Our story today of Joseph and his plight is one of my favorites and, without a doubt, one of the all time best stories in the Bible. It is hard to find another story there with as much pathos, intrigue and drama. The story of this boy and his brothers plays out over the years and sets the stage and pattern for the great stories to come of Moses and Jesus. It tells the age-old story of being chosen, then betrayed and rejected only to be restored to blessing in the end. It is a recurring pattern that has shaped all of creation, a pattern that Walter Brueggemann describes as some person or event or community formed in generosity, relinquished to chaos only to be gathered and restored to blessing. We all know the pattern well in our lives. We are chosen for the team or get the job or find the love of our life only to be humbled when we fumble the ball, lose the account or get dumped. How often then do we find ourselves as a result of our loss restored and transformed into a new and better version of ourselves on a new team, or in a new job or with a new love? It’s an archetypal story.
As our story opens, the first thing we find out about Joseph is that he’s a tattletale. In any family there is always tension among the siblings but here it was stacked against Joseph 11 to 1. Spoiled and favored by his father above the other sons, Joseph is both blessed and cursed by being his father’s favorite. The magnificent coat with long sleeves was a constant reminder of his vaulted position in the family. The story tells us that Joseph was a dreamer who dreamed that one day he would rule over his brothers and watch them bow down to him. No wonder the brothers hated him. He was what we might call a spoiled child, and his brothers didn’t trust him as far as they could throw him. Spoiled children can be quietly manipulative, charming and sneaky or demanding and angry. The story of Joseph makes him out to be the charming and sneaky type. Joseph’s brothers didn’t think he was the cute darling of the family. For them he was a threat. They hated him because they saw how much their father loved him and over-indulged him giving him the beautiful coat and letting him stay home when the others went out to work. His brothers couldn’t even talk to him without getting angry. You can read between the lines of this story and see a manipulative dreamer who was clueless about how his behavior and attitude affected his brothers.
We can only imagine what kind of adult Joseph would have been if life hadn’t handed him the hardships he faced. Research affirms that spoiled and overindulged children grow into adults with all sorts of problems. Spoiled children often have a hard time knowing what is enough and need praise and material possessions to feel good about themselves. But the really sad thing is that spoiled children grow into adults who often don’t have a good or deep sense of who they truly are which puts them at risk when the going gets tough.
So Joseph found himself betrayed by his brothers as he sat in the bottom of a pit, miles from home, knowing that death would come eventually unless he was miraculously rescued and that there was no one there but his brothers who wanted nothing more than his death and disappearance. Only through the interference of his brother, Ruben, was his life spared when instead of killing him the brothers sold him into slavery to a passing caravan headed for Egypt. What could have been going through the mind of this pampered young man as the caravan wound its way through the desert? Had he ever known deprivation or suffering or rejection before? Had he ever had the chance to
develop some personal toughness that could reassure him that he could get through this trauma? Did he have hope in the midst of his hopelessness?
In her book The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine talks about the personal risk of growing up surrounded by material and emotional privilege. Without experiencing the hard knocks of life that naturally come to all of us, we tend not to develop a deep inner strength and confidence that we can overcome whatever problems come our way. We know this, yet still we wonder, “Where is God?” when we get the hard diagnosis or our spouse leaves us or we face financial trials. In truth we get lazy and want everything to go our way instead of remembering that there is a gift in the midst of every tragedy.
There is a story (which I am certain is not true) about a man who was the sole survivor of a ship that sank at sea. He was able to make a small raft of some of the ship’s cargo and eventually drift to a desert island. There he constructed a makeshift shelter and lived on what little food he had been able to salvage from the wreckage. Time after time he had attempted unsuccessfully to attract the attention of a passing ship. Finally, he saw a ship approaching more closely and hurriedly set a signal fire ablaze. To his dismay, the ship passed by and quickly faded from sight. Accidentally, sparks from the signal fire set the thatched roof of his shelter in flames, and the man watched hopelessly and helplessly as all of his provision burned to ashes.
All was lost, he reasoned, and life could not last much longer. Suddenly he noticed that the ship that had passed him by was turning around and approaching the island more closely than before. To his great relief, he was seen by the crew and rescued. Once on board, the grateful survivor went to the captain of the ship to express his thanks. “But what caused you to turn around after you had already passed by me?” he queried. “Why, we saw the signal fire you made by setting your shelter on fire,” the captain responded.
The very thing that seemed to seal the doom of this marooned man was the means of his delivery. What seemed to spell disaster for him became an instrument of his salvation.
Paul writes in Romans 5, “but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” There is hardly a character in the Bible from Adam and Eve to Jesus and the disciples along with Paul himself, whose life doesn’t reveal the truth of this statement.
The story of Joseph goes on to tell an amazing turn of events that led Joseph from an Egyptian jail to be the favored servant of an aristocrat only to be thrown back into jail until, through his gift of dream interpretation, he was made the Pharaoh’s personal assistant. When a famine struck Israel Joseph’s brothers made the long trip to Egypt in the hope of finding food to take back home to save their people. When the brothers appeared before Joseph he was such a totally different person they didn’t even recognize him, but Joseph knew immediately who they were. When he finally made himself known to them they shook in their sandy boots knowing that it was Joseph’s turn to get even with them. But lo and behold, Joseph didn’t punish them; he didn’t throw them in jail or demand their execution; he took them into his household and protected them until the end of his life.
“It was not you who sent me here but God,” Joseph reassured his brothers when he told them who he was. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” “What you did,” he told them, “you meant for evil but God meant it for
good.” His brothers did not get it, then or ever,” Barbara Brown Taylor comments, “They operated under a different understanding of cause and effect.” They assumed that the punishment always fit the crime. But Joseph got it. He had seen the pattern in his life: created for blessing, thrown into exile and then restored to blessing to be a blessing to others. Life throws all kinds of things our way and it is up to us to decide to despair or to trust, to curse or to bless. God is a sculptor, Taylor says, who can take any choice we make and turn it into a work of art if we allow that to happen.
In the story of Joseph, God is never mentioned, but you see God at work molding Joseph, through all the rough places in his life, into a man of character and wisdom who had a generous heart and a gracious spirit. Our problem is that in the middle of our disappointment, loss or betrayal, we forget that we often come out the other side an improved version of ourselves. But God is also at work in the grand drama of our lives, through all the pain and struggle, joy and success, to make us humble and open to whatever life throws at us, teaching us that all things work together for good because that is the reality of how God works. Take a look back at your lives. Take an inventory of all you have been through and see if Joseph wasn’t right. Whatever has happened to you, in some way, God has used it for good. As Gil always used to say, think about it.