June 1, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Genesis: The story of the patriarch Joseph

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

The Book of Genesis tells the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, in Chapters

37-50. Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him so one time when Joseph is 17, they plot to kill him. His 10 older brothers are out tending their sheep and Joseph joins them. The brothers grab him and put him into a dry cistern.

While they are eating, a caravan on its way to Egypt comes along, and the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites or Midianites (both terms are used). Once he is in Egypt, he is bought by a courtier of the Pharaoh, with whom he gets along well.

Two years later, the Pharaoh has a dream that no one else is able to interpret. Joseph does so and tells the Pharaoh that Egypt will experience seven years of bountiful harvests followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed that he makes Joseph the second most powerful official in Egypt, and puts him in charge of storing the harvests from the first seven years so there will be enough food during the seven years of famine.

When the famine comes, it affects Palestine as well as Egypt, and eventually Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to buy food. Joseph, of course, recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. He toys with them for a while, eventually keeping one of them in prison until they return to Palestine and bring back Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother.

Jacob hates to see Benjamin go, but finally agrees. Then Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, tells them that he forgives them, gives them lots of food and tells them to bring his father to Egypt.

So Jacob and all his family—70 members altogether—move to Egypt and settle in the land of Goshen. There they remain, and there they die. Their descendents become so numerous and strong that the land is filled with them.

Each step of this narrative lays the groundwork for the next event. If Joseph hadn’t been imprisoned, there would be no way to get him into the Pharaoh’s favor. If he didn’t trick his brothers into bringing his father to Egypt, God’s plan to rescue them at a later date couldn’t have happened. As The Catholic Study Bible says, “Some genius has taken all the old themes and separate traditions and created a literary work of art, the earliest such masterwork that we know anywhere.”

But it’s more than a literary masterpiece. What Joseph does is done entirely through divine guidance. By ironical twists of fate, God brings about the totally unexpected end in which a lowly Palestinian shepherd becomes the second most powerful official in Egypt, and Jacob moves his entire family to Egypt.

Genesis closes with a question for its readers: What about the promise to Israel that it would be a great people in possession of the land of Canaan? Obviously, there is a clear message that God’s work is not yet finished, and we must read on. †

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