Lesson 11: Because the Lord Was With Him #BCCSundaySchool2018


Genesis 34, 37-39[fn1]

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Discuss how and why the scriptures subvert our expectations as readers.
  2. Identify different models of divine aid illustrated in the scriptures.


In many ways, the story of Joseph in Egypt is the superhero origin story of the Israelite people. I mean, yeah, we’ve had some feints at origin already, everything from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. And Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all received a covenant wherein God promised them land, descendants, and blessings.

But it’s Moses and the exodus from Egypt that really kicks things off. And without Joseph? The Israelites wouldn’t have been in Egypt to miraculously escape, and Moses wouldn’t have led them in the desert for forty years (and created the typology embraced by everybody from Jesus to the Nephites to African-Americans to Mormon pioneers).

A Favorite Son

Although Joseph is Jacob’s youngest son, he is also Jacob’s favorite. It makes sense; though he’s young, Joseph is the son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. Joseph being the younger son also connects him to both his father and his grandfather: remember, Jacob was younger than Esau and Isaac younger than Ishmael. In each case, though, the younger son was preferred by at least one of the parents.

Discussion topic: primogeniture seems fairly baked into Genesis. In fact, it’s important enough that Deuteronomy explicitly prohibits fathers from favoring the younger son of a preferred wife over the first-born son of a hated wife.[fn2]

At the same time, this is the third consecutive generation that subverts this idea of primogeniture. At this point, it’s not possible to be surprised by the fact that the father prefers the younger son. What do we make of this? Why does the foundational family of Israel subvert what we ought to expect?

The Lord Was With Him

Although Joseph is, in many ways, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, in another significant way he isn’t. See, the Lord appeared to Abraham. The Lord appeared to and spoke with Isaac. Jacob wrestled with the Lord.

And Joseph? The Lord blesses him and the household he’s in, and makes him prosper. But the Lord never appears to Joseph; He’s always working in the background

Discussion topic: The scriptures have already given us a couple models for how God works in our lives. What role does God play in your life? And how does He manifest to you?

The Folly of Youth

I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature.     —Joseph Smith-History 1:28

I don’t want to blame the victim here, but 17-year-old Joseph was, if not insufferable, at least “immatur[e] and lack[ing] foresight.”[fn3] The text is very clear that Joseph is the favorite, and his brothers know it, and they’re not happy about it. In fact, they “hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” And, as a matter of fact, his brothers have him work helping the sons of his Jacob and his slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah. In other words, in spite of (or perhaps because) he’s the favorite son, he’s assisting the lowest-ranked brothers.

So what does Joseph do? He tattles on his brothers. He relates a dream he had where his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowed down to his sheaf. And then, to his father, he relates a dream where, metaphorically, his brothers, mother, and father all bow down to him.

(It’s worth noting that these dreams turn out to foreshadow the rest of the story, and not just because Joseph ends up in a position of authority over them. They’re literally going to him to get food, ergo the wheat. And his father doesn’t come the first time, but does the second, just like his father doesn’t appear in the first dream, but does in the second.)

Joseph, as we know, is the protagonist of this story. As the protagonist—and proto-prophet—, then, are we supposed to emulate his naivety? I don’t think so, and I’m pretty sure the text doesn’t think so either. We get to see Joseph grow an mature over the course of his several chapters. In Gen. 39:8-9 (which we’ll come back to, I promise), we see him deferential to his master, notwithstanding the dreams he’s had of ruling. He’s shed some of his immaturity, and he’s learned tact (or something like it). And I suspect that, if we’re supposed to emulate Joseph, we should be looking to emulate his growth, not his brashness.

Sold Into Slavery

I’m not going to say a lot here about his brothers selling him into slavery; it’s a story we know well. I just want to make a couple quick points that we don’t generally talk about:

  1. Both Reuben and Judah save his life. In the first instance, Reuben prevents his brothers from killing Joseph, throwing him into a pit instead. In doing so, Reuben intended to “save him from them and restore him to his father.” It’s not completely clear that Reuben convinced his brothers, though; Judah gives it a second shot when they see the Ishmaelites coming, saying “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.“[fn4]
  2. His brothers are pretty callous. They throw him in a pit, then they sit down to eat. While their brother’s in the pit and, apparently, while they’re still considering killing him.
  3. Joseph’s brothers convince their father that Joseph is dead by killing a kid and dipping Joseph’s coat in its blood. Jacob is convinced, and is despondent. This is a really cool callback to Jacob, though. Remember, when Jacob tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing, he made stew from two goat kids, and used their skins to make Jacob feel hairier. Now his sons are using the exact same tools to deceive him.

Sex and Violence (Or, At Least, Sex)

The second purpose of this lesson, per the lesson manual, is to “strengthen [class members’] commitment to obey the Lord’s standard of sexual morality.” Sexual morality is important, and the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is often used to underline the importance of not committing adultery.

That’s great, but I suspect your whole class can already answer the question, “Should I have sex with someone I’m not married to?” correctly. I also think there are other things we can get out of the story, especially when compared the preceding chapter.

All of the actors in this story, after all, are deeply constrained. Joseph is a slave, while Potiphar’s wife is a woman. Both occupy inferior social positions. Remember, when she accuses Joseph of trying to rape her, she doesn’t go straight to her husband. First she tries to get her servants on her side. And she does it, not by ordering them, but by exploiting their resentment of a foreigner (“Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us!“). I mean, I’m far from an expert in Biblical Egyptian gender dynamics, but it looks to me suspiciously like she’s not much higher on the org chart than Joseph (and, in fact, she may be lower).

Also, when Joseph refuses her advances, he couches it in terms of ownership and control. Potiphar, he says, has put all that he owns in Joseph’s hands, except his wife. How, then, could Joseph take from Potiphar the one thing Potiphar hasn’t offered?

Moreover, Potiphar’s wife taking Joseph’s garment and using it as evidence alludes to Tamar in the previous chapter.

Remember Tamar? She’s Judah’s daughter-in-law. She married Er, but Er died, leaving her childless. So Judah tells his next son, Onan, to get her pregnant. Onan doesn’t, and also dies. Tamar moves back in with her family, but hear’s Judah’s coming and, in one of the ickier stories in the Bible, disguises herself as a prostitute. She positioned herself where Judah would see her and he does, and decides to proposition her. They sleep together. He offers to pay her with a kid from his flock, but she keeps his seal, cord, and staff as security (callback to Potiphar’s wife!). She’s pregnant by her father-in-law, it turns out, and, when he is ready to have her burned because she’s pregnant out of wedlock,[fn5] she shows him the seal, cord, and staff, and everything’s all right.

So we have two stories in which a woman seduces a man, not her husband. But the morality is different in the two; as best we can tell, Potiphar’s wife is in the wrong. But because Judah has failed his duty to Tamar, she’s in the right. In these two stories, the morality of extramarital sex isn’t black and white—it depends on the context.

Now, that’s not the lesson for us. Today’s law of chastity is unequivocal: sex outside of marriage is sinful, and sex with your daughter-in-law has to be at least doubly sinful, and super-icky. And I’m not sure we can comfortably apply either the story of Tamar or the story of Potiphar’s wife to our lives. I’m not convinced that we’re supposed to. But we can see, in a world alien to the one we live in, people interacting with God and His laws within cultural and legal constraints. And there must be value to that.

UPDATE: Genesis 34

In the comments, MDearest mentioned that every four years we skip Genesis 34, which involves the rape (maybe) of Dinah, and then the mass murder of Shechem’s family by Jacob’s sons. And she’s right—I read it, but didn’t comment on it. But let’s not let it pass without at least a couple comments.

  1. I wouldn’t classify this as a third (sexual) morality tale, along with Tamar and Potiphar’s wife. In those two stories, the women exercised agency—they chose to initiate (or try to initiate) a sexual relationship. By contrast, Dinah’s almost a MacGuffin: she’s the object that causes others to act. The only choice Dinah makes in this story is to leave to visit the daughters of the land.
  2. Verse 2 says that Shechem “lay with her by force” (or, in the KJV, “defiled her”). The notes to the Jewish Study Bible say that some scholars believe that verb means nonmarital sex, and doesn’t specify rape specifically. If that’s the case, then maybe my (1) is wrong, and Dinah is more than just a MacGuffin. But, while the text makes clear that Shechem is the Romeo in this star-crossed lovers story, it’s not clear that Dinah returns his love as Juliet.
  3. About that marriage thing: according to biblical law (which would have postdated this, because we’re not to Moses yet, but also apparently had its roots in Assyrian precedent), if a man rapes an unmarried woman, he has to pay a fine to her father and marry her, and he loses the right to divorce her. In other words, Shechem is trying to make things right (in cultural context—is it actually right? Absolutely not if it was rape; maybe, if it was a consensual Romeo-and-Juliet thing).
  4. This creates an irresolvable tension. Later laws provide that rape (or extramarital sex) can be resolved through this three-step process. But later laws also forbid intermarriage between Israelites and Hivites. So there’s not only no happy ending here, there’s no chance at a happy ending.
  5. Finally, note that there’s not a clean moral resolution here. Jacob thinks his sons have acted impetuously and dangerously: “You have made me odious among the inhabitants of the land …; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” Jacob’s not concerned that they killed all of the men in a town, or that they plundered. Rather, he’s concerned that their actions will cause his neighbors to unite and destroy him and his family (which would be bad, not only because he wants to live, but because of the covenantal promise he, his father, and his grandfather received).
  6. His sons respond, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Again, we have conflicting views: survival vs. family honor. And the text doesn’t tell us which view to adopt, if any. We’re left with an ambiguous ending, no clear moral, and total lack of respect for Dinah’s agency, or even her existence as a subject.

[fn1] Note that I’m quoting language from the Jewish Study Bible, but I’m linking scriptures to lds.org.

[fn2] FWIW, the Jewish Study Bible uses “unloved” rather than “hated,” though neither really sounds good.

[fn3] The Jewish Study Bible at 75.

[fn4] In a way, they’re kind of stuck killing him once they make their first move. After all, he’s already demonstrated that he’s a tattletale; if they let him live, presumably Jacob will hear about it.

[fn5] (because obviously women can’t be sleeping around)


  1. Thank you for new perspectives on seemingly old (no pun intended) material.

  2. Every four years I watch how these chapters of the Old Testament are presented, and every time, as predictable as the calendar, Genesis 34 comes and goes without a peep. We just sweep that confusion and ugliness into the past without any public questions or consideration, not even a single word of notice, but I privately wonder what happened to Dinah, where she fits in the House of Israel, and if there were more daughters born to Jacob and his wives/slaves, and where those theoretical, unnamed daughters fit in God’s Family Search database. And if there will ever be justice for the sons of the House of Israel.

    Survey: How many of you are saying, “Who’s Dinah?”

  3. Um, unless something’s changed, I’m pretty sure that Benjamin is the youngest son of Jacob and Rachel, who died giving birth to him. See Genesis 35:16-20,24

  4. As a GD teacher, I did not skip Genesis 34, but did not succeed in making any more sense out of the confusion and ugliness than as a report of reasons for estrangement between Jacob and his sons from Leah. But the multiple possible readings of the motivations of actors in the story can provide an occasion for considering the role of scripture in its culture and ours, the wide variations in how scripture stories can be read, and in how we might be motivated or act. or rush to judgment of others’ motivations or actions.

    Those different readings of Genesis 34 can be entirely inconsistent as to the character and cultural or counter-cultural attitudes of Jacob on the one hand and Simeon and Levi on the other – to say nothing of Dinah (which is practically what we have about her). Compare, e.g., these two rabbis’ very different versions: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/what-happened-to-dinah/ and http://www.moshereiss.org/articles/12_family.htm

    Further, the latter reports at least some of the classical speculations:

    “The Targum (Job 2:9) states that Dinah was the first wife of Job implying that there was a second wife. Genesis Rabba (57:4) states that Dinah was Job’s only wife. What is clear is that with the second set of children someone favored the daughters over the sons. The daughters are given beautiful and exotic names; the sons are anonymous. The daughters are given the right of inheritance (Job 42:13-15). Dinah married one of God’s favorites but an uncircumcised one.

    Another fascinating tradition states that Asnath, Joseph’s wife was the daughter of Dinah and incredibly The Prince of Shechem!”

    GD class doesn’t have to be the same ol’ thing every 4 years. Don’t stick to the manual! :)

    I have also wondered what happened to Dinah. Perhaps she’s in the kitchen with someone still playin’ on the ol’ banjo. — Oh, that was another Dinah about whom we know even less.

  5. Fair critique, MDearest. I left out the Dinah story because the lesson manual used it as another example of sex hurting the family of Jacob, and because I found Tamar’s and Potiphar’s wife’s use of agency as more interesting. But you’re right that it’s a shame to skip over Dinah, so I’ve updated the post with a few thoughts about Genesis 34.

  6. Thank you Sam, for the meaty update. And JR for the extra information from your lesson plan. I enjoyed GD so much more when there was research and context.

    This incident was among the worst to ruin my good opinion of the sons of Jacob. Not only do they treat their sister like the prize of their livestock, indignant that she has been defiled – and without their permission(!), but they require a particularly painful settlement from the entire male population of the city, and when the terms are met, the men of the Covenant show their duplicity and kill all those who showed their good faith in the “bargain.” And nowhere in the entire story do we have Dinah’s voice, but I find it interesting that when they go to massacre the men of the city, they first remove Dinah from the house of her betrothed.

    I am aware that this episode may have fictionalized embellishments, and that would be a good thing imo. But the ultimate question it raises in my mind, for which I realize there are no answers in our canon of scripture, is where do the mostly unnamed and unrecorded daughters of Jacob fit in the House of Israel? Where is their birthright and covenant? One might say that Genesis 34 answers that question in its way– the daughters are not part of the covenant, they are lesser members of the family– they actually *are* breeding stock. Which is just more ugliness and confusion.

    Or standard fare from the Old Testament. I think it would serve us better to talk about this rather than ignore it. Thanks, guys.

  7. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks for this write up, Sam. Your comparison of primogeniture vs younger sons, the lack of a Joseph theophany, and the contrast of Potiphar’s wife and Tamar are all fresh ideas for me.

    The Joseph novella has long fascinated me. The cohesion of Joseph’s story is remarkable, considering that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s narratives are each disconnected episodes placed next to each other without much editing or transition. Joseph displays some pretty advanced character development, what with his years of baked-in hatred of his brothers melting away upon Judah’s offer to save Benjamin from imprisonment. I’m partial to the Documentary Hypothesis analysis that Joseph’s novella is actually two different stories interwoven together–Joseph is the hero of one, Judah is the hero of the other (as evidenced by his saving Joseph from death and saving Benjamin from prison). The northern kingdom likes this story then, because its kings derive their authority from Joseph, but the southern kingdom of Judah also likes the story because their namesake arguably moves the plot along.

  8. Not a Cougar says:

    Sam, reading Genesis 39:9, is there some suggestion that Joseph had sexual access to anyone else he wanted in the household? As you indicate, Joseph’s response was not what you would think a slave would say to his master’s wife if propositioned. If so, it paints a much more ambiguous picture of Joseph than I ever considered before.

  9. Paul Ritchey says:

    Fascinating, Sam. I had never heard of Targum. Such literature!

    In the paragraph preceding the Genesis 34 updates, what do you make of the “typical” application of the story (that Joseph fled sexual temptation, and we should, too)? Are you saying that’s not easily applicable to us, or are you saying that’s not exactly what Joseph did? Not sure I follow you there.

  10. Paul Ritchey says:


  11. Not a Cougar, interesting question. I hadn’t read the verse like that. I suppose that is a viable reading; I read it more like Potiphar’s wife, like the rest of his estate, belonged to Potiphar. IOW, I read it as a statement about property, not sexual availability. But that could be me reading anachronistically.

    Paul, also a good question. I think our ordinary reading is too simplistic. It’s worth noting that, contrary to the idea of just-get-out-of-there, that’s not what Joseph did. He discussed her proposition with her, and explained why he wasn’t going to have sex with her (whether you buy my property reading or not). And that makes sense—ultimately, he was Potiphar’s property. He didn’t have a lot of freedom of motion. Ultimately, I think we both misread scripture and do a disservice to it where we read it as a simple morality tale, with a right and a wrong answer. Scripture is usually messier than that, and we need to figure out what that messiness means.

  12. MrShorty says:

    I appreciate some of these thoughts and different ways of seeing Joseph’s story. I don’t know if this fits into the discussion string, but I have started to see Joseph’s story differently as well. In the wake of some of the discussions around metoo and sexual assault and consent, it seems that Joseph could be seen as a victim of sexual assault. He repeatedly told Potiphar’s wife, “no”, but she continued to insist. How does the result of the story change if we see Joseph as lucky enough or strong enough to escape his attacker? How would we read the story differently if he had failed to escape? Would we see him as morally corrupt? Or weak? Or a victim?

  13. Hedgehog says:

    Do we actually know Potiphar’s wife was regarded as property? I understood that Egyptian women were well regarded and equal to men, though that may of course have changed over the course of history. My son, back from uni for the Easter break, raised the issue of sexual assault during our Sunday School class – as he said, something that has been going on throughout history in master/mistress slave situations. And as MrShorty indicates it puts a whole other complexion on our usual reading of the story.

%d bloggers like this: