Studying Genesis 37

We are studying Genesis 37 for Sunday, September 6. This is the beginning of the story of “Joseph and his brothers.” It’s a long and familiar story, and we can approach it several ways: as a “wisdom story” – because it fits a genre of Ancient Near Eastern literature; as a family drama – further illustrating the truth of Bill Moyers’s quip that Genesis is the story of the world’s most famous dysfunctional family; as a story of God’s providence – which the text itself will encourage us to do by the time we get to Genesis 45:5; as great world literature – which it is. The Uniform Series editors want us to reflect on the way this story illustrates the meaning of love – in this week’s section, mostly by its absence or distortion, we may think. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a very few notes on text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Genesis is long and iconic, full of familiar stories, and this story is its conclusion. As a whole, the book tells the story of the creation of heavens and the earth and of humanity, the troubled prehistory of humanity – that is, we call it the pre-history, but as it’s recorded in the Bible, maybe that’s not entirely accurate? – and then the troubled history of the family of Abraham.

That story includes the whole Abraham cycle, starting with God’s call to Abraham to leave Haran and go “to a land that I will show you,” the drama around the eventual birth of Isaac, and then Isaac’s near-sacrifice – God is scary in Genesis. Then the stories that feature Isaac – who seems mainly to be in the picture to form a bridge between Abraham and Jacob. Then the stories about Jacob, from his birth as one half of the twin set Jacob and Esau, through his subsequent life of crime – because what else do you call stealing from your brother and lying to your father and then becoming a fugitive? – and meeting up with an even more accomplished criminal in his uncle Laban, marrying once or twice or more, depending on how you count it, and having numerous children. Including the story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel (“Jacob’s ladder”), and the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel/God and having his name changed to Israel (Genesis 32), and what seems to be a reconciliation, of sorts, with Esau.

[How much of a reconciliation that is might depend on how one reads it. I always notice that he shakes off Esau’s offer of an armed escort in Genesis 33:12-17. This is one of those families that “only gets together at funerals:” Genesis 35:29]

In church we don’t usually read Genesis 34, the story that sometimes goes by the title “the rape of Dinah,” but which we might want to think of as “the fiasco at Shechem.” We might want to think of it that way because Shechem is a named place in our story (Genesis 37:12-17), and the events in chapter 34 may help explain why the brothers don’t hang around there with their flock. More importantly, as I read it, it functions as “spooky music” – the kind they play in movies right before something bad happens – for us readers: once that place is named in the story, we know this won’t end well.

The other spooky music in the story is the garment in verse 3, whether a “coat of many colors” or a “long robe with sleeves.” As the notes say, “the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear” – it seems to be, literally, “a coat or tunic” described by a word that means “palm of the hand” or “sole of the foot,” which does, indeed, seem unclear. The idea may be that it is a floor length garment that covers the palms of the hands? The study Bible points out that it would be hard to do work in clothing like that, so this may mean Joseph is being exempted from chores. This would not endear him to his brothers, either. But what makes it “spooky music” is that the garment is mentioned one other place in the Bible, in 2 Samuel 13:18, where Tamar is wearing one. If we know our Biblical characters, we know Tamar is not one of the happy ones. So – maybe this is the Bible’s version of “if you’re wearing clothes like that, you’re just asking for it.”

For that matter, Joseph and Tamar also share the feature of being “beautiful” in a way that is not unambiguously fortunate in this literature. Other “beautiful” people in the Bible include Sarah (before being pimped out to Pharaoh), Rachel (who has her own tragic story), David (so, depending on how you feel about David …), Abigail, and Job’s replacement daughters Dove, Cinnamon, and Beauty Box (Job 42:14-15). Also the fat cows in Pharoah’s dreams. (We’ll get to that next week. I’m telling you, the spooky music).

There’s a list of Jacob’s sons and their mothers in Genesis 35:23-25; this is how we will know that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob’s women – that is, the slave wives he got from Rachel and Leah in their child-bearing competition (see Genesis 30) – are Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

Here’s my point: by the time we get to Genesis 37, there’s a depth of painful backstory going back generations. And now that story is about to get another episode.

Part of the story in Genesis 37 is in the lectionary, as a reading for ordinary time, the 10th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A.
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CLOSER READING: First: our lesson covers select verses (37:2-11, 23-24a, 28), which include Joseph’s dreams, but leave out the episode at Shechem/Dothan, and most of the brothers’ plotting. I’d suggest reading the whole chapter.

If we look at verbs, almost all the brothers do in the first 11 verses is hate Joseph and be jealous of him. And not be able to talk to him without getting into a fight.

Joseph is supposed to be a wisdom figure, but his behavior in verses 5-11 does not strike me as wise; more like clueless, as in “how did you think they’d react to that?” Maybe he learns from experience? Also, note, Joseph does not interpret these dreams. But everyone seems to know what they mean.

We could notice the fortuitous or providential intervention of “the man” who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, and who asks Joseph what could be a simple question, or a profound one, in verses 15-17. Names mean things, and the name Dothan may mean “law” or “decree” (hmm) or “well” – as in, a well of water.

In this particular case, the well will be dry, which will be good for Joseph, practically speaking. But we might want to ask ourselves what deeper well we are really dealing with here in this story.

When we get to verse 18, we might want to ask ourselves what it takes to conspire to kill someone. A family member, no less. That is – unless we want to treat this as an Agatha Christie story, in which case we’ll put up with slim motives for the sake of moving the plot along. I think we could go either way here, seriously.

In any case, they come up with a more ingenious plan. We get some insight into the character of Reuben (marginally more responsible and concerned for his father’s feelings – the burden of being the eldest, possibly) and of Judah (always an eye on the main chance).

We are told specifically that the pit is empty and dry (verse 24). Later, when Jacob says he will go down to Sheol in mourning, we may think of this, since Sheol is a dry pit. Although this is not quite the low point of this story for Joseph, it does already feature the movement from low to high, disaster to rescue that forms the dynamic of this story.

The brothers sit down to eat. Just imagine.

The Ishmaelite – Midianite – Ishmaelite traders in verses 25-28 sounds like editorial fancy footwork to me. Why does the text specify that they are trading “balm, gum, and resin” (verse 25)? These are healing substances. Maybe this is the opposite of “spooky music” – a little bit of positive foreshadowing.

There is some clothing tearing in this story, too: Reuben tears his clothes; Jacob tears his; but notice that Joseph’s robe is not torn, only dipped in blood. The significant robe forms a kind of bookend around this chapter of the story – if it were a novel, the chapter might be titled “Joseph’s fateful robe” – since it begins the story as a sign of paternal favor, of love if you will, and as a sign of Joseph’s unique identity, “the beloved” if you will, and closes the story as the negative of both those things: paternal favor displays itself as extravagant grief, and the unique and beloved Joseph is now absent, the robe now signifying loss … from Jacob’s point of view … and guilt … from the brothers’ … and weirdly, also hope … from the readers’, since we know what it really means, better than either Jacob or the brothers … we could spend a lot of time thinking about this. It’s beautiful storytelling.

But once again, if we wanted to bring some psychological realism to the party, we could ask ourselves what it takes to be this cruel to anyone, let alone your own father.

If we are supposed to be thinking about love for the next thirteen weeks, it seems to me that here, at a minimum, we are looking at what happens to people who are deprived of the love they need.

On the other hand … we also know this is just the beginning of a much bigger story.
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