Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Unlike the rest of Genesis, which comprises short, episodic stories that can usually stand alone, Genesis 37-50 reads like a short story or novella.
Sometimes referred to as the “Joseph cycle,” this set of chapters relates the dramatic tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, from his betrayal at the hands of his brothers, through his descent into slavery and then rise to power in Egypt, and to his ultimate reunion and reconciliation with his family.
The arc of the story stretches across all fourteen chapters, with rising action and falling action, or beginning, middle, and end, just like any complete narrative. When reading lectionary-sized excerpts from this portion of Genesis, it is best to think of them as scenes from a larger narrative rather than free-standing, complete units.
The opening scene of the Joseph cycle is set in Canaan, which is, of course, the Promised Land. Ever since the first utterance of the promise of land and descendants to Abraham in Genesis 12, the book has told tales of obstacle after obstacle threatening to thwart the promise: dangerous foreign kings, barren women, and famine, just to name a few.1
The Joseph cycle will present another obstacle to the realization of that promise by taking the people of Israel out of Canaan to live in Egypt, where they will eventually become enslaved. At this early point in the narrative, however, Genesis 37-50 looks like a family drama rather than a political one.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children … ” (37:3a). Parental favoritism is nothing new to stories in Genesis. At Genesis 22:2, God describes Isaac to Abraham as “your son, your only son, the one you love,” despite the fact that Abraham has another son, Ishmael.
The theme of favoritism is even more pronounced in the stories of Jacob and Esau, where Rebekah conspires with her favorite son Jacob to finagle the blessing from Isaac’s favorite son Esau. The narrative again uses the term love (Hebrew ’hb) to describe that favoritism: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). Especially striking in the Joseph story is the way that Israel’s (i.e., Jacob’s) love for Joseph inspires the opposite emotion, hatred, in Joseph’s brothers (37:4).
Although verses 5-11 are excluded from the appointed readings, they highlight the escalating animosity between Joseph and his brothers, and preachers may want to summarize the missing material or else read the chapter in full. The narrative first reports that the brothers hate (Hebrew sn’) Joseph because Jacob loves him the most (verse 4).
They then hate Joseph “even more” because he has special dreams (verse 5), and yet again they hate Joseph “even more because of his dreams and his words” (verse 8). He predicts his whole family will one day bow to him, and he is obnoxiously delighted to report that information. Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for this hubris (verse 10).
The material missing from the lectionary readings highlights Joseph’s culpability in the growing rift in his relationship with his brothers. The dysfunction in Joseph’s family stems not from any one source, but rather from the brokenness of all parties.
Verses 12-28 relate the course of events that results in Joseph’s being carried down to Egypt. While verses 5-11 allowed some negative characterization of Joseph alongside his brothers, verses 12-28 highlight the perversity of the brothers alone. One detail in particular shows the brothers to be especially callous.
Immediately after tossing Joseph into the pit, which specifically is described as having no water (verse 24), such that Joseph will not drown but will also not be able to drink, the brothers immediately sit down to enjoy their lunch (verse 25). The juxtaposition of these two actions is reminiscent of Esther 3:15, right after edicts have been issued for the destruction of the Jews: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” They show neither compassion nor remorse.
In keeping with the narrative art of the story, verses 19-20 poignantly foreshadow the ending of the Joseph cycle: “They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. 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.’”
What will become of his dreams, of course, is that they will come true. Joseph’s power in Egypt will save the lives of his family, who will bow down to him. This disturbing episode of violence and betrayal becomes the means by which Israel’s descendants will survive a terrible famine. A sense of the Providence of God runs powerfully through the Joseph cycle, no more clearly than in Joseph’s words in the closing chapter: “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 50:20).
Discussions of the providence of God go hand-in-hand with questions of theodicy, and preachers should navigate the topic with care.2 Even so, the narrative deliberately links multiple incidents in the memory of the people of Israel; one can think of the story of Joseph and the pit as the smallest arc of a rainbow, or one circle nested among many rings of concentric circles.
Examples of other, wider arcs in the rainbow include the Joseph cycle as whole, the ancestral narratives throughout Genesis, and the broader story of the promise to Abraham, the journeys into and out of Egypt, and the entry into the Promise Land. The sinewy connections between this week’s brief scenes from the Joseph cycle and the larger biblical story of promise and fulfillment inspire readers to contemplate the ways that the stories of suffering and triumph are interlinked and to consider the presence of God in the midst of good and bad alike.
1 For more on the promise and its obstacles in Genesis, see W. Brueggemann and T. Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 65-73.
2 The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s 2011 Working Preacher commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 is one especially helpful discussion of how not to minimize the suffering in the Joseph narrative or to assume God causes suffering in order to bring about a “greater good.”