Gen. 37 – Joseph the Dreamer
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 9, 2006
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you. Today we are looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers. Since it is a long and important story, I’m going to skip my normal chatting about current events and launch right in. This is one of the most familiar stories in the OT, in part because of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical titled “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which is a favorite of my wife and children. The trouble with familiar stories, though, is that we sometimes overlook what the original text actually says.
So, over the next few of weeks, we’ll look closely at this marvelous story of sibling rivalry, big dreams, attempted murder, slavery, sexual harassment, false imprisonment, political intrigue, famine, deception, redemption, and reconciliation. My wife told a co-worker that last week’s lesson was on rape, terrorism, and political intrigue, and the co-worker said that she hated it when Sunday School teachers just talked about current events. My wife let her know that I was teaching about Genesis. The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it remains so current. That is very true of the Joseph saga.
Overview of the Story: You probably know the outline of the Joseph saga, but let me repeat it in order to orient you to the story. Joseph was chosen by his father, Jacob, to be the head of the household. His brothers were so jealous they got rid of him and lied to their father about his death. Jacob was sold as a slave in Egypt. Through hard work, intelligence, and trustworthiness he rose to a position of power and authority. But his good looks got him in trouble with his master’s wife and he was thrown into prison. His skill at interpreting dreams was noticed by government officials who presented him to Pharaoh. Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and gave sound advice on how to deal with an upcoming famine. During the famine, the Egyptians had food, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain without knowing that they were dealing with their old brother. Joseph played with them for a while before he revealed himself and was reconciled to his family. Throughout the story, there is a theme that God is working behind the scenes to work his will in the world.
Exegetical Notes: Before reading the first part of this long saga, there are some scholarly notes that might be helpful to you in interpreting. The Joseph story was probably written down during the days of King David or Solomon, and it appears that it may have originated in Egypt. It has a number of parallels with an Egyptian story called the Tale of Two Brothers, which is also known as the myth of Bata and Anubis. That story includes the reversal of fortune of a shepherd who is falsely accused of rape but who rises to great heights. The biggest difference between the Joseph saga and the Egyptian myth is that the Egyptian tale is really about two deities rather than human beings. There has been a debate for two centuries over which was the original story. We can’t give a definite answer ince we do not know for sure when the Joseph story was recorded.
Walter Brueggemann asserts that the Joseph narrative “is distinguished in every way from the narratives dealing with Abraham and Jacob” (Genesis 288). The earlier stories involved direct encounters with God, but in the Joseph cycle all communication is in the form of dreams. Archaeologists in the 20th century discovered a large number of texts from the Nuzi and Mari people in Syria dating to 2000 BC. Some of those texts discuss dreams and interpretations in ways similar to the Joseph story. One of things we learn from those texts is that the dreamer should not interpret his or her own dreams. There were dreamers and there were interpreters. The Joseph story is odd in that he is both a dreamer and an interpreter. We will return to this theme of dreams later.
History of the story: We can be fairly certain that this story in Genesis has a long history. There were many additions to the original story, and now it runs for 12 chapters. It appears that an early version of the Joseph saga was written down in the days of Solomon and was used in the education of government officials. As we shall see, Joseph was the model bureaucrat: hard-working, honest, and incorruptible. But the Joseph saga also reflects the concerns of the sages of Israel and should be considered part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible. It raises the question of justice in a profound way, and asks how the wise man responds to adversity. The answer given in this tale is more encouraging than the book of Job, but it reflects the same kind of questioning among the intelligentsia.
At some point after the time of Solomon, the Joseph saga was incorporated in the story of the patriarchs even though it is much different in style and themes. The final author of Genesis, perhaps the scribe Ezra, took this wisdom tale and added other stories of the patriarchs to it. He also added material that explained how the Israelites came to be enslaved in Egypt. The Joseph saga serves as a transition to the book of Exodus. The themes of Joseph are different from the earlier stories, which dealt with the mysteries of faith and God’s covenant. The Joseph story deals with ethics, faithfulness in exile, and the mysteries of Providence. I’ll be ready a simplified version of the story that is probably close to the original version from the days of Solomon.
The Coat: The story begins with Joseph as a 17 year old boy living with his father and brothers. Joseph was one of two sons of Rachel, and we saw earlier that it took years for Rachel to have children. So Joseph was born to Jacob when he was growing old by the standards of the day. Jacob was probably about 55 and retired when Joseph began having his dreams. We don’t know for sure why Jacob preferred Joseph to his older sons. The context implies that the pillaging of Shechem played a role in Jacob’s preference for Joseph. It is also likely that Jacob considered Rachel his one true wife and treated her sons preferentially. It is possible that Jacob recognized Joseph’s intelligence and charm. Moreover, having been the last-born son, Jacob may have had sympathy for Joseph and preferred him over the more legitimate heirs. Most likely all of these things figured in Jacob’s preference for Joseph.
We aren’t told much about the adolescent Joseph, but what we are told is not very positive. He was a snitch who gave his father bad reports about his brothers. He was so disliked by his brothers that they would not even talk to him. It appears that things were so bad that Joseph started hanging around the tents with Jacob rather than going out in the fields working like the others. In some ways he reminds us of the young Jacob hanging onto his mother’s skirts and usurping his brother’s place, but in this case it was the father who made Joseph special. In the long run, Jacob was correct about Joseph, but in the short run his preferential treatment nearly killed his favorite son.
Jacob showed his love for Joseph by giving him a special coat. Translators have debated for centuries over just what kind of coat it was. The only other time that this particular Hebrew word is used in the Bible is to describe coats worn by the virgin daughters of King David. This has led some commentators to claim that Jacob dressed Joseph up like a girl! This might be good news for transvestites, but I doubt that this is what the author intended. The Greek version of the OT, which was used as the basis for the Latin Vulgate, translated the Hebrew as a multi-colored coat. Most of the Protestant translators during the Reformation did the same. Today a multi-colored coat does not sound like much of a gift. You can buy a coat of many colors at any discount store, but in ancient times, dyes were very expensive. Beautifully dyed cloth was very expensive. A coat of many colors would have been a fabulous gift in an age when people owned one or two sets of clothes.
Many modern translators dispute the claim that Jacob gave his son a coat of many colors. The consensus among modern translators is that this was really a coat of long sleeves. That may be accurate, but it is not certain. One thing is certain. That translation lacks poetry and zest. No one would write a musical titled Joseph and the Amazing Coat with Long Sleeves. Let’s not pass too quickly over the significance of the long sleeves. They probably covered Joseph’s hands, which meant that this was a coat for an overseer, not a worker. I’m willing to be open-minded, though. Let’s assume that Jacob gave Joseph a coat with long sleeves that was also multi-colored! Jacob was not simply identifying Joseph as his favorite son; he was to be the leader of the clan. And the brothers hated that fact.
The Dreams Joseph was a dreamer. We all have dreams when we sleep, and you know that dreams are difficult things. How do you tell if someone is reporting a dream or simply trying to convince you of something? Where is the line between dreams and wishful thinking? It is interesting that in Genesis, it is Joseph who reports his dreams rather than the narrator. The text leaves us with the ambiguity inherent in all dream reports. Another problem with dreams is that we forget most of our dreams as soon as we wake up. But there are a few that are so evocative that we must tell others. Sometimes we need someone to provide an explanation of the symbolism of the dreams that makes sense to us. The interpretation of the dream gives you an insight into what is going on in your life now. It can even help shape the future if the dream affects your decisions.
Joseph’s dreams are like our dreams in many ways. We are told about two dreams. In one his sheaf of grain rose higher than the others, and his brother’s sheaves all bowed down to it. In the other the sun, moon, and stars all bowed to him. Some dreams! I think we can safely say that young Joseph thought rather highly of himself. The interpretation seems fairly clear, but notice that it was Joseph’s family that supplied the interpretation of these dreams. They are the ones who believe that Joseph is planning to take over leadership of the tribe.
Young Joseph was a dreamer. Clearly the gift of the special coat had made him a bit arrogant and ambitious. His real problem wasn’t his ambition, though; it was his foolishness. These are not the kind of dreams that you tell people. “Hey, Dad, I just dreamed that you and mom and all the family are going to bow down to me.” What did Joseph expect the family to do? Jacob was not happy with his dreams, but his reaction is more thoughtful than hostile. There is a touch of pride in his son. But the brothers were already angry at their arrogant kid brother. The dreams push them too far. It was not a good idea to tell them that he was going to be their master one day. You’d think Joseph would have learned something from his family’s history. Brothers try to kill brothers.
The Attack The brothers had moved with the flocks to Shechem. The geography of the Joseph saga is a bit confusing. It wonders over much of ancient Palestine, which probably indicates that different parts of the story came from different parts of Israel. In any case, Jacob had to send Joseph to find his brothers and work with them. Apparently he had stayed behind, yet again, because they were angry at him. According to the text, the brothers were debating among themselves about what to do about the dreamer with the fancy clothes. They decided on a desperate and evil plan. They will kill the dreamer. People still do this sort of thing, you know.
The sons of Jacob were not unanimous in their violence against Joseph. It is a little confusing because two different versions are blended here, but one of the brothers intervened to save Joseph by cunning. In one version it was Judah who rescued Joseph. He convinced his brothers that it would be better to sell Joseph as a slave to some Ishmaelites in the area. This way Joseph will be alive and the brothers will profit from their mischief. Judah is at best a half-hero in this story. We learn more about Judah in chapter 38.
In the other version, it was Reuben who saved Joseph. He convinced his brothers to throw Joseph in a pit. He planned to come back secretly and rescue the boy and restore him to his father. The brothers liked the pit idea because they could eat next to the pit listening to the cries of their brother beneath them. It made them feel strong and powerful to have Joseph at their mercy. But before Reuben could complete his plan, some Midianites stole Joseph out of the pit and carried him off as a slave. I like the Reuben version better myself. Reuben should be the patron saint for all who do good deeds that go awry.
The net result is the same in both versions of the story, though. Joseph was taken into slavery in Egypt because of the hatred of his brothers. This foreshadows the later enslavement of the Israelites, but it also gave a message for the Israelites later. Conflict between the tribes will lead to the enslavement of them all.
Tricking Jacob: In our story for today, the brothers succeeded in their plan. They had removed Joseph. The dreamer with the coat was dead to them. It always baffles me, but people honestly think that you can solve a problem by getting rid of the person that represents the problem. People kill their spouses or ex-spouses because they are lonely and in pain. Disguntled employees try to remove their co-workers. Stalin believed that if you have a problem with a person, eliminate the person and the problem disappears. Over 20 million persons died as a result of this kind of thinking. The Nazis believed that the Final Solution to Germany’s problems would be to eliminate the Jews. The Catholic Church tried to solve its problems in the 15th century by killing Hus and his followers. The Roman Empire tried to exterminate Christians because they thought Christians. It is a long story that goes back to Cain.
But murder does not really solve problems; it creates more problems. Violence certainly does not restore relationships because death is not the end of the matter. It is only in movies and comic books that the story ends with the death of the villain. In real life, we have to deal with the results. Someone had to clean up the bodies and rule Denmark after the end of Hamlet. In our tale this morning, the sons of Jacob had to tell their father that Joseph was no more.
They took the beautiful coat that he had given his son, and they soaked it in goat’s blood. Now it was distinguished only by the fact that it was red. Jacob, who had paid so much for tricking his own father, suffered the indignity of being cruelly tricked by his own sons. His grief is palpable. Like many grieving parents, Jacob is eager to die to be with his lost son. He will grieve for him even in Sheol. I wonder what the sons of Jacob thought as they watched this grief. Did it confirm their hatred of Joseph or did it soften their callous and selfish hearts?
Conclusion: What did the sons of Jacob hope to gain in getting rid of their brother? They wanted their father to love them as much as he loved the son of Rachel, but instead of gaining Jacob’s love they broke their father’s heart. Rather than being free of Joseph, the brothers would live the rest of their lives under his shadow. Joseph’s dreams had been already fulfilled. Though absent, he became the dominant figure in his brother’s lives. His father bowed down, but in grief. The brothers hoped to put an end to Joseph’s story, but this is just the beginning. Eventually, the sons of Jacob would have to kneel before the brother they had plotted against, and they would learn the meaning of mercy. But that is a tale for another day.