64. Genesis 37:1-17

III. D. continued

4. Joseph

a) Joseph as a Youth (Genesis 37:1-17)

We know nothing much about Joseph until he was seventeen and the dreams started. He and his family had arrived in the land of Canaan when Joseph was about six years old and he would have been about fifteen years old at the time of the massacre of Shechem. By the time the Scripture turns attention to Joseph in chapter 37 the family was probably living at Bethel after the massacre at Shechem. Joseph’s mother, Rachel, died in childbirth shortly after the dreams began and his only full brother, Benjamin, would have been very young when Joseph was sold.

Israel was the worst sort of parent, openly showing favoritism to Joseph over his older brothers. 37:3 says that Israel loved Joseph so much because he was the son of his old age, though in fact the brothers were all born in a very short period of time and Joseph was hardly younger. Israel’s age was not the real reason; the reason was that Joseph was the only son of Rachel and the last son. Israel was a nearly a hundred and ten years old, and Joseph was sixteen or seventeen, when Rachel became pregnant again unexpectedly. Rachel herself was in her mid-forties, possibly fifty; she was not too old, but with her long history of childlessness, she and Israel would have been surprised and delighted.

Joseph was, of course, employed in tending the family’s flocks even as a young boy. The family flocks were so large that they had been divided into two or more herds, particularly after they had seized the property of the entire city of Shechem. Doubtless, most of what they had seized at Shechem stayed near Shechem and they may have had another herd still at Succoth. Shechem was fifty or sixty miles to the north of Bethel. Joseph apparently was used to carry messages from one part of the family to another when they were separated, and in this context he brought a bad report to Israel about his brothers.

It was the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, Israel’s open favoritism toward Rachel, and Leah’s bitterness that drove the family’s dysfunction. Hence Joseph would have had the most conflict with the sons of Leah, but with all of his brothers to some extent. From 37:2 we see that Joseph was helping the sons of Zilpah and of Bilhah, while the sons of Leah had charge of the other flocks at the goodly distance of Shechem. The sons of Leah were kept away from Joseph for the sake of peace. Joseph was all too willing to exploit his position as his father’s favorite. He tattled on his brothers, criticized them to Jacob, and foolishly related dreams that could only upset them. They were jealous of Joseph, and the special robe Israel had made for him would have only aggravated the problem. It is not entirely clear what the Hebrew words mean, whether the robe was special because it was many-colored or because it was full-length. In either case, it was an expensive article of clothing and conferred special honor on Joseph in a culture in which only the privileged would have two changes of clothes.

The dreams were the last straw for Joseph’s brothers. Dreams were taken seriously in that culture – the Middle East had had professional dream interpreters from the beginning of the historical records – and Joseph related them simply to get at his brothers. For a long time, as much as a year, the dreams continued to be a hot issue among the brothers, increasingly a source of anger. It was dangerous to relate the dreams to them: Simeon and Levi had already shown how ruthless they could be, and Judah seems to have been alienated from the family and increasingly tied to the people of the land. But Joseph was counting on the strong family loyalty demanded by that culture; he felt safe within his family to harass his brothers as much as he could. And he was not the last to discover that blood-ties are no protection against bloodshed. The second of these dreams portrayed Joseph’s mother Rachel, symbolized by the moon, as bowing to him. Hence these provocative dreams came before Rachel’s death and as much as a year before the brothers finally broke down and sold him into slavery; perhaps it took that long to find a good opportunity. Their revenge on Joseph was a long premeditated act, and not merely a crime of passion.

Dreams and the interpretation of dreams were to mark Joseph’s life. From his earliest years he had a connection to the realm of the spirit through dreams and it is certainly implied by the passage that these dreams in his youth came from God. The two dreams described in Genesis 37 each portrayed the rest of his family as bowing to him, as being under him in some sense, the very thing most likely to cause trouble with his brothers. The question is, why did God give him those dreams at that point, dreams whose relating could only cause further trouble in a fragile family? The simplest answer would be that God was engineering Joseph’s sale by his brothers, that God intended to stir up enough bitterness that they would be pushed over the edge of what they could endure and commit a rash and evil deed against Joseph. To be sure, God meant it for good and would accomplish a great deliverance because of it. The problem with this interpretation of events is that it sounds like “the ends justify the means”. Does the Scripture intend to teach that God can and will do anything He wants to do, even if it is what we call evil, to accomplish His purposes, because He can make it come out all right in the end?

We could back off a bit and say that God was just testing Joseph at this point, that He sent the dreams to see how Joseph would react (as if He didn’t know), that He didn’t mean Joseph to relate the dreams to his brothers and precipitate a crisis (as if the whole series of events to follow were out of God’s control and He was just hanging on for the ride). But backing off would be a mistake. We are always mistaken when we back away from questions about the Bible with no other motivation than trying to protect God’s reputation. When we try to protect Him, we only introduce new weaknesses to be attributed to Him that He didn’t invite. In the case of Joseph’s dreams we can get God off the hook of being an interfering, stop-at-naught manipulator, but at the cost of making Him out to be a rather simple-minded duffer, muddling along while He tried to figure out what to do next. It is better to let Him choose the accusation He wishes to face.

As usual He presents Himself in an unflattering light, with no compromise toward our sensibilities, with no hesitation to offend our ideas of what we think He ought to be like. The best defense against God’s honesty is to get in the habit of not thinking much about what He says; this is the traditional response to His word. But if He has opened Himself up to these charges, I think the least we can do is take Him to trial. There can be little doubt that when He gave those dreams to Joseph, He knew that Joseph would relate them to his brothers and that for his brothers it would be the last straw. He did not have to test Joseph to see what was in his heart, nor did He have to test Joseph’s brothers to see what they would do. But it was important for Him to show us what was in Joseph’s heart and in his brothers’ hearts.

This is part of what it means to be one of the Covenant people of God – our lives are a revelation to us and to the rest of the world to show both what we are like and what God is like in relation to us. If Jesus really came in to the world to save sinners, He needed a few examples to communicate that fact. He needed some people whose sins and weaknesses could be displayed before the universe so that He could show what it meant to save them, so that the rest of the world could see and turn and be healed. When Abraham, Isaac, Israel, and his sons were adopted into the Covenant of Revelation, their lives went on display to the whole universe through the Scripture for our benefit. When we become Christians, we also volunteer for that job, though on a less dramatic scale since our lives do not get written up in Scripture. Even so, our neighbors look at our lives to learn what God is like, and we waste so much of the opportunity trying to look respectable, when we ought to be trying to look like we are saved by grace.

It is certainly true that God could have rescued the world from the famine that was to come in some less dramatic fashion, one that would not have involved so much suffering and bitterness between brothers. But the point was to stage a show, a show that would show us what He wanted to reveal. So is God a manipulator? Absolutely. He manipulated history for His own purposes, and He chose a people whose lives He would particularly manipulate to teach all the rest of the world who He is. He chose Abraham and his descendants, not because of their great faith but because of their great weakness: the perfect lives to reveal a strength and power and goodness that did not come from people but from God. Then He gave them opportunity to behave as they would behave and He poured out all His goodness into it.

It follows, by the way, that the Scripture does not give us graphic pictures of the weakness of people, of their failures, with the idea of teaching us a moral. See, children, this is to teach us to not be jealous of our brothers and sisters and not to brag about the gifts God has given us. If we only see the Scripture as a series of morals it becomes one of the single most boring books ever written and it is no wonder so few read it anymore. Nor does the Scripture hold up the failings of these people to give us someone we can judge, as if we needed more practice in judging. The single most important thing to understand before you read the Scripture is this one fact: the lives of these men were not written down so that you or I could grade them or feel superior to them or make them into lessons to teach our children; they were written down so that we could recognize ourselves as the kind of people God saves, so that we could see in their story the very corruption and stupidity and weakness we find so difficult to face in ourselves.

So Joseph told his family about his dreams, and that was a bad idea, and it is probably just what you or I would have done in his place. In fact, isn’t it exactly like many things we are all doing right now? I want my brothers and sisters to know when God has given me a blessing or a dream or a calling or a vision. Why do I want them to know? Because I want them to be encouraged by what God has done for me or promised me? So when my testimony makes them feel more left out, more ignored by God, that is an unintended consequence? Is our real desire to bless others when we tell them about the great things God has done for us, or do we have a more insidious desire? I admit that my experience within churches has made me cynical, but it is a nearly invariable pattern that the loudest insistence that all the glory should go to God “inadvertently” draws all the glory onto the person who is speaking. And, God forgive me, I have done the very same thing, though in serpentine fashion I can occasionally manage to do it with a bit more subtlety. Joseph is not someone I can judge; he is someone who helps me judge myself.

The second of Joseph’s dreams deserves particular attention. The second dream portrays the sun, the moon, and eleven stars as bowing to Joseph. The striking thing about this dream is its interpretation. First of all, the interpretation was obvious to all who heard it: the sun was Joseph’s father, the moon was Joseph’s mother, Rachel, and the eleven stars were his brothers; no one had any doubt as to the interpretation, and it was consistent with the previous dream. Unlike the dreams Joseph would encounter in Egypt, this dream and the first one seem to be intended as clear revelations to the family and not as puzzles that would require a special gift to interpret.  On the contrary, the slowest of them would know immediately what it meant; God might as well have slapped them, it would have been just that subtle. Given the clarity of the dream’s meaning, it is surprising to note that the dream would never be fulfilled.

The dream clearly came before Rachel’s death, and before Benjamin’s birth, so at the time of the dream Joseph had only ten brothers and not eleven, and when he did have eleven brothers he had no mother. There was never any time at which the dream could have been fulfilled in detail. So what did God mean by giving Joseph a dream which was not only never to be fulfilled in its details, but which could never have been fulfilled? Was it not from God? Or was it not a revelation? If it wasn’t a revelation, was it a sort of accidental half-revelation? Did God make a mistake in it? Or is God not as concerned with the details of His revelations as we are? We must choose between some unpleasant alternatives with this dream, it seems.

The best way to answer these questions is to think about the alternatives. What would we have God do? Our doctrine of revelation tends to require Him to give only dreams which He intends to fulfill in complete and vivid detail; we are a very insecure culture and we want to know that every loose end is tied up before we will venture out in trust. So we would require God to give Joseph a dream in which the moon was not present, in which no reference was made to Rachel at all. What would we have Him do about the eleven stars, then? The dream was probably given shortly before Benjamin’s birth, so the presence of eleven stars rather than ten would have been easy for the family to account for. And yet if the new baby were included in the dream but his mother left out, wouldn’t that have raised uncomfortable and irrelevant questions? A baby brother without his mother bowing to Joseph would have been unsettling. Leah might be left out without causing comment, particularly since there is only one moon to be had for the dream, but Rachel was Joseph’s own mother and her presence would have been required. The previous dream was set in the context of the harvest and the workers of the harvest which would have naturally left Rachel out; further the first dream did not include a specific number of sheaves of grain, so the question of the coming child did not arise in that dream.

Since leaving Rachel out of the dream would have been unsettling and irrelevant to the point of the dream, God chose to put her in so as not to bring up issues that were beside the point. At any rate, this is my reconstruction of the rationale behind the dream, and the principle of revelation that I would derive from the dream is this: when God reveals anything to us, He sticks to the point He is making, and He arranges the irrelevant details so as not to confuse us with peripheral issues. We may want Him to take the same kind of care with the details that He takes to make His point, but in the end we would only be confused or disturbed or sidetracked by such details; they would hinder our understanding rather than helping. If God had hinted that Rachel was about to die, Israel and Joseph’s brothers would have lost the main point of the dream. Did God lie to them? If you think so, then perhaps you don’t understand what telling the truth means the way God understands it.

I realize, of course, that this is not adequate as a complete answer to the question. God could have given a different context for his dream, leaving the question of Rachel out of the context entirely, or He could have chosen a different time to give the dream, maybe after Benjamin was born. But He didn’t do those things, and no one seemed to care that He didn’t. Israel and his family understood the purpose of revelation better than we do; they were a bit more humble in the way they received the dream, they were less demanding that it be packaged according to their specifications. Meanwhile, the rest of the Scripture seems to be written in accordance with the principle stated above: the details that are irrelevant to the point, or that would confuse us, or that would hinder us giving our full attention to what He wants to say, are simply left to sort themselves out.

One Comment on “64. Genesis 37:1-17”

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