Nancy introduced the reading from Genesis 35 last week as the first part of a two-part mini series in the Lectionary’s treatment of the Saga of Joseph. That’s almost true… though I think it may be more accurate to say that we only get episodes 2 and 4 of a five part series. If you don’t know the story of Joseph, that makes it VERY hard to keep up with what’s happening in a reading in Church on a Sunday morning ( and no wonder then that folk give up and say “This Bible’s too complicated!”
I chose the word “Saga” deliberately. It is a ripping yarn (ooh what a pun for a guy who had his technicolour dreamcoat ripped to shreds!), folkloric, epic, full of suspense, intrigue, twists and sleazy characters, so much so that I stick by my characterization of the Saga as more like the Sopranos than an edifying or uplifting moral tale that we might expect from Scripture.
Or you can read what’s below, which is a “Jones-Notes” version of the Saga in very NON Biblical language, but I promise the story’s the same!
Joseph’s Dad was a man called Jacob. Jacob himself was a twin, the scrawny little twin, the crafty one who managed to steal the inheritance due to his elder twin Esau, so Jake and Ees didn’t get on so well, which meant that Joseph and his soccer team of older brothers grew up in what we’d now call a “dysfunctional family”. If you’ve watched your Dad and your Uncle scream and yell and set the dogs on each other every time they met, you’d grow up thinking sibling rivallry was ”normal” too. Which is what happened to Joseph and his older brothers. Daddy Jacob didn’t help by playing favourites. While the big boys were cleaning out the sheep pens, milking the goats, digging potatoes and scrubbing toilets, Joseph was allowed to snack on cookies in the kitchen, play Wii (or it’s ancient near eastern equivalent), and get the fanciest duds from the best teen fashion stores in Mesopotamia. “No FAIR!” was true enough in this family.
So when Joseph rubbed his brothers’ noses in his own good fortune, jealousy was the expected result, violent jealousy that Jacob couldn’t criticize since he’d spent a life time dealing out the same stuff to his own brother. Joseph was also a dreamer – literally. One of those people who remembers their dreams, and can figure out what they mean. (Then as now, this is a rare, but prized talent that weirds a lot of non-dreamers out). ONe of his dreams was about how great he’d be, while his brothers would just be low-lifes. Joe told his brothers the dream, and got the expected response. They didn’t like it! (This is where we picked up the story last week). 17 years of precocious little brother, and then this dream, and they’d had it with Joseph, so they plotted to kill him. Thanks to one brother, Reuben, his sentence was commuted to slavery and exile, while they went home and lied to Jacob about the death of his favourite son, and ‘proved’ it by wrecking his coat and covering it in goat’s blood.
While Jacob mourns his supposed death, Joseph’s life takes another crazy twist. He is traded like a hockey player from Midian to Egypt where he gets into trouble, accused of ungentlemanly conduct with the wife of a Egyptian bigwig, and once again fears for his life – or should, except Joseph the dreamer presumes his dreams are true. They are. This dreaming talent saves his skin, and he exchanges shackles for new fancy duds from Egypt’s finest outfitters, as payment for his new profession as Pharaoh’s Dream Interpreter (PDI for short).
Before long, Joseph looked, walked, talked like an Egyptian, and even got a new Egyptian name… wait for it Zaphenath-panea (or Zeep for short). Then in true Biblical fashion, “a famine came upon the land.” Then, as now, this was an all too common occurrence in that region of the world. The famine was severe enough that (as now) whole populations were on the move, desperate to find a grain of rice, a cup of water. Egypt was subject to the drought too, but had stored surplus harvests (at PDI Joseph’s say-so), and so Egypt was the go-to place for……… none other than Jacob’s brothers!!!
Remember that the pimply 17 year old had grown up into the most powerful man in Egypt, and was consequently big, impressive, well-fed, Egyptianized with an unpronouncable Egyptian name, so it’s not surprising that we have one of those pantomime scenes were we know and Joseph knows what the brothers don’t. They beg this fancy Egyptian potentate for food, he knows exactly who they are, and strings them along with various conditions and return trips and traps, and a certain amount of inner turmoil… he knows with a flick of his fan he could have them clapped in irons or worse… could he? should he? But there is some inner voice, and the kernel of brotherly love – for his younger brother , one too young to have been involved in his initial dump down the drain – that holds him back from wielding the power he’d predicted would be his and destroying his brothers…. but he plays them like trout on a fishing line.
This is where episode 4 starts, the one for this Sunday…. the moment when Joseph can’t do anything other than reveal his true identity. It’s an awesome scene in Joseph and the ATDC, and in the Bible. We see this huge expulsion of emotion -weeping so loud he can be heard a block away…. imagine what all that sobbing contained, a life time of jealousies, fears, hurts, losses, thoughts of vengeance, recrimination, pouring out like pent up lava in a volcanic cone, or fill in your own more graphic analogies of that pent up hurt that must be cleaned out in order for healing to begin.
It’s too easy to think this is the normal reaction…. to always choose ‘the better path’, but we know the story of human history far too well to be fooled. That wailing signals to us how hard, how scary such a choice to forgive really is. It wrenches your guts out.. leaves you spent, but somehow also emptied of burden, poison, rage, and somehow breathing again, fresh, like the scent of crushed lavender after summer cloudburst.
There’s an episode 5 too, but this is enough for now…. dwelling on the painful process of choosing life….