Should UBF Adjust/Modify The Way Joseph Is Taught?

Gen50.20A verse every Christian experiences. Christians love the story of Joseph in Genesis. In the big picture, it proclaims the marvelous and majestic sovereignty of God in the mysterious salvation of his people. One of my favorite verses is Gen 50:20 which reveals the goodness of God amidst the evilness of man: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” For sure every Christian experiences this verse in the particular, prickly and perhaps painful details of their own life.

How did I teach Joseph? I emphasized the goodness of Joseph and the evilness of his brothers and that Joseph was pure, innocent and naive, which is all true to a degree; that Joseph had dreams, while his brothers had jealously and evil schemes; that Joseph faithfully carried out his father’s errands, unlike his irresponsible brothers. In brief, Joseph was good and his brothers were bad. Therefore, be like Joseph, have dreams, and live responsibly. Also, don’t be like Joseph’s brothers, who had no dreams, and who were filled with murderous jealousy.

What’s “wrong” with teaching Joseph this way? It does not make Joseph out to be a sinner, who desperately needs God’s mercy, grace and deliverance just like everyone else. It is as though Joseph had no real sins, and just some mild innocent naivete, and that he was simply better and a cut above others. It creates a false dichotomy as though Joseph’s brothers needed salvation more than Joseph himself. It could cause people to think that we can just be better like Joseph and not become like his evil brothers by our own resolve.

Gen37-2kjvHow should we teach Joseph? A key is in Gen 37:2, which says, “he (Joseph) brought his father a bad report about them.” I taught this as Joseph being a good steward who simply reported the bad things that his bad brothers did. Is this correct? The Hebrew word for “report” (dibbah) denotes news slanted to damage the victim. It suggests that Joseph exaggerates the bad things his brothers did. Dibbah or “tales” is always used in a negative sense of an untrue report. It indicates that what Joseph did was to misrepresent his brothers to his father. Thus, what the author of Genesis is communicating about Joseph is not his innocence and naivete, but that Joseph is quite an unlikable character: he is immature, tattles on his brothers, and exaggerates their flaws. In short, the narrator sketches the young Joseph as a fool: he is unwise. Joseph acts in similar foolish fashion in telling his two dreams of his own exaltation, and thus infuriating his brothers to the point of murderous jealousy. {Greidanus, Sidney, Preaching Christ from Genesis. Chap. 18. Joseph’s Sale into Slavery (Gen 37:2-36). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmas Publishing Co. 2007, 335-356.}

What is the difference in these two ways of teaching Joseph? Teaching Joseph in the former way communicates that some people like Joseph (and perhaps ourselves) are better than some other people who are like Joseph’s evil, jealous and malicious brothers. We Christians know that this is not true (Rom 3:9-11,23). When I taught Joseph as though he is good, pure, naive, and innocent, I did not show how Joseph himself needed the gospel of salvation. But teaching Joseph in this latter way as a foolish brat and a self-centered tattle tale leads us to understand how Joseph (and ourselves) urgently and desperately need Jesus and the gospel.

I am not saying that everyone in UBF teaches Joseph the way I did. But is this “adjustment” helpful and/or necessary in the way Joseph is taught?


  1. Ben, I’m somewhat confused. Could you explain the two ways again?

    I studied Genesis, all 50 chapters, four times in UBF. Yes, every time Joseph was portrayed as an ideal man; the example we men should all strive to be like. This helped to foster a life based on ideals and principles that eventually became disconnected from reality.

    • Hi James. Perhaps, as the president of UBF, would you start communicating in 2013? It is hard to have a dialogue with your quotes. Links to quotes aren’t very helpful either. Do you have any comment on Ben’s article?

  2. Hi Brian,

    One way is “Be like Joseph (who is good) and not like his brothers (who are bad).

    The other way, which is biblically sound is that Joseph was just as bad/sinful/lost as his brothers, albeit in different ways. Thus Joseph himself needed salvation just as much as his own evil brothers needed salvation.

    The 1st way makes people think that some people are better than others. For eg. some might implicitly communicate or believe that missionaries are better than natives, or that shepherds are better than sheep. Is this really true?????????????

    The 2nd way helps those who think they are better (like Joseph) to reexamine themselves to realize that they may be just as lost and bad and evil as their sheep that they are trying to help, albeit in different ways.

    This is an explanation why it seems very difficult for some older UBF leaders to genuinely and sincerely acknowledge openly and publicly and transparently that they made a mistake. They can’t apologize or acknowledge wrongdoing, because they basically think they are better than their sheep, or the people they hurt and wounded, and that the people who are angry or who left should be thankful to them.

    • Thanks Ben, that helps to clarify. I would agree that both Joseph and his brothers needed salvation. Both were equally lost from God’s point of view.

      This passage is rather twisted up in my mind however. In 2001 or so after a major split in my prior chapter, we studied this passage. It was clearly taught that one leader who left was like Joseph who gave a “bad report” about his brothers. The further implication was that “God’s people” can never speak negatively.

      The other reason this passage is screwed up in my mind is because I was trained in UBF to “do all things for God’s glory”. This included breaking the law if necessary. This was instilled in me as a pattern for life through the 1990 incident. But it was re-inforced all the time, especially through Genesis study. So the Joseph story was taught to me in a way that made the brothers of Joseph not look so bad. The principle of doing God’s work was that throwing people into a well was ok because God blessed such actions. So I became numb to the abuse toward people, and instead of speaking up, I prayed that God would accomplish the saving of many lives through the abuse, based on Genesis 50:20.

      So I have no idea about this passage or your question. I do like what you mentioned in an earlier post though. We should study this passage, and the entire Old Testament, in order to learn Jesus. So I don’t think the value here in the Genesis narrative about Joseph is in finding principles about how to live, but in finding the gospel narrative about Jesus.

      For example, Joseph extending grace to his family who betrayed him is very important I think. Joseph knew they were all sinners, but he did not let his brothers off the hook, even though it pained him much to see them hurt. Like Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 7, he caused them distress for a while in hopes that they would come to godly sorrow.

      It is a similar thing with me. I am causing distress to UBF people for a while in hopes to see godly sorrow. So far though, among UBF leaders, I have seen mostly worldly sorry and pity. As 2012 closes, I am most deeply troubled by this.

    • The other problem, Ben with why it “seems very difficult for some older UBF leaders to genuinely and sincerely acknowledge openly and publicly and transparently that they made a mistake.” is the definition of reconciliation.

      UBF leaders tend to use a cultural definition of reconciliation. One high ranking leader calls himself a “master reconcilier”. Yet every place he goes around the world ends up dealing with disastrous personal relationships. His idea of reconciliation is an exchange of Christmas cards or small gifts, and a pact of “you leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone.” If such things happen, UBF leaders tend to say reconciliation happened.

      But I am attempting to follow the Scriptural examples of reconciliation. Like Joseph, I am intentionally acting in very specific ways, knowing how UBF leaders will react, to facilitate godly sorrow and a turning to God in repentance. Yes, only the Holy Spirit can do this. And I believe it was the Spirit of God who was prompting Joseph to react to his brothers in the way he did, as in Genesis 44.

  3. James Kim

    I know a story of a man whose life is like Joseph in Genesis 50:20. His name is Dr Kim Jin Kyung. He is a Korean American who built a university in Yanbian, China for the first time as a foreigner. Since he loved many suffering North Korean people, he visited North Korea many times with much relief goods without any condition (to North Koreans this is hard concept to understand). One day while he was travelling North Korea he was arrested with trumped up charge that he was an American CIA and tried to convert many people to become Christians. He was put in a solitary prison cell more than a month and later sentenced to death. He was instructed to write a will before his death.
    He made up his mind to die and wrote four wills: to his University (YUST), to his wife and to US government and to the regime. He wrote to the US government not to revenge the North Korean government after his death. He said he was dying because of some misunderstanding about him. He just practiced the love of God by loving his own people. And he would go to heaven. So the US government should not revenge them. He also wrote to the regime that he wanted to donate his body for medical purpose for the North Korean people. He had no grudge against those who falsely accused him and sentenced to death.
    After a while he was set free! Two years later, the North Korean government came to Yanbian to meet him and requested to build a university in Pyungyang. For the first time in history, Dr Kim was given a citizenship of North Korea and he was given much freedom to travel and to build a PUST. (Pyungyang University of Science and Technology). The rest is history.
    His story was very dramatic like that of Joseph. From death sentence to an honorary citizen of North Korea.

  4. Joe Schafer

    Hi Ben and everyone else. Happy New Year.

    I hesitated to pay attention to this article because I was put off by the title. The title suggests that UBF is a monolithic entity that has a single way of teaching the story of Joseph, and that the current way can and ought to be changed by the decision of some UBF leaders. Neither of those things is true. I know that Ben doesn’t believe that it is true, and article doesn’t indicate that any of those things are true. But the title does hint at it, which can evoke a negative reaction in potential readers and discourage them from reading it carefully. An interesting discussion on this phenomenon can be found here:

    Readers should be aware that many of the articles on UBFriends have titles that are intentionally provocative and contain elements of exaggeration, simplification, irony and sarcasm. The title doesn’t always communicate the essence of the article, and you need to actually read the article to find out what it says. At the same time, authors (especially me) have to choose our titles wisely. Perhaps the more people will be encouraged to participate in these online discussions if we go the extra mile to loosen up, chill out, be a little less strident, and take ourselves a little less seriously. People who write and read and comment on UBFriends are passionate about many issues that are truly important. But they (we) are also good, kind, intelligent, fun-loving people who want to help rather than harm, and perhaps this doesn’t come across as well as it could. Some people imagine that me, Ben, Brian, Chris, Vitaly, and others are fire-breathing monsters and criminally insane, which is very far from the truth. My hope and prayer for UBFriends is that our common faith and humanity will shine through more strongly during the coming year.

    This article isn’t really about the way that the story of Joseph is taught. Nor is it really about how we approach the Bible. What Ben is getting at, I think, is our tendency to veer toward Manichaeism.

    Manichaeism is one of the ancient heresies in the early church. Manichees divided humanity into children of light and children of darkness. They classified people into simple categories of good versus bad, and they urged their followers to join the good in opposition to the bad. This idea appeals to young children who are just starting to exercise primitive moral reasoning. In our desire to promote simple, childlike faith and obedience to Scriptures, we have sometimes become childish. I can recall so many Sunday messages where the messenger has said, “There are two kinds of people…”

    Here is a quote by Mark Noll from his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind:

    “Manichaeans divided the world into two radically disjointed sections — the children of light and the children of darkness. Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichaean attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error. The Bible, however, shows the fallacy of such assumptions.”

    It reminds me of another famous quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

    • Thanks for the dose of reality Joe. We need this kind of input. And I think we need more UBF people like James to join in the discussion. Perhaps they are discussing topics in person, off-line. I commend James Kim and have a great respect for his sticking his neck out to comment here.

      No, I’m not exactly a “fire-breathing monsters and criminally insane”. But here are two realities about myself that the Spirit showed to me last year:

      1) I am heartless and cruel. I have to face the fact that my emotional self has been cut out of me through various life events. In some ways my emotions were frozen back in 1989 when my father died a slow death far too early in life. I found last year that it was very hard for me to feel emotion, even when my mother had to deal with cancer and even when my son had to deal with a form of epilepsy. I am finding that emotions can grow back, but my comments often reveal my own brokenness.

      2) I am a criminal. It is hard to believe that someone like me is a criminal. But yes I should have gone to jail in 1990 for what I did. This has bothered me immensely, especially when so many people told me it was all for God’s glory. That is hard to process. My loose comments reveal this mindset as well. My conscience was cut deeply and bound to a “praise God” formula back in 1990. I patterned my entire life on this concept, and now I am struggling to recover from it. I find that while emotions do grow back, conscience might never grow back.

      I love your comments about community. Indeed such community is what I long for. Our family has found such a community, and it really shouldn’t be so hard to form. That is what puzzles me about UBF: Why is it so very difficult to just be friends?

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian, thanks for your comments and your friendship. I sense a great deal of humility and warmth in you, and I hope that others can sense it too.

  5. Thanks, Joe, I think you articulated well what I was trying to get at. Yeah, I was attempting to overcome our dualistic, almost gnostic moralistic view of Christian life and of the Bible, which really often promotes both subtle and blatant arrogant self-righteousness and superiority among her adherents.

    So, for years I really thought that UBF was the best church in the world, and the best campus ministry that is on the cutting edge of raising disciples of Christ. Why? Because I am good like Joseph, and not bad like Joseph’s brothers.

    I failed to see that apart from the grace of God, Joseph would have been just as doomed as his evil brothers. I attributed it to my moralistic, dualistic, gnostic understanding of many narratives in the Bible, such as Gen 37:2ff.

    Another artificial dichotomy would be that King David is good, but King Saul is bad. Therefore be like David, and don’t be like Saul.

    Another would be ambitious Jacob and animalistic Esau. Therefore, struggle with God like Jacob and not be an animal man like Esau.

    Such “teachings” really do not teach that the entire Bible testifies to and is primarily about Jesus (Jn 5:39, Acts 10:43).

    Yes, I am a fun loving person in Christ only by the grace of God, and not a “criminally insane fire-breathing monster,” also only by the grace of God, even if the way I write may put off too many people.

    I guess this would be a blind spot, because I thought that this title was really quite mild and inoffensive (compared to other intentionally provocative titles such as “Are UBF Leaders Cult Leaders?”)!

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, in my opinion there was absolutely nothing wrong with the title. When it caused me to hesitate, I was channeling the imaginary thoughts of others who might come across the article and, because of the title, roll their eyes and not want to read it. It’s not easy to gauge people’s reactions. But I do know that some people are very sensitive and have reacted negatively toward some of my titles and, because of that, failed to read the articles. That high degree of sensitivity is a barrier that needs to be overcome.

  6. Joe Schafer

    In some ways, I think we need to start approaching Genesis and the other books of the Bible more as we would analyze a great book like Anna Karenina or a great film like Les Miserables. Imagine a university student — or even a high school student, for that matter — analyzing the story in such a way: Joseph = good, his brothers = bad. That student would get a failing grade. No respectable teacher would accept such an overly simplistic and unrealistic analysis. The story of Joseph is not moral discourse or fable; it’s a serious piece of literature, and it deserves to be handled on that level.