Friday, February 6

Genesis 37: Any reader of Genesis with even a little feel for structure and style will recognize that he has arrived at something new when he starts through the long Joseph narrative. Although all of the stories in Genesis are tied together by unifying historico-theological themes and a panoramic epic construction, there are two very clear points of style in which this long story of Joseph stands out unique with respect to the narratives that precede it.

The first stylistic point has to do with structure. The various accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have what we may call a more episodic quality. Even though they are integrally tied together by theological motifs and theme-threads indispensable to their full meaning, often they can also be read as individual stories, each with a satisfying dramatic anatomy of its own.

For example, while the more ample significance of Abraham’s trial in chapter 22 doubtless requires its integration into the larger motif of the Promised Son and Heir, that chapter is so constructed that it may also be read as a single story with its own inherent drama. That is to say, it is an episode. Part of its literary quality consists in its being intelligible and interesting within itself and on its own merits.

Similar assessments are likewise true for numerous other patriarchal stories, including the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, the courting of Rebekah, Jacob’s theft of Esau’s blessing, and so forth. While parts of a larger whole, each of these narratives nonetheless forms a good, satisfactory dramatic tale by itself.

There is nothing similar in the Joseph narrative. Hardly any scene of the Joseph narrative could stand alone and still make sense. It is one and only one story. No one of the parts is of interest without the rest. The Joseph epic forms one long dramatic unity, characterized by the careful planning of particulars, sustained irony, a very tight integration of component scenes within a tension mounting to a dramatic denouement, followed by a more quiet sequence that calmly closes Genesis and systematically prepares for the Book of Exodus.

The second stylistic point that distinguishes the Joseph story from the earlier Genesis stories is the quality of its interest in the dominant character. The sensitive reader of Genesis will note right away that Joseph, in sharp contrast to the earlier patriarchal figures, appears to have no failings nor faults. Both Abraham and Isaac, for example, acting from fear of possible rivals, go to some lengths to suggest that they are not married to their wives, a precaution that seems, at the very least, to fall somewhat short of the ideals of chivalry.

Similarly, Jacob’s intentional deception of his father in chapter 27 is scarcely edifying, while the cunning brutality of Simeon and Levi in chapter 34 is lamented by Jacob himself. The Bible is obviously making no attempt to glorify those men; it simply portrays them as mixtures of good and evil, very much as we should expect from any accurate biography.

There is a perceptible change of attitude, however, when we come to Joseph. Genesis offers, I think, no parallel example of such a sustained interest in describing the moral shape of a specific character. Joseph is pictured as a flawless or nearly flawless man.

Saturday, February 7

Matthew 9:18-26: It is curious—and a detail prompting speculation—-that Matthew is also the only one of the evangelists to mention the flute players already assembling for the funeral of Jairus’s daughter.

Genesis 38: Although this last section of Genesis centers on Joseph, the text does not lose sight of the bigger picture, the bigger picture here understood as the entire biblical message. In that bigger picture, Judah plays a more important role than Joseph. Ultimately the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, pertain to the ten lost tribes, whereas the tribe of Judah will provide the royal house of David and the Messiah (49:8–10; Matthew 2:6; Revelation 5:5). It is ultimately Judah who will give the “Jews” their name.

Between chapters 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant number of those years are required by the events in chapter 38. Hence, this chapter allows the reader to put Joseph out of his mind for a while. It is something of an interlude, permitting Joseph to become settled in Egypt. It is a “here and there” style of narrative, inserted to fill in a gap and convey the impression of the passage of time until the thread of the larger narrative is taken up again. (Other biblical examples of this technique must include the narrative between Mark 6:7 and 30, contrasted with that of Luke 9:2 and 10).

The interest of this chapter, however, is less in Judah as a person than in Judah as the father of his tribe. In the larger picture this is a story about Judah’s descendants. Since it is the story of his lineage, it must start by getting him married (vv. 1–5). This family too has its problems (vv. 6–11). Once again there is a deception by means of disguise, an unfortunate characteristic which, as we have seen, tends to run in the family (vv. 12–19).

We note that the Bible is not hard on Tamar here; she is simply trying to get what she has coming to her—namely, children. Judah, thinking he has managed to avoid Tamar all those years, now discovers an easy way to get rid of her for good (vv. 24–26), but the young lady turns the tables on him. There is nothing Judah can do but acknowledge his paternity and get on with life.

This story is, in addition, one of the Bible’s great accounts of an underdog getting back at an oppressor. In this respect, Tamar’s story runs parallel with those of Esther and Judith. The irony of it continues into the New Testament, where Tamar enters the genealogy of the Savior (Matthew 1:5).

Sunday, February 8

Matthew 9:27-31: The healing of two blind men in these verses parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. The earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34.

The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.”

The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos).

This cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, corresponds to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness.

Genesis 39: The story of Joseph is structured with various themes and images. For example, Joseph’s different changes of fortune are symbolized in his clothing. His famous and elaborate tunic, which focuses the hatred of his brothers in 37:3f, is dipped in blood in 37:23–32, thus symbolizing Joseph’s alienation from his family. Then, in vv. 12–18 of the present chapter, his ill-fated encounter with Potiphar’s wife is imaged in the loss of the cloak used as evidence to imprison him. His eventual release from prison will again involve a change of clothing in 41:14, and finally a whole new wardrobe symbolizes his new state in 41:42.

Another element of staging and cohesion in the story is introduced by Joseph’s two dreams in 37:5–10, in each of which his brothers bow down before him. This double prostration is prophetic, inasmuch the brothers bow before him on each of their trips to Egypt (42:6; 43:26; 44:14; 50:18), and Joseph specifically remembers the dreams on the first of these instances (42:9).

The Joseph narrative is one of the Bible’s first examples of a story happening in two places at once. The introduction of the Judah episode in chapter 38, right after Joseph’s departure for Egypt, serves to suggest a lengthy passage of time, but it also establishes what will become a mounting “geographical” tension between dual centers of activity, Canaan and Egypt. The journeys of the brothers to Egypt and their returns to Canaan will eventually provide the setting for the two conflicting aspirations of Joseph and Jacob, the former resolved to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and the latter determined to keep him in Canaan.

How does Joseph survive all those years in Egypt? Surely by his reliance on the providence of God. This was the secret of Joseph’s inner life. It explains both his patience in tribulation and his ready forgiveness of enemies. Even as a slave, even in prison, Joseph was an inwardly free man, said St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Procopius of Gaza wrote that Joseph was perpetually and prayerfully mindful of the presence of God.

Monday, February 9

Genesis 40: The climax of the Joseph story will be his revelation of himself to his brothers. Everything in the story is arranged to set up that event. Thus, Joseph must go to jail. If he does not go to jail, he will not meet the king’s cupbearer. If he does not meet the king’s cupbearer, he will not come to the attention of Pharaoh. If he is not brought to the attention of Pharaoh, he will not encounter his brothers. And so on. The narrative is thus very carefully pieced together.

Meanwhile, however, Joseph is still in jail. Indeed, he is pretty much running the place after a while (39:23), when two other prisoners are brought in (vv. 1–4). Already introduced to the reader as a man of dreams in chapter 37, Joseph now appears as an interpreter of dreams.

A royal cupbearer was a great deal more than a table servant. He was, rather, a high official of the court, normally ranking right after the royal family itself. Such men were obliged to be very careful, for they served autocratic masters and were perpetually in danger of offending them (cf. Nehemiah 1:11—2:6). Somehow or other, this cupbearer had managed to offend Pharaoh. Thrown in jail, he had done a lot of brooding, and this brooding led to a dream about his fate (vv. 9–11).

Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, however, is rather encouraging (vv. 12–13). The Hebrew in this passage says that the cupbearer’s head will be “lifted up.” In this instance, to “lift up the head” means to exalt, to restore to honor. Even as Joseph gives the cupbearer his interpretation of the dream, he senses that this gentleman may someday provide his own way out of prison (vv. 14–15).

Encouraged by Joseph’s interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream, the royal baker decides to tell his own dream (vv. 16–17). The images in each dream are related to the professions of the dreamers, pressed grapes and cup for the first man, baskets of bakery goods for the second. In each case, the number “three” is important.

This second dream, nonetheless, introduces a disturbing note: Birds come and peck at the baked goods. This is an alien element, a common symbol of frustration in dreams. Joseph sees right away that this is not a good sign (vv. 18–19).

In the Hebrew text, there is a rather grim play on words here, a feature not conveyed in the Septuagint translation. “Lifting up the head” no longer implies restoration and exaltation as it did in the cupbearer’s dream. The baker’s head will be “lifted up,” rather, in the sense that he will be decapitated. Understandably, we observe that the baker neglects to thank Joseph for this interpretation of his dream!

The important point is that Joseph’s interpretations of the two dreams are prophetic (vv. 20–23). The next chapter will tell us, however, that the cupbearer will not remember Joseph for another two years!

Tuesday, February 10

Genesis 41: We now come to the third discussion of dreams in the Joseph story: Pharaoh has a dream. Indeed, it becomes something of a nightmare, causing Pharaoh to wake up, which is perhaps why he can recall the dream so vividly. Going back to sleep, he has another dream.

Pharaoh’s two dreams have left him very upset, and at last the cupbearer remembers Joseph. After all, kings could become very upset if no one could be found to interpret their dreams (cf. Daniel 2:1–6). Evidently the cupbearer sensed danger, since Pharaoh’s dream had not yet an interpreter. The fear serves to jog his memory; he recalls how he himself had gotten out of jail two years earlier. At this point he apparently does not even recall Joseph’s name (v. 12). Joseph is, nonetheless, summoned.

We note that this is the third reference to a change in Joseph’s clothing.

Joseph has no doubt that this dream comes from God. God speaks to man in dreams (compare Job 33:15–18; Numbers 12:6). Pharaoh, then, tells his dreams (vv. 17–24). We observe that these dreams are not only predictions; they are a diagnosis and a warning. Thus, Joseph is able, not only to interpret the dreams, but to instruct Pharaoh what to do about them. His wisdom, in other words, is not just speculative, but practical.

Pharaoh’s dreams have to do with the Nile River, the annual flooding of which is essential to Egyptian agriculture. The Nile’s failure to flood over a seven-year period would be catastrophic indeed. In fact, there is extant a stone inscription found near the first cataract of the Nile, on the island of Siheil, which indicates that a seven-year drought was not unthinkable.

Joseph does not even pause. He immediately supplies the practical remedy for the problem, not even waiting for Pharaoh to question him.

One has the impression that he has already worked out the details in his mind while he was giving Pharaoh the interpretation. There is no time to be lost. The work will require centralized control. This is no work for a committee, and there is no time for a discussion. The only efficient course will require a strong, swift, executive hand.

We have already seen Joseph as a take-charge kind of fellow, managing Potiphar’s estate as soon as he arrived, put in direction of the jail as soon as he became a prisoner, and so forth. Pharaoh knows that he has before him the right man for the job, recognizing that this wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph again changes clothes and starts a new life with new responsibilities. His plans are successful.

Joseph becomes the father of two Israelite tribes (vv. 50–52).

According to Origen and other interpreters, he is now about thirty years old.

Wednesday, February 11

Genesis 42: In these encounters of Joseph with his brothers, there are two features especially to bear in mind:

First, Joseph understands everything they are saying among themselves, but the brothers, imagining that they are dealing with an Egyptian, do not know this. From their conversations, Joseph ascertains that they are still trying to deal with their ancient sin.

Joseph is joking at their expense and apparently having some fun at it. At the same time, however, he is hard hit by his own feelings as he sees what is happening to his brothers. Overcome with emotion, he must retire from the scene in order to weep.

Second, unlike his brothers, Joseph is aware how long the famine will last. He knows, therefore, that they will be back eventually. In order to guarantee it, he seizes Simeon, the second oldest. Joseph has just learned that the oldest, Reuben, had tried to save him at the time of his abduction; Reuben is spared.

Joseph puts a new twist on the game. His return of their money may seem like generosity on his part, but his brothers are terrified by it. It may appear, they fear, that they have run off without paying for their food, and this governor of Egypt is obviously no man to mess with. How could they ever explain how they had neglected to pay?

We observe that Joseph does everything he can to keep his brothers off-balance. Within three chapters he will reduce them to quivering bundles of insecurity. Whatever arrogance or unrepentance or hardness of heart is still in them will be completely gone before Joseph is finished.

When the nine brothers arrive home (vv. 29–34), the whole story is told again, as a literary sort of “instant replay.” This allows the reader to savor the irony of their situation.

The brothers finish their account by breaking the really distressing news that Benjamin must accompany them on the next trip. This is too much for old Jacob, and now everybody is off-balance. Very protective of Benjamin, Jacob almost seems resigned to the loss of Simeon.

At this point, Reuben loses his mind, as it were, offering up Jacob’s two grandsons. Joseph has certainly succeeded in throwing the whole family into a spin. Meanwhile, no matter what Jacob says, Joseph is quite certain that they will be back. After all, he knows just how long the famine will last. He holds all the good cards.

Thursday, February 12

Genesis 43: Eventually the family again runs short of food, so Jacob asks his sons to return to Egypt to procure some. The old man appears to be in a state of denial, giving the order as though there were no complications involved (vv. 1–2). It will be up to one of the older sons to remind him that things will not be so easy.

In the previous chapter it was Reuben who served as spokesman for the brothers, both to Joseph and to Jacob. As we saw, he had not been terribly successful, so this time Judah takes over the task.

Judah gives Jacob an ultimatum: Either risk Benjamin or the whole family will starve. In response, Jacob goes from denial to blame. His line of argument is, of course, futile. The point of no return was long ago reached. Jacob is dealing with a situation that no longer exists. Like many older people whose memories of the past are far more pleasant than the realities of the present, Jacob resists being reminded of the facts.

The problem is that he is the one who must make the decision. His sons are powerless to do anything apart from his authority. They, too, once again accused, become defensive. Joseph had outwitted them; how could they have known? We readers understand, of course, but none of the participants up in Canaan have a clue.

Judah puts his foot down. Enough of this guilt, denial, and blame ! In his executive action, we perceive the attitude and skills of the kings to whom Judah will become the father: David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Joseph of Nazareth. Judah obliges Jacob to give in, and the latter makes very practical suggestions about taking gifts to the Egyptian official and returning the money. Judah also assumes responsibility for Benjamin.

Finally, he prays, not really knowing what he is praying for (though the reader knows), and not knowing that his prayer has already been answered.

The brothers return to Egypt. In their prior trip, Joseph had been rough with them. Now he is kind. What can it mean? So long receptive of bad news and not expecting anything different, the brothers are disposed to put an evil interpretation on the circumstances (vv. 18–22). The author of the passage is obviously relishing this description of their mounting anxiety. The brothers have wandered into the “big leagues,” as it were. Faced with the grandeur of the Egyptian court, they fairly come undone. This “man” in Egypt is by far the most powerful person with whom they have ever dealt.

The brothers take their case to the head-steward who can speak to them in their own native tongue. They never imagine that Joseph has
understood everything they said before.

Once again, when the brothers meet Joseph, the prophecy in the ancient dream is fulfilled. Two dreams, two fulfillments.

The reader begins to wonder how long Joseph can sustain this ongoing farce. He controls himself, however, for he still has one big test in mind, a final test. For a second time, nonetheless, Joseph is overcome with emotion.

During the meal, Joseph goes from this pathos to some additional light kidding by placing his brothers at the table according to their ages, a fact that causes them some more consternation.

Could this be an accident? This “man” in Egypt is most uncanny and mysterious. He holds them in the palm of his hand.

Friday, February 13

Genesis 44: We come now to the final test. As we saw in the two previous chapters, Joseph is hard put to control his emotions. He longs to reveal himself to his brothers. He must control himself, however, because there is a practical task to be accomplished. Being a practical man Joseph listens to his head more than his heart and prepares the final test.

After the departure of his brothers, he has them pursued. The brothers plead their innocence. With great confidence they offer the life of the guilty party if there be such a one among them. This is exactly what Jacob had said to Laban when the latter had complained about the theft of his household god (31:32).

Once again the process goes by the oldest to the youngest, a procedure that permits the gradual build-up of suspense, reaching the climax of the scene in the discovery of the cup in Benjamin’s sack.

The brothers at this point are struck silent. There is not a word, not an excuse, not a protestation. They now return to the city in silence, each man dealing privately with his own desperation. According to the terms of the steward, all of them may return safely home except Benjamin, but then they must face their father without Benjamin. Joseph has them exactly where he wants them. The trapdoor is closed. The brothers have run out of options. Now Joseph will learn what they are made of.

Joseph bears down on his brothers in inexorable, unbearable terms.

At this point the author no longer speaks of “the brothers,” but of “Judah and his brothers,” a significant detail that serves to introduce Judah’s lengthy speech that forms the second half of this chapter. We saw earlier that Judah has become the spokesman for the sons of Israel, their natural leader. It was he who endeavored to rescue Joseph in chapter 37, and the entire following chapter was devoted to him. He emerges now as the leader, who will become the father of Israel’s kings.

As he begins his discourse, Judah stresses Jacob’s special fondness for Benjamin. The reader notices that something has changed. Back when Joseph had been the favorite son, the rest of the brothers had been jealous. Now, however, they are not jealous of Benjamin. Now they are concerned with the welfare of their father, not their own. Judah continues, stressing how the old man would be distressed by the loss of his youngest son.

He especially sets in parallel the earlier loss of Joseph and the now potential loss of Benjamin. This is the key. This is what Joseph must learn from his brothers. Will they treat Benjamin as they had, many years before, treated him? Will they permit Benjamin to become slave, as they had, many years before, sold him into slavery? Will that great betrayal be repeated? Judah himself perceives that this is exactly his own moral situation. Will he repeat the former offense to their father? After all, the idea of selling Joseph into slavery had been Judah’s idea (37:25–27).

Judah makes his final appeal, offering himself in slavery in place of his youngest brother (vv. 30–34). Judah will be the “substitute.” Like his distant Descendant centuries later, he will make the atonement in the place of his brother. He will take upon himself his brother’s offense, becoming the sacrificial victim to redeem the rest of the family. And he will do these things, like his distant Descendant many centuries later, out of love for his Father. This is Judah’s ultimate, compelling plea before the Throne: “The world must know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).