Reading through the Bible together
This chapter begins an extended story centered on Joseph. We are notified immediately that Jacob loved Joseph more than the other brothers, thus launching us into the midst of severe dysfunctional family dynamics. The family dynamics are likely more complex than a simple problem of fatherly favoritism for Joseph. The first three sons of Leah had behaved in a way that disqualified them for the birthright blessing. As Absolom tried to show his unseating of David by laying with David's concubines, so Reuben, the firstborn of Leah, lay with Jacob's concubine in an apparent effort to supplant his father as leader of the clan. This eliminated Reuben from Jacob's reckoning for the birthright. Levi and Simeon were next in line but their treacherous treatment of the men of Shechem offended Jacob and they were added to the list of disqualified candidates for the birthright. As the fourth son, Judah should be next in line, Jacob changes lineage and appoints the firstborn of his favored wife, Rachel, making Joseph the obvious heir to the birthright blessing. Jacob signified this appointment through the special coat and by keeping Joseph home while sending out the other brothers to tend sheep. This open favoritism was foundational to the dysfunctional dynamics recorded in the chapter.
Joseph likewise shows poor judgment as the obvious favorite, telling on his brothers to further endear himself to dad. He also flaunted his dreams to his brothers and parents instead of approaching his father privately to get counsel on how to handle those messages wisely. Joseph's actions irritate his brothers and parents, further inflaming a bad situation. Is it possible that we might be as unwise as Joseph, claiming the remnant identity of Revelation 12 while being equally unwise, flaunting what we think is a privileged status while alienating those not of our faith in the process?
When Joseph went to check on his brothers for Jacob, the family dysfunctions came to a head. The brothers plotted to kill Joseph. Reuben, seeing an opportunity to restore his favor with his father tried to redirect the situation so he could save Joseph and deliver him back to Jacob alive and well. Judah shrewdly discerned the situation. By getting the other brothers to unite with him in selling Joseph, Judah secured their silence, foiled Reuben's chances at redemption, and moved Joseph out of his way, setting himself up as the heir-apparent for the birthright. Judah thus emerges in the story as the leader and spokesperson for the brothers, becoming the villainous opponent of the hero-to-be, Joseph. Judah represents a power dyanamic where one's power is used primarily to enhance self-interest instead of unselfishly protecting the larger good. Leaders today should note carefully the damage to family and church groups that can be done when enhancing self-interest becomes the goal of our use of power.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University
Collegedale, Tennessee, USA