Ethical Reflection on the Biblical Stories of Joseph and Moses
Alice C. Linsley
The parallel lives of Joseph and Moses present ethical questions about God’s dealing with those He has destined to His purposes. Joseph and Moses are both destined to be leaders. Joseph’s destiny is wrapped up with his gift of dreams, while Moses’ destiny hinges on the strange circumstances surrounding his birth.
Like his father Jacob, Joseph is a dreamer. His dreams foretell his future and secure him a place in Pharaoh’s court. His brothers resent him because he is favored by their father, and because he is spoiled and self-absorbed. Jacob is tolerant of Joseph’s youth and inflated ego. Perhaps he remembers how he was at that age and hopes that Joseph won't have to learn humility as he did, through sweaty toil and betrayal in a foreign land.
Moses is hidden for 3 days in the river rushes until he is received by Pharaoh’s daughter as a gift from the Nile. Both Joseph and Moses are separated from their families at an early age. As adults, both gain new families through marriage into priestly households.
Joseph goes from being a pampered son to a slave, and then a prisoner. Moses goes from being a prince of Egypt to a fugitive. Both men are brought low before God elevates them to positions of leadership. Both are distinguished by God-given powers to perform signs (magic arts), dream numinous dreams, and see visions.
Both men begin their time of testing at wells. Joseph is thrown into a dry well by his brothers before he is sold into slavery. Moses fights the Egyptian raiders at the well in the wilderness where he meets his future wife.
Joseph is given divine help in interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners and the recurring dream of the Pharaoh. His God-given wisdom is such that when he proposes a plan to save Egypt from famine, Pharaoh appoints him to a high office and orders him to implement the plan. As befits Joseph’s new status, he is given as wife the daughter of a priest of the shrine at On (Heliopolis). Joseph’s status in Egypt makes him semi-divine in the eyes of the Egyptians.
Likewise, Moses achieves his position by coming before Pharaoh with Yahweh’s plan. Exodus 7:1 tells us that Yahweh makes Moses “as a god to Pharaoh.” Moses also marries a wife befitting his new rank. He marries Zipporah, daughter of the priest of Midian.
Both men have 2 sons. Both are destined to deliver their Hebrew families from great harm. Both die outside the Promised Land; Joseph at age 110 and Moses at age 120.
The stages of Joseph and Moses’ lives are parallel in so many ways that we must ask what God is trying to teach us about divine destiny. What conclusions are we to draw about the nature of God’s dealing with those He has called according to His purpose?
The destiny motif in these stories raises significant ethical questions, and by focusing these questions, we will be able to draw some conclusions. Here are some questions we should ask:
How can we regard Moses as a righteous leader when he murdered a man and fled from justice?
Likewise, shouldn’t Joseph, the spoiled tattle-tale who rubbed his brothers’ faces in his grandiosity share some responsibility for what happened to him?
Do Moses’ years of toil in the wilderness atone for the murder he committed?
Aren’t enslavement and imprisonment of a young boy a stiff price to pay for youthful self-obsession?
Is Joseph playing God in hiding the diving cup and so terrorizing his brothers that they are speechless at the prospect of returning to Egypt? Does God play “cat and mouse” with us to terrorize us into repentance?
Moses was very reluctant to step up to his destiny. He begged God to send another. Where does human freedom come into play?
Was Joseph justified to excuse God’s treatment of him on the grounds that everything turned out for the good in the end? Are we to excuse God when things don’t turn out well?
Focusing these questions doesn’t help us to answer them, but it does help us to draw conclusions about God’s dealing with those He has destined to lead.
It appears that God overlooks grievous sins and youthful faults if He has designs on our lives.
It also appears that God is not willing to accept a “No” from those He has destined to lead.
It appears that years of toil, exile, and suffering are necessary to bring us to our destiny.
It appears that God terrorizes us into surrendering to, or complying with, His purposes.
And finally, regardless of how things turn out, God is to be excused for treating us this way.
The final ethical question is this: Does such a God as this deserve our worship?
The answer to that question is also present in the stories of Joseph and Moses.
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