Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Perfect Crime? (Genesis 37:31)

Whose coat was dipped in blood? Joseph’s (Genesis 37:31).

Jacob bestowed a special garment to his son, Joseph, which represented his status as the favorite (Genesis 37:3). The coat served to increase hostility between Jacob and his ten elder stepbrothers who were already peeved that he was a tattletale who bragged of grandiose dreams (Genesis 37:2, 4, 8, 11, 20). Their hatred led the stepbrothers to hatch a plot to eliminate Joseph (Genesis 37:18-36). Their initial plan was for Joseph to be murdered, thrown into a pit and the brothers to claim he had been devoured by a beast (Genesis 37:20). Eldest brother, Reuben, intervened on the seventeen year old’s behalf and convinced his brothers that violence was unnecessary and that abandoning him in a chasm would be sufficient (Genesis 37:21-22). Reuben planned to retrieve Joseph from the shaft but while his brothers ate as if nothing was wrong, Judah saw a band of traveling Ishmaelites and motioned to sell Joseph to them (Genesis 37:25-28). Reuben’s rescue was foiled and Joseph was sold into slavery.

As is so often the case, one sin led to another. A problem remained - what were they going to tell dad? The brothers had eliminated Joseph but needed to invalidate the possibility of his return in their father’s mind. There could be no search parties. The brothers engaged in a sophomoric cover up as they slaughtered a goat and covered Joseph’s unmistakable tunic in the goat’s blood (Genesis 37:31). The Targum of Jonathan and Jarchi conjectures that they selected a goat as its blood was most like human blood. They then presented the cloak to their father and careful not to lie, allowed him to make his own conclusions about the fate of his favored son (Genesis 37:32). They inform their father, “We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son’s tunic or not (Genesis 37:32 NASB).” Even in asking Jacob to identify the tunic, they distance themselves from the scenario by referring to Joseph as “your son” as opposed to “our brother” (Genesis 37:32). The message accompanying the cloak is blunt. There is no compassion nor any attempt to soften the blow.

It is Jacob’s verdict that Joseph was devoured by a ferocious animal, not the brothers (Genesis 37:33). Jacob collapsed under the weight of his bereavement (Genesis 37:34-35). Had the father controlled his grief he might have found it suspicious that the cloak was stained though not torn, but holding Joseph’s bloody garment in his hands, it never occurred to him that his sons were deceiving him just as he had deceived his father (Genesis 27:1-29). Jacob’s giving of the cloak had caused the brothers pain and their giving it to Jacob caused him more. This cruelty demonstrates that the brothers’ contempt was not directed only towards the favored son but also towards the father who favored him.

Did the brothers need to strip Joseph of the tunic? What other “proof” could they have collected? Do you think the destruction of the coat was convenient or did they take pleasure in it? Is it any wonder that Jacob preferred Joseph?

The special coat given by Jacob to his beloved son, Joseph, became the object of the brothers’ hatred, the symbol of their animosity. It was not by chance that their plot included the permanent staining and intentional soiling it of the tunic. It must have been cathartic for the brothers to destroy the garment.

Although Joseph’s coat is mentioned only in Genesis 37, it has become his personal icon (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31, 32, 33). It represents him and in this story quite literally, the clothes made the man. As the cloak caused him so much pain, some scholars have made an acronym of the Hebrew adjective pasim used to describe the coat with the letters corresponding to those who bought him as a slave: Potiphar (Genesis 37:36, 39:1-23), traders (Sokharim, Genesis 37:28), Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:25-28), Midianites (Genesis 37:28, 36).

The Hebrew used to describe the coat is k’tonet pasim. Though the story will forever be branded by the King James Version’s “coat of many colours” (ASV, KJV), the garment has been translated as a “long robe with sleeves” (RSV, NRSV), “robe of many colors” (ESV, HCSB), “tunic of many colors” (NKJV), “varicolored tunic” (NASB), “elaborately embroidered coat” (MSG), “ornate robe” (NIV), “beautiful robe” (NLT), and “fancy coat” (CEV). The only other time this exact Hebrew wording is used describes the garb of a royal princess also in the context of strife amongst siblings (II Samuel 13:18). The first time the word k’tonet (“tunic”) is used is at the dawn of history to describe the clothes God made Adam and Eve following their eating of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:21). There is a tradition that these garments were one and the same, handed down from Adam eventually to Esau, where they were used by Jacob to procure the blessing from his father. The specific history and features of the garment are not as significant as the favoritism is represented.

Claus Westermann (1909-2000) wrote, “Every act of murder seeks to eliminate not only a human being, but also some sort of impediment in the murderer’s path, and most murder motives tend to be based on jealousy or covetousness.” (Westermann, Joseph: studies of the Joseph stories in Genesis, 13). In discarding Joseph, the brothers eliminated a rival to their father’s love and also destroyed the symbol of his priority.

Amazingly, they appear to have gotten away with the crime! Nowhere in Genesis is it claimed that Jacob ever found out what actually happened and they never suffered any tangible consequences for selling their brother into slavery. Though the brothers assume Jacob knew (Genesis 50:17), Jacob makes no mention of this transgression in his final blessings of his sons (Genesis 49:1-27). Had he known, Jacob would no doubt have mentioned the fact in these last words. Even so, it must have been difficult to have such a skeleton in the family closet. As seen by the brothers’ fear after their father’s death, the action (and fear of reprisal) was always with them (Genesis 50:15-20).

Which of the brothers’ actions was crueler - selling Joseph or deceiving Jacob? What is the biggest skeleton in your family’s closet? How does it affect you? God is not even hinted at in Genesis 37. Where was God when these events transpired?

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