I am making an ongoing discipline out of writing up reflections on my devotions—hopefully a majority of the days each week. This is one of those posts.
Joseph is an interesting character. I have heard many a sermon on him, ranging from critiques of the way his pride got him in trouble to hagiographies that hold him up as an example to follow (not to mention a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ). What is most interesting to me at the moment, however, is that the text makes little moral commentary on Joseph at all. From his introduction in Genesis 37 until his death at the end of the book, Moses gives us very few direct comments on Joseph’s character.
To be sure, there is much that is admirable about the way Joseph carries himself throughout this whole sequence, especially as we come in a few chapters to his behavior when Potiphar’s wife makes a pass at him. As for his dream-telling at the beginning, I am inclined to let that pass (not least because my wife often tells me her dreams, no matter how crazy they get.) For all that Joseph is a good model for us in many ways, though, and even for all that he does prefigure Christ,1 the central figure of the narrative is not Joseph, but Yahweh.
First, this is precisely the point Joseph makes to his brothers when they meet again in Egypt decades later: what they meant for evil, God had meant for good. Joseph was a player in that story, as were his more-and-less wicked brothers, but ultimately it was Yahweh, providentially orchestrating all things, who was responsible for all that came about. And from a literary perspective, this is also the only way to make sense out of the aside in chapter 38 to Judah’s wretched affair with Tamar in Genesis 38: otherwise, why the sudden turn from Joseph to Judah? Yes, there is a contrast between the righteous brother and the wicked brother, but why is this contrast necessary? We already know Judah is a troublemaker: he was the one who suggested selling Joseph into slavery in the first place! No, there is more going on here.
At least part of that “more” is that it is not the righteous brother that God will use to bring about ultimate salvation, but the wicked one. The kingship went not to Reuben, the firstborn; nor to Joseph, the most favored of Jacob’s sons; but to Judah, the malcontent—and that via his illicit affair with his daughter-in-law as she played the prostitute! God’s plan of salvation does not hinge on righteous men (though he certainly does use such men to bring about good for his people throughout history). His plan of salvation is in the end all about demonstrating that he can use even wicked men to bring about his purposes, and that he is interested in saving even those wicked men. Jesus, it is true, is the new and better Joseph—but he came through Judah.
- Jesus, like Joseph, was massively mistreated by his brothers (both his immediate family and his “brothers” in Israel), but God worked that out so as to provide for their salvation. ↩