Reading Genesis 41:39-52 and Philippians 1: 12-21
Image, Joseph overseeing the gathering of grain during the seven years of plenty. St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (1275)
The story of Joseph is distinct in the book of Genesis for two reasons. First, its length, and second, its lack of direct intervention or communication from God. This second point is especially striking compared to what has come before. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appears to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God speaks to them directly, offers blessings, callings, and wisdom as they seek to live well in the world. When we come to Joseph, just one generation removed, it is dramatically different.
At no point in Joseph’s long life and detailed story does God appear and speak to him as God had done for his ancestors. We read that The Lord was with Joseph, but such a claim is more about Joseph’s ability to thrive despite his circumstances. Joseph’s interpretation of dreams (instrumental in his rise to power in the land of Egypt) is said to come from God, but God doesn’t visit Joseph in dreams as God did with his forebears. The story of Joseph is as much a story of family dynamics and political manoeuvring as it is a story of God… and yet, for this reason, the story is well suited for us today, whose experience of God resembles Joseph’s, far more than Abraham.
For this reason, it is not only dreams that Joseph must interpret throughout his long stay in Egypt – it is the very nature of his life and God’s presence therein. Joseph, has to consider, reflect, and discern the way God is present in his life and how this should shape the way he understands what has happened to him, and what he ought to do. We share this with Joseph. Should we wish to determine how we are meant to act in a situation, should we wish to determine the way in which God has been working in our life, we need to reflect and discern. Like Joseph, when we are at a loss, are confronted with calamity, or reach an impasse, we have to step out in faith, without – necessarily – the embodied presence of God telling us move from here to there.
Between last week’s brotherly betrayal and the beginning of this week’s reading Joseph has had a rocky ride. Joseph is purchased by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph finds favour in his eyes and is soon entrusted with the power to oversee the household… and yet, Potiphar’s wife seeks to exploit her status and coerce Joseph into sex. When he resists, she concocts a lie to send Joseph to prison. Joseph spends some years in prison, before – by a stroke of luck (or God’s providential hand) – he has a chance to interpret some of Pharaohs worrying dreams. Such interpretations, and subsequent wisdom of how the nation ought to respond to what the dreams revealed, lead to Joseph earning Pharaoh’s trust and him being raised through the ranks to the point we began today’s reading, where Joseph is second in command over the whole nation, charged to direct the political and economic life of the region’s most powerful and prosperous kingdom. Joseph, betrayed, sold, exploited, betrayed again, and imprisoned, is now triumphant!
At the height of his power, Joseph has two sons. He named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For’, he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’
The naming testifies to Joseph’s interpretation and discernment. The names signify what he has come to believe about God’s work in his life. Despite many hardships, Joseph sees God at work, believes God has acted to wipe away the painful memories of his betrayal with fruitfulness in this new land. Joseph continues such interpretive work throughout his life. Later, in the presence of his repentant brothers, he will remark, that it was not they who sent him to Egypt, but God – God sent him ahead so that he might preserve life.
It is easy to learn two wrong lessons from Joseph. The first is to conflate material blessings with God’s blessing, or worldly esteem with God’s favour and plans. This lesson looks at Joseph’s success and says, this is the evidence of God’s faithfulness to him. Such a lesson not only disregards the ongoing anguish of his betrayal and estrangement from his family, as well as the way Joseph felt the nearness of God even in his lowliness. It also promotes the sanctification of earthly economic hierarchies, where the rich are presumed to be blessed, while the poor must have somehow missed God’s plan for their lives. This is why it is helpful to have also read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. For Paul, no less than Joseph, recognises the presence of God and the movement of God’s hand in his present circumstances. Of course, for Paul, such a recognition is made in prison.
The second wrong lesson is that because Joseph is able to look at his life and proclaim the providential purposes of God at work in its ups and downs, we should be able to do that for others. Through prayer and time Joseph might be able to look at those who have wronged him and say, even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… but that does not mean, when we find ourselves in conversations with those who are suffering with calamity, confusion, and pain, we ought to pronounce such an interpretation over them. Both Joseph and Paul discern for themselves what God is and has been doing, and this offers great comfort. On the other hand, even our well-intentioned efforts to tell others that their pain and loss must be part of God’s plan, might only further the hurt. This was the folly of Job’s friends, who came to sit with him in his grief and loss, only to start telling him what his suffering meant, why it occurred, and what it was leading to. In the end, the whirlwind of God chased them off!
And just as we should not enforce our interpretation on others questions, we must learn to respect how people interpret the story of God and their life, even when it does not fit with our own picture of God. Here I think of Naomi in the book of Ruth (another story where the presence of God is backgrounded). Upon returning to her homeland following the death of her husband and sons, Naomi announces:
‘Call me no longer Naomi (meaning pleasant), call me Mara (meaning bitter),
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’
In time, those close to Naomi who are willing to journey with her on the long road of grief and resettlement, might begin, through careful discussion to ask about this way of thinking about God (and the way God has dealt with her), and perhaps try and re-story her relationship with her. But just like we cannot rush to tell someone what God is doing in their life, we cannot rush to override how someone has come to discern where and what God is in their life… as difficult as that may be when hearing someone in despair and anguish.
Joseph then, like Paul, serves as a helpful example of how we might live in the age of the Spirit and the Church. For we are not like those prophets and apostles who experienced direct, extended, unmediated relationships with God. Unlike the disciples who journeyed three years with Jesus, or unlike Abraham who stood with God outside his camp and was told precisely what was intended for him, we live in more ordinary times. And thus, as the hymn goes, our faith must feel its way about. We must open our life (ears, eyes, and heart) to the promptings of the Spirit, sitting beneath the Word and seeking the wisdom of the community. We, like Joseph (and unlike Abraham), do not get the plan laid out to us in advance. We are fortunate to receive the good news of what God has done for us in Christ, and then seek to live in response. And yet, as we live, we can often struggle to feel a strong sense of God’s presence or desire for us in this decision, or that relationship, or those years of struggle or triumph. Sometimes, like Joseph, things feel clearer on the other side, but sometimes they will not. It is here that the stories we tell about who God is, and who we are as God’s own beloved, and the nature of the world as created by God in love matter most. For it is the stories of God’s loving kindness, unwavering faithfulness, abounding grace, and deeply personal care (not only for all of creation but for each of us at an intimate level) that will sustain and shape us most, even when the immediate presence of God feels like a background character in the ups and downs of our life in these ordinary times.
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