Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The lectionary reading I'm referring to is Genesis 45:1-15. But read the whole story of Joseph starting in Genesis 37.

The classic tale of revenge is "The Count of Monte Cristo." Edmond Dantes is a merchant sailor who has risen to the rank of captain and thus can marry his fiancée, Mercedes. A romantic rival, a jealous junior officer, and a prosecutor with a secret frame Dantes as a traitor and he is sent to an island prison. There he befriends a fellow prisoner, Abbe Faria, the Mad Priest, who gives Dantes an extensive education and tells him of a fabulous treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. When the priest dies, Dantes escapes in his body bag as it is dumped into the sea. Rescued by smugglers, he makes his way to Monte Cristo, finds the treasure and returns to France after 2 decades. He finds out that his father died in poverty, all of his rivals are rich and one has married his fiancée.

Using his wealth and the purchased title of the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes manipulates markets and lives to exact his revenge. He manages to destroy his enemies but when the son of one of his adversaries dies, Dantes must reassess his plan of vengeance. He forgives one of his enemies and salvages the lives of some of their children.

Once considered the most popular novel in Europe, The Count of Monte Cristo has provided a model for most action movies. Even if the hero is a cop, sworn to enforce the law objectively, the villain usually does something--kills the hero's partner or kidnaps his girlfriend or child--that changes the dynamic of his relationship with the hero. He makes it personal, a matter of revenge for the hero, even more than justice.

The story of Joseph is almost the opposite of the Count of Monte Cristo. It's too bad that our lectionary jumps from the beginning of the tale to the end. It is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.

When we first meet Joseph, he is a bit of a brat. He is not shy about sharing his dreams, the interpretation of which always seems to be about his parents and brothers bowing down to him. And it doesn't endear him to his brothers--technically, half-brothers--when their father Israel gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves, signifying his favor and authority. So when their father sends Joseph out to check on them, they are thinking very unfraternal thoughts.

Some want to kill him. But Reuben, the eldest, talks them out of it. The compromise is that they throw him in a pit, a humiliating enough act on the brother who would be their lord. Reuben plans to rescue Joseph later. But while their oldest brother is absent, the rest sell Joseph to a caravan. They take his coat, the hated symbol of his authority, and smear it with goat's blood, telling their father that he was killed by a wild animal. Hearing that the elder of his two sons by Rachel, his favorite and late wife, is gone, Israel is devastated.

Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph works his way up to the overseer of the household. But when he spurns the advances of Potiphar's wife, she accuses him of attempted rape and Joseph is thrown into prison. Again he works his way up to the jailer's number one trustee. He meets 2 disgraced figures from Pharaoh's court, his baker and his cupbearer. They have dreams, which Joseph interprets. One will be restored to favor with Pharaoh; one will be executed. It works out exactly as Joseph says, but the reprieved cupbearer forgets about Joseph until the Pharaoh has a series of disturbing dreams. Joseph is sent for and he sees the dreams as a warning that after 7 good harvests, Egypt will endure 7 years of drought and famine. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of saving the surplus from the bountiful years to offset the years of famine.

When the drought hits, even the land of Canaan is affected. So Israel sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. He keeps Benjamin, the youngest and Rachel's remaining son, at home. While his brothers are buying grain, Joseph recognizes them. But after all the years, and in his Egyptian finery, they don't recognize him. With all his power, he could get his revenge now.

And he does seem to be going there. He accuses the brothers of being foreign spies and puts them in jail for 3 days. This gives him an excuse to question them and test their loyalty to each other. He takes Simeon as a hostage till they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin. But they do not offer to buy back Simeon with, say, food. Joseph sends then back home with grain and, unbeknownst to them, their money.

Israel is dismayed when they return minus another of his sons. And when they find their money in with the grain, they are afraid to return, lest they be accused of being thieves as well as spies. But the famine persists and they must go back. The only way to get Israel to let them take Benjamin is for Judah to guarantee his safety.

Back in Egypt, Joseph wines and dines his brothers. They explain about the mix up last time and offer the money back. Joseph says it must have been the work of God. Joseph is especially interested in their youngest brother. Which makes it odd that this time, he not only has their money planted in their saddle bags, but also has his gold cup planted in Benjamin's bag. After they leave, he has them arrested, brought back and threatens to make the thief his slave. When the cup turns up in Benjamin's bag, the brothers, in contrast to what they did with Joseph, will not give him up. Judah pleads with Joseph, offering himself in place of Benjamin. Because, he says, he cannot bear to bring more suffering upon his father.

Which brings us to our reading for today. Joseph cannot contain himself anymore. He sends his staff out and reveals his identity to his brothers. And he reveals something else: that he doesn't hold anything against his brothers. He sees God's hand in his life. How otherwise would the son of a herdsman become the second most powerful man in a foreign empire and thus save the lives of his family?

I think that this must have been a recent realization for him. He would have been very busy just keeping the people of Egypt from starving and until his brothers showed up, he may not have known if and how the famine was affecting them. It's not like he could get worldwide news and weather reports on his iPhone. There must have been other Canaanite refugees coming to Egypt, but for all he knew, his nomadic family may have migrated back East. But when he saw them, it all clicked into place. "Of course! This is why God put me here: to save my family."

It must have been a persistent question that haunted him on dark nights. Why is this happening to me? He couldn't have foreseen this particular situation, not in the pit while his brothers argued over killing him, nor in jail on a false charge of rape, nor after the cupbearer had forgotten to mention him to Pharaoh immediately after his restoration. He might have clung to those earlier dreams of his family bowing down to him. Surely, that meant things would get better and that he would see them again. But as the years stretched on, that dream would fade a bit, get hazier, lose its emotional impact. Even when he rose to his position under Pharaoh, the literal fulfillment might have seemed farfetched. If he encountered his family, they would bow to his title and authority. But would that ever really happen?

And when it does, Joseph is no longer the brat who relishes his position of superiority. Sure, there's a bit of payback in the games he plays with them. Joseph is not perfect. And we are told that Egyptians do not usually eat with Hebrews. Joseph may have been cautious to reveal that he was a Hebrew. But basically, the stratagem is to see his whole family again, especially his only full brother and his father. And to see if his brothers have changed. They have. Having seen their father's grief over Joseph, they cannot subject him to that again. They even see their present problems as punishment for what they did to Joseph.

And though Joseph forgives his brothers, he is under no illusion that they didn't mean it when they threw him in the pit. After the death of his father, the brothers are afraid that the last reason Joseph hasn't had revenge on them is gone. But in Genesis 50, Joseph reassures them, saying, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today." Joseph was not God. He did not presume to pass final judgment on his brothers. God had his reasons and Joseph saw that all things had worked together for good, for Egypt, for his family and even for himself. His job was not to condemn but to save lives. So Joseph forgives a very real wrong done to him.

Many see in Joseph a foreshadowing of Jesus. He too is the favored son, rejected by his brothers, who faces death, goes down to the pit (a favorite Old Testament term for Sheol, the place of the dead), whose miraculous rise and vindication brings salvation to all who come to him for sustenance. And as his followers, we may be called upon to suffer for the greater good. We may not see in this life the good our suffering brings. After all, Moses did not enter the promised land. But if we trust in God and his goodness, we can be assured that he has a plan and he will succeed and we will hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master."

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