Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Genesis 37-46: Joseph

Joseph is one of those people that every Sunday school kid hears a sermon about at least twice a year, so I'm going to try to come up with something at least moderately original in this post.

The first thing we see about Joseph is that he's daddy's favorite. You'd think Jacob would have known better, not being his father's favorite; for that matter, you'd think a lot of kids would know better than to become their parents when they grow up. I just watched Jumanji last night, and one of Robin Williams' lines is "26 years in the jungle and I still became my father." If you don't want to become your parents, I think you have to pay attention to your tendencies and habits, because it's all subconscious. I mean, nobody really -intends- to act like their parents. It comes naturally. Okay, moving on.

The next thing we see about Joseph is that he's either stupid or full of himself, because he tells his brothers, whose dislike of him is probably blatantly obvious, about this dream he has of his brothers bowing down to them.

Here's a question. When Joseph tells his second dream to his father, Jacob says "Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?" But Rachel, Joseph's mother, never does bow before him, because she dies giving birth to Benjamin. Does this part of the story take place before Benjamin is born? Or is Jacob talking perhaps about Leah? And either way, in what way does Joseph's dream about the "moon" bowing down to him come true?

Remember Reuben? He slept with his father's . . . concubine I guess. That apparently got him disinherited (as we'll see in chapter 49). I wonder if that shook him up a little, because when the rest of the brothers decide to kill him, Reuben plans to save Joseph's life (unlucky for him it doesn't work out that way). If I remember right, this may be one of the first acts of self-sacrifice anybody we've read about so far has made. That's positive. But of course, Joseph gets sold into slavery (to Ishmaelites . . . go figure) while Reuben's off doing who-knows-what. Rotten luck.

Then the story skips off to Judah, the fourth-born. At some point, and I'm not really sure what point that is, he gets married and has three kids, and the first two are evil so God kills them, and his daughter-in-law Tamar gets passed from son to son until Judah doesn't want to give her to the third kid because he thinks he'll die too. So what happens is Judah ends up accidentally sleeping with Tamar (accidentally meaning he didn't know it was her, he thought she was a temple prostitute . . . shows what kind of guy he was), and she winds up pregnant, and he almost kills her but then she reveals to Judah that he's the father, so he goes "my bad" and doesn't kill her. He also doesn't sleep with her again. Rather decent of him. So this odd little story doesn't seem to have any huge significance, except that one of Tamar's sons (she has twins) winds up in Jesus' genealogy too. Another unlikely character - an illegitimate kid. Jesus has a muddy pedigree.

So then we go back to Joseph, and we all know the story about Potiphar's wife. You really can't blame Potiphar for believing his wife's lie about Joseph. I mean, she is his wife after all, and I'm sure if she was your wife you'd rather believe she was innocent too. Anyway, God has a really wacky way of getting Joseph where He wants him. You'd think Joseph could just as easily go before Pharaoh as the servant of Potiphar, captain of the bodyguard, but no, he has to go to prison first. It probably did a good blow to that ego of his.

Skipping ahead just a bit, have you ever noticed that whenever one of God's boys is around and the king has a dream, none of the magicians can interpret it? That can't be a regular occurrence or else the king just wouldn't have magicians. I'm sure they came up with something every other time, but for some reason this time they couldn't make up an answer (and it's not nearly as hard as Nebuchadnezzar's dream - remember, he made the Magi tell him what the dream was first; he was a smart guy). Anyway, so that's another God thing I bet.

I watched a History Channel special about "prophecy" once, and it looked at future prophecy from lots of different religions. From Judaism, the example they picked was Joseph. What really weirds me out is that the narrator says "Joseph is unclear about the source of his prophetic knowledge" (or something to that effect). But both times Joseph is approached with a dream - first by the cupbearer and baker, and then by Pharaoh - he says very explicitly that "interpretations belong to God" (40:8, 41:16, 25, 28, 32). This is why I take everything the History Channel says with a grain of salt.

We finally find out that Joseph is 30 when he stands before Pharaoh. He's been in Egypt for 13 years (he was 17 when the story started). We don't know how much of that time he was in Potiphar's house and how long he was in prison (except that it was more than 2 years), but I imagine he probably spent a fair amount of time in both places, because it takes time to rise through the ranks like he did.

I'm not really sure why Joseph pulled that prank on his brothers like he did. Was it to pay them back, or was it just for fun, or did he really plan to keep Benjamin with him in Egypt? I don't know, and the text doesn't give any clues. But as you know, the story turns out okay and they all come to live with Joseph in Egypt (Goshen, to be precise). A few observations:

1. How old is Benjamin when all this happens? It's now at least 7 years after Joseph became second-in-command, so even if Benjamin was a baby when Joseph was sold, he's 20 now. Everybody talks about him like he's a little kid. Is that a translation error, I wonder? Because in the list of people who come down to Egypt, Benjamin has 10 sons already. That's a lot for a 20-year-old. Unless they were born in Egypt and I'm just reading the text wrong. Anybody have an idea?

2. Egyptians are snobby people. It's "detestable" to them to eat bread with Hebrews (why Hebrews, I wonder?), and shepherds are detestable to them too. I'm sure they had sheep in Egypt. What's up with that? On the other hand, that's how Jacob's family all ended up in Goshen, because they had to live apart from the Egyptians.

3. I wonder why it's Simeon who Joseph holds hostage while his brothers go back to Canaan. Maybe he was the meanest one. He and Levi, remember, were the ones who killed the Shechemites. He seems like a pretty reckless fellow; maybe it was his idea to kill Joseph.

4. Reuben and Judah both show maturity and selflessness in this part of the story. Reuben tells Jacob he can kill both his sons if Benjamin is harmed in Egypt. That's a pretty bold move, considering all that's happened to them so far. Judah later says Jacob can hold him personally responsible if Benjamin doesn't come back, and when Joseph says Benjamin will be his slave, Judah begs to take his place.

I'm stopping here because that was pretty long. Next time I'll wrap up Genesis. Only 4 chapters left. Yay!


Alex said...

What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher's interpretation of the story? (here: samsonblinded.org/blog/genesis-37.htm ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

Zoe said...

I think it's a weak argument. He bases the whole idea on one word which "possibly" could mean something else and doesn't even attempt to prove that the word does mean what he thinks it means - that's a pretty big stretch. It's speculation, not proof. And although it is an interesting thought, it's just not supported well enough for me to give it much credence.