The word “epic” applies to old poetic sagas, partly historical and partly legendary, that help define a nation or people. Frank Moore Cross has used this word for many of the Hebrew stories we find in the Tanakh or Old Testament. Some define epic as a heroic narrative. The Iliad and the Odyssey would be examples. Cross, however, has argued that they do not have to feature heroes. They just have to be stories of a normative period in the life of the people.
Certainly most or the Bible’s epics are not the stories of heroes. The stories of Abraham and David, for instance, have some heroic aspects, but both characters come off as dysfunctional enough to cancel out the heroic.
However, one of the stories in Genesis is different. The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, excluding chapters 38 and 49, is an epic featuring a character who always does the right thing. Joseph does not display the character flaws familiar to us in the many fall-from-grace stories in Genesis.
We refer to the Adam and Eve story as the story of the Fall. But Cain and Noah are also fall-from-grace stories. Beginning with Abraham, we have the stories of a dysfunctional family. Abraham and Jacob, particularly, contribute to that dysfunction.
The story of Joseph continues the story of Jacob’s messed up family. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. But Joseph himself remains above the mess. He rises from slavery to power in Egypt.
In some ways the story of Moses in Exodus is similar. Moses goes from being deposited in the river to being raised in the royal family. But then Moses falls and flees. He returns to Egypt as a great but flawed leader of Israel. Aaron, also flawed, makes up for some of Moses’ deficiencies as a leader. There may have been an earlier version of the story where Miriam played that role as well (Micah 6:4).
But no one needs to make up for Joseph’s deficiencies. He, perhaps along with Daniel, is a nearly unique example of a heroic figure in the Hebrew Bible.
It may be that the Joseph story arose along with the Wisdom literature. Proverbs looks like it might have been a manual for young men entering the civil service during the monarchy. The Joseph story may also have functioned as providing an example for people entering public service. The other characters in Genesis do not work as examples.
I plan to blog through the Joseph story and treat it as a unique epic within Genesis.
But I don’t want to forget that it is part of the larger story told in Genesis. When Joseph tells his brothers at the end that “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20), his statement gives us a perspective, not just on the Joseph story, but on the whole of Genesis. Adam, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Levi, and Simeon along with Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel all acted against God’s intention. And yet God’s intention always won out.