Character Study: Joseph

Summary of Joseph's Life

Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob, and the first son of Rachel. He is often referred to as a miracle child since Rachel had trouble conceiving. As such, he was favored by his father which contributed to jealousy from his brothers. Joseph also showed a prophetic gift with his dreams, was given a special coat (or tunic), and was known to tell on his brothers' bad behavior. Eventually, the brothers grew fed up with him and plotted to kill him. While his eldest brother, Reuben, only wanted to give him a bit of a scare, the other brothers got serious about teaching him a lesson and sold him into slavery while his eldest brother, Reuben, was gone. Joseph ended up in Egypt as a slave in the house of Potiphar. He is granted favor by God and favored by Potiphar during his tenure there. Unfortunately, Potiphar's wife attempts to seduce Joseph and when he refuses her advances, she cries rape. Due to her false accusations, he is thrown in prison. While in prison Joseph proves that he can interpret dreams; this gift comes in handy when Pharaoh needs a dream interpreted two years later. After successfully interpretting Pharaoh's dream, Joseph is made the second most powerful man in Egypt. He leads them in preparation for a great famine which ends up saving his family as well. During the famine, his brothers come to Egypt for food. Joseph tests the men before eventually reuniting the family in Egypt.


Joseph's Attitude

We know that Joseph prospered in Egypt and that he gave glory to YHWH when he interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, but does that mean he never complained or felt down in the dumps about his situation? In modern literature, Joseph's story which spans only a few chapters in one book of the Bible, could have been it's own novel. In fact it could have been a triology! I can see it now: book one would cover his birth and strained relationship with his brothers, the cliff hanger would be when they sold him into slavery; book two would cover his adjustment to life as a slave and rise to honor in Potiphar's house, the cliff hanger would be Potiphar sending him to jail for allegedly attempting to rape Potiphar's wife; and book three would cover his life in prison and rise to power under Pharaoh, culminating in the satisfying conclusion of being reunited with his family. It's a whole epic triolgy, but the Bible only gives us the Cliff's Notes version so we don't know Joseph's thought process from beginning to end.

I find it hard to believe that he kept a sunny disposition the entire time he was in Egypt. He must have been angry at his brothers at some point. Even more so, despite their strained relationship, it's possible that he looked up to his older brothers before being sold off. From a pyschological viewpoint, their rejection and betrayal had to have some effect on him. When you factor in the fact that Potiphar turned on him at the behest of his wife and the cupbearer initially forgot about him after regaining his freedom, I imagine Joseph had major trust issues.

While we may never know how low Joseph's lowest moment were or how these betrayals affected him, it's important to think about for two reasons. First, our actions to those around us have consequences. Framing the story of Joseph around how the betrayal may have harmed Joseph psychologically instead of always thinking about the success he was rewarded with, can help us be more careful about how we treat others. Instead of thinking our treatment of others doesn't matter because ultimately God will make up for it, we are forced to think about what the person loses because of us. Second, it gives us freedom and wiggle room in our own struggles. When we are in our lows, we may feel pressure to handle every situation perfectly. However, many Biblical characters experienced depression and mental health issues due to the situations they were in. It doesn't mean we have less faith or that we've failed if we feel angry at people who wrong us or sad when we end up in what feel like hopeless situations. The true testament of our faith is that we don't stay angry and sad but that with the help of the Father, we find our way back to peace.

Testing His Brothers

Once, in a Bible study on the passages surrounding Joseph's test for his brothers, we got in to a disagreement about the motives of Joseph's behavior. One of the primary causes for our disagreement was that some were convinced Joseph was "very close" to Benjamin and wanted to ensure no harm had come upon him, while others weren't convinced Joseph even knew Benjamin existed. As I studied this discrepancy of thought, I found that the Bible never confirms—or denies—that Joseph has met his baby brother; thus no one actually knows whether or not Joseph knew Benjamin. This makes the appearance and subsequent testing of Joseph's brothers quiet an interesting study!

Scenario 1: Joseph Was Worried About Benjamin

Let's hypothesis that Joseph did know Benjamin. We know for a fact that Benjamin was not part of the group that sold Joseph off so in that regard we might assume they were on good terms. At 17 years old, it's also safe to assume Joseph knew that his mother was Jacob's favorite wife and may have put two and two together that the reason Jacob favored him was because he was the son of the favorite wife. The same bitterness Leah had toward Rachel may have existed among the other wives and may have spilled into their sons as well (compounding with jealousy toward Joseph's favored status). With that in mind, Joseph may have spent his entire time in Egypt wondering if the vitriol the brothers had displayed toward Joseph had now been transferred to young Benjamin. In such a case, it would be reasonable to interpret the test as a way of assuring no harm had come to Benjamin.

Though I was one of the people who initially believed Joseph had never met Benjamin, there are a few things I found interesting that could support the idea that Joseph did in fact know his brother:
  1. Joseph is stirred by the presence of Benjamin but he doesn't inquire about their mother—this could be because traditionally women were of lesser status and it would be odd to inquire about the women; but if Benjamin was born while Joseph still lived with the family, he would already know his mother was dead
  2. Benjamin is given a larger portition than the other brothers—this could be because he had nothing to do with selling Joseph or it could have been that he knew who he was.
  3. Joseph places the "stolen" cup in Benjamin's bag as the final step in the test. If Benjamin was the younger brother of one of the other brothers, there would be no difference in the cup being found in his sack than in the others' sacks. Joseph had no reason to believe they wouldn't protect "one of their own" as he had been the outsider not just due to favoritism but also due to parentage. Joseph could only have ascribed this same "otherness" to Benjamin if he knew Benjamin was Rachel's son (though this could have come up in unrecorded conversation during the dinner). It is also possible that Joseph never attributed his mistreatment to parentage, but to age and thus chose Benjamin because he was the youngest and clearly the new favorite of Jacob.

Scenario 2: Joseph Was Still Angry

It is possible that all the anger Joseph ever felt toward his brothers bubbled to the surface when he saw them. He may have truly been trying to trip them up, catch them in a lie, and find an excuse to use his power to punish them.

Scenario 3: Joseph Just Wanted to Make Them Squirm

When the brothers first come to Egypt, they bring money to pay for the food the receive. Despite paying, all of their money is found returned to them when they open their sacks later. This means that Joseph either ordered someone to return their money or returned it himself. It also implies that despite their treatment of him, he had already forgiven them. While he may have forgiven them over the years, he wouldn't know how they felt about him or their actions toward him. For all he knew, he may have revealed himself and they may have taken the food and never returned. It is possible that even though his brothers mistreated him, he had missed them and wanted to ensure they would not leave if he revealed himself. By taking Simeon, he had leverage that they might return. In this case, Joseph's test is to see if he can truly trust them once he reveals himself.

Relating to Joseph

When studying about Joseph, I can't lie, in the first few pages of his story, I actually related to his brothers more. I could see them viewing Joseph as a "goody-goody" or a "teacher's pet" as we would day in today's culture. I don't imagine I would have been like Judah, plotting to sell him off, but I'm not certain in my youth I would have been the one trying to put a stop to everything. Most likely, I would have been like Reuben, determined to rough him up a little to make a point and then return him home unscathed. I had to stop and think about why I could understand the brother's point of view so easily because there is in fact a spiritual reason for that.

Amos 3:3 says "can two walk together lest they be agreed?" The fact is, when we are doing wrong, the person doing right agitates us. I remember in school when no one had done the homework and that one kid in class raised their hand to boast about how they had done the work so everyone else looked bad. In truth, it's not that kid's fault everyone else looks bad. Each child is responsible for his/her own work, the same way Joseph's brothers were responsible for their own behavior (re: the bad report he gave on them).

However, as someone who often pretended to have not studied or not completed an assignment for the "good" of the class, there is also an element of social solidarity. There was an awareness that while I might be able to pass the test, my peers would fail. One could argue that they deserve to fail, but another might argue the desire for everyone to pass together. Neither would be wrong in this particular case, it's merely a different viewpoint. In my childhood I often took the latter perspective, but Joseph likely would have taken the former.

From a spiritual perspective, I believe the former is more correct. I say that because we should not "go with the flow" or try to fit in to the world when it comes to spiritual matters. When God says speak, we should speak. When God comes back, I'm not going to pretend I'm not ready becasue other people are going to be condemned. In the spiritual sense, I'm going to be the kid who says "I did my homework! I'm ready for the test!" I'm going to be Joseph calling a spade a spade when it's time to file a bad report so that justice can be done. Joseph's story is meant to prepare us for the spiritual aspect of doing the right thing, and in my youth I wasn't there yet.

I appreciate the ability to understand both sides, though. It helps me to temper myself when trying to be more like Joseph.

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