Genesis 39-41 (selections)
What do we have so far? We’ve heard the story once, right? It may have felt like we only heard part of it last week—from the beginning to Joseph being set up in Potiphar’s household, but we actually heard the entire story in that first telling of the story. Let me elucidate. We started (this is last week)—we started with Joseph as beloved son, receiving a gift from his father Jacob: “Here’s my coat for you to wear—a token of my love.” Subsequently betrayed by his brothers—threatened with death, yet imprisoned. Finally redeemed by the power of Potiphar receiving a gift from Potiphar: “Here’s my authority for you to wear—a token of my admittedly pragmatic respect and appreciation.” That’s the first telling of the story. And the story is pure Broadway, we said. The perennially best selling success story about the kid who makes good, beats all the odds, and ends up on top. If we’ve heard the story once, we’ve heard it a million times.
Although we did note—we did note that while Joseph was saved from his family, he was never restored to them—that while he attained success, he did not find shalom—God’s dream for creation. As many setbacks as were faced and overcome, the fundamental brokenness of the family in whose story God was at work was not.
Now we hear that story all over again in the retelling of the story. Starting with Joseph back on top—this time in Egypt as overseer of the household, receiving a gift from Potiphar: “Here’s my authority for you to wear—a token of my admittedly pragmatic respect and appreciation.” Subsequently betrayed by Potiphar’s wife—threatened with death (it doesn’t say that, but death would have been the appropriate response to the accusation of adultery according to what would be the law of Israel. You can look up Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22—and remember—remember the law was written at the same time—in the same context (in Exile) as the stories of Genesis. It’s not as if this story was told long before there was the law)—so threatened with death, yet imprisoned. Finally redeemed by the even greater power of Pharaoh receiving a gift from Pharaoh: “Here’s my authority for you to wear—a token of my need and my trust and my admittedly pragmatic respect and appreciation.” That’s the retelling of the story. Still Broadway. Still the success story we love—in spades (or hieroglyphics!). It’s the sequel. Joseph rising to even greater heights.
There’s even a mini-version of the story in jail. Potiphar throws him in prison to appease his wife and to save face, but even there, Joseph’s redeemed by the power of the chief jailor who promotes him within the jail structure to be the one responsible for all the prisoners. “Here’s my authority for you to wear.” And anything that was done in the prison, we read, Joseph did it.
That makes us think back to first telling of the story and wonder if there’s a mini-version of the story in that first telling, and there is. We didn’t know to call it that when we first heard it, but remember when Joseph was about to die—when the brothers were conspiring to kill him? Reuben, the eldest of the children of Israel, the first-born, used his authority—his power to save Joseph from death.
Time and time again, in the falling after the rising that is the rhythm of these stories, when Joseph finds himself again threatened with death—in the pit, in the jail, someone with power intervenes on his behalf—recognizing in him competence—recognizing in him God’s blessing and the prosperity that results from God’s blessing and so choosing to dress him in authority and power in order to vicariously reap the benefit of God having blessed him.
Okay, so now we remember that Genesis is believed to have been written and edited and collated during the Exile. Believed to have been written for those in Exile—to remind them of God—to remind them of the God story bigger than their own into which their own fit—to give them a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of hope.
So the story raises the question—would have to raise the question, for those in Exile—for those in captivity in a foreign land—and for us as well—also living in a meantime, also living in a not yet, also living in times of doubt and fear—times of hope—of anticipation and expectation: will we too be saved by power? Will God work through the powers that be to restore us to our home? To redeem us? To restore justice and righteousness? And how about prosperity? Will God work through power to make life more comfortable for us? Because that’s the story, isn’t it?
And what we have here then, in the telling and the retelling of the story of Joseph constitutes a word of hope to those in exile and a presumably non-threatening word of hope acceptable to their Babylonian captors—acceptable to the culture in which they find themselves: God works through the powers that be. That might as well be an affirmation of the power structure, right—the culture, the priorities? And what’s more, when God works to save God’s people, it’s to the benefit of those in power. Right? God saved Joseph and it was to Potiphar’s benefit and then God saved Joseph and it was to Pharaoh’s, indeed Egypt’s benefit.
Within our experience in the world, we’re more suspicious of power. And so the story doesn’t sit quite right with us. We’ve seen too many with power abuse it. Not only have we seen the innocent suffer at the hands of power, we’ve seen them suffer without anyone else with power intervening. Justice does not dictate the use of power, let alone God, but expedience. Power seems less something for universal benefit and more for the exclusive benefit of those who wield it.
And even in our Scripture text this morning, we see the inconsistency of power—the unreliability of power. Power eventually turns on you. Potiphar appreciates Joseph, but ends up in a position in which his power demands that he throw Joseph in front of the bus. and he does. And while Pharaoh likes Joseph, power outlasts relationships, and when a Pharaoh comes to power who didn’t know Joseph, Joseph’s people become a free labor source for a new Pharaoh. Relationships defined by the exercise of power always put someone in the relationship in a precarious position. Because power is not promise. It’s not covenant. And it’s not to be relied on.
This is a story the surface of which causes absolutely no waves. The exiles can read it—can tell it in captivity—act it out—sing it—without the Babylonians, those in power, worrying—feeling threatened. Again, think about it. Wouldn’t the Babylonians have been comfortable with a God who works through the powers that be—works through them and for their benefit. And yet, as the story is told, when the Israelites are finally restored to their home, it’s because God works through the Persian king, Cyrus, right? Who defeats Babylon. Through power, yes, God uses might to make right. But it’s not the powers that be. It’s the power yet to be! So while the surface may seem calm, yet these are stories in the depths of which currents run fierce and strong.
And below the waveless, non-threatening surface of the story, the currents rage in a vicious riptide that is the call to shalom standing in marked contrast to power—standing against power—as a deeper word of truth—as a greater authority—reminding even those suffering at the hands of power that acquiring power—using power—can only accomplish so much—that ultimately power won’t save. As seductive a prospect as that is, and as attractive as what power can bring you is, it does not save.
And so many struggle with whether or not to even talk about God’s power. That’s why some will speak only of God’s authority, or simply, of love—or the power of love in which God trusts—on which God relies—that is both who and how we understand God to be.
Power can make for success—it can bestow power—it can make you well-known and rich and remove much of the stress of life, but it cannot restore the shalom lost. It cannot take the broken and make it whole. Power and success do not lead to shalom. They do not restore shalom, and, conversely, cannot take shalom away. Amidst all the captors can impose on the captives, the powerful upon the powerless, shalom cannot be manipulated or controlled. And even in a foreign land—even in exile, you can take husbands and wives, and buy fields, have families, establish homes. But even more subversive than such claims is the prophetic surge that claims shalom—steadfast love—grace undermines power structures and rewrites possibility.
And so we probe the depths beneath the surface. Within the unquestioned givenness of patriarchal society and custom, yet time and time again in this story, it’s not the first-born who receives the blessing of the father. It’s not Joseph’s first-born Manasseh Jacob blesses, but Ephraim. Just as it wasn’t Isaac’s first-born, Esau who received his father’s blessing but Jacob. Just as it wasn’t Abraham’s first-born, Ishmael in whom the story continued, but Isaac.
Time and time again, within the unquestioned givenness of patriarchal society and custom, women are included in the story as helpmates, as participants, as those who hear the voice of God, as those who move the story along.
We note that within all the exclusivity, and rejection—within the belonging so consistently defined as others not belonging—within the emphasis on Isaac and Jacob both being sent back to family to find appropriate, approved kinswomen to marry—suitable women—within the misery Esau caused Isaac and Rebekah by marring Canaanite women, we’ve yet been reminded time and time again that the foreigners—the rejected, the excluded, the enemy—the others, are simply other branches of the family. And Joseph married an Egyptian woman and it was to their sons that God’s promise was extended. Two of the twelve tribes of Israel trace their lineage back to Egypt!
We note within a story unfolding into a strict set of laws to set this people apart from all others, yet, at the end of this story, we note that Joseph was embalmed and put in a coffin against—against the customs of the patriarchs and matriarchs of ancient Israel. In this extended story, in other words, God’s people have lied and cheated, exploited and abused, excluded and rejected—broken all the rules and yet—and yet signs of brokenness are also signs of grief. And in the unfolding of events and relationships, we have growing some sense that until broken relationships are restored, success and power won’t matter.
We’re reminded this story has consistently been one of radical, persistent surprise. It’s the story of a promise—a covenant—of relationships not determined by expectation or by rule or custom. And we begin to wonder if this is, in truth, a story that identifies inclusion and blessing less as tribal and more as relational. We begin to wonder if what we’re to read, well below the easy-to-take surface, us that shalom has something to do with the relations of family restored—relations of the whole family—the extended family.
This is a story shot through with dreams. If we follow that trajectory—that particular motif or current, where does it take us? Joseph’s family was initially unwilling to conform to his dreams. Then Joseph was unwilling to conform to her dreams. The baker and butler’s dreams conformed to reality—as did Pharaoh’s dreams. Which makes us reconsider Joseph’s dreams as real—not as immature daydreams but as God-inspired visions that both do and don’t come true.
The brothers did bow down to Joseph as those early dreams indicated, but Jacob never did. But the obeisance of the brothers did not lead to exclusion and division and conflict and rejection. The dream is not realized in hierarchy, in power’s divisiveness. Joseph rejects that potential effect of power in favor of shalom—in favor of restored relationships. No eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, but forgiveness and reconciliation. The deep current’s movement takes us from our dreams to God’s dream. More personal than even our own dreams—more important than Pharaoh’s—more real than anyone’s.
God’s story is thus ultimately a different story—not one of power, but one of steadfast love and shalom, and salvation—not one of exclusion and rejection—of belonging by virtue of others not belonging but one of election and promise and covenant that relationship will be restored—all relationships restored.
What’s so important about this? What’s so vital about this? Why do we need to hear this? Why is it absolutely critical that we hear this? Nothing really practical about it. No teachings. No rules. Not really an example to follow. Just a story. Just a story to hear and to tell.
Our world proclaims a story. It’s one we can’t help but learn by osmosis. It resounds on Broadway. It echoes through our schools and at work. It shapes our daydreams even as it unfolds in politics and foreign policy. Our world proclaims a story. It’s even the surface of much Scripture that’s all that too many take from Scripture. It’s even so much a part of church. And if you’re on the right end of it, it’s an easy story—pleasant, fun and reassuring. But there is a right end to it and a wrong end to it. It’s not a story for everyone. So you need another story.
And we have it to share. We have a different story to tell. And as good a story as it is to tell others, it’s as critical to tell ourselves—to dream ourselves—when we’re alone and when we’re scared—when we’re unsure—that in its plot line, we might affirm the limitations of power—the inadequacies of success and wealth—the insidious danger to the ways of the world and its priorities—the treacherous danger to the story the world tells, and the limitless, transformative possibilities of shalom—the limitless, transformative possibilities of steadfast love—the limitless, transformative possibilities of grace—the deepest of currents working powerfully so far beneath the surface reshaping the world and its story.