Monday, July 17, 2017

Was Joseph an Aspergian?

My question is about Joseph of old, and Asperger's, a condition mostly studied during my lifetime. There are a few things in the story of Joseph that make me wonder about Joseph's neurological wiring. None of this is to downplay the role the Lord played in this whole situation, but perhaps this was one of the things the Lord used, or even one of the things that got in Joseph's way.

Joseph had a dozen siblings, mostly brothers, mostly older, and he was beloved by their father. One day (or night) he has a dream that he was going to be over them even outside the context of their father's love (Genesis 36:6-8). There's no indication he thought about how that might go over with them, nor does the text indicate any bad intent on his part. It seems he simply viewed it as sharing information. I've heard this text preached a few times, and usually the preacher condemns Joseph at this point for either being a jerk or not having a clue. Maybe he doesn't have a clue. Maybe he didn't think and wasn't wired to think that way. His father liked him. He dreamed about people liking him. Why wouldn't people like him?

After another dream and repeated similar reactions from his brothers and father, he ends up with a target on his back that nearly cost him his life (Genesis 37:9-20). One of his brothers spoke up, and they decided to sell into slavery instead (Genesis 37:21-28). He winds up in Egypt owned by “an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:28,36; 39:1).

There, “The LORD was with Joseph, and he was a successful man” (Genesis 39:2), and his master saw that (Genesis 39:3) and put Joseph in charge of “all that he had” (Genesis 39:4), and the LORD “blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; and the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had in the house and in the field” (Genesis 39:5). He had responsibility for this Egyptian's things in the extreme—no accountability required (Genesis 39:6).

Joseph was also attractive (Genesis 39:6), and the Egyptian's wife noticed and tried to seduce him (Genesis 39:7). Joseph declined (Genesis 39:8-9), and she persisted for days (Genesis 39:10). One day he went about his normal routine even though none of the other men who were normally around were there (Genesis 39:11). He didn't make the connection between how this change in the environment made it riskier for him. The Egyptian's wife pounced on the opportunity, and she grabbed him by his clothes (Genesis 39:12). The only thing Joseph knew to do was flee—even if that meant leaving his clothes behind—and he did (Genesis 39:12). He never thought or had time to think about how that situation could look.

She wasted no time in turning against him his efforts to remain pure. She called the heretofore absent men of the house as “witnesses” and with racial overtones accused Joseph of attempted rape (Genesis 39:13-15). She disrespected her husband before these men as well (Genesis 39:14). She later recounts the events to her husband with an entirely new explanation for why Joseph left his garment behind (Genesis 39:17-18). His response is to demote Joseph from master of all to palace prisoner (Genesis 39:19-20). Even there, “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him mercy” (Genesis 39:21). Joseph now found favor with the keeper of the prison. Instead of being in charge of the Egyptian's household, he now was given charge of all the prisoners (Genesis 39:22). Accountability was not required here either (Genesis 39:23). While in prison, Joseph had a memorable dream-related encounter with a couple Egyptians who had offended Pharaoh. One was restored and one was executed, as interpreted with God's help from the dream; and Joseph was promptly forgotten (Genesis 40:1-23).

Two years later Pharaoh had a couple dreams and was troubled at not knowing their meaning (Genesis 41:1-8). The chief butler could empathize and told Pharaoh his prison story (Genesis 41:9-13). Pharaoh promptly summons Joseph who promises “an answer of peace” with God's help (Genesis 41:14-16). Joseph explains Pharaoh's dreams indicate Egypt is about to face seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:17-32). He then proceeds to plant the seeds of a job for himself by identifying administrative needs the land of Egypt will need to fill in order to survive the next 14 years (Genesis 41:33-36). Pharaoh liked the idea and basically says, “How about you?” and sets Joseph over all the land of Egypt, second only to himself (Genesis 41:37-41) and fully equips him with everything he needs to exercise this new authority and also an Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name (Genesis 41:42-45).

At 30 years old, Joseph seemed to be quite at home in a position of authority, ready to prepare for a crisis. He now knew his purpose and had a country to run with a situation for which to prepare it. The first seven years were indeed plentiful (Genesis 46-49). The birth of his two sons during this time seem to mark a life transition for him, too (Genesis 41:50-52).

Then came the seven years of famine “in all lands,” “over all the face of the earth” (Genesis 41:53-55). Joseph opened the storehouses and “sold to the Egyptians” (Genesis 41:56). As severe as the famine was in Egypt, they were the only ones with food, and “all countries came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain” (Genesis 41:57). When the Scriptures refer to “all the face of the earth” and “all countries,” that includes where Joseph's family was, too. “Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt” (Genesis 42:1). Jacob sent his sons, except Benjamin, his youngest, to buy grain in Egypt (Genesis 42:2-4). Benjamin was Joseph's only full-brother, as both were sons of Rachel, too (Genesis 30:22-24; 35:16-20, 24).

Joseph's brothers arrived in Egypt and bowed down with their faces to the earth before Joseph, now governor over the land and sole merchant of food (Genesis 42:6). Joseph recognized them, but didn't let on to them who he was, and they did not recognize him (Genesis 42:7-8). He remembered the dream—he made the connection (Genesis 42:9). He kept up his guard and the nation's, and treated them like spies (Genesis 42:9-12). He forced them into telling their story and to disclosing that “the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (Genesis 42:13). Joseph made like he wasn't buying it and insisted they bring their youngest brother (Genesis 42:14-15). He allowed them to send one home while he kept the rest in prison (Genesis 42:16). Three days later, Joseph gave glory to God before his brothers and let all but one of them bring food home (Genesis 42:18-20). Though they did not recognize Joseph right before them, they recognized the injustice they had committed against him openly discussing this in front of Joseph in their home language (Genesis 42:21-23). Having difficulty containing his emotions, Joseph left from before them to weep (Genesis 42:24). He decided to only keep back Simeon and bound him before their eyes (Genesis 42:24). Without them knowing, he also gave orders to “fill their sacks with grain, to restore every man's money to his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey” (Genesis 42:25).

His brothers went home and their father, Jacob, was quite vexed by the whole situation: “You have bereaved me: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and you want to take Benjamin” (Genesis 42:36). Reuben attempted to give assurance of Benjamin's return, but Jacob was having none of it (Genesis 42:37-38). They had grain enough to live on for a while. As the severity of the famine remained Jacob decided it was time to send his sons to Egypt again for food (Genesis 43:1-2). Vividly remembering his previous experience in Egypt, Judah spoke up and basically said, “Not without Benjamin” (Genesis 43:3-10). Israel (another name for Jacob) finally relents and encourages them to take gifts, too: food delicacies, double money, and Benjamin (Genesis 43:11-14). The men followed their father's advice and went back to Joseph (Genesis 43:15).

When Joseph saw his kid brother Benjamin, he calls for a noontime feast (Genesis 43:16). Joseph's house steward makes ready, and his brothers were nervous (Genesis 43:17-18). They tried to quietly explain their way out what trouble they thought they might be in, and the Egyptian steward gives glory to their God and says, “Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money” (Genesis 43:23). He then brought Simeon to join them, and they got ready for noon (Genesis 43:23-24). The time arrives, and Joseph comes home. They bring their present for him and bow before him (Genesis 43:26). Joseph asks about their father and his well-being (Genesis 43:27). They confirm he is alive and well (Genesis 43:28). Then Joseph sees Benjamin (Genesis 43:29). He had to go to his private chamber where he could weep privately (Genesis 43:30). He then refreshed himself and launched the feast (Genesis 43:31). Joseph, his brothers, and the Egyptians all ate separately (Genesis 43:32). Joseph had messed with their heads a little bit by seating them in birthright order, oldest to youngest (Genesis 43:33). The men found this astonishing (Genesis 43:33). He served them all, and gave Benjamin “five times as much as any of theirs” (Genesis 43:34). A good time was had by all (Genesis 43:34).

The meal concluded, and Joseph ordered preparations to send them on their way again, same with the money in each sack as the first time (Genesis 44:1). He also ordered his silver cup in the sack of the youngest (Genesis 44:2). In the morning, they left and were on their way (Genesis 44:3). After they had left the city, Joseph sent his steward after them to accuse them of stealing the cup (Genesis 44:4-6). His brothers denied the accusation and offered their enslavement and the life of anyone who had the cup (Genesis 44:7-9). The steward agrees to their offer, and on searching their sacks finds the cup in Benjamin's sack (Genesis 44:10-12). Now they are vexed, tearing their clothes (Genesis 44:13). Back to the city they go (Genesis 44:13). Joseph is still at home, and his brothers come before him, Judah speaking up pleading for mercy (Genesis 44:14-16). Joseph responds by promising to take the thief as his slave (Genesis 44:17). Judah comes up to Joseph for a private word with him and tries to put their situation with him in context, including their father's story of “my wife bore me two sons” and how he had already lost one and did not want to lose the other, how Judah had guaranteed Benjamin's return, and how their father would die if Benjamin was not with them on their return (Genesis 44:18-34).

At this comes one of the most emotionally powerful accounts in all of holy writ.

“Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Make everyone go out from me!’ So no one stood with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it” (Genesis 45:1-2).

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph; does my father still live?’” (Genesis 45:3).

“But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence” (Genesis 45:3).

“And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Please come near to me.’ So they came near. Then he said: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life’” (Genesis 45:4-5). Joseph then proceeded to explain what he knew about how the famine was only two years in and five remained to come (Genesis 45:6). Joseph gives glory to God as having sent Joseph ahead of them to provide “a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7-8).

He then sends them back to their father to tell them “Thus says your son Joseph: ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry’” (Genesis 45:9). They can live in the land of Goshen where Joseph can provide for them for the next five years (Genesis 45:10-11). He basically tells them, “Look around, and tell my father what you have seen” (Genesis 45:12-13). It was a very touching moment, and then time to talk and catch up (Genesis 45:15). Pharaoh and his servants heard about what happened and were glad (Genesis 45:16). Pharaoh offered his full support including transportation assistance for bringing the whole family and animals, and said, “do not be concerned about your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours” (Genesis 45:17-20). Joseph did some of his own loading them up for his father and sent them on their way with a blessing of peace among them (Genesis 45:21-24).

On arriving home, they announced to their father, “Joseph is still alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:25-26). Jacob had a hard time believing them at first, but when he listened to their story and saw everything Joseph had sent with them, “the spirit of Jacob their father revived” (Genesis 45:27). “Then Israel said, ‘It is enough. Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die’” (Genesis 45:28). Israel took all that he had and upon offering God a sacrifice along the way, “God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night” so that he would “not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there” (Genesis 46:1-4). They indeed went to Egypt (Genesis 46:5-7), 70 people in total (Genesis 46:8-27). As the family was arriving in Egypt, Jacob sent Judah ahead to Joseph to direct them to the land of Goshen (Genesis 46:28). Joseph and his father Israel had an emotional reunion (Genesis 46:29-30). Joseph gave his family a cultural briefing on their occupational reference: they were shepherds, even if the Egyptians didn't like shepherds (Genesis 46:31-34). The meeting with Pharaoh went according to plan, and he even asked them to tend to his livestock as well (Genesis 47:1-6).

The story of Joseph continues for the rest of the book of Genesis, but the parts that remind me of Asperger's I've already bolded above:
  • direct, functional information-sharing
  • awkward social interaction, obliviousness
  • entrapment in bad situations; lack of options in an unforeseen crisis involving himself
  • dedicated, reliable steward
  • a peacemaker in difficult situations
  • high level of thriving and effectiveness with an explicitly clear purpose and the freedom to implement it
  • effective thorough handling and preparation for a large-scale crisis
  • intellectual experiments that test others' thinking
  • strong emotions, even if they have high thresholds before outward indicators are visible
  • generosity (though undoubtedly not unique to Aspergians, the nature of the thinking may incline toward more of this)

1 comment:

Tim McGhee said...

I sent this to a friend of mine who wrote back and said, “I don't believe that Joseph had Asperger's” because he didn't believe “that his conscience would allow him to do something wrong like put the cup in his little brother's bag. That is too black and white—no gray.”

He's referring to Genesis 44:1-5.

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