Jacob's Descendants

We often think of Genesis 37-50 as the story of Joseph but, as 37:2 makes clear, these chapters are about the descendants of Jacob, not just one of them.

The drama of this story revolves around the conflict between the brothers. We also tend to see Joseph as an innocent victim and his brothers as the guilty party.

Once again, the Bible will reveal that matters are more complex and subtle than this. Scholars rate this story a gem of OT storytelling art. It is more of a whole piece than the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, rather like a short novel.

There are similarities with the post-exilic stories of Esther, Daniel and Judith, who all rise from obscurity or oppression to do great things in a foreign setting. Such stories would have given heart to Jews in the diaspora.

Joseph’s Dreams

OT stories love developing their plots in three stages: it provides a manageable framework as well as scope for a storyteller. In ch. 37, we have three reports of conflict in Jacob’s family.

The first is brief and ambivalent—Joseph brings an ill report about his brothers (is he telling tales or telling the truth?). The second is more charged—Jacob favours Joseph with special clothing, generally a bad move in a big family.

The third stage reports Joseph’s two dreams of the younger ruling his elders—a flashpoint that draws hostile questions from his brothers, their first words in the story.

The second dream even draws a rebuke from his father (v. 10). The plot of the story is under way: will Joseph’s dreams come true and will the conflict between the brothers be resolved? How will their conflict affect the doting but insensitive Jacob?

When Joseph, alone and exposed, is sent to his brothers by Jacob, they decide to act. Audiences know that Joseph escapes their evil plan; otherwise end of the tribe of Joseph! One’s interest lies therefore in learning how Joseph ‘escapes’ death.

This unfolds in two related moves. One develops the complexity of the brothers’ ‘portrait’; Reuben and Judah seek to avoid bloodshed, revealing that the brothers are not all bad.

This will become important later. The second introduces the ‘chance’ factor; Ishmaelite and Midianite traders happen to pass by and remove Joseph from his brothers’ grasp.

One cannot help but wonder where the hand of God, not mentioned at all in this chapter, might be in this apparent ‘chance’.

The chapter ends with a telling irony: despite the brothers’ efforts to bury the memory of Joseph, Jacob remains inconsolable.

His mourning means the brothers are continually haunted by their lie and by Joseph. Something has to give—eventually.

Joseph: Interpreter of Dreams

Genesis 38 provides a pause with an independent story about Judah. He behaves badly towards his daughter-in-law Tamar but, like other women in Genesis, she gets the better of him and makes him an honest man.

Will the ‘Judah’ in the story of Joseph and his brothers undergo a similar transformation?

The main story resumes in Genesis 39. Joseph’s dreams were instrumental in his ‘descent’ into prison in Egypt: his ability to interpret others’ dreams enables him to ‘rise’ to high office in Egypt.

The chapter emphasises that through it all God is with him—to what ultimate purpose? Joseph the ‘Egyptian’ governor is the first Israelite to be portrayed as a saviour of the world.

When 41:57 says ‘all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain’ during the famine one cannot help but recall 12:2-3. Among those seeking sustenance in Egypt are his brothers.

Joseph may save the world from the famine but it is Israel (12 tribes), not Joseph alone, who is chosen for God’s mission. The logic of the story requires reconciliation between the brothers: the interest in the story is how this comes about. How it comes about is surprising, to say the least.

When reading about the meetings between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, it is important to keep in mind that Joseph knows them whereas they do not know him. For them, he is a foreign potentate who holds their lives in his hands.

The story has Joseph arrange a series of concealed strategies that seem designed to test his brothers’ honesty and loyalty—in particular to Benjamin, the youngest son, the father’s favourite, the only other son of Rachel. Have the brothers changed? If not, can they change and meet Joseph’s challenge? Is his strategy aimed at reconciliation?

Final Reconciliation

There is a hopeful sign in Reuben, especially his response to Joseph’s demand for Benjamin (cf. 42:21-22, 37-38). More hopeful signs appear in Judah’s generous gesture in 42:8-10, and in the way all the brothers return to face Joseph in solidarity with Benjamin (cf. 44:6-13).

In all this, Joseph appears to be the noble, wronged, son while his brothers are the flawed sons who need to change.

Judah’s impassioned plea for Benjamin in 44:18-34 turns the tables on this. Quite unwittingly, he exposes a disturbing side of Joseph: the reader realises that Joseph has knowingly traded his aged father’s life in favour of his demand to see Benjamin (cf. 44:22-23).

Judah shows more concern for his father than Joseph by offering himself in place of Benjamin (vv. 33-34). It is something of a shock to realise that Joseph is also in need of healing and reconciliation.

Joseph reveals his identity in 45:1-3. Does he do so because of the impact of Judah’s selfless gesture or does love and anxiety for his father triumph over his desire to see his strategy succeed?

The text is tantalisingly silent. Perhaps we should say, echoing Joseph’s own words in 45:5, that God’s strategy has worked its subtle purpose through the intrigues and adventures of the brothers. And, as the verse states, God’s purpose is ‘to preserve life’.

The remaining chapters of Genesis tell how Joseph brought the family of Jacob/Israel to Egypt, about Jacob’s final blessings and death.

Reconciliation in the family has been achieved but, as with Jacob and Esau, it remains fragile (50:15-21). The book draws to a close on a somewhat sombre note.


Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney