Joseph is Jacob’s youngest son to his fourth baby-mama Rachel, who followed Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah…
…got to love that biblical and traditional view of marriage!
Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob really adores Joseph and makes him a fabulous coat. There seems to be a pattern of spoiled, youngest child behavior from Joseph because he brags to his brothers about a dream he had wherein they were all working for him! To top his own dream, Joseph has another where not only do his older brothers bow to him, but also the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Jacob tells Joseph to keep it down, but the damage is done. One day Jacob sends Joseph out into the fields to get his brothers, but upon seeing him prancing through the meadow in his Technicolor princess dress, they plot to kill him.
Don’t worry, they don’t actually kill him, they just tear off his coat, sell him as a slave to some passersby, and pretend that a wild animal devoured him.
They’re not the greatest big brothers, nor are they very good sons; Jacob is totally destroyed by the news.
In the Qur’an…
I promise you they aren’t teaching the Qur’an in many other churches right now, but we’re going to take a look because reading about Joseph in the Qur’an allowed me to more fully appreciate the story and the characters of Joseph and Jacob and even God.
Many parts of the Qur’an—the parts I’ve read—are quite succinct and give a good narration of events and character motivations, unlike the Bible which often seems to leave the reader in the dark as to the point. (Not to say that studying the Qur’an doesn’t require a similar and vigorous read, but it’s a difference that I’ve noticed). You should know that the Qur’an is to a Muslim what Jesus Christ is to a Christian. Many people equate the Qur’an with the Bible, but that is incorrect. I mean, you’re allowed to believe whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean your belief is correct. The Qur’an, for Muslims, is the primary revelation of God to humankind, and it’s written as if God is speaking the entire thing to the reader…and it’s written in first person plural.
There, I think that’s enough background…on to the story.
So in the Qur’an, Joseph tells his father about the sun and moon and stars bowing before him. Jacob warns him against telling his brothers, or else they’ll plot against him. Already we’re seeing that Jacob is quite a bit wiser in the Qur’an than he is described in Genesis.
The brothers are a bit clearer about their motivations as well, “Joseph and his brother are more dear to our father than we are, though we are a band.” (A travelling band? A rock band? No, probably just a large group of people…ten brothers not counting Joseph, if I’ve done my counting right). “So kill Joseph or drive him away to some land, and the face of your father shall be wholly yours, and after him you shall be a virtuous community.”
Okay, so the scheme to get rid of Joseph isn’t spur of the moment as he crosses a field; the brothers in the Qur’an plot this for the expressed goal of getting Daddy’s attention and being a better community. And they beg and convince Daddy to let them take Joseph out to the countryside, promising (with fingers crossed) to take good care of him.
They’ve, of course, agreed to hurl Joseph into a well to let some passersby collect him. They do so and come back home weeping, claiming that a wolf ate him. Jacob sees right through them.
If you’ve read this far, you’re clearly somewhat interested in the subject matter. If you’re a member of St. James’s, let me know! There is a book by John Kaltner called Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qur’an that I would love to read as a group. I read it in seminary, and wow, what a great way to study the Bible. Check it out through our St. James’s Bookstore.
“By reading the Qur’an?”
Yes, by reading the Qur’an! Think about it. When you want to find out about a person—be it a deceased family member or someone you’re dating (hopefully not both)—what do you do to find out more about that person? Besides Facebook stalking, you talk to people who know or knew that person, right?
“Dad, what was Grandpa like?”
“Maria, what is Antonio like?”
In a similar way, by asking our Muslim friends about Joseph—by reading a very different account of Joseph—we learn more about Jacob and the whole family. For instance, by reading the Qur’an we realize just how important knowledge is to the characters in this story. In the Qur’an, Jacob knows that his sons are capable and motivated to do something awful to Joseph, and when they do, he sees through their lies. And Jacob has made it quite clear to Joseph through his words how loved he is and how he will be protected by God.
In Genesis, Joseph’s confidence in Jacob’s love is much more dependent on the coat, which is taken away. And Jacob is totally aloof; he doesn’t seem to expect the worst and he believes their ridiculous story about a wild animal eating Joseph alive.
More than this, the Qur’an offers us a different perspective on the divine presence in this story. Where is God in the Genesis account? God hasn’t yet shown up, but in the Qur’an God communicates directly to Joseph by the time his life changes forever.
This begs a question for us: how do stories like Joseph’s reveal to us something about God, whether we read them in the Qur’an or in any given version of the Bible? This story (in the Qur’an), for example, suggests to me that Jacob is a sort of figure of aspiration; I want to be like Jacob. Yeah, he probably could have stopped his sons from throwing out Joseph like a bag of old technicolor dreamcoats, but I want to focus on how he decides to put his trust in God and in all of his sons—not for the sake of making a wish upon a star for some family tranquility, but for the sake of offering them a chance to do the right thing and reconcile their differences with each other.
I’d like to think that in this aspect of Jacob’s behavior we see a bit of God’s patient love, offering us opportunity after opportunity to reconcile.
I suspect that there are many more ways in which this story reveals something to us about God, but this is the longest blog post I’ve ever done, so I’ll stop…
The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. He offers reflections on the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday. He keeps a blog at FatherFarr.com.