I enjoy British and European movies because they frequently feature real-looking stars. The actors in those foreign films often resemble the sort of people you might see in an airport or bus station whereas most Hollywood entertainment seems to star only humans of indescribable beauty and rare good looks. I enjoy looking at beautiful people of course, but I am more enchanted and more uplifted by actions than by appearances.
This is why the Bible focuses chiefly on those human traits that we can improve. It hardly speaks of intelligence or raw brain power because there is not much any of us can do about that. Whatever our parents bequeathed to us in the ovarian lottery is what we have. What we do with our ability to think, however, is very important which is why the Bible does speak of gaining wisdom. (e.g. Proverbs 16:16) Personally, I would much rather be governed by people of average IQ who possess great wisdom than by ultra-brainy bureaucrats who are utterly bereft of wisdom.
Similarly, only a few Biblical personalities are described in terms of their physical appearance because what our bodies look like is again, largely the result of the genes we inherit from our parents. However, the good we do with our bodies, the deeds we accomplish and the people whose lives we enhance, is what really counts. It is probably delightful to be beautiful, but the truth is that what we look like is just not that important. For the most part our happiness is birthed not by our looks but by our actions.
Whenever Biblical characters like Sarah or Rebecca, Saul or David are described in terms of physical appearance, ancient Jewish wisdom assures us that their winsomeness always implies a moral dimension. This connection between someone’s ‘heavenly’ or ‘divine’ appearance and their angelic qualities was even captured when Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra sang “You (She) look(s) like an angel…”
For instance, Joseph is described as very good-looking. (Genesis 39:6) Here’s something really weird: the previous person to be described as good-looking in exactly the same Hebrew words is none other than Joseph’s mother, Rachel. (Genesis 29:17) You just know that this is not a coincidence, right?
To probe this puzzle we must first ask another question. Where in the Biblical account of Joseph’s life should we be told that he was good looking? Surely the information about his striking appearance would most logically belong when we first get to know him as a young man in the first few verses of Genesis 37. Yet we are told nothing until the very moment, when for the first time in his life, he achieves some prominence and prestige as the chief-of-staff for his boss, Potiphar.
Though his handsome appearance does help to explain Mrs. Potiphar’s infatuation with him (Genesis 39:7) we nonetheless wonder why the information about his comeliness is withheld from us till now. Here is another baffling enigma: why did Joseph never bother to notify his grieving father that he was alive? But, wait! When might he have conceivably done so? His brothers sold him as a slave to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:28). Slave traders would hardly have accommodated Joseph’s desire to dispatch a message to his father. From there he passed through the hands of other slave traders until he was finally sold to Potiphar (Genesis 37:36). Eventually, with the passage of time, he won his master’s trust and was promoted. (Genesis 39:4)
This was the first moment at which Joseph had the ability to send a message back to his father, yet didn’t do so. It is also the moment at which the Torah links Joseph to his mother by describing him in exactly the same terms as it described Rachel ten chapters earlier.
What possible connection could exist between Joseph at this moment and his mother at the moment before Jacob declares his love for her and his intention to marry her? (Genesis 29:18)
Ancient Jewish wisdom records that Rachel was under no illusions regarding her roguish father. Back at the well, she and Jacob had conversed about Laban’s tendency to deceive everyone with whom he dealt. Certain that Laban would try something, Jacob and Rachel set a secret password between themselves. The idea was that Jacob could confirm the identity of his veiled bride by means of a whispered password.
As the wedding got under way Rachel was forcibly detained by her father’s assistants. She saw her sister Leah being led to the marriage canopy, and to the inevitable disgrace that would follow. It was clear to Rachel that Leah’s ignorance of the password would make Jacob disrupt the wedding. Rachel realized that she could not allow her sister’s public humiliation. It would be immoral and wrong. Her father’s depraved ways was no reason for her sister to suffer. Rachel revealed the password to her sister. Thus she postponed her marriage to the man she loved, putting her sibling ahead of her own desires.
The Torah is informing us that Rachel’s son Joseph is doing exactly the same thing and also deferring his own desires. Though he felt desperate to let his father know that he was all right, Joseph realized that there was no way of doing so without disclosing his brothers’ perfidy. Upon hearing from Joseph, Jacob would certainly confront his other sons and get at the truth. He’d discover that they were the cause of his many years of mournful agony. In fact, there was every possibility that by contacting his father, Joseph might well restore one son, himself, back to his father at the cost of Jacob’s relationship with ten of his sons because he’d never be able to forgive them for what they did to the son he loved so well
Joseph realized that the ultimate good was family unity and that the reunification of the family would need to be carefully engineered. He put aside his feelings of wanting to blurt out the news to his father in favor of a greater good.
Now we have a more complete picture. Selfless behavior sculpts beauty into the human form. Rachel was beautiful because of her selfless love for her sister. Years later her son, Joseph, looks attractive because of his selflessness. And his selflessness is rewarded when he finally succeeds in unifying his family in a way that prevented his father from ever discovering what ten of his sons did to Joseph.
Ordinary-looking men or women doing their duty with diligence, honor and integrity bring more good to the world than a bevy of beautiful and glamorous movie stars demonstrating depravity on a daily basis.
My wife and I host a daily television show called Ancient Jewish Wisdom on the TCT Network. We are blessed with both a large domestic and international audience and I can assure you that it is not because of our looks! No, it is only on account of the ancient Jewish wisdom that we are privileged to share and the Biblical secrets we are honored to uncover.
Here are two ways for you to join in. TCT will air an Ancient Jewish Wisdom program marathon this Friday, April 24, between the hours of 5:30 p.m. ET and 9:00 p.m. ET—seven back-to-back episodes. I know you will enjoy each episode of this TCT special event. You can also watch this online at www.tct.tv
Second, you can order eight of our favorite episodes right here. These include Psalms Opening Act, Is Money Moral? & Curse Management. Right now, buy one four episode DVD and get the other one free! And here’s the best part; you can view them as often as you wish. You can even share them with friends and family. I really would love for you to have these crucial messages that Susan and I bring to you and we’d be overjoyed to know that you are sharing those insights with others.