I’m going to tell you something shocking: Joseph is not a hero.
Well, ok, there are two misleading things in that statement. First of all, if you’ve known me for very long, taken my classes, or read more than one of my blogs, you probably aren’t shocked that I would say that Joseph isn’t a hero. But the second misleading thing about that statement is that I do think that Joseph becomes a hero. I just don’t think that he starts the story as a hero; he has to become one.
We all know how Joseph’s story begins in Genesis:
Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan and these are the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, a 17 year old, was shepherding the sheep with his brothers. Now, he was the tag-along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s second-class wives, but Joseph brought a bad report about them to their father. Now, Israel loved Joseph more than all of his brothers, because he was the son of his old age, so he made for him a fancy-pants coat. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than his brothers, they hated him and were unable to speak anything good about him.
Then, when Joseph dreamed a dream and declared it to his brothers, they had even more reason to hate him. But he said to them, “Listen up to this dream which I dreamed! Now, pay attention, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and pay attention! My sheaf arose and even stood up, and your sheaves, surrounding it, bowed down to my sheaf!” Then his brothers said to him, “Will you really rule over us? So help me if you should actually reign over us!” Then they hated him even more because of his dreams and because of his words.
But he dreamed another dream and he told it again and again to his father and to his brothers, and he said, “Pay attention, I dreamed a dream again, and—pay attention!—the son and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me!” But when he recounted it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him as follows, “What is this dream which you ‘dreamed’? Would myself, your mother, and your brothers really come to prostrate ourselves on the ground to you?”
So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept his words in mind (Gen 37.1–11).
Now, if you’re like me and most other folks who are familiar with this story (but perhaps haven’t actually studied it since childhood), you’ve probably thought of Joseph as a near-perfect person. Oh, maybe you’ll allow that he can sometimes be a bit of a brat, but nothing out of the ordinary. After all, look at where he ends up at the end of the story!
But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t read the story teleologically. And we should read the story with an eye towards its literary features (if you want to consider some of those, I’ve talked about intertextuality in these two posts!). The two most important being “how is Joseph portrayed in this story?” and “how is the rest of his family portrayed in the story of Genesis?”
Today we’re going to look at how Joseph is introduced and focus on the two most important elements of his introduction: the “bad report” and the “dreams.”
The first thing that Joseph does in the story—the thing from which we should make our first impressions about his character—is bring a “bad report” about his brothers. Once we look at this a little closer, without assuming that Joseph must be telling the truth about his brothers, we recognize that a “bad report” (דִּבָּה) isn’t a value neutral term. In fact, it’s a loaded term against the person who would speak it! Consider two of the most important uses: In Numbers the unfaithful spies being a “bad report” about the land of Canaan and die before the LORD because of their wicked heart (Num 14.36; 13.32). In Proverbs, only a fool utters a “bad report” and is compared to someone who is a liar (Prv 10.18). In fact, every time this relatively rare word occurs, it indicates wickedness or lying (cf. Psa 31.13; Jer 20.10; etc). If we read intertextually, we realize that our author is telling us—right away!—that Joseph is like the unfaithful spies and the proverbial fool. This should guide our reading of his character, and yet he gets off Scot-free with us, just like he does with his father! In fact, he’s rewarded for his choices with status and a fancy coat. This is not the action of a hero.
But what about the dreams?! How could those be bad?
Joseph is well-known as a dreamer, so we don’t think much about Joseph’s dreams in chapter 37. However, when we look at them a little more closely, something is off. They are unlike the rest of the dreams that we have in the rest of the story, whether they come from the baker and cupbearer or pharaoh himself…
- We don’t read that they’re from God
- Joseph dreams them instead of interprets them
- Everyone knows exactly what these dreams mean; they’re far from difficult!
- Joseph continually tells them to his brothers (the “told” in 37.9 is a repetitive Piel)
These dreams are not like other dreams, and if he would lie about what he brothers have done, isn’t it at least possible that we’re supposed to discount what he says he has done?
But, perhaps more convincingly, these actions are exactly what the entire thrust of Genesis 12–50. There are no real heroes at the beginning of the Genesis characters’ stories. Abraham pimps out his wife not once but twice. Isaac does the same and shows the same sort of favoritism that Jacob does. Jacob shows the same sort of favoritism and bartering of favor to his son that he himself dealt with from his father. Jacob stole his birthright and his blessing. Joseph connives his coat the same way (of course, this will become a big part of his story!). When we read the Joseph story as part of Genesis it becomes obvious that Joseph doesn’t start out as a hero just as none of the other characters does, either.
Joseph doesn’t start out as a hero; he becomes one.
Joseph isn’t a hero because of his innate goodness, but because—through his story—he is transformed.