The story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50 is a story of jealousy and sibling rivalry…

September 23, 2012

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Commentary on Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21

The story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50 is a story of jealousy and sibling rivalry…

… a story of dramatic changes of fortune, revenge and forgiveness, and God working behind the scenes to make good out of human suffering. The story touches on human realities that touch all of our lives, whether in families, congregations, or nations. 

Playing Favorites

The Joseph story begins with a familiar theme in the book of Genesis. In the ancient world, the oldest son was usually the one favored by parents. The eldest child would typically grow up to lead the family and inherit the largest share of the family resources. In Genesis, however, it is the younger child who is repeatedly favored over the elder (4:1-16; 17:20-21; 25:23-26; 29:16-18; 37:2-8; 48:1-22).

Joseph and Benjamin were two sons born to Jacob and Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel (30:22-24); they were the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. The story reports that Jacob [also known as Israel] loved Joseph “more than any other of his children” (37:3). To make matters worse, Jacob made his affection for the seventeen-year-old Joseph very public by giving Joseph a special “long robe with sleeves.”  Not surprisingly, the other brothers “hated him” (verse 4). 

Dreams of Greatness, Feelings of Hatred

To add insult to injury, Joseph shares a dream with his brothers, implying that all of them would one day bow down to Joseph (37:5-8). Joseph has a second dream that reinforces the first one (37:9-11; see 50:18). Dreams were understood in the ancient world to be one way by which the divine realm could communicate with certain individuals.

Elsewhere in Genesis, Abraham, Abimelech, Laban and Jacob all received messages from God through a dream (15:12-16; 20:3-6; 28:10-22; 31:24; 46:1-4). Three dream sequences play an important role in the Joseph story (37:5-11; 40:5-23; 41:1-36). Each sequence has two paired dreams with similar messages, demonstrating that they are not random but divinely sent and reliable predictors of the future (41:32). The older brothers respond to their young brat of a brother: “they hated him even more” (37:8). 

The Brothers’ Revenge: Murder or Slavery?

The older brothers first contemplate murdering young Joseph (37:19-20). The eldest brother Reuben (with a twinge of regret and responsibility to his father) steps in and convinces the other brothers not to kill Joseph but to throw him into a pit instead (37:21-24). Another brother Judah suggests that the best scenario would be to sell Joseph off to some caravan traders as a slave and the brothers could then pocket the money (37:26-28). Judah’s plan is adopted. Joseph is sent off with traders on their way to Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph will rise from a lowly slave and a prisoner to second-in-command of all Egypt next to Pharaoh (41:37-45).

The brothers cover up their deed of human trafficking into slavery by soaking Joseph’s special coat with goat’s blood and giving it to their father Jacob. Clothing works as a motif throughout the Joseph narrative, marking significant transitions in Joseph’s life (37:3, 31-33; 39:12, 15-18; 41:14, 42). Jacob draws the conclusion (incorrectly) that Joseph has been attacked and killed by wild animals. Jacob is devastated and “mourned for his son many days” (37:34). Only many years later will Jacob learn that in fact Joseph is alive and well in Egypt. Jacob will eventually move all his sons and their families to join Joseph in Egypt during a time of worldwide famine (45:25-28; 46:28-30).

Joseph’s Forgiveness of His Brothers

At the end of the Joseph story (50:15-21), Jacob the father dies. Joseph’s brothers fear that the now powerful Joseph may take revenge upon his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years earlier (37:25-28). The brothers report to Joseph that their father Jacob had instructed them to urge Joseph to “forgive the crime of your brothers” (50:17). Joseph is touched by their words and weeps (50:17). Interestingly, Joseph may take the prize as the one person in all of Scripture who weeps the most; he seems to have developed a tender heart (42:24; 43:30; 45:2; 45:14-15; 46:29; 50:1). For the first time in the story, Joseph’s brothers join in weeping with Joseph, evidence of their deep remorse for their earlier actions (50:18; see 44:16).

Joseph reassures his brothers and asks a rhetorical question: “Am I in the place of God?” Unlike Adam and Eve who desired to “become like God” (Genesis 3:5), Joseph does not presume to take over God’s role as judge. Instead, Joseph offers his brothers forgiveness. Joseph looks over the struggles and difficulties of his life — the threat of violence, slavery, and imprisonment. Joseph sees that through all the remarkable ups and downs of his life, God was with him: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (50:20).

It needs to be said that this response to tragedy may not be appropriate in every instance of human suffering. It is sometimes impossible for humans to understand what good could come out of certain experiences of intense suffering and loss (see the book of Job). Nor should such a response (“God meant it for good”) be imposed upon a sufferer by someone else from the outside; it is a response that is best self-discovered by those who have suffered. Joseph sits in a secure place in his life and is able to look back and see in his long struggles the hand of a gracious and loving God (45:5-7).

Interrupting the Cycle of Violence in Genesis

The Joseph story has clear echoes back to the Cain and Abel story at the beginning of Genesis. Genesis 4 tells the story of one brother favored over another, the resulting jealousy, and the vengeful murder of one brother by another. At the end of Genesis, Joseph’s life story offers an alternative possibility that interrupts the spiral of envy and violence that plagues humanity’s story in Genesis (Genesis 4:8, 23; 6:11, 13; 12:12; 14:1-16; 20:11; 26:7; 27:41; 32:11; 34:2, 25-31; 37:18).

Beginning as a privileged, bratty seventeen-year-old, Joseph endured a long series of humiliations, struggles, threats, and injustices over his lifetime. Along the way Joseph developed empathy, humility, a tender heart, and, most of all, a deep faith and trust in God’s guidance of his life over the long haul. Repeatedly, the story informs the reader: the LORD “was with Joseph” (39:2-3, 21, 23). It was the LORD who blessed Joseph and caused him to prosper in the midst of his difficulties (39:3, 5, 21, 23). Joseph came to know that what he accomplished was not his work but God working through him (41:16, 39; 45:8, 9). God took the evil that humans did and made it into something good and life-giving (45:5, 7; 50:20). Through it all, God molded Joseph into a new person who learned to forgive, to let go, and to work for life and not death.

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 the one whose own nightmares became redemption for us, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.

Forgive our sins as we forgive   ELW 605, H82 674, UMH 390
Have no fear, little flock   ELW 764
Lord of glory, you have bought us   ELW 707

Parce domine, Feliks Nowowiejski (