What was the sin of Dinah’s brothers? Was it that they took vengeance? Reread the Abrahamic covenant to see what it promises, and think about that covenant as it relates to this event. Did they violate that covenant? How does this chapter portray Jacob? Beyond the rape, what does Shechem do, through his father, that is an affront to Jacob and his sons?
For an excellent discussion of this chapter, read Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative 445-475.
It is obvious that, like we who try to study and teach the large amounts of material assigned for each lesson, those who created these Sunday School lessons have struggled to deal with the amount of material to be covered. They have had to divide the story of Joseph in two, chapters 37-39 in this lesson and chapters 40-45 in lesson 12, and they have had to omit the denouement of Joseph’s story, chapters 46-47 as well Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his sons and Joseph’s death (48-50). The result forces us to focus on parts of the story and, perhaps, to overlook the story as a whole—which is likely to change our understanding of the parts. However, to understand the story of Joseph, I think that we need to read it as a whole. We can understand the story as having these parts (Word Biblical Commentary 2:344):
|Joseph is sold into Egypt||37:2-36|
|Tamar and Judah||38|
|Joseph and Potiphar||39:1-20|
|Joseph in prison||39:21-40:23|
|Joseph in the palace||41|
|Joseph’s family’s first visit||42|
|The second visit||43:1-45:28|
|The third visit: reconciliation||46-47|
|The deaths of Jacob and Joseph||48-50|
To understand the story as a whole, consider questions such as how the third visit and the story of Joseph’s sale as a slave are connected and why the story of Joseph includes the stories of Tamar and Judah and of Joseph and Potiphar, as well as how those two stories are alike and dissimilar. Also ask how this story illustrates the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Look at each specific part of the blessing, and see whether you can see how Joseph’s story exemplifies that part.
Verse 2: Similar to the story of Isaac (Genesis 25:19), this story begins “these are the generations of Jacob,” but it isn’t followed by the expected genealogy. (The word translated “generations” could also have been translated “results” or “proceedings.” It refers to an account of a person and his descendants and is the word used in Genesis 2:4.) Why do you suppose the two stories begin this way? Is that the beginning of this story, or is it the end of the list of Esau’s descendants in chapter 36? (Remember there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original text.) What difference does each way of reading the text make? Why do you think Jacob is referred to here as “Jacob” rather than as “Israel”?
We read the story that begins here and ends in chapter 47, with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers (or even in chapters 49-50, with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph), as “the story of Joseph.” If we take “these are the generations of Jacob” to be the beginning of this story rather than the end of the genealogy of Esau, what is the significance of that beginning? Who is Joseph’s mother? (Reread Genesis 30 and 33 for a better understanding of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son.) Of what significance is it whose sons Joseph was with? “The lad was with the sons of Bilhah” may mean “the boy was a servant to the sons of Bilhah.” If we understand the text that way, does it change anything about how we understand the story? How is Joseph’s age relevant? How does the last clause of the verse prepare us for what is to come? Does it give us some reason to believe that Joseph’s brothers won’t be happy with him, even before we hear the rest of the story? Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Joseph? For his brothers?
Verse 3: How does the beginning of this verse contrast with the end of the last? What do you make of the explanation for why Jacob loved Joseph most, especially in light of what you’ve read in chapters 30 and 33, and in light of the fact that Jacob has another son of his old age, Benjamin? What does the explanation indicate?
The phrase “of many colors” is a guess at a translation of a difficult Hebrew phrase. Others have translated it “a coat with long sleeves.” the Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew lexicon says that it is a garment worn next to the skin that covers the arms to the wrists and the legs to the ankles (A Handbook on Genesis 848). 2 Samuel 13:18 takes it to be something worn by a princess.
Whatever the correct translation, it is clear that Jacob has made Joseph a special coat, perhaps even a ceremonial one, and almost certainly a sign of authority. What might such special clothing indicate? Might that at least partially explain Joseph’s brothers’ animosity toward him? Do you think Jacob’s own history might at least partially explain his love for one of his youngest sons? Isn’t there an irony in the comparison of Jacob’s history and this story?
Verse 4: What is going on in this family? Does this fully explain the brothers’ hatred? What about the end of verse 1? Does that also explain their hatred? Why do you think that Moses repeats three times that the brothers hated Joseph, here and in verses 5 and 8?
Verses 5-8: Why does Moses introduce the story by giving us a synopsis of it (verse 5)? Picture a seventeen-year-old boy saying this to his brothers, some probably in their forties. How is Moses portraying Joseph? Are we supposed to have some sympathy for the older brothers? Are we supposed to understand their anger? Ultimately the answer to the brothers’ question will be “yes,” but what are we supposed to see at this point in the story?
Verses 9-10: Why has Moses placed these two dreams so closely together? What effect does he create by doing so? This pair of dreams is paralleled by the dreams of the butler and baker and the two dreams of Pharaoh. Is that significant? How does the story of this dream differ from that of the previous dream? What do we learn about Jacob from these verses? What do verses 5-10 tell us about Joseph? Do you think Joseph knew the reaction his stories might bring?
“Envied” translates something that is much stronger in Hebrew. The Hebrew means that they had a strong emotion that made them red in the face.
Jacob’s reaction is different than that of the brothers: he “observed” or “guarded” what Joseph had said. What do we see about Jacob here, given what we saw in verse 10? If Jacob couldn’t get what Joseph was saying out of his mind, why did he rebuke Joseph in the previous verse?
Verses 12-14: How is this connected to the immediately preceding stories? In verse 2 we saw Joseph tending sheep. Then we saw three short stories about Joseph’s relation to his family. Now we see him at home with his father while his brothers tend the sheep. So what? Why did Joseph, the shepherd, stay behind? Why might Jacob have sent Joseph rather than a servant to check on the sons?
The phrase “be well with” translates the Hebrew word shalom, often translated “peace,” though “well-being” is also a very important meaning. How is shalom a key word in this story?
Verses 15-17: Why does the writer include this episode in the story? What’s the point? Why not move immediately from verses 12-14 to verse 18? Note that Shechem is a place destined for disaster. (The word may mean “retribution.”) In addition to the evil done by Joseph’s brothers there, Dinah was raped there (Genesis 34), and Israel was divided there between Jeroboam and Rehoboam (I Kings 12). What do you make of the fact that Joseph was wandering?
Verse 18: What does this verse tell us about Joseph’s brothers? How long did it take them to come to a decision?
Verses 19-20: What do the brothers intend by the phrase “this dreamer”? What does it mean to the writer?
“This dreamer” translates what literally means “this master of dreams.”
Given what the brothers say in these verses, what motivates their hatred? Notice the way in which, at the end of verse 20, they prophesy unwittingly. What point is the writer making?
When describing what the brothers intend to do, the writer used a word that is correctly translated “slay” or “kill.” Here, however, the brothers use a word that might be well-translated as “murder.”
Exodus 21:16 is relevant to understanding the seriousness of what the brothers have decided to do.
Verses 21-22: What do the brothers believe Reuben is proposing? Why might Reuben want to save Joseph? What is Reuben’s position in the family? How might that be relevant? For example, in Jacob’s absence, what would be his responsibility?
Verses 23-24: Have the brothers decided yet what they are going to do, kill him or leave him in the dry cistern to die? How could Reuben save Joseph from immediate death (verse 21) but agree to let him die of thirst in the pit?
Verses 25-27: What does the first clause of verse 25 say about the brothers? Is Judah also trying to save Joseph? What reasons does he give against killing Joseph? How seriously would the brothers have understood each reason to be?
Verse 28: What happened here? Are the Midianites and the Ishmeelites two groups or two names for the same group? Note that 20 shekels (pieces of silver) is the standard price in the Old Testament for a young, male slave (Leviticus 27:5).
Verses 29-30: Where has Reuben been? Why didn’t we see him leave? What is Reuben asking when he cries, “And I, whither shall I go?” Why does he tear his clothing? What does torn clothing represent in the Old Testament
Verses 31-33: Why don’t the brothers respond to Reuben? Why do the brothers invent this relatively elaborate subterfuge? Why not say nothing at all? We know Joseph got lost on the way to see them (verse 15-17), why not just pretend they never saw Joseph? Is there any connection between this deceit by Joseph’s brothers and the deceit that Jacob played on Isaac?
Verses 34-35: Is Moses portraying Jacob’s mourning as excessive? Why or why not? Compare Genesis 50:10 and Deuteronomy 34:8.
A note for your amusement: the Hebrew that is translated “captain of the guard” means literally “chief of the butchers.” That title came to mean “captain of the guard” or “house steward.” It isn’t clear which of those it means or how it came to mean one or the other of them.
Many find this story distasteful and so avoid it. But it is important not to read it merely through contemporary eyes. Tamar set about obtaining what was hers by legal right—see Genesis 38:26—and what her father-in-law had refused her. What do Onan’s actions show us about his relationship to the Abrahamic covenant? Tamar’s? Does that help explain why Tamar is one of only three women (besides Mary) mentioned in Jesus’s genealogy (Tamar, Ruth—married to Tamar’s descendant, Boaz—and Bathsheba: Matthew 1:3, 5, and 6)? Many contemporaries of each of these women, and Mary, would have thought them questionable people.
Why is this story included in the scriptures at all? Does it parallel the story of Joseph and Potiphar in some way? If so, how? (For example, compare Genesis 37:32-33 and Genesis 38:25-26.) If we take “these are the generations of Jacob” to be the beginning of the story in these chapters, does this episode fit into the story better?
If we assume that the story belongs in the scriptures, why does Moses interrupt the story of Joseph to tell it to us? If it is necessary that the story be included in scripture, it could have come before the Joseph story without breaking the chronology significantly. So it seems to be where it is for a reason; its placement draws attention to it. What might the reason be for Moses putting it here rather than somewhere else? What has this story to do with the story of Joseph? How does the Judah whom we see in this chapter compare to the man we see in Genesis 44:18-34? What brings about that change? Might it be this event? Is there evidence for such a conclusion?
Word Biblical Commentary (364) notes a possible correlation between this story, the story of Joseph’s sale, and the story of Jacob’s blessing: Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and he was, in turn deceived by his son Judah, who was then deceived by his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Each cases uses clothing and goats to carry off the deception. Do you think this is a legitimate connection? If so, what is its point?
For an excellent discussion of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, read Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative 107-112. Sternberg also has a useful discussion of the story (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative 423-427).
Verses 1-6: What do we see of Joseph in these verses? Verse 2 says “the Lord was with Joseph.” Compare Genesis 26:3, 24, and 28; 28: 15 and 20; and 31:3. In fact, in verses 2, 3, and 5, we are told five times “the Lord was with Joseph” as he entered and worked in Potiphar’s house. What does Moses use this phrase to signify? Has Joseph learned something from his experience with his brothers? Is verse 5 intended to show the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that all the world would be blessed through his descendants? How are the descendants of Israel a blessing to the world? If this is an example of how the house of Israel is a blessing to the world, should we take the promise not only spiritually but temporally? If we take the promise temporally, what does it mean about the house of Israel today? Verse 6 tells us that Potiphar didn’t concern himself with anything having to do with his household except the food that he ate. Why would that be an exception? Verse 6 ends with a note that Joseph was a handsome, well-shaped man. That would be a more modern translation of “goodly and well favoured.” “Joseph was fine-figured and had a handsome face” would also be a good translation. The only other person described in the same way as Joseph is Rachel (Genesis 29:17). What does that tell us?
Verses 7-9: In verse 4 we saw that Joseph “found grace in his [master’s] sight.” Now we see that Joseph also found grace or favor in his master’s wife’s sight. So what? Paraphrasing, Joseph responds to her lustful demand saying “My master has entrusted me with everything he has and hasn’t kept anything from me.” How does that explain why he cannot lie with Potiphar’s wife? When he says he cannot sin against God, which sin does he seem to have in mind, adultery or violating his master’s trust (which is not to say that he would commit either)? What is the significance of each? Contrast Joseph’s behavior with Judah’s. Might this be part of the purpose of chapter 38? Verse 9 is the first time that Joseph has said anything about God. What might his response to Potiphar’s wife show us?
Verses 10-12: How long did Potiphar’s wife go on trying to seduce him? Why do you think Joseph didn’t say anything to Potiphar about his wife’s behavior?
A better translation of “about this time (verse 11) would be “as usual.”
Notice a parallel between Joseph’s first difficulty and this: in both he loses his cloak and, as the next verses show, in both it is used as a testimony against him. Does that parallel tell us anything? We see very similar wording in verse 6 and verse12: “he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand” (verse 6) and “he left his garment in her hand” (verse 12). Is the writer making a point with that wording? If so, what is it?
Verses 13-18: Obviously Joseph’s master’s wife tries to establish an alibi in verses 14 and 15. But what else is she trying to do? Why does she say what she does to the other servants in verse 14?
The Hebrew word translated “mock” in verses 14 and 17 is used in Genesis 26:8 to refer to sexual intimacy and in Genesis 21:9 to refer to insulting behavior. Why does she use a word that has both meanings here?
Verses 12-18: Compare Moses’ account of what happened between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (verses 12-14) with the story she told the other servants (verses 14-15) and with the story she told Potiphar (verses 17-18). What do the differences between those stories show us?
Verses 19-20: In the Mosaic Law the usual penalty for rape of one free person by another was death (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). Though that law is not yet in force in Israel and though Egyptian law would be the relevant law in this case, it would be surprising if the penalties weren’t similar. If the rape of a free person by another free person was that serious, how much more serious would the penalty for attempted rape of a free woman by a slave be? Why does the master deal so leniently with Joseph?
Verses 21-22: How is this a repetition of what we’ve already seen? Is this an expression of the same sentiment we see in 1 Nephi 1:20? What do these verses foreshadow?
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