Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It was not you that sent me hither, but God (Gen 37)

I'm sure the legions of regular readers (all three of them) have been wondering when I'm going to post again. Sorry, I've really been busy with a lot of stuff, and I hate the fact that I've gone from posting pretty much every day to about once a week. I'm going to try to be more regular in this, but no promises. After all, I should have been through Genesis by now at the rate I started, and I'd rather not take years and years to get to the relatively easy SAB notes on Revelation 22.

So, as I've been looking forward to, this is the story of Joseph, who is a major character in the Bible, a major player in Israelite history, and the person whose story will see us out of this book into Egypt to set up for the main event of the Torah, the Exodus.

Joseph has a few things going on with him that set him up for trouble. He's his father's favorite son which is no secret to his brothers at all, a bit of a tattletale which never makes for popularity, and he has what may or may not be an inflated sense of his own importance. Due to his dream and due to the way Joseph is generally treated in the midst of trouble, I think the SAB is right in saying that Joseph is also God's favorite among the brothers. Joseph is an interesting fellow, though, in that he is one of the few major characters in the Bible that the Bible never says anything bad about. Well, at least no outright sins are mentioned, we see later that he's a bit of trickster like his father, but he doesn't use it to his own advantage particularly. There seems to be good reason for him to be the favorite.

Joseph has some dreams that seem to be indicating that some day, all of his family will come to him and bow before him. This is pretty much the only time his father gets angry at him, rebuking, "Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?" (This actually brings up a point that the SAB probably should take notice of, at least for the sake of giving us food for thought. Joseph's mother is dead. One might wonder what Jacob means by this rebuke, and whether the dream is fully coherent in its symbolism. I always note, however that despite Joseph's reputation as a dream interpreter, he never attempts to explain these two dreams himself.)

So one day, Israel sends Joseph off to check out what his brothers are doing, and tell on them if they're doing anything they shouldn't be. Turns out they're not where they said they would be, so Joseph has to track them down.

When he approaches them, they see him coming, and get the idea that they should kill him. After all, they will hardly have to someday bow down to Joseph if he's dead, right? The original plan is to kill him, and then just toss the body into a hole in the ground so he won't even have the dignity of a proper funeral.

Reuben, the eldest, seems to have enough of his head about him to realize this is not a good idea, so he tells his brothers, "Let's just toss him in a pit without hurting him," implying that maybe they could just let him starve to death in a hole in the ground and not actually directly cause his death themselves. Of course, he's thinking he'll just come back and get Joseph out of the hole later, either out of pity, or perhaps in hopes that he'll gain some favor with his father indirectly through Joseph. So Joseph ends up in the pit, and the brothers take a lunch.

While they're lunching, some traveling merchants come by. They were either Ishmaelites or Midianites; the story is very garbled about it. In fact, this garbling is a bit of a problem, and part of the problem is that it's not clear exactly what type of problem it is. Is it a contradiction as the SAB says? Is it an anachronism, as any "Ishmaelites" at this time would be cousins, and probably wouldn't be referred to in that way? Or is it a technical inaccuracy due to a tendency to call people from a particular area by a certain name whether they're of that tribe or not? I'm inclined towards the latter, both because it's the least of the three errors (and therefore selfishly the most appealing to the apologist!) and because Judges 8:22, 24 suggests that "Ishmaelites" and "Midianites" were somewhat interchangeable terms even in times far removed to the future.

Judah suggests to his brothers that rather than killing Joseph, they could sell him to the merchants as a slave. Maybe he wants to make some money, or maybe he's thinking, "Well, sure, selling your half-brother into slavery isn't the best thing in the world, but it's not as bad as murder, right?" As a child, I always thought this was a bit of irony in that the brothers as a group wanted Joseph dead, but at least two of them as individuals didn't think he deserved it; failing to speak their minds, Judah's plan to save Joseph unwittingly messes up Reuben's much better plan that he didn't know about. Somehow Reuben is not present when this plan is carried out, an oddity that admittedly leaves the suggestion that some scholars no doubt favor that this story, with its confusion over Midianites/Ishmaelites and Reuben/Judah trying to save Joseph's life in a sneaky manner is actually two (or more) oral traditions woven together imperfectly. I'm willing to admit this is also a possibility, as I discussed way back at the beginning. The essential irony of the story in the end is, in Joseph's words to his brothers, " thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good..."

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