The Book of Genesis contains stories of the lives of great Hebrew patriarchs and the various struggles which they encountered as they attempted to live their lives in accord with God’s plan.
Abraham was the first patriarch. His first son, Ishmael, was born to Hagar, his wife’s Egyptian slave girl, and his second son, Isaac, was born to his wife, Sarah, at the age of ninety. Isaac was the child chosen by God to be Abraham’s heir and he had two sons born to his wife, Rebekah. His sons were Esau and Jacob. With assistance from his mother, Jacob stole the blessing of Isaac, rightfully belonging to Esau, and so became Isaac’s heir. Jacob and two wives, Leah and Rachel, who were also sisters and his wives’ two handmaids, also bore him children. These four women bore Jacob a total of twelve sons and one daughter, Dinah.
Jacob loved Rachel more than all the other women, so when she finally gave birth to a son, whom Jacob named Joseph, this son became his “heir apparent” even though Reuben, who was born to Leah, was the eldest. The fact that Jacob openly professed the fact that he loved Rachel more than the others and the fact that Joseph was ‘the apple of his eye’ meant that Joseph was in a very privileged position in a very large family and he took full advantage of it.
In Genesis 37:5-11, Joseph speaks of two dreams that he had. In the first, his brothers would eventually bow down and serve him. In the second, not only his brothers, but his father, Jacob, and everyone else will bow down to him as well. Needless to say, this did not endear him to his siblings. In a certain sense, one can get the sense that Joseph brought about his own troubles. He had a reputation for tattling on his brothers and they all eventually began to turn against him.
At one point, Jacob sends Joseph to oversee his brothers who are tending the flocks some distance from Jacob’s camp. Joseph attempts to catch up to his brothers and when he finally does they decide that they can have revenge. They grab Joseph with the intention of killing him; however, Reuben said, “Shed no blood; throw him into the pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”. (Gen. 37:22) They sat around the pit and ate while Joseph was trapped just a few feet from them.
The next morning a caravan of Ishmaelite traders were on their way from Gilead to Egypt. Judah said, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood. Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. (Gen. 37:26-27) The traders gave the brothers twenty pieces of silver for Joseph and carried him off to Egypt. The brothers then returned to Jacob with Joseph’s coat covered in animal blood and the brothers told Jacob that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal. Jacob tore his clothes and refused to be consoled as he mourned for Joseph.
While most siblings have not resorted to selling their brother or sister into slavery, the truth is that almost all families have experienced times when brothers and sisters are not talking to one another, perhaps for many years. It could be over something minor and years later the siblings cannot even remember what the initial incident was or it could be over something major and the offending sibling simply refuses to apologize because he or she believes that they did nothing wrong. Such tension can be a major source of struggle for parents.
Even though Joseph may have been an annoyance to his brothers, this does not mean that his brothers were completely spotless when it came to their own behavior. Reuben, Jacob’s eldest, slept with Jacob’s handmaid, Bilhah, thereby defiling his father’s marriage bed. As a result of this, Reuben’s birthright was taken away from him and given to Joseph (which many rabbis believed was symbolized by the multicolored coat).
After the incident involving Joseph, Judah was unable to live in his father’s camp and went to live near his friend, Hirah. While there, Judah met and married a Canaanite woman named Shua who eventually bore him three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married a woman named Tamar; however, Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and the Lord put him to death. In keeping with the custom, Onan married Tamar, but he too died childless. Accordingly, Judah should have given Shelah in marriage to Tamar to raise up sons for Er; however, he did not want to lose his third son also, so he lied to Tamar and promised that when Shelah was old enough he could marry her.
Once Tamar realized that Judah had lied to her she found out that he was going to the town of Timnah to shear sheep. She took off her widow’s clothes and dressed as a prostitute in order to entice Judah. Since she was veiled Judah did not recognize her and gave her his staff, signet, and cord as a pledge that he would return with a baby goat as payment. He returned the next day with the goat, but Tamar was gone.
Later it was told to him that Tamar was pregnant, but she would not say who the father was. In keeping with their custom, Judah ordered that Tamar be put to death; however, she came to him bearing his staff, signet, and cord. Judah was forced to recognize the injustice of his actions and the pain he caused both Jacob and Tamar. As he stared at the staff, signet, and cord, and saw that they were his, the emblems of what he was or at least ought to be, at that moment he took an honest look at himself. 1 He was forced to struggle with his other side, the shadow that was always there, but which he never confronted. As he did, he said for all to hear, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah.” (Gen. 38:26) 2
While it must have been very painful for Judah to have to acknowledge this side of himself, the fact that he did brought him closer to his brothers and his father. Each of us has a shadow side to our personalities which we attempt to hide, even from ourselves. Failing to acknowledge this aspect of our personality can lead to all sorts of problems and give us the feeling that acknowledging it will give it power to take control of us. The truth is that just the opposite is true, by acknowledging our shadow side we can see it for what it truly is, another aspect of our personality and can learn to put this aspect of our personality into proper perspective so we can live with it instead of giving it a life of its own.
Joseph was sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, and in no time at all Potiphar gives Joseph complete control over all of his household affairs once he realizes that everything Joseph does flourishes. Potiphar’s wife attempted on numerous occasions to seduce Joseph; however, each time Joseph kindly rebuked her. However, the final time she was so annoyed by the rebuke that she lied to Potiphar and told him that Joseph attempted to force himself upon her, but she fought him off. Potiphar was livid and had Joseph sent to prison.
Even in prison everything Joseph does flourishes and he is eventually given charge of the daily running of the prison. While in prison, Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. This eventually led to Joseph being asked to interpret Pharaoh’s own dreams.
The experience of being taken away from his family and sold into slavery had the effect of helping Joseph to grow and mature. Gone was his sense of grandiosity. He did not see himself as reigning over his family. He was now much more humble and perhaps God was rewarding him for his humility. The dreamer now becomes the vehicle of interpretation, God’s mouthpiece. As a result he is released from the pit and begins his meteoric rise to power in Egypt.
After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and informing Pharaoh of the seven years of plenty which will be followed by seven years of draught, Joseph is made governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. During the seven years of plenty, Joseph took one-fifth of the grain and had it stored for the pending draught. When the draught hit, Egypt had enough grain. The land of Canaan, where Jacob was living was hit hard by the draught, so Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. The only one left behind was Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest son. The Biblical account states, “Ten of Joseph’s brothers went to buy grain in Egypt” (Gen. 42:3) which only serves to underscore their impending confrontation. 3
Did the brothers speak of Joseph amongst themselves as they travelled from Canaan to Egypt? The story does not mention such a conversation; however, it is difficult to imagine that they did not given the fact that they had sold Joseph to a group of traders who had been bound for Egypt. At least one, perhaps Judah, must have wondered, “Whatever became of Joseph? Is he still alive in Egypt?”
The ten brothers arrive in Egypt and Joseph recognizes them, but treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. As if in fulfillment of his youthful dreams, the brothers bowed low with their faces to the ground. When he finally glanced their way he was astonished to recognize them, though they had no notion of who he was. 4 It was not only his position and attire which prevented them from recognizing him, but also his physical presence and bearing. It had been twenty years since they had last seen Joseph and time has a way of changing people.
Joseph wants to see if the years had changed them as well. He accuses them of being Canaanite spies and has them placed in prison for three days. They tell Joseph that they are ten sons of the same father, their youngest brother is home, and one is no more.
After three days Joseph offers them a proposal. If they truly are honest men, as they claim, let one of your brothers stay here where you were imprisoned, the rest return to your father and bring your youngest brother back with you. If they do this, Joseph will believe them and they will not die. They agreed and said amongst themselves, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother. We saw the anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” Then Reuben said, “Did I tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen, so now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” (Gen. 42:21-22)
Like Joseph, we too, may be distanced from one or more of our siblings, yet we continue to struggle with them and what they represent for us. We can never truly totally excise them from our hearts and minds; we carry them with us wherever we go like an old suitcase bearing mementos from our past. Only when we come face to face again will we be able to discard the baggage with which we have been burdened. 5
Joseph had Simeon held in prison while his brothers returned to their father. He gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to return every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. On their return home one of the brothers opened his sack to feed grain to his donkey and saw the money. At this they lost heart and asked, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Gen. 42:28)
When the brothers returned home without Simeon and they told Jacob of Joseph’s proposal, he said, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” (Gen. 42:36)
Although the events that surround Benjamin’s journey to Egypt surely echo the sale of his brother Joseph into slavery, there are from the outset hints that this time the outcome will be different. Whereas none of the brothers really put themselves on the line to save Joseph, and all in the same way were involved in getting rid of him, this was not so in the case of his younger brother. First Reuben assures Jacob that if he places Benjamin in his care; he will guarantee his safe return. He even goes so far as to say to his father, “You may kill both of my sons if I do not bring him back to you.” Just as Jacob would lose a second son, now Reuben was willing to sacrifice his two sons. 6
The famine becomes even more severe and Jacob really has no choice but to send his sons back to Egypt to get more grain. He is certainly not happy about the idea of having to send Benjamin back with his other sons. Then Judah said to Jacob, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die—you and we and also our little ones. I myself will be surety (a pledge) for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.” The very same Judah who had not been willing to fight for Joseph; Judah who had not been willing to fulfill his responsibility to Tamar; but was willing to give her a pledge in order to lie with her, now becomes the pledge! 7 He will guarantee Benjamin’s life.
Given the fact that Benjamin was also the son of Jacob’s old age and a child of Rachel, it is entirely possible that his brothers were jealous of him as well. Now this second son of Rachel, whom Jacob loved so much, is following his brothers in their caravan loaded with spices and gold bound for Egypt. How many times history repeats itself and our hope is that any negative outcome which resulted the first time will not be repeated as well. The best way to assure that is to learn from one’s mistakes.
The brothers return to Egypt in the hope that Simeon will be released from prison unharmed since they have followed Joseph’s directions. When Joseph saw Benjamin he told his house steward to slaughter an animal and prepare a meal for the men were to dine with him at noon. Simeon is released from prison unharmed; however, they are afraid because they believed that it was because of the money which had been replaced in their sacks the first time that they were been summoned to Joseph’s house.
They believed that Joseph intended to make slaves of them because of this so they approached the steward and explained what had happened. The steward said, “Rest assured, do not be afraid; your God and the God of your fathers must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I have received your money.”
When Joseph entered the house the brothers bowed before him and Joseph inquired as to Jacob’s welfare. He inquired as to whether the young man with them was their youngest brother. Joseph quickly left the room and wept privately, he was so overcome with emotion. Joseph returns and the brothers are invited to sit and eat. They are amazed that they have been seated in order of their birth. They ate and drank and after the meal he ordered the steward to fill their sacks with grain and put each man’s money on top of the sack.
Even though his brothers have returned with Benjamin, Joseph had to be wondering if they had really changed. Did they return simply for the provisions and to get Simeon out of jail? He needed to test them to see if they truly had changed. He told his steward to place his silver goblet on top of the sack of grain given to the youngest. After the brothers have travelled a short distance he said to his steward, “Go follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, “Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup? Is it not from this that my lord drinks?”
The men overtook the brothers and repeated the words Joseph said to them. The brothers were in shock. They protested that they would never do such a thing. Then they said, “Should it be found with one of your servants, let him die, moreover the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” Each one lowered their sack and the men opened each sack beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. At this they each tore their clothes and returned to Egypt.
Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house and bowed before him. Joseph asked, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that one such as I use my goblet to practice divination?” Judah asked, “What can we say? How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; here we are then, my lord’s slaves, both we and the one in whose possession the cup was found.”
Joseph said that he would let all of them go, but Benjamin, since it was he who was in possession of the goblet. Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release saying, “We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.” He proceeds to tell Joseph of all that had transpired when the brothers returned to Jacob and told him that they must return to Egypt with Benjamin, including the fact that he gave himself as a pledge for his brother’s life. He concludes by asking, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”
Joseph could longer contain himself. He cried out loudly and said to the men, “I am Joseph. Is my father alive?” The brothers were again in shock. They came closer to him and he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me here before you to preserve life.”
Are our relationships with our siblings any different than the relationship of Joseph and his brothers? How many of us feel that the rift between us and our brother or sister is so wide that it can never be healed? 8 There are numerous examples of siblings going decades without speaking to one another and as the years pass they begin to wonder, how can we ever make amends after so much time has passed?
Family dynamics are often very challenging. In Joseph’s case we are dealing with what can be considered, by modern standards, a ‘blended family’. There were twelve sons born to one father and four different mothers. The father professed his love quite strongly for one of his wives, Rachel, who bore him two of those sons. As Leah’s sons matured they must have seen whatever anxiety their mother must have felt knowing that her husband loved her sister more than her. This could easily have fueled a sense of resentment towards Rachel’s children, if not towards Jacob himself.
What about the children of Bilhah and Zilpah. While these two women would be considered Jacob’s ‘wives’ since they each bore him children, the fact is that they were the maidservants of Leah and Rachel. Did that play a role in their development? We do not know since Scripture makes no mention of it.
After twenty years of separation the brothers are all united once again. Joseph tells his brothers to return home and bring their father, all their possessions, and everyone else and return so he can get them settled in the land of Goshen. They went back to Canaan and returned with Jacob and their entire camp. As they arrived in Goshen, Joseph got on his chariot and went up to meet his father. He presented himself to Jacob, fell on his neck, and wept for a while. Then Jacob said, “Now I can die, having seen that you are still alive.”
Later Joseph brought his own sons, Manassah and Ephraim, to Jacob so they could meet their grandfather and receive his blessing. Instead of blessing Manassah with the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob blessed both of them equally but placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head. Jacob did this, much to Joseph’s dislike, saying that the younger son will be greater than the older and his offspring will become a multitude of nations.
In spite of this neither son was to be exalted over the other. The tension which had existed in Jacob’s household would not continue with Joseph’s sons. Like each and every family, and like each of us individually, coming to wholeness demands that we accept each part of ourselves and our family in order to achieve some degree of unity. The struggle had to end somewhere and it ended with Jacob’s sons, all twelve of whom remained a part of the people and shared in its destiny. 9
The battle within Jacob’s family was finally over. However, the tension within many modern families still continues. Reading the story of the life of Joseph and his brothers can give us insight into how to deal with our own family tensions. Human nature has not changed since the time that the Bible was written and every successive generation faces its own struggles.
It is important for us to realize that we are nothing through such struggles alone and there are ways to successfully deal with them. Instead of seeing the Hebrew patriarchs as larger than life figures who transcended the human experience, seeing them as simple people who had the same dream of keeping their family together and safe gives us a reason to turn to them for guidance and hopefully follow their example.
1)Norman J. Cohen Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) p. 166
3)Cohen, p. 167
4)Cohen, p. 172
5)Cohen, p. 173
6)Cohen, p. 175
7)The same Hebrew word arev (pledge) is used here as it is the Judah-Tamar story in Genesis 38:18. (Cohen, p. 207)
8)Cohen, p. 181
9)Cohen, p. 184