Theology in 3D

Was Joseph Cocky, Dumb, or What?

Layton Talbert | February 8, 2019
Old Testament, Theology

When Joseph told his dreams to his brothers, was he displaying arrogance? Or naivete? Or what? How you answer that question — and on what basis — both reveals and determines a lot about how you interpret and apply the Bible, especially a narrative like Genesis 37. We risk mishandling and misapplying the text when we start reading things in between the lines that simply aren’t supported by the text, or start making an issue out of things the text either contradicts or simply doesn’t care about. (Classic example: Was Vashti right or wrong to refuse the king’s command? But this is about Joseph, not Vashti.)

COCKY?

Douglas Stuart insists that “Joseph’s narration of his dreams reflects straightforward arrogance” while Waltke (he notes) sees Joseph as a “spoiled brat, talebearer, braggart” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth [4th ed.], p. 100). For the record, Stuart has misread; Waltke is actually quoting Sternberg’s Poetics of Biblical Literature. But Waltke himself is equally unflattering; Joseph, he says, is an “immature and bratty” youth whose “tattling, boasting, and robe-parading inflames his brothers’ hatred against him” (Genesis, 498). Leupold, too, asserts that “Joseph’s dreams . . . . may have grown in part out of the ambitious thoughts of the young shepherd.” Maybe, but I’m holding out for some hint of that in the text.

Such depictions display, in my opinion, a stunning abuse of the narrative from interpreters who ought to know better, and reflect a perpetuation of pet notions long entertained but not demonstrably grounded in the text. (As Spurgeon once remarked, commentators are like sheep; they follow one another and they all go astray.) The text communicates nothing that compels the conclusion that Joseph is ambitious, bratty, boastful, arrogant, or that he “parades” the robe from his father. The charge of arrogance is evident only in the question-begging, bald assumption that the dreams were obviously Joseph’s personal delusions of grandeur.

Like Lothlorien, there is no evil in the narrative’s depiction of Joseph unless a man brings it there himself. Even when it comes to Joseph’s report to Jacob of his half-brothers’ evil (Gen 37:2), (a) the text is silent as to what it was, (b) the text elsewhere records the reckless disregard of Jacob’s sons for their own father’s reputation (Gen 34, 35, 36), (c) the text plainly contrasts Joseph’s conscientiousness over his brothers’ evil, so (d) do we really want to side with the brothers on the premise that no one likes their evil deeds to be “tattled” on? That may explain, in part, their hatred for Joseph but it hardly justifies it.

Back to the dreams, Leupold remarkably goes so far as to say that God “was not informing Joseph of things that would come to pass” through the dreams. Context is crucial to correct interpretation, but context is bigger than the details in a given verse or even a given pericope. Joseph’s dreams are central to the narrative; the word occurs twelve times just in Genesis 37 (and tellingly, again, in Gen 42:9). But they’re also the fifth and sixth in a series of dreams recorded in the larger context of the Genesis narrative. The four previously recorded dreams were, without exception, revelatory experiences from God. Arguably, Joseph learned to take dreams seriously from his own Dad (Gen 28:12-1631:10-1331:2429.) Before the end of Genesis there will be four more dreams. And guess what: they, too, are unquestionably revelatory experiences from God “informing [the dreamers] of things that would [and did] come to pass.” By including a series of 10 dreams, the Genesis narrative conditions the reader to interpret these dreams as divine revelations. Joseph’s dreams did not come out of his own head. They were not projections of his own self-importance. They were from God and — as the rest of the story reveals — he knew it.

What about Jacob’s favoritism? No one thinks Jacob is a model father. On the other hand, those who think that “Jacob’s preferential treatment of Joseph was the central problem” depicted in the text (Sailhamer, Genesis) have not, I think, adequately reflected on the significance of the dreams. If you think Jacob’s favoritism was the problem, wrestle with this: the dreams signal God’s sovereign favoritism toward Joseph in choosing him for the special task of saving the infant (not to say infantile) nation.

In a literary version of waving his arms and yelling at the reader, Moses repeatedly highlights that the real central problem was Joseph’s brothers and their sinful response to circumstances they didn’t like: they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him (37:4) .. . . and they hated him even more (37:5). . . . So they hated him even more (37:8) . . . . and his brothers envied him (37:11) . . . . so they conspired against him to kill him (37:18).

If you think the problem, or even part of the problem, was Joseph’s cockiness, you’re not getting that from any objective data in the text; you’re reading your own imaginations into the text. And that will have a significant impact on what you do with that text.

DUMB?

Okay, you say, maybe Joseph wasn’t cocky but, bless his heart, you can’t deny he was dumb as a box of rocks. I mean, to tell these dreams? Bothof them? To his brothers who he had to know were already peeved with him? Or was he that oblivious to the fact that he was persona non grata numero uno in his family?

But now … that phrase “both of them” — that raises another really important point for interpreting the narrative. Two dreams under different images communicate the same thing: Joseph will receive unique recognition and homage from the whole family. Why two dreams? When Pharaoh later has two dreams under different images conveying the same basic message, Joseph already understands what that means: the repetition signifies that God really means it and will not fail to do it (Gen 42:31). Even though Joseph’s own revelation hasn’t happened yet. After all he’s been through, that’s an astonishing display of a mature faith.

OR WHAT?

That brings me to the third option. I said earlier that the central problem in the text was the brothers’ sinful response to circumstances they didn’t like. At the same time, the narrative aims to make the larger point that God, in his providence, allows and uses the anger and hatred of people to accomplish his purposes. It was the brothers’ sinful hatred of both Joseph (Gen 37:4) and his dreams (Gen 37:19-20) that became the very mechanism that set in motion the events that brought about their homage to the God-chosen brother they hated so much, in repeated fulfillment of the dreams they so despised — first unwittingly (Gen 42:643:262844:14) but by the end, voluntarily (Gen 50:18).

As far as the narrative is concerned, Joseph was neither arrogant nor naive in telling the dreams to his brothers; he was right. Famed expositor James Montgomery Boice conceded that the case for Joseph’s naivete is plausible but considered it much more likely that Joseph “sensed a God-given responsibility to make a divine revelation such as this known” (Genesis, 3:873). In the providence of God — and the story of Joseph is the Bible’s premiere story of divine providence — he had to tell them. That’s what makes the providence of the story work. They needed to know ahead of time that this was all God’s doing in spite of them and their murderous hatred (surpassed, as it turns out, only by their greed).

You’ll search the narrative in vain for a breath of negativity about Joseph, unless you carry it into the text yourself. That doesn’t mean Joseph was sinless; it just means that the narrator is painting a purposefully positive picture of Joseph for a reason.

Could one of those reasons be so he can function more clearly as a type of Christ? Stay tuned.


7 responses to “Was Joseph Cocky, Dumb, or What?”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Many good thoughts here, LT. Agreed: (1) Joseph’s brothers were in the wrong, and the text emphasizes that. (2) Joseph’s dreams were revelatory. (3) We shouldn’t read negative motives/methods into Joseph’s actions.
    But do these facts PROVE that Joseph’s motives/methods were positive? I don’t think so, and it appears that saying he was demonstrating faith and/or responsibility also reflects a measure of reading between the lines.
    In The Torah Story, Gary Schnitjjer argues that this issue is an example of intentional ambiguity in OT narratives, designed to make the reader ponder but not answering the question definitively (pp. 160-62). One factor is that the expression translated “bad report” (37:2) could mean that it was a report about evil or that the report itself was evil. The only other time it occurs in the Pentateuch is in the latter sense: Numbers 13-14, where it refers to the spies’ bad report concerning Canaan. These and other factors that Schnittjer mentions make it difficult to rule dogmatically on Joseph’s motives and methods.
    With this in mind, I’m content to say that I don’t know what Joseph’s motives were at this point in the story, or whether it was a good idea for him to share the dreams with his family. In addition, I don’t think it ultimately matters that I don’t know for sure. The story is primarily about God’s providence/faithfulness anyway, and I see no need to get bogged down in debatable human/biographical factors. Joseph’s faith is more evident in other passages, and they are sufficient to encourage the reader to believe as well.

    • Good point about ambiguity, Ken. I’m intentionally pushing back hard against what I see in too many commentaries as a dogmatism in the opposite direction based on pure presupposition rather than on anything definitive in the text. My point is not that anything in the text PROVES that Joseph’s motives were beyond reproach but, rather, that (a) nothing in the text indicates (let alone proves) that Joseph was an arrogant brat, and sweeping, dogmatic assumptions to that effect are unwarranted; and (b) everything in the narrative as a whole is calculated to prompt the reader to blame the brothers, not Joseph. (Interpreters sometimes want to do the same with Job by suggesting some sinful implication behind Job’s offering sacrifices for his children.)
      For a slightly more thorough explanation of my thinking on the “evil report,” see Not by Chance, endnote 11 (p. 277). Its usage in Numbers 13 and 14 isn’t an entirely equivalent parallel; yes, the word appears there but the construction is different. A much closer parallel would be Prov. 25:10 where the noun has a possessive pronoun attached (as it does in Gen. 37:2) indicating one’s own bad reputation. The Genesis text doesn’t identify it as Joseph’s evil report, but as “their” [the brothers’] slander or defamation which Joseph brought to his father. This might be a report of their bad actions, but I think it’s more likely to refer to Joseph relaying to Jacob the defamatory rumors that were circulating because of their behavior, the bad reputation the brothers were acquiring in the region. Again, this seems to be in keeping with what we know abut them from the larger narrative–and allowing the larger narrative to impact our view of each portion of it is part of my larger point as well.
      You’re right, it can be easy to get hung up on things that are less than clear in the text; and that’s a two-way street. But I’d still argue that how one characterizes Joseph’s character and motives can have a significant impact on how one interprets and applies the text.

      • Ken Casillas says:

        Thanks for the follow-up, Layton. Re: the PROVE idea, you claimed that “the narrator is painting a purposefully positive picture of Joseph for a reason.” I am questioning that. I’m saying that there is not enough exegetical evidence to conclude a positive picture at this point in the narrative. The absence of negativity does not prove positivity.
        Re: “their bad report,” we’re dealing with a genitive, which can be notoriously difficult to interpret and could legitimately be taken in a few different ways. In addition, from a literary standpoint an argument could be made that the Numbers parallel is more significant than the Proverbs parallel even though it’s not the same grammatical construction. Moses wrote both Genesis and Numbers as part of the unified Torah narrative, and these are the only passages where this specific term for “bad report” is used in the Torah. That sort of thing naturally invites comparison, especially when Numbers 14:37 adds the word RA’AH like Genesis 37:2 does. On the other hand, Proverbs was written about 500 years later.
        At any rate, I’m wondering how my “agnostic” position has a “significant impact” on my interpretation/application. I suppose it simply leads me not to say a whole lot about Joseph’s character and motives after reading just the first verse about his actions (Gen 37:2).

        • Thanks for the pushback again, Ken. True, the absence of negativity doesn’t prove positivity. But the absence of negativity does prove the absence of negativity:) I.e., I’m mostly concerned to counter those who dogmatize on a profoundly negative view of Joseph that isn’t substantiated by anything concrete in the text (e.g., editorial clarification from the narrator). The only possible exception, it seems to me, is 37:2, which I would argue is most appropriately interpreted in light of the larger context and arc of the story.
          I really do sympathize with your appeal to the ambiguity of the text, at least early on. I think it’s a crucial principle for handling other passages as well (e.g., Esther). So when I say that one’s view of Joseph impacts one’s interpretation and application of the narrative, I would say yours impacts it in about the safest way possible, because I agree the narrative isn’t primarily about Joseph’s righteousness . . . yet. On the other hand, if one approaches the narrative with the assumption that Joseph is a pompous, arrogant, “robe-parading,” spoiled brat, one’s explanations of what happens and why–and the applications that can emerge from that explanation–can recreate the focus of the narrative according to one’s own imagination.
          Example 1: Stuart argues that “how Joseph’s moral character develops from negative to positive is a main theme” of the Joseph narrative. That’s an interpretive slant on the narrative based explicitly on Stuart’s negative assumptions about Joseph.
          Example 2: Stuart’s negative view of Joseph also leads him to source the dreams in Joseph’s “arrogant dreams of superiority.” Again, I’d call that a “significant impact” on interpreting a central aspect of the story.

          • Ken Casillas says:

            I’m not supportive of Stuart here either. Doesn’t he later say that Joseph’s flight from Potiphar’s wife does NOT speak to the subject of moral purity? First inferring too much, then not inferring enough. Too bad he did not consult with us first, huh? Or does that sound like I’m a pompous, arrogant, spoiled brat. :}

  2. Dan Schaffner says:

    Another reason we can’t get hung up on whether Joseph was wrong for revealing his dreams is that it is obvious from their being included in Scripture that God wanted them to be revealed so that what He showed beforehand would come to pass.

  3. Steven says:

    Fantastic article! Thanks, Layton. I think you’ve done a great work here of observation, which is the foundational step to interpretation. I love that quote from Spurgeon too. Glad you wrote this because there is not much out there speaking directly to whether Joseph was a spoiled brat, at least at 17 years old, or not (except of course the sheep going astray! haha!).

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