Joseph’s story might be a study in the making of a successful man. He has not only God’s but also his father Jacob’s special favor. If there was ever a child made to feel good about himself, it is the boy Joseph. He wears the outward token of parental love, the coat of many colors thought to have been the sort of ornamented tunic that distinguished marriageable royal princesses. Nor was it like some Shabbat best. It’s what he wears out in the fields when Father sends him to check up on the brothers.
A spoiled child is not an attractive character. Joseph tattles on the other boys. Is it because that’s what children do, out of malice, or to grab attention for himself? Maybe he is one of those law-abiding children who wouldn’t cross against the light? He will turn into the young man who rejects a woman’s repeated sexual advances because they are unethical. The woman will become his enemy and, like his brothers, desire his harm.
Joseph doesn’t only dream self-serving megalomaniac dreams but in the morning relate them to the family! The first dream’s metaphor comes from the farm at harvest time: The brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s upstanding sheaf. Next he dreams in global terms: The minor and major heavenly bodies — boys and parents — all prostrate themselves before Joseph. Even Jacob is taken aback but keeps these things in his mind — meaning he doesn’t know what it might mean? No wonder the brothers hate the obnoxious child. What happens when heaven shows a preference for one son — one man — over another is a primal biblical theme. Cain went after Abel, and King Saul spent his latter years trying to kill David.
The Joseph story recounts the complications of a projected murder by committee. The boys’ agreement to kill Joseph comes apart. Scholarship supposes two traditions, one in which Reuben, one in which Judah, for their different reasons, oppose the murder of a flesh-and-blood brother. We can imagine Reuben to be appalled at the prospect of his father’s grief, that he cannot stomach the old man having to imagine his child torn by animals. Interesting that Reuben cannot, or dare not, oppose his brothers to their faces. Judah is able to persuade the others that killing Joseph is less profitable than selling him into slavery. Interesting, too, that they seek vengeance not only against the insufferable boy but also on that coat, adding wild animal blood to its many colors. If I happen to be at my supper while the news reports some modern inhumanity, I think of Joseph’s brothers taking Joseph and casting him into the pit and sitting down to eat their bread.
How differently they will feel and speak and act in the latter part of the story, when they are grown men with sons of their own.
Joseph’s megalomaniac dreams turn out to have been harbingers of his fate and future. In worldly terms, he grows to be the Bible’s most spectacular success. As a slave he runs his master’s household; as a prisoner he governs the institution that immures him. His God-given ability to interpret dreams is the means by which he recommends himself to power, and Pharaoh chooses him to be top honcho. Might we be just a little suspicious of the details of this triumphal narrative? How would it differ if the chronicler had been an Egyptian?
Be that as it may, the obnoxious boy grows into a superbly capable and generous man. His revenge on his brothers is not lethal. His will play with them and tease them and do it for quite awhile before he permits himself the bliss of self-revelation. His emotion at being with his kin, of speaking his own language, of being in a position to save them from hunger, far exceeds his resentment. He will ease the brothers’ well-grounded terror, will console them for their wickedness by proving to them that they have been at all times acting as the Lord’s pawns.
Should we think more kindly of spoiled children?
Lore Segal’s book of stories, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” will be published by The New Press in April 2007.