Commentary on Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21
The story of Joseph and his brothers is a timeless story of preferential parental love and sibling rivalry.1
As so often in life, in the story sibling rivalry eventuates in discord and eventually violence. The conflict escalates in three phases: first, the teenager Joseph brings a “bad report” about his brothers to their father, Jacob (Genesis 37:2). The NRSV has it that Joseph is “a helper to” his step-brothers, but the Hebrew says that Joseph was shepherding with his brothers. A subtle difference perhaps, but we should not be too quick to think of Joseph as a Cinderella-figure, the “good” son working under the thumb of his evil brothers. We do not know whether his “bad report” is the result of poor social skills, in which case his tattling on his brothers to the father who prefers him is more a sign of whininess, or whether Joseph is justified in his complaint, or perhaps, as is often the case in life, a mixture of both.
The narrator then reveals that Jacob loves Joseph more than his other sons (Genesis 37:3). We might surmise that Jacob loves Joseph more because of some endearing qualities the boy possesses, but the text says that Jacob loves this last child because he is “a son of his old age.” The next verse reveals that the brothers perceive this favoritism and hate Joseph for it (v. 4), inaugurating a second phase of conflict escalation. So when Joseph tells his brothers about his dream (the third phase), the symbolism of which suggests that they will become subservient to him, it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.” It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires of enmity. He’s a jerk.
Yet even jerks do not deserve to be thrown into a pit to die. Recently there has been a cultural tendency to justify violence because we feel a certain way. Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead among other novels and a first-rate theologian, notes in an essay in The New York Review of Books (September 24, 2015) how fear dictates and indeed justifies much of our worst behavior (it has been offered in recent years as supposedly sufficient justification for shooting people, for example). In Joseph’s story it is hatred, stoked by fear of being displaced in their father’s affections, that motivates them to act, but the results are similar. Most of us, however, do not allow our negative emotional reactions to command our actions unfiltered by other considerations. We do not tend to identify with the blood-thirsty brothers who want to kill Joseph. I suspect Reuben is a better fit for us.
Reuben wants to rescue his brother and bring him back to his father. When he realizes that he is too late, that his brother is gone from the pit, his vision of himself as triumphant deliverer of his brother (who has not imagined themselves the savior in a crisis?) vaporizes. Note the way, when he discovers Joseph gone, that Reuben’s language reveals his focus on himself instead of on the fate of Joseph: “the boy is gone; and I, where can I go?” The repetition of the “I” in the Hebrew is even more emphatic than it appears in the English. Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. Isn’t this more like us? Possessed of good intentions but caught up in forces larger than ourselves, and losing our agency in the midst of broader evil acts?
At the very end of the story, after all has been revealed and all have been reconciled, and Jacob has been given a proper burial with his ancestors in a once-in-a-lifetime trip back to Canaan, Joseph weeps one more time with his brothers (Genesis 50:15-21). There is actually a startling amount of crying in this story. There is secret weeping, as when Joseph listens in on his brothers’ conversation expressing regret for their lack of mercy when they betrayed him (Genesis 42:24), and again when he sees Benjamin again (Genesis 43:30). There is public weeping (Genesis 45:2; 50:3) and private weeping among those now reconciled (45:14-15; 46:29).
If negative emotions can warp our moral decisions, as was the case with Joseph’s brothers when they threw him in the pit, positive emotions also shape our moral decisions, as the copious amount of weeping in the story suggests. Martha Nussbaum, in her book Upheavals of Thought, and in other works, shows how appropriate emotional responses to events positively shape our moral decisions and actions. It is not the case that reason must be allowed to trump emotion in our moral decisions, but that a properly functioning rationality is already informed by our emotional engagement with the world.
Joseph famously tells his brothers at the end: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:19-20). What is the role of God in the story? In our own world? The story suggests that while God does not will the brothers into a hatred that leads to violence (what kind of a God does that?), the spirit of God is nonetheless at work in a world that is shaped by human actions. God is present in the story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion. There is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in the story; incarnational theology is found not only in the New Testament, but in the Old as well.
- Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 25, 2016.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of dreams and hope,
You spoke to Joseph in his dreams, and those dreams led him to great danger. Yet you used the challenges in his life to save the lives of others. In you, no good thing is accidental. You work in us and through us, even when we are not aware of your presence. Help us to know that you are with us, and that only you are capable
of turning all evil to good. We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.
Parce domine, Feliks Nowowiejski (cpdl.org)