Genesis 37:5–8, 26–28; 50:15–21comment (0)
November 14, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Related Scripture: Genesis 37:5–8, 26–28; 50:15–21
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
The Big Picture
Genesis 37:5–8, 26–28; 50:15–21
It will help us to set the story in context. First Jacob learned destructive favoritism from good teachers: his own parents. Isaac and Rebecca did it (recall the hatred they fomented between the twins Esau and Jacob, the younger of the two), and Isaac learned it from Abraham and Sarah (Abraham banished Issac’s older brother, Ishmael, at Sarah’s insistence).
Second those sibling rivalries, fed by parental favoritism, remind us that in the Old Testament the older brother never inherits, even though by rights he should. Cain’s murder of Abel constitutes the first instance.
Third hatred always seems reasonable to the one who hates. Usually the infraction or insult is real. Nevertheless God expects His children to choose another way.
The justifications for hatred are palpable. Joseph, the second youngest and by rights one of two brothers with the least authority, deploys the only power he has in the most insidious ways he can. He tattles on Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher, who were born to the servants Bilhah and Zilpah (that is, not to the sisters Leah and Rachel, Isaac’s legitimate wives; see 30:1–13). His father Jacob loves him the most because he is the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel (because Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest, he might not be as beloved as Joseph; 35:16–21).
Jacob gives only Joseph a striped robe (“long-sleeved robe” might be a more accurate translation). As if that were not enough cause for envy, Joseph taunts his older brothers by telling them about dreams in which they one day will bow to him. Never mind that the dreams come true; Jacob is right when he tells Joseph to keep his mouth shut.
Anger is one thing, but nothing justifies what the brothers do to Joseph and the crushing grief they cause their own father. Notice that their actions don’t improve their relationships with Jacob in any way. Moreover in one of the Bible’s greatest ironic turns they set in motion the fulfillment of the very dreams they despised Joseph for having and which they sought to foil (v. 20). Of course once Joseph has spoken the dreams, we the readers know what will happen, at least in outline. Despite the drama of Joseph’s early misadventures in Potiphar’s household, we know the brothers’ actions are futile, and every bad turn becomes a stepping stone for Joseph’s success.
Joseph’s refusal to punish his brothers is one of the few spots in the saga in which he shows mature character. Note that the tearful reunion happens only after he takes the opportunity to torment both them and his father through his shenanigans regarding Benjamin. Others have pointed out that he averts the crisis of the Egyptian famine and profits greatly by trading on insider information, as it were. Only he knows that the famine is coming, so he devises a plan to collect the Egyptians’ grain during the years of plenty and then sell it back to them during the years of famine (after the exodus, Israelites probably took some pleasure in the hardship Joseph caused the Egyptians).
That is to say, like his forebears and descendants, Joseph has both good and reprehensible character traits. His goodness is not the point of the story. Rather the point is God’s ability to turn evil intent and actions to good. No one, including Joseph, could see that until Jacob’s death. At the end of the story, therefore, we find a call for the endurance of the saints. Has someone wronged us? How willing are we [a] to admit our own culpability, [b] to forgive the wrong and [c] to wait patiently for the good that God can bring? We might not recognize it until long after it has happened.