Power. The story of Joseph comes down to power. You may remember this story from Sunday School or from watching Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at some point along the way; it’s familiar but in case the details are fuzzy I’m going to run through them quick. Israel, whose original name was Jacob, had twelve sons. Now, Jacob was married to both Leah and Rachel at the same time because of some trickery done by his father-in-law and uncle, Laban. By the way, this is one of the reasons to be skeptical of anybody who says there is one singular biblical definition of marriage, because marriage in this time was wacky. Jacob has two wives and at least two mistresses and nothing was the bother with it.
Of Jacob’s twelve sons, the first four were from Leah; the next two with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah; the next two were with Leah’s maid, Zilpah; the next two were again with Leah; and then there was one daughter with Leah as well. Then, in Genesis 30:22-24 it says, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” Some time later, Benjamin is born to Rachel and we have our twelve tribes of Israel—a hodgepodge of mothers, a strange accumulation of brothers—and, as usual, God elects one we would not expect to rule over the others.
There’s a long scriptural tradition of choosing the unexpected one, so maybe it’s not as unexpected after all. Joseph was the second-youngest, the child of Israel’s old age. But Joseph was the first son of Rachel, the one wife Israel loved most. We’re told that Joseph was destined for great things and had the dreams of one whom God favored. But this is not how power was established in those days. The eldest had the claim to the inheritance. Israel knew this; after all, it was he who stole the birthright and the inheritance from his older twin brother, Esau. To all rights Reuben, the eldest son, should have been the blessed one here, but Israel held a special place for Rachel, the wife he had always wanted first of all, and so it is Joseph who is chosen and set apart.
Now, that’s a lot of names to keep straight if this story isn’t particularly familiar to you. Suffice it to say, Joseph was 11th of 12, but in his father’s eyes he was greatest of all. So we come to this story. And power. It came down to power.