Just Like His Ancestors - Reflections on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Just Like His Ancestors

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          With Gen.37 we begin the long tale of Joseph, often termed a novella, a kind of mini-novel that concludes the book of Genesis. It is surely true that this engaging story has a noted beginning, middle, and end, hallmarks of a rounded tale with a central figure that provides a full narrative on its own. Indeed, this 14-chapter story engendered one of the finest historical fictions of the 20th century, the vast 4-volume retelling of Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Mann’s masterpiece was published over some 10 years from 1933-1943, first in German and then in at least two English translations, the latest by John E. Woods in 2005. I find Woods’ reading significantly better than the older one by Helen Lowe-Porter. Woods in his introduction characterizes Lowe-Porter’s work as one that “often reads rather like the King James Bible run amok—replete with ‘he saith’ and ‘thou knowest’”. Woods’ version is vastly superior in nearly every way, and I commend it to you with this caveat: the work is almost 1500 pages long (!) and as such is hardly for the faint of heart. It is no beach read to be sure! Still, it is fascinating for anyone who has the patience to plow through its rich and at times unforgettable portrayal of a long-lost age.

          Having said all that by way of literary praise, I must add that I think Mann has the basic thing quite wrong. His portrait of Joseph as a man of deep religious convictions, profound faith, and unblemished morality is not the person I find in these chapters. In fact, like his famous ancestors Abraham and Jacob, he is a deeply flawed character and yet finds himself employed by a near-silent YHWH to effect a mysterious divine will. I quite agree with the older commentator, Maurice Samuel, who said seven decades ago about Mann’s Joseph, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Joseph:” “It is wonderful, but it is not Joseph.”

          Chapter 37 makes that fact all too clear. Joseph is introduced at the age of seventeen as an apprentice shepherd, tending Jacob’s flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen.37:2). The very first event attributed to the teen is “he brought an ill report of them to their father” (Gen.37:2). Joseph’s character is revealed to the reader as a spoiled younger child who is a tattletale. There is no indication of why he did this; no motivation is offered for his action. He is simply a brat, and this part of his character will lead to disastrous consequences. Of course, it could be said that Joseph’s sense of entitlement may spring from old Jacob’s favoritism toward this boy. “Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, for he was the child of his old age, and he made for him an ornamented tunic” (Gen.37:3). The traditional “coat of many colors,” or NRSV’s “long robe with sleeves” are mere guesses, though the former, despite its cliched fame, is quite impossible. It is a distinctive garment, whose only other use in the Hebrew Bible is found in 2 Samuel 13, when it describes the garment worn by the virgin princess Tamar. All that may be said, then, is that Jacob’s gift to his son is a special robe designed to stand out among other more common clothes.

          However the robe is to be described, it enrages all the brothers so that “ they hated him and could not speak shalom to him” (Gen.37:4). In other words, the usual Hebrew greeting, shalom alekah, “peace to you,” was impossible for these less favored sons. And then to add insult to injury, or perhaps better, stupidity to insult, Joseph begins to dream such dreams as further to infuriate his already boiling brothers.

          His first dream of shocks of wheat, wherein Joseph’s shock is not only larger than that of his brothers, but also stands in the center of their bowed heads, leads them to cry, “Are you really going to rule over us? Are you really going to have dominion over us? And they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words” (Gen.37:8). The dreams are bad enough, but his need to blab them all about, his words, are really too much!         

          And he dreams again, and simply cannot wait to share them with his inflamed siblings. I mean, how stupid can he be? Yet, narcissists are not capable of silence when they know they are the center of all things! His second dream is far more grand, including sun, moon, and stars, all of which, of course, are bowing down to Joseph. This grandiose vision is even too much for a doting Jacob: “Shall we really come, I and your mother and brothers, to bow before you to the ground” Gen.37:10)? In his confusion, old Jacob even includes his dead wife Rachel in his consternation at his favorite’s presumptuous dream.

          All of this arrogant and repulsive behavior leads inexorably to the brothers’ murderous intent against Joseph. They lure him into the wilderness, far from his protective father, and scheme to kill him and then toss his body into a nearby well. But then Reuben, the firstborn son, urges them not to kill Joseph. Some rabbis suggest that Reuben’s actions here are motivated by his attempt to find renewed favor from Jacob, since in Gen.35:22, Reuben is said to have slept with one of his father’s concubines, Bilhah, and “Israel heard of it.” Whatever his reasons, Joseph is not killed, but is instead thrown into a well, which is conveniently dry, and is later plucked out of the well and captured by some passing traders (either Ishmaelites or Midianites, the text is not clear here), and eventually finds his way to the house of Potiphar, a powerful Egyptian. And then, as we know well, his life takes on rich adventures, leading finally to becoming pharaoh’s right-hand man.

            There is nothing finally unique about Joseph, different from the lying Abraham and the scheming Jacob. He is a flawed human, as the Bible perpetually reminds us, but is not thereby removed from the possible call of God. So it is with Joseph, and so it is with us.

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