The Joseph Sagas
Read Chapter 37
With this chapter we begin a new section of the Genesis narrative, that of Joseph. Though Jacob and the family are still around, Joseph will become the focus of much (though not all) of the story from here to the of the book.
We begin with an introduction to Joseph. He is seventeen, the next to youngest of Jacob’s sons (Benjamin is the youngest…and will have a role to play later in the book) and Dad’s favorite because he is the child of Jacob’s “old age.” The concrete expression of Joseph’s favorite status is that he is given a special coat (maybe of many colors or perhaps only with long sleeves) and is allowed to stay home while his older brothers are out caring for the sheep. We also learn that he is God’s favorite. We know this because God gives him dreams in which his entire family is pictured as bowing down to him. As we might imagine, when he shares these dreams with his family, the dreams do not ingratiate him with his older brothers or his father. The level of sibling rivalry increases when Joseph, always the truth teller, tattles on his brothers for some of their nefarious deeds.
The jealousy and resentment break into the open when Joseph makes a journey to visit his brothers in the fields. When they see him coming, they debate as to how to rid themselves of this “dreamer.” The initial plan is to kill him, after which they will tell their father that wild animals ate his favorite son. Reuben however, hesitates and encourages them to simply throw Joseph into a pit, from which Reuben plans to later save him. The brothers agree to this plan and when Joseph arrives they strip him of his coat and throw him into a pit. At this point the story becomes a bit murky. One strand of tradition (#1) has the brothers, upon Judah’s suggestion, sell Joseph to Ishmaelite traders as a slave. A second strand of tradition (#2) has Midianite traders pass by the pit in which Joseph has been thrown, pull him out and then they sell him to the Ishmaelites.
The upshot of all of this is that Joseph is gone when Reuben returns to draw him out (strand #2). When he informs his brothers that Joseph is gone they hatch a plan to cover up their dirty deed. They take Joseph’s coat, cover it in lamb’s blood and take this evidence to Jacob to explain that a wild animal had torn his favorite son to pieces. Jacob is inconsolable at the loss. The final sentence in this chapter adds a third strand (#3) to the tradition by having the Midianites sell Joseph directly to Potiphar, who works for Pharaoh. Regardless of which of the three strands of tradition is correct, Joseph ends up being a slave in Egypt.
Reflection: These stories and those that follow demonstrate just how difficult it will be for God to bless all people (which is at the heart of the Promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Every time it appears that God is ready to fulfill this promise, human beings muck it up. In this case, Joseph, the dreamer, who has a deep connection to God (meaning he is probably the vehicle of the Promise) is sent into slavery from which it is impossible (or so it seems) for blessing to go out to the world. This pattern of Promise and disaster will repeat itself through the scriptures and throughout history. It seems as if every time humanity takes one step forward in creating a world in which God’s love and grace are present for all, jealousy, greed, envy and violence intervene. Even so as this Joseph story continues, we will find reason to hope that God is still at work, insuring that one day the Promise will be complete.
Read Chapter 38
This chapter is interesting in several ways. First, it completely interrupts the flow of the Joseph stories just as they were getting started, meaning the chapter has no connection to what happens before or after it. Second, it offers a complete reversal of the usual narrative scheme of men being the central actors while women wait off-stage. Finally, it gives us a rare glimpse of the women as righteous and the men as unrighteous.
The story opens with Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, marrying a Canaanite woman named Shua. Together they have three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er reached the age of marriage, Jacob selects Tamar to be his bride. After some time, Er dies. The reason given for his death is that he did what was “evil in the sight of the Lord.” Judah, then follows a tradition which will become known as Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) in which a childless widow is given in marriage to the closest male kin in order that the deceased man have an heir. Thus, Tamar is given to Onan in marriage. Onan however, refuses to do his procreative duty because he does not want Er’s offspring sharing in the inheritance. The Genesis writer then tells us that Onan too dies because of his evil ways. This leaves Tamar still in need of a husband. Judah, now becomes worried. He is a afraid that if he gives Tamar to Shelah, Shelah too will die. Fortunately, Shelah is too young to marry and to Tamar is sent to live with her family until Shelah reaches the age of marriage. So far, so good.
The story takes a dramatic turn though when Tamar learns that Shelah has reached the age of marriage and that Judah has no intention of letting her marry his third son. If Tamar is going to bring forth an heir for her first husband and Shelah is not available, there is only one person who qualifies as Er’s closest kin, and that is her father-in-law Judah. Tamar learns that Judah, whose wife Shua has recently died, is going down to Timnah for sheep shearing. Tamar takes off her widow garb, puts on a veil and sits by the side of the road to Timnah as would a Canaanite Temple prostitute. Judah, propositions her. They strike a bargain over the price of sex. The price is a kid from Judah’s flocks. But since he had kid with him, he gives her his signet ring and staff as collateral. They then consummate the deal. When Judah later learns that Tamar is pregnant he demands that she be burned. When she is brought before him to be executed, she presents the ring and staff, which convicts Judah of 1) not having followed the law in giving her to Shelah as a husband and 2) of condemning Tamar of doing what was right, becoming pregnant by Er’s nearest male relative. The outcome is that Judah declares Tamar to be more righteous than himself, and Tamar gives birth to twins who are in both the lineage of King David and of Jesus.
Reflection: Generations of interpreters have struggled with what to do with this text. On the one hand you have Judah who violates the law by not giving Tamar to Shelah and by having sex with a “Temple Prostitute”. On the other hand, you have Tamar who dresses like a “Temple Prostitute” and sleeps with her father-in-law. As I said in a sermon in December 2018, I believe that there are two critical takeaways from this passage. The first is that God desires justice (Tamar having a child) and that God’s people are to be God’s coworkers in bringing that justice about (Tamar sleeping with Judah). The second is that we are to live in hope, as did Tamar, that Judah would “come in to her” and that she would become pregnant.
Read Chapter 39 - 41
When we last saw Joseph, he had become a household slave of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guards. The next three chapters are a continuous story and so we will read them together.
In Chapter 39 Potiphar sees that “the Lord was with Joseph” and so quickly makes Joseph his chief servant and puts this Hebrew in charge not only of the household but of everything in it. The only concern Potiphar has is his own food, which he maintains because of ritual cleanliness. Under Joseph’s leadership the house prospers, and all is well. Well almost everything is well. The great problem is that Joseph is not only blessed by the Lord in his oversight of the household, but that he is “handsome and good looking.” Anyone who has ever watched a soap opera knows what is coming next. Potiphar’s wife takes a shine to Joseph and wants him to sleep with her. Joseph continues to refuse her advances, which leads to her lying about him and charging him with sexual advances. Potiphar is furious and as the chapter ends, Joseph is thrown into prison. Not to worry, however, the Lord is with Joseph and he is soon running the prison.
Chapter 40 begins with Joseph getting some company in the prison. Pharaoh’s Cup-Bearer and baker have displeased their boss and so are thrown into prison. Joseph, of course, is placed in charge of these men. Then something happens, which draws us back to our introduction to Joseph, and that is dreams. Both the Cup-Bearer and baker have dreams. Both are troubled by their dreams and Joseph asks why they seem so down. At first only the Cup-Bearer recounts his dream. Joseph listens and tells him that Pharaoh will release him from prison and he will go back to be the Cup-Bearer. All that Joseph asks in return for his services is that the Cup-Bearer ask Pharaoh to release Joseph. The baker, excited by the interpretation tells Joseph his dream. Unfortunately, the interpretation is not positive, and Joseph tells him he will lose his head, literally. On Pharaoh’s birthday, Joseph’s interpretations prove true, but the Cup-Bearer quickly forgets about Joseph and so our hero remains in prison.
Chapter 41 begins two years later with Pharaoh having a dream that he cannot understand and no one in his stable of wise men can interpret. It is in that moment that the forgetful Cup-Bearer remembers Joseph, who is immediately brought to Pharaoh and the dream is retold. Joseph listens and tells the Pharaoh that the dream means that Egypt will have seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. Joseph doesn’t stop there however but offers a comprehensive plan for dealing with the impending famine. Pharaoh is so impressed that he both adopts the plan and puts Joseph in charge of implementing it.
Reflections: The Joseph stories, unlike the rest of Genesis, tend to be formulaic, with characters who are two, rather than three dimensional. Joseph is good looking, brilliant and always comes out on top. Those around him immediately recognize these attributes and place him in charge of everything. Even so, the writer uses these simplistic characters to make a complex point, and that is that the God of Joseph (who has protected him and helped him interpret these dreams) is greater than Pharaoh (who thinks he is a god). This is a clear reminder to the readers (who themselves may be in captivity) that the God of Joseph can raise up God’s people and bring down those who oppress them.
Read Chapters 42-45
Our last article ended with Joseph being in placed in charge of the plans to prepare Egypt for an impending famine. Joseph organizes the nation and stores up enough grain to feed the people during the famine which begins at the end of Chapter 41. This sets the scene for the next four chapters.
Chapter 42 opens with the famine reaching Canaan, where Jacob (Joseph’s father) and his family are still living. Hearing there is food in Egypt the sons hit the road and head there to buy food. When they arrive, they come and bow before Joseph, but do not recognize him, while he knows them. Joseph, could have made slaves of them because of what they did to him. Instead he first accuses them of being spies. They insist that they are not spies but are all members of the same family. Joseph asks for proof of their story; the proof being the brothers go home and return with their youngest brother Benjamin. To insure their return, Joseph has Simeon bound and imprisoned until they return. The brothers realize that this treatment is punishment for what they did to Joseph. As they prepare to go home, Joseph has his servants not only fill his brothers’ bags with grain but with their money. Upon their arrival at home, Jacob refuses to send Benjamin back with them…and so time passes.
Chapter 43 reminds us that the famine was getting worse and the brothers would have to go back (though they seem to have forgotten about Simeon in prison). Even with starvation at the door, Jacob (now referred to as Israel) refuses to send Benjamin with his brothers. Judah convinces him to do so, pledging that if Benjamin does not return alive, Israel can kill Judah’s two sons. As the brothers prepare to leave, Israel, always the schemer, tells them to take gifts and double the amount of money found in their bags, as a gift to Pharaoh’s servant. Upon their arrival, Joseph has them brought to his house (which makes them fearful). When they try and explain about the money mysteriously appearing in their bags, Joseph attributes the miracle to God. They all then have dinner and “were merry.”
Chapter 44 is a reprise of Chapter 42 where Joseph has their bags filled with grain and gold, but this time he has his cup placed in Benjamin’s bag. After they leave, Joseph sends his servants to find the cup “thief.” The brothers insist they have stolen nothing, but that if a thief is found, that person will be put to death. When the cup is found in Benjamin’s bag, they all tore their clothes in grief. Upon returning to Joseph’s house, Joseph sets aside the death penalty but insists that Benjamin become his slave. Judah, then offers himself in exchange for Benjamin and explains that if Benjamin does not return home it will kill their father. This is too much for Joseph.
Chapter 45 is the big reveal. Joseph can bear the charade no longer and reveals himself to them. Rather than seeking revenge, Joseph explains that God sent him to Egypt to not only feed the Egyptians but his own family. The outcome is that the sons return home with gifts, and an invitation for the entire family to come and live on the best land that Egypt has to offer.
Reflections: The writer offers us a glimpse of justice mixed with mercy. For justice to be done, the brothers’ lies, and treatment of Joseph had to be atoned for. This occurs when they are forced to confront their deeds and Judah offers himself as a slave. Mercy is offered when Joseph treats them with love and compassion by not only giving them food to eat but forgiving them for their deeds. In addition, Joseph sees God’s mysterious hand in this entire incident.
Read Chapters 46-47
These two chapters tell two stories, with the first story overlapping the two chapters. The first story is that of Jacob’s family resettling to Egypt. The second story is of Joseph masterminding the enslavement of all of Egypt.
Chapter 46 initiates the journey from Canaan (the Land of Promise) to Egypt. The writer uses the names Israel and Jacob, interchangeably, perhaps bridging the connection between person (Jacob) and soon to be nation (Israel). The trip does not begin however without an encounter with God. As was the case in every move of Jacob’s, God was there. In this encounter, God promises Jacob three things. First that God will go with him to Egypt. Second that Jacobs family will grow into a great nation in Egypt. Third that God will bring the people back to the Land of Promise. In a sense this is God giving permission to Jacob to leave the land of Promise and God’s promise that Jacob’s descendants will return, meaning the Promise will live on.
As the family begins its journey we are given a list of all the members of the clan of Jacob, including Joseph’s children that were born in Egypt. This list is similar to those in Numbers which were used, at a later date, to help determine who was a true Israelite. Judah is sent ahead to let Joseph know that the family is arriving in the land of Goshen. Joseph takes his chariot and goes out to meet them. When Jacob and Joseph meet it is a happy reunion, and Jacob now believes he can go to his grave satisfied that his son is alive. Chapter 47 opens with Joseph needing to hatch a plan to ensure that his family is not only well received by Pharaoh, but that Pharaoh sends them to Goshen, which is land distant from the center of power and intrigue. He does this by instructing his brothers to tell the Pharaoh that they are shepherds, which was an occupation that is abominable to Egyptians. Several of the brothers are introduced to Pharaoh, explain that they are shepherds and Pharaoh is happy to send them away (while also placing his cattle under their care…ala Joseph). The final meeting is between Pharaoh and Jacob, in which Jacob blesses Pharaoh and departs.
The second half of the chapter concerns Joseph’s manipulation of the Egyptian people so that they will all become slaves of Pharaoh. Because of the famine, the people need to the grain that Joseph has stored. At first, they pay for it, but soon their money runs out. Joseph then has them pay with their livestock. When the livestock all belong to Pharaoh, Joseph has them pay for it with their land. Finally, when all the money, land and livestock are Pharaoh’s (except that of the priests), Joseph has them pay for it with their freedom and so Egypt becomes a nation of slaves, who when they do produce anything owe 20% of it to Pharaoh. As the chapter ends, Jacob is near death and obtains a promise that he will be buried in the land of Promise.
Reflections: This chapter is a cautionary tale of what happens to people who leave behind the sojourning ways God’s people and settle into positions of power in established civilizations. We see this in that Joseph has taken on the values of Pharaoh. Though he cares for and protects his family, the same cannot be said of his care for the Egyptians. He is more than happy to be Pharaoh’s agent of enslavement. This enslavement, becomes the pattern which will ultimately be used by a new Pharaoh to enslave God’s people. In a sense, what goes around comes around.
Read Chapters 48-49
In this chapter we come to the end of Jacob’s life and witness his final actions as the patriarch of the clan.
The chapter begins with two stories concerning Joseph’s two sons. In the first story, Joseph (who had had children in Egypt) brings his twin sons, Manasseh and Ephraim to Jacob; Jacob first adopts them and then blesses them. Jacob makes it clear that his grandsons’ inheritance will be equal to his sons (which is why scripture refers to the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim). The second story is very Jacob-like. When Joseph arrives with the boys, Jacob has them brought to him to bless them. After Jacob embraces them, Joseph aligns the boys so that the elder, Manasseh will receive the blessing and the promise. Jacob however, will have none of that. He intentionally switches his hands and blesses the younger, Ephraim. Just as Jacob stole the promise and blessing from his older brother Esau, now he steals them from the older grandson and gives it to the younger. When Joseph objects, Jacob (now Israel in this story), tells him that while the elder son will lead a great nation, he will not be as great as the younger.
Jacob then proceeds to speak a word of good or ill over each of his sons, according to his understanding of their natures. Here they are in order. Reuben, will lose his preeminence because he had the audacity to sleep with one of his father’s concubines. Simeon and Levi, because of their violent tendencies and violent actions, will be divided and scattered among the other brothers. Judah shall be praised, and the other brothers will bow down to him and his clan. There is also a hint that from Judah will come kings who will rule the people. Zebulon will be prosperous and will have an extensive holding of land on the coast. Issachar and his tribe will soon lose their independence to other nations (in this case the Canaanites). Dan and his tribe will bring justice to their people and will be valiant warriors. Gad, who resides east of the Jordan, will be victorious in defending his tribe’s land from raiders and other nations. The tribe of Asher will become known for its abundant harvests. Naphtali and his tribe will become a people steeped in freedom. Joseph receives the longest of the blessings (presumably given then to Ephraim) which includes blessings from God that will last longer than the mountains. Benjamin, the youngest, is to be one who devours prey and divides the spoils.
Jacob’ final request is that he be buried in the same field as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. This is the field that was purchased from the Hittites, at Machpelah. He then breathes his last and “was gathered to his people.”
Reflections: One of the most fascinating things about the Jacob stories (perhaps minus the Joseph tales) is its earthiness and its remarkably candid description of Jacob’s imperfections. Jacob is not some cartoon character who always gets things right and for whom things always work out. He is a man who is ambitious, deceitful, two faced, who wrestles with God, and at the same time, is one who works hard, trusts in God (sometimes) and is grateful for what he has received. In other words, he is very, very human. This realization ought to give us hope; hope that God can and will use us even in the face of our imperfections. That God will call us to great things, even when we have not always been God’s best child. These stories are also a reminder that the great story of God’s promise never ends. That it is an ongoing journey across time and territory.
Read Chapter 50
With this chapter we conclude the book of Genesis. Even so, we are reminded that Genesis is merely the beginning of God’s work to restore humanity to its original state of living in right relationship with God, with each other and with creation.
Chapter 50 is composed of two stories. The first is the story of the funeral for and burial of Jacob. At the end of the previous chapter, Jacob asked all his sons (in one strand of tradition) and Joseph (in another strand of tradition) to bury him not in Egypt but in the Land of Promise. The writer ultimately chooses the tradition that has Joseph conduct the burial rites. The burial rites appear to mark Jacob as an Egyptian. He is embalmed and mourned over by the Egyptian people. Following the official mourning period, Joseph asks permission of Pharaoh to take the body back to its final resting place in Canaan. And even though there are multiple Egyptians who accompany Joseph and his brothers (and the body) back to Canaan and mourn over Jacob again in the Land of Promise, it becomes clear that Jacob does not want to be seen as an Egyptian. He chose instead to be buried in the land that God had promised to his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. Jacob is, even in death, one who believes in the Promise of God that his family will be blessed by God with land, offspring and blessing. Thus, his burial is an act of witness to God’s promises.
The second half of the chapter deals with the final healing of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. As a reminder, the brothers who were jealous of Joseph because he was their father’s favorite, sold Joseph into slavery. Their first reunion was not overly successful. The outcome of the final reunion however seemed to have been one of forgiveness and reconciliation. Joseph even had his brothers and their families move to Egypt. Regardless, the brothers worried that with their father dead and buried, Joseph will take his revenge. Being the kind of people that they were, rather than simply asking for forgiveness, they concoct a plan to guilt Joseph into forgiving them. The plan was to tell Joseph that their father Jacob, as a last wish, wanted Joseph to forgive them. When Joseph weeps at this story, it causes the brothers to weep as well and fall down before Joseph acknowledging that they are his slaves/servants, meaning he can do with them as he pleases.
Joseph’s response has become one of the most quoted statements in the Bible. “You meant it for evil, God meant it for good.” With this line, Joseph not only offers forgiveness, but he reaffirms his belief in the Promise of God, that this family has a special destiny. The chapter ends with Joseph’s death and his request that he, like his father, not be buried in Egypt, but that when God brings the people back to Canaan, his bones go with them (which will happen in the book of Exodus).
Reflection: The story in Genesis is not simply a tale of long, long ago. It is our story. It is our story because as the Apostle Paul puts it, we Gentiles (meaning non-Jews) have been grafted into the story through our faith in Jesus Christ. This means that we are Promise bearers. We are those who are part of a world-wide family, whose purpose is to not only bear witness to God’s ongoing promise of reconciliation and blessing, but are to live in the hope and confidence of that Promise. Thus we, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are to trust that God’s often hidden work in the world is leading us to new life and away for death.