Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21
Let’s face it, the story of Joseph is one that presents us with a couple of problems. Blatant parental favouritism, God sending visions to a man with an arrogant disregard for the feelings of his brothers or parents; brothers selling their brother into slavery, as a more profitable option than simple patricide. Really, when you look at the family of Israel – two wives, children by both of them and by two maidservants as well – what you see is a dysfunctional mess: not exactly the material out of which you might expect God to found his nation, a people through whom the whole world would be blessed.
And then, of course, there’s the role the story of Joseph plays in the bigger picture, the story of the people of God through the Old Testament. Through this story, the people leave Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, and end up in slavery in Egypt; and when they are finally set free in the Exodus, in order to retake the ‘promised land’ from those who now occupy it they will have to fight a series of bloody wars.
Honestly, it’s all a bit of a mess. Despite Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best efforts (which, let’s be honest, are probably a better known telling of the story than the account actually found in the book of Genesis – and there is, I’m afraid, no contemporary evidence that Pharaoh did Elvis impressions (or vice versa, for that matter)), it’s really not a story about the power of dream or any such hippie value. “Any dream will do”? No, really, no.
The power of the story of Joseph isn’t in his dreams, or in his God given gift of interpretation. It isn’t in his character – though that’s a miracle we will return to. It’s not even in his remarkable rise to power in Egypt.
The power of the story of Joseph lies in his theological response to his brothers when they discover who he is: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”
Which, I have to admit, on first glance, is the very last line in the whole story that I’d choose to preach on. For it reads with that sort of fatalistic version of the sovereignty of God which we hear echoed in those awful words of false comfort offered to the grieving “God has his reasons… God making something great out of this suffering, just wait and see… God intended it for good.”
Quite aside from basic pastoral flaw in such words – that any comfort that can found in the idea that God works good out of suffering is only meaningful if it is found by the one who is suffering, not when it is offered to them as well meaning comfort by an outsider – there is a deeper problem, which is this:
It’s not what it says.
Now I do not often get involved in discussions of the original languages of the Bible, partly because I have memories of some very dull sermons in my childhood and teenage years filled with references to parts of speech and Greek idiom, but mostly because I’m not actually very good at Greek, and even less so at Hebrew.
But this story turns on Joseph’s words: “you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. So we need to dig just a little below the surface.
So bear with me for a very brief excursus into Hebrew grammar.
If there is one thing that is worth learning about the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written, it is this: Hebrew doesn’t have tenses. There is no past, present or future in the Hebrew language.
What there is, is the aspect of a verb, perfect or imperfect, whether it is a completed action or an ongoing action. And this, along with the context, gives strong hints as to the tense implied. But the problem is that whenever the Hebrew authors wrote of God, they always used the perfect aspect, the form of the verb that implies a completed act. Even words of prophecy of future actions by God are written as completed; every action of God is ‘complete’, even if it hasn’t happened yet. It’s theology expressed in grammar: if God is going to do something, it is as good as done. It is complete, before it even happens.
Which makes it, often, hard to tell whether a description of God’s action refers to the past, the present, or the future. So though the brothers “intended harm” – clearly a reference to the past, the same word used to say “God intended it for good” can just as easily mean “God intends it for good”, or even “God will intend it for good”.
And if you’ll bear with me one step further, one bit of Hebrew vocab – the word ‘intended’ here, chashab, means more like “to purposely make”: literally, it means “to weave”. To create something deliberate, something intentional, out of the threads on the loom.
When translated into Greek, a particular theological interpretation was chosen, one which reflected the absolute emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the control of God over all of history: “you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good”.
But a perfectly natural reading of the words could sound more like this:
“You wove evil, but God is weaving it into something good.”
How different does the story of Joseph sound if that is the punchline? You wove evil, but God has taken what you made and rewoven it into the preservation of this family through time of famine. You wove evil for me, but God has rewoven it into my elevation to the position of power I saw in my dreams so many years ago.
And, perhaps most important of all, we can look again at Joseph’s life in the same way. At the start of the story he’s arrogant and self important, encouraged by his father to think that he is better than his brothers, and encouraged by his visions to think that he is inevitably bound for better still. How ugly when someone riding privilege comes to believe that they have a right to all this and more.
But by the end of the tale, Joseph, now with genuine power, has become a truly admirable man. Because he has learned, it seems to me, three crucial lessons, as God has rewoven the crass youth. He has learned that the blessings that he has, the ones that were born to him and the ones that were promised to him and have now come to be, are all from God. In refusing to judge his brothers he asks, rhetorically, “am I in the place of God?” – he has come to see himself as the recipient of God’s blessings, God’s grace, not a self-made man, not deserving or earning his position, his status, his wealth, his power.
In that one shift of mindset, he has become a different man.
But a second lesson has followed on the first; that the blessing that God has given to him are not really for him, but are for the welfare, the benefit, of others. God has done these things to preserve numerous people – both the people of Egypt and the people of Israel. He has been blessed, as perhaps he might recall his father Abraham was blessed, to be a blessing to others.
And in learning these things, he has finally also learned to forgive, even those brothers who thought to kill him and sold him into slavery. Perhaps he has had time to reflect on who he was, and realised that if God has forgiven him, if God has taken the messy weaving he had made of his life and rewoven it into something new, then he can forgive others, too.
I wonder what the lesson we each need to hear from this story is?
Perhaps we need the reassurance that God has woven, is weaving, will weave, something good, even when we or others have begun in evil?
Or perhaps we need to learn that what we have, the blessings of our life, are not earned, not deserved, but given by God’s grace.
Or maybe to be reminded that we have been blessed, not for our own sake alone, but so that we can be a blessing to others.
Or perhaps simply that as forgiven people, it is possible for us to forgive.