Joseph wasn’t perfect

If Hollywood transforms Joseph into a secular hero, there are others who portray him as a moral and spiritual giant. Both views fail to do justice to the biblical story.

In Genesis 47:20-21 we read that Joseph reduced the Egyptian people to servitude. In this respect he can be described as a spiritual pygmy. Consider the teachings in Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 that give us a fuller picture of God's redemptive purposes for the world.

There is a rarely quoted passage in Ezekiel 46:16-18 that instructs rulers not to steal their subjects' inheritances and connects this to the law of jubilee. Joseph would have benefited enormously if he had known these kingdom themes. Joseph wasn't perfect. He struggled with sin and foolishness just like the rest of us.


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It's difficult – well, I find it difficult! – to evaluate Joseph's actions in Genesis 47. There aren't many clues in the text. His actions aren't condemned, either by the narrator or by God. If anything, his actions seems to be described in a positive light: Pharaoh is glad to have the land (v.20) and the people are glad to be Pharaoh's servants (v.25). They don't seem to be subjected to forced labour, but they have a 20% tax on their harvests – not too unlike the taxes we are required to pay as Her Majesty's subjects.

There are also the bigger themes of dominion in Genesis. The world isn't supposed to groan under the dominion of humanity, just as we don't groan under God's dominion. Maybe the Egyptians being subject to Pharaoh (and Joseph) is meant to be seen as a reflection of that? I can't find the quote, but I read or heard something by Tom Wright, in which he compared the creation mandate of Genesis 1 to Joseph's dominion over the whole land of Egypt at the end of Genesis. It points forward to the day when the whole human race will be the glad servants of one man (a greater-than-Joseph and a greater-than-Pharaoh) on the renewed and fruitful earth.

It's always an interesting challenge, trying to assess the behaviour of biblical characters, isn't it? I'm preparing a talk on Samson to give at my church, and it's easy to condemn a lot of his actions from the context of the passage (he breaks all the Nazirite vows, for example) – without even getting as far as the Mosaic commands about adultery, intermarriage with other nations, etc. And yet the biblical narrative doesn't actually say anything condemnatory, and sometimes (Judges 14:4) it mentions that Samson's behaviour was inspired by God for God's own purposes.

My view at present is that it is a valid exercise to consider what a character's best courses of action would have been, including how someone in similar circumstances should have acted in the light of subsequent revelation (what would Jesus do… what should I do?). But this exercise should be directed to practical personal discipline. Apparently Bonhoeffer suggested that the primal sin in Eden consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the love of God. So I think that, when reading the written word of God, my goal should be to devote myself to God's service first and foremost, and only to explore judgements of the behaviour of biblical characters as a means to that end. In that light, I can see how Joseph's politics may be less than exemplary. But I wouldn't ask whether a character was sinning or not at particular points – not even in the case of Samson.

Thanks to both Anthony and Richard for these very helpful thoughts. Perhaps I am more critical of Joseph and Samson than you are? Consider the story of Jephtah in Judges 11. When we look at this story in the light of the entire biblical narrative I think his superstitious vow is highly problematic. Like Samson he is mixing pagan ways of thinking and living with faithful service to Yahweh. The book of Judges is calling us to be discerning and critical about the dangers of fertility religion. More can be said here.

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