Joseph Victim of Father’s Polygamy
Jacob’s family interactions highlight inability of a man to love multiple women equally and potential to extend unequal love to the children and, thus, jeopardize positive family relationships. His unequal love for wives and children led to hatred of Joseph by older brothers and a tragic event in the family. Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him in Dothan as he visited to check on them and their flock. However, kindly interventions by Reuben and Judah changed his sentence from death to enslavement and thus launched him onto his Egypt mission.
The life of Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob (also known as Israel), illustrates potential tragic family interactions resulting from polygamy as well as God’s grace in using an adversity to launch a positive change in a person’s life.
His life story begins with interactions with senior brothers (half-brothers, from the same father but different mothers) that hated him: partly because they believed he “stole” their father’s love and partly a manifestation of intra-family rivalry passed to them from their mothers. The hatred culminated in a tragic event that could have ended his life. However, the tragedy triggered a sequence of events in Joseph’s life that ultimately led him to the highest administrative position in Egypt. There he had an opportunity to retaliate against his brothers. However, he did not retaliate. Instead, he put them through tests to verify their repentance so he could forgive and reconcile with them. By doing so he cleared the way for fulfillment of God’s promise to their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to lead them to a foreign land where they will multiply and prosper before returning to the Promised Land.
In a previous bible study under Joseph Called to Mission, we focus on Joseph’s life as an illustration that God could use adversity to bring about a positive change for a person. Joseph’s mission to Egypt started with his tragic experience in Canaan: almost like burning part of a rocket to launch it into higher orbit. His brothers first threw him into a dry well, where he languished until they changed their mind about killing him and instead sold him as slave to merchants travelling to Egypt. That is, God used the adversity brought to Joseph by his brothers to “launch” him into his Egypt mission.
The current bible study focuses on understanding the tragic events among Jacob’s family in Canaan as the product of seeds of discord that Jacob sowed inadvertently through polygamy.
Polygamy Seeds of Discord
As we discuss in a previous bible study under Incidental Polygamist, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, his uncle Laban’s second daughter, while living with them in Padan Aram. He had left his parents in Canaan to go live with Laban. He met Rachel on arriving in Padan Aram and fell in love with her almost at first meeting. After living with Laban’s family for one month, Jacob proposed to marry Rachel and to work for Laban for seven years in return. Laban accepted the proposal. However, on the wedding night after seven years, he switched Rachel’s senior sister Leah into what was supposed to be Rachel’s wedding. Jacob became aware of the switch the next morning and protested. Laban explained to him that their custom required that older sister Leah be married before Rachel. He convinced Jacob to complete the wedding process with Leah and thereafter marry Rachel as well for an additional seven years of service. Jacob accepted and was married to Leah and Rachel, but his heart remained much more with Rachel than Leah. Furthermore, Laban gave a bridal gift of maidservant to each of Leah and Rachel: Zilpah to Leah and Bilhah to Rachel.
During their child-bearing years, children came in quick succession to Leah but none to Rachel. Therefore, Rachel convinced Jacob to take her maidservant Bilhah as wife, believing that the current emptiness of her “nest” could be filled by Bilhah having children with Jacob. He obliged and had two children with Bilhah. Leah became jealous and offered her maidservant Zilpah as wife to Jacob, who also accepted the offer and had two children with Zilpah. So, Jacob effectively had four wives that gave birth to twelve boys and one girl. Of the twelve boys: the first four and the ninth and tenth came from Leah, fifth and sixth from Bilhah, seventh and eighth from Zilpah, and the eleventh (Joseph) and twelfth (Benjamin) from Rachel. Both Joseph and Benjamin (more so, Benjamin) were born during Jacob’s old age.
The inevitable inequality of Jacob’s love for his wives and consequent unequal love for his children resulted in seeds of discord that appeared to poison family interactions.
Negative Interactions Among Children:
Seeds of Polygamy Germinate
Jacob loved Joseph and Benjamin more than his other children because they were children from his favorite wife Rachel and of his old age. Joseph’s older brothers hated him because they realized their father loved him more than he loved them [Genesis 37:3–4]: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.”
They probably didn’t like Benjamin any better, but they had more opportunity to show their hatred for Joseph because he was old enough to interact with them frequently whereas Benjamin was too young to interact with the older brothers: “Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them” [Genesis 37:2].
His brothers’ reaction to his dreams illustrate the intensity of their bad feelings toward him. He shared with them two dreams that suggested he might rein over them in the future. His brothers were enraged and hated him even more. In contrast, although his father rebuked the dreams, he still wondered and tried quietly to understand what they might mean [Genesis 37:10–11]: “When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”
The polygamy structure also likely contributed to the discord in other ways. Leah and Rachel competed for their husband’s attention. Leah knew that her husband loved Rachel more and loudly claimed vindication as she gave birth to more children than Rachel. Their rivalry and its negative effects on family interactions appear evident in the children’s names. Of the twelve sons of Jacob, nine were named in reference to Leah-Rachel rivalry, Judah and Joseph were named in reference to relationship with God, and Benjamin was named in reference to love. The two women likely passed on the rivalry to their children. Furthermore, maidservant-wives Bilhah and Zilpah likely conveyed a sense of rivalry to their children to guard against possibly being treated as “second class.”
Rivalry among the children found expression more as hatred for Joseph because the other children were united against him as the person that “stole” their father’s love, or personification of their loss of father’s love.
Victim of Family Tragedy
The hatred boiled over when Joseph, on his father’s request, went to visit with his senior brothers in the field where they were tending livestock. When he did not see them in Shechem as he expected, he did not give up and return home. Instead, he persevered and looked for them until he met someone that informed him they had relocated to Dothan [Genesis 37:17]: “…I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan.”
One would expect that the men, seeing their much younger brother had braved the wilderness to check on them, would have welcomed him, delighted that he came for them but also concerned that he risked his way to find them. Instead, when they saw him coming, they plotted to kill him [Genesis 37:20]: “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” What would motivate ten men to entertain such a terrible plot against their younger brother? Did they consider him their brother or just a personification of something they hated?
Reuben, the most senior of the ten brothers, recognized the enormity of the plot and negotiated a compromise with his brothers that saved Joseph’s life but was just as terrible: “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him” [Genesis 37:22]. Thus, Reuben saved his life and bought him some time. He intended to retrieve him later and return him alive to their father.
However, while he was away, Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery instead of leaving him to die in the well [Genesis 37:26–27]: “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’” Judah’s appeal saved Joseph.
Thus, he “escaped” his brothers alive but was nevertheless the victim of a terrible family tragedy. It is true that God used the tragedy to launch Joseph onto his Egypt mission. However, what his brothers did was wicked and illustrate potential issues of polygamy. They were agents of family tragedy, notwithstanding that God re-directed the tragedy toward his purpose.
Summary of What We Learned
Jacob’s family interactions highlight inability of a man to love multiple women equally and potential to extend unequal love to the children and, thus, jeopardize positive family relationships.
His unequal love for wives and children led to hatred of Joseph by older brothers and a tragic event in the family. Joseph’s brothers plotted to kill him in Dothan as he visited to check on them and their flock. However, kindly interventions by Reuben and Judah changed his sentence from death to enslavement and thus launched him onto his Egypt mission.