Playing Favorites

In today’s first reading we encounter the story of Joseph, son of Jacob (also called Israel). The reading opens: “Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him.” (Gen 37:3-4) And so the problem begins. Actually, the problem just becomes exasperated. There is a single verse that provides more context: “When Joseph was seventeen years old, he was tending the flocks with his brothers; he was an assistant to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah, and he brought his father bad reports about them.” (Gen 37:2)I wonder if this tells us something about Joseph’s character, at least at this early age. Seems Joseph was a bit of a tattletale. The word report (Hebrew: dibba(h) means report, defamation, slander or rumor. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 2478) suggests “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.” The Catechism goes on to say that as Christians we are charged to have respect for the reputation of others and are to avoid every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. This would include avoiding being the person who:

  • even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor – this is the sin of rash judgment;
  • without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them – the sin of detraction; and
  • by remarks harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them – the sin of calumny.

Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor and are an attack on human dignity. Everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Detraction and calumny are offenses against the virtues of justice and charity.

Rather puts young Joseph in a different light. Seems Joseph loved bringing bad news about his brothers to his father. Why was that? It might be as simple as he was the favorite son, knew it, and took small actions to ensure it stayed that way.

History repeats itself. Jacob’s father Isaac had favored Jacob’s brother Esau. No doubt Jacob resented that. I wonder if he thought: “When I am a parent, I will never make the mistake my father made.” So what happened? It might be as simple as: what you contemplate, you imitate. The more we think about the wrong someone has done against us, the more likely we are to repeat that mistake in our life. When Joseph came in with this piece of news, Jacob should have shaken his head and said, “Joseph, I don’t want to hear that. I love you just the same as my other sons. You don’t have to tattle on them.” But he didn’t do that. Instead, Jacob did the worst thing he could have done as a parent; he encouraged it by making him a special tunic, encouraging the behavior.

I imagine that every time Joseph’s brothers saw him sporting that coat, resentment welled up in them. They hated Joseph because his special coat symbolized the favoritism in their family. Jacob obviously favored Joseph above his brothers, and Joseph took advantage of the benefits that came along with that favoritism.

A little lesson in parenting placed among the jewels of the story of Joseph.

At this point one might wonder why God would pick Joseph. So far the story is not very flattering. But Joseph’s story continues with a dose of hard reality. He clearly is favored by God, but also over the course of the rest of the story it was very different things he contemplated and so imitated.

Note: you might be wondering if this was the multicolored coat of Joseph that we hear about. If so, why does our translations get that rather mundane “long tunic.” The word used to describe the coat/robe is “passim” (Hebrew). In any case the word implies something distinctive for showing special favor. The robe can be very long-sleeved and extending to the feet, or a richly-ornamented tunic either of special color design or gold threading, both ornamental and not suitable for work day. Lots of choice. Our translator chose “long tunic.”

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