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Genesis: Joseph on Skid Row

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

Chapter 37 sees the beginning of the Joseph narrative – by far the longest narrative in Genesis – 13 chapters in length. It's a highly sophisticated literary piece, which exhibits irony, symbolism, character-development, and, last but not least, knowledge of the protocol of the Egyptian court. It's also interesting in terms of two narrative techniques that feature prominently in Greek tragedy, namely peripeteia or reversal of fortune and anagnôrisis or recognition. Or, to put it more simply, the story contains many twists and turns. Joseph goes from bad fortune to good fortune – that's the reversal of fortune – while his brothers have two recognitions – first they recognize their own corruption and they recognize Joseph as their long-lost brother.

The story begins with a typical instance of familial dysfunctionality. Jacob, we're told, loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was "the child of his old age". The author might of course have added, "just as he, Jacob, was favoured more than his brother Esau by their father Isaac." Jacob gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves or an ornamented coat or a coat of many colours – the Hebrew word is obscure but it's obviously special. It's a coat, in other words, that indicates a certain rank. You certainly wouldn't wear it for work. So, surprise, surprise, Joseph's brothers all hate him. Matter aren't improved by the fact that Joseph has a dream in which he and his brothers are binding sheaves of wheat and his brothers' sheaves bow down to his. Foolishly – or arrogantly – he tells them his dream and they hate him more. Then he has another dream – he dreams that the sun and moon and the eleven stars are bowing down to him. And now they're even madder. Joseph doesn't interpret the dreams but their meaning is so obvious that he doesn't have to. So here we have a young man, he's 17 when all this happens, who is totally self-absorbed and oblivious to what others think of him.

Dreams feature prominently in the Joseph story, and we need to bear in mind that this was a culture that firmly believed that dreams were one of God's ways of communicating with humans.

One day when his brothers are out pasturing their father's sheep at Shechem, Israel of Jacob tells him to see how his brothers are doing. It seems that his father spares his favourite son from having to perform a menial task such as pasturing sheep. So off goes Joseph to look for his brothers dressed in his fancy cloak, which we might think, and be right in thinking, was a deliberate provocation. His brothers aren't where he's expecting to find them so he asks a stranger if he's seen them and the stranger directs him to a place called Dothan. So that's where he heads. When his brothers see him from a distance they say, Look here's that dreamer, let's kill him and throw him into a pit, and say a wild beast has devoured him, and then we'll see what becomes of his dreams.

But one of the brothers – Reuben – has qualms. Let's not take his life, he says. Let's just throw him into the pit – and the author adds "because he wanted to rescue him and bring him back to his father." So they strip him of his robe – "the ornamented robe" as Genesis states in case there is any doubt as to which robe and they throw him into the pit. "The pit was empty, there was no water in it," we're told. And what do they do next?" "They sat down and ate bread." In other words, they add insult to injury. Then Judah has a brainwave. What's the point of leaving him there to die? he demands. He's our brother after all and we shouldn't kill him. We might as well make a bit of money out of him. And so they do. They sell him to the Midianites for 20 pieces of silver, and the Midianites sell him to the Ishmaelites, and the Ishmaelites sell him to an Egyptian, a captain of the guard called Potiphar.

Meanwhile the brothers dip Joseph's cloak in blood and return to their father and tell him that Joseph has been eaten by a wild beast. Jacob is devastated and tears his clothes – clothing feature prominently in the narrative. Jacob is now, through the symbolism of clothing, reduced to the same level as Joseph. Both are without clothing. He puts on sackcloth, the cheapest clothing available. Then he says, I wish I were dead. What he actually says is that I wish I could descend to Sheol to be with my son. Sheol was the place where the dead went. It's the equivalent of Hades in Greek, which is how it was translated in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. It's a place of darkness. All the dead go there indiscriminately. There's no heaven versus hell in Jewish thought at this time or indeed much now either.

Jacob's sons have behaved abominably. They've not only sold their brother into slavery but they could hardly have thought up a crueler way of covering up their crime than by bringing back the evidence in the form of his haute couture cloak.

Joseph ends up in Egypt, which has already played a significant role in Genesis in a number of places, most notably in the Abraham story. Egypt, as I mentioned earlier, is a highly sophisticated and prosperous society at this time. It has a settled community and a stable political system. It has done for nearly 2,000 years. By contrast, Jacob and his sons are nomads, constantly moving from place to place, at the bottom of the food chain in the Middle East at this time, so to speak.

Just when the story is gathering pace and we're eagerly waiting to hear what happens next, it's interrupted and we're left hanging by an episode that seems to have nothing to do with Joseph, except that it does, though we won't learn this till later.

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Written by

Robert Garland