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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Joseph in Prison, Genesis 40

A. Joseph Interprets the Dreams of Two Prisoners, Genesis 40.

40:1-4 Joseph's Fellow Prisoners
#1  40:1-4  Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.  2 The Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker,  3 and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.  4 The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody.
I mentioned above (see p.  ? ) how Joseph was put in a prison for royal prisoners, many suspected of treason. The functions of the chief cupbearer and chief baker fit this category, since they could have been suspected of poisoning the king's food or drink (vv. 1-3). Examples occur in Hittite texts of palace officials in charge of the king's food and drink standing trial for defiling him. One such was a Chief Water-carrier put on trial by ordeal because the king found a hair in his drinking water (CTH 265 iii 24ff.), showing that the king's drinking water had not been properly strained to insure purity. 
When some day the king's anger is aroused and I (the king) summon you, all the kitchen personnel, and hand you over to the River (for an ordeal)—whoever is proven innocent, will remain the king's servant. But whoever is proven guilty, I, the king, do not desire him. They shall put him to death (-si … HUL-lu hingan piyanzi) together with his wife and his children.
Elaborate instructions exist for such officials as to the precautions they must take.  In such cases, not only the underling cupbearer or baker was held accountable, but also his supervisor, all the way up the chain of command. So the two men in prison with Joseph represented the top level of command. 
The Hebrew verb translated "offended" or "committed an offense against" in v. 1 means literally "sinned against." But the same Semitic verb is used in Babylonian texts for political offenses: acts against the sovereign. In other words, not "sin" in a religious sense. Still, it represented the highest level of crime against the king, and its punishment would be correspondingly severe. The pharaoh's "anger" (v. 2) was therefore not just annoyance at poor cooking or bad tasting wine, but anger because he thought his life was threatened. He may have believed this if he experienced stomach ache or upset stomach or some other malady after eating.
40:5-8 Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the Chief Cupbearer and Chief Baker
#2   5 One night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own meaning.  6 When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.  7 So he asked Pharaoh’s officials, who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?”  8 They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”   
The very fact that among Egyptian magical texts are examples of incantations to remove bad dreams (OEAE 2:328 "Magic in Medicine") shows that the Egyptians were levelheaded enough to recognize either that not all dreams were predictions, or that practical steps could be taken to eliminate the predicted evil. But texts from the First Intermediate period onward already signal the existence of oracular dreams (OEAE 2:329 "Magic in Medicine"). In rituals the blessed dead are implored to fight with forces of evil arrayed against the living petitioner and to reveal their help in dreams (OEAE 2:332, 336). But it was not until the period of Moses that we find concrete evidence for manuals to systematize dream phenomena and propose regular meanings to each. The Nineteenth Dynasty Dream Book, owned by the scribe Kenherkhepeshef and his descendents at Deir el-Medina, documents the … practice of dream interpretation in the private domain. Events seen in dreams, including interactions with divinities, were held to have good or bad consequences for the future, and advice could be provided on the use of spells to counteract inauspicious visions. Although, for the most part, direct consultation of such texts may have been limited to the literate elite, we should allow for the possibility of the oral transmission of their contents. (A. Stevens, “domestic Religious Practices” in UCLA Encycl. of Anc. Egypt [2009]). See translations in "Dream Oracles" by Robert Ritner in CoS 1:52f. 
In the ANE dream interpretation was a specialized skill, and persons wishing interpretations had to pay professionals. In Egypt there is no special term denoting professional dream interpreters. The word ḥarṭôm used in Gen 42:8 means "magician" in general, indicating no specialism in dream interpretation among the Egyptian court scholars. Contrary to earlier beliefs, there is no evidence that Egyptian dream interpreters were highly prized internationally and imported into other Near Eastern countries. Instead, each country developed its own methods of decoding dreams and, if professional help was needed, it used local talent. It has been claimed that in the Bible native Israelites have no need of the aid of interpreters, but can understand their own dreams. While it is true that Joseph's first two dreams seem clear enough in their implications, both to him and his family members, it would be rash to assume that Israelites never felt the need of more expert help. If so, the priests in the Tabernacle or Temple would have been logical sources of help. Although young Samuel's nocturnal voices from God were not dreams per se, it is Eli, the High Priest, who helps him to understand that God is speaking to him. 
Joseph brushes aside the need for professional help for these two fellow prisoners and offers to help, free of charge. His words "Don't interpretations (of dreams) belong to God?" (v. 8) suggests that he has an access to God that they do not enjoy, but that he is more than willing to use that access to help them. 
One of the refreshing things about Joseph's attitude in prison is his lack of preoccupation with his own plight. Instead, he is concerned for his fellow prisoners. When he notices two of them troubled, he asks what troubles them. And when he learns it is dreams, he offers to help them understand their dreams. The farthest thing from his mind is that this could lead to his own release and restoration to favor with the pharaoh. He just wants to help some troubled souls. 
The two men's dreams came to them on the very same night (v. 5) and have similar features such as the recurring number "three," which might have suggested to them that the meanings were the same: either both good or both bad. So our text makes it clear that their "interpretations" (i.e., meanings) are distinct: "each with its own meaning." 
40:9-15 Chief Cupbearer's Dream and Its Meaning
#3   9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph, and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me,  10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes.  11 Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” 
12 Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days;  13 within three days the Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office; and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer.  14 But remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to the Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place.  15 For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” 
The dreams are clothed in the dreamer's own customary duties: the cupbearer with his care of the king's wine, the baker's preparation of the king's bread. 
Joseph needs no time to think about it, for God gives him immediate insight. He said to the two men at the outset that “Do not interpretations belong to God?" And the implication was that he knew God would reveal the meanings to him. There is nothing in the phenomena of the dream that must have the meaning Joseph assigned to it: he was simply given God's meaning directly and told the dreamer how this could fit the imagery of the dream. The fact that the Chief Cupbearer's cup was in his hand in the dream, and he was again serving the pharaoh indicated that he would be cleared of guilt and restored to office. The three branches on the vine indicated the time: three days from now. The three-day period in both dreams is the period during which both men's cases will be investigated by the  pharaoh. The results of those investigations will determine whether each will be exonerated or condemned to die. The phrase Joseph used for the Chief Cupbearer's restoration to favor is "the pharaoh will lift up your head." This is a known idiom for showing clemency and favor to a servant. In this man's case it shows he was cleared of guilt and restored to office.
Since the verdict of this dream is a good one, Joseph asks in return that the Chief Cupbearer remember  him after he is restored to office, and ask the pharaoh to have his case re-examined, since he was innocent of the charge against him and also was kidnapped from his home in Canaan.
40:16-19 Chief Baker's Dream and Its Meaning
#4   16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head,  17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for the Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.”  18 And Joseph answered, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days;  19 within three days the Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a pole; and the birds will eat the flesh from you.” 
Emboldened by the good prediction Joseph attached to his colleague's dream and Joseph's certainty that the interpretation is correct shown by his requesting that the Cupbearer remember him, the Chief Baker—in spite of knowing in his conscience that he is guilty as charged— asks him to interpret his dream, hoping nevertheless for a similar good prediction. Once again, the dreamer himself appears in the dream and is seeking to serve the pharaoh with food or drink. But whereas the Cupbearer's wine is produced by his own squeezing of the grapes and is safely delivered into the king's cup with the king himself present in the dream, the Baker is not shown baking the breads, but only carrying them, and negligently carries the pharaoh's 's pastries uncovered in the uppermost basket on his head, so that birds can eat them: a potentially bad sign. See Egyptian paintings showing the royal bakery and the multitude of baked goods. Furthermore, the baker in his dream never reaches the pharaoh. Everything in his dream shows his bad conscience: he knows that he has indeed been guilty of neglect of his duties. These clues can alert Joseph to the true condition of the two men, but they are not the standard symbols for determining favorable and unfavorable dreams in the Egyptian Dream Book.  Nevertheless, once again the meaning is given to Joseph by God and cannot be mechanically derived from the phenomena. No Egyptian dream interpreter would necessarily see the meaning from the imagery. It is God who enables Joseph to read the dreams of the two men and to see that each is indeed "according to its meaning." He knows from these clues that the Cupbearer is innocent of his charge, while the Baker is guilty. In the Baker's dream he carries the uncovered breads in a basket on his head. This tells Joseph that his execution will be by beheading.  So Joseph deliberately reuses the phrase he used with the Cupbearer—the pharaoh "will lift up your head"—but in a horrific sense. The Chief Baker's dream indicates that he will not be exonerated, but decapitated, and his headless body publicly impaled. Since this indicates that the man will be in no position to intercede for Joseph with the pharaoh, he doesn't make the request to the Baker that he did to the Cupbearer. 
In neither case are we told whether the dreamer believed Joseph at the time. In three days they would come to believe, just as in three days Jesus' disciples would come to believe his predicted resurrection. 
Two opposite fates await every human being at death: eternal life and eternal death. Joseph didn't determine their fates: he simply announced to them what God had revealed to him. In our witnessing we cannot predict the fate of any person we seek to persuade: but we can confidently direct them to God's Word about the opposite prospects they have to choose between.
40:20-23 The Dreams Come True, but Joseph is Forgotten
#5   On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants, and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants.  21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand;  22 but the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had interpreted to them.  23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
Here again we see how God worked everything together in such a serendipitous manner. The three days pass, and the pharaoh "lifts the head" of each in a different way: he restores one and executes the other. Both decisions take place on a day celebrating the pharaoh's ascension to the throne, called in Egyptian "the day of the king's birth". It was appropriate that the day on which the verdict of the investigations of the two men charged with attempting to kill the king should be on the day celebrating the beginning of his kingship. The investigations having been concluded that only one of the two men was actually guilty. The other should be released and restored to his post. Joseph's two dreams in ch. 37 predicted the same future for him. These two dreams indicated innocence and guilt and predicted opposite fates for the two dreamers. But the pair were to confirm the innocence of Joseph and his special gift from God to interpret dreams. Yet God would test Joseph's fate further by letting the Chief Cupbearer forget for a while the request of Joseph. 
Dreams play a crucial role in the Joseph story, even more crucial from a literary point of view than they do in the previous stories about Jacob. Since they all occur in pairs, they serve to provide a thematic unity to the stories of Joseph and his brother, the Cupbearer and the Baker, and the Pharaoh. Shaul Bar points out that they also provide dramatic tension and release: each new set of dreams raises the expectation for its fulfillment. But the dreams of Cupbearer and Baker and of the Pharaoh have a relatively prompt fulfillment. We don't have to wait long for the dream's validation. Joseph's own dreams—on the other hand—and their eventual fulfillment provide a frame around the entire story, embracing the intermediate dreams, whose relatively short fulfillment times give promise to the long-awaited fulfillment of Joseph's own dreams in Gen 37. If we think in terms of a messianic foreshadowing embedded in the Joseph story, the dreams with near fulfillment would correspond to the messianic prophecies fulfilled during the lifetime of Jesus, while Joseph's own dreams that wait long for fulfillment, leading the reader to wonder if they will ever be fulfilled, correspond the the messianic prophecies of Jesus' Second Coming. Though we wait long,we are reassured by those predictions that have already occurred in Jesus' first coming, that the Second Coming that we long for is absolutely certain. 

Joseph offers us several lessons in this week's passage. He is not depressed over his present state. Nor is he so focused on himself that he ignores the troubles of those around him. He cheerfully offers his help and has faith that God will reveal to him the meaning of the dreams. If this had not worked, he would have been the butt of jokes in the prison, much as his brothers had mocked him for his own dreams and his interpretation of them, saying "Here comes that dreamer!" Regardless of how we understand his telling his dreams to his brothers, here—in prison—Joseph was moved by kindness and faith, a powerful combination for any of us. And when the dreams came true, and yet no intervention was made on his own behalf, he waited patiently. All of these attitudes are good for each of us to have. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Joseph and Potiphar, Genesis 39

A. Joseph in Potiphar's House, Genesis 39.
The entire Joseph story has often been described as having the style of ANE wisdom literature. This literature consisted mostly of collections of proverbs and wise sayings, much like the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Joseph, it is claimed, is a typical figure of the wise man. Indeed, he is described that way by the pharaoh in Gen 41:8, 33, 39.  The typical ANE secular wise man is intelligent, moral, loyal to family, respectful to superiors, socially apt and successful. Such figures in the ancient wisdom literature are usually not described as worshiping one particular god exclusively—they are not monotheists, but as being respectful and pious toward all gods and "God" in general. The typically ideal male in this literature is not necessarily handsome, as Joseph is described here. That feature of Joseph, as we will see, is mentioned to explain the temptress' interest in him. 
Ancient Egyptian maxims for those who would be wise and successful are well illustrated by a text entitled "the Instructions of Anii" dating from the period of Moses, which reads almost like an ancient equivalent of a modern job-counseling course, or a script for Oprah's TV Show. It contains eleven areas of advice:
1. Acquire a perfect character and behavior. This may be done by keeping calm and serene in situations of trouble and discussions.
2. Strive for perfect speech in public affairs. 
3. Be skilled in reading and writing.
4. Refrain from opposing your superior and always keep to your own rank within the social and bureaucratic hierarchy.
5. Avoid having strife with others.
6. Shun married women and also ladies whom nobody knows. These maxims refer to adultery and perhaps sexual adventures with prostitutes.
7. Respect your parents and make offerings to your deceased ancestors so that they do not interfere in your household or business affairs.
8. Marry as soon as you have acquired your own property and have a son. 
9. Do not reproach your wife as long as she acts according to what you expect her to do.
10. Refrain from drunkenness.
11. Prepare for your own burial and afterlife, as death may snatch you at any time. 
Although I do not agree that Joseph is entirely characterized this way in the biblical text, there is certainly much truth to the comparison. In Gen 39 we see some of these features. Joseph rises in rank and esteem because he is quick to learn, resourceful, respectful and obedient to his master. He shows his loyalty to his master and to God by refusing the temptation of his master's wife. What is remarkable in contrast to the teaching of wisdom literature is that Joseph's wise and correct behavior does not result in permanent success. Ancient wisdom literature—including the biblical book of Proverbs—predicted personal disaster only for those who did not practice the virtues celebrated. Joseph, however, ends up in prison for his virtue. This shows that the biblical writer was not trying to praise the secular wisdom of his age, because the Creator God whom Israel worshiped was no mere automaton, who was obliged to reward a person's obedience with nothing but success, popularity, fame, and wealth. Yahweh's people needed to believe that obeying him was its own reward, regardless of the circumstances, and to understand that often God's rewards would be delayed, requiring faith and patience. Hebrews 10:36 summarizes this teaching aptly: "You need patience, to continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised."
39:1–6a Joseph Pleases his Master with Good Service
#1   39:1  Now Joseph was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.  2 Yahweh was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master.  3 His master saw that Yahweh was with him, and that Yahweh caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.  4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.  5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, Yahweh blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of Yahweh was on all that he had, in house and field.  6 So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
In keeping with the style of the Joseph story, where God is not obvious, but works behind the scenes unmentioned by name, when we read that "Joseph was brought down to Egypt," a passive verb that hides the identity of the one who does the bringing, the unexpressed subject of the verb "bring down" is probably not the Ishmaelites, but God. The Ishmaelites are mentioned at the end of the sentence as those through whom he worked. We have seen in Gen 37 how "coincidence" after "coincidence" worked to take Joseph down to Egypt (see p.  ? ). Our verse here sums up what was so carefully implied in chapter 37, that it was God who brought Joseph down to Egypt, using the Ishmaelites. 
The ethnicity of Joseph's new master is repeated thee times (in vv. 1, 2, 5) for emphasis, probably because the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery foreshadows  the future national enslavement of Jacob's descendants in Egypt and their redemption (Sarna). 
The name of Joseph's first Egyptian master was Potiphar. The same name—with a slightly different Hebrew form—is borne by Joseph's future Egyptian father-in-law, Potiphera. The name belongs to a common Egyptian type attested from remote antiquity down through Roman times and means “He-whom-(the sun god)-Re-gives.” This is the Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew name Jonathan (יוּנָתָן "Yahweh gives").
The man who purchased Joseph was a high official. In Hebrew he is called a sārîs of the pharaoh. In some contexts, both biblical Hebrew and extra-biblical, this word sārîs—a West Semitic word borrowed from Akkadian ša rēši "he of the (king's) person/body"—can denote a eunuch, a man castrated in order to serve the king as the overseer of his harem, and this is how the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, made 300 years before Christ, interpreted the word here. But Potipher had a wife, which excludes his being a eunuch. The ancient Aramaic translation which also antedates Christ translates it "chief man," and this is how most modern translations take it. Potiphar was commander of the palace guard. He was a powerful man, undoubtedly wealthy, who owned a palatial home on a large estate.  
Wealthy Egyptians such as this man Potiphar purchased slaves for domestic or agricultural duties. Although there were some native-born Egyptians serving as slaves, their slave status incurred because of debt forfeiture, it was normally considered better to use foreign slaves, either captives in battle or—as in this case—purchased from slave traders. 
Joseph was not sent to work in the fields. It was not uncommon for slaves who showed aptitude to be employed in professional tasks such as household management and the administration of property. This situation is illustrated by an Egyptian papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum (35.1446) deriving from c. 1800 BC, which lists the names of nearly eighty slaves in an Egyptian household, together with their occupations. Strangely, the slaves from Canaan, Syria and Mesopotamia clearly enjoyed superior status and performed the skilled jobs while the Egyptian slaves were given the more onerous and strenuous labors in the fields. By working in the house, Joseph had the opportunity to display his administrative talents and come to the attention of his master.
Joseph impressed his master by the way he performed his duties: wisely, honestly, promptly, courteously, conscientiously, and skillfully. Joseph impressed others the way we should. Potiphar recognized that Joseph was being favored by his god Yahweh, and he was impressed, even if he personally didn't worship Yahweh. It was good to have a servant so capable, regardless of what god made him that way. As a result, he promoted Joseph to a position of much greater responsibility. As Overseer of Potiphar's House, a position that corresponds to that of the title frequently encountered in Egyptian texts as mer-per, "comptroller." Joseph ran everything and held all the purse strings. He could easily have stolen Potiphar blind, and no one would have been the wiser. But he didn't. The divine name Yahweh, used only in this chapter of the Joseph story, is in the mouth of the narrator and never used in a character's speech.
The distinctive name of Israel's God, Yahweh (always rendered "the LORD" in capital letters in English Bibles), is used only in this one chapter of the Joseph story. Elsewhere he is referred to only as "God." It is as "God" that he controls all the events (see p.  ? ), but it is as Yahweh, who committed himself to Abraham's family that he protects Joseph and gives him success in his slavery and in prison (39:21-23, p.  ? ). 
The phrase "Yahweh was with Joseph" occurs twice in this passage and again twice in vv. 21-23 (p.  ? ) to emphasize how it was that this boy lacking formal schooling could be wise and mature beyond his age. The phrase enables us as readers to understand how the spoiled lad of seventeen, utterly alone in a foreign land and in dire adversity, suddenly matures and acquires great strength of character. He can rise again and again in situations that would surely have crushed others. 
Instead of "Yahweh blessed the house of Potiphar" the text reads that he "blessed the house of the Egyptian," emphasizing his non-Israelite status. Again we see (v. 5) how a non-Israelite prospered because of his association with one of Abraham's descendants (see also Jacob: 30:27). The use of the specific words "blessed" (וַיְבָ֧רֶךְ) and "blessing" (בִּרְכַּ֤ת יְהוָה֙) shows that the narrator (Moses) wants us to regard this event as a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, that nations would be blessed by Abraham and his descendants (12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 27:29; 28:14). "All that he had, in house and field" indicates the domestic and economic/agricultural aspects of Potiphar's holdings. 
Potiphar had such confidence in Joseph's ability that he placed in his control every aspect of his life but his choice of food and his wife (39:6a). 
39:6b-20 Joseph Resists Potiphar's Wife's Attempt to Force Him to Commit Adultery
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking.  7 And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.”  8 But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand.  9 He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”  10 And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her.  11 One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house,  12 she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.  13 When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside,  14 she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult/mock us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice;  15 and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”  16 Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home,  17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me;  18 but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”  19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged.  20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison.
We have learned that Joseph was efficient and skillful in management and organization. He had what it takes to be enormously successful in business. But nothing has been said about his ethical and moral stance, a different kind of wisdom than that which was required for business success.  Mention of Joseph's physical attractiveness (יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה) begins this section of the story. It was not mentioned as a factor in Jacob's favoritism or as an additional cause of his brothers' envy. Its mention here serves to introduce the next episode: to explain why Potiphar's wife singled him out to share her bed. In its instructions to those who wish to be wise in God's ways the book of Proverbs devotes the entire seventh chapter to warning against the false attractions of adultery. Proverbs condemns sexual promiscuity not just because it is morally wrong, but because it is foolish, and praises chastity as wisdom. In his parables, Jesus often characterized right behavior as wisdom and wrong behavior as foolishness. It is important to the narrator to show that Joseph was wise in this area as well as others.
The one person in Potiphar's household whose services were not Joseph's to use was Potiphar's wife (v. 9).  This woman is not given a name, perhaps because she was not worthy of a name. Even in the later retellings of this story—in Jewish literature from the time of Christ and later in the Quran, retellings which are fond of giving names to anonymous biblical characters—this woman is given no name. Hollywood would certainly have given her one, but the Bible is not interested in Hollywood-izing her. The text calls her "his master's wife," the combination expressing both the necessity of obeying her ("his master's wife") and the impossibility of obeying her ("his master's wife"). Joseph was described as handsome. But this woman is not described as beautiful or in any way appealing. She is just a very early example of someone indulging in sexual harassment, using her position of power to force sexual favors from handsome servants. Indeed, this may not have been the first time she had forced one of her husband's servants into her bed. What made her irresistible was not her beauty, but her influence and power. Notice that she doesn't attempt to woo Joseph but merely orders him to sleep with her (v. 7): he is her slave and must simply obey or face the consequences. In the biblical account she serves only as a moral test for Joseph, to show his fearless faithfulness to his God. He knew what she could do to him, but he feared (and loved) God more than her.
Potiphar's wife hounded him repeatedly with invitations to sleep with her and to keep it secret from her husband. Joseph didn't report these advances to her husband, because he knew it would just be his word against hers, and he would not be believed. And because the woman knew this, she felt secure in continuing to torment him. But Joseph was unafraid of her implied threats and not only refused each time, but appealed to the woman's own conscience, making her see the gravity of her own sin against her husband. Since she was a pagan, he appealed not to God's law but to her own reason: he had been generous to her, as he had to Joseph; he had been loyal and faithful to her, she owed the same loyalty and faithfulness to her husband ("he has not kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife," v. 9). The same words stress Joseph's own sense of obligation: "He trusts me completely. How can I betray him?" But Joseph reminds the woman that at least for himself there is an even higher dimension of betrayal, the dimension of God. He asks her: "How then could I do this great wickedness (הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙), and sin against God?” 
But Potiphar's wife would not be deterred. Day by day she repeated her commands to him, and Joseph continued to refuse. Then one day she caught him alone and grasped his outer garment, ordering him to have sex with her (v. 12). When he wriggled free from her grasp, his garment was left in her hands. Angrily, the woman cried out to the other servants that Joseph had tried to rape her. With the words "this Hebrew" (v. 14) she used his ethnic origin to reinforce her charge that he had behaved scurrilously, insulting not only her but the entire household ("us"). When her husband came home, she used Joseph's garment as evidence in her false charge against him, and implied that the guilt was also her husband's for buying and employing him (vv. 17-18). Once again, a garment figures in the stories as a means for deception (37:32-35, p.  ? ), and the loss or acquisition of a garment by Joseph marks a change in his status and a stage in his spiritual development (see p.  ? ). Joseph was not corrupted by the additional privileges he enjoyed in Potiphar's house, by his increased wealth and power, and by the possibilities for cheating his master. He resists sexual temptation, although sexual misbehavior is a theme that has recurred in previous chapters (Shechem with Dinah [Gen 34, p.  ? ], Judah's son Onan with Tamar [Gen 38, p.  ? ]). He overcomes fear (in the form of her blackmail), whereas Isaac (26:6-11, p.  ? ), Jacob (31:26-28 [p.  ? ], 32:9-12 [p.  ? ]; 34:30-31 [p.  ? ]), and Judah (Gen 38 [p.  ? ]) before him struggled with fears. Jacob became wealthy at Laban's expense (30:25ff., p.  ? ), while Joseph becomes immensely wealthy and powerful not at anyone's expense, but by saving many from ruin and death. Joseph begins to redeem the family by overcoming—one by one—their earlier failings. As the Overcomer (but not sinless) Savior, Joseph foreshadows Jesus, the sinless Overcomer, who saves those who believe in him. 
Ancient Egypt had several types of prison: some for the lowest classes and at least one for prisoners from the uppermost one, who had fallen out of favor with the pharaoh. The choice of prison may have been Potiphar's. And since he was in charge of the royal guard, Joseph was put in the prison for royal prisoners, many of whom were high dignitaries, suspected of treason. Such men would have been awaiting execution for their crimes. Joseph was living in Death Row. He was there, because—although in Egypt rape was not a capital crime, adultery or attempted adultery often was.
39:21-23 Yahweh With Joseph in Prison
21 But Yahweh was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.  22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it.  23 The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because Yahweh was with him; and whatever he did, Yahweh made it prosper.
God was bringing Joseph down, in order to teach him greater humility as well as understanding for others who suffer. God moved him again from a position of honor to a dungeon. This was the second stage of Joseph's descent into ignominy. From being Jacob's favorite son, he became a slave. From being a highly privileged slave in Potiphar's house, he became a prisoner on Death Row. So far Joseph's career had been like a roller coaster ride: sometimes rapidly rising, then plummeting down. Because God favored him, he rose in Potiphar's household, yet because Joseph himself honored God's laws against adultery, he was unjustly sent to prison! Ideally, careers are supposed to document a steady rise by stages: this seemed to be a career in reverse. The more Joseph sought to be faithful to his God, the more he was misunderstood and punished. 
But there was a secret purpose behind it all. This new situation would also be the vehicle by which God would bring him to the pharaoh's attention and to the greatest position of honor he had ever known, and allow him to use that position both to save thousands of Egyptians from massive death by hunger, and to heal his own family spiritually. As he had shown himself a capable son in Jacob's service, and a capable and honest servant in Potiphar's house, now he would be a capable and helpful servant in the prison. One cannot but be reminded of the career of Charles Colson, who went from being a presidential advisor to an inmate in Federal Prison, where he found Christ and became the founder of Prison Fellowship, a fruitful ministry to incarcerated persons. In Colson's case, of course, he was truly guilty of the charge that sent him to prison, but the result was equally as good as the result of Joseph's incarceration. 
God now does two things for Joseph. He "extended unfailing commitment [חֶסֶד] to him," and he gave him favor with the man in charge of the prison, which opened doors of service to him within the confines of the prison.  The "unfailing commitment" (ḥesed) that God extended to Joseph was what had previously been given to Abraham (24:12, 27), Lot (19:19), and to Jacob (32:10). Joseph's faithfulness under temptation in Potiphar's house had shown him to be a worthy son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although in keeping with the narrative's secularity, their names are not mentioned. Now in his darkest hour he enjoyed the light of God's presence. Joseph didn't miss the luxury of Potiphar's house. He didn't miss the power and prestige he had gained there. Now he had the unfailing commitment of his God, and that was better than anything else. Even if our story ended here, without Joseph's being elevated to Grand Vizier, this would be his happy ending: he would be happy and contented. He enjoyed Yahweh's unfailing love and commitment, and he was serving others in the prison, other people with needs that he could help to meet.
In our modern world everyone is dissatisfied and unhappy because they don't have the right job, the right school, the right neighborhood, the right spouse. They worry and complain because others don't appreciate them. Discontentment is the defining characteristic of our day. But as servants of our Lord Jesus you and I should stand out by being content just to enjoy God's unfailing commitment and the fact that there are needy people around us whom we can befriend and serve. It makes no difference that our physical and social environment isn't perfect, because our true environment is God's love and commitment. This is what Paul meant when he wrote "But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Phil 3:20). And if we live in that sphere, he will also give us favor with our needy neighbors. 
The close similarity in wording of v. 23 and v. 6a (p.  ? ), showing how both Potiphar and the Chief Jailer trusted him with everything, alerts us to the fact that God is about to move Joseph again to a different place of service and faithfulness, this time God's human instrument to move him will not be an unfaithful wife, but a forgetful and finally remembering Chief Cupbearer of the pharaoh. 
The lesson of this chapter is: "Bloom where you're planted." Don't long for different circumstances—for God to make your life easy. Instead, use the circumstances you're in to please God and serve others. 

Phil 4:10-14 " I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through God, who gives me strength.  14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38

A. Judah and Tamar, Genesis 38.
Another factor that complicates biblical plots is the frequency with which narratives are constructed from a number of seemingly separate plots. … In terms of the final form … these plots usually function as subplots or episodes within a larger plot. Thus the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12), Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21), or the wooing of Rebekah (Genesis 24) are all episodes within the larger story of promised land and nationhood. In the family story of Jacob (see Genesis 37:2) the story of Judah and Tamar becomes a subplot within a larger plot which deals primarily with Joseph but in which, in the fraternal struggle for ascendancy, Judah also plays a prominent role. (AYBD 4:1024 [Hebrew Narrative"]).
It is a matter of controversy whether Gen 38 fits neatly in the surrounding context of the Joseph story or not. Elements of continuity exist: Judah figures prominently in  both ch. 37 and in the later parts of the Joseph story. But those of discontinuity should not be ignored: aside from Judah himself, none of the many characters appearing in Gen 38 appear again in the narratives that follow until the end of Genesis, and neither Jacob himself nor any of his other sons is mentioned by name in Gen 38. 
“The two late insertions, chs. 38 and 49, are not additions to the Joseph story but belong to the conclusion of the Jacob story. Thus understood they are more meaningful and comprehensible” (Westermann, Gen 37-50: 22).
Tamar's achievement, like Ruth's long afterward, is to use levirate marriage as a vehicle to preserve part of the line of Judah down to David. That is a theme totally absent in the Joseph story, where kingship only figures in Joseph's dream of his own, and in the pharaoh's. The theme reappears, however, in the oracle of Judah in Jacob's final blessings (Gen 49:10, see p.  ? ). But contrary to what is claimed by some, her action was not necessary to ensure the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham, for that could have been fulfilled by Shelah's descendants—the Bible tells us that he had sons and a populous line of descendants (Num 26:20; 1 Chron 4:21)—and those of all the other sons of Jacob. 
It would appear that the most we can saw about the continuity and the function of Gen 38 within the context of the Joseph story is that provides a hinge or turning point for the development of a positive character in Judah. In ch. 37 he was venial, proposing sale rather than murder of his brother. Here he is fearful and selfish, and must be rescued from these failings by a Canaanite woman who is his daughter-in-law. But in the end he nobly confesses that she was in the right and he in the wrong. This prepares us for the nobler actions of Judah in Gen 44 (p.  ? ). 
38:1–5 Judah Builds a Family
Judah leaves Hebron parting from his brothers—who may also have dispersed from Jacob's home—and travels northward to Adullam, where he associates himself with a man Canaanite man named Hirah. The meaning of Hirah's Canaanite name is unclear, but possibly it means "(the god who is) my brother is great." In v. 12 the two men hold a common sheep-shearing, which suggests that they had gone into business together, raising sheep and goats. While living there among the Canaanites, Judah became acquainted with a man named Shua and arranged to marry his daughter, whose name is not given here. The couple had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The idea of intermarrying with Canaanites gives to many the impression that Judah was endangering the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. The negative attitude toward intermarriage with Canaanites is based upon the later injunctions in the Bible, primarily in Ezra and Nehemiah. Abraham and Rebekah sought a bride for Isaac in Aram-Naharaim (24:3), and the same was done by Isaac and Rebekah, for they disliked the Canaanite women. But nowhere are we told in those passages that God commanded them to do this. Unless Jacob's sons married their own half-sisters incestuously or went to Egypt, Phoenicia or Assyria for brides, who also would have been pagans, who were they to marry? In Egypt, Joseph will marry the daughter of an Egyptian priest of the Sun-god Re, and no negative comment is made in the text. Rahab the Canaanite harlot marries into Israel, and Ruth the Moabitess too. These women are celebrated for their faith and wisdom, and are rewarded by inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar is included also. There was nothing wrong per se in Judah's actions here. We are not told that his Canaanite partner Hirah involved him in idolatry or immoral behavior. What he does wrong is described later in the chapter and has nothing to do with Hirah's Canaanite influence. 
This section is all about Judah getting started building his family and providing for its continuity for generations to come. 
38:6–11 Judah's Sons Die
All was well with Judah's plans until disaster struck in the death of his oldest son and chief heir. This man, Er, is described as "wicked in the sight of Yahweh," but without any details. The text is non-specific as to Er’s wickedness. The topic being what it is in this chapter, he may have refused to sire a son to continue his father’s line. Since we aren't told that Er died in a way that made it obvious that God was judging him, it is only we the readers who are let in on this secret: Judah is not said to understand this.  Since we aren't told that Er died in a way that made it obvious that God was judging him, it is only we the readers who are let in on this secret: Judah is not said to understand this. 
What Judah does next was to apply the widespread custom—which later became a part of the Law of Moses—of marrying a son-less widow to her deceased husband's nearest male relative. This custom was practiced also by the Hittites and Assyrians, with minor variations. In at least three ways the practice in the Patriarchal period seems to have differed from the later centuries in Israel. 
(1) In the present story there seems to be no way that the brother-in-law next in line can refuse legally to perform this duty, whereas in Deut 25:5-10 he can do so, after having his sandal (naʿal) removed and being spat in the face publicly by his brother's widow. In Ruth 4:1-12 Boaz secures in court the official forfeiture of the levirate right from a man who is more closely related to Ruth's husband Mahlon than he. The man who forfeits is not humiliated, but he does hand over his sandal as a symbol of forfeiting his right.
(2) In Gen 38 Judah has intercourse with Tamar only once in order to fulfill the duty, but does not continue to live with her sexually afterwards (v. 26), perhaps because this would be regarded as incestuous. But Boaz performs this duty on Ruth and nothing is said to indicate that he ceases thereafter to have sexual intercourse with her as a wife. 
(3) In Deut 25 the first son to be born in a levirate 'marriage' is attributed to the woman's deceased husband. Yet in both the Ruth 4 and Mat 1 genealogies Ruth's firstborn son Perez is called the son of Boaz, not Mahlon (Ru 1:1-5; 4:10-12, 17-22). And in 1 Chron 2:4 the twin sons of Tamar Perez and Zerah—together with Judah's earlier born sons Er, Onan and Shelah—are all reckoned to Judah; the twins are not reckoned to Er. And Judah's son Shelah has sons of his own; so that Judah did not need the twin sons from the levirate in order to continue his line. Mat 1:3 also skips Er entirely, attributing Perez directly to Judah as his father. Apparently, the concern then was not to preserve descendants for Er, but additional sons for Judah
Usually the first in line to perform the duty of siring a son by the widow was her deceased husband's brother. The brother chosen was not always unmarried, since marriages with multiple wives existed, and there is some indication that after the first son was born the levir no longer cohabited with the widow—see Gen 38:26 which states the matter clearly of Judah. The new husband provided the widow with support and protection, while he provided her and her first husband with an heir. Thus the first husband's inheritance would not be merged with that of his brothers. 
Tamar was now married to Er's younger brother Onan. Onan, however, was greedy for Er's inheritance portion, and refused to inseminate Tamar. He refused secretly, since no one but Tamar would know that he withdrew from her before ejaculating. To his father it would appear that Tamar was barren. His sin wasn't practicing birth control: it was covert refusal to perform the legal duty of providing a male heir for his older brother. This action angered God, who put him to death as well. 
The logical next step would have been for Judah to give Tamar to his youngest son Shelah. But, not knowing what Onan did in  secret, Judah may also have falsely suspected Tamar was barren. And after two sons had died while married to this woman, Judah may have also feared some sort of curse was on her. Fearing the loss of his last son, who had not yet had a son by another wife, he used a delaying tactic to avoid giving her to Shelah. Tamar was told to wait until Shelah was old enough. Tamar was wise enough to see through this tactic. In Assyrian law this duty could be assigned to any son, 10 years of age or older. She bided her time.
38:12–19 Tamar Disguised
In the course of time Judah lost his wife and himself became a widower. Tamar observed that Shelah was now full grown and she was still not given to him in marriage. So now so far as she knew the customary law, Judah himself was now eligible. Although in this case Judah himself was now a widower, legally it wasn't necessary for Judah to be unmarried for Tamar to claim him as the next in line to perform the duty of the Kinsman-Redeemer for Er. In Hittite law (Hoffner in Roth, §193; loclnk 236 [13]; Critical Edition loclnk [152, 225-26]) the duty falls first to brothers (ŠEŠ-ŠU), but then goes to deceased man's father (ABU-ŠU), and then either his father's brother or the son of his father's brother.  
Since this kind of marriage was contracted in Assyria and among the Hittites, it is clear that it did not originate among the Israelites, and there was no occasion for us to see if Abraham or Isaac or Jacob knew of it. 
When the period of mourning his wife was over, Judah resumed his business activities with his friend and partner Hirah. They had flocks that needed to be sheared.
Tamar made her plan, made preparations for it, and carried it out with great skill. She was as skilled a deceiver as Rebekah, Jacob, Laban, and Jacob sons had been. Knowing that men away from their wives and families at sheep-shearing were given to celebrating the successful shearing by banqueting, drinking, and seeking sex with prostitutes, she dressed herself as one. Again we see the motif of the change of attire: she removes her widow's garments and donned those of a cult prostitute. 
When Judah came to her and negotiated sex, she demanded a pledge to guarantee his sending her the payment later. What she required was his signet, the one item of his attire that would identify him without any doubt. Nothing else that he wore or had on him to give her would do that. Judah suspected nothing; so he gave it to her. 

38:20-23 Tamar Disappears
When he returned home and sent the promised goat kid to the prostitute in the neighborhood where he had met her, his messengers were told that there was no one like that in the area. Judah was perplexed, but thought nothing further of the "mystery woman."
38:24–26 Tamar Vindicated: Judah Guilty
Prostitutes used birth control methods. But Tamar deliberately did not. So when her pregnancy became apparent to the family, Judah was told, and she was brought up to face charges of indecency and perhaps "adultery," since she was legally a daughter-in-law of Judah's, even if she did not presently have a husband. For the death penalty (not specifically by burning) in such cases see Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22. So Tamar was "brought out" (to the city gate) to face trial. But Tamar was ready to spring her surprise. She produced Judah's signet to prove him the father! The use of Judah's signet ring to prove (truly!) his paternity parallels the use of Joseph's bloodstained garment to prove (falsely!) his death (see 37:32–35). 
Judah, to his credit, when confronted with the incontrovertible evidence, realizes that Tamar acted in desperation because of his unwillingness to give her his son Selah. He pronounces her innocent of all charges and himself guilty of failing to perform his duty to her as her husband's father. That is the meaning of "She is more righteous than I," which should actually be translated "She is in the right, and I not." What she did was in accordance with her levirate rights. The term "righteous" here means that her actions accorded with the law, while Judah's did not. What Judah did in refusing Shelah to her and forcing her to this alternate course was in violation of his obligation, which he here concedes. The Aramaic translation of Genesis, dating from the time of Jesus, renders Judah's words: "She is in the right. It (i.e., the pregnancy) is from me." If one accepts this, it adds a statement by Judah of recognition of the child to be born as his. 
His subsequent refusal to have sex with Tamar is not a sign of his distaste or hatred of her: on the contrary, his duty was fulfilled by providing her with the required male heir. He would continue to give her a home and food and clothes. But it was not necessary and perhaps even not appropriate for him to continue to have sexual relations with her as a real, permanent husband. He had served his duty as surrogate for his oldest son Er.
38:27–30 Birth of Tamar's Twins
The story ends happily with the birth of twin sons to Tamar. Judah now has twin grandsons, one of whom—Perez—will become the ancestor of King David and eventually of the messiah Jesus. 
Gen 38 and Judah
We said above that Gen 38 fits into the context of the Joseph story—and indeed, into the story of Jacob's family—by its contribution to the development of the picture of Judah as a man. Like Jacob and later Joseph, Judah's character develops over time. In order of age, Judah is fourth oldest among Jacob's sons. Reuben disappointed his father by sleeping with Bilhah, and sought to make it up to him by rescuing Joseph in Gen 37. Simeon and Levi disappointed Jacob by slaughtering the helpless citizens of Shechem because of Shechem's violating their sister Dinah. Judah was next in line. In Gen 37 he had seconded his brothers' plan to get rid of Joseph, and only suggested that they make some money out of it by selling him as a slave. We will see that later in the Joseph story, Judah acts nobly. There needed to be some intervening event that showed the turning point when he began to reflect on his own lack of justice. This event provides that: he admits publicly that Tamar was right and he wrong. This begins his rehabilitation. 

His marriage to a Canaanite (as we commented above) was not necessarily wrong. But his patronizing a prostitute, although not illegal, and perhaps understandable for a recent widower, was morally wrong. She was not his wife, and he had no right to intercourse with her unless they were husband and wife.  But Gen 38 is not intended to portray Judah as sinless or righteous in all that he did, merely to show him repentant and willing to admit his need to turn his life around. When he declared of Tamar "She is in the right, it is I who was in the wrong," it must have reminded him of his part in selling innocent Joseph into slavery. In a style very typical of the narrator, he only lets us know several chapters later in 42:21, from the mouth of the brothers themselves what they heard from Joseph in his fear and agony in the pit.  “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw his anguish (צָּרָ֖ה) he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this anguish (צָּרָ֖ה) has come upon us.”

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Esau's Descendants & Joseph & His Brothers, Gen 36-37

A. Esau's Descendants, Gen. 36.

In the preceding chapter, the list of Jacob's offspring marks the completion of the series of independent narratives about Jacob; in the present chapter all mention of Esau in the Book of Genesis is brought to a conclusion with the listing of Esau's descendants. The notice of Abraham's death in 25:7-10 was followed by the detailing of the line of his elder son [25:12–18, p.  ? ]; the report of Isaac's demise conforms to the same pattern. In both cases the genealogy functions as a connective that links two series of narratives in which one generation gives way to the next. The architectonic unity is cemented by the double formula, "This is the line of ... These are the names of ... ," in both 25:12-13 and verses 9-10 of this chapter, a stylistic device that occurs nowhere else in the book. The genealogical tables here also serve a theological purpose. Esau was the subject of a divine oracle and the recipient of a patriarchal blessing (25:23; 27:39-40), and the data now given show how these were fulfilled in history. The rise and development of the Edomite tribes, like the fortunes of Israel, are determined by the workings of God's Providence and are part of His grand design of history. (Sarna)

Finally, the close connection with the previous chapter is reinforced by the list of Edomite kings given in verses 31-39. "Kings shall issue from your loins," God promised Jacob, and a major theme of chapter 35 is the birth of Benjamin, whose tribe supplied the first king of Israel [King Saul]. The present chapter appropriately details "the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites."

B. Joseph the Dreamer Sold into Slavery, Gen. 37.

Jacob's life continues through the end of Genesis, but as a major figure he is overshadowed in the coming chapters by his son Joseph. Isaac's death was recorded at the end of Gen 35 because, unlike Jacob, he will not figure even peripherally in the narrative of Joseph's life. But by figuring the various age indications given in Genesis we know that Isaac actually lived for another 12 years after Joseph was sold into Egypt, and died when Jacob was 120 years old. 
The rest of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, except for the … intrusion of the episode of Judah and Tamar (chap. 38). The Joseph story provides the human means for the fulfillment of a divine plan already announced to Abraham. Jacob must go down to Egypt where his offspring will become enslaved, as foretold in the covenant God made with Abraham: "Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs" (15:13). I suggested a reason for the Egyptian slavery in the way that Jacob and his sons so perverted the meaning of the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision, when Simeon and Levi used it as a weapon against the men of Shechem (Gen 34, p.  ? ). 
The Joseph story clothes this grand scheme of national oppression and redemption in the domestic garb of a very believable story about a father, a favorite son, a boy unwisely telling private revelations in his dreams, and his angry brothers. The domestic scene will dictate grand consequences for the nation which that family will become. And while this story is the prelude to the drama of oppression and redemption of the exodus, the dominant motif of biblical theology, it is also the story of the development of wisdom, spiritual maturity and godly character in one man, Joseph, features which unfortunately did not always thereafter characterize his descendants, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. 
The story of Joseph and his brothers differs markedly from the preceding patriarchal narratives. By far the longest and most complete narrative in Genesis, it skillfully employs the novelistic techniques of character delineation, psychological manipulation, and dramatic suspense. 
A unique feature is the outwardly "secular" mold in which the narrative is cast. As in the later book of Esther, which also transpires in a foreign court, there are no outwardly apparent supernatural interventions such as miracles. God's action is all subtle and behind-the-scenes. Joseph makes no mention of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, nor of the covenants and promises made to them by Yahweh. He refers at times to God, but never calls him El-Shaddai or Yahweh. Because he is outside of the Promised Land, he builds no altars, sets up no sacred pillars, and offers no sacrifices. But he also makes no vows. He is not described as worshiping or praying, although he does marry the daughter of the Egyptian priest of the temple of the Sun-god at Heliopolis (Egyptian ʾôn, [Gen 41:45–46; cf. p.  ? ]). The cultural atmosphere is that of pagan ancient Egypt. Everything is very cosmopolitan. Joseph shows absolute moral rectitude and faith that God (Egyptian pĕ nōṯe) will vindicate him, but his piety is of a supra-national sort: there is nothing very Israelite about him. Until the very end of his life, he shows no attachment to Canaan as the destiny of his ancestors, himself and his family's descendants. No wonder that Joseph is not included among the patriarchs in Jewish tradition, which restricts that category to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Babylonian Talmud, Ber. 16b). 
Nevertheless, the secular atmosphere of the story doesn't prevent it from being infused with a profound sense that God's hand directs seemingly haphazard events: when Joseph cannot find his brothers in Shechem, he meets "a man" [אִ֔ישׁ] who knows exactly where they are (37:15); the caravans of traders who appear when his brothers need to get rid of him just happen to be going to Egypt (37:25, 28); Yahweh is with Joseph in Potiphar's house (39:2) and after he is falsely sent to prison (39:21f.). It is significant that the [word] 'God' [אלֹהִֽים] comes readily to Joseph's lips at critical moments: when he is confronted by Potiphar's wife (39:9); when he interprets dreams (40:8; 41:16 and 25); and when he tests his brothers (42:18). The ultimate interpretation of events is given by Joseph himself at the dramatic conclusion of the narrative: "God [אֱלֹהִים֙] has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God [הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים]" (45:7,8). Joseph's words resemble nothing so much as Paul's words in Romans 8:28 "God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." Here "the called" would be Jacob and his family. But the God whom Joseph understands as his own God has declared his purpose to bless the nations through the chosen line of Abraham's descendants, and the messiah who will come out of it. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each at one time or another brought prosperity to non-Israelites who were associated with them. Abraham rescued the citizens of Sodom from the army of the eastern coalition (Gen 14). Isaac's presence brought prosperity to Abimelech king of Gerar (Gen 26:26–33, p.  ? ). Jacob's temporary presence did also to Laban (30:27, p.  ? ). Consequently, Joseph as the spiritual leader of the family is used to save the Egyptians from disaster. Through Joseph's God-given ability to interpret the pharaoh's dreams, Egypt is warned of coming years of crop failure, and can make preparations to store up food for survival. Through Joseph, many thousands, perhaps millions of pagan Egyptians were saved from death by famine during those years.

The unifying theme for the development of this plot is the same as the one that dominates the Abraham saga and the Jacob saga: strife in the family. Some indication of a critical role for the promise theme in the patriarchal traditions appears here. For example, in Joseph’s speech, 45:4b–13, Joseph avers that “God sent me before you to preserve life… God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” The many survivors fulfill the promise for great posterity, the promise that descendants would become a great nation. But the dominant theme in the Joseph story is strife in a family, broken family structures, and eventually, reconciliation that restores the family to a position of unity. The nature of that reconciliation is a key for the Joseph traditions in the Pentateuch, indeed, for the theological structure of the Pentateuch itself. ("Joseph," AYBD 3:977)

Joseph’s rise is told through a series of encounters with adversaries and benefactors, after each of which he experiences a change in status. Joseph begins as his father’s favorite son and attracts the enmity of his brothers. His first transition, from beloved son to foreign slave, occurs after he is cast into a pit and his special garment taken away. As a slave he is the favorite of Potiphar but attracts the desire of Potiphar’s wife. His identity is transformed from slave to prisoner as he is cast into prison, again with his garment torn away by his adversary. The repeated images of Joseph’s clothing torn away present a series of symbolic “rites of passage” from one state to another, from beloved son to foreign slave to prisoner. After the cupbearer remembers Joseph’s wisdom to Pharaoh, Joseph is released from prison and is dressed in new clothes (Gen 41:14), signaling a new ascent in identity. His success in interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams is rewarded by a final ascent in status to Pharaoh’s vizier, and is symbolically enacted when Pharaoh has Joseph dressed in fine clothes and jewelry (Gen 41:42). ("Genesis," AYBD, 2:937).

37:2–4 Joseph the Favorite who reports bad behavior

2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper [naʿar] to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.  3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Although the central character in the following chapters will be Joseph, v. 2 makes it clear that his story is only told as part of the general picture of the family of Jacob (אלה תולדת יעקב). His role is to help them survive. Joseph was not the youngest of Jacob's children: Benjamin was. But Benjamin is only a child at this point in time and would have only done household chores; so he is not in the picture at all. Joseph is the next youngest, seventeen years old at this point. He and his younger brother "Benjy" were Jacob's sons, born of Rachel his favorite wife, and children of his old age (37:3). 

Joseph accompanied his older brothers into the grazing lands of the sheep and goats. But while they did the chief labor as herdsmen, he was an assistant (here translated 'helper').

Joseph was not designated as the assistant of the sons of Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun), but of Bilhah and Zilpah (v. 2). They were closer in age to Joseph, and this could have been why he was assigned to them. Bilhah and Zilpah were last called the 'maidservants' of Rachel and Leah. Now they have been promoted in status to 'wives' of Jacob. Early Jewish interpreters explained this as due to the deaths of Leah and Rachel, although we are never told just when Leah died. 
Joseph's role as 'assistant' to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah may have involved running errands, including being sent home for additional supplies. And this could have been the occasion for his practice of reporting on his brothers to Jacob. We aren't told if these reports were required of Joseph and were not clandestine, or not. Nor are we told if he reported only on the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah to which he was assigned as an assistant, or on all his brothers. We are not told if he frequently gave favorable reports as well, or if this was just a nasty boy's sniping.

The only purpose this information serves is to show how Joseph increased in Jacob's favor as his source of information on his other sons. If the reports were not part of his official duties and all above-board, we don't know if his brothers eventually became aware of them, and held that against him. 
What the text does identify as the source of the brothers' anger was the prestige garment that marked him as his father's favorite.  Jacob made a special robe for Joseph. In older translations this was called a "coat of many colors," and this is how those of us who are older remember this coat. What a picture that makes. It is somewhat of a disappointment to us to see that now it is translated "a long robe with sleeves"! That seems rather pedestrian! I won't bore you with the technical details of why this newer translation seems preferable. In other ancient cultures such as Babylonia, Egypt and the Hittites, multicolored garments were indeed luxury wear. But in visual depictions of ancient Canaanites the elite persons wear a robe such as is described by this newer translation. It was worn next to the body, was ankle-length, had long sleeves with a stripe figure on the sleeves. The full-color tomb paintings in Egyptian tombs of royal Syrian tribute-bearers shows that the stripes were indeed of several different colors. So we can have our cake and eat it too: they are long robes with sleeves, but also multi-colored!  It seems to have been a regional prestige dress characteristic of ancient Syria and Canaan. And it is likely that Jacob would have chosen such a garment to mark his favorite son Joseph as an elite person. One wonders if the robe was the reward for the spying, and if so, if the brothers knew that was its source.

This was enough to alienate him from them. And anyone who as a child has experienced this favoritism by his parent for a brother or sister knows how demeaning and irritating it is. There is no way to feel loved by such a parent. There are always the comments to deal with such as: "Why can't you be like your brother?" You are shut out. Such had been Leah's fate in marriage to Jacob, against which she had struggled valiantly, but in the end in vain.
The brothers were angry. They could not stop the spying, but they could reduce the material Joseph could use against them. So they enforced a silent treatment: they wouldn't reveal any of their plans or secrets in his presence. This could be the meaning of the words "could  not speak peaceably to him," meaning "confidentially." But that phrase could also mean what the English word "peaceably" normally means: they had only hateful words for him. The rift caused by Jacob's favoritism was now permanent and would soon turn lethal. The Hebrew שָׁלוֹם, translated "peaceably," is one of several key terms to trace through the Joseph story. And even where the term itself doesn't occur, it is clear that Joseph makes peace with his brothers (50:15-21, p.  ? ). There is "closure" in this respect.

37:5–11 Joseph Tells his Dreams

5  Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.  6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.  9  He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

The situation was bad enough between Joseph and his brothers: it didn't need him to pour gasoline on the fire. What ignited the brothers' resentment into a murderous conflagration was Joseph telling them of dreams that clearly implied he would rule over them like a king!

“We·can note that in the Genesis narrative to this point all dreams have come from God as direct messages, and are received as such by Abraham (Gen. 15), Abimelech (Gen. 20), Jacob (Gen. 28), and Laban (Gen. 31).  These dreams feature God as central, speaking directly to warn or support at critical junctures in the narrative. Joseph's dreams, like those yet to come of the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh and then of Pharaoh himself, do not feature God as a character in the stories they portray. Furthermore, they work with more or less opaque symbolic elements absent in the earlier dreams. They require decoding, either by those who first hear them or by a special interpreter. Thus in the Joseph novella dreams may be the word of God, but they do not feature God speaking to a particular character. If  they are a medium for God, it is because other characters and readers so receive them. Just what Joseph's initial dreams are, and therefore their import, remains to be determined for the reader first engaging the story”.

He had two dreams which he told to his brothers, and the second one also to his father. The repetition of the dream, with one significant addition in the second dream, follows the same pattern of the pair of dreams given to the pharaoh, announcing the years of plenty followed by years of famine. The reason for the repetition was to confirm the truthfulness of the dream:once a coincidence, twice no coincidence! The use of two to confirm is similar to the later law of Moses which required two witnesses to a crime before bringing a valid charge in court (Deut 17:6; 19:15; Mt 18:16). Joseph's first dream concerned agricultural work and carried with it the interpretation in Joseph's words "your sheaves" and "my sheaf." His description of the second dream does not identify who are the sun, moon and eleven stars, but identifies Joseph himself as the object of their reverence. The number of stars (eleven) marks that element as referring to his eleven brothers, including his younger brother Benjamin! And Jacob, when told of the dream sees himself as the sun, and his deceased wife Rachel as the moon. The first dream wouldn't have bothered Jacob, because it portended royal greatness for Joseph. But this second dream angered him as well. He was incensed that he too must bow before his own son. From the rest of the Joseph story in Genesis, it is easy for readers to see that the two dreams predicted the three voyages to Egypt by Jacob's sons—including Benjamin on the second, and Jacob himself on the third trip. On all these occasions they had to bow respectfully to Joseph as the pharaoh's Grand Vizier,a position very much like that of a king.  But this is of course unknown at this early point to Jacob and his other sons.  The dreams seemed to show extreme arrogance in young Joseph. Even a favorite son can at times antagonize his favoring parent!

37:12–24 His Brothers Get Even

12   Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”  14 So he said to him, “Go now, see how it is with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.  He came to Shechem,  15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”  16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”  17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.  18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.  23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;  24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Earlier one is given the impression that Joseph was normally with his brothers in the field and only occasionally went from there to Jacob on errands. Here he is depicted as at home with Jacob and being sent to the brothers on a special mission. Does this indicate that he was promoted by Jacob and no longer had to spend long days in the field?

It is a considerable distance from Hebron in the far south and Shechem in the Central Highlands, about 60 miles. It was a responsible trip for Joseph. Shechem was earlier the scene of violence by the brothers Simeon and Levi. Now violence will occur again, this time against Joseph. In vv. 13-14 Jacob sends Joseph out as he must have done many times, and his words indicate the nature of Joseph's earlier missions: to find out how his brothers were doing. The words "if it is well with them and with the flock" indicate the two areas of Jacob's concern. To his credit his first concern is with his sons, and only secondarily with the flocks.

37:18–20 The Brothers Conspire to Kill Joseph

When the brothers saw Joseph coming, they conspired to kill him and take evidence of his death to his father, claiming a wild animal had done it. In fact, later, when they sold him as a slave instead, they did fake the evidence so that Jacob believed a wild animal had killed his son. 

37:21-24 Joseph not killed but sold to a traveling merchant band

God used two of the brothers to intervene and prevent the death of Joseph: first Reuben (vv. 21-22), and then later, while Reuben was absent, Judah (vv. 26-27). Reuben proposed throwing him into a pit for a while, to frighten him and teach him a lesson. He planned later to rescue Joseph out of the pit. So the brothers stripped Joseph of his fine robe and hurled him into the pit.

In its simplest form the prison was a cave (Josh 10:16–18) or—more frequently—a “pit” (bôr), a usage reminiscent of a nomadic lifestyle (Gen 37:22–24; Jer 38:6–13; Zech 9:11; cf. ARM III 36:17–20, where an evildoer risks being thrown into a “pit” [ḫirı̄tum]). This ancient form of imprisonment has survived in the Hebrew term bêt habbôr (or simply bôr, Gen 40:15; 41:14), designating various types of prisons (Exod 12:29; Jer 37:16). In Gen 40:15 the term bôr refers to the bêt hassōhar, “house of the enclosure” (LXX ochyrōma, “fortress”) in which the ʾăsı̂rı̂m (Ketib: ʾăsûrim) of the pharaoh were kept. The biblical description corresponds to Egyptian practice as we know it from the hieroglyphic records: those who were condemned to detention and forced labor were relegated to a fortified building (often called pr šnʿ), supervised by one of pharaoh’s officials. How general a term bêt habbôr came to be is apparent from Jer 37:15–16, where the four terms bêt hāʾēsûr, “house of the fetters,” bêt hakkeleʾ, “house of detention,” bêt habbôr, and haḥănuyôt, “the storerooms,” are applied to one and the same place, viz., an ordinary dwelling house which had been turned into a prison. (AYBD, 5:469 ["Prison"])

37:25–36 Reuben Frustrated, Jacob Deceived

25   Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum (נְכֹאת֙), balsam (צְרִ֣י), and resin (לֹ֔ט), on their way to carry it down to Egypt.  26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.  28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.  29  When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes.  30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?”  31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.  32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”  33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”  34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.  35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.  36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

37:25–27 Judah's advice

Later, when Reuben was away, a merchant caravan approached from the north, heading to Egypt. Judah had a good idea. He also saw no value in killing Joseph, and suggested instead that they make some money out of him, while still getting rid of him. They should sell him to a traveling band of merchants headed toward Egypt. Judah was also worried about incurring guilt before God, because Joseph was their own brother.

The Midianites, who were related to, if not identical with, the biblical Ishmaelites, were of Arab stock, and engaged in caravaneering. The biblical story of Joseph describes a Midianite caravan on its way from Gilead in the Transjordanian highlands to Egypt, passing through the vicinity of Dothan in N Palestine (Gen 37:25–28). The traders carried with them stock items of resin, balm, and myrrh, and also trafficked in slaves. Some Arab tribes probably made their living, as they did at later times in history, by preying upon such caravans, or by raiding villages or the encampments of other Arabs. ("Arabia", AYBD, 1:324)

37:29–31 Reuben frustrated and terrified

When Reuben returned and found Joseph gone, his plan to rescue him foiled, he was terrified. He had saved Joseph from being killed, but not from being lost to his father. Reuben had already disappointed Jacob in the matter of sleeping with Bilhah, and he had hoped to do something to compensate. Now he had nothing but bad news for his father. Neither he nor his brothers dared to admit what they had done; so they returned to their original plan to falsify evidence that he had been killed by a wild animal.

37:32–35 Jacob deceived into believing Joseph killed by animal

The first installment of the brothers' punishment was watching the grief of their aged father. The subsequent installments were going to be even worse. 


Joseph is one of very few characters in the OT about whom a lengthy story is told, who have no sin or failure of faith attributed to him. Let's begin looking for ways in which Joseph's experiences and his character foreshadow Christ. 

  • (1) What role do you think Jacob's favoritism to Joseph plays in this story? God used it to send Joseph to Egypt. But that God uses something bad to eventually accomplish his purpose never justifies the bad act itself. All favoritism is bad, and especially within families. Jacob should have known better. 
  • (2) What role does Joseph's reporting mission, his privileged attire, and his dreams play? Perhaps Joseph had to report to Jacob what he saw; perhaps it was his job that Jacob required of him. And the special garment was not his own idea. But the whole situation was an incitement to his brothers, one which Jacob should have foreseen.
  • (3) What role does Reuben's futile attempt to rescure Joseph play? How does this anticipate the role Peter played on the night of Jesus' betrayal. How do you view Reuben as a result of reading this episode? What do you think he learned from this half-success, half-failed attempt to rescue Joseph?  
  • (4) What lesson do you draw personally from any of the experiences of these characters? Reuben was not completely honest with his younger brothers. He should have rebuked them at the start and not tried to  trick them and sneak Joseph away. Honesty in such situations requires courage and faith, which all too often I lack. 

37:36 Joseph sold to Potiphar
Verse 36 is what is called a "catch line", a device that lets you know that the main line of the story will be continued when this line reappears, which it does in 39:1. We will discuss its content in ?.