Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Joseph Group

Joseph doesn’t have to be a group. The story that takes up most of the end of Genesis is plausible and coherent read as straight history. There is no need to interpret Joseph as a composite; but there is an advantage.

The descendants of the Abraham Group reacted badly, even criminally, to the series of minor droughts and famines of the time. They cheated and warred with each other, even selling their own relatives into slavery. They were not far removed from generations that practiced human sacrifice, and the whole depressing mess with Lot, Jacob and Esau, Laban, Rebecca – the whole crew, really – is a collection of unattractive characters, only intermittently faithful. I will handle that group on its own, but for now it is enough to remember that God choosing that group must have seemed pretty unlikely to everyone around, including the family itself. No one seems to get along, and tribal loyalty is an obligation everyone tries to get out of and abuse if they can. This bunch is not reminiscent of great conquerors and wise men from the east, but of those families that used to live on the edge of town, like the Herdmans. Outsiders can't tell whose kids are whose, and cousin-marriages aren't out of the question. The police are always coming because they're always fighting, and they leave junk around everywhere. Clearly, they were not chosen for their good qualities, but to illustrate God’s good qualities.

But they must have had something going for them, because the Joseph group, sold into slavery or arriving during famines like refugees in Egypt, managed to prosper and move into positions of authority. Even though we don’t have independent historical evidence for any Josephs who really wowed the pharaohs and ended up second-in-command, it’s quite possible. Even if the story is meant to be read as a composite Joseph, the elements are there: remain loyal to the god of your fathers, do not sin, the Lord will bestow wisdom and knowledge on you. You will not only survive, but prosper in the new land. You will be a mystical people of dreams and understanding. Stick together, sacrifice for each other.

The Joseph story teaches that favoritism among multiple wives and children is a dangerous thing, that sexual sin is a great dishonor to yourself and to others, and that lives can rise or fall on a single act of obedience or disobedience to God.


Anonymous said...

And of what even happened in the New Testament:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, the Jesus Seminar bills itself as the real deal, scholars following the evidence where it leads. I think they're mostly nuts. A few legitimate scholars, but their results were pretty predictable given their preconceptions. And I absolutely don't get this voting with colored marbles on whether a section is authentic or not. They're showboats. Much of the criticism of them is knee-jerk stuff, but there are very thoughtful critics as well, such as N.T. Wright.

karrde said...


The Joseph story is something of a refresher after the unremitting selfishness and blatant sinfulness of Jacob's other children. (Crimes include: adultery with one of father's concubines, visiting an apparent prostitute, murdering an entire town over an affront to a sister's honor, selling siblings into slavery...and no apparent judgement from God.)

The tale of Joseph shows an example of a man who seems bent in the direction of righteousness at every turn. Considering his background, it is easy to wonder how he gained that trait.

Curiously, when Joseph meets his brothers, some of his behavior looks like the rascalry, trickery, and sly-dealing that they visited upon each other and him.

But Joseph uses it to test them, and to show them that he won't take revenge, even when an opportunity for revenge is offered on the proverbial silver platter.

Whether Joseph was a real historical person, or a "hero of the faith" myth conglomerated out of several men, the story of Joseph is compelling.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

karrde - excellent. Thank you.