Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 37

In this chapter, we get to meet Joseph, who has several dreams, is betrayed by his brothers and sold as a slave down to Egypt.

I want to add some (almost) last notes about Jacob before moving on.  These are some things I was thinking about while running home earlier this week.

What I was thinking about was character growth.  Character growth is at the heart of every good story, and I noticed that we don't really see any of it until we reach the story of Jacob.  This is what makes Jacob's story so unique, is that everyone before him is described as being essentially static.  They go through various events, but we don't see them change.

Adam is barely described at all.  I don't have any sense of his personal character, other than when he tries to deflect guilt onto Eve.

Enoch is described as righteous, but we see no growth.  The same is true of Noah.

Abraham is when things get interesting, but even in his life the very first act that is recorded is him traveling to Canaan by faith.  So while he is well known as the father of faith, it appears to largely be a faith that he possesses at the outset of the story.  This makes it less meaningful to me.  He goes through struggles, but we never really see him grow or change.

Isaac is perhaps the least interesting of the patriarchs, and he has the shortest story of the three of them.  He is given a wife, has some interactions with Abimelech, stays in Canaan a bit, prefers Esau to Jacob and then dies.

With Jacob, we get to see a full arc as he progresses from birth grasping at the heel of his brother, to driven away from his family, to encountering God for (perhaps) the first time and from there struggling with his sin, trying to do what's right though not always succeeding.

The life of Joseph (segue to relevance here) reminds me the most of Abraham.  That is, when we first meet Joseph he has a certain purity or innocence about him, perhaps due to his young age, that nevertheless remains with him for pretty much the rest of the story.  We see him go through various struggles and victories, but I never really get the sense of changing character or how those events impact him on a personal level.  This is reminiscent of Abraham who faced various challenges and we can see his immediate reactions to those events, but there are few signs of long-term personal development.  It's important to note that I am speaking purely in terms of what's written in the text.  I'm sure they actually did have personal growth and development, but it just wasn't recorded.  With all that said, it's still interesting to read the events of Joseph's life and how he reacts to them, and these descriptions can help set an example for us to follow (or perhaps to not follow).

Joseph.  We frequently see signals of his innocence, we frequently see signs of his naivety.  His greatest victory is not being embittered by years of hardship and because he holds onto his innocence, he is able to help his family from unlikely circumstances.

The first thing we see is that Joseph and his brothers are still shepherding, just like their fathers.  And it says that he "brought back a bad report about them".  So already we see a bit of his innocence, that when he sees his brothers doing something "bad" (I presume it means something like lazy or careless) that he tells his father.  Joseph, as the text explains, is the loved son.  It says this is because he was the "son of [Jacob's] old age", but we also know it's because he's the first son of Rachel.  He's also the second-youngest son in the family (only Benjamin is younger), so it's inevitable that he would get a bit more affection for that reason.  He receives a gift from his father, a multicolored cloak (subject of a broadway play), which is basically a status symbol.  His brothers hate him, both because he's loved by his father and also possibly as a continuation of the rivalry between Rachel and Leah.

Then Joseph has two dreams about ruling his family, and he shares both of them with his family.  There are a couple different ways of looking at this.  First, it's possible Joseph did not realize the interpretation and therefore was simply sharing his dreams with no motive.  Second, it's possible that Joseph knew the interpretations and shared them out of a sense of pride and superiority to his brothers.  Third, it's possible Joseph knew the interpretation and shared the dreams because he did not realize that his family would react with hostility.

I've seen the second interpretation used the most often, but I think #1 and #3 are also very plausible, and would fit with the general picture that I see with Joseph, that of youth and naivety.  Of course, this is all guesswork on what is the most probably state of mind for Joseph.  So nobody really knows, but that doesn't stop folks from writing sermons about it and presuming one interpretation or another.  It makes for great didactic commentary, although not perhaps reliable.

I think it's interesting to cross-reference the dreams of Joseph with the promises of Abraham.  In particular, Joseph's dream about his family being like stars is reminiscent of Genesis 15.  The dream about binding sheaves has no direct parallel, but it can perhaps be compared to the various promises of material prosperity and bounty given to Abraham at various times.

Note, again, that double repetition means confirmation and certainty of what is being shared.  Therefore the two dreams mean that his rule over his brothers is strongly emphasized.

There are some interesting things here about Reuben.  We see that Reuben actually tries to stop his brothers from murdering Joseph, with mixed success.  Most commentators say that Reuben is trying to protect him out of a sense of duty that he feels as the oldest brother.  He feels responsible for them and therefore tries to deceive them into letting Joseph live.  However, at the same time he has lost a measure of his authority as the oldest son because he slept with his father's concubine, and therefore lost his father's favor.  So the sense that I get reading this passage is that he's trying to guide his brothers into doing the right thing, but he doesn't really have the moral authority to do it, so he resorts to deception.  This deception could one again be ascribed to the fruit of Jacob's lifetime of deceit, just as the brothers lied to the Shechemites in chapter 34.

I find verse 27 to be very ironic.  At first the brothers are all into killing him, but suddenly they decide to sell him into slavery because "he is our brother after all."  This is one of the more obvious cases of personal ambition (desire for money) shaping their moral feelings about the matter, that it would be "wrong to kill him".  They did not show this moral qualm just hours before when they were about to kill him.

Joseph, meanwhile, has now been betrayed by all of his brothers and sold as a slave, while they lie to his father and say that he is dead (fruit of deception again).  So Joseph must be feeling pretty bitter or cynical about it, but he will have little time to think about such things now that he is a servant in another man's household.

As many commentators point out, this is a peculiar start for a man who just had two dreams about ruling his family.  He is subsequently betrayed by his brothers and now he's living as a slave in a distant country.  Joseph is considered another archetype of faith, like Abraham, because he is given a promise for a certain thing and then put through a series of challenges until that promise is fulfilled.  In Abraham's life, his greatest challenge was having to sacrifice the very son he was promised, while in Joseph's life, his challenges are (as we will see) a series of difficult situations that are completely out of his control, and his greatest struggle is to survive and maintain a positive or hopeful attitude while facing these challenges.

1 comment:

Anna Tan said...

Where I self-insert my thoughts on Jacob. :)

I have thoughts on Isaac, but I don't seem to have written them down. Ask me about it sometime. Haha.

Just would like to note an edit you might want to make. Joseph is not the last son - that would be Benjamin. There's that whole snippet in Gen 35 of Rachel naming him Ben-Oni and Jacob renaming him.

I generally agree with the 3rd interpretation - where Joseph possibly knows what the dreams mean, and he's sharing them out of enthusiasm because after all, he *is* the favoured son and he probably doesn't understand how deep the rivalry runs in his family yet. But yes, this is guesswork and conjecture.