THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM – PART VIII -SECTION I
THE TRIALS OF JOSEPH AND
OF THE CONVERSION OF JUDAH
I. After the book deals describes how Esau will be the founder of a great people, the book returns to the situation with Jacob and his sons, where conflicts arise between Jacob's favorite son and his brothers.
A. The account opens probably a little after the attack on Dinah and the destruction of the people of Shechem, sometime before Jacob's death.
1. The episode
opens with Joseph at 17, tending sheep with his brothers, or even tending
his brothers, with authority over them. It is not clear whether
this authority began shortly before or after the attack on Dinah, but
it sets up the scene for the episode in which Joseph is sold into slavery.
Joseph, the text refers to the young men not by name, but rather by
their mothers. It seems that Judah thought of his sons mostly
in accord with whose mother they were.
- Now that Rachel is dead, Bilhah and Zilpah seem to have acquired the status of wives. All of them are equal, except the beloved deceased Rachel.
3. The troubles
compound as Joseph brought bad reports to Jacob about his brothers.
It is not clear whether these reports are entirely accurate.
who will be favored later, was probably newborn or perhaps not even
born yet when Joseph is first loved more by Jacob.
2. The fact that
Joseph is later revealed (or becomes) much more virtuous than his brothers
does not justify this early favoritism, which like the favoritism of
Esau over Jacob by Isaac (and reverse by Rebekah) and like all such
favoritism will cause problems, both jealously and pride. See
St. Ambrose, On Joseph 2:5-6 (although also arguing that, because
of his virtue, Jacob had the legal right to give such a preference.)
C. Joseph then recounts two dreams that indicate his authority over his brothers and n fact arguably over all of creation.
1. He tells the first dream only to his brothers. That dream involved sheaths of grain, with his sheath towering over the others and receiving obedience from them. The imagery seems more from an agricultural society such as Egypt, rather than a more shepherding society such as Israel. It may be that Egyptian influences were already coming into his thoughts.
- The brothers
sense immediately the implication and are resentful of it. Ironically,
he has united them, but here in their opposition to them
II. The conflict between the brothers comes to a crisis as Joseph is sent to assert authority over his brothers, and his brothers turn and sell him into slavery.
1. Overtly, the
mission is simply to report back to Jacob. However, subtly there
is a clear mission to assert power.
- While such
violence is today not as common (although it exists) disputes over inheritance
can be among the ugliest. It is more than ironic that, precisely
when people are the most privilege, as Jacob's sons were regardless
of who ruled, ambition and envy can be the greatest.
1. Reuben intends
to deliver Joseph back to Jacob, perhaps thereby getting back in Jacob's
good favor after the affair with Bilhah. He does not seem to realize
that that solution does not solve anything. For, unless Jacob
drives away the other nine brothers, the envy and murderous impulses
would remain, now with nine against two.
1. He proposes
selling Joseph as a slave for two reasons: (1) it will gain them profit;
and (2) it would be somewhat more humane, or at least less grossly inhumane.
They may not have realized the danger that he could somehow get back
to Jacob and thus given away the message.
2. They sold
Joseph for twenty pieces of silver. Jesus would later be sold
for thirty pieces of silver, the price also listed by Zechariah as the
value that the people put on prophecy. See Zech. 11:12; Matt.
1. It is not
clear whether the Ishmaelites sold Joseph to the Midianites, whether
the Midianites got Joseph first, or whether they were different names
given to the same group (perhaps one of mixed origin.)
III. In a surprise move, the text then turns in chapter 38 to the saga of Judah during the time when Joseph is in Egypt.
D. The drama then
develops as Judah arranges for Er to marry one Tamar. However,
because of Er's sinfulness, the Lord slaughters him. It is not
clear what that sin was, but it may have been a sexual one as with Onan
later. In any case, God expects holiness from His people, whether
they think so or not. The text does not explain why God slaughters
Er (and later Onan) for their sins, but not Joseph's brothers.
God in His Providence sometimes imposes immediate punishment, and sometimes
defers it. One can never tell, and no one should be presumptuous.
E. Judah then tells Onan to take Tamar as a sort of wife on his brother's behalf to raise up children from Er. Later, the levirate law would call for such a marriage. See Duet. 25:5-10. Other societies of the area would do so, for it is essential to maintaining the stability of land ownership through families, and thus to avoid the few acquiring larger and larger estates. Among the Jewish people, the policy of keeping land within the family was supposed to be maintain through the law that property had to be returned to the family that originally owned in the Jubilee Year, which occurred every 50 years. See Lev. 25; Kaas, The Beginning of Wisdom 631. This attempt frequently failed in practice. See, e.g., 1 Kings 21:1-16; Is. 3:13-15, 5:8. Nevertheless, the levirate law was still in principle in effect during Jesus' life, and it let to the Sadducee's question about how the resurrection would work with a woman who married seven brothers in succession. See Matt. 22:23-33; Mk. 12:18-27.
- The law may
also have been intended to prevent family violence. For it was
applicable only when property was held in common. In such a case,
there may be the desire to murder a brother, or at least not protect
him, for if a brother died, the remaining brothers would inherit more
of the property. However, if one of the brothers must raise children
for the deceased brother, that incentive would no longer exist.
F. At this point,
there was no requirement that the next son take his brother's widow
to raise up descendants for his brother. It is here simply a command
(or request) of Judah. However, Onan pretends to obey it.
G. At this point,
Onan uses a primitive method of contraception to avoid having children
for his brother. The reluctance is puzzling, for these children
would pose no threat to him; and it is likely that he would not have
to spend much time raising them. It may be that he disliked Er
and/or wanted to be the firstborn.
H. In any case, God
strikes Onan down as well for this sin against purity. The sin
was not simply that he refused to have children for his brother.
For, even when the levirate law came into effect about 400 years later,
the punishment for refusing the marriage was not death, but a sort of
public shaming. See Duet. 25:7-10. The sin was instead
that he had relations with her but refused to be open to children.
Such a refusal to be open to children would become almost unknown among
the Chosen People, for children were highly prized. However, before
and during the time of Christ and the early Church, such practices were
common among the Roman pagans and condemned by the Church. See,
e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, qu. 154. art.
1, 11; Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968) 11, 14; see also Gal.
5:19-21; Didache ch. 2 (both using the term pharimakos for one of the
pagan practices that Christians must avoid.)
IV. The dealings between Judah and Tamar reflect Judah's initial irresponsibility, but also the beginning of his conversion
A. Judah then promises
Tamar that his third son will marry her. However, not knowing
why the first two sons died, but suspecting some connection to Tamar,
he refuses to bring about the marriage. He may have intended a
permanent refusal, or he may have simply been delaying a decision.
In any case, he is unjust for his refusal to keep his promise, which
led Tamar to stay in her father's house as a widow, not seeking another
B. When Judah's wife has died and Judah himself is travelling with a friend, Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands. She engages in a move that is both daring and bizarre and dresses up as a temple prostitute to seduce Judah.
- The temple
prostitutes brought sexuality into pagan ritual practice to form a sort
of fertility cult. This perversion of worship was not uncommon
in the pagan world and would become a constant temptation for the Israelites.
See, e.g., Duet 23:18; 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:47; 2 Kings 23:7.
C. In the wake of his wife's death, Judah, with a rather unhelpful friend, goes to a city that he is obviously not particularly familiar with. Upon seeing what looks like a temple prostitute, he goes in with her.
- Judah's behavior
seems callous in the extreme, given his wife's recent death.
However, even people who are truly grieved at death sometimes engage
in reckless behavior to forget their grief and seek comfort from anyone
who can offer it. Here as elsewhere, death can be the opportunity
of holiness or sin.
- When he tries
to redeem the pledge he cannot, and only then learns that the town is
more moral than he thought, having no temple prostitutes. Probably
embarrassed at his foolishness, he does not pursue the matter.
But the truth will find a way out.
- His reaction
is, of course, totally hypocritical, both because of his own behavior
and because he has refused to hold the very marriage between Shelah
and Tamar that gives him an interest in her. However, the world
is frequently hypocritical: in looking down on impure women, but not
on impure men; in condoning licentiousness, but then being shocked at
the unwed pregnancies that result; and in being both relativistic when
it comes to sexual ethics, but still very fascinated by affairs.
- He may
also have been stung by the fact that she uses very similar words in
proving his guilt in this matter to those that the brothers used in
presenting Joseph's coat in order to "prove" his death.
- The focus on the arbitrariness of determining which one of the brothers was born first may be a mockery of the whole focus in the world on who is the firstborn, rather than who is the most virtuous or capable of leading.