Genesis 37

The Joseph saga begins in this chapter; and with it not only a change in generational and locational foci but also one in storytelling methodology. For most of the rest of Genesis we will follow this character through a series of ups and downs – personal victories and defeats – set against his relations with his family and how that interplay results in further preparing the stage for the next book of the Torah, namely (of course) Exodus. Joseph is also written in a different sense than the three patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His narrative is one that is marked by a developing thread, a plotline that underlies the chapters and grants a certain unity and progress which is subtly distinct from the more episodic nature of the tales regarding the forebears. We also do not find much direct divine interaction: rather God’s/“God’s” “hand” is more of a guiding force in the background to the events than it is a noticeable cause of the events. This is quite intriguing from a theological point of view, and it readily offers up the question of “Could things have turned out otherwise?” to which the answer, it would seem, may declare very much about one’s outlook. If “Yes” then we have a deity – as on the “weak theology” we have been concerned with (see our entries for Genesis 2, 6, 16, and 29) – that needs to work with humanity in order for Its goals and objectives to be met; if “No” then we have a deity that operates – that employs, or establishes – fate as a non-negotiable factor ensuring that not only Its desired ends (broadly defined as such might be) are met but also Its very specific ones (necessarily narrow) as well. In the former the future is far more open even if we might think it gets a “nudge” now and then; in the latter it is closed and predetermined. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to each of these pictures, all of which are well worth meditating upon.

For the moment though we remain with our chapter: Joseph is the “chosen one” (à la the hero motif stretching from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker), the first son of his father’s favorite wife (Rachel), and in true poor parenting form Jacob is not shy about demonstrating this; nor, for his side and in equally true poor sibling form, is Joseph shy about reveling in it. (One wonders if the originators of this tale envisioned their Joseph enjoying a kind of Schadenfreude as he went out of his way to retell the dreams he has had wherein everyone “bows down” to him: verses five through ten.) Inevitably – again, great storytelling here – conflict arises out of this status, and in blinding jealousy Joseph’s brothers conspire to get rid of him: first by dumping him into a pit in the wilderness (verses twenty-three through twenty-four) and then – evidently not having cooled down – by selling him as slave labor to some passing merchants (verses twenty-seven through twenty-eight; never mind the confusing Ishmaelite/Midianite issue, this might be a combination of varying source materials). How they present his absence to their father, however, is cruelty itself:

37.31-33: “Then they [Joseph’s brothers] took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid [young goat], and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic [a gift from Jacob to Joseph] taken to their father, and they said, ‘We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?’ He recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’”

The tunic worn by Joseph was both a symbol and a taunt: it advertised that he alone had received such a present from their shared father, its being ornamented indicates that the clothing was furthermore likely expensive and thus strengthened the message of “beloved”, and by donning it so expressively Joseph was essentially throwing his superior status in his family members’ faces nonverbally, just as he had done orally with his dreams. Everyone knew this item; but what do the brothers do with it? Firstly (after setting their trap by bloodying it) they do not take it to their father themselves – “They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father” – this presumably by a servant, and hence cleverly distance themselves. Secondly they ask their father (we may imagine they arrive after or with the servant who is holding the tunic) to examine and identify it – this would be entirely unnecessary – as if it were unknown or undetermined, and thereby force the expression of Jacob’s sorrow which they appear to want to see, perhaps understanding it as their own triumph over both Joseph and Jacob. We are not told but they must have been satisfied with the response they obtained. The seed for all this, let us not forget, lies with Joseph himself in instigating the envy that became the basis for he and his brothers’ relationship. With doughty ethical life lessons like these it is no wonder that Genesis has been read and reread, and will continue to be reread: everything is in it. As for Joseph, moreover, we are only getting started.

No comments: