I have just a couple of thoughts on the beginning of Joseph’s story.
First, Joseph carried a bad report of his brothers to their father. Was Joseph just being a tattle tale, enjoying his status as favorite, putting the others down, the way kids can? Or was he legitimately reporting something he thought his father should know?
Was he naively just blabbing about his dreams? Or was he rubbing it in the faces of brothers he knew didn’t like him?
When he shared his second dream, even Israel called him down for it, but…kind of just because the guy had some issues with pride himself. Your brothers bowing down before you, meh, maybe. Your mother and father? That’s some presumptive gall. Of course, he was the second son himself, so maybe there was something to it.
Then you have Reuben. He saved Joseph’s life. I always liked him for this. Then again, my Sunday School education always skipped over the whole slept with his father’s concubine, the mother of his brothers, thing. Was he actually worried about Joseph? Or just how much trouble he’d get into if something happened to him? That’s a pretty normal oldest kid concern. “Dad’s gonna blame me for this whether I had anything to do with it or not.”
And Judah. What was his game? Was he just greedy? Did he just want the money they’d get for selling Joseph? Or was he, in his own way and without consulting with Reuben, trying to save Joseph the only way he could come up with? Or…was it just impulse? Did he just see the caravan and think, “Yeah, that’s better than killing him?”
These were people. These were real people with complex lives the same as us. They had fears, insecurities, weaknesses. They had a messed up family full of drama. They had parental favoritism and sibling jealousy. They had feelings. And they acted on their feelings. And I think it’s easy to forget how complex their lives were, how nuanced their experiences were, when all we have is what amounts to a barely embellished outline of a narrative. We get a bit more detail for some of the big stories, but even then, it’s not ‘walk in this man’s head’ clear.
It’s easy to just decide that Jacob was a terrible person. I mean, I kind of think he was, but then I stop and look at it and realize that we only have a few moments of a very long life. The moments with the greatest impact on his children and their future. The worst moments. He’s celebrated as a hero of the faith. He’s Israel.
It’s easy to just decide that his kids were seriously messed up. And they were. But they were more than that. Just like we’re more than our worst days and deepest scars, our trauma and trauma responses.
It’s easy to look at Joseph and accept him as a hero, and oh man was he. But I guarantee he also had his bad days. And it sounds like he was a bit of a spoiled brat. Spoiled, yes, but still a brat.
We have to be careful to avoid reading these stories so quickly that that’s all they are, stories. Shallow, epic, dramatic stories. These were lives. These were people.