In the early years of Genesis 37:2-18, a few things are established about Joseph—threads that will weave throughout his story. Some are strengths, and some weaknesses.
It’s clear that Joseph is a proud shepherd. As students of the Bible or history know, there would later come years where shepherds were the lowest of the low. In fact, that would be the case when Joseph arrives in Egypt. It shows that pride is not dependent on position or status or circumstances. A self-focused heart attitude can thrive anywhere. So he wears his coat everywhere and relishes in the dreams.
B. Low emotional intelligence
Joseph is low on emotional intelligence, with extremely poor impact awareness. The pair of dreams in his early days are for him; God is providing the hope, the promise, the anchor that will sustain him in those years when he will walk through the shadow of death (Rev Bernard Bouissieres). Whether his pride leads him to disregard the potential impact of sharing his dreams, or whether he is unaware that it prompts even his father to ridicule him, his loose lips in this moment seem to be the tipping point for his brothers. They hate him enough to consider killing him. Joseph doesn’t seem to sense the danger when his father sends him out to his brothers again. Is it naiveté or courage that allows him to walk into the seething trap that will alter the course of his life?
The favour Joseph enjoys from his father gives him a unique gift: special access to a patriarch. In a sense, he has a mentor who takes a liking to him. What does he learn from his father by working so closely with him? Jacob had proved to be a very effective shepherd during his 14 years serving Laban (Gen 28-31). He worked adversarial conditions to his own ends, building the roots of the flock his sons now shepherd. Jacob was gifted in leadership and strategy—the dark side of which is manipulation. As a young man, Jacob lived up to his name: a deceiver who showed entrepreneurial giftings. But after a twenty-year period of character building under his uncle Laban, he was a changed man. In Genesis 33-35, he wrestled with God and was given a new name, then pursued reconciliation with his brother and came to hate deception (Dr. Leong Tien Fock). Jacob is therefore a deep well for Joseph to draw on if he takes advantage of these years.
D. Leadership gifts
So let me address the question I raised in my previous post. Is Joseph already holding a leadership position at age seventeen? The pivotal question is the significance of the special tunic Jacob bestows on his son. Why would his father give Joseph such a flagrantly visible sign of favour, and why would Joseph wear it everywhere? The answer I heard in Sunday School is that it is a gift showing favouritism, accompanied of course with the simplistic moral that favouritism is bad. But there are far more layers to this tunic. Most translations call it a “coat of many colours,” but the footnote in my Bible hints at other meanings of the phrase. In The Living Torah, Aryeh Kaplan explains the Hebrew can be translated to say the robe was either colourful, embroidered, striped, contained pictures, abnormally long or made of fine material. King David’s daughter would wear something similar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19. In other words, it is a royal robe. Did Jacob intend it as a sign of favour or a depiction of assumptions that Joseph would assume leadership of the family? It may well be the first prophecy in chapter 37.
Some commentaries read leadership into other areas of this passage. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary says Genesis 37:2 implies leadership: “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock”. Rabbi Moshe Reiss says the Hebrew text mixes up the word order: literally, “he was shepherding his brothers with the flock.” In While Shepherds Watch their Flocks, Gary Laniak points out that there are multiple levels of shepherding. The larger the flocks, the more hierarchy is required. An overshepherd focuses on managing a flock while others provide more individualized care for smaller groups of sheep. The overshepherd watches for trends in food supply, health and birthing, makes decisions about selling animals, negotiates access to grazing land and obtains veterinary care. He may not be with the sheep all the time, but insists on spending time among the sheep in order to know what they need (Laniak, pp 231-235).
So let’s play it out. What does it mean if Joseph at seventeen was an overshepherd? It changes everything about the story. Now it makes sense why Joseph visits the sheep while pasturing them instead of being there all the time, as his brothers are. It adds a darker tone to the hatred developing between step brothers. It changes the nature of the bad report Joseph brings to his father. It provides the foundation for Joseph’s near-fatal errand in Dothan; he is following through on his responsibilities to lead. And it explains why Jacob feels the need to set Joseph apart with a unique tunic.
In the tunic, Jacob seems to be giving his son a title. But as John Maxwell is fond of saying, a title only borrows a bit of time to prove your leadership. As a potential leader, Joseph has no followers in this first act. The only one who puts any thought into Joseph is his father, who begins to mull over what the dreams might mean. For Joseph’s brothers, his would-be followers, the robe becomes a focus of their anger, and they send a multi-layered message to their father by dipping it in blood.
So Joseph has the raw materials for leadership, but his character and skills are lacking. God has a plan for him, and the next thirteen years will be painful as he’s tested, trained and prepared to fulfill his promise.
Take a moment to think back to your early days. What promise of leadership would others have seen in you? Did you get any special opportunities or have a mentor who paid special attention to you? What mistakes did you make? Today, would you entrust your earlier self with leadership?
About ten years ago, I completed a 360 review as part of a leadership development course, and I decided to include two people who had worked with me in my days as a first-time supervisor. Over the years, they have both been enthusiastic supporters of my leadership, one as a mentor/supervisor and one as a direct report. When I saw the results of the 360 review—lightly edited to protect anonymity—I was surprised to note that their comments stood out. The feedback from these two trusted colleagues were outliers; no one else agreed with their assessments. These comments were simply untrue of me today. I was overwhelmed by the sense that, in spite of the obvious mistakes they had observed, they were consistently such strong advocates for me. Their support was entirely based on potential! While I had worked with them, I had the raw materials, but a long way to go in developing my leadership. This is the Joseph of Genesis 37.