March 7, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The Story of Joseph and his brothers

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

Chapters 37 through 50 of Genesis tell the story of Joseph, and I hope you’ll read them because the story is a masterpiece. It tells how divine Providence brings about a totally unexpected end, how the plan of Joseph’s brothers to kill him leads to the Israelites’ ancestors moving to Egypt.

As you read those chapters, note that every step along the way leads to the next, like the cleverly constructed plot of a piece of fiction. There were, it seems, two versions of the Joseph story. As The Catholic Study Bible says, “Some genius has taken the old themes and separate traditions and created a literary work of art, the earliest such masterwork that we know anywhere.”

The two versions are known as the Yahwist and the Elohist sources. The Yahwist, likely written in Judah in the ninth or 10th century B.C., used the name Yahweh for God. The Elohist, written in Israel after Solomon’s kingdom fell apart, used the name Elohim for God. (The Old Testament also has the Deuteronomist and the priestly sources.)

You can spot the two sources. When Joseph’s father is called Israel, it’s the Yahwist source; when he’s called Jacob, it’s the Elohist source.

In one story, Reuben tries to save Joseph; in the other, it’s Judah. In one source, Joseph is sold to Ishmaelites; in the other, it’s to Midianites. In the Yahwist source, Joseph’s coat causes the brothers’ jealousy; in the Elohist source, it’s Joseph’s dreams. There are also two parallel accounts of the brothers’ journeys to and from Egypt.

With that background, I’ll get started on the story, although it’ll be only a CliffsNotes version. Please do read the whole thing, although you can do it a chapter at a time rather than all at once.

It can be said that the Israelite patriarchs and matriarchs were terrible parents. They had favorites among their children and let them know it. Rebekah favored Jacob while Isaac favored Esau. Now we learn that Jacob (Israel) loved Joseph best of all his 12 sons. Can you imagine why Joseph’s brothers might have been jealous?

Of course, Joseph didn’t help his cause. He told his brothers about a couple of his dreams in which it appeared that the brothers would be bowing down before him.

One day, 10 of the brothers (all except Benjamin, the youngest) were tending their sheep. Israel, blissfully unaware of how his sons felt about Joseph, sent Joseph after them. They saw him coming and planned to kill him until Reuben suggested that they just throw him into an empty cistern.

Soon a caravan of Midianites (or Ishmaelites) came by and Judah suggested that they sell Joseph as a slave to them. The deal was made for 20 pieces of silver. Then they took Joseph’s long tunic and dipped it into the blood of a slaughtered goat so they could tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

The Midianites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s chief steward.

(To be continued next week.)

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