Sunday, January 2, 2011

Joseph, the dreamer

The book of Genesis is about a God who gets his hands dirty. The prologue that unfolds in Chapters 1-11 shows how God creates the universe through an extended process, how he welcomes his creatures into the process of caring for an maintaining his creation, how he watches as his creatures grieve his heart, and how he purifies the world in search of a new start. The story of Abraham in Chapters 12-25 show how God creates for himself a people out of an old man and his barren wife. The story of Jacob in Chapters 25-36 show how God chooses to continue his people through a fierce struggle between two brothers, and how the ancestor of God's chosen people must be one who wrestles with God and with man. The final section (as I read it) comes in Chapters 37-50, and focuses on Joseph, and how God uses the envy and hatred of Joseph's brothers to bring about his plans for Israel.

In other words, God is not immune to difficulties. His plan progresses through pain, destruction, separation, and confusion. God is not afraid to put himself, and those whom he has chosen to be his people, in compromising positions. Basically, the character of God in the Bible is consistent with reality. It is impossible to believe in a God who makes everything pristine, because no such God exists.

Genesis 37-50

The story of Joseph is much celebrated in Christian circles, and with good reasons. Who can resist a story like Joseph's? Sold into slavery by his own brothers because they were envious of his relationship to their father (and his seemingly presumptuous dreams), grieved by his father who presumed him dead, framed for adultery by his master's wife; he is thrown into prison where he interprets visions and wins Pharaoh's favor, he prepares the entire kingdom of Egypt for the coming famine and amasses extraordinary wealth, and finally he encounters his brothers, who have come to plead for food in the midst of famine. The drama of the situation is beautifully developed as Joseph hides his identity (and his tears) from his brothers for some time before a moving speech by Judah finally causes him to break down and reveal what God has done for him. The family is at last united in Egypt (70 people in all), where they receive Pharaoh's favor and live out the rest of their days in peace, leaving behind numerous descendants. God's promise is coming true.

Hanging over this beautiful story is, however, an irony which is worth pondering. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, but instead of allowing them to prosper in Canaan, he brings them down to Egypt, to a pagan kingdom which in many ways comes to represent the very evil God has been trying to get rid of since the flood. God is sending his people into the heart of wickedness in order to gather them into his own. To complicate matters even more, it is Joseph who institutes that very slavery which will be used in generations to come to oppress the Israelites.
"Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? But us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate."

So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh's. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.
When people fear for their lives, they will even sell themselves into slavery. The frustrating thing about the Bible is its unwillingness to make a judgment on the matter. It simply explains Joseph's decision, and then moves on to the important matter of Jacob's last blessing on his children (a fascinating passage in its own right). Joseph's shrewdness in being able to provide food during the famine is everywhere praised; buying all of Egypt into slavery was probably favorable to Pharaoh, at least. The horrible irony is easy to see: the very next book following Genesis is concerned with God bringing Israel out of the very slavery which Joseph himself established.

Yet Genesis ends with a powerful theological statement from Joseph to summarize the whole book. After Jacob's death, Joseph's brothers realize that they need to beg for his forgiveness to be sure he won't retaliate against them now that their father is gone. In response, Joseph reassures them with these words:
"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today."
This theological statement also sheds light on Joseph's institution of slavery: though the institution itself was evil (and ironically became a great burden for the Israelites) God meant it for good.

If Genesis is to shape our vision of the world, then we, like Joseph, must admit that we are not in the place of God, and that our ability to foresee what good may result from the events we see now is very limited. We are, in a sense, faced with that very choice which Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden. Are we to embrace the path ahead of us, whatever unpredictable results may lie ahead? Or are we to insist on knowing good and evil, so that we may judge all that happens to us and determine whether it really ought to have happened that way?

In Exodus 6 we read that the patriarchs were never told the divine name which was revealed to Moses at his calling. Thus Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers all lived with little more than a promise that their descendants would be great and numerous. They had no step-by-step plan for reaching God's promise. Rather, it is more accurate to say they stumbled upon the conditions through which God would make good on his word. God's people are a wandering people, without the aid of a road map. Yet it was enough that they held on in faith to God's promise, the promise of life.

To me it seems that today pastors are all too often expected to give some straightforward conclusion to scripture passages, especially by giving applications to daily life. If there is any take-home message in Genesis, it is simply that we need to be able to tolerate uncertainty. It will never be clear that we are headed in the right direction, even if we happen to be following the voice of God himself. All we can do, I suppose, is believe in a promise, which is nothing more and nothing less than life itself. This, it seems to me, is all God ever offers in the scriptures, and part of me thinks it is all we should ever wish to have.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite story. Joseph the son of Jacob has always been my favorite.


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