Breaking the cycle: the resolution of Joseph’s story

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from the book of Genesis.


The account of Jacob’s family continues as the entire land is besieged by famine, just as Joseph predicted. The only place with any food left is Egypt — and that is credited to Joseph’s diligence.

Back in Canaan, Jacob says to his 10 oldest sons, in effect, “What are you all standing around for? Get your butts down to Egypt and get some food before we all starve.”

It’s not surprising that residents of Canaan would turn to Egypt for help. Archaeological evidence suggests that Canaan was an Egyptian colony of sorts during the second millennium BC — right up to the point when a tiny nation called Israel came onto the scene. In other words, Israel emerged “out of Egypt” in more ways than one.

The tale of Joseph and his brothers is a darn good read. It’s biblical storytelling at its best. Sometimes, characters in the Bible can come across a bit, well, two-dimensional — perhaps because the Bible isn’t just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

But not in this case. You can almost feel the brothers’ panic when they discover the silver in their bags, planted by the Egyptians before making their way home. Jacob’s despair at the prospect of losing his youngest son, Benjamin, reverberates off the page.

What goes around (doesn’t always come around)

There’s a beautiful sense of irony to this story, too. Not only because Joseph’s brothers end up bowing down to him, just as he dreamed they would. The story has come full circle. Near the beginning, Joseph came to his brothers, sent by their father. But his brothers did not welcome him. (Unless being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery is your idea of rolling out the welcome mat.) Now, many years later, Joseph’s brothers come to him, sent by their father.

Near the beginning, Joseph’s brothers ate and drank while Joseph languished in the pit. Now his brothers have nothing to eat or drink; they are the ones languishing. This could be the perfect opportunity for Joseph to get a bit of his own back. But in the end, Joseph breaks the cycle of hostility. Abraham’s family — the family of promise — is in danger of fracturing into oblivion. Joseph’s choice to reconcile instead of avenge keeps the family — and the promise — alive.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though

But there’s also a portent of darker days ahead. As the famine wears on, we learn that Joseph has inherited his father’s scheming ways. When the people of Egypt run out of money to buy food (the food Joseph had stockpiled for the Egyptian government, that is), he takes their livestock in exchange for more food. When that food runs out, he takes their land as well.

Which makes me wonder: why don’t conservatives despise Joseph? He’s the biblical poster boy for big government. While everyone else panics, he takes advantage of a crisis to seize everyone’s land and enlarge the government of a tyrant.

In fact, the text itself sounds a note of disapproval, saying, “Joseph reduced the people to servitude.” Which could also be translated, “Joseph enslaved the entire population.”

Everyone, that is, except the pagan priests.

The implication would not have been lost on the original readers. Just as Jacob’s son enslaved the Egyptians, so Egypt would enslave the sons of Jacob.

So with Joseph’s brothers, we see how the cycle of oppression and retaliation can be disrupted. But otherwise, the cycle continues unabated. Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians will have repercussions. Just as his too-close-for-comfort affiliation with Egyptian gods will have lasting consequences for his descendants. (Three times Genesis tells us that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. It keeps coming up, as if to say, “See? This’ll come back to bite you.”)

The ransom of Benjamin (and the ransom of us all)

One more thing worth noting about this story is the ascendancy of Judah. Earlier, Judah was introduced as the fourth son of Jacob. But Judah’s namesake will emerge as chief among the tribes of Israel. The line of David, Israel’s greatest king, traces its roots back to Judah.

The elevation of younger children over their older siblings is a recurring theme in Genesis. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. From our vantage point, the choice often seems arbitrary. Jacob’s dominance over his brother Esau, for example, is foretold before they are even born.

Judah, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. Joseph orders his 10 brothers to bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, to him. Jacob is afraid of losing Benjamin the same way he lost Joseph. (Both were special to him because they were the only sons of his favorite wife, Rachel.) So Judah promises to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

Down in Egypt, Joseph plants his silver cup on Benjamin, then accuses him of stealing it. When Joseph threatens to make Benjamin his slave, Judah intervenes. (Notice the irony. No one intervened when Joseph was carried into slavery; now the brothers get a second chance.)

Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place. If he can’t bring Benjamin back to his father, better to not go back at all. Judah, in effect, lays his own life down as a ransom for Benjamin’s.

Centuries later, a descendant of Judah will come, claiming to do the same — but this time, for the whole of Israel and for humanity itself. The story of Jesus is a fulfillment — that is, the full expression or completion of — Judah’s story. It is through and through a story of deliverance from slavery and exile. And it is our story, too.

Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional: Joseph and his brothers

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

After Isaac dies and Esau moves on, the spotlight comes to rest on Jacob’s family. Which is to say it rests (mostly) on Jacob’s upstart son Joseph.

Joseph is the first of two children born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. No surprise, then: he’s Jacob’s favorite son. And he knows it.

Joseph is a mixed bag. There are flashes of remarkable integrity and breathtaking impudence, all from the same guy. (You have to admire the writers/editors of Genesis for allowing their heroes to come across very un-heroic at times.)

On the one hand, while in Egypt, Joseph refuses to violate his master’s trust when the boss’s desperate housewife makes a pass him. (Several passes, actually.) On the other hand, Joseph is a schemer just like his father. He’s a tattletale. And as he proves to his brothers early on, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

Carted off by the Ishmaelites Midianites Ishmaelites

Fed up, Joseph’s brothers toss him into a well. As they’re deciding what to do with him, a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants come along.

Or were they Midianites?

The text refers to them as both. So which is it?

Apologists who see Genesis as a literal/historical composition, authored by Moses from beginning to end, argue the terms are interchangeable. But that’s not very convincing, because according to Genesis itself, the two groups descended from different branches of Abraham’s family tree.

Some see this as proof Genesis was cobbled together from a variety of disparate sources. In which case, the final editor was either profoundly stupid for not smoothing out the apparent discrepancy before going to press (not likely) or he wasn’t bothered by it to begin with because the story he’s trying to tell wasn’t meant to be read as exact, literal history — not in the way we understand history, anyway. (That’s just not how they did history in the ancient Near East.)

The other possibility is that the dueling references are a literary anachronism — the author taking something from his own time and importing it into a much older story. This makes more sense, assuming that Genesis in its final form came together relatively late in Israel’s history — say, sometime in the first millennium BC. There is reason to believe the Ishmaelites had assimilated into other groups, including the Midianites by then. Plus, it would go a long way toward explaining how this story can depict both groups as well-established tribes, presumably only a few generations after their ancestral namesakes were alive.

It helps to remember that Israel is telling these stories in order to make sense of its own story. As Peter Enns would argue, they’re a “theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile.” They’re the product of a Jewish nation, either in danger of collapse or having just recently collapsed, asking itself, “How did we get here? And what do we do now?”

Mandated polygamy and the inspiration of scripture 

The account of Jacob’s family also features the bizarre tale of Judah and Tamar.

It starts with Judah, fourth son of Jacob, finding a wife for his oldest son, Er. When Er dies, Judah orders his second son Onan to get busy making babies with Er’s widow, Tamar. Onan doesn’t want to, because any son they have will be reckoned as Er’s, not his. So Onan dies too.

By this time, Judah’s only got one son left, and he’s not about to risk losing him, too. So he sends Tamar back to her family and forgets about her — until she disguises herself as a religious prostitute and tricks Judah into sleeping with her. (You might’ve gathered by now that Genesis is not for the underage.) Thus Tamar is able to shame Judah into taking her under his protection.

There are a few interesting things about this story. For starters, Tamar is a Canaanite. Which means, according to tradition, a sizable portion of the Jewish nation — including the Davidic line of kings, was part-Canaanite. Keep this in mind when you come to the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.

This story also prefigures the Hebrew custom of levirate marriage. This custom, which was later enshrined in Jewish law, obligated the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow.

Levirate marriage would pose a fascinating dilemma for modern society, since the passage in Deuteronomy doesn’t make an exception for brothers who were already married. In other words, to the already married brother of a deceased man, the Hebrew scriptures didn’t merely tolerate polygamy; they mandated it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why polygamy is BAD idea. And the concept of levirate marriage has to be read against its cultural backdrop. Back then, it was the only way of providing some marginal protection for widows in a patriarchal world. We can be thankful that’s not the world we live in — and that there are better, more humane ways to look after widows today.

But this apparent endorsement of polygamy should give us something to think about before we weigh into some of the present-day debates involving sexual ethics with simplistic, “Bible-based” answers.

Finally, the original audience would have immediately detected the custom of levirate marriage in the Genesis story — even though from Judah and Tamar’s perspective, Jewish law (including levirate marriage) didn’t exist yet. It’s possible that levirate marriage was a much older custom that came to be absorbed into Jewish law.

This is yet another reminder that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. From its story of creation to its legal code, the ancient writers freely interacted with — and, at times, borrowed from — surrounding cultures.

For some, this may come as a blow to the inspiration of Scripture. But not for me. I see it as proof of inspiration. If we know anything about God from the Bible, it’s that he’s in the business of incarnating himself — coming down from lofty heights to enter into our story.

Incarnation is an act of divine self-limitation. If God doesn’t accommodate his self-revelation to the linguistic, cultural, or scientific limitations of the day, then no one would have any chance of understanding him. Just like none of us would be able to see God if he hadn’t incarnated himself into a human body.

I’ve shared this quote from Peter Enns before, but it’s worth repeating:

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power.

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather, we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.