Genesis 37 and 39 (selections)
A story is defined by its parameters (beginning and end as one example, a particular setting, particular characters would constitute other examples). A story is made powerful by what you choose not to say. To tell a story of the wars we’ve been involved in in the Middle East, is not to tell the story of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to tell the story of a soldier, or a soldier’s wife or child. It’s to select a particular event and its aftermath. And the best stories don’t provide for any event an absolutely clear-cut understanding, but name them all so very difficult—fraught with tension and ambiguity.
Part of the brilliance of Scripture—part of the absolute brilliance of Scripture is how it holds individual stories in tension with their context—the larger story into which they take their place. And so what’s said is heard always alongside what’s not said. Because on the one hand, at first glance, what we have here in the story of Joseph is pure Broadway—the quintessentially American, ironically enough, success story about the confident/brash/assured young underdog who makes good, who faces the challenges, beats the odds, and ends up on top. The rags to riches story—outsider to insider—bottom to top—unknown to well-known—poor to rich. The success story we so cherish—whether it takes its place in sports, in politics, in history, in science fiction—doesn’t matter. At first glance, Joseph’s story fits right into that category of story so easy to love.
Course you’re never supposed to give Scripture but one glance. And the more you look into this, the more there is to see. The more you hear what’s not said along with what is said, the more there is to hear.
The story of Joseph is, after all, the continuation of the story of the great patriarchs and matriarchs—that rich story of call and promise, of covenant and blessing, presence and steadfast love—that marvelous story of God interweaving God’s self into the story of family—that powerful story of the wandering alien who confronts the power of his day, kings and Pharaoh and armies—that meaningful story of waiting for a promise to be fulfilled—that unfolding story as an exercise in trust through life in the meantime.
And it’s a story in the unfolding of which we have named both the included and the excluded—the chosen and the not-chosen. And there are the excluded we know—familiar names within the story (Hagar and Ishmael, Esau, Leah), but also the excluded so excluded we may not recognize their names at all. How many of you remember Abraham’s second wife? Keturah—whom he married after Sarah died. Her five children: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah? I think a lot of people think Abraham had two children: Isaac and Ishmael.
So when we consider this immense story of those included and those excluded, of those without power confronting those with power, of the chosen, the called, and the not-chosen, the not-called—when we consider all that the prelude to the story of Joseph, how does Joseph fit in? It’s a great question, isn’t it? Because at different times he’s all of the above. He’s a person of privilege and a person of privilege lost. He’s the lowest of the low (thrown in a pit) and the figure of authority and power. But I get ahead of myself!
The story begins by identifying Joseph as both beloved son and hated brother. His first action is of bringing a bad report about his brothers to his father. We don’t know—it doesn’t say if he was tattling or if it was a legitimate report. But that’s not why he was hated. As the son of Jacob’s old age, as the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel (which isn’t said here, but is a part of the bigger story), Jacob gave Joseph a special coat to wear, a token of love—of privilege—of being set apart. But such privilege breeds anger, contempt and hatred. It is so important these days to note as people of privilege ourselves—not so much in relation to most of our peers, but in relation to most of the world—it is so important to note that privilege breeds anger, contempt and hatred.
Hear me carefully. I’m not suggesting the ways in which the brothers acted out their feelings were in any way right, appropriate or justified. I am suggesting that details must be heard within context—the larger story. And we disregard the context and the implications of privilege at our own expense. The Bible is often less concerned with what’s right and with what’s wrong and more concerned with how we will deal with what’s real.
What was real in this case was the fact that the brothers could not speak to Joseph in shalom (Genesis 37:4). “In the Old Testament, the normal state of affairs [was] not enmity, violence, and warfare, but shalom. Anything that [was] not shalom [was] out of order; it [was] broken and need[ed] to be fixed” (W. Sibley Towner, Genesis in Westminster Bible Companion [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001] 218). The normal state of affairs is family—healthy family.
Last week, listening to Rebekah, we noted that this story of one family includes the origin of nations—including traditional enemies (the Israelites along with the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Philistines—all part of the same family). Abraham is commonly acknowledged to be the father of the three great faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. How does family get it so very tragically, so dangerously wrong? And yet that’s the story, isn’t it? Not a new story, by any means—as old as time—as old as Cain and Abel, but a reminder we need time and time again: when we exclude, it’s family we exclude. When we scapegoat, it’s family we blame. When we demonize, it’s family we dehumanize. Anyone we identify as “them” is still part of “us.” And we cannot have shalom—we can’t realize God’s dreams—as long as we understand our own dreams to be about our own personal power and success—the elevation of us over them. Consider what that would do to our daydreams. Consider what that would do to our entertainment. Consider what that would do to our politics. No scapegoating. No us and them. Imagine.
Joseph’s dreams were of privilege—of being set apart, of being raised above, of power, and his brothers hated the very idea. Even his dad questioned the appropriateness of father, mother and brothers bowing down to him. Though while the brothers were simply jealous and stayed that way, Jacob pondered these things in his mind and heart.
Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Much was given to Joseph—much was entrusted to him—at a young age. He did not have the best of mentors, but he was not a good steward of what had been entrusted to him. He made his dreams all about him, and any sense of entitlement as opposed to gratitude is dangerous.
Well, Jacob sent Joseph to ascertain the shalom of his brothers (Genesis 37:14). “[E]ight of [the word shalom’s] eighteen occurrences in the book of Genesis are in the Joseph novella” (Towner, 245). And there’s some irony here. Jacob sent the one who disrupted shalom to ascertain shalom. Joseph’s brothers saw him coming and conspired to kill him. That’s about as far from shalom (God’s desire for creation) as you can get! But it’s part of this family story. Whether that’s Hagar and Ishmael being sent out into the wilderness or Esau’s rage and desire to kill his brother. “Let’s see what will become of his dreams if we kill him!” exclaim the brothers. What happens to shalom in the face of hatred and anger and violence and death? Let’s see what happens.
One brother spoke up. Reuben. Reuben argued against killing Joseph and throwing his body into a pit. Let’s just throw him in the pit. Conspiring, Scripture reads, to come back and save Joseph—to restore him to their father. Now was that redemptive or was that manipulative? It’s not said, is it? We don’t know.
They threw him in a pit and sat down to have lunch. Conspiring to murder’s a hungry business! When some traders came by, another brother, Judah, spoke up suggesting they sell him. Now was he motivated by the desire not to shed his brother’s blood or by profit? It’s not said. We don’t know. And it’s interesting—those traders? They’re not identified just as traders. Could’ve been. But no, they’re very specifically named, to the point of being a little confusing: are they Ishmaelites or Midianites? One here, the other there. Well, Ishmaelites were the descendants of Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, son of Hagar, and Midianites were the descendants of Isaac’s half-brother, Midian, son of Keturah. Family, in other words.
The brothers returned home to deceive their father. Joseph, your son, is dead. Of course, again, not said, but how can we not remember that Jacob deceived his own father, Isaac. Again, it does not justify what anyone does, but it does create a … bigger picture? It does make it hard to divide into us and them. It does make it hard for anyone to claim any kind of self-righteous judgment.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s sold to Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh’s, down in Egypt. And again, if we’re listening to what’s not being said, within the larger story of this family, Joseph’s brothers sold him to his cousins (the Ishmaelites or Midianites) who took him down to Egypt and sold him to another cousin (a distant cousin, but a cousin—an Egyptian). And so an unspoken question the story asks: is this a story indicative of just how broken shalom is? Just how far from God’s dream of creation we are? That brothers would conspire to kill—that cousins would buy and sell kin? Or is this a story reflecting the hope that abides even within brokenness? That brothers would resist the shedding of blood—that even sold into slavery, Joseph is still in the family. And we don’t know. Or is it both?
God, interestingly enough, is nowhere in this introductory chapter to the story. God, in fact, never appears to Joseph—not in this chapter—not in the whole story. God never speaks to Joseph—not in this chapter—not in the whole story. God doesn’t relay to Joseph the promise and the covenant. “Joseph builds no altars and associates with no centers of worship.” Joseph marries an Egyptian woman.
And yet, we started with Joseph’s dreams and we have some sense that dreams come from God. God speaks through Jeremiah: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream …. ” (Jeremiah 23:25, 28). We think of Joel’s prophecy about the old men dreaming dreams. Gifts of God.
Dreams are sent from God, but no one hears Joseph’s dreams as a word from God, but only as evidence of a spoiled, immature selfish boy. What comes from God isn’t acknowledged as the word of God. It’s not just that God’s not in this story, but that God’s removed from this story.
And yet, when we get to Potiphar’s, the beginning of chapter 39, we read that “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became successful” (Genesis 39:2). We read that “His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands” (Genesis 39:3). We read that “From the time that Potiphar made Joseph overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had” (Genesis 39:5).
In the larger story, God will appear, but only to Jacob, telling him to go to Egypt (Genesis 46:1-4). As mentioned God never conveys the promise to Joseph. Joseph hears the words of the promise of God conveyed to him near the end of the story when his dad is about to die. His dad speaks to him the words of covenant and promise. And not just to him but to him, his two sons with the Egyptian mother and to all his brothers (Genesis 48-49). And yet, Joseph names God’s work within his experience. Nowhere does God speak to Joseph. Nowhere does God appear to Joseph, and yet Joseph says “God sent me,” he says to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5, 7). And we are mindful of how the story ends, with Joseph assuring his brothers, “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” (Genesis 50:19-20).
So God is assumed. While God is spoken of within the story more than being the one who speaks, yet, God is integral to the unfolding of the story—even if less obviously, even if less dramatically, even if less directly, even if apparently less powerfully.
So, at the beginning, Joseph was on top—wearing the coat that represented love. He fell to the bottom of the pit into slavery, but now, Joseph has been redeemed by Potiphar and he’s on top again—wearing the authority of the master. This part of our story ends with everything having worked out for Joseph. It’s Broadway … except for his family relationships. There is that. We may have success, but we do not have shalom. And that’s a critical inversion of priority. Good thing this is just the first telling of the story.
Genesis is believed to have been written and edited and collated during the Exile. And written for those in Exile. To remind them of God—the God integral to them even when God didn’t appear to them—even when God didn’t speak to them—integral to them even when God was horribly silent—to remind them of the God-story bigger than their own into which their own fit—to give them some sense of meaning—hope. It’s not up to us to begrudge those in Exile the hope they find in the idea that God is at work through those in power. But that’s not our hope, is it? That God will manipulate circumstance. We don’t believe in interpreting current events as God’s fingers pulling the strings. So what’s the word for us?
And maybe that was never the deepest word of this story anyway.
I want to go back to that coat—the symbol of love that is also symbol of privilege—symbol of both the chosen one and the ones not chosen—so, symbol of broken shalom. Also the symbol of deception, right? Because the brothers killed a goat (now how ironic is that? they killed what they were supposed to protect!) and dipped the coat in the goat’s blood. They took it home to show Jacob who saw it as evidence that a wild animal devoured Joseph—ripped him to pieces. So the coat had to have been shredded. In their anger the brothers tore it up as they dipped it in blood. Now that detail is not in Scripture. It’s not said. But Joseph couldn’t have been torn to pieces without the coat being shredded too, right? That unsaid detail is framed within two details that are said. So you’ve got this coat that’s ripped and bloody. Right before that Reuben—when he found out that Joseph had been sold, he tore his coat (symbol of grief). And when the brothers brought the coat to Jacob and he assumed Joseph’s death he tore his coat. So the very expression of the brothers’ anger is also an expression of profound grief. It is simultaneously symbolic of the brokenness of the world and their actions in the world even as it is profound grief at those realities.
So maybe the deepest truth—or a deeper truth, at least—a word for us today—is that we too live in the meantime. We too anticipate the fulfillment of faith assurance. We too live with a promise we want to see and wait to see. And when God does not appear to us in deeds of power and wonder … when God does not speak explicitly and directly … when culture seeks to remove God from so much of our living … when God’s words are relayed to us only through story and through interpretation—through community and through family … when we don’t experience God as those in Scripture did … when shalom is not our experience … when shalom is so far from our experience … when brokenness prevails … when success is misinterpreted as priority, yet, within all the details of brokenness, even within the most despicable of broken acts, there is still something we recognize as grief. This is so wrong, and at the deepest level, that is known. Even within hatred and violence and extremism, there is yet—there is always hope—hope for shalom—for those brothers and sisters who are so estranged—who hate each other so—to yet find their way back. God’s dream for creation creeps into our dreams: imagine. Imagine our daydreams without us ascending over others into positions of power. Imagine entertainment—going to a movie that doesn’t divide us and them. Imagine politics. Imagine foreign relations. It’s just family—horrible, estranged, dysfunctional, but family. God’s dream for creation creeps into our dreams and we maybe arise refreshed enough to hope—to hope. May it be so.