Read Numbers 13:30-14:4 …
Joseph seems to have come up several times in the past week, so a few words about how the story might help in understanding a difference in literary genres could be beneficial. Beginning at Genesis 37 one finds Joseph, the dreamer, coming back from being with his brothers in the fields where they are keeping the sheep. The Bible says that Joseph brings to Jacob an “evil report,” or some translations have “bad report,” about his brothers (37:2). The word that is translated in this manner shows up in other places but two are particularly interesting to this little study.
The first scripture is Proverbs 10:18b where it is noted that “whoever spreads slander is a fool.” The second passage comes from Numbers 13:32 where the spies coming back from the land of Canaan told what is noted to be a “bad report” (Num. 13:32). That “slander” from Proverbs and the “bad report” given by the spies in Numbers is the same word used in Genesis 37:2, so using a simple textual comparison there is some correlation between these verses. Yet by looking at the genre of the other passages one finds a more complete picture of how the word is used to describe the actions of Joseph.
The quotation from Proverbs falls into a type of writing that is wisdom literature. Wisdom literature often presents the reader with a choice – do “x” and be wise or do “y” and be foolish. This two-path metaphorical language comes up again and again, it is designed to give the reader a concrete way of thinking. As one duo puts it, Proverbs presents us with “memorable aphorisms (maximums) people can use to help themselves make responsible choices in life.”[i]
Regarding the quotation from Numbers, this is from a section of the Scriptures that is typically noted to be history told in narrative form. The beauty of narrative is that it presents the actions of a person or group in such a way that the reader can identify with those actions; internalizing a lesson from them. Narratives can be effective teaching tools since they “portray the ambiguities and complexities of life.”[ii]
Taking both thoughts and applying them back to Joseph and his telling a “bad report” helps us understand more than a simple language analysis might imply. According to latter proverbial wisdom it is a mistake and foolishness to give a “bad report,” and as a rule of thumb Joseph would have done better to keep his mouth shut! The narrative shows us that a “bad report” does not have to mean a person is slanderous but might be foolish for not considering all the factors. Joseph, in his youth perhaps, failed to consider his brothers in a manner consistent with godly character.
It certainly is not difficult to understand that speaking slander is associated with a bad outcome, and a little wisdom would help one to appreciate that fact. But as many know, sometimes teenagers speak and then think (and not just teenagers sometimes, right?) and Joseph lived up to that expectation. In the narrative of Numbers, the report given by the ten spies resulted in a generation dying before their children were able to enter the land of promise. In the case of Joseph, the “bad report” was just another straw in the pile that finally broke the backs of his brothers and landed him stripped of his coat, in a pit, and finally sold as a slave in Egypt.
Many of us remember the story of Joseph fondly from our childhood days: the coat of many colors, the rise to power in Egypt, and eventually saving his family from famine. The rose-colored glasses worn by many when looking at Joseph were put on very early. Yet now, as adults, while it is easier to see some of Joseph’s character flaws and foibles, don’t forget to see that Genesis 39 begins and ends noting that God was with Joseph. Because God willed it, Joseph became the protector and provider for the very people from whom would come the Messiah.
[i] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 239.
[ii] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 307.