The story of Joseph (Gen 37–50) is a family drama. And like so many family dramas, from Wes Anderson films to Inception, the focus is on redemption and reconciliation. All of the action that takes place serves only to move the characters into the right place—both locationally and mentally—to confront their past mistakes and each other. Certainly, there are enough family members that need redemption.
But—even though none of the characters is a hero and all of them have serious flaws (yes, even Joseph!)—the blame rests most heavily on Jacob. Jacob, after all, is the father. And in a patriarchal system as they lived in, it is the father who sets the tone for the family. While many things may be uncertain in Joseph’s story one thing that isn’t is that Jacob is a bad father.
The strange and sad thing is this: Jacob being a bad father isn’t unexpected. You don’t have to read the Bible for very long to realize how many bad fathers are contained in its pages and how much it must be to be a good father. Even the Bible’s heroes, those men who were so often courageous, faithful, and sure seem to have a hard time passing down their good qualities to their sons. And that says nothing for those fathers who seem to cultivate their children’s sin, themselves!
Think about it. Abraham’s choices to procure his own safety in the house of a foreign monarch (Gen 12; 20) is followed by Isaac’s choice of the same (Gen 26). And although Isaac was not yet born at the time of his father’s sinful choices, it is hard to imagine him not being influenced by them.
Isaac’s decision to show incredible favoritism to Esau at the detriment of his younger son, Jacob (Gen 27), certainly influenced Jacob’s own incredible favoritism to Joseph at the detriment of his older sons (Gen 37). Just as Esau sought to kill Jacob because of his treatment, Joseph’s brother’s seek to kill him because of his treatment.
Moses’ entire family is placed in mortal peril because he did not take his faith seriously enough to circumcise his son (Exd 4.24–31).
The last judge and high priest, Eli, raised his sons so poorly that the Bible records that they were “worthless men” who “did not know the LORD”! (1 Sam 2.12). Instead of serving the people as priests, they saw their position as a way to serve themselves (1 Sam 2.12–17). Eli knew about it, but did nothing (1 Sam 2.22–25).
Even David, a “man after God’s own heart,” fails, indulging in favoritism like Jacob and refusing to judge the wickedness of his children like Eli (2 Sam 13).
No, we don’t have to read the Bible for very long to realize how hard it must be to be a father. And perhaps some of us have had fathers like these.
On the other hand, there are constant recognitions of good fatherhood, as well. Paul records:
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Ths 2.9–12).
The apostle John certainly sees himself as a father—and one not like Eli or David!—when he warns those Christians he knew, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols!” (1 John 5.21).
Jesus notes that no father, if his son asks for a fish, would give him a serpent (Luke 11.11).
When we read the many statements like these, we recognize something about fatherhood: the most important thing isn’t just being a friend, or offering sage advice, or teaching you how to fix a car. It’s serving the LORD and providing an example to children and encouraging them to do the same. It’s for this reason that we read (from the perspective of Jesus), “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through suffering” (Heb 5.8).
Once we see that is the lens that the NT provides for seeing OT fatherhood, we may better understand the faithfulness of Abraham when he was willing to sacrifice his son because he was a true son of his heavenly father (Gen 22). As the writer of Hebrews records:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11.17–19).
Abraham’s faith was seen that he trusted that God might even raise his son from the dead and thus receive him back, even if it was the only way that would happen. That was Abraham’s moment of faith, and—it seems—the moment as a father that influenced Isaac’s own faith as well.
At this point you might be saying, “Ok, but what does this have to do with Jacob and Genesis 43?!” Good question! You see, it’s this same idea—that a father might receive back a lost son from the dead in resurrection, even if in no other way—that we find a hint and a hope for Jacob, as well.
In Genesis 43, Jacob (like Abraham thought, before him) has been bereaved of his beloved “son of old age” (Joseph) for years. He is certain that he is dead and may even think that his other sons had killed him. And yet, when he sends Benjamin down to Egypt along with Judah to procure more food, notice what he says:
May God Almighty grant you mercy before that man in charge in Egypt, and may he send back your other brother as well as Benjamin (Gen 43.14).
This statement is ambiguous because it could mean two entirely different things. The “he” can refer either to Joseph (the “man in charge”) or it can refer to God (who will grant mercy). The phrase, the “other brother,” is ambiguous as well. If we think the “he” is Joseph, then the “other brother” is Simeon, who Joseph has locked in prison until they return (Gen 42.24). But, if the “he” is God, then Jacob speaks more truly than he knows, because—in Genesis 37–50—the “other brother” is always Joseph. It’s like what the brother’s say when speaking to Joseph, “the youngest is with our father, and the other is no more” (42.13), or “We are twelve brothers, sons of our father, the other is no more…” (42.32).
And this is what’s interesting. Jacob thinks Joseph is dead. He may even think that the brothers killed him. But the Joseph story isn’t written down by Jacob or Joseph or anyone there. They’re not the author. Someone else is. And that author is doing something more than telling a story about Joseph (or even about Judah). And that author can play around with the words of the characters in such a way as to teach his readers—living long after everyone living in these stories is dead!—particular things. And, by bringing up this ambiguity, we see that “particular thing” revealed is resurrection.
You see, the story of Joseph is a family drama. God has moved the pieces around—the plot, the characters, the famine, everything—in order to bring about redemption and reconciliation of the family. Joseph to his brothers and the brothers to Joseph. The brothers to their father and Jacob to his sons. But not only those. Because the story of Joseph is also about the reconciliation and redemption of all of those sons to their heavenly father. And that father is always longing to welcome his sinful children home:
But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us eat and celebrate! For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15.22–24).