In his NIVAC commentary on Genesis, John Walton considers the characterization of Joseph, specifically asking whether or not Joseph is ever portrayed as a person to emulate. The hallmark episode of integrity in Joseph’s life would seem to be his refusal of Mrs. Potiphar’s advances (Gen 39). Furthermore, his general skills and wisdom are recognized by Potiphar (39.1-6), the keeper of the Prison (39.21-23), and Pharaoh himself (41.37-45).
Ultimately, however, Walton suggests that the emphasis of the Joseph story is not on Joseph’s character, but on God as the “character builder”:
In the context of the discussion of the book of Genesis and its purpose, the integrity of Joseph is not a major point the author pursues at any length. In most cases, Joseph’s conduct is capable of being interpreted in a number of different ways. No clear model is presented, and no exhortations or statements of approval from the narrator urge us to go and do likewise. The narrative of Genesis 39 fits in the larger scheme portraying how God, in his sovereignty, brings his plans to fruition through what appear to be the most devastating of circumstances.
While I would grant that Joseph’s behavior in Gen 37.1-11 is ambiguous (I personally find it naïve and immature at best), I wonder just how “capable of being interpreted in a number of different ways” is Joseph’s wise and godly behavior. After all, the assessments of Potiphar, the keeper of the Prison, and Pharaoh noted above are hard to read as anything other than the author’s stamp of approval.
Walton notes – correctly I believe – that “if a particular method works in one case but gets the interpreter in real trouble in another, it is an unacceptable method” (693). Whether he has shown this to be the case for those attempting to see Joseph as an exemplar of wise living, however, is far from certain. His major argument for downplaying the exemplary value of Joseph is his economic policies in Gen 47.13-26. He assesses what happens in this passage as follows:
Was this a fair and equitable economic policy for the Egyptians? Their surplus was commandeered, which meant that they could not profit from it. Then it was sold back to them in their need until they were devoid of personal possessions and had no alternative but to work for the government at subsistence level compensation.
Aside from the fact that the general principle of a narrative can be commendable apart from the particular outworking of that principle, are Joseph’s actions in Gen 47.13-26 really along the lines of exploitation during time of crisis as he alludes?
In his brief comments on this passage (from the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition), Gordon Wenham assesses things very differently. He writes:
Divine blessing on Egypt was immediately apparent through Joseph supplying the Egyptians with grain during the famine. Modern readers of this section tend to view Joseph’s approach to the hungry Egyptians as cruel exploitation. Why did he not just give them food instead of demanding they exchanged their herds, land and freedom for grain? This is not the way the OT views the situation. Lv. 25:14-43 shows that it was regarded as a great act of charity to buy the land of the destitute and to take them on as your employees (‘slaves’). Indeed, such ‘slavery’ under a good employer was regarded by some as preferable to the risks of freedom (self-employment), and when offered freedom, some slaves refused to take it (Ex. 21:5-6; De. 15:16-17). Slavery in OT times was very different from the harsh exploitation that was involved in the Atlantic slave trade of more recent centuries. OT slavery at its best meant a job for life with a benevolent employer.
New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Pg. 89.
In his larger commentary on Genesis (in the Word Biblical Commentary series), Wenham explains further:
This was viewed as a great act of charity, for as the Egyptians say to Joseph, “You have saved our lives” (47:25). It is within this context that Joseph’s actions must be judged. In Israel, those who became destitute and sold their land or themselves to a more prosperous relative or friend were given their land or freedom back in the year of Jubilee, which occurred every fifty years. Apparently, the Pharaoh was not so generous; he retained the land and people as his serfs in perpetuity. But Joseph cannot be blamed for that. He saved the Egyptians from famine and so carried out the scheme he had proposed after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream and demonstrated his God-given wisdom (42:36).
Genesis 16-50, Pg. 452.
So what precisely is either commendable or questionable about Joseph’s actions in Genesis 47? Does the decision to see exemplary value in Joseph’s character necessarily lead us to commend economic exploitation? Or might we see in Joseph’s economic policies a commendable work of protecting a nation from demise at the hand of a terrible famine? It would seem that Walton and Wenham answer this question differently.
While there is danger in a simplistic “dare to be a Daniel” approach, let us not forget that the characters in the biblical narratives are real human beings who behave uprightly sometimes and poorly other times. While Walton’s impetus is a good one, I’m not convinced it does justice to the “thickness” of the OT narratives, nor the way in which the NT writers concretize and apply those narratives and characters from time to time. Exemplarism is certainly to be avoided, but a Redemptive-Historical reading of biblical narratives does not preclude us from observing and learning from wise behavior or from recognizing and avoiding folly wherever it shows up in Scripture.
For some resources dealing with the exemplary value of biblical characters (pro, con, & mixed), see the following:
- Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts (Wipf and Stock, 2001).
- David Murray, “Christ’s People: Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament Characters,” in Jesus on Every Page:10 Simple Ways to Find Christ in the Old Testament (Thomas Nelson, 2013).
- Richard Pratt, “Characters in Old Testament Stories,” in He Gave us Stories: The Bible Student’s Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives (P&R, 1990).
- Leland Ryken, “Hero Stories,” in Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (2d ed.; Baker Academic, 1992.
See too Iain Duguid’s numerous commentaries and book studies of narrative texts and OT characters.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)