Trying to make sense of why bad things happen, why there is pain and suffering, are questions people have been asking since the beginning. What is God’s role in all the bad stuff? Does God cause it? Is it all part of some grand plan? Or does God let bad things happen but then seek to bring about something good from the bad? These questions are theological questions in the area of theology called Theodicy. These questions relate to the story of Joseph that we began looking at last week.
reading ended with Joseph being sold into slavery. The lectionary skips a whole lot of the story
between that and this week’s reading.
You might want to read the sections that has been skipped or you could
watch and listen to these songs from the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical
comedy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat film version, starring Donny
Osmond as Joseph and Maria Friedman as the Narrator.
The nutshell summary is: the brothers return to dad Jacob/Israel and tell him that Joseph died. Joseph really is taken to Egypt and ends up in gaol, but because of his ability to interpret dreams he is taken before the Pharaoh who needs his dreams interpreted. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams Joseph is made second in command and is in control of the food distribution in response to the prediction that Pharaoh’s dream means there will be 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine. After the famine has hit, joseph’s family back at home begins to go hungry and his 11 older brothers make their way to Egypt to buy food. Joseph, who recognised them is clearly, to borrow the words of the Dixie Chicks “not ready to make nice…not ready to back down”.
Joseph uses his power to manipulate. Joseph is the one who holds all the power at this point in the story. Anyone who wants to eat must come to joseph. He hoards the grain and decides who can buy it and at what price. He who once was powerless now holds the power and can decide who will live and who will die, and we see Joseph here and in the next bit of the story use this power to manipulate and control.
Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies and throws them all in gaol for 3 days before releasing all but Simeon who he holds as ransom demanding they go back home and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to Egypt. Jacob/Israel does not want to lose Benjamin (the new favourite after the loss of Joseph) so does not let him go until again they run out of food and to prevent starvation Jacob/Israel lets the brothers go back to Egypt this time Benjamin is among them. In Egypt Joseph eats with his brothers but still they do not recognise him and Joseph has Benjamin framed as a thief by having his silver cup placed into Benjamin’s sack. When the sacks were searched and the cup found in Benjamin’s sack the brothers tore their clothes in grief. Judah, who in last weeks reading suggested selling Joseph, valuing material wealth over kinship, this time pleads for his brother’s freedom for fear that it would kill his father to return without him.
This brings us to this week’s reading and Joseph revelation saying: “”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.” (Genesis 45:4-5).
Maybe it is because he is viewing things through the eyes of imperial power and wealth that he is able to say “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.” (Genesis 45:8). Joseph refuses to give his brothers any power. He refuses to acknowledge the power they once had over him. Instead he gives this power to God. But does God really cause the bad things to happen?
Sometimes it is helpful for our psychology to see how God works with the bad things that happen, the sinful choices that we often make, and yet can still bring about something good. This, however, needs to be held in tension. It can be harmful if a person in an abusive situation accepts abuse believing it is God’s will and God will bring good out of it eventually.
Rather than see Joseph as the hero that God uses and the one who shows mercy and forgives, eventually, maybe we should see the repentance of the brothers who do not envy Benjamin their father’s new favourite and nor are they willing to sacrifice him like they once were. They have been changed, unlike Joseph who in the beginning was arrogant and abuse the power he had as favourite son and we see this abuse of power continue.
Maybe we should stop reading our scriptures as fairy tales and stop looking for the hero in the story. Maybe the point is there is no hero just ordinary people like you and me. The bible Abraham Heschel says “…is not an epic about the life of heroes but the story of every man (and woman) in all climates and all ages. Its topic is the world, the whole of history…It shows the way to nations as well as individuals. It continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion, to echo God’s cry to the world and to pierce man’s callousness.” It is story of humanity who are at their greatest, not when they have power and are standing tall, but when they humble themselves.
Theologically what is there to say? That is what does this story say about God? It says that God can bring about good from evil. That God’s will is to preserve life. That God honours God’s promises. God honoured God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob continuing the people of Israel. That even through Joseph and his arrogance, his self-importance, God is able to begin making good the promise “ In you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). If this is true for Joseph then it is true for us too.
Rev Tammy Hollands