Was Joseph Cocky, Dumb, or What?
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.)
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 28:12-16, 31:10-13, 31:24, 29.) 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.
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.
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 42:6; 43:26, 28; 44:14) 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.