Today’s reading begins with Joseph’s dreams about his family and concludes with Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams of two fellow prisoners.
Of all of the stories in the Bible, the story of Joseph’s telling of his dreams to his brothers stands out as one of the most foolish. Many in the Bible make poor choices, evil choices; but Joseph telling his brothers that they will bow down before him strikes me every time as just plain foolish. I’m never really certain after reading through this passage if Joseph is truly naive or if he despises his brothers as much as they despise him and he seeks out opportunities to aggravate this tension.
As many would feel when a younger sibling is disrespectful, Joseph’s brothers are angry and being looking for an opportunity to get back at him. At first the brothers consider killing Joseph but Reuben, the eldest son of Israel intervenes and persuades his brothers not to kill Joseph. Reuben’s plan is to eventually rescue Joseph from the hands of his brothers, but before he’s able to do so, Joseph’s brothers decide to sell their brother for 20 pieces of silver to Midianite traders.
When Reuben returns to rescue Joseph he finds him to be gone and when he confronts his brothers about it, they tell him that they sold Joseph and to cover their evil deed they slaughter one of the livestock and spread the blood on Joseph’s coat of many colors that he had been given by Israel. The brothers tell Israel that Joseph was killed when he was torn apart by wild animals. Israel mourns greatly the death of his son while all along Joseph is being sold into slavery to the Egyptians.
A strange and unfortunate side story is included in Genesis 38 and it involves Israel’s son Judah. Judah has relations with a Canaanite woman and she bears three sons to Judah–Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah takes a wife for him whose name is Tamar. God is displeased with Er and God puts him to death. In accordance with custom, Judah gives Tamar to his next oldest son Onan. Onan was to raise up children in the name of his deceased brother with his brother’s wife.
Now this is where this brief vignette takes its first lewd turn. Onan is unwilling to raise up children in his brother’s name and when he is having sexual relations with Tamar he withdraws prior to climax and wastes his semen on the ground. This is the passage that is traditionally used as evidence of God’s prohibition against self-gratification but in reality, that particular topic is never discussed. The sin of Onan was that he was to raise up children for his brother and instead of doing so chose not to and God punished him for this by taking his life. At this point, tradition would have it that Judah should give Tamar to his son Shelah to raise up children for Er. Judah argues that Shelah is too young at the time and promises that he will give Tamar to Shelah when he comes of age.
In time Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention of giving Shelah to her as a husband and she takes matters into her own hands. Again the story takes another lewd turn. Tamar changes out of her widow’s garments and puts on the garb of a prostitute and lures her father-in-law Judah into unknowingly having relations with Tamar his daughter-in-law. Before leaving he leaves the tent of who he assumes to be a prostitute, Judah is requested by Tamar to give her a pledge and he gives her his signet ring and his cord and staff.
Judah’s one night stand with Tamar results in her getting pregnant and Judah eventually finds out that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He is furious with Tamar for her fornication and seeks to have her killed. Just before being burned to death, Tamar presents the items given to her by Judah to the executioners and Judah then realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his offspring. Judah forgives Tamar and she gives birth to twins: Perez and Zerah. The Bible rarely wastes text on insignificant stories and this one is no different. We’ll find when we come to Matthew that Perez is in the direct line of two very important people: King David and even more importantly, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
Following this salacious interlude, the story of Joseph continues in earnest. Joseph was sold into slavery to the captain of the Pharoah’s guard, Potiphar. Potiphar had a wife who found Joseph to be quite desirable and sought to satisfy those desires. Time and again she approached Joseph to have relations and he refused until one day he was left alone with her and she literally rips his clothes off. Instead of complying with her advances, Joseph flees from Potiphar’s wife and leaves his torn clothes in her hands. She is furious at him and convinces Potiphar that Joseph was the one who had made inappropriate advances and Potiphar has Joseph thrown in jail.
As he had done in Potiphar’s household, Joseph earns the trust of the jailer. He is placed in charge of a great deal and is very successful in all that he does much as was the case in Potiphar’s household. During his time in prison, Joseph comes into contact with two former servants of Pharaoh: a cupbearer and a baker. Both of these men had recently had dreams that perplexed and concerned them. Joseph convinced the men to tell him their dreams and that God would provide the interpretation. The cupbearer’s dream had a favorable interpretation resulting in the cupbearer being restored to Pharaoh’s service while the baker’s dream had a disastrous interpretation, resulting in his execution.
After interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, Joseph requested that when the cupbearer returned to Pharaoh’s service that he speak favorably to Pharaoh about Joseph and appeal for his release. Unfortunately for Joseph, the cupbearer forgets about Joseph and Joseph is left to wonder when, if ever, he will be freed.