Everyone knows about Joseph and his fancy coat. He was the one with the dreams of greatness about how his brothers and his parents would bow down to him. Joseph was the favorite son, the one his father loved best, and the one who seemed to rub that in the faces of his brothers. That’s why they hated him and tried to kill him, and that’s why they sold him into Egypt as a slave. Everyone knows that story, and they know how Joseph was thrown into prison because his Egyptian master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape. They know what happened next: that while in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, and eventually that’s what opened the way for him to get out of prison. Even people who have never read the Bible know Joseph’s story. It makes for good theater, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice showed us with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as we learned with the DreamWorks animated movie, Joseph: King of Dreams. That’s why I’m not going to write about Joseph. I’m going to write about the awkward and uncomfortable story of his older brother Judah.
The 1970 movie Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, follows the story of Jack Crabb, a white boy adopted by a Cheyenne warrior and raised among the Indians with the name Little Big Man. Jack spends his life moving between the very different worlds of his native white frontier people and his adopted Indian family. At one point, when he is back again among the Cheyenne, Jack takes a wife named Sunshine. The two live happily for a time, but then Sunshine persuades Jack to marry her three widowed sisters. Jack reluctantly agrees, and soon becomes head of a very large household. One day, as he wanders through the camp pondering his circumstances, he encounters an old enemy, the warrior Younger Bear whom he has inadvertently shamed many times. Thinking he at last has an advantage over Little Big Man, Younger Bear boasts, “I have a wife. And four horses.” Jack answers as if in a daze, “I have a horse . . . and four wives.” And with that absent-minded answer he once again shames Younger Bear.
Little Big Man is a satire, but oddly enough it echoes something from our ancient past. Our ancestor Jacob, like Jack Crabb, left the land of his birth to seek a wife among his distant relatives. He ended up taking four wives, shaming his wives’ kin, and coming home with far more than he anticipated. Jacob’s story, however, has much greater significance than the ribald satire of Little Big Man. His life is a continuous string of prophetic pictures illustrating what happens to us, his offspring.