Joseph’s Brothers: Dishonest to the End

Posted on January 10, 2023


By David Ettinger

A Bad Example
This is no doubt a bad example, seeing I am referencing the world of theater. Specifically, I am referring to the entertaining but inaccurate early work of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

Before teaming up to write the heretical “Jesus Christ Superstar” the talented duo penned “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” based on the biblical account of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis chapters 37-50).

As usual in a Webber-Rice work, the music is excellent, but the interpretation of events leaves much to be desired. In this piece, Joseph is determined to make honest men out of the deceptive siblings.

That’s pretty much the thrust of the third act – the honesty of the brothers. Joseph would not let his brothers off the hook until he was convinced of their integrity. There may be some hint of this in the biblical account, but it is certainly neither played up nor stated. In the musical, Joseph actually says (through song) that the brothers are now honest men.

In reality, though, were Joseph’s brothers honest men? Though I believe Judah did turn a corner, I believe Joseph’s other brothers are more or less the same schemers at the end of Genesis as when we met them in Chapter 37, and I turn to a particular – though little known – passage to make my point.

Reprehensible Behavior
A quick recap of what happened shows just how reprehensible the brothers were.

In a fit of hatred and jealousy, the brothers are shepherding their flock in the town of Dothan when they see 17-year-old Joseph coming their way. They quickly plot to kill him, but oldest brother Reuben talks them out of it.

However, when Reuben steps away, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery. To cover up their wickedness, they take Joseph’s tunic – a gift from their father – and dip it in goat’s blood. They then show it to their father Jacob, inferring that Joseph was devoured by a wild animal.

Nowhere do we read that over the long years that followed any of the brothers ever confessed the truth to Jacob.

The Telling Incident
The clear timeline in the following chapters indicates that 22 years have passed before the brothers encounter Joseph again, he now 39 and the second-in-command in Egypt.

Skipping through the bulk of the account, we come to chapter 46 when Jacob’s entire family leaves famine-ravaged Canaan to resettle in Egypt – specifically the area of Goshen. When they arrive, 5 of the brothers meet with Joseph, who gives them a very precise directive before they are introduced to Pharaoh:

When Pharaoh calls for you and says, “What is your occupation?” you shall say, “Your servants have been keepers of livestock since our youth even until now, both we and our fathers,” so that you may live in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians (Genesis 46:33-34).

This couldn’t be any clearer: “Guys,” Joseph is saying, “the Egyptians loathe shepherds, which of course is what you are. So, please, do me a favor: When Pharaoh asks you what you do for a living, tell him that you raise cattle. There’s no use disparaging the Egyptian culture to the leader of the land. Please, do this for me.”

Now, skip to Genesis 47:3, where the 5 brothers are speaking with Pharaoh: “Then Pharaoh said to his brothers, ‘What is your occupation?’ So they said to Pharaoh, ‘Your servants are shepherds, both we and our fathers.’” They do exactly what Joseph asks them NOT to do!

I’m sure this is something most of you have missed, and it may seem of little consequence, but, consider this: Why is it included in Scripture? It seems like such a small thing, but it isn’t. It is a revealing commentary on the true nature of the brothers.

Joseph had just asked them not to say they were shepherds, yet this is exactly what they did. Had they been diplomatic gentlemen and just done what Joseph had asked them to do, I doubt this episode would even be in Scripture. The fact that it is, however, speaks volumes on the stubborn – and dishonest – nature of the brothers.

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but could this lack of integrity and decency be a foreshadowing of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites to the time of the Babylonian captivity as chronicled in Scripture?

Every time I read the Joseph-and-his-brothers account, I always get miffed at the siblings’ behavior. I finally decided to write about it.

So, am I blowing this out of proportion? Let me know what you think!