Genesis 45:3-11, 15
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Even though we celebrated it nearly two months ago, the theme of Epiphany has pervaded the readings we’ve heard since then. The literal translation of the word Epiphany comes from the Greek meaning “to shine upon.” We use it to talk about the star that shone the way for the Magi from the East to reveal Jesus to them. An epiphany is a moment of clarity when something new is revealed to us, when light shines upon a person, or an idea and causes us to see them in that entirely new light. Which brings us to the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. This is the climactic event in a story that began some nine chapters back in Genesis. In fact, the story of Joseph makes up most of the final thirteen chapters in this first book of the law.
The name we give this opening book of the bible comes from its first line, “In the beginning.” Genesis is a book full of beginnings. There are the accounts about the origins of the universe. It also chronicles the origins of what our Godly Play Sunday school stories refers to as, the great family, through the faithfulness of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah and Rebecca. In fact this is how God comes to be known, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the last origin story that Genesis tells is one that comes almost as an answer to a question. Namely, how did the people from the land promised to Abraham and his descendants come to reside in the land of Egypt? How did they end up in a place that ended up enslaving them, such that God, in the time of Moses, had to free them from that slavery and lead them back to the land? The answer that comes in the form of Joseph’s story is one that we’re not all that eager to embrace. Because, if you believe what Joseph has to say about the matter, it was God who led them to Egypt in the first place.
If you haven’t seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical adaptation of this story, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, let me give you the rundown. I’ve done the show twice, so I can give you the highlights. The whole thing starts with Jacob and his wives. Yes, you heard that correctly; wives, as in more than one. Maybe you remember this whole business with Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban. While Jacob was hiding out from his brother who wanted to murder him, he went to work for his uncle Laban, where he met Rachel. It was love at first sight. And Jacob worked out an arrangement with Laban to marry her. Only on the wedding night, Laban sent Leah into Jacob instead, because she was older and Laban said he couldn’t marry off the younger sister first. Jacob the trickster got tricked. Eventually, he got the chance to marry Rachel too. Sadly, as these things often go in biblical tales, Leah was far more fertile than Rachel, and gave Jacob son after son. Not to be outdone by her sister, Rachel sent her handmaid into Jacob to conceive some sons for her. Then, like some fertility arms race, Leah sent her handmaid into Jacob too, to conceive even more sons. Between the three of them, they gave Jacob ten sons. Until finally, Rachel conceived two of her own to make it an even dozen for Jacob: her firstborn, Joseph, and Benjamin.
As the firstborn son of his favorite wife, Joseph was his father’s undeniable favorite. It sort of went to his head. He began having these dreams about sheaves of wheat, or the sun and moon and stars bowing down to him. And then he made his first mistake, he told his family about the dreams. The suggestion that they’d all bow down to him was understandably annoying, so they plotted to kill him to be rid of him and his stupid dreams. An extreme course of action, to be sure, but not a unique one for this family. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and instead of killing him, they simply sold him into slavery and washed their hands of him, assuming they’d never see him again. Then they told their father Jacob that Joseph had been attacked and killed by some wild animal.
From there Joseph ends up in Egypt working for a guy named Potiphar. When he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, she gets mad and accuses him of attacking her. So, he goes to jail. But even in jail he makes a good impression, interprets some dreams for a couple of his fellow inmates, one of whom refers him to none other than Pharaoh himself, who is having trouble sleeping. Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s bad dream about a season of bounty followed by a season of famine and gets put in charge of the program for managing all of Egypt’s resources. He rises to become the second most important person in all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. And when the famine hits, Egypt is ready- thanks to Joseph.
Of course, the famine doesn’t just hit Egypt. It hits the whole region, including back home with Joseph’s family. They are starving and facing the very real prospect of their own demise when they hear that things aren’t quite as bad in Egypt. The brothers decide to go and see what they can buy in terms of food from the man in charge of Egypt’s resources, never knowing that it’s the very same brother they sold into slavery.
From our reading this morning, you might get the impression that Joseph just out and tells them who he is. But that isn’t quite how it happened. Old wounds are slow to heal. And the wounds inflicted by those who are closest to us, the betrayals we experience at the hands of family may be the slowest to heal. So when his brothers first show up in Egypt and fail to recognize him, Joseph is less than kind. He accuses them of spying, and demands they go home and return with Benjamin, who was left behind with Jacob. And he hears them tell one another that they are being put through all of this because of what they did to Joseph. When they return with his brother Benjamin, Joseph has a silver cup hidden in one of the sacks of food the brothers have been given and then accuses them of stealing from him. He threatens to take Benjamin, and it’s only when one of his brothers begs to be taken instead that Joseph breaks down and tells them who he is. And in telling them who he is, he remembers who he is as well.
Because you see, in order to survive, Joseph became someone else, or rather a series of someones. He was a man sold into slavery, then Potiphar’s trusted servant, then a criminal, a prisoner, a dream interpreter, and a high court official. The further he got from his father, and his brothers, and the land of Canaan, the further he got from himself and became someone completely unrecognizable to his family. Like so many of us since, he learned how to pass in the world as someone other than who he was. Until one day his brothers walk in and it all comes back to him, reminding him who he truly is. Only he can’t quite get there. The pain and trauma from what they put him through comes back to him to him too. He is overwhelmed and in a position to finally get his revenge on them for what they did to him, everything that they put him through. No one could have blamed him for doing it, really. In fact, his brothers sort of expected it. And in the end, Joseph has a choice to make. Because the way we choose to end the story affects the way we see the how we get to where we are.
Just a few verses past where our reading ended this morning, as he sends his brothers back to Canaan to get Jacob and bring him to Egypt, his final word to them as they go is, “do not quarrel on the road.” It turns out this single instruction has been the point of some debate among rabbis through the years. The Hebrew word for road, darek, is also translated as ‘way’. And prepositions are always dicey in Hebrew translation. Some rabbis wonder if Joseph’s words couldn’t just as easily be rendered, “do not argue with the way.” That is isn’t some practical trip for traveling with your family, but rather a bit of wisdom about the whole story- the faithful approach to a life filled with up and downs, and left turns that come out of nowhere. Do not argue with the way.
This is essentially what Joseph means when he tells them not to be distressed or angry about all that’s happened. The choice he has to make, the choice we all have to make has to do with our willingness to trust that wherever we find ourselves, it is not only God who sent us but God who goes with us on the way. It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always good. And the mistake that we often make when things don’t go as we thought, or when unspeakable tragedy strikes is to contend that God has abandoned us, or is somehow angry with us. God didn’t beat Joseph and sell him into slavery, his brothers did that. It was terrible, but God was with him and used it for something bigger, something better. The same with his years in prison. God didn’t have him jailed, but God remained with him through that dark time, leading him to something far more important. Even as Joseph was passing for someone he wasn’t, he was also becoming the person that God always meant him to be in the first place. And when his dream finally came true, and he experienced his brothers bowing down before him, it meant something far different than he thought it had when he was young and obnoxious. Joseph could have used his power over them for retribution, casting all that had happened to him as a wrong to be avenged. If he had, he would have become the person his brothers had always feared he would become, the person to whom all this had been done. And he would have lost himself. But instead he recognized God’s presence through it all, and remembered in that moment who he was, who God had always meant him to be all along. So, he used his power instead to be with his brothers once more. You see forgiveness isn’t just about opening the future for someone else, it is also about remaining true to a future in which we can be who God made us to be. It is about remembering who we truly are in God’s eyes.
Fredrich Buechner writes of this story, “Almost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being.” It is what Jesus is trying to teach us from that plain. The measure we give. The generosity we show in recognizing God’s saving hand through every up, down and left turn along the way, is the measure we get. It is, in the end, the measure that saves us for who God made us to be.