In charge of the household

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In charge of the household
By Bobby Neal Winters
I met Joseph the first time as the boy with the ten older brothers who was given the Coat of Many Colors, as it was called in those days. I suppose it will always be the Coat of Many Colors in my heart. In any case, I immediately liked him. He was good at interpreting dreams, which I equated with being good in school like I was, and so I saw his being singled out for special treatment as just being his due.
He was picked on by his older brothers, and I was picked on by some of the boys at church. True, none of them actually sold me into slavery in Egypt, but I am sure they wanted to the minute the Sunday School teacher made them aware that such things were possible.
We covered quite a bit of Joseph’s story, and, even though we were just in grade school, we were told about the incident with Potiphar’s wife. I missed the significance of that incident at that particular point in time, though I will remark that in later life as the world has opened its meaning to me, it has served me well.
I do confess feeling a childish vicarious pleasure when his brothers had to come to him for help and his being the hero in the end just like he’d foreseen in his dream.
While I am being, perhaps, a bit overly obtuse above in relating my understanding the Joseph story as a child and youth, I am not being overly so. The story is one of great depth and it would be shocking for a person of any age to gather its full significance on his first reading—or his fiftieth. Indeed, the more I read it, the more questions I have. Of prominence in my mind now, however, is one question: Who paid for this story to be written?
This is a crass way of putting something that might be phrased as “Who was the intended audience?”
My favorite answer to this is that it was paid for by a king, and if pressed to state it more completely I would say it was written by a high-level government bureaucrat in the service of his king. I’ve come to this opinion because the author, whoever he was, demonstrates the depth of understanding of human interactions that such an official would have. In reading it, I can’t help but thinking how useful it would be in the training of the sons of royalty or nobility for work within the ancient bureaucracy.
I will now undertake the task of supporting this thesis with elements from the Joseph Story as taken from the latter part of the Book of Genesis.
Let me begin this task with my new understanding of the Coat of Many Colors. Those of you who’ve read modern translations know this is now usually translated as ‘ornamented tunic.’ I’ve also seen it rendered as ‘coat with the long sleeves.’ One could belabor this and pick nits between one or more of these possibilities if on knew the Hebrew, which I don’t, but the sense of this is that it was a garment to be worn by someone who was not going to be doing any heavy physical labor.
The gift of the ornamented tunic is evidence Joseph was picked by his father very early in life for a position of authority and was actively being groomed for this role. We see this in Genesis, Chapter 37, verses 12—17 when his father Jacob sends Joseph out to check up on his brothers. This is his first assignment, and on its surface at least, an easy one. Go out, find your brothers, make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and come back.
However, this simple assignment is sent to disaster by the human factor. One might blame Jacob the father for creating the situation, but Joseph has to take a lot of the blame himself. The problem is of course jealousy among brothers, which is tied in with the recurring theme in Genesis of favoring the younger over the older.
The true problem began earlier when Joseph brought bad report back about his brothers tending sheep. This is related in Genesis 37:2. Jacob then gave Joseph the ornamented tunic, which, if there were any doubt, ensured Joseph’s brothers would hate him. Joseph fanned the flames of their hatred when he related the dream he had about his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his, and he very nearly nailed his own coffin lid shut when he showed up to check on his brothers while wearing the ornamented tunic.
This is not to absolve his brothers from blame, of course, because we are responsible for our own actions. However, there is such a thing as anticipating the emotional reactions others might have, and Joseph was lacking this aspect of his character—at least at the tender age of seventeen.
It is at this point that the jealous brothers fake Joseph’s death, sell him into slavery, and Joseph’s life takes a turn, but not in the direction his brothers had intended.
In Egypt, he is purchased by Potiphar, who is Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. Once in Potiphar’s house, his talents cause him to receive responsibility to the point where Potiphar only concerns himself only with the “food he ate.” (Genesis 39:6)
During his sojourn at Potiphar’s, an event that is remarkably complex occurs which we need to pause and discuss. I am speaking, of course, of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife.
I find it interesting on a number of points. One of these being that a woman is being portrayed as a sexual aggressor. We can name enough accounts other places in the Bible to know this is not just an isolated case: The story of Judah and Tamar, Lot’s daughters, Ruth and Boaz (what exactly happened on the threshing room floor?), and so forth. It certainly flies in the face of the idea that the Bible treats women as one-dimensional beings.
More interesting to me is Potiphar’s response to it, i.e. Joseph is thrown into prison as opposed to being executed. Given my understanding of the status of slaves, I find this to be absolutely incredible. What would have happened to a slave in the Antebellum South who had attempted the rape of his owner’s wife? The answer is lynching and worse. While I realize I am speaking of different institutions of slavery in different cultures, separated by thousands of years, I do not think men have changed that much. That Joseph was imprisoned instead of executed is a point we should not overlook. I will now speculate as to its significance.
As I understand it, prison in those times was not a place of punishment but a place where the authorities put a suspect “on ice” until they figured out what to do with him. Had there been any doubt of Joseph’s innocence, they would have executed him. I might be led to speculate even further that the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife was not an isolated incident. Such events are often not isolated and are frequently less the product of passion than they are of character.
One might also argue there are circumstances where Joseph’s innocence would have still been insufficient cause to spare his life. There have been times when those in situations like Joseph’s would have been killed simply to set an example.
Regardless of these concerns, we find Joseph alive and in prison at the end of the incident. This very fact should give credence to two notions the first being that there was considerable doubt as to Joseph’s guilt and the second that he was considered too valuable to kill.
Joseph’s time in prison is notable for the fact that he is immediately put in charge of it, which is to say the warden put him in charge of administering the affairs of the prisoners. This is what happened at Potiphar’s house, and it will happen again at Pharaoh’s.
I wish now to spend a little more time on speculation concerning Joseph’s time in prison. The question I will start with is what kind of a prison was this? In my answer, I am in danger of reading our current state of affairs backwards into history. In our own times there is a great difference between prisons for white-collar criminals who steal with a pen and blue-collar criminals who steal with a gun. If there was such a difference in Joseph’s time, then we might safely speculate Joseph was in a white-collar prison because he is imprisoned with two members of Pharaoh’s court, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt.
My reason suggesting this might strike some as humorous, and the reader might be forgiven a curl on the corners of the mouth while reading what follows. Such a white-collar prison might be the perfect training ground for one who is put into government service. Someone like Joseph who was in such a place would be exposed to a stream of people who had been part of the system and run afoul of it. Joseph would’ve no doubt learned where the boundaries of right and wrong were in the court and what sort of things could get one into trouble.
In our modern world, we know that people go to prison and sometimes learn how to be better criminals there. Might it be possible for someone who is innocent to go into prison and learn a more positive lesson?
The cupbearer and the baker provide an example from the text that this prison was a place where suspects were “kept on ice,” as it were. The baker is executed and the cupbearer is taken back into his position of trust in Pharaoh’s court.
In Genesis, Chapter 40, we are told how Joseph interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker and foretold their fates. This gives Joseph a connection with the cupbearer which, after a period of time passes, pays off.
The story is familiar to us. Pharaoh is troubled by a pair of dreams. There are seven fat cows which are eaten by seven skinny cows, and then there are seven full heads of grain which are eaten by seven skinny ears of grain. No one at court is able to interpret these dreams. The cupbearer then remembers Joseph and brings him in as a consultant. I find how the cupbearer relates this to Pharaoh to be illuminating. Let me quote the text from Genesis, Chapter 41, verses 9—13.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, "Today I am reminded of my shortcomings. Pharaoh was once angry with his servants, and he imprisoned me and the chief baker in the house of the captain of the guard. Each of us had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. Now a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us: I was restored to my position, and the other man was hanged.
It strikes me the cupbearer is being careful as he speaks to Pharaoh, never revealing any discomfort he might have felt being imprisoned, whether he had been guilty of any offence or not. This is understandable because of Pharaoh’s power over him. It should underline for us the care that has to be taken in speaking to a very powerful person and emphasize the difficulty the magicians and the wise men of Egypt found themselves in when interpreting a disturbing dream. Which is something I would contend a high-level bureaucrat writing to a king would appreciate.
When Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream, it is not just an interpretation, it is a job interview. It is both bold and subtle. Joseph boldly suggests “...let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt” but subtly allows Pharaoh to draw the conclusion for himself that the “discerning and wise man” be Joseph.
During the course of the interview, Joseph also establishes himself as a man who is acquainted with numbers. It has been noted by others that all of the dreams of the Joseph story involve numbers. Certainly a facility with mathematics would be useful to one who will be in charge of saving a portion of grain during plenty and distributing it during a time of famine.
The interview with Pharaoh marks a drastic turnaround in Joseph’s fortunes. He goes from being a trustee in a white collar prison to being surpassed in power only by Pharaoh himself.
At this point, the usual exegesis of the story concentrates on Joseph’s rapprochement with his family. This is an appealing segment of the story as it deals issues that many of us are familiar with such as healing family rifts. However, I would like to focus on a different aspect which would be the care Joseph is taking in dealing with his brothers.
When his brothers come to Egypt seeking food, he recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. He begins testing them at once. His full brother Benjamin is not with them and he begins to manipulate the situation in order to bring Benjamin directly into the picture. First he puts all of his brothers into prison in hopes they will send one of their number back to Canaan to return with Benjamin. When this doesn’t work, he holds one of them hostage and sends the rest back with instructions not to come back unless they have Benjamin with them.
I wonder whether the initial imprisonment of the whole family is to test their resolve, to give them each a taste of prison life, or to soften them up for the next part of the plan. In any case, Joseph is in a position to learn much from their response. They lasted for three days in prison and never acquiesced to his demand that they send back one of their own for Benjamin. They feared prison less than the prospect of depriving their father of the only remaining son of his favorite wife. When he sent the ten sons back, keeping a hostage, they didn’t return with Benjamin until the food was gone. After this, he knew for sure that his father still held Benjamin in esteem above any single one of the brothers, but not above the family as a whole.
Once he has Benjamin under his control, he can truly test his brothers. He frames Benjamin for stealing a cup, and only when Judah offers himself in the place of Benjamin does Joseph reveal himself.
After Joseph reveals himself, he is able to convince his father to move the entire extended family to Egypt.
This does not end the Joseph story though most of the Bible studies I’ve taken part in do. There are two more episodes which will speak to my point. The first of these concerns a series of actions on Joseph’s part that many might legitimately find disturbing.
During the fat years, Joseph had gathered a fifth of the grain crop in Egypt, and during the lean years he sold it back to those whose harvest fell short. How this panned out over the long term is described in Genesis 47:13—26. To summarize, Joseph sold grain to the starving farmers until they had nothing left to buy with and, in the end, took their animals, their land, and made them pay one-fifth of their produce each year in exchange for farming the land. In short he made Pharaoh even richer and more powerful at the price of turning the people of Egypt into virtual slaves.
The finale of the story is tied up contrasting the burials of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob takes care of the details of his burial in a prudent way. He first approaches Joseph and extracts a promise that he will be taken back to Canaan in order to be buried. He then tells his other sons the plan separately. In this way, the two halves of the family can keep and eye on each other to make sure their father’s wishes are carried out.
In closing, let me say I do not wish to diminish any other, perhaps more spiritual, messages that can be extracted from the text. Indeed, in the preparation of this article I noticed something new. Jacob was buried by Leah and not Rachael, which is a reversal of the roles those two played during their lives. Even from a secular point of view folks besides bureaucrats in the court of ancients kings can profit from the elements of human nature this story exposes. However, I do believe there is a strong case that those are the folks for whom it was written.
(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and Lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. You may contact him at )
I think that it is healthy to look at the whole of the Bible in a non-spiritual way. When this is done often the Bible can seem very Machiavellian and smacks of conspiracy.

I'd be interested to read a similar interpretation from you for Matthew 12:22-37.
I found this summation of Matthew 12:22-37 online. It's pretty much in keeping with my interpretation of the passage:

"Jesus cures a man whon *demons controlled

Men brought a man to Jesus. The man was blind and could not speak. *Demons controlled him. Jesus immediately cured him. Then he could both talk and see. This *miracle astonished the crowds. However, some *Pharisees said, 'No! This man sends *demons away by the power of Beelzeebub [the devil], who is the prince of *demons'. (Matthew 12:24)

Jesus was not angry with them - as we might be. He answered them wisely:

Suppose that this was true! Suppose that Jesus cured people with the help of Satan [the devil]. Or, with the help of *demons. Then Satan would be fighting against himself. Satan would be using his power against himself. Satan would defeat himself.

The pharisees themselves tried to cure people who were in the control of *demons. So, Jesus asked this question as a reply to these *Pharisees:

If Jesus did this with the help of *demons how did the Pharisees do it?"

It's a little out of order but you get the jist of it. If we substitute bad people in the employment of organized crime for demons and the people who run such endeavors for Beezleebub it seems more like Satan isn't casting Satan out so much as he is just downsizing operations in the interest of monopolozing the market. After all you can only skim so much off of the top before there isn't anything to skim from anymore.

Perhaps the downsizing of Satan is the best we can hope for but in this light the miraculousness of Christ's life was nothing more than elaborate social engineering. It's hardly something worth getting excited about or devoting one's life to.
Kindest Regards, Okie!
Any comments on this one? Is the hypothesis off base?
FWIW, I think yours is a very insightful look at the story. You never cease to amaze me with the connections to personality traits with average everyday people.

BTW, sorry I haven't had much to say lately, I'm afraid I cannot access the photo logs / journals or whatever, my antiquated machine won't run them. I hope you and yours had / have a Happy and a Merry!
Hi Bobby--

For as long as I have been reading the Bible, I have found layers upon layers of meaning to everything therein. Even as a kid this happened.

I think there is a valid layer to be read here.


You asked me a very open-ended question. I asked you what you meant. You answered, and I seriously disagreed with your premise and felt no obligation to respond as I am not on this site to argue. You pushed for a response, and I gave you one. I hope there are no hard feelings.


You asked me a very open-ended question. I asked you what you meant. You answered, and I seriously disagreed with your premise and felt no obligation to respond as I am not on this site to argue. You pushed for a response, and I gave you one. I hope there are no hard feelings.


You could have said I disagree without being "pushed". I would have appreciated it more than ignorance (being ingnored).