Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Five Times as Much

“Benjamin’s portion was five times as much.”

The Spirit of God frequently uses Old Testament characters to depict aspects of the person and work of the coming Messiah. To list only a few, Adam, Abel, Melchizedek, Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon and Jonah may all be compared in one way or another to the Lord Jesus Christ. Just in case we miss them, the writers of the New Testament (and sometimes Jesus himself) draw our attention to these pictures or “types”.

Joseph is generally considered a better type in that his character and experiences are more “on-model” than, for instance, Jonah or Adam. Numerous similarities may be observed between Joseph and the Lord Jesus. This chart lists 27, but the accompanying article suggests there may be as many as 100. Not only that, but it is generally held that that there are no moral missteps in Joseph’s record which would serve to ruin the sterling comparison.

Or so I have always been taught.

Nothing Negative. Ever.

A pair of examples:
“Of the 2,930 Bible characters, Daniel is one of the few well-known characters about whom nothing negative is ever written. Joseph is yet another.”

“In Joseph’s life we find one of the few characters in the Bible about whom nothing bad is reported.”
Nothing negative at all? That’s truly impressive. It may or may not be true, but even if it isn’t, we should allow that one or two blemishes on Joseph’s allegedly spotless record would not nullify the many valid points of comparison with the Lord Jesus. In fact, a defect might not be a bad thing in that it would remind us that there has only ever been one Perfect Man.

And yet there are no editorial comments from the writer of Genesis that we may use to knock Joseph down a peg. If we are going to find a less-than-stellar moment in Joseph’s life, we are going to have to infer it from the historical record.

One possibility I’ve heard suggested is that Joseph was proud. It is hard to see why Joseph’s brothers needed him to inform them that one day they would bow down before him. He was puffed up, and baiting them. They already hated him, and this was like a red flag to a bull … or so goes the argument. I do not read pride into Joseph’s enthusiastic, boyish account of his dreams, but others may.

A More Plausible View

A more plausible criticism of Joseph’s character is his flagrant favoritism of his brother Benjamin in Egypt. Benjamin was the only other son of Joseph’s mother Rachel, and the darling of his father Jacob once Joseph was presumed dead. When the eleven brothers were invited to eat in Joseph’s house, Joseph fed them from his own table, but lavished five times as much of everything on Benjamin as on any of his other brothers. Upon their return to Canaan, once again he provided Benjamin with five times what he gave everyone else.

Joseph is not usually criticized for this preferential treatment of Benjamin; certainly not by people like Barnes and Barnhouse, who believe his record shows no flaws at all. This is a little odd, I think, when we consider that Jacob’s favoritism of Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin is often criticized as poor parenting. For example, Samuel Philips says:
“Discipline should be administered with impartiality. Never make one child a favorite. Favoritism and consequent indulgence, will produce prejudice against the other children. It will introduce dissension among them. This is unworthy the Christian parent and his home. The history of Jacob and Joseph, as regards both the subject and the victim of parental favoritism, is a warning against such partiality. It produces, pride, envy, jealousy, family broils and strife, in which even the parents take a part, and by which the husband is often set against his wife, parents against children, and children against each other.”
Now Philips and the others who make this point are absolutely correct about this. Parental favoritism is indeed odious to the unfavored children, and provokes all the ills described and maybe more. In fact, growing up, this was the main lesson drilled into me from these chapters of Genesis, and I have certainly tried to apply it in my own parenting. Moreover, once this spirit of partiality is observed in Jacob, or Rebekah, or Isaac, or David, or any of the other parents who displayed favoritism in scripture, the character defect is impossible to unsee. You fixate on it every time you read the relevant chapters.

Goose, Meet Gander

So why is it not considered a problem when Joseph does exactly the same thing? In piling Benjamin’s plate with delicacies, is he not doubling down on his father’s error and potentially inflaming his brothers against Benjamin? Why are we giving Joseph a pass?

Okay, sure, he was not Benjamin’s father. Even so, while at the time his brothers may have been so relieved that they ignored what looks like a personal slight, they could hardly miss it. It was right in their faces.

Why push their buttons unnecessarily? What was Joseph up to?

Well, there is another lesson in these chapters of Genesis besides “don’t be partial”, and that’s “don’t be envious”. I didn’t see it in my childhood, but I certainly can’t miss it today. Just because a father (or mother) sins in favoring one child over another does not excuse the attitude of the overlooked children in resenting their situation or in envying one another. The two things are separate issues — the latter provoked, certainly, but they are sins all the same — for which both children and parents are accountable to God.

I grew up in a culture that highly values the appearance of equality, though precisely what that means in practice is almost always very poorly defined. But while we would all agree that we ought to be impartial in our dealings with others, and that the Bible surely teaches this, it remains a fact that life is not always evenhanded with us. It just isn’t. Surprisingly, neither are other people, even when they claim to prize egalitarianism.

Gross Inequality?

How should we handle life’s gross inequalities, however they come to us? Well, surely not with simmering resentment. Scripture teaches fathers not to provoke their children to anger (which surely includes preferring one over the other), but equally, it teaches children to obey. Obedience is not conditioned on whether you like how mom and dad treat you, or whether you feel they sufficiently love and respect you. It is an unambiguous command to be responded to in all circumstances.

Likewise, in the teaching of the Lord Jesus, we find occasions of gross “inequality” by our earthly, subjective standards. The parable of the vineyard depicts an owner who pays all his employees exactly the same daily wage despite the fact that some worked one hour, some three, some six, some nine and some twelve. “That’s not fair!” cry those who labored earlier in the day. Too bad, says the owner. Where they see his inequality toward them, he sees only his generosity toward others. And he is correct. Their view is skewed and selfish. They got what they contracted for.

A similar disposition is evident toward the man in the crowd who asks Jesus to arbitrate his inheritance. The Lord shows no interest whatsoever in becoming involved. He is more concerned with the bad attitude of the brother who approached him toward being defrauded than with the problem of the brother who is doing the defrauding. He has a point.

Then there’s Martha, who felt that her sister was not doing her share. She felt shortchanged and underappreciated. Rather than rebuking Mary, the Lord adjusts Martha’s thinking.

All to say, if we believe the Lord has nothing negative to say toward envious siblings looking to get their fair share of this, that or the other, we would be dead wrong. In this, Joseph’s attitude is just like the greater Son of whom he is such a good picture. He seems to be saying to his brothers, “Learn to live with being last, and rejoice in the prosperity of others.” Going out of his way to create the perception of fairness does not seem to be Joseph’s primary concern, or the Lord’s, when there is such an important lesson to be taught.

Getting Our Fair Share

People often do undesirable things to family members. Maybe it was even our mom and dad doing it to us. We may have been legitimately wronged, and in our own minds have great cause to complain. Well, the Bible contains plenty of instruction for our parents that will point out to them the error of their ways. Moreover, if they do not receive their correction from the word of God, one day they will surely hear it from the Lord Jesus himself. That should satisfy the unloved brother or sister, shouldn’t it?

But what about us? Do we harbor resentment and envy in our hearts? Do we feel life would be better, or at least different, if we could only just get what we deserve?

May it not be the case. Some day we just might.

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