The Joseph Story: Part III

The first time Joseph is mentioned in the book of Genesis is when he is born and named. Rachel, Joseph’s mother, had been barren and was losing the “child bearing” competition with Jacob’s other wives (her sister and their two handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, who had been brought into this competition as well).  Finally in 30:24, Rachel has a child. The text says, “24God remembered Rachel and heard her and opened her womb, and she said ‘God has taken away my reproach.’ 25and she named him Joseph (Hebrew Yohsef), saying, ‘May the LORD add to me (or “do it again”- Hb. yosef) another son. Joseph’s name is literally the Hebrew verb for repetition, as Rachel is hoping that God will “do it again,” and give her another son. The LORD does give her another son, Benjamin, and with Benjamin, Rachel dies in childbirth, adding to the conditions of Jacob’s favoritism, and contributing to the overall strife in the family. One of the beautiful things about the Hebrew in these stories is the word play, and the word “yosef” comes up again in this narrative. 

Genesis 37 (the beginning of the “Joseph story”) opens with Joseph at the age of 17. The text tells us that “he was shepherding the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. And he brought an ‘evil’ report of his brothers back to his father (37:2–3).” This is a bit confusing and I think deliberately vague. The report could be of some “evil” that his brothers had been doing but it could also be that the report itself was evil, that Joseph was causing trouble, telling an evil tale to his father about his brothers. The Hebrew is unclear. In any case, we are stuck with the real possibility that Joseph, favored of his father, was a bit of a tattletale.

The story goes on to tell us why his brothers hated him. It begins with the favoritism of his father Jacob (also called Israel). Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other children, because he was the “son of his old age” (37:3). This too is puzzling, because Israel had another son after Joseph, Rachel’s second son Benjamin (when Israel was even older). Later in the story the text will explain clearly that Jacob was partial to these sons because they were the children of Rachel, the woman he had loved from the time he first saw her. This favoritism, however, causes his brothers to hate him: “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. (37:4)” In the next verses the reader is told that Joseph dreams dreams. Favored he may be, but also unwise! He shares with his brothers these dreams, where they all bow down to him. Now the word/name “yosef” comes back into play. When Joseph told his brothers his dream, “the brothers ‘did it again’ (yosef-ed) to hate him (the literal Hebrew) which in English translates easier, “they hated him even more,” although it misses the wordplay with Joseph’s name, where Joseph’s name is used in in the very words used to describe his brothers hatred of him. But the youthful Joseph can’t seem to stop, and he continues talking,

6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words (same yosef wordplay as in vs 5).

As we get further in the story the reader will come to realize that these dreams of Joseph come from God. While as a seventeen-year-old he is indiscreet, and seems to use his father’s favoritism to provoke his brothers (perhaps using his favor to get them in trouble, flaunt his precious coat, and insist on sharing his dreams of ruling over them). Yet, what we also realize is God’s faithfulness to Joseph was not about his perfection, or sinlessness. It was about something much bigger, preserving the world and his family during the massive famine to come. The conditions of Joseph’s family were tragic and multilayered. The sale of him by his brothers into slavery was inexcusable regardless of his attitude and treatment of them. His incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit (which comes later) was unjust. But in the end, we find that his dreams never died, and he had purpose. We trust this is the same for all the incarcerated men we serve, that their dreams will not die, and they will have the opportunity to fulfill purpose and contribute to the world.  

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