Christ Church Gardiner
September 22, 2019
Last night I had dinner in Portland with old friends: Jen,a family friend that I have known since middle school, and her husband, Bob, who was not her husband but just one of her roommates and a friend when we all lived in Boston almost twenty years ago. Jen and Bob had a third roommate that worked with Jeff, my husband, and it was through that connection that Jeff and I met.
Being with them last night and sharing stories from years ago, reminded me of how important our stories are to our relationships, but it also reminded me of how the way a story is told is completely dependent on the teller of the story. We all have our own angles. Our own objectives and biases. The objective of my friends, Jen and Bob, when sharing stories about me, tends to be humor and a bit of teasing.
There may have been some dating mishaps during my time in Boston, before I met Jeff, that still brings lots of laughs to this day, when those stories get retold, as they inevitably do, when we are all together. Those dating mishaps have become a sort of legend, and it’s difficult sometimes to separate the fact from the fiction in their retelling of them.
Separating fact from fiction is also difficult, as we hear the legends that are these Genesis stories that we have read this summer. And sometimes a good story is just a good story and trying to figure out what really happened (just the facts as people say) ruins that good story.
But if you grew up with the Bible being thought of as authoritative and the inerrant Word of God, as I did, that colors the way we hear its stories. We have been conditioned to hear facts and lessons and morals, instead of legend.
We hear an opinion or a statement by a character in the story and instead of thinking, “Oh that’s what this particular character thinks about this…” Or, “that’s what a particular storyteller thinks about this…” We often think to ourselves, “Oh that’s what God thinks about this.”
But there is danger in reading the Bible in that way. Because as we have talked about all summer, these characters in Genesis are flawed. Just as we are. Sometimes they indeed have moments of enlightenment when it comes to understanding God. But sometimes, what they are doing, or saying, or thinking, is likely in conflict with the will or nature of God. And instead of hearing of facts, morals, and lessons in their stories, all we are hearing is a good tale of an ancient people remembering who they were way back when.
Before we see how this plays out in the story of Joseph, we need to fill in some gaps from the two readings that we just heard. You may remember the story of Joseph from your Sunday School days.
His vivid dreams of being master over his brothers and their outrage that they should bow down to their baby brother.
Joseph stripped of his special coat and thrown in the pit by his brothers.
Being seduced by the wife of his employer and finding himself imprisoned when her husband believes her story that it was Joseph who tried to take advantage of her.
His years spent in prison and being called upon to interpret the dreams of his cellmates.
And then finally, his redemption and salvation. The previously imprisoned butler from the Pharaoh’s court remembers that Joseph can interpret dreams and brings him to court to hear of Pharaoh’s puzzling dreams.
When the Pharaoh learns that his dreams mean that there will be seven years of bountiful harvest and seven years of famine and that Joseph has a plan for saving Egypt from starvation, he makes Joseph the manager of the plan and the most important person in Egypt, second only to himself.
And that’s where we enter the second reading today. The famine has spread beyond Egypt, and even the people of Canaan, like Joseph’s brothers, have been sent to Egypt to bring home food and save their families. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. After all, he had been sold into slavery years before…they would not have expected to now see him in royal garb. After some manipulation and malice toward his brothers, after engineering tests in which he frames them for theft more than once and makes them fear for their lives, perhaps to pay them back for their cruelty or to discern if they have changed their ways, we enter the scene where Joseph, weeping uncontrollably, finally makes himself known to them.
In that scene, he says, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Then he adds, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. And he ends his speech to his brothers with, “You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen.”
From this speech we gather that Joseph may not have changed as much as his brothers have. The brothers seem to regret their actions against Joseph and the grief that it caused their family…in particular, Judah, who had many years earlier stood by silently as his father wept over Joseph’s bloody robes, but now could not endure the thought of his father suffering once again with the loss of his other favorite, Benjamin.
But Joseph seems to be much as he has always been.
From that speech by Joseph, we can’t help but remember his boasting of his greatness to his brothers when he was younger. He is an egotist still. And his insistence that all this has been the will of God, continues his story about himself that he has always been destined for great things and that God would use those around him, in whatever way necessary, to make sure that destiny was fulfilled.
So here is where we have to ask ourselves. Did God plan this whole thing? Did God make Joseph’s brothers resent how their father favored him? A resentment so deep that it led them to violence and selling him off to slavery? Was it God’s plan that Jacob should spend many years grieving the death of his favored son? Is that fact? Or legend?
Joseph’s explanation of his success suggests that in God’s grand design, humans are mere pawns to be moved around as best fits God’s purposes. (Karen Armstrong, “A New Interpretation of Genesis,” 114). But from those first stories that we heard in Genesis, we began to understand how God gave to humans free will, for better or for worse. Joseph’s theology of God’s grand purpose for his life and a willingness to use his brothers to achieve that purpose doesn’t make sense with a belief in humanity’s free will.
If we have learned anything from these Genesis stories, it is that God doesn’t control the future of these humans. Joseph’s claim that everything that has happened has been God’s purpose rings false. Joseph may want to believe that, in order to give meaning to his difficult journey through slavery and imprisonment and to justify his rise to power, but that does not make it so.
And that explanation denies the injury that was done not just to Joseph, but also to his brothers, by a father who insisted on continuing the cycle of bitterness and enmity between siblings that comes when a parent plays favorites. His favoritism of Rachel’s child, inflated Joseph’s sense of self, which we see continued to be an integral part of Joseph’s identity until the end.
Even Joseph’s dreams, which may have been a divine glimpse into the future, focused on Joseph’s greatness rather than any divine plan for the well-being of God’s people or insight into his own struggle with God.
Perhaps it is Joseph’s brothers that actually offer the moral to this story. Judah, in particular, seems to have learned from his past and is capable of reconciliation. These brothers are part of a long history of sibling rivalry, going back to Cain and Abel, that has torn families apart. They were not able to prevent the rivalry and its consequent violence in their own lives, but perhaps now at the end of their story, they will be able to lay it to rest. Next week, we will see that Joseph is not quite there yet.
And perhaps some of the brothers, at least, have learned a lesson that is important to all of us. That only when we admit that we have been wrong, when we can look honestly at the mistakes of our past…only then can we fully take control of our lives and stop the ongoing cycles of violence, deception, and retaliation that can imprison us. (Armstrong, 112)