Joseph Case Study #1: A Bad Report

In my last post, I began a study of the popular interpretation of Genesis 37 that accuses the young Joseph of acting with pride in his dealings with his family, especially his older brothers, incurring their wrath against him, and making an already troubled family relationship even worse. My premise is that, apart from tradition and conjecture, the Scriptures reveal no direct evidence for reaching such a conclusion.

background-2478897_1280The first proof some commentators have offered as evidence of Joseph’s pride was the “bad report” he made concerning his brothers.

Gen. 37:2 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. (NIV)

For our study, we will begin with exploring why Moses referred to this report from Joseph to his father, Jacob, as evil or bad. There are several reasons that might have caused the report to be identified as bad or evil.

  1. Joseph may have done a bad job of delivering the news.
  2. Joseph may have had an evil motive in making the report, possibly to the point of lying in the report.
  3. Joseph may have simply delivered news of happenings that were evil.

Content

The Bible tells us if this was an accurate report. In fact, the only thing the Bible tells us about this report is that it was bad or evil, which could mean many things as we have seen.

We will begin by looking closely at the words translated “evil report” in verse two.

The Hebrew word for evil used here is the most commonly used word for evil in the Old Testament. About 80% of the time, the word is translated as evil, bad, or some form of the word wicked. At other times, it is translated more specifically to refer to that which is disagreeable, malignant, hurtful, and unkind or even vicious.

The word for report is used only nine times in the Old Testament. Three of those times it is translated as “evil report,” but four times it is translated as slander.

Based on these definitions, one might conclude that the report was bad because it contained evidence and/or examples of the vicious slander being spread around the country concerning the sons of Jacob. This is the interpretation offered by at least two 18th century commentators.

The first of these is Professor Peter Lange. According to Lange, the words used here for bad report refer to “a rumor whispered or creeping around.” According to Lange, the reference to Joseph’s giving a bad report concerning his brothers “does not mean that Joseph made accusations against them, as the Vulgate has it, but that, in boyish simplicity, he repeated what he had heard about them.” [1] Boyish simplicity seems very far removed from malicious and slanderous intent.

Continuing with this same theme, The Pulpit Commentary agrees that Joseph did not report what he himself personally witnessed, but simply repeated the scandalous things that were “circulating in the district respecting” the evil characters of the brothers.[2] And the reports are not difficult to accept when we witness the attitude and actions the brothers take concerning the welfare of Joseph later in Chapter 2.

Revenge

Referring to the definitions of the two terms “bad report” given above, one might reasonably come to the conclusion that this was an evil report because Joseph gave a vicious and slanderous, and possibly even untrue report to Jacob concerning his brothers.

Maybe this report is labeled “evil” to indicate that Joseph spoke badly of his brothers to Jacob because he was not happy with them about the way they treated him. Was Joseph guilty of being a tattle-tale – of running to his father to tell on his brothers for spiteful reasons, thus incurring his brothers’ wrath towards him?

The problem is that such an interpretation of Joseph’s behavior contradicts everything else the Bible has to say about Joseph. There is nothing specific in verse 2 to indicate Joseph’s intent or motives in making the report.

Never once in all of one’s study of Joseph will one discover such an attitude about him or such a reaction to his circumstances. There is no evidence that Joseph ever resorted to lying to achieve selfish goals, or that he ever acted maliciously toward an enemy.

Once again, based on what the Bible actually says, there is no evidence that the bad reports were spawned by Joseph’s ill treatment. There is no direct evidence from Genesis 37 or from the context of this part of Genesis that Joseph had ever been treated badly by his brothers prior to the events of verses 12ff.

If his brothers treated him so badly on a regular basis, why would Joseph have gone, seemingly alone and undefended and with a willing heart, to find his brothers at Shechem? There is no evidence that he approached or entered their encampment with any reservation or sense of fear.

If there was no previous ill treatment, what motive would Joseph have had for giving a slanderous report about his brothers?

Such an understanding is most likely the projection of our knowledge of subsequent events that take place in the story and our own knowledge of human nature. In other words, one assumes that, since the brothers treated Joseph so badly later in the chapter, they must have been treating him badly all along. And we have an idea that, if we were abused as we assume Joseph was, we would not be gracious in our reporting.

One might dig a bit further into this situation and ask, “Did the brothers in fact know that Joseph had made this ‘bad report’ to Jacob?” There is nothing in verse 2 or in Genesis 37 to indicate that they did.

In verse 8, we read, “And they (the brothers) hated him (Joseph) all the more because of his dream and what he had said.” Those last few words, “what he had said,” could be construed to mean that, at the time Joseph revealed his dreams to his brothers, they were already angry with Joseph because of the bad reports he had delivered previously.

However, the context seems to indicate that this phrase refers more accurately to the incident of verses 5-7 where Joseph vocalized the content of his dream. This point will be dealt with in a later article.

Commenting on Genesis 37:2, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Ccommentary provides the following concerning Joseph’s role as a shepherd and the content of the report:

Joseph . . . was feeding the flock – literally, “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock” – he a lad, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. Oversight or superintendence is evidently implied. This post of chief shepherd in the party might be assigned him either from his being the son of a principal wife or from his own superior qualities of character; and if invested with this office, he acted not as a gossiping telltale, but as a “faithful steward” in reporting the scandalous conduct of his brethren. [3]

These commentators are only guessing that Joseph went to tend sheep in a supervisory role. They admit that such is “evidently implied,” even though there is no direct evidence that such was the case. However, if all these things were true, and assuming that the report was accurate, then Joseph should be commended for his report as one who is reliable, and truthful.

The conclusion appears justified that Joseph is undeserving of a general condemnation by others just because the report he gave is defined as evil or bad.

Pride

More in line with the accusation of pride, one might ask, “Did Joseph give a bad report because he felt superior to his brothers and wished to demean them even further in his father’s eyes with a truthful yet slanderous report?”

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary apparently does not believe this to be true:

Neither are we obliged to suppose that Joseph was a gratuitous tale-bearer, or that when he carried their evil report to his father he was actuated by a prudish, censorious, or in any way unworthy spirit. That he very well knew how to hold his tongue no man ever gave more adequate proof; but he that understands that there is a time to keep silence necessarily sees also that there is a time to speak. [4]

The Bible does not give us any direct evidence that Joseph ever felt superior to anyone, including his brothers.

Summary

Based on a literal reading of the text of Genesis 37 and based on what we know of the character of Joseph revealed in subsequent parts of the story of his life, the report he gave was bad or evil because its contents were of evil things. Joseph reported what he had witnessed, what he had heard from others, or possibly both.

In fact, a closer reading of verse two casts doubt on who or what the report might have contained. The nearest antecedent of the pronoun “them” in verse two is not all of the brothers, but four of his half-brothers – the sons of Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah (Gad and Asher).

Thus we must conclude that, based on what “thus saith the Lord,” Joseph cannot be accused of acting with pride when he gave his evil report to Jacob. Instead, Joseph appears to have given an indication of the purity of his character that would be proven in subsequent events in his life.

Joseph apparently delivered the news as it was without any known motive other than possibly obedience to the wishes of his father, Jacob. Any other conclusion is without biblical support and conjecture.

NEXT: Case 2, The Beautiful Coat


NOTES

[1] Lange, John Peter. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, Homiletical, Vol. 1. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1864, p 580.

[2] Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. “Commentary on Genesis 37:1”. The Pulpit Commentary. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/view.cgi?bk=0&ch=37. 1897

[3] Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset and David Brown. The Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. 1871. Online Bible software, Copyright © 2014, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario, Canada, N0B 2V0.

[4] Nicoll, William R. “Commentary on Genesis 37:1”. “Expositor’s Bible Commentary”. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/view.cgi?bk=0&ch=37

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