Monday, April 19, 2021

Reading the Joseph Episode in the Book of Genesis

from the perspective of ‘trafficking’


It is obvious that one who reads the Bible often experiences a kind of ‘story-effect’ that pleases the reader.  What we read and how we read go together.  Reading the Bible is fascinating since every time a person reads a new experience is felt.  Many facts remain hidden as long as the reader continues to engage in reading and knowing the ‘familiar.’  But one is surprised by the ‘unfamiliar’ when that person engages in a new way of looking at what the Bible contains.  That is the experience for a person who reads the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis.

Joseph’s narrative offers a kind of literature which is distinctive in the Book of Genesis. The narrative should be understood as a sophisticated literary response to a cultural, theological crisis.  The intellectual world of this narrative is much more than what we have understood hitherto.  The narrative has an identifiable and singular motif.  The purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnoticed ways.

The movement of the narrative is from the initial dream of Joseph through which the purpose of God is announced (37. 5-9) to the secure settlement of Israel in the land under the governance of Joseph (47.27).  Without the dream there would be no Joseph and no narrative.  Joseph is found faithful to the dream.  It is God who guards the dream and the dreamer until the dream is made public (45. 5-8; 50. 19-20).   The narrative may be a call to the listening community to let the dream to be at work.

The story we haven’t heard

The intention of this presentation is to know the ‘unfamiliar’ through the ‘familiar’ and to understand the ‘invisible’ through the ‘visible.’  There are at least two tales in the young person Joseph.  While he is a survivor of human trafficking who ultimately becomes a successful state food aid distributor, he is also portrayed as one who himself colludes to enslave people in their own lands in return for the bread he has stored up with God’s help.  Joseph’s story may be viewed at as an example of slave trade or human trafficking in the Bible, when the ‘unfamiliar’ become ‘familiar.’

Joseph is a younger son, disadvantaged by that and by his father’s special recognition of him as a son of the favorite dead wife so long barren: it is the younger Joseph who checks up on his brother and tattles to the father when necessary, a reversal of expected order in the patriarchal family.  According to some scholars, Joseph can be conceived of as a cipher for the standard dying-and-rising gods celebrated in the Akitu New Year festival.  According to an older view, the festival represents a descent into chaos which ultimately led to the re-establishment of cosmic, theological, and political order.  Some scholars asserted that the Akitu included a re-enactment of Tiamat’s defeat by Marduk (W. G. Lambert, “The Great Battle of the Mesopotamian Religious Year: The Conflict in the Akÿtu House,”Iraq25 (1963), 189–90.  Also T. Jacobsen, “Religious Drama in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in H. Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts, eds., Unity and Diversity(Baltimore, 1975), 73–74), an event that was explicitly mentioned during the festival when Enuma Elish, the Babylonian epic of Marduk the creator, was recited. The festival presents an outstanding instance of “the periodic repetition of Creation and the periodic regeneration of time”; it actuates the irruption of primordial—and hence dangerous or sacred—time into mundane time, an irruption that both threatens and enriches cosmic order.  This interpretation of the Akitu has deeply influenced attitudes towards Babylonian culture and assessments of ritual and of festival calendars throughout the Levant.  Here in the story one may see Joseph losing his clothes, descendi9ng, and is resurrected in a new status—repeatedly.

But there is more from the underlying ancient cultural context of the Joseph Story than that: we have a bundle of mythic or folktale elements in the Joseph Story, sprinkled throughout the work: the portents and the dreams that come true, the mistaken identities, the magic cup hidden in the sack, reversals of fortune, difficult tasks and solutions, and of course, a personal favorite, the folklore motif.  This is the so-called ‘Spurned Seductress’ who tries to set up the poor, innocent, comely, and moral male youth who refuses her advances.  The occasion of all these traditional elements in the telling of Joseph’s story should tell us that this narrative is not quite the historical document scholars once made of it.  Notice how the individual hero is allowed to succeed, but the mechanisms of his low estate are not challenged or changed; indeed, by the end of his story, he has become the slaver, and all this is somehow part of God’s plan!  Perhaps a bit of that may be supplied by reading Joseph through contemporary categories we might assign to his circumstances: Joseph is a story of human trafficking, and it is not irrelevant to the modern world, no matter how the narrator tried to pretty up the story by assigning the actual trafficking to foreigners and providing us with a happy ending!  The narrative of Joseph the Successful Food Aid Worker also has a point to make for people in similar settings in the here and now.

Human Trafficking then and now

One may agree that there are more slaves on planet Earth than there ever were during antiquity.   One can, of course, be a smuggled person who is trafficked, but one can also be trafficked in one’s own society without having to cross any borders.  The Egypt of the Hyksos and later periods certainly worried about their borders and controlled them zealously, but in order to control profits from trade and collect “protection” money from caravans, merchants, and travelers—not because of some feared terrorist threat.   Generally, we see grain, wine, and oil moving into the Delta [The Nile Delta is the delta formed in Northern Egypt (Lower Egypt) where the Nile River spreads out and drains into the Mediterranean Sea.  It is one of the world’s largest river deltas—from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east, it covers 240 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline—and is a rich agricultural region. From north to south the delta is approximately 160 kilometers in length.  The Delta begins slightly down-river from Cairo] from the southern Levant [The Levant is the geographical region bordering the Mediterranean, roughly between Egypt and Anatolia (modern Turkey).  The Southern Levant is roughly encompassed by Israel, the Palestinian territoriesJordan and the southern part of Lebanon.], and grain and incense moving from Arabia and Egypt north up into the Delta, but no clear estimation can be found of the amount of slave traffic which might have been taking place.   We must assume that armies bring the prisoners of war back to their home base, while target populations are recruited in some less violent way.   In fact, archaeology is clear in painting a portrait of increased southern Levantine population migration into the Eastern Delta of the Nile starting in the 12th and 13th Dynasties, some probably brought as war captives and others recruited as mercenaries, seamen, shipbuilders, craftsmen, as well as transhumant nomads following their yearly range.  The trafficking story almost always includes the key components of fraud and deception, coercion, threats, force, and greed.  It is bound up with identifiable human rights abuses such as debt bondage, deprivation of liberty, lack of control over personal freedom and labor, sexual torture, and so on.  All these are seen in the Book of Genesis.

The origins of trafficking are directly linked in many societies to poverty, birth rate, and cultural preference for boy children, but one must identify which aspect correlates to which group engaged in the trafficking.  Poverty is usually the reason given for a family’s decision to sell off an “extra” female child who, due to preference for boys, is considered only a burden to her family, a financial investment from which some other family will benefit when she eventually becomes their sexual property.  Fraud, practiced by the traffickers on the family or by the family on the traffickee is one of the hallmarks of the trafficking operation, and we see it in the text in Genesis.

When we look at the family context of Joseph, we see that the story is inverted from the modern reality in a number of ways, whether fraudulently or not.  Jealousies among the siblings and the favoritism of the father pave the way for the brothers’ fraud perpetrated upon their father and the traffickers who believe the brothers must have a right to sell their sibling (these brothers are so venomous, they even try to defraud each other!).  Reuben attempts a good trick within a bad trick: instead of killing him outright, he proposes that Joseph be thrown into a pit, thinking that he will rescue him later (Gen. 37.22).  However, Judah sees a prime opening: why just kill the troublesome youth, when one could sell him for a profit, and defraud the father with the bloodied gift that inspired the jealousy (Gen. 37. 26-27)!  Luckily for everyone but Joseph and Jacob, a caravan apparently operating in the slave trade appears at the very moment it is needed, though there is considerable confusion over exactly which groups of foreign evil-doers is to be blamed for the actual acts.  In these early episodes, greed or poverty may be at work but we certainly see fraud in the brothers’ dealings all around, and use of force to deprive Joseph of clothing and freedom of movement.

Yet, notice that unlike a modern trafficking story, we have no overt hint in this family of any financial motives that might explain the sale of a child, unless we take it from the peculiar interruption of Joseph’s story by the one of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  Joseph’s plight results from nothing but malice, but one wonders how accurate that may be, given the overwhelming evidence of the role of poverty in sales of children for exploitation.  The reader may learn later that Joseph is quite a pretty boy (Gen. 39.6)—everyone in Egypt thinks so, and it is no little part of his servile charm, apparently!  Perhaps Joseph’s splendid appearance as a youth makes him a very attractive purchase, sure to turn a good price for that special kind of master who enjoys male beauty.  Perhaps Judah’s fiscal plans are a foreshadowing of the new family financial pressures that will be caused by the taking of a new wife, and the arrival of Tamar’s twins in Genesis 38. Mieke Bal has argued that the so-called “intrusion” of the Judah-Tamar story into Joseph’s narrative is designed to reassure us that no matter what sexual charges are made, the chosen, righteous one—Tamar or Joseph—will be just fine in God’s hands, and that we, the audience should not worry over their ultimate fates (Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 91-103].  We never hear WHO receives the payment for the sale of Joseph, or how it was shared out.  Someone has made out on this deal, and it’s certainly not Joseph or Jacob!  The text’s secrecy on this issue fits the modern profile: traffickers are careful to guard their secrets, and too often, families join in the game, as we see in Genesis.

The Bible seems to reference the shameful underbelly of shared guilt in the trafficking story in its confusion about exactly who bought and traded Joseph.  Sometimes, it is the wicked Ishmaelites who see their chance to make a quick and easy “buy” (Genesis 39.1); elsewhere it is the Midianites, who are responsible, or perhaps both.  Whether Midianites or Ishmaelites are the perpetrators, it is natural enough to suspect that all caravans in import-export trade might also include children and adult slaves on their way to market or sent in tribute—another form of trafficking coercion.  We may observe such possibilities in the tomb paintings from Beni Hassan, showing us a donkey caravan arriving with tribute for Egypt, including donkeys, musicians, small children, and perhaps others.  However, one may be surpised to see how little the particulars of the slave trade in biblical times figure in the standard discussion of Joseph’s plight, or in slavery in general in the Bible.  It is heartening that the Hebrew Bible is the only text from the ancient Near East that actually prescribes compensation and freedom to slaves who have been permanently injured by violence by masters or others, and that slaves in one’s own ethnic group, at least, are not to be returned to their foreign masters.

Joseph in Egypt

The trouble that Joseph encounters in Potiphar’s house tells us textually, however, that the modern story of the sexual exploitation of the trafficked teenager may not be absent from Joseph’s real experience as a trafficked slave of unusual beauty.  First of all, as a trafficked resident of Egypt, Joseph has before him in every public building or elite household decoration a blatant portrait of how Egypt feels about the Other: the smiting of the foreign enemy (often labeled as the “wretched Asiatic enemy”—another translation for the Egyptian for “Hyksos”) figures from the Early Dynastic Period down to the end of the days of late antiquity.   He knows his status as an “Other”: any dispute or failure to please will leave him bound for the pit, just as his trafficking journey began.  Next, one might be forgiven for suspecting that the brothers had a little more degradation in mind for Joseph than just an afternoon in a pit followed by simple slavery.  What excellent revenge for being his father’s pet!  What IS unusual is that Joseph is male, not female, but we are put in mind of Esther, coerced one way or another, into a foreign harem where only her beauty qualifies her for any kind of life at all in a world where her ethnicity puts her at risk (“…The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at”).  Everyone likes a pretty slave, and modest, docile ones—well, the God of the Masters is certainly with them!

A ring on the finger in the form of a legitimate marriage into a single household is the ultimate prize for the earnest female sex worker, or sometimes the escape is made through rising through the ranks of the exploited to serve as an overseer and manager of other newly-trafficked victims.  Both happen in Genesis; Joseph gains a high-ranking protector who gives him a ring when he is ‘adopted’ into Pharaoh’s household as an honored member, and his later career as Food Aid Worker gives him power over others who then become slaves in return for food aid.

Things are relatively decent for the young slave in Potiphar’s house, at least at first.  Like so many trapped in the trafficking world, he becomes the object of sexual coercion, and later fraudulent testimony by the lady of the house—whom some have suggested may have envied Potiphar’s preference for Joseph over his own wife.   Similar to modern stories, such threats as acted upon by Potiphar’s wife show how precarious is the position of the trafficked slave: in any legal dispute, it is unlikely that the slave will be the winner.  Joseph is again consigned to a pit, only to be delivered yet again by his dream expertise.  However, Joseph’s story varies from the other Ancient Near East examples; only in Genesis does the issue of ethnicity come into play; only here does the wife escape punishment, and the accused youngster come out relatively unscathed.

I would love to tell it the Bible’s way, with a big emphasis on God’s care for the trafficked child, the starving people, and even the miserable brothers when they repent.  If things go well, Pharaoh can take credit for his wise choice of a factotum; if they go badly, well . . . it was only a Hebrew slave, after all, and if an angry mob destroys him . . . it is no great loss, and Pharaoh can remain beneficent in the eyes of his people.

Maybe Joseph’s later behavior in his successful food aid project betrays a knowledge on his part that he is being used as a front-man for the unpleasant choices the Egyptian leaders do not want to be seen as making themselves.  We did not hear in the beginning that the grain stored up from surplus was to be sold to the very people from whom it was taken, once the famine took hold.  When their money is gone, they offer themselves as slaves for the grain rations which were taken from them in the first place, while Jacob’s household, under Joseph’s protection, is living large in the eastern Delta!  In the end, all Joseph’s dreams come true.  All those who betrayed him now bow down before him (the Big Sheaf).  The House of Israel’s, at the same time, dreams of survival of the famine become a nightmare: generations later, they will find themselves enslaved in the same system of servitude that Joseph devised.

We have seen that the trafficking story is a complex one, a guilty and shameful one, and found many coherences and suggestive interpretations by reading the modern and ancient stories together.  The modern story attends more closely to the ambivalent outcomes for the trafficked persons, enlarging the narrative to include “prevention, protection, recovery, rehabilitation, reintegration, return, repatriation, and prosecution of traffickers,” and with more time, we could delineate these elements within Genesis as well.  It is imperative that our reading of these stories with the world’s children in mind.


I have tried my best to emphasize that our reading of the Bible should make us go further.  That reading should enable us to be empowered to be part of the victims and not of the victimizer.

Bishop Daniel S. Thiagarajah PhD
Bishop of the Church of South India in the Jaffna Diocese

error: Content is protected !!