I have heard a particular Bible question three times in my life. The question concerns the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis.
You may know the story. Jacob loved his son Joseph more than his other sons. Jacob’s other sons hated Joseph and sold Joseph to Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt. Joseph had his highs and lows in Egypt, but he rose to a position of great power after interpreting two of the Pharaoh’s dreams. The Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing for the coming famine and administering grain during the famine.
The question that I have heard is this: Why didn’t Joseph contact his father Jacob after rising to power in Egypt? Why didn’t Joseph let his father know that he was still alive? Why didn’t Joseph try to see his father? Joseph had the ability to do so. He could have sent a letter to Jacob, or a chariot to Jacob. Why didn’t he do that? Instead, the reunion occurred only after Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt in search of grain, years after Joseph had risen to power. And, for a while, Joseph’s brothers did not even know that their long lost brother Joseph was the Egyptian official with whom they were interacting.
A. I first heard this question in an academic Bible class over a decade ago. The professor asked it, and the question puzzled me. I thought: “That’s a good question, but it is not explicitly addressed in the biblical story, so why wrestle with a question for which there is not an answer? Maybe that issue did not enter the biblical author’s mind.” But, like I said, it’s a good question, and I assumed that, if the professor asked it, then it must have an answer. I was eager to hear what her answer was.
Her answer disappointed me, to tell you the truth. I was expecting something deep, spiritual, and profound, or at least an answer that would highlight the character’s motivations. Instead, she answered that Joseph couldn’t contact his father, because then we wouldn’t have much of a story. We wouldn’t have the story of Joseph putting his brothers through highs and lows, while they were unaware of who he was. The story would be rather boring, without much drama. The reason was purely literary!
I figured that she was probably right, and that maybe there was not a better answer than that. I wanted more, but I doubted that more was out there. It still puzzled me why the professor was asking the question, for this is not the sort of question that academic scholars of the Bible ordinarily ask. I shelved that experience in my mind, seeing it as an example of how the academic study of the Bible does not always lead to sexy conclusions.
B. Years later, I was reading Demetrius the Chronographer, a work from the third century B.C.E. Demetrius actually asks the question of why Joseph did not contact his father, and he offers his own answer. Demetrius states:
“But though Joseph had prospered for 9 years, he did not send for his father, because he was a shepherd, as were Joseph’s brothers; and to the Egyptians it is disgraceful to be a shepherd. That this was the reason he did not send for him, he himself had made clear. For when his relatives came, he told them that if they should be summoned by the king and asked what their occupation was, they should say that they are breeders of cattle.” (Translation by J. Hanson, in James Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha)
Demetrius believes that Genesis 46:34 contains the answer for why Joseph did not contact Jacob after rising to power in Egypt. The Egyptians regarded shepherds as an abomination, and Jacob was a shepherd. Jacob would not fit in were he to come to Egypt. Thus, Joseph did not contact him.
(Incidentally, Demetrius is interpreting Genesis 46:34 in an unusual manner. The text reads, in the KJV: “That ye shall say, Thy servants’ trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers: that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” Demetrius interprets this to mean that Joseph was instructing his brothers to say that they were breeders of cattle to hide the fact that they were shepherds. The passage probably means that they were to dwell in Goshen, away from the Egyptians, because they were shepherds, and the Egyptians regarded shepherds as an abomination. In the very next chapter, Genesis 47, Joseph tells the Pharaoh about his brothers’ flocks, and the brothers tell the Pharaoh that they are shepherds.)
C. The third time that I heard the question about why Joseph did not contact his father was last weekend. I was watching the third lecture by Professor Gary Anderson on the story of Joseph. Professor Anderson was one of my professors over a decade ago, and I was watching his lectures on the Joseph story on YouTube last weekend.
Professor Anderson was saying that the question of why Joseph did not contact Jacob was often asked in medieval times by Jewish interpreters, even though modern interpreters generally do not ask it. That explained to me why my professor, the professor I mentioned earlier in this post, asked the question: it has been a common question within the History of Biblical Interpretation. This was not just something that she was wondering about, but was a prominent question that interpreters have asked.
A student in Professor Anderson’s class was offering his idea about why Joseph did not contact Jacob, and Professor Anderson affirmed that his idea was actually what medieval Jewish interpreters said. The idea was that Joseph realized that he would disrupt his family were he to inform Jacob that he was still alive. Joseph’s brothers would get into trouble with their father, since they had sold Joseph into Egypt and then told their father that Joseph was dead. Were Jacob to learn the truth, that would alienate him further from his sons (except Benjamin, his favorite). Plus, Joseph did not want his father to learn the truth, until Joseph could be sure that his brothers had repented of their past behavior. According to Professor Anderson, Joseph was putting his brothers into situations to see if they had repented: would they sell their brother Benjamin down the tubes to save their own skin, or would they actually care for somebody other than themselves, their father, even though their father loved them less than Benjamin? To their credit, they passed the test.
All three of these ideas have merit, in their own way. We would not have much of a story had Joseph contacted his father right after ascending to power in Egypt. The story was actually necessary for the brothers to grow in character, and for true reconciliation to occur. The reason that Joseph did not contact his father may have been that he realized that it was not the right time. Demetrius may also have a point: Joseph doubted that his family would fit in at Egypt. But this was not just because his father and brother were shepherds, but also because they worshiped the LORD alone, whereas Egypt was a pagan nation. Joseph may have doubted that his family would like the Egyptians, and that the Egyptians would like his family. God ensured that the Israelites came to Egypt, however, where they could be a light, and where they could be where they were supposed to be for the next stage of God’s plan.
UPDATE: See also here and here, courtesy of Doug Ward. There are other explanations. One explanation is that Joseph did not send word to his father because Joseph wanted the dream of the sheaves to be fulfilled. Joseph dreamed that his brothers’ sheaves would bow before his sheaf (Genesis 37:7), and that was fulfilled when his brothers came to him when he was an authority in Egypt and bowed before him, seeking grain (Genesis 42:6-9). In this interpretation, had Joseph sent word to his father, that would have disrupted the fulfillment of his dream. This interpretation is debated, as you can see from the link.
Another explanation is that Joseph thought his father had disowned him—-that Jacob’s wife Leah convinced Jacob to do so, and that is why Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph.