of him as an acceptable holocaust; the holy God who gave a blessing to Jacob from the mouth of his father Isaac; the God who went down with Jacob to Charran in Mesopotamia, from where Abraham had departed; the God who delivered Jacob from affliction and said that he would give him blessing.
May I not be deprived of Jacob as I was deprived of Rachel. May he not grieve for me as he grieved for Rachel. May Jacob’s eyes not be darkened again, as he waits to see my return to him. Send me to Jacob my father, accepting my tears. Send me back to him.”
When he had sworn these things by the God of the fathers, the fierce ones immediately threw him into a pit, not fearing God, not respecting an oath. Though he clasped the feet of all of them and drenched with his tears his brothers’ feet, and cried out and said, “Brothers, have mercy on me!,” he was cast by them at once into the pit.
When Joseph had been cast into the pit in the desert, with bitter tears and piteous laments he lamented for himself and his father Jacob, and weeping he spoke with unutterable groans: while he said,
“Father Jacob, see what has befallen your child, how I have been cast into the pit like a corpse. See, you are expecting me to come back to you, and now I am lying in the pit like a murderer. You said to me, father, “Go, visit your brothers with the shepherds, returning with haste,” and see, they have become like most savage wolves, and with rage have parted me from you, good father.
For you no longer see me, nor hear my voice, nor again does your old age rely on me, nor do I again see your holy grey hairs, because I am no better than a dead corpse. Weep, father, for your child, and your son for his father, for thus have I been parted from childhood from your face. Who will give me a dove, moaning to bring proof to you that it may come and announce my weeping to your old age?
My tears are exhausted, father, and my groans; my voice has given out; and there is none to help. O earth! O earth! that cried to the holy God over Abel the just, unjustly destroyed, as according to a tradition from our forefathers, the earth cried out to God because of the blood of the just one, now too cry out yourself to my father Jacob, letting him know clearly what has happened to me at the hands of my brothers.”
Joseph Sold to the Ishmaelites
When the savages had thrown Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat and drink with joy. As someone who had won a war would take wing, so they too with joy of heart sat down to eat. And as they were eating and drinking with gladness, suddenly they raised their eyes, and saw approaching Ishmaelite merchants, journeying to Egypt, with camels too loaded with spices, and they said to one another, “It is much better for us to sell Joseph to these foreign merchants, that, when he has gone away, he may die in a foreign land, and let not our hand be on our brother.”
And they drew from the pit Joseph their own brother like wild beasts, and having accepted his price, they sold him to the merchants, not remembering their father’s concern and grief. As the merchants were journeying, they came on the road to the place of the hippodrome, where Rachel’s tomb is, for she died there on the hippodrome road, when Jacob was returning from Mesopotamia.
Joseph’s Lament over Rachel
When Joseph saw the tomb of his mother Rachel, he ran forward and fell upon the grave, and lifting up his voice, with tears he raised a loud lament and cried out in the bitterness of his soul, saying,
"Rachel, Rachel, my mother, rise from the dust and look on Joseph, whom you loved, what he has become. See, how he is being led as a prisoner into Egypt, handed over as a malefactor into the hands of foreigners. My brothers have sold me, stripped naked, into slavery, and Jacob has not learned that I have been handed over.
Open to me, mother, and receive me in your tomb. Let your tomb become one bed for me and you. Rachel, receive your son, whom you love more than yourself. Rachel, receive a captive, that he may not die a violent death. Mother, receive the one who has suddenly been deprived of Jacob, in the same way that I was deprived of you from childhood. Listen, my mother, to the groans of my heart, and my bitter cry of lamentation, and accept me in your tomb. For my eyes can no longer support my weeping, nor my soul endure to wail aloud with groans.
Rachel, Rachel, do you not hear the voice of your son, Joseph? See, I am forcibly going far away, and do you not want to receive me? I called to Jacob, and he did not hear my voice. See, once again I call to you, and you do not hear me either. Here I will die, upon your tomb, that to a foreign land I may not depart as a malefactor."
But the whole company of the Ishmaelite men who had taken Joseph, when they saw him as he ran like this and threw himself face downward on the tomb of his mother Rachel, said to one another, “This young man wishes to work some sorcery against us, so that he can escape from us without us knowing how he has become invisible.
So let us seize him and bind him securely, lest he make all of us invisible.” So they approached him, and said threateningly, “Get up now, and stop practising sorcery, lest, having struck you down on this tomb, we lose the gold that we gave for you.” But when he arose, they all saw that his face was reddened from his bitter weeping, and they began each to ask him kindly,
“Why do you shed tears? For you were dreadfully troubled as soon as you saw this tomb when you were on the road of this hippodrome.
Tell us boldly casting away cowardice, what is your trade, and why have you been sold? Those shepherds, when they sold you, said this to us, “Make him secure, so that he does not run away from you on the road. We are not liable ourselves. See, we have told you in advance.” So, tell us exactly whose slave you are; those shepherds,” or some free man’s? And let us know for what reason you threw yourself ardently upon the grave? We have bought you, and we are your masters. Tell us everything that concerns you.
If you hide from us what concerns you, to whom can you tell it? You are our servant. As those shepherds said to us, you want to escape, while we are idling. But be encouraged, and tell us clearly what is your trade. For you seem like a free man. We will not use you as a slave, but as a brother or a beloved son. For we see the greatest freedom and much knowledge with much composure; for you are worthy too to stand in the presence of a king and to be honoured with nobles, young man. For this beauty of yours will swiftly place you, with much splendour and honour, in authority, and you will be our friend and acquaintance there, where we are taking you for you to be in joy. For who would not long for such a servant, most handsome in appearance, both noble and wise.”
Joseph answered, and said to them with groans,
“I was neither slave nor sorcerer, again not having done any wrong, I was sold into your power. But a beloved son I had been to my father, likewise also to my mother a most dear son. Those shepherds are my brothers, and my father sent me to see how they were faring. As a loving father he was concerned about them, for they had delayed long on the mountains. For this reason I was sent by my father to see them. But they seized me and at once sold me to you into slavery, carried away by dreadful envy. They parted me from my father, unable to endure the love that my father had for me.
This tomb here is my mother’s. For once when my father was returning from Charran he passed from there to journey to the place where he now lives. And as my father journeyed, my mother died here and was buried in this tomb, at which you are now looking."
When they heard this, they wept concerning him, and said to him, “Do not be afraid, young man; for to the greatest honour you are going to Egypt. For your appearance reveals your nobility. But rather be eager, now that you are free from the envy and hatred of your brothers, who sold you to us.”
But Joseph’s brothers, when they had sold him, brought a he-goat and eagerly slew it, and having stained holy Joseph’s tunic, they sent it at once to their father, saying, “We found this abandoned on the mountains, and immediately we knew it was our brother’s garment, and we are all in grief for him. For this reason, father, we have sent you Joseph’s tunic of many colours, not having found our brother. Make sure yourself, if it is your son’s; for we all know that it is Joseph’s.
When Jacob saw the tunic he cried out with lamentation and bitter weeping, saying, “This is the garment of my son Joseph. An evil beast has devoured my son.” Wailing he said with unbearable groans,
Why was I not devoured rather than you, my son? Why did the wild beast not encounter me, and, having made its fill of me, left you alone, my son? Why did the wild beast not rather savage me, and I become its fodder to satiety? Alas! Alas! I am rent with anguish for Joseph! Alas! Alas! where was my son slain, that I may go and tear my grey hairs over your beauty! For I no longer wish to live, if I cannot see Joseph. I am the cause of your death, my child. I am the one who has blinded your shining eyes. I destroyed you, my child, when I sent you to journey in the wilderness to look for your brothers with the shepherds. So I will lament, my child, and grieve at every hour, until I go down to Hades, with you, my son.
And instead of your body I shall place your tunic, Joseph, before my eyes, as I weep without ceasing. See once more, your tunic has brought me, my son, to another great grief; for it is still intact, so that I think that it was not a wild beast that devoured you, my beloved, but that you were stripped and slaughtered by human hands. For if, as your brothers say, you were devoured, your tunic would have been torn apart; for the wild beast would not first have stripped you and then made a meal of your flesh. If though it had stripped you and then eaten, your tunic would not have been stained with blood. There are no rents of claws, no marks of the teeth of a wild beast on your tunic.
Whence then the blood? Again, if the beast who ate Joseph was alone, how did it manage to do all this? This is for me alone grief and lamentation, that I may grieve for Joseph and lament the tunic! Two griefs, two weepings and most bitter lamentations for Joseph and his tunic. Ah, how was he stripped! I shall die, Joseph, my light and my support. Let your tunic now descend with me to Hades. For without you, my son Joseph, I no longer wish to see the light. Let my soul depart with yours, my child Joseph.
Joseph in Egypt
But the Ishmaelites taking Joseph, brought him down with speed to Egypt, as they discussed the money they would get from some nobleman because of his beauty. As they arrived in the middle of the city, Petephres met them at once, and seeing Joseph, he enquired of them, saying, “Tell me, merchants, where is this young man from? For he is not like you, because you are all Ishmaelites, while he is outstandingly beautiful.” They answered, saying, “This youth is extremely well-born and full of knowledge.” Having given them whatever price they wanted, with longing he bought Joseph from them. Having brought him into his own household, he asked to learn about his upbringing.
But the true shoot of the holy seed of Abraham the just, of Isaac and of Jacob, advanced in virtue and great sobriety in the household of Petephres, day by day strictly practising in sight and in word the grade of sobriety, having continually before his eyes the holy God who sees all things, the God of the fathers, who had delivered him from the pit of death and the hatred of his brothers. But his heart was constantly grieving over his father, the saintly Jacob.
When Petephres saw the good character of the young man, his great knowledge and honesty, he gave into the care of Joseph the most comely, as to his own son, all that he had acquired. And he had no idea at all what Joseph did in all his dealings, not even so much as a word, except only the food that he ate at the appointed time; for he saw that Joseph was completely honest. In particular he knew from experience that his affairs were prospering in Joseph’s hands, and that there was great happiness among the male and female servants at all the good things that came about through him.
But his mistress, seeing that Joseph was adorned with beauty and knowledge, was smitten with passion and satanic folly, and greatly desired to sleep with him, and she desired to cast that honourable youth and fount of sobriety into the miry pit of unchastity.
Working ten thousand wiles and enticements, she plotted mercilessly the deception of the youth. Hour by hour by changing her clothes, making up her face and decking herself in gold, the wretched woman tried to entrap with satanic nods and shameless smiles the holy eyes of the just young man. For she reckoned that by such tricks she would easily trap the soul of the holy youth. Joseph however, protecting himself with the fear of God, did not look at her by so much as a nod. But when she saw that the wiles of her many adornments had no effect on the just one, she burned with greater passion and schemed even more, not finding what she might yet do to win him.
And finally she longed shamelessly to invite him to a dishonourable deed, watching like a snake raging to pour upon him the poison of unchastity; and with a shameless face she said to the holy youth, “Joseph, sleep with me, don’t be an utter coward; approach me boldly. I would enjoy your beauty; and you would be sated also with my loveliness. Over all the servants in the household you have complete authority. No one else dares to come in to us or to listen to our business. But if you do not want to, because you fear my husband, I will do away with him, by giving him poison. So then, come to me and fulfil my desire, because I am aflame with my desire for you.
But that adamantine stone, in both soul and body, was not worsted in mind, and especially by such a squall, but repelling everything that happened through his fear of God, with fitting and fair stability, he made it clear to her by godly words, saying, “Woman, it is not good to commit sin with you, my mistress; for it is God that I fear. For see, my lord has handed over to me all his property both in the house and in his lands, and there is nothing that is not under my authority, except you, my mistress. It would be unseemly for me to reject such a love of such a master, especially one who so loves me. How can I commit such a sin in the sight of God, who examines hearts and inner parts?”
Joseph spoke these holy words to her hourly, warning, asking, rebuking, accusing; but she accepted nothing godly, but like a snake that stops its ears, she burned more fiercely, evil desire welling up in her. Hourly she watched for a suitable opportunity to force herself on the chaste young man. Joseph, seeing that the female, like a wild beast, was so shamelessly trying to destroy him, raised his sight to the God of his fathers, and constantly besought the Most High, saying, “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, great and fearful, rescue me from this wild beast. For you see yourself, Master, the madness of the woman, how she wishes in secret to kill me by impious actions, so that I shall die in sins along with her and be wholly parted from my father Jacob. You delivered me, Master, from death at the hands of my lawless brothers; deliver me again here also from a raving wild beast, that by my deeds I am not a stranger to my fathers, who loved you deeply and devoutly, Lord.”
And groaning from the depths of his heart, he again called on his father Jacob, saying,
“Pray, father, for your child Joseph, for a fierce war has been launched against me, which could separate me from God; this is much more powerful than the death my brothers planned to inflict on me. They were trying to kill my body, she is separating my soul from God. I know, my father, that your prayers for me ascended to the holy God, and thanks to this I was delivered from the pit of death. Now once again implore the Most High, that I may be delivered from this wild beast, that wishes to destroy your child; she has no sense of shame in her eyes, nor fear of God in her heart. Pray, father, that I may not in this way be parted from your bosom in body, and become a stranger to you in soul. I went to my brothers, and they became like wild beasts; like savage wolves they tore me from you, dear father, and I was brought down to Egypt by the hands of foreigners, and there once again a wild beast met me. My brothers wanted to do away with me in the wilderness, while she has appeared to tear me apart in her inner chamber. Pray, father, that I may die in the sight of God and my fathers.”
But as he did not wish to obey the words of his mistress, she pursued him hourly like a shameless serpent; she looked for an opportunity to find him in an inner chamber and so to commit the sin. When she found him in his bed, as she wished, she shamelessly approached the chaste young man, and dragging him to herself, began to force him to commit sin. When he saw the woman’s outrageous lack of shame, he dashed out into the street at a run, and like an eagle, when he sees the hunters, raises it wings towards the sky, so too Joseph ran out of the door, lest by tricks he be harmed in words or deeds; and leaving behind his own garment in her hands, he fled the Devil’s snares.
When the woman saw him flee thus, she fell into a towering rage, and planned to strike at the just youth by most shameful words, intending to accuse him before her husband, so that, when her husband heard, he would be enflamed with jealous rage and do away with Joseph. She reasoned thus with herself, “It is far better for me that Joseph dies, and I find relief; for I cannot endure to see in my house hour by hour his outstanding beauty, while I cannot find a way, either openly or in secret, to enjoy his beauty and his great knowledge.”
So summoning the male and female servants, she said to them, “Do you see what the Hebrew servant, whom my husband set over his household, has done to me? Authority over my household was not enough for him, but he wanted to separate me from my husband.” And taking Joseph’s tunic, she showed it to her husband, accusing him and saying, “Look, you introduced a Hebr