Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 45 - Joseph, Part 2

Read the text here: Genesis 45:1-15

“I Am Joseph”
We have come to the final installment in our summer series on the stories of Genesis.  Last week in the first part of the Joseph story, he heard how Joseph was favored by his father and had developed into something of a brat.  Jacob had shown his favor for Joseph by giving him a special long-sleeved ceremonial robe and Joseph begins to have and share dreams about how one day his brothers and family will all bow down to him.  Well his 10 older brothers (not including the youngest Benjamin who is only a small child) have come to hate Joseph and so out in the fields one day they attack Joseph intending to kill him, but eventually take the opportunity to sell him into slavery to some Ishmaelite traders, who then take Joseph to Egypt and sell him into the household of a high ranking official named Potiphar.  Initially Joseph does well, but he catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife and when he resists her seductions she has him framed and thrown into prison, where he languishes for years.  While he is in prison he entertains himself and the other prisoners (notably a baker and a butler from the Pharaoh’s household) by interpreting their dreams.  Later when the Pharaoh himself begins to have troubling dreams the Butler (now released) tells Pharaoh about Joseph who is then commanded to interpret these dreams.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams are a warning for all of Egypt.  There will be 7 years of abundant harvests followed by 7 years of famine.  And this warning allows you (“O mighty Pharaoh”) to prepare during the years of plenty for the famine.  Pharaoh is impressed and appoints Joseph to oversee the preparations for the famine.  Joseph has now gone from prisoner to a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government and he sets about the task of preparation.  When the famine finally hits Egypt is prepared and through the rationing that Joseph has instituted the people have food and are saved from starvation.
But meanwhile back in Canaan there have been no warnings and as a result the famine has hit with deadly intensity.  Jacob, who has never recovered from loosing Joseph and is still deep in grief, and his family is now facing starvation.  Having heard that Egypt has plenty of food the brothers decide to go to Egypt to try to acquire some food for the family.  Jacob approves this plan, but will not allow Benjamin to accompany the other brothers (By the way, please note - Benjamin and Joseph are full brothers, both children of Jacob and Jacob’s favorite and beloved wife Rachel).  When the brothers arrive in Egypt by some chance Joseph sees and recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  Joseph gets quite emotional, but holds it all in check as he has the brothers brought before him and questions them about their intent, their family, and their father.  Joseph finds out that Jacob is still alive and that Benjamin is not with them.  At this point Joseph devises a detailed plan to test his brothers.  He holds one of them – Simeon – as a hostage as he sends the others back to fetch Benjamin. 
When Benjamin arrives with the others Joseph can barely contain himself, he excuses himself in order to weep.  And then he orders that a caravan of food be given the brothers, but he plants a golden cup on Benjamin.  He sends them back to Canaan but shortly sends the troops to arrest them for theft.  The caravan is searched and the cup is found on Benjamin.  Joseph states that he will release all of the brothers and the food and they can continue on their way, but he will hold Benjamin as a prisoner and a slave.  The brothers are shocked, and they plead with Joseph not to take Benjamin and both Ruben and Judah offer to take the place of the young man.  (Read Judah’s beautiful speech 44:18ff).  Joseph finally cannot contain himself any longer and he breaks down weeping.  He sends all of the Egyptians from the room and then he reveals himself to his brothers who are shocked and terrified. But Joseph greets his brothers warmly, he asks after their father and he forgives the brothers for their evil actions towards him.  “God used this for good, even though you intended evil.”  It is a beautiful scene of true repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is one of the most detailed and beautiful stories in the Bible.  It is worth reading chapters 37 through 50 (though the story really kind of ends in chapter 45).  There are many things that we can learn from this story.  Let me focus on two points:
First, I think it is very important to see that while God is in the background, God is not pulling the strings in this story.  God did not inspire the brothers to the violence they inflicted on their own brother and God did not manipulate events so that Joseph was sold into slavery.  God also did not send the famine.  God is not the great puppet master in this (or any) biblical story.  Rather, we see that God is fulfilling the promise that God will be present no matter what.  whether Joseph is languishing in the dungeon or supervising the rationing of food, God is present with Joseph throughout this story.  But, God also works through these events in order to save thousands of people from starvation and to finally bring about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation by the end of the story.  This is how God works.  We learn from this story especially and we see throughout the Bible – especially in Jesus – that God works through human history – God works through people and events.  Even through evil, horrible and terrible events, such as the violence inflicted on Joseph, God is able to work through those events to bring good and redemption and grace.
Second, Joseph was dead to his father and his family – but in the end he comes to them alive.  And his resurrection brings with it forgiveness and reconciliation and abundant grace.  Jacob is finally able to resolve his intense grief; the brothers are able to finally give up the guilt and shame at the evil act they perpetuated on their own brother.  The darkness of alienation, violence and hatred do not have the last word for in resurrection we learn that reconciliation, love and grace are more powerful.  Does this sound familiar?  It should remind us of the cross of Jesus.  The cross is a symbol of the evil that humanity inflicts on itself – alienation, judgment, hatred and violence.  But the cross also reminds us that these forces of evil and darkness do not have the last word, rather God’s last word is resurrection which defeats all these dark powers with the power of love and abundant grace and forgiveness and ultimately peace. 
This story reminds us again that God is always present and at work among God’s people and that ultimately the power of resurrection overcomes all of those powers that seem so daunting.  This is a timely word for us, for certainly there is so much darkness and violence in our world.  The Joseph story points us to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus proclaiming that the powers of God’s love and grace will ultimately prevail.  Thanks be to God!

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