Scripture – Genesis 37:3-8; 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – 9/25/16
OK! Get your popcorn! For those of you who binge-watch any of those compelling and captivating television series like Game of Thrones or House of Cards, what I just read to you is like skipping the first episode of the first season, and starting with the second episode, viewing a few in the middle and then skipping the whole rest of the series and watching the finale. You may get the gist of the saga but you have missed all the good stuff AND the series finale may be a little lost on you because you don’t have all the background of what transpired during Seasons 2 and 3 and 4.
Or, if you’re not one of those TV series binge-watchers and you’re a live musical lover, it’s like you arrive at the theater a little late to enjoy Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” which is based on this bible story; you sit down right after the First Act begins and your cell phone rings with a family emergency; you leave the theater and take care of the matter; and you’re then able to return to your seat just in time to catch the final number. You’ve completely missed the middle.
When faced with studying this passage this week, I binge-read the thirteen chapters in Genesis left out of today’s selection by the Narrative Lectionary we’re using this year to guide our worship scripture reading. I will do my best to fill in the blanks for those of you not familiar so that our exploration into Joseph’s profound forgiveness at the end will hopefully hold some significance for you.
To put this into the larger context of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is Abraham’s great-grandson. Joseph’s father is Jacob, also referred to as “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible; his father was Isaac, Abraham’s son. The first few verses in Chapter 37 reveal that Joseph is 17 years old and he helps shepherd the family’s flocks. Some have interpreted his bringing back a “bad report” to his father Jacob about some of his brothers’ family in verse 2 as evidence of his being a little bit of a tattletale. Couple that with his being the baby of twelve brothers, the obvious favorite son by virtue of his father making for him the long robe signifying his being destined for great things, and we’ve got sibling jealousy to the max.
Joseph is a dreamer. To add to his dream about the sheaves of wheat in the field bowing down to his sheaf, Joseph dreams a second dream which only adds insult to injury. I think you need to hear this to understand why these brothers were getting pretty fed up. He tells his brothers and his father of the second dream, verse 9: “Look, I have had another dream; the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me,” which his father immediately interprets as Mom and Dad and all of his brothers bowing down to Joseph and he rebukes him. Scripture says …”So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”
So one day the eleven brothers are pasturing their father’s flock some distance away and Jacob sends Joseph out to check on them and bring word back. We meet Joseph as he’s seeking his siblings when he learns they’ve gone a little farther, so he heads in the same direction to Dothan. We become privy to the brothers’ plotting against him and their decision not to kill him but to sell him into slavery and their bringing back his long robe smeared with goat’s blood to Jacob as evidence of his favorite son’s innocent death. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Joseph is being hauled off to Egypt by the Ishmaelites, but Jacob falls into deep grief believing his son is dead.
Now, when we encounter Joseph and his brothers after Jacob’s death this morning, if I added right, at least 30 years have passed. A lot happens during those 30 years, mostly to Joseph in Egypt, with the rest of his family having no clue whatsoever as to his welfare or his status. For all the details, you’ll have to read the 13 chapters yourselves, but we can summarize this way. When Joseph arrives in Egypt he is sold again by the Ishmaelites to one of the Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard; and he finds Joseph to be extremely capable and puts him in charge of everything – household, all the fields, everything. Not only is Joseph extremely capable, he’s very handsome to the point he is forced to resist the overtures of the official’s wife, which he does daily until she gets so frustrated, she sets him up and falsely accuses him of attempted rape. He’s thrown into prison and there we discover that he is not only a dreamer, but he’s a dream interpreter. He correctly interprets the prophetic dreams of his cellmates and a couple of years later when the Pharaoh himself needs dream interpretation, he learns of the gifts of the young Hebrew in prison, sends for him and is so taken by Joseph, he makes him lord over all Egypt.
Joseph is lord over all Egypt when drought and famine strike other surrounding lands at first, forcing Joseph’s brothers to travel to Egypt in order to buy grain. The guy they have to see to make the deal is Joseph. Joseph recognizes them but they do not recognize him. Joseph keeps it that way and manipulates his brothers through several encounters as the story goes on but while generously providing for them throughout. Eventually he reveals who he is; they reconcile and Joseph sends for his father and the entire family to rescue them from famine by bringing the whole lot of them to Egypt. Jacob is reunited with the beloved son whom he has mourned for more than a decade and then he dies years later surrounded by his twelve sons, blessing them and poetically predicting in Chapter 49 their individual futures and fate as the twelve tribes of Israel.
The death bed scene could have been the final episode, but as C. Davis Hankins of Georgia writes: “The guilt and fear of resentment that surfaces in the brothers after Jacob’s death shows that a deep uncertainty has marked all their interactions.” They don’t really know where they stand with Joseph, especially now that Dad is gone, and they’re afraid.
We’ve taken a lot of trouble and not a little time this morning to fill in the blanks of this story so we would have the basic facts and understand better the motivations of the characters when we encounter them in this final chapter of the Book of Genesis. In our own stories, in our own relationships, especially the strained ones where communication is limited or sadly or angrily cut off altogether, we are left with blanks to fill. Why didn’t he at least call at Christmas? Why did she not invite us? We never heard from him when Mom died. Where was she when the kids had their birthdays? I could see that he called, but he didn’t leave a message. She stopped answering my texts. So we try to fill in the blanks of the missing pieces of the story ourselves, but too often with the wrong answers, with judgmental assumptions: oh, she never really cared about us; or he’s let that new job take over his life; or, well, you know her, she always thought she was too good for us. But we don’t really know…but somehow we feel compelled to fill in the unknown blank with something, to name a reason for what we don’t know or can’t understand.
We do that with each other and we do it with God. Filling in the blanks with reasons and answers when bad befalls us, when our prayers seem to go unanswered, when we don’t understand why things happen as they do, when we have been deeply hurt. That’s why this last exchange between Joseph and his brothers at the end of the story can serve as comfort and inspiration. First of all, with all the details in all those thirteen chapters, nowhere does father Jacob give the eleven brothers instructions to go to Joseph after his death begging for forgiveness in his name. It’s not in there. One commentator calls it a concoction. My guess is that Joseph’s relationship with his father was so close that he would have received those instructions from the horse’s mouth if it was true and that hearing this now from them may really disappoint him after all he’s done for his family. Scripture says he weeps.
Another scholar says the brothers then incorrectly interpret Joseph’s tears as anger and they weep, too, still afraid, and bow down before him now offering themselves as his slaves….and probably forgetting altogether Joseph’s first dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing down to his. But Joseph says, “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…” A better alternative translation of the Hebrew may be: “Even though you planned to do harm to me, God imputed it or reckoned it for good.” Joseph then promises to continue to provide for them and their families, speaking kindly to them.
And Jesus reminds us today in the Gospel of Luke: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked and wouldn’t we love to know why. Wouldn’t we love to fill in that blank. Despite Joseph’s brothers’ continued suspicious motives, despite their viewing justice as simple reciprocity, offering themselves as slaves, Joseph responds with a continuation of his provision for them. And after our trying to fill in all the blanks of the story left by our slimly selected reading, we’re still left with unknowns.
We don’t know why people do what they do. We don’t know why they change or remain stubborn; we don’t know what motivates their behavior, their silence, their disappearance from our lives. But we do know, at least we have to trust and grow to know that God, the Most High, is lovingly at work throughout it all; that even intentional evil cannot thwart the providence of God; that “God is still busy imputing goodness in the midst of all the intentional and unintentional harm we do.”
We had to try to fill in the blanks this morning to make sense of our passage. We are called to give the benefit of the doubt when we try to fill in the blanks of our own relationships. And we are reminded this morning that the only One who truly knows the missing information is our God. The good news is that we can trust that none of it is escaping God’s attention, that all of it is God’s fodder for good, and that we can struggle through only having seen a couple of episodes and know that in the end it’s going to turn out right. All will be well. Thanks be to God and Amen.