Recently, I heard a friend liken racial injustice in America to the story of Joseph in the Bible. They claimed that being angry over racial injustice and inequality comes from a place of envy. Consequently, protesters are akin to Joseph’s brothers: they are self-centered and reactionary. Since they are operating from a self-focused position, they will end up hurting others rather than helping their cause. I did not have the opportunity to correct this person, and I cannot say that in the moment I would have been able to respond thoughtfully and patiently. It is difficult to realize that someone you respect and care for understands you and people that look like you as self-centered and reactionary because you demand inalienable rights.
As a Black Christian feminist academic, I feel compelled to interrogate this line of thinking for several reasons. First, it assumes that Joseph’s brothers and protesters have no reason to be “reactionary.” Second, it demonstrates the problem with assuming that there is only one story happening at any given time in the Bible. Third, it reveals one of the major problems with American Christianity: We assume that we are always the good guys in every story.
In the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they are envious of the way their father, Jacob, favored Joseph. Joseph is around seventeen years old when he is taken away to Egypt. After spending years in jail as a result of a false accusation, Joseph eventually wins the Pharaoh’s goodwill and becomes a great ruler in Egypt. When his brothers come to Egypt to purchase food during a famine, the family reunites and reconciles.
I want to be clear from the beginning: I am not condoning the abuse of a sibling because a parent shows favoritism. What I am saying is that Joseph’s brothers’ actions were partially the result of years of poor parenting. Jacob, their father, had two wives and he fathered children with two of his slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. The family was large, and it doesn’t seem like Jacob nurtured a sense of sibling comradery among his children. Rachel, Joseph’s mother, was the wife Jacob loved the most, and so he favored her children. The Bible says that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons,” and he showed that love in the way he lavished gifts on Joseph and distributed work among his sons.
Envy is a feeling of discontentment, perhaps mixed with anger and spite, over someone else’s good fortune, possessions, or status. I do not condone their actions, but Joseph’s brothers had reason to be envious of their brother. They weren’t treated equally simply because they had the wrong mothers. The plight of Black Americans is only marginally similar to that of Joseph’s brothers: we aren’t treated equally because white Americans decided our skin color was wrong. Although perhaps one could say we too were born to the wrong mothers and fathers. If there is any similarity between American race relations and the story of Joseph it resides in these two basic facts. First, like many white Americans, Joseph received numerous benefits as a result of his birth, not because he worked for them or because his efforts led to the overall emotional and physical health of society, and secondly, Joseph never questioned why he was treated better than his brothers. He simply accepted his father’s treatment as a birthright.
We follow Joseph’s journey throughout several chapters, but this does not mean that the other people are irrelevant. It is important to look at the margins of scripture. There are people that exist out of focus, in the periphery of the Bible, and we can learn just as much from their stories as we can from the “main characters.” Joseph is the main character, the hero, of his story, but he is an antagonist within his brothers’ stories. Scripture does not tell us that Joseph was a kind, loving, gracious, and compassionate person. It’s not until Joseph gets to Egypt and faces severe hardship that he begins to become a mature and thoughtful person.
For my part, I am inclined to agree that as a result of their envy, Joseph’s brothers inflicted a great deal of hurt and pain on their brother and father. I do not go so far as to say that this is similar to what protesters are doing now. Joseph’s brothers told their father that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, and of course, Jacob grieved for the loss of his son. Perhaps at the time, the brothers felt good seeing their negligent father hurting. I also think that hurt eventually dissipated, and they realized how badly they had messed up. This is because the family was only able to reconcile after Joseph and his brothers acknowledged wrongdoing. However, it is important to recognize that Joseph’s brothers were hurting when they messed up. Jacob was a good father to one of his sons at the expense of his other sons. Much like this country is a good country for rich white Americans at the expense of everyone else. Joseph accepted that favoritism and never considered the difference in treatment between himself and his brothers. Again, that does not mean the brothers’ actions were justified. It provides context for their actions.
Finally, people of faith cannot assume that the protagonists of our religious stories are always the heroes because of some inherent goodness or just for the simple fact that they loved the same God that we do. Holding these people up on a pedestal without acknowledging the totality of their lives and their positive and negative impact on others is not Christian devotion or fervor. It’s Christian sycophancy in an effort to seem holy. We have to consider the entire story. Jacob openly favored one son over the others, a behavior he had learned from his parents. David raped Bathsheba, and Abraham raped Hagar. Paul instigated several massacres of early Christians. Ancient Jews and early Christians bought and owned slaves. Though they are the protagonists in the Bible stories, they are the antagonists in others. They were people, messy and complex, and continually falling short of perfection.
Perhaps it is because I am a Black Christian feminist academic, and because I have experienced racism from other Christians, I feel more of a connection with “marginal” characters. I find more hope and redemption in Joseph’s brothers than I do Joseph. I wonder what it was like for Zilpah and Bilhah to raise children with the man that owned them. I am moved more by the fact that God saw Hagar in the desert, and she named Him “The God who sees me.” I am inspired by the fact that Jesus continually reached out to women in a society that did not value them. I see these people not because I’m provocative or reactionary but because I believe their lives had value and purpose. They existed. They were present. The story of God is not complete without them.
Gyasi S. Byng lives in Rochester, New York. She is PhD student at the University of Rochester where she teaches a writing course on robotics and human identity. She received her MA from Florida Atlantic University and her BA from Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her recent publications include “I Have Never Been Strong” in Open Minds Quarterly, “In the Waiting Line” in Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, and “Beige Girl Problems” in Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks.
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