The last part of the book of Genesis concludes with a happy ending to what had been in many ways a story of hard times for Joseph. Joseph learns through hard times. He experiences growth. This growth gained through the hard times pays dividends when Joseph faithfully follows God’s healing strategy.
One of the lessons of the story of Joseph is that God works sometimes in mysterious ways. A word that I like is “providence,” which the dictionary defines as “the care or benevolent guidance of God, in ways which are not always seen or understood by human beings.”
Joseph experienced God’s providential care in the midst of some terrible traumas. Joseph was the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons. He was his father’s favorite, one of two sons born to Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who had died when Joseph was quite young. Joseph’s older brothers resented their father’s favoritism. “When his brothers saw that their father loved [Joseph] more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (37:4).
Joseph, perhaps, let his father’s favor go to his head a little. He seems to have been a bit arrogant. He had a dream that his brothers bowed down to him, which is ultimately what does happen. But Joseph probably didn’t need to tell his brothers about it. I’m guessing he was a bit cocky when he shared that dream with them. And “they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words” (37:8). He shared another similar dream with them, and they were even more angry. They were so angry, in fact, that several wanted to kill Joseph.
Jacob sent Joseph out one day to check up on his brothers when they were pasturing their father’s flock. As Joseph was approaching them, one of them said to the others, “Here comes this dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what becomes of his dreams” (37:19-20).
The oldest of the sons, Reuben, convinced the others not to kill Joseph. He intended to restore Joseph to their father. However, a group of nomads came by while Reuben wasn’t around, and the brothers sold Joseph to them as a slave. These nomads took Joseph down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, an important official in the Pharaoh’s government.
Surely, Joseph had to have been severely traumatized by what happened. He was wrenched from what was a pretty comfortable life, and from his father who loved him dearly. He must have despaired for his life when he was thrown into the pit and realized that his brothers wanted to do him in. Then, though his life was spared, he was shipped to a foreign land, as a slave. From the security of life with Jacob, he was thrown into utter insecurity.
However, Joseph lands on his feet. We might say this is “lucky,” if we didn’t know already that God is providentially caring for Joseph or if we didn’t know already of God’s promise to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham. God promised to make a great nation from Abraham that will bless all the families of the earth. Joseph has a role to play in that blessing. He lands on his feet. He ends up in the household of Potiphar, “an important officer of Pharaoh” (39:1).
“The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man.…His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands” (39:2). Potiphar leaves all that he has “in Joseph’s charge” (39:6). It would appear that Joseph now will prosper once more.
However, Joseph’s hard times are not over. Potiphar’s wife has her eye on this handsome and powerful young man. She tries to seduce him. But he refuses. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph cries (39:9). She keeps after him, until finally she corners him. He escapes, but she is left holding his cloak. In her anger at being spurned, she uses that cloak to frame him. She accuses him of trying to seduce her. Her husband believes her and has Joseph thrown into prison, where he will likely spend the rest of his life – no hope for parole.
Once more, though, in his trauma Joseph refuses to despair. The Lord was with Joseph even in prison, even in Joseph’s hard times. And the Lord “showed [Joseph] steadfast love” (39:21). In time, Joseph’s giftedness leads to him being given a leadership role. “The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in prison, and whatever was done there, [Joseph] was the one who did it.…The Lord was with [Joseph]” (39:22-23).
Joseph interprets some dreams for two of his fellow prisoners. One of them is released from prison and returns to Pharaoh’s service, having promised to put in a good word for Joseph. But he forgets about Joseph. Joseph languishes in prison for several more years. Then, however, he gets “lucky” again, we might say. That is, if we didn’t know about the Lord’s providential care for Joseph and the Lord’s faithfulness to his promises.
Pharaoh has some troublesome dreams. He can’t find anyone to interpret them. Then, the former prisoner remembers Joseph. That young Hebrew interpreted my dream and the baker’s dream, he tells Pharaoh (41:9-13). Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and once more Joseph lands on his feet. He interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a warning of a terrible famine to come. He advises Pharaoh to store up during the several more good years they will have before the famine hits. Pharaoh agrees, and appoints Joseph to be the top administrator of the famine prevention efforts. Joseph becomes extraordinarily powerful in the world’s most powerful empire.
Joseph carries out his work successfully. He saves countless lives. Even in the face of violence and injustice, he kept focused on his identity as the carrier of God’s promise. He kept focused on his identity as someone called to serve God’s strategy of healing for the world.
Joseph didn’t dwell on how terrible his brothers had been to him or the harsh vengeance of Potiphar’s wife. Rather, he remembered his dream, that he was meant to be God’s instrument. Joseph was still able – in the midst of being treated unjustly – to be creative and be an agent of God’s healing strategy.
God had promised to bless all the families of the earth through Joseph’s people. Joseph knew that the evil of his brothers, the vengeance of Potiphar’s wife, and the violence of the Egyptian empire in general were not more powerful than God’s promise.
In his role as Pharaoh’s right hand man, Joseph is able to save his family from famine. He is reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his dear father and his younger brother, Benjamin. If the brothers had not sold Joseph into slavery, he would not have gone to Egypt and never have been in the position to help them out during those terrible famine years. If Joseph had not been unjustly thrown into jail, he would not have been able to display his dream-interpretation skills to Pharaoh’s servant. The bad things that happened to Joseph put him in a position to do much good.
As inspiring as Joseph’s story is meant to be (and indeed is), we must also remember that rarely in the Bible are things strictly as they seem. As we look at the bigger picture, things get a bit more complicated. Egypt’s Pharaoh in Genesis 37–50 seems fairly benign, acting kindly toward Joseph and his family. However, remember who Pharaoh is elsewhere in the Old Testament – the enslaver, the god-king who is a rival to Yahweh, the one whose injustice provides the backdrop for understanding the true nature of Torah as a recipe for genuine shalom for all people in Israel (and, by extension, for all the families of the earth).
And what did Joseph do for Pharaoh? His shrewdness actually greatly increased the power and wealth of Egypt and its leader. The ambiguities of working within the empire system must not be minimized. Even Joseph, whose creativity and faithfulness were instrumental in providing for Israel’s ability to stay alive (and whose cleverness explains how the children of the promise ended up in Egypt, giving us a narrative bridge between Genesis 1–36 and Exodus), nonetheless served the institution that ended up brutally enslaving his descendents and nearly eradicating the people of the promise from the earth in their infancy.
Following Joseph’s death, the story continues in the book of Exodus with the people in Egypt. Exodus 1–15 is an important part of the memory of biblical people: the account of the crossing of the Red Sea, the celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the hope of new life ahead in the promised land. Throughout the Bible, and ever since, this moment has been recalled and held up as a basis for hope. God does liberate from bondage. God does give new life.
Genesis 50 leaves the children of Israel in Egypt. Joseph had gone there first, sold into slavery, but in time freed and elevated to leadership as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. His eleven brothers and their father Jacob and their families eventually follow Joseph and at first are very much in Pharaoh’s favor, and they prosper. However, after awhile, Egypt comes under the rule of a new king, “who did not know Joseph” (Ex 1:8). He returns the Israelites to slavery. They cry out, God hears them, and ultimately God delivers them.
The story of the Exodus introduces us to Israel’s great leader, Moses. It begins with Moses being exiled for a while from Egypt, his childhood home. Moses returns and becomes a leader of the Hebrew people, who are slaves in Egypt under the iron hand of Pharaoh, the Egyptian god-king. Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, Pharaoh refuses. Moses then coordinates God performing several wonders designed to impress Pharaoh and to get him to change his mind.
These wonders take the form of a series of plagues – starting with water being turned to blood, then a bunch of frogs, gnats, flies, disease, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, and dense darkness. Pharaoh at first refuses to reconsider, then says that the people can go but not the livestock. Moses says that’s not good enough, and Pharaoh gets quite angry and says he simply won’t reconsider any more.
So, the final plague occurs. Every firstborn child and every firstborn animal in Egypt is put to death – except those of the Hebrews, because the death angel “passed over” them. Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Hebrews go. But then he changes his mind and chases after them. As the Egyptian army is about to pounce on the Hebrews, whose backs are to the Red Sea, the sea opens up and the Hebrews pass through. When the Egyptians follow, the Sea crashes down on them. Finally Pharaoh is defeated and the Hebrew people are set free. Exodus 15 celebrates that final victory. “The Lord has triumphed gloriously” (vv. 1).
This story of the exodus serves as a good example of our need, as Christians, to read the Old Testament with discernment. The center of our faith, the center of the Bible, is Jesus – his life, teaching, his death and resurrection. The Old Testament points us toward Jesus. Much in the Old Testament fits well with what Jesus was about. We can’t understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament. But not everything in the Old Testament points to Jesus. Our cues ultimately come from Jesus, not the parts of the Old Testament that seem to point in a different direction.
The story of the Exodus contains much that does point forward to Jesus. The Exodus was a crucial part of God’s healing strategy. It is an important memory for biblical faith.
However, the memory of the exodus in the faith community can easily get distorted, or it can be used in a way that supports destructive perspectives. The Exodus can be seen as just one more piece in an attitude of disregarding our enemies’ children, being willing to sacrifice them for the sake of this greater good we are fighting for. One of the major revolutions in how wars are fought has been that casualties in earlier wars usually were soldiers. But in recent wars, the number of civilians killed in war has increasingly dwarfed the number of soldiers killed – by many times. And of these civilian deaths, you can be assured that many, maybe most, are children. Another destructive memory is to see in this story warrant for celebrating the violent deaths of enemy soldiers. This sort of celebration remains all too characteristic of modern war.
I don’t want to deny that these destructive memories have some basis in the biblical accounts themselves. We’ve looked at the stories of the flood in the time of Noah, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the time of Abraham. All these stories and more in the Old Testament are problematic for peace-oriented ethics. All may be used as a kind of memory that justifies our violence today.
However, these kinds of memories are destructive to human beings. People use these destructive memories to reinforce and justify actions and beliefs that support violence. This use undercuts our potential now for an experience of exodus from brokenness and toward healing.
They aren’t the only kinds of memories, though, that we may appropriate from Exodus. I will mention three helpful elements of this story. When we start with what we know of God from Jesus, then I think we can see that the Exodus is a key contribution to the understanding of God that we see in Jesus’ God of suffering love, who brings about salvation even for one’s enemies.
One element in the Exodus story is that the God of the Exodus is not a God of kings. This is not a God of the Pharaohs, not a God of people in power, not a God of people who lord it over others. This God, unlike other gods, is not a projection from the king, a way merely to reinforce the king’s power. Rather, the God of the Exodus is a God of slaves. This is a God who gives life to the life-less, hope to the hope-less. This is a God who hears the cries of those being treated like non-persons, those being treated only as tools to increase the king’s wealth.
A second element is that in this story, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and toward freedom was not accomplished through human military might. The Hebrews did not out-muscle Pharaoh. God used miracles in nature (the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea) to bring about liberation. The center of power in this new society lay not with the generals and the warriors, but with the people’s God. That the power rests with God means that the things God values most – mercy, compassion, caring for the powerless and outcast, just distribution of resources – these are what matter most in the society, not the increase in wealth and power for the already wealthy and powerful. You do not have a warrior-king whose military victory only brings him more wealth and power. The people with the most status are the weaponless prophets, those who best discern the will of the liberating God.
And a third element is that for the Hebrews following the exodus, Egypt is not simply left behind – Egypt is rejected. Here, right from the start for the Hebrew people, we see competing ideologies. Egypt and Pharaoh stand for the human will-to-power. Israel and Moses stand for God’s loving justice. Egypt and Pharaoh stand for life lived in fear, self-protectiveness, trusting in brute strength, exploiting others however one can. Israel and Moses stand for life lived in trust in God’s mercy, openness to others, caring more for relationships than material possessions, treating the powerless with respect.
Just as God acted in the time of Moses to show compassion, to bring together this people, to set them free as they (in their tentative ways) trusted in God; so too these Exodus events continue. God’s empowering mercy remains available. Exodus speaks to the establishing of an identity free from the dominance of Egypt. Exodus speaks of a God who sets people free from the control and dominance of Egypt’s yoke of slavery. Exodus speaks of a God who frees from the power of sin and oppression.