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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

James Tissot, Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt

Old Testament Joseph

Today, let’s revisit the story of Joseph, the OT patriarch of our first reading. We might call this section of Genesis a novella, as it is complex and features several conflicts. Presumed to be written by a single author, it underwent some reduction to have reached its current shape by 5th century BC. It bridges the making of the covenant between God and Israel with its realization, and explains such developments in the Jewish history as the initial prominence of the tribe of Joseph and eventual domination of Judah, the rivalry and claims to first born rights that every brother could reasonably make, and their temporary residence in the Land of Goshen (the eastern part of the Nile Delta).

Recall that Abraham and Sarah had Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac and Rebecca had Esau and Jacob, and Jacob had twelve sons with 4 women. Rachel was his first love, but she remained childless until his first ten sons were born (and Leah’s daughter Dinah, though there could have been others). Then, Rachel had Joseph, followed by Benjamin, whose birth cost her life. The name Yosef might be based on the root "to take away" (of Rachel’s reproach; or, away from family?), or "to add" (a son). At 17, Joseph strikes me as naive to have shared his dreams and interpretation in illustration of Jacob’s favoritism. As a result, he was sold 5 times: by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, then to the Midianites, then to the Medanites, then into Egypt, then specifically to Potiphar, whose title in Hebrew is related to the root “butcher”, which would make him either a chef or an executioner and bodyguard – either way, a prominent man.

Imagine traveling so young to an unknown land and fate? But, Joseph rose through the ranks in Potiphar’s house, until Potiphar's wife (traditionally named Zuleika) tried to seduce him, and accused him of rape when he refused her – of which he would be accused anyway if he accepted. Apparently, she had made such moves in the past, and the fact that Joseph was only imprisoned, and not executed, speaks of the esteem in which Potiphar must have held him. In prison, Joseph continued to gain influence and interpret other dreams, first, of prisoners and then those of Pharaoh, when his previous co-prisoner the royal cupbearer remembered this talent.

Yet, frankly, anyone familiar with Egyptian symbolism should have been able to interpret those: a cow was the symbol of Isis, the goddess of earth, agriculture, and food (which, unlike Hebrews, the Egyptians didn’t eat). So, the seven lean cows devoured the seven fat ones, as did the seven withered ears of grain to the seven fat ones – this was the portent of the years of abundance followed by those of famine. Joseph was thus empowered to confiscate 20% of each of the 7 plentiful harvests, like a flat rate tax, which then lasted until the days of Moses. Afterwards, he sold the accumulated grain to the point that everyone in Egypt, save the priests, became slaves to Joseph. Today, we might have economic and legal objections to this process: the confiscation must have diminished the incentive to produce during that time, and the state monopoly resulted in enslavement. But, it worked.

Joseph was restored, married Asenath, and had Manasseh and Ephraim. As a result, the list of the 12 Tribes of Deuteronomy differs from that of the 12 patriarchs, as Jacob gave over Reuben’s inheritance to Joseph’s sons, following Reuben’s adultery with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, the mother of Dan and Naphtali - again, having blessed the younger Ephraim over the older Manasseh. But, this was later; now, in the 2nd year of famine, Joseph's half brothers came to buy grain. They didn’t recognize Joseph in his 30s. He went through a long process of forcing them to travel back and forth to Canaan, returning their money, imprisoning them and accusing them of theft, telling them to bring Benjamin, and then Jacob. All of this, likely, to see if they would betray Benjamin like they did him.

Eventually, they were all reconciled, moved into Egypt, and flourished for 17 years, even through the remainder of the famine. Joseph died at 110, and the escaping Israelites took his bones with them to be buried back in Canaan. So, yes, the story features many motifs common to the Bible: favoritism, dreams, betrayal and loyalty, repentance and forgiveness. Aside from these, and a lesson in economic speculation (buy low, sell high!), what else could be gleaned (pun intended)?

What is the significance of the multicolored coat smeared with blood or the silver cup… Or, the typological parallels between Joseph and Jesus, timely in light of Lent and Holy Week? Both were called the beloved sons, rejected by their brothers, sold to Gentiles as proposed by Judah (cf Judas) for the price of a slave of their respective age (20 vs. 30 silver pieces), and reached the height of their mission at 30. The betrayed one becomes the deliverer, and hands out the bread of life. Personally, I do not believe that God had actually planned all the complicated and violent circumstances that befell the fledgling family of Israelites. God does, however, have the power to redeem any mess we make. After all, continually creating everything good, and only that which is good, is based on who God is by nature – but at times, so do people, made in the divine Image. As such, Joseph was wise, virtuous, rose up to leadership in every context, and cultivated these God-given qualities by his human effort, will, and commitment.

So, I’ll conclude with the adage that I cite quite often: it’s God’s grace, of course, that redeems the world, but it is working IN US – and does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Illustration by Owen Jones from "The History of Joseph and His Brethren" (Day & Son, 1869)