The Joseph stories in Genesis show us a man of contradictions – more contradictions than most Christians remember. Jacob was always a trickster, from birth. Joseph is more complicated; in turns, morally virtuous and foolish, long-suffering and braggadocios, insightful and conniving, wise and totally corrupt in ways that will bite the Hebrew people hard. It is a fantastic story.
The story of Joseph began in our last reading. Joseph is favored, son of favored wife, Rachel. His siblings, most of whom were older, were sons of the less favored wife, Leah. Joseph, unlike his brothers, does not work the fields and hangs around the house. He is given an extravagant coat of many colors, which none of the other brothers receive. All of this is classic bad parenting and suggests the sorts of problems that naturally attend to polygamy and showing favoritism that can find its way into ordinary families.
Not only is Joseph favored; he is clueless. He does not recognize the favoritism or how it provokes jealousy among his brothers. Joseph is self-absorbed. He is young. This life is the only life he’s known. For him, things just are the way they are.
His favored position in the family sets him up to dream that he will rule over his brothers, a dream that will eventually come to pass. His privilege makes him unable to anticipate his brothers’ reactions when he informs them of their future servitude.
All of this reminds me how many problems are driven by a failure to imagine how our actions and privileges impact others. The privileged tend to be clueless as to others’ struggles. The powerful often assert dominance in ways that provoke resentment. Is any of us capable of seeing our privileges objectively? I think our nation and world would be much better off if we humbly acknowledge that some of us maybe haven’t earned everything that has come our way; if we listened and did a better job at counting our blessings.
Genesis 38 – We Interrupt this Story…
The Joseph narrative is interrupted for a disturbing story about Judah and Tamar. This is a story we don’t tell the kids and for good reason. Like a lot of the Bible, it is not a “go and do likewise” sort of story. But, that said, it is a rich study in hypocrisy that contains lessons that would benefit us “adults.”
Why interrupt the Joseph story to tell us this? Joseph, the favored one, was sold into slavery (presumed by his father to be dead). Reuben, the eldest, messed with his father’s concubines and showed himself to be inept at protecting Joseph. Simeon and Levi, who led the assault on Schechem, are hotheads. That leaves... Judah, the one who saved Joseph’s life – by selling him into slavery! He is the presumptive heir of the covenant. And this is his story.
The story begins with Judah leaving his brothers. In doing this he carries out in spirit, the very act his brothers committed to Joseph. He also takes a local, Canaanite woman for his wife. Tragedy strikes the family. Onan’s sin is not coitus interruptus, but his unwillingness to fulfill his brotherly duty. He takes pleasure of Tamar but doesn’t want to raise the seed of his dead brother (yeah… this is not how we’d handle this or view this today). After Onan dies, Judah is unwilling to risk any other sons and asks Tamar to live as a widow. By doing this, Judah denies Tamar a child – one of the chief purposes of marriage (along with companionship). Tamar is unwilling to accept this.
With his wife now deceased, Judah reconnects with his friend (Hira) first mentioned in 38:1, and now again in 38:12. Friendship can make for a substitute family. While on his way to sheering sheep, Judah pays for sex with a person he thinks is a Canaanite temple prostitute. Temple prostitution was common in ancient religions and can even be seen today in India. Do not begin to enumerate all the taboos that are broken in this act.
When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he hastily demands that she be burned to death. She is only saved when she produces irrefutable proof that Judah is the father. From a certain perspective Tamar is only taking what she’s got coming to her, the child she wanted and deserved. Children Judah denied her and, ironically, gave her. She refused the wage of a young goat, so she’s not exactly been a harlot. In Hebrew the words that she confronted Judah with (38:25) must have cut doubly deep as they are the same as the brother’s words when they presented Jacob with Joseph’s multicolored coat and said, “Recognize I pray.” (37:32).
Judah is outted and confesses that Tamar is “more righteous than I.” My sense is that the world would be spared a lot of self-righteous harm if more of us were familiar with this story. Tamar bears twins… she is doubly blessed. She is the ancestor to King David and, as Matthew tells us in his genealogy in Chapter One, this Canaanite woman is one of a couple of questionable women ancestors to Jesus, whose story includes us all.
Genesis 39 – Potiphar’s Wife
Joseph resists Potiphar’s wife and next thing you know, she’s managed to have him thrown in prison. Joseph is a stranger in a strange land, far away from his family, cut off from the moral supports of family, religious taboo, and familiarity. My point I’m leading to is that temptation is not simply about the strength of our inner character, it also involves external circumstances. In this regard what do we make of Joseph going into Potiphar's house alone? Was he aware of her desire? Was he flying close to the flame? Is he entirely innocent here?
Still, in the moment, he does the right thing, which more than you could say about Reuben or Judah, both of whom indulge their sexual appetites. But how was his refusal heard? Notice how when she reports the incident to the other servants he relies on their solidarity as Egyptian solidarity and their superiority over the Hebrews (39:14-15). Were the terms of his rejection impolitic, deepening the insult of being rejected by a Hebrew slave? Compare this with his desire to fit in with Pharaoh later.
As Joseph was lying in that small room with the strong vertical accents, he likely doubted that he lived in a moral universe. His brothers sold him out, why shouldn’t he sell out too? In explaining his refusal he had professed faith in God, but later may have entertained the notion that a bit of immorality might have spared him considerable pain and trouble.
One wonders whether he appreciated that “the Lord was with him” (verse 39:21), especially with all he’d gone through/was going through. Usually, this is the sort of knowledge that you see more clearly in retrospect. Think how surprised Jacob was at Bethel when, after dreaming of angels ascending and descending, he declared, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!”
The Bible says that “the Lord gave Joseph success in whatever he did” (39:23). From where you sit today living in prison probably does not look successful. Maybe our vision of success is at once too big and too small: too big to notice the small graces of life and too small to imagine what God has in store for us. Perhaps the key to trusting that the Lord is with us is to notice the small things (the kindness and trust the prison ward showed him) and to remember the big picture.
Genesis 40 – Dreams of the Kitchen and Wait Staff
In this chapter we see Joseph’s interpreting dreams. What are we to make of this in light of Joseph’s professed principle for interpreting dreams, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8). Does he possess divine wisdom… or cunning? Given that Egyptian religion reserved esoteric knowledge available only to priests, perhaps the point of these stories is to show that Joseph is able to move and work in the highest circles of power. A modern parallel might be cultural literacy, an ability to pick up on and properly interpret casual references from literature, history and manners among the American elite. If you don’t know why the table has two sizes of forks, you will be marked as an outsider.
Notice verse 40:20 – Pharaoh’s birthday is the only Egyptian holiday mentioned in the Bible. This was a hugely important day. And both servants would have been brought into Pharaoh’s presence. An innocent person would rejoice in it and a guilty person would fear it. Joseph recognizes the optimism of the cupbearer’s dream, his desire to return to service. When the baker sees that Joseph has given the dream a favorable interpretation, he asks for insight for his dream. Joseph recognizes that the baker dreams a guilty dream.
Joseph addresses the cupbearer as one wrongly accused innocent man to another and asks him to remember him to Pharaoh. He tries to play on a sense of gratitude. Sadly, the cupbearer does not remember Joseph. Like many of us, we roll along, distracted. Or, perhaps, his experience in prison makes him unwilling to risk his position for a prisoner whose word may be suspect.
Genesis 41:1-40 – Cannibalistic Cows
Pharaoh dreams about cannibalistic cows and grain. The Egyptian sages are unable to discern the dreams’ meaning. Are they able to see the bad news in Pharaoh’s dream (he views them as one) but unable to tell him for they cannot see a remedy? If you provoke Pharaoh to anger, he may view you as the problem. We saw what happened to the baker. Sometimes very powerful people are actually very weak.
Fortunately, the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He has nothing to lose. If Joseph gets the dream, Pharaoh will be grateful. If he misses it, the blame will fall on Joseph the Hebrew.
Joseph reiterates interpreting dreams should be left to God (41:16) but then says that Pharaoh’s dream indicates seven years of abundance and famine. He immediately and wisely solves the problem he has raised and advises Pharaoh to put a wise person in charge of storing food for the years of famine. This was an exceptionally clever move. For only Joseph has been wise enough to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph has written his own job description. Pharaoh is delighted, not so much with the prophecy, but with the plan.
Genesis 41:41-57 – Clothes, Power, and Cornering the Market
Apparently Joseph knows the saying, “The clothes make the man.” Joseph prepares to meet Pharaoh by changing his clothes. In so doing he changes custom. And there is more: Egyptians were the only ancient middle easterners who shaved their beards and their heads. This likely helped reduce vermin and ensured the Egyptians were immediately distinguishable from others. Joseph, knowing this, goes all in and shaves his head too. He’s got one chance and he’s not going into Pharaoh looking like some foreigner.
Later, Pharaoh vests Joseph with symbols of power: rings, gold chains, fine linen clothes, a sleek chariot, and an entourage who will clear the streets. Pharaoh gives Joseph a mouthful, of a name: Zaphenath-Paneah. ZP for short? Pharaoh arranges a marriage with a fine family. Her father Poti-phera (“he whom Re has given”) serves as a priest of the sun god, Re, worshipped in Heliopolis. He is only 30. Joseph has made a home, an Egyptian home. Joseph’s naming of his sons gives us a window into his mind. His first son, Manasseh (meaning “he who causes to forget” – what a lot Joseph has to forget and put behind him) and Ephraim (from “fertile land” whose fruits make his life possible). Joseph seems to want to put the past behind him. That will soon be hard to do.
If you thought Pharaoh was a benevolent monarch who viewed food storage as a public works project to feed the people or that he saw international grain trade as a way to benefit the Egyptian farmers and its economy, think again. Joseph is helping Pharaoh consolidate power. Unlike a republic (in Latin, respublica (a “thing of the public”) where the power and authority rests with the people, authority and power rest with Pharaoh. Joseph helped Pharaoh corner the grain market, and Pharaoh is using his position to enrich HIMSELF. In the process he makes the countryside dependent on the cities (where the granaries are located). Later (in Chapter 47) we see how Joseph helped Pharaoh leveraged his advantage to strengthen his power.