Joseph’s Slander

Years ago at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Pastor Tim Keller was preaching through the story of Joseph. His thesis was that none of its characters is morally good, yet God loves them and fulfills his righteous purposes through them anyway.

Keller said Joseph himself was a spoiled brat. He didn’t use that term, but his interpretation of Genesis 37:2 gave that impression. Genesis 37:2 states that Joseph gave his father an evil report about his brothers, more specifically the sons of Jacob’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. At first, I thought that meant that Joseph was telling his father something bad that his brothers had actually done. Keller maintained, however, that Joseph was slandering them.

Keller may be right, for the Hebrew word for “report” in Genesis 37:2, dibbah, often means “slander” in the Hebrew Bible (see here). But such a view about Joseph’s act also occurs in the history of interpretation. I’m not going to research every treatment of this story, at least not in this post, but here are two:

1. The Testament of Gad is part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, whose history probably extends from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. In Testament of Gad 1, Gad states that he delivered a lamb from the mouth of a bear, and he killed the lamb because it was mangled and in pain. Joseph then told his father that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were slaughtering and eating the best of the flock. As a result, Gad hated Joseph. The book is about why hatred is wrong.

2. Genesis Rabbah 84:7 doesn’t really say that Joseph was lying about his brothers, but rather that he was telling his father any evil about them that he could find. Rashi summarizes this rabbinic tradition as follows:

“evil tales about them: Any evil he saw in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he would tell his father: 1) that they ate limbs from living animals, 2) that they demeaned the sons of the handmaids by calling them slaves, and 3) that they were suspected of illicit sexual relationships. For these three [tales] he was punished: For [the report that his brothers ate] limbs from living animals, ‘they slaughtered a kid’ (Gen. 37:31) when they sold him, and did not eat it alive. For the report that he told about them that they called their brothers slaves, ‘Joseph was sold as a slave’ (Ps. 105:17), and concerning the illicit sexual relationships that he told about them, ‘his master’s wife lifted her eyes, etc.’ (Gen. 39:7).” (Source:

According to this passage, God disapproved of Joseph slandering his brothers, so he punished Joseph in a manner that resembled the slander.

James Kugel states in The Bible As It Was that ancient interpreters tried to make certain biblical characters look good. That may be the case with the patriarchs, but we don’t really see it with Joseph, at least not in these two sources.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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