Gospel Doctrine Lesson 12: Genesis 40 onwards

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 12: Genesis 40 onwards March 24, 2018

Joseph in Egypt, by Tissot. Public domain, via wikiart.

These chapters carry on the novella of Joseph in Egypt. It’s over 10 chapters, which is a lot of time and space to devote to one story about one person; creation occupies 3 chapters, by contrast. Why so much space? What makes this story so significant that it was told and retold, and eventually merited being written down? Is there anything of doctrinal value, from an LDS perspective? What, then, from the Israelite perspective?I don’t have a good concise answer for that, but it’s a good question to think about.

As a literary novella, it also has all kinds of subtle connections and ties in the story. I’ve mentioned some of these in past articles, but here’s a few more. Joseph has not seen his brothers in years. His brothers do indeed bow down to him, in Gen 43:28, as he had dreamed. Are they the same kind of men who faked his death, causing so much pain to his father, and sold him into Egypt? So he contrives a kind of test involving his blood brother, another favorite of his father. Joseph’s silver divining cup (more on this below) was part of that the test.

The fact that we are told it is made of silver is not meant solely to emphasize its preciousness; the offense would be grave enough no matter what the composition of the goblet might have been. The main point here is that Hebrew kesef, “silver, money,” is a key word, reiterated twenty times in the accounts of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt (chaps. 42–45). The brothers had sold Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver (Gen 37:28); now he harasses and tests them with silver.

JPS Torah Commentary:Genesis

 “Will the older ten brothers jettison Benjamin when his presence becomes inconvenient, as they once did Joseph, or have they finally learned the painful lesson about family solidarity and filial obedience?”

– Jewish Study Bible 

[Joseph’s] testing of his brothers is masterful, not only because of the plan itself, but also because of the depth of emotion that the text evokes in its characterizations. It demonstrates how well the whole story has been integrated into the Yaakov material, for here as well as there long conversations are used to reveal complex passions.

Some have questioned the morality of Yosef’s actions, seeing that the aged Yaakov might well have died while the test was progressing, without ever finding out that Yosef had survived. But that is not the point of the story. What it is trying to teach (among other things) is a lesson about crime and repentance. Only by recreating something of the original situation—the brothers are again in control of the life and death of a son of Rahel—can Yosef be sure that they have changed. Once the brothers pass the test, life and covenant can then continue.

Fox, Five Books of Moses

When Benjamin is discovered, Judah, who has pledged himself to his father in Benjamin’s place, throws himself on Joseph’s feet for the sake of the youngest. This is quite a change in personality for Judah, a shift from selfish to thinking of others.

Judah again assumes the leading position (see Gen 43:11 n). Having devised the plan to sell Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:26–27), he now offers to accept slavery upon himself and his brothers rather than abandon Benjamin, as he (and they, with the exception of the ineffectual Reuben) had once callously and criminally abandoned Joseph.

Jewish Study Bible

This change makes Joseph quite happy, and he pulls off both his literal and linguistic masks (he’s been using a translator) and blurts out “I’m Joseph!” in Hebrew. Perhaps one lesson to be drawn is Joseph’s explicit one; what others had intended for evil, God is powerful enough to turn to good purpose, thus saving the family as well as all Egypt through the long famine.

Beyond the story itself, I’m going to make a big deal of two things that are usually assumed or overlooked. First, the dreams to the “butler,” “baker,” and Pharaoh. And second, the nature of Joseph’s silver cup that he sticks in Benjamin’s bag, to entrap them. These two stories demonstrate both how religious expectations and worldviews change, and how God is willing to work within those human cultural boundaries.

The Israelites and their contemporaries lived in cultures in which dreams were thought to be messages from divinity. You could even induce an inspired dream (so they thought) by  sleeping in a temple or sacred area, like Jacob at Bethel. This is known as “incubation” and it’s something you should definitely bring up if you ever fall asleep in the temple. Other examples of such dreams include Solomon being offered anything he wishes, and he chooses wisdom (1Ki 3:5-7, 2Ch 1:7-13), and Daniel interpreting the dreams of the king of Babylon. There may be a subtle point of national pride/identity here and in Daniel, that these foreign kings of great countries, in spite of their “lector-priests” (KJV magicians) and wise men and such, require a slave/prisoner from little old Israel to interpret their dreams.Indeed, says the Jewish Study Bible, “The inability of the pagan magicians to interpret dreams and accurately predict the future is developed at greater length in Dan. ch 2, a narrative influenced by the Joseph story.”

The main point I wish to make, however, is that they lived in a culture that held dreams to be a legitimate and frequent way of receiving messages from God. Hold that thought as we add to it. When Joseph chooses something of value to put in Benjamin’s sack, to bring them back, he doesn’t just choose something of monetary value (silver), but of spiritual value. Genesis 44:5 “This is the very cup my Master drinks from and divines with!” (My translation.) That is, this cup is one of Joseph’s means of seeking inspiration and information from deity. Divination and omen reading came in many forms in the ancient Near Eastern, and this was one of them. Nothing else is ever said of this, but it is a safe cultural assumption that Joseph used it for this purpose. His servant is quite emphatic about it, grammatically speaking.

Now, hold both “dreams” and “Joseph’s divining cup” in  your mind.

Cultures and assumptions change. In one of my religion courses at BYU, we were assigned a BYU Studies article by Richard Bushman on “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith.” Though unique in several ways, the First Vision was not the only vision of God reported in Joseph’s day. In fact, there were many! Some included similar messages of personal forgiveness, of Christianity in general apostasy, and others were very different. But the point Bushman makes (as I recall) that I want to emphasize, is that Joseph’s faith that God would really respond and his belief in the validity of his vision may have been culturally-conditioned. That is, if no one was claiming visions, and they were thought to be completely illegitimate or devilish, it’s unlikely Joseph would have believed that it could happen or would have accepted it if it did. God tends to speak to us in ways we are conditioned to expect, and most of that conditioning is cultural.

Culture changes.

After breakfast, I do not consult my hot chocolate mug for inspiration. But Joseph of Egypt might well have done so, and God may well have spoken to him that way because it was the cultural expectation.  D&C 1:24 allows for just that kind of thing. Joseph Smith, his family, and the general culture of his day were generally much more broad in their conceptions of how God might communicate to them than we are today, by means of dreams and visions, but also by divining rods, seer stones, and other things. Joseph had (a) seer stone(s) before he acquired the Urim and Thummim (which were not called such at the time) and used both in translating the Book of Mormon. (See this old Ensign article, Stephen Ricks’ discussion of the translation, FAIR’s wiki, and my long handout I’ve used at BYU.) Both the Ensign and the Book of Mormon Translation Gospel Topics essay contextualize Joseph’s seerstone in the religious/cultural expectations of the time. As that Ensign article says, “Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects. Since the biblical narrative showed God using physical objects to focus people’s faith or communicate spiritually in ancient times, Joseph and others assumed the same for their day.” (For my take on the seer stone, see here.)

The Book of Commandments at one time included reference to a divining rod. discusses this, in connection with Oliver Cowdery and Old Testament culture.

D&C 9 on

Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9-12; Num. 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod. The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the rod.” Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: “Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.” If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed.

(See here also.)

Today as our culture has shifted far away from that or really, anything like it, we are uncomfortable with that history. If someone gets up on Fast Sunday to declare that they had a dream, they’re quitting their job and moving to Missouri, or building a boat or whatnot, we don’t praise the open heavens and flowing revelation. We are more likely to find them strange, or assume they missed taking their medication.

Now, I’m not advocating we return to an ancient Near Eastern mindset anymore than I’d suggest that “palsy” is really caused by demonic possession. But I do think that Western post-Enlightenment culture which we all absorb from birth makes it difficult to maintain more than lip-service faith in revelation, so that the only means culturally left to us is either nearly-imperceptible “being moved on by the Spirit” or full-on divine/angelic visitation. (And even then, we might wonder about our sanity.) Our culturally-conditioned assumptions about reality make faith difficult, and also make it difficult to deal with historical episodes that violate those modern assumptions, as people in the past we consider prophetic or inspired violate them. Joseph Smith and a seer stone? Oliver Cowdery and a rod?  This is a case where I think reading the Old Testament and knowing it better can help us deal with our own uncomfortable LDS history in productive ways, and dissipate narrow (and ultimately harmful) assumptions.


  • Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Coat– Hate to break it to you, but Broadway is a fraud.  The idea that the coat was multicolored comes from  the Greek translation of the Hebrew, which says it was poikilos. As the NET Bible explains, “It is not clear what this tunic was like, because the meaning of the Hebrew word that describes it is uncertain. The idea that it was a coat of many colors comes from the Greek translation of the OT. An examination of cognate terms in Semitic suggests it was either a coat/tunic with long sleeves (cf. NEB, NRSV), or a tunic that was richly embroidered (cf. NIV). It set Joseph apart as the favored one.” Among the options are a long-sleeved coat, a “coat of anointing” (based on an Akkadian cognate). Functionally, it’s clear this coat set Joseph apart, so the end result is the same. Later Jewish tradition has it as “a coat with figures sewn thereon” that trace back to the Garden of Eden, but take that with a grain of salt. Later traditions love to embellish.
  • Joseph’s physical appearance, and Chekhov’s Gun-  -The Old Testament rarely includes extraneous detail. The mention of something nearly always means it has some significance or will play some role, however subtle. It’s a bit like Chekhov’s gun, that way. It’s relevance here is is that unlike any other man in the Old Testament, Joseph is described as “well-built and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6). And then we find out that his boss’s wife quickly begins to hit on him repeatedly. Later traditions expand on Joseph’s attractiveness to comic effect. One Islamic tradition (and thus very late) recounts that Madame Potiphar’s

    circle of friends thought that she was becoming infatuated with Joseph and mocked her for being in love with a slave. She invited them to her home and gave them all apples, and knives to peel them with. She then had Joseph walk through and distract the women who cut themselves with the knives. [She] then pointed out that she had to see Joseph every day.

    Etz Hayyim notes that “Sexual promiscuity was commonplace in all slave societies, and an ambitious person might have considered that the woman was presenting him with a chance to advance his personal interests.” But not our incorruptible  Brad Pitt Joseph! I contrast his behavior with Judah’s in my older Religious Educator article. The contrasts are sharp. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, scroll down to the Teaching Suggestions section in the article.

  • Patriarchal blessings– Genesis 49 is the origin of patriarchal blessings. Essentially on his deathbed (and somewhat like Lehi in 2 Nephi 1-4) Jacob/Israel says in a chapter of poetry,

    Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

    Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob;

    listen to Israel your father.

    (Gen 49:1-2 NRS) He then proceeds to name each of his sons and give a brief poetic description of their fate. You can see how this kind of idea has morphed into what we have today as Patriarchal blessings. There is a declaration of lineage (though given what we know about genetics, all of us are descended from every tribe; this is surely more like the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter than neat, unmixed bloodlines), and a declaration of blessings, possibilities, and fates to befall us.

  • Marriage in the Covenant? I’ve written elsewhere that  unless you are highly selective in choice of passage and stick with KJV, it’s difficult to isolate neatly consistent doctrinal passages, that meet modern assumptions. We just had a lesson in which the  Old Testament supposedly illustrated the absolute necessity of marrying within the covenant and endogamy (certainly true and good principles), but now Joseph, who never does anything wrong, marries an Egyptian woman, Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. He probably didn’t have tons of choice in the matter, to be honest, but it also doesn’t seem to be a problem.

    “In Egyptian, Asenath means “the one who belongs to (the goddess) Neith.” Since Jewish law does not recognize any marriage between a Jew and a Gentile (see Gen 26:34–35 n.), Jewish tradition came to interpret Asenath as the prototypical convert to Judaism. Her powerful story is told at length in an important Hellenistic novella, “Joseph and Asenath.” Rabbinic tradition identifies her father, Potiphera, with the Potiphar of ch 39 (b. Sot. 13b), but this is unlikely.”-Jewish Study Bible.

  • LDS whose patriarchal blessings identify them as Ephraim are thus half-Egyptian, in that vein of thinking 🙂

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