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Theme: Living the Dream

Leading Question: How do you turn dreams into realities?

The “master of dreams” (Gen 37:19) is the mocking label put on the young man named Joseph by his older brothers.

Question: How does a label of disdain become a title of honor?

From chapter 37 on the book of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph except for one puzzling interlude, which is the story about Judah and Tamar in chapter 38. The focus of the long narrative is about the question, ‘Who will lead the family of Jacob into the future?’ Will it be the firstborn of all the sons, Reuben, son of Leah, or will it be Joseph, the firstborn of Rachel? As the narratives in Genesis show, the leader will be the surprising rise of Judah who emerges as the leader of Israel’s tribes in the context of the Joseph cycle.

The importance of the Joseph story lies in the fact that it initiates a chain of events that leads to the descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt; it is the prelude to the drama of oppression and Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery that constitutes the overriding motif of biblical theology. Joseph’s experience is the culmination of a series of episodes set in motion by causes that seem mostly insignificant or petty, and mundane. A father’s favoritism, sibling jealousies, dreams of a young boy—all these are elements of a family situation that culminates in explosive tragedy.

The animosity in Joseph’s story starts right at the beginning when we read, that “Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilphah. And Joseph brought bad reports for them to their father” (Gen 37:2). The second cause of enmity follows right there saying that “Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic” (v. 3). Jacob’s undisguised partiality intensified the hostility. The third and most grave source of discord was Joseph’s dreams. The problem with dreams must be understood against the cultural background of the times. A dream was recognized as a means of divine communication. This would be reason enough for the brothers to take Joseph seriously, had it not been for their perception about his egotistical aspirations and grandstanding.

Joseph’s brothers plot his destruction, first intending to kill him, until Reuben suggest they should just leave him in a pit. Then Judah said to his brothers,

“What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?
Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves.
After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.”

“His brothers agreed. When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit.
They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites,
who brought Joseph to Egypt.”
(Genesis 37:18-28)

What callousness! At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” Judah is proposing selling him as a slave. At this point, Judah becomes “Judas.” He is the last person from whom we would expect anything good. Nevertheless, at the end of the entire Joseph story, Judah emerges as a changed man. In the final episode, when Joseph demands that the brothers return home to their father Jacob without Benjamin (Gen 44:18–34), Judah becomes the group’s spokesman. He showed unexpected compassion in telling of the family’s heart-wrenching experience of starvation, of his father’s undying love for Benjamin, and of his own promise to his father that he would bring Benjamin back home. Then, Judah offered to substitute himself in place of Benjamin!

Question: How did such a radical transformation of Judah come about? What does real change and transformation look like?

To understand how Judah becomes a changed person we need to know about the story that does not seem to fit into the entire Joseph narative. It is the interlude of Genesis 38, that tells of Judah, who more than anyone else in the entire book of Genesis, becomes a changed man. For the man we meet after that episode is not who he once was when he sold Joseph into slavery. While Joseph served in the house of Potiphar and suffered in an Egyptian dungeon, Judah’s life took dramatic turns after he moved away from his brothers and married a Canaanite woman with whom he had three children. His eldest son, named Er, married Tamar. She too, must have been a Canaanite. Her husband Er died young, leaving Tamar a childless widow. Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to marry her, “to do his duty as the husband’s brother and raise up offspring for his brother” (Gen 38:8). Realising that a child from the marriage would be considered as belonging to his dead brother rather than his, Onan is careful not to make Tamar pregnant. Onan too dies young. And now the right thing would be for Judah’s third son, Shelah, to marry Tamar; but Judah is reluctant to let this happen, “for he was afraid that Shelah too might die like his brothers” (Gen 38:11).

The underlying law in the story is the levirate marriage law, stated in Deut 25:6, where a member of the dead husband’s family is to marry his childless widow. Based upon the law, Tamar decides on a bold course of action. Hearing that Judah was about to pass by on his way to the sheep-shearing, she removes her widow’s clothes, puts on a veil, and sits at the crossroads. Judah sees her, does not recognize his daughter-in-law, and takes her for a prostitute. They negotiate a price, and Tamar insists on his seal and its cord and his staff as a pledge of security. Judah agrees, and they sleep together. The next day he sends a friend with the payment, but the friend cannot find her, and people tell him that there is no prostitute in the area. Judah shrugs off the episode, saying “Let her keep the pledge, or we will be a laughingstock” (Gen 38:23).

Three months later, people notice that Tamar is pregnant. Judah orders, “Bring her out so that she may be burnt.” Only now we realize the subtlety of Tamar’s strategy. She sent word to her father-in-law, “The father of my child is the man to whom these things belong . . . See if you recognise whose they are, this seal, the pattern of the cord, and the staff.” When Judah identifies them, he says, “She is more righteous than I am, because I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:25–26).

This one brief verse holds in it an acknowledgement of the harm Judah had done to Tamar and his expression of regret; it testifies to his transformation.

Question: What are some ways of breaking a life cycle of dysfunction?

Joseph, who was sold into slavery and brought down into Egypt, finds himself, through a combination of luck and talent, eventually well-positioned as Pharoah’s vizier. When his brothers came to Egypt for grain, and did not recognize him, Joseph develops an elaborate ruse to determine whether they were still the same people who willingly sold him into slavery.  In the end, Joseph has his youngest brother Benjamin framed for theft, and declares that Benjamin must remain enslaved in the Egyptian court. It is Judah who speaks up! He tells of the terrible grief that Jacob suffered after hearing that Joseph was dead and worries aloud that Jacob might not survive another blow if his youngest son would also be taken away.

“Therefore,” Judah pleads, “please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord
instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.”
(Gen 44:33)

Here, Judah had the opportunity to commit the same harm that he had previously committed on Joseph. However, he made a different choice because he was a different person. Judah could not undo the past, but after his encounter with Tamar, he is able to break the cycle so that a different future would be possible for his family.

Question: How did Joseph’s dreams become realities?

The interpretation and misinterpretation of Joseph’s dreams becomes the key to finding out who will be the leader of the family who will become a people and nation. Joseph’s brothers misinterpreted the dreams assuming that Joseph would autocratically rule over his family. This misinterpretation had led to tragedy because it impelled Joseph’s brothers to depose him so that he ended up in Egypt. When Joseph met his brothers in Egypt, this became the moment for Joseph to recognize his own responsibility based on the dreams he had, namely that he was called to care for his family and not rule over them. As his brothers bowed to him in their inquiry for food, he understood that the dream about the brothers’ sheaves bowing to his sheaf was not about his power over them, but about his responsibility to feed them as an Egyptian official in charge of food.

After Jacob’s death the brothers reverted back to their original interpretation of his dreams. They expected that Joseph would revenge himself for what they had done to him. Genesis 50:17 and 19 tells how Joseph cried and comforted them saying that it was God’s will to transform their evil intent to good and thus give him the power to sustain and care for the entire family. In this sense, Joseph does become the “master of dreams” and a true leader in generosity and responsibility.

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