Joseph Wins a Trip to Egypt. Hooray!
Ah, we are at the grand story of Joseph’s being sold into slavery, struggling against all odds to the top and his forgiveness of those who wronged him. Of all the biblical stories this is the one that was my favorite as a child, and it remains so now. Perhaps in part, because of the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat of which I am quite fond. But it also has something to do with lack of God sponsored atrocities. Compared to so much here, this is a happy tale.
In truth and setting aside my usual veneer of sarcastic wit, this is a beautiful story with so much humanity in it. There is cruelty in the jealousy and selling of Joseph,and sordidness with Potiphar’s wife, but there is much forgiveness and affection and love. And,of course, guilt and regret over their sin with a strong wish to take it all back. There were great wrongs done here but no village was destroyed, no genocidal flood, no rain of fire killing the families of sinning fathers.
Do you know why? That’s the question here. Why is most of the palpable evil missing from this story. I can tell you. Oh yes, I can! It’s because in the entire saga, all eight chapters, Yahweh is absent. Oh, he’s mentioned in passing, but as his solid wrathful normal self: absent. He doesn’t come down and kill people who have offended him. He isn’t meddling constantly. He just isn’t there. Let me tell you, it’s very refreshing. Like Homer, this book would be a far better read if we could have jettisoned those meddlesome Gods. Who knows? It might even have become a classic. Oh, I am aware that Joseph has dreams predicting the future and he lays credit for his ability to interpret other’s dream at God’s feet. But other than that, Yahweh is gone. Oooh, gives me goosebumps. That is what makes this a great story. It’s just people. All people. All the time.
The legend begins with Joseph and his family in the land of Canaan where they settled after fleeing from the wreckage of Shechem. See Genocide as Justice. and Odds and Ends if you need to catch up. Joseph is seventeen and the light of his father’s eye. And of course, this makes him a bit of a spoiled brat. How do we know this? Take this quote:
He was tending the flocks with his brothers; he was an assistant to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah, and he brought his father bad reports about them.
Doesn’t that just sound like a spoiled teen? Thinking he’s king of the world and tattling on his brothers. There’s more. Joseph also had dreams. These dreams supposedly tell the future and he was not too shy to tell futures where he was the top dog. Needless to say he caused much resentment within the family. The Bible plays Joseph as a bit of an innocent and his brothers as jealous brutes, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that young Joseph stoked these fires when he had a chance. Nobody is that stupid. Read:
“Listen to this dream I had. There we were, binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf rose to an upright position, and your sheaves formed a ring around my sheaf and bowed down to it.” “Are you really going to make yourself king over us?” his brothers asked him. “Or impose your rule on us?” So they hated him all the more because of his talk about his dreams. Then he had another dream, and this one, too, he told to his brothers. “I had another dream,” he said; “this time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
If that isn’t a teenage boy lording his greatness over his siblings I don’t know what is. Even his father Israel/Jacob took him to task for his constant dreams of grandeur.
When he also told it to his father, his father reproved him. “What is the meaning of this dream of yours?” he asked. “Can it be that I and your mother and your brothers are to come and bow to the ground before you?”
But regardless of his faults, his father loved him best of all the sons. Arrogant and best-loved is a combination that humanity is not able to endure. In others, anyway. Then his father made him a coat or tunic, some versions say of many colors, others say a long one, but all imply it was a special gift that only made his brothers angrier.
Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him.
Does Jacob bear some guilt in this estrangement? Certainly! But which of us has not played favorites from time to time. Which of us has never instilled some jealousy in our children? We parents try. Oh, how we try, but we fail so often. Jacob was human and he committed the one act that proves his humanity; he screwed up in dealing with those he loved. It’s a club we have all joined before, and one in which we all will certainly continue paying dues.
Jacob sends Joseph to find the other sons who are out tending flocks near Shechem to see how they are doing. Having Joseph checking up on their work cannot but anger them further, and sure enough when they see him coming they lay a trap for him.
They said to one another: “Here comes that master dreamer! Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here; we could say that a wild beast devoured him. We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”
Now legend and other sources say it was Simeon who urged his brothers on, but the Bible doesn’t say who wanted him dead the most. However, it does say who wanted to protect him, Reuben. The very same son who slept with his father’s concubine. Vaguely incestuous adultery is fine, but he draws the line at murder. Hey, for the Bible that’s pretty good.
When Reuben heard this, he tried to save him from their hands, saying: “We must not take his life. Instead of shedding blood,” he continued, “just throw him into that cistern there in the desert; but don’t kill him outright.” His purpose was to rescue him from their hands and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came up to them, they stripped him of the long tunic he had on; then they took him and threw him into the cistern, which was empty and dry.
Reuben must have left when the rest of the boys sat down and thought on what to do with their arrogant little brother. They were pondering the matter when a caravan of Ishmaelites went by on their way to Egypt. An idea popped into Judah’s head.
Judah said to his brothers: “What is to be gained by killing our brother and concealing his blood? Rather, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.
Ah, brotherly love. Just hits you right in the heart, doesn’t it? It would be cruel to kill our own blood, so let’s be kinder and just sell him into slavery. Quite the family. But I shouldn’t be too harsh on them though. Even I have to admit wanting to sell my brother into slavery in my youth. Could I have? Nooo! Damn liberals! Always taking away our freedoms. So Joseph is on his free trip to Egypt and the Boys are celebrating their good fortune. They rid themselves of their primary irritation and got paid to boot. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together. Ah, but not everyone was pleased.
When Reuben went back to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not in it, he tore his clothes, and returning to his brothers, he exclaimed: “The boy is gone! And I–where can I turn?”
There is a true anguish here that is believable. Reuben is frantic and perhaps riddled with guilt. But you will notice that it’s not enough to make him go and rescue Joseph. It’s not like he couldn’t have found they caravan again. The guilt also wasn’t enough to force Reuben to confess to what they had done. In the end they do what most human beings do when the screw up royally. They cover it up.
Dipping Joseph’s multicolored coat in goat’s blood to simulate an animal attack, not daring to bring it themselves, they send it to their father with the message, “We found this. See whether it is your son’s tunic or not.”
Jacob is heartbroken. He rends his clothes and dons a sackcloth. His is the realistic grief of a father. I can’t but feel sympathy for the pain he must have suffered.
Though his sons and daughters tried to console him, he refused all consolation, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in the nether world.” Thus did his father lament him.
I have to wonder what the brothers were thinking at this time? Were feelings of guilt for their crime accumulating? Did seeing their father suffer so give them second thoughts? Not much is said now but as the story progresses guilt eats at them.
The Midianites, meanwhile, sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward.
Thus we begin Joseph’s long stay in Egypt and his father’s long mourning period. It’s a great story.
I have a few things to note here. You will notice that both his sons and daughters tried to console him. Who are these other women? Aside from the rape victim, Dinah, there were no other women mentioned. Ever. Are these actual daughters or just daughter-in-laws? The Bibles noticeable lack of named women makes it hard to even know. My guess is that there were many daughters who simply did not merit a name because they just didn’t matter to the Patriarchy. It’s hard to admire a group who cast at least half of their number into such subservient roles that we aren’t even aware of them at all.
You have to wonder how much this has held us to our sexist course in the three millennia since. Had we worshipped a different god back then, how much different would we be now? How much better?
And as further food for thought what if we had worshipped no god? how much farther ahead would our species have lunged? What stars could we have explored? Oh, the places we could have seen!