Oedipus Rex was the son of the King of Thebes. The Oracle of Delphi told the king that his son would kill him and marry his wife. To prevent this prophecy from taking place, the king decided to maim his son and leave him on a mountain top to die. But an old shepherd found him and Oedipus eventually came to be raised by the King of Corinth. When Oedipus visits Delphi, the oracle tells him the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus decides to leave Corinth. He makes his way back to Thebes, not knowing it is his birthplace. He meets and kills the King of Thebes, not knowing that the king is his father. By solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus is enabled to marry the queen, again, not knowing it is his mother. When he finds out his true identity he blinds himself and his mother kills herself.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is remarkably similar to the one of Oedipus. Joseph also receives a prophecy (two times in fact) that he is destined to rule over his brothers. (Oedipus also ruled over his brothers and family). The Rabbis point out that Joseph's mother could not bow down to him since she was dead. Thus the mother is not strictly part of the prophecy of Joseph being a ruler over them. This may be either a parallel to Oedipus's mother who also was not Oedipus's subject or in an attempt to remove the mother from the story all together and thereby expurgate the incestuous part of the Oedipus story from the Joseph story. Notwithstanding, Joseph is in fact subjected to sexual harassment and potential adultery at the hands of an ( older ) woman, Potifar's wife. This does parallel Oedipus's encounter with his own mother. No other positive figure in the Bible comes close to sleeping with another older man's wife. Joseph's refusal parallels Oedipus's disgust when he discovers what happened.
Attempting to prevent the prophecy, the brothers had left Joseph to die in a pit. After that his ownership was transferred several times such that no one knew anymore who Joseph was. This device eventually was the cause of the prophecy's fulfillment. Had he not been left to die and sold into slavery he never would have become King of Egypt. So too, Oedipus's and his father's attempt to circumvent the oracle's prophecy in fact lead to its fulfillment. By explaining the puzzling dream of the Pharaoh, Joseph finally becomes ruler, just as the prophecy declared. But no one (except him) know what his origins are. Just as Oedipus' confused or unknown linage made the events of his story possible, Joseph uses his anonymity to bring about the final fulfillment of the prophecy by bringing his brothers, all his brothers, before him to bow down.
So what we have in common is:
But what differs is equally interesting. What is most strikingly different is the ending. The Joesph story is fundamentally optimistic. The prophecy is fulfilled in a good way. Everyone survives the famine. The Israelites get a good place to live and the Egyptian monarchy gets wealthy. In contrast, Oedipus is left to wander the country-side blind and miserable. The Jewish G-d is kind and just; the Greek gods are cruel and whimsical.
Another contrast is the role that Joseph plays. Joseph's own actions are also crucial in bringing about the fulfillment of the prophecy, despite his assertion to the contrary. He made the plan to store food; he forced all his family to come before him and bow. Oedipus is totally oblivious to what he is doing. Even before he blinds himself, he progresses through life blind to what is really going on. He is oblivious to the true meaning of his actions until the end when it is to late to fix things. Thus, Oedipus is really a helpless victim of fate but Joseph is an actor in his own fate, taking a part in his own destiny.
This is another Biblical theme, that man can control his fate and affect the world and create positive or potentially negative results. Man is a partner with G-d in history. In this sense man acts with G-d or even in the the role of G-d, as the orchestrator of events. Joseph relishes this role. He orchestrates a complex scheme to test his brothers and fulfill the prophecy that all of them should bow down to him. Even his first words to Pharaoh hint that he sees himself acting in G-d's place. "It is for G-d to interpret dreams." (Gen. 41:16) Whereupon Joseph proceeds to interpret the dream. And again later he attributes his actions of saving mankind from famine to G-d, thus completing the identification: "G-d has sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to keep you alive through extraordinary means." (Gen. 45:7) And later (Gen 50:19) , consoling his brothers Joeseph says rhetorically, "Am I in G-d's stead?" But we could also read the verse as, "I am in G-d's place." Further more, verses 42:7-9 uses repetitive short verbs about Joseph recognizing the brothers and remembering the prophecy. Compare the similar verbal constructs attributed to G-d in Shmot 2:24-25.
The act of interpreting dreams is also an opportunity to take hold of events and affect them. Interpreting a dream allows one to give a positive (or negative) meaning to something which could go either way and this act then puts man in a position of power over destiny. When Joseph takes the two seemingly similar dreams, the one of the wine steward and the other of the baker he gives one dream a positive interpretation and the other a negative interpretation. The events that the follow are actually constrained to accord with these interpretations and thus Joseph is indicating that man can control fate. So too Pharaoh's dream seems very negative and ominous, but Joseph turns it into a positive message, one that can bring Pharaoh all of Egypt's wealth. We see no similar power over destiny in Oedipus.
Joseph sees himself as acting in G-d's place, controlling history. This is an important lesson for mankind. There are people today who justify careless exposure to hazard with the explanation that man is preordained to die on a specific day. Once an Arab child ran across a busy highway. When questioned, his father said he should not scold the child since it is his fate to die or not to die. The Oedipus story is about the unavoidable nature of fate. Joseph's is about man's free will intertwining in fate to create positive or negative consequences, depending on man's actions. The Bible here asserts that misfortune comes as a consequence of human action, and is not merely the whim of G-d, as the brothers state so clearly, "We deserve to be punished because of what we did to our brother. We saw him suffering when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That's why this great misfortune has come upon us now." (Gen. 42:21)
Nachum Danzig© 2011
After writing this I discover a similar essay on the Internet. Another person seems to have noticed these two stories as well.