Sunday, August 24, 2008
...and he sought a place to weep
Genesis 45: 1-15
Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren
August 17, 2008
The story of Joseph is a familiar one. It’s flashy and well-written, full of nice clothes, powerful people and brotherly betrayal. It is a story of Broadway musical caliber if there ever was one. You almost wonder why it took so long for the playwrights to stumble upon it and adapt it to the stage.
Just a re-cap: This story is familiar, but it never hurts to hear a good story one more time. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob. You remember Jacob, right? He’s the little ankle-grabber who rode his brother’s coat-tails right out of the womb and then later on stole his rightful blessing from him by disguising himself and lying to his father. He’s the one who worked an extra seven years to get the second wife he really wanted and neglected his first one. Jacob is the character who wrestled the ultimate blessing out of a night-long struggle with an angel, the one whose name was changed to Israel, and whose offspring would become the children of God.
Joseph’s family history was by no means a dry or boring one, but his story beats even his father’s. Born as the first son of his father’s favorite wife, and born during Jacob’s old age, Joseph quickly became his father’s pet. To show his love, Jacob had a special coat made for Joseph – an outward sign of an inner family dynamic. Joseph’s beautiful coat, gift from his doting father, set him apart. And he wasn’t shy about making sure his brothers knew that he knew that he was special. By the time he was 17, his brothers already hated him – HATED him. “They could not,” the writer of Genesis tells us, “speak peaceably to him.”
When Joseph began having strange dreams about sheaves of wheat and the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him, his family didn’t take it well. His brothers scoffed and chafed predictably, and even his father rebuked him. “No way,” said Jacob, the one who had schemed, tricked and wrestled with angels to make sure his dream for his future came true. He should have known how much like him his favorite son would be.
Still, Joseph remained his father’s favorite and his brothers’ target. You know the rest of this story. The jealous brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Jacob weeps for days. Joseph finds himself in one sticky situation after another: falling into the traps of Potiphar’s wife, getting thrown into prison, befriending jailors and servants and interpreting their dreams, rising into Pharaoh’s good graces by using the same dreaming talents that got him in trouble in the first place, and finally arriving as a trusted official in the Egyptian court.
Joseph, a Hebrew boy sold into slavery by his own brothers, thrown into prison by his beloved master, and forgotten by those he helped, somehow found his way to the top of the heap. He went from wandering through Jacob’s fields to sitting snugly in the halls of power, from the annoying little brother to Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President for Agricultural Affairs.
Of course, Joseph’s family was still back at home, oblivious to their little brother’s rise to power. And they were feeling the effects of the famine that Joseph had predicted. Word got around quickly that Egypt had found a solution to the problem, had prepared themselves for the worst, had found the foresight to fill the silos and prop up the levees before disaster struck. So, Jacob instructed his sons to go into Egypt and buy some food.
Joseph, of course, recognized his brothers at once – how could you not remember those faces that stared down at you from the top of the pit into which they had thrown you, arguing about the price to be paid for your life? He didn’t break down, though, or let his brothers know that he knew who they were. Instead, he tricked them, lied to them, and threw them in prison. Sounds familiar, huh? What comes around goes around, he must have thought.
Joseph finally let his brothers go, but only after hiding the money they had brought to pay for the grain back in their sacks, admonishing them that the only way they would get their brother back would be to return to him with their youngest brother in tow, and putting Simeon in jail. He needed them, he said, to prove to him that they were honest people, good to their word. As they started down the road, the brothers opened their grain sacks, saw their money, realized that they would forever be seen as cheaters and thieves, and returned home to their father, with grain but without hope of ever seeing their brother Simeon again.
They returned home to Jacob, who was enraged. His children had long ago lost his favorite son, had just now traded another of his sons for collateral, and wanted to take his youngest back with them to try to undo the damage. Jacob flatly refused. But the famine went too long and the food too quickly, and the family once again faced the reality of their need. Jacob conceded. The brothers, and Benjamin, headed once again to Egypt.
This is where today’s story picks up. We enter the text after a long and convoluted family history, full of brotherly competition, family hatred, political trickery, and a very cloudy idea of who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong. Jacob, patriarch of this wily bunch, certainly wasn’t an easily categorized character. He lied. He cheated. He loved one wife more than another. He had favorites among his children. But he was also Israel, father of a nation. His family became the people of God. Joseph, too, is an ambiguous character. He was victim of his brothers’ schemes, yes, but probably also something of a twit, unsure of how to use his gifts in a graceful way. And now, here, as we enter into the story, he’s in the process of payback – tricking his brothers, getting them back for all the pain they inflicted on him years ago. There’s not a good guy or a bad guy in this story. We’re not sure whether evil will win or good will prevail, because we’re not sure which is which.
So. Back to the ambiguity. When the brothers return to Egypt, Joseph greets them in the palace. Overcome with such emotion at seeing his blood brother, Benjamin, he can barely acknowledge their presence and ask after their father before he runs from them, locks himself in his room, and falls on his bed, weeping. He collects himself, cleans himself up, and goes out again for dinner. To his brothers’ astonishment, Joseph shares generously with all of them. They expected wrath, and were met with gifts.
Still, Joseph doesn’t give up on his schemes. He still wants revenge. He hides his favorite cup in Benjamin’s bag, lets his brothers go with grain, and sends his servant after them to ask if they’ve stolen the chalice. “Of course not,” they rage. “Seriously! If you find that cup in any one of our bags, then that man shall die, and the rest of us will be Joseph’s servants! We did NOT steal it!” The servant opens the bags, and of course, it is Benjamin, beloved son of Jacob, who stands to lose his head. The brothers return, again, to Joseph, Judah in the lead pleading their case.
Judah spills the entire story – of the young dreaming brother lost long ago, of their father’s love for Benjamin, how crushed he will be if the same scenario happens again. Joseph falls apart. He shoos everyone else from the room and begins speaking in Hebrew, revealing himself. His brothers are dumbfounded. They cannot speak. Joseph asks them to go, to get their father and return to him to live in his abundance. He breaks down, hugs them, and weeps on them.
Today’s text ends with verse 15 – “and after that his brothers talked with him.” This bookends the story, reminding us of Joseph’s childhood, and how his brothers’ hatred for him prevented them from “speaking peaceably with him.” Finally, after twists and turns and unimaginable distance, the brothers are reunited.
The story of Joseph is a story about family. It is about brotherly love and betrayal, a father’s love for his sons, forgiveness, and grace. But, like any family story, the story of Joseph is a story chock full of ambiguity. Who do we root for here? Where are our sympathies drawn? Is it Joseph, young victim turned cunning political strategist? The brothers, early perpetrators and later innocent and hungry? Do we associate with Jacob, the old father ravaged by the grief life has dealt him? Or Benjamin, the youngest and seemingly least culpable?
I think that the most intriguing moment in the story is here in today’s text, when Joseph meets his brothers the final time, and has to introduce himself to them. He’s so changed from the whiny little brother that they knew that they have no idea who he is. Of course, we know that Joseph is still very much that youngest brother – his scheming and payback and revenge ploys must be motivated by the pain that his brothers inflicted upon him in his childhood. But he is also a high-ranking Egyptian official.
Now, this ambiguous and complicated identity isn’t just a matter of rags to riches, or powerless to powerful. Joseph also sits in an uncomfortable place of being both Hebrew and Egyptian. He is an Israelite, a son of Jacob, and also a part of the political machinery that will eventually enslave and torture his people. He has stakes with both the powerful and the powerless, with both the poor and the rich, the political machine and the exploited outcasts. His identity is neither one nor the other, but a confused mixture of both. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls our attention to this moral ambiguity:
“If Joseph’s accomplishments are read in light of the exodus narrative that follows, then Joseph must be understood as an accomplice in achieving state enslavement. Thus Joseph is portrayed as an ambiguous figure who juggles his deep theological identity as an Israelite along with his pragmatic commitment to the politics of the empire. It is suggested that this narrative, like the narrative accounts of Daniel and Esther, portrays a community of faith that must live carefully, knowingly, and cunningly at the delicate boundary between resistance and accommodation.”
Brueggemann’s interpretation, and Joseph’s story call out to us, insisting that nothing is black or white, that the division is not good versus evil, that our stories are not easily sorted out into the right and the wrong. Brueggemann describes Joseph’s community as one that “must live carefully, knowingly, and cunningly at the delicate boundary between resistance and accommodation.” He’s talking about politics, here, and certainly our community of faith experiences the same thing. We also live carefully, knowingly, and cunningly at that boundary between resistance to empire, to social pressures, to capitalist materialism, to the anxiety inducing pace of life and accommodation, accepting the norms of life in our culture so as to live within it and alongside those who have lost the powers of resistance.
But there is something deeper that political attitudes here. This juggling that Joseph did and that we still do is distressing. Our deep theological identities as Christians often clash with our own pragmatic commitment to the politics of our culture. Do we pay taxes that are often used to support military endeavors? Do we vote for candidates who will most likely not govern as a Christian ought? Do we, like Joseph, accept positions in corrupt systems in order to right a previous wrong, to extend some grace to those we love, to work for justice from within?
If you’re like me, sometimes these questions can tear you apart. Figuring out how to live as a Christian within the American empire can get tricky and painful. Every decision – from which coffee I buy to what job I take – is fraught with repercussions and responsibility. The story of Joseph does not sidestep those responsibilities. Joseph knows that he is in a precarious position. He feels the tension between his family identity and his position in Pharaoh’s court. He falls down weeping when he finally reveals himself as a Hebrew in the Egyptian court, acknowledging his divided identity and making visible his struggle.
And yet. There is grace here.
When he meets his brothers, and finally re-introduces himself to them, this is what Joseph tells them:
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…”
Don’t worry! Don’t worry!? Are you kidding? Don’t you see the gravity of the situation here, Joseph?
He does it again, when his father Jacob finally dies and his brothers again wonder if he will finally enact his revenge on them:
“As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…”
God meant it for good.
God meant it for good.
Here we are, in the midst of all this moral ambiguity, in the middle of all this juggling and balancing and careful discernment, feeling torn apart and divided by the different parts of who we are, deciding when to accommodate and when to resist, falling down on the floor and weeping when our double lives are finally exposed. Here we are, and here’s the grace:
God means it for good, to preserve life.
God means it for good, to preserve life.
Joseph’s family, saved by his grain and saved by his grace, grew. It lived up to the blessing bestowed on Jacob, and on Isaac, and on Abraham. It became the people of God, God’s explicitly chosen people. The family grew so great and so large that we claim it as our own. Our life, given and preserved thanks to the grace of an annoying Hebrew kid.
Our life, given and preserved thanks to the grace of our God, who means it all – our struggle and our uncertainty, who means it all for good.