Chapter Three of The Story: Joseph
God’s great nation building project almost tanks!
September 25, 2016
It is a bit of a truism that one’s greatest asset can also be one’s greatest liability. Maybe someone who is very smart uses that gift in a way that makes him or her an intellectual bully, who belittles others for a lack of knowledge. We see individuals with incredible ability in a particular sport, whose drive to win leads to use of banned performance enhancing substances. Or we can think of gifted artists like Sylvia Plath or Vincent Van Gogh whose intense, creative natures led them into dark despair. Gifts can have a shadow side.
Joseph has an amazing talent for something that, at least initially, gets him into a lot of trouble. Joseph has very lucid dreams that he can both remember and interpret as to their meaning. We all have dreams, but even if we can remember them upon waking very few of us have the ability to make sense of them, unless we are Freudian psychotherapists!
One morning this week my husband reported that, in a dream, he was assisting various marching bands to select band uniforms. I had no interpretation for that one! I wish Joseph was around to clue me into it, but of course, we might not want to know what our dreams mean. And even if we do have an idea of what they mean, sharing that meaning can sometimes cause trouble.
Joseph’s brothers were already put out with him because he was clearly Dad’s favorite, a child of Dad’s favorite wife, Rachel. Just this week in Book Club we discussed a memoir about life in a polygamous Mormon cult (The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner) and we saw firsthand the sort of jealousy and dysfunction that went on in such extended families. Trust me, you don’t want to know!
Take whatever problems we normally have in family life and multiply it across step-families living in close proximity. It’s no wonder that violence and jealousy seem to be a feature of Old Testament community life. In fact, Joseph was such a fair-haired golden boy that Jacob had given Joseph a special robe with sleeves…a real luxury at a time when fabric was precious. It’s not good to have favorites, especially if the other kids can see it.
Joseph, maybe not the sharpest pencil in the box when it came to gauging his brothers’ attitude toward him, blithely shares two dreams with them. In both of the dreams, the rest of the family bows down to his greatness. Emotions that were already running high, boiled over with disastrous consequences.
One day the older brothers are off tending the sheep near Shechem, and Jacob asks Joseph to go and check on them. Well, he does and the clan sees him coming from a distance, glowing in his beautiful robe. A jealous rage settles over them and they decide to kill him. Reuben is the oldest and therefore the one that will be held the most responsible. He talks them into throwing him into a cistern instead.
Reuben goes off somewhere, and the other brothers spot a caravan of camel traders. “Hey! Here’s a good idea! Let’s sell Joseph to them for 20 pieces of silver. His blood isn’t on our hands, and we get rid of the spoiled brat!” Off Joseph goes, sold into slavery. Reuben comes back, finds that Joseph is not in the pit, and despairs of what they will tell Dad. Of course, they lie and bring the robe back, torn and bloodied, as proof that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
Before we go to Egypt with Joseph, Let’s step back and see where we’ve been in The Story and where we are going. We have been following the People of God as God slowly builds them into a Nation, a corporate body with one faith. This nation building project is not going well at this point!
The Story began with two individual people, Adam and Eve, in the Garden. God had not made them into a family as we know family.
Then scripture moves to the idea of God’s people being “family.” That implies children, and Abraham and Sarah have Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah have Jacob and Esau. The family grows and so do the problems. Through trickery Jacob steals Esau’s birthright. Jacob marries Leah and eventually Rachel. With concubines Zilpah and Bilhah , Jacob’s family grows with 12 sons and who knows how many daughters. Jacob becomes known as “Israel” and we begin to see God’s design for this new nation. But Israel is not a nation yet, and in fact, its fate hangs in the balance as Joseph is sold into slavery.
Of course, when the dreamer gets to Egypt his skills in dream interpretation find him both favor and trouble again. But ultimately his ability to interpret Pharoah’s dream enables Joseph to save the Egyptian people from a time of great famine. And in one of the great melodramas of scripture, Joseph saves his own family and eventually brings them all to live in Egypt in peace and prosperity. And the Hebrew people live in Egypt for 430 years.
Joseph could have had vengeance on his brothers. He was powerful enough to have them all killed. B ut with a forgiving heart he eventually embraces them and provides for their future.
I am reminded of one of my favorite movies, the 1992 Clint Eastwood masterpiece, The Unforgiven. Unforgiven is an American revisionist Western film directed by Clint Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples. The film portrays William Munny, an aging outlaw and killer who takes on one more job years after he had turned to farming. It is a dark and atypical Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how complicated truths are distorted into simplistic myths about the Old West. A group of reformed gunslingers set out to avenge a terrible injury done to a dance hall girl, and in the process set off a cycle of violence at the end of which no one is left standing, or redeemed.
A similar story could have been enacted by Joseph. But God worked through him to bring the Hebrew people from disaster into peace and prosperity. The nation of God’s people, started through Abraham and Sarah survived to be part of God’s plan to save the whole world. From individual, to family, to nation…God’s Upper Story weaves in and out of the lives of these very unlikely people. God provides the unity in the story and enables life and well-being. And through God’s work, the family is preserved as the bearers of God’s promise. All of Genesis attests to God’s universal purpose. God acts through all levels of society bringing good to all.
God does not appear in this story as God has previously appeared in Genesis. God works behind the scenes weaving goodness into everyday through life. Joseph, the dreamer, receives no blinding divine word from on high. God does not speak to him from a burning bush, or even as God spoke to Adam in the Garden. Joseph builds no altars, yet God and God’s Spirit is with him. There is now a new way of transmitting faith across generation s. And it all begins with forgiveness and reconciliation .
This is how God wants the Divine Word conveyed to the community of faith. Had Joseph not reconciled with, forgiven, and embraced his brothers–the Story would have had a very different course. In fact, nation building would have come to a very dead end. Jacob’s family would have starved in Canaan, and thus bring to an end the line of descendants that God promised Abraham.
Joseph said to his brothers, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” What a beautiful story. And what a beautiful thing to reflect upon when we are in the pit, feeling put upon, betrayed, angry, afraid. The way out is always the way forward. And the way forward is always with God, and living by God’s rules. Joseph knew this instinctively and became an agent of the public good. Because he was unable to hold a grudge, even against a family that used him cruelly, we too are freed from having to be part of a cycle of violence.
We can make a choice even in those times that, like Joseph, we wonder if God has forgotten us. God will hear our cry. And when we look to the greater story that God is writing for our world, we can rest assured that the disappointments and heartaches of today will never be the end of the story. “Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the story blast and our eternal home.”