YEAR A: SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
(Sunday between August 7 and August 13)
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
The saga of Joseph is a well-constructed narrative, deliberately woven into the book of Genesis as part of the writer’s story of Israel’s part in God’s work with creation. It plays an important role in linking the story of Jacob with the story of the Exodus.
The story of Joseph and his brothers may not have originated in the same place or time as other Genesis narratives. It has a different style, is one long continuous narrative rather than a series of different scenes, and introduces some new theological and literary themes. On the other hand it has been carefully interwoven with the other Genesis materials so that certain themes and character traits persist.
The Joseph story need not have been associated with a time when the ancestors of later Israel were resident in Egypt. There are no historical or geographical signposts in the story which point the reader to a particular time in Egyptian history. It may have even been written much later than the time it speaks about and be more concerned with those later periods of captivity of Israel, especially the time of exile in Babylon. In any event it is a good story, containing many levels of theological and moral value.
We read only two passages from the Joseph story in the lectionary. Today’s reading is from the beginning of the story and relates the tensions within Jacob’s now grown-up family, tensions that result in plots of murder and further deception. Next week’s reading (Gen 45:1-15) comes from toward the end of the Joseph story and sees the reconciliation of the brothers. The focus in our lectionary readings is, thus, very much on the struggles between the brothers. The actual captivity in a foreign land with all its attendant issues is passed over.
In our lectionary readings we have quickly passed over the end of the Jacob story where Jacob met up with his brother Esau. He had been in fear of that encounter, given his past action toward his brother (Gen 33:1-3). However, Jacob finds that his brother has come in some level of peace, greeting him with a kiss and weeping and saying that he is satisfied with the lot he has had in life (vv. 4-11). There is possibly still some level of tension in this final meeting. Esau suggests they travel together (v. 12) and suggests he leave some of his people with Jacob (v. 15) whether for protection or surveillance is not stated. In the end, however, the brothers go their separate ways (vv. 16-17). One has the feeling that even at the end of their story these brothers act largely in self-interest.
In Genesis 37 we are introduced to Joseph as the favourite son of his father Jacob (or Israel). This is no minor issue because Joseph is the son of Rachel, his father’s favourite wife. Thus the story opens with a theme that is already familiar to us – favouritism, family division and dissention. It is not long before tension arises between Joseph and his brothers. He gives an ill report of them to their father (v. 2). His father, in turn, is said to love him more than the others (v. 3) and favours him with a special coat (one with long sleeves, not multi-coloured as tradition has it). This leads to hatred between the siblings (v 4). There are of course similarities with earlier stories in Genesis, especially the divisions between Isaac and Ishmael (Gen 21:8-14), Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25 and 27), all of which are traced back to parental favouritism. The brothers are further enraged when Joseph has dreams in which the whole family bows down to him (cf. vv. 5, 8, 11). The stage is set for the dramatic events to follow.
Jacob sends Joseph to find his brothers who are looking after their father’s flocks in Shechem. When he finds them, they are in an even more isolated area, with no one else around. Their envy gets the better of them and they seize the opportunity to get rid of this annoying young brother. There are actually two accounts of what happens present in the final story, somewhat awkwardly woven together. The first has the brothers plotting to kill Joseph and then throwing him into a pit. They will tell Jacob a wild animal has eaten Joseph. This plot is foiled by the eldest brother Reuben, who persuades them not to kill Joseph, but to just leave him in the pit. The narrator says Reuben intended to come back later and rescue his brother. So when Joseph arrived, they threw him into the pit and left him there. Then comes the second story. As the brothers were eating (and Reuben was presumably absent) Judah persuades them not to kill Joseph, but to sell him to some Midianite traders. So they sell him for twenty pieces of silver.
The ambiguity in the story has naturally led to explanations of two versions having been combined. But another explanation of how to read the final narrative may have weight. Later in the story when Joseph meets his brothers again in Egypt and reveals his identity to them he says: ‘Now it was not you who sent me here, but God’ (Gen 45:8). It could be, as some scholars have suggested, that the blurring of events in terms of how Joseph reached Egypt in a state of slavery, serves to prepare for the later point that there has been a divine agency at work here, albeit behind the scenes. In the end the means of transport is not as important as understanding Joseph’s slide into slavery and servitude as the prelude to his later rise to power. The latter is made all the more dramatic.
This is where today’s reading ends, with Joseph sold into Egypt. We have heard enough about Jacob’s twelve sons to know that they have inherited some of their father’s character faults – deception of an aging father for gain is no more beyond these brothers than it was beyond their father himself (cf. Genesis 27). There is a great deal of irony here. Moreover, the theme of the younger surpassing the older is again apparent – prefigured in Jacob’s favouritism here but to be demonstrated more fully later in Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. Somewhat amazingly God persists with this less than ideal crowd. Now, however, it seems that family themes are becoming national ones too.
The great saga will continue, moving the story of the twelve tribes into Egypt. The writers mean to show the divine purpose in Israel’s movement into Egypt. It is from there that God’s purpose for them will be fulfilled. On God’s command Jacob will take his descendants into Egypt, where they will meet the God who will redeem them, restore them, and give to them the promised land. Through the many twists and turns in their history, and their perilous journey through the wilderness, they will find that God remains with them. This persistent presence is not the result of any righteousness on this family’s part. We have abundant evidence of their less than righteous behaviour in both the Jacob and Joseph stories. It is solely at the prerogative of the one who makes the promise that it will be fulfilled.
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