Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional: Joseph and his brothers

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

After Isaac dies and Esau moves on, the spotlight comes to rest on Jacob’s family. Which is to say it rests (mostly) on Jacob’s upstart son Joseph.

Joseph is the first of two children born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. No surprise, then: he’s Jacob’s favorite son. And he knows it.

Joseph is a mixed bag. There are flashes of remarkable integrity and breathtaking impudence, all from the same guy. (You have to admire the writers/editors of Genesis for allowing their heroes to come across very un-heroic at times.)

On the one hand, while in Egypt, Joseph refuses to violate his master’s trust when the boss’s desperate housewife makes a pass him. (Several passes, actually.) On the other hand, Joseph is a schemer just like his father. He’s a tattletale. And as he proves to his brothers early on, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

Carted off by the Ishmaelites Midianites Ishmaelites

Fed up, Joseph’s brothers toss him into a well. As they’re deciding what to do with him, a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants come along.

Or were they Midianites?

The text refers to them as both. So which is it?

Apologists who see Genesis as a literal/historical composition, authored by Moses from beginning to end, argue the terms are interchangeable. But that’s not very convincing, because according to Genesis itself, the two groups descended from different branches of Abraham’s family tree.

Some see this as proof Genesis was cobbled together from a variety of disparate sources. In which case, the final editor was either profoundly stupid for not smoothing out the apparent discrepancy before going to press (not likely) or he wasn’t bothered by it to begin with because the story he’s trying to tell wasn’t meant to be read as exact, literal history — not in the way we understand history, anyway. (That’s just not how they did history in the ancient Near East.)

The other possibility is that the dueling references are a literary anachronism — the author taking something from his own time and importing it into a much older story. This makes more sense, assuming that Genesis in its final form came together relatively late in Israel’s history — say, sometime in the first millennium BC. There is reason to believe the Ishmaelites had assimilated into other groups, including the Midianites by then. Plus, it would go a long way toward explaining how this story can depict both groups as well-established tribes, presumably only a few generations after their ancestral namesakes were alive.

It helps to remember that Israel is telling these stories in order to make sense of its own story. As Peter Enns would argue, they’re a “theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile.” They’re the product of a Jewish nation, either in danger of collapse or having just recently collapsed, asking itself, “How did we get here? And what do we do now?”

Mandated polygamy and the inspiration of scripture 

The account of Jacob’s family also features the bizarre tale of Judah and Tamar.

It starts with Judah, fourth son of Jacob, finding a wife for his oldest son, Er. When Er dies, Judah orders his second son Onan to get busy making babies with Er’s widow, Tamar. Onan doesn’t want to, because any son they have will be reckoned as Er’s, not his. So Onan dies too.

By this time, Judah’s only got one son left, and he’s not about to risk losing him, too. So he sends Tamar back to her family and forgets about her — until she disguises herself as a religious prostitute and tricks Judah into sleeping with her. (You might’ve gathered by now that Genesis is not for the underage.) Thus Tamar is able to shame Judah into taking her under his protection.

There are a few interesting things about this story. For starters, Tamar is a Canaanite. Which means, according to tradition, a sizable portion of the Jewish nation — including the Davidic line of kings, was part-Canaanite. Keep this in mind when you come to the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.

This story also prefigures the Hebrew custom of levirate marriage. This custom, which was later enshrined in Jewish law, obligated the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow.

Levirate marriage would pose a fascinating dilemma for modern society, since the passage in Deuteronomy doesn’t make an exception for brothers who were already married. In other words, to the already married brother of a deceased man, the Hebrew scriptures didn’t merely tolerate polygamy; they mandated it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why polygamy is BAD idea. And the concept of levirate marriage has to be read against its cultural backdrop. Back then, it was the only way of providing some marginal protection for widows in a patriarchal world. We can be thankful that’s not the world we live in — and that there are better, more humane ways to look after widows today.

But this apparent endorsement of polygamy should give us something to think about before we weigh into some of the present-day debates involving sexual ethics with simplistic, “Bible-based” answers.

Finally, the original audience would have immediately detected the custom of levirate marriage in the Genesis story — even though from Judah and Tamar’s perspective, Jewish law (including levirate marriage) didn’t exist yet. It’s possible that levirate marriage was a much older custom that came to be absorbed into Jewish law.

This is yet another reminder that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. From its story of creation to its legal code, the ancient writers freely interacted with — and, at times, borrowed from — surrounding cultures.

For some, this may come as a blow to the inspiration of Scripture. But not for me. I see it as proof of inspiration. If we know anything about God from the Bible, it’s that he’s in the business of incarnating himself — coming down from lofty heights to enter into our story.

Incarnation is an act of divine self-limitation. If God doesn’t accommodate his self-revelation to the linguistic, cultural, or scientific limitations of the day, then no one would have any chance of understanding him. Just like none of us would be able to see God if he hadn’t incarnated himself into a human body.

I’ve shared this quote from Peter Enns before, but it’s worth repeating:

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power.

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather, we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

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