Almost anyone who has studied the Old Testament with any thoroughness is familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) draws from four major but anonymous sources. The sources often are labeled J (associated with the German spelling of Yahweh, the holy name of Israel’s God, that is used by this source document), E (associated with Elohim, another frequently employed name for God that is used in this source document), D (from the Deuteronomist, the source that supplied the Book of Deuteronomy), and P (for a source that had Priestly interests). The hypothesis is beyond the scope of our current concern, but one aspect of it has some relevance in our probe of Joseph’s spiritual journey. I am not focusing on the sources of the patriarch’s narratives but the aspects of the patriarchs’ encounters with God that might give some insight into their spiritual development.
The God of the covenant established with Abraham and Isaac is Yahweh. In this sense, Yahweh is the dynamic God of personal encounters and covenants. The narrative accounts of Jacob’s encounters with God employ both Yahweh and Elohim. Yahweh is mostly absent from the story of Joseph (with one exception), even though Yahweh is associated with the derivation of the name “Joseph” itself (Gen. 30:24, “May the LORD add to me another son”).
The one exception is that Yahweh is given credit for Joseph’s early successes in Egypt (Gen. 39:2,3,5,21,23); but the holy name is employed only by the narrator, and not by Joseph himself. Yahweh is totally absent in Genesis 40—47, although an abbreviated form of another name for God (Adonai) is used with references to Pharaoh as Lord of the land and, interestingly enough, to Joseph in his role as a ruler (Lord) over Egypt. Joseph’s brothers use this term to address Joseph in chapters 42—47, both before and after he discloses his relationship with them.
The Genesis narrative restricts Joseph’s own expressions about God to the divine name Elohim. The dominant usages of Elohim in Genesis are found in the creation account in Genesis 1:1—2:3 and in the pre-Joseph narratives in Genesis 21, 28, 30, 31, and 35. Elohim is the cosmic Creator God who speaks the cosmos into being (as opposed to the Genesis 2:4-25 account where the Lord forms humanity out of dust); and the unusual plural form of the Hebrew word for the one and only God of the Hebrews seems to expand the scope to all nations. Joseph’s experience with God clearly stands in the Elohist tradition.
Am I reading too much into this distinction? Maybe so; but I think we see in Joseph another dimension of faith that is more providential than personal, more circumstantial than revelatory, more sophisticated than forged out of spiritual encounters. Joseph was a moral and principled man. He was gifted, competent, and patient. He was magnanimous and forgiving. He saw God’s hand at work in the broad sweep of his life (Gen 45:8), but he seems not to have had the first-hand, intensive encounters with God experienced by his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather.
If we expect all disciples to have a Saul-on-the-Damascus-Road type of experience, we will be disappointed. If we expect every spiritual experience to involve wrestling with God, seeing God in the clouds of Sinai, or seeing some kind of transfiguration experience, we will be disappointed. God works with us in many different ways. We cannot program faith, discipleship, commitment, or devotion. But in many and various ways, God makes known to us a Presence, a Guide, a Comforter, a Friend, a Redeemer. We may not have visions of holiness or a thorn-in-the flesh burden, but each of us must find our way to God—our own way!