We can approach this text from two very different angles. The first comes from renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. He suggests that this story might have taken its final form during the reign of Solomon, a time of royal splendor in Israel, when everything was going well for God’s people. There was peace internationally, prosperity internally (at least for Solomon), and a renaissance intellectually (as wisdom literature thrived). Things had never been better. In that setting, says Brueggemann, people were asking this question. “Is God relevant to a social situation in which human control seems established and sufficient?” That perspective makes this story very relevant to the situation in 21st century North America, until the last 5 months.
The second perspective has been thrust upon the world since February, 2020, when human control seems to have been lost entirely. The coronavirus brought a global health crisis, which in turn created a global financial crisis. Then, to add to the chaos, police brutality against black people in a number of places brought protests everywhere and riots in many places. The very fabric of society threatened to shred into a million ragged pieces. More than one person has asked, “Where is God in this chaos and pain?” In 2020, the question many people bring to this text in Genesis 37 is the exact opposite of the one Brueggemann asked. “Is God relevant to a social situation in which human control has been disestablished and proven to be totally insufficient?”
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 addresses that question from any situation in society. “Where is God?” The story goes from chaos to control, from conflict to resolution, from defeat to triumph. Through it all, God seems to be conspicuously absent, until Joseph reveals the deep theology running through that story and our history.
To comprehend the theology hidden in the story we must see the story in its larger context. This long narrative makes up the tenth and last section of Genesis. Since the primordial stories of creation, fall, flood, and Babel, we have been following the early history of the patriarchs- pagan Abram called to become the Father of many people, the miracle child Isaac destined to be the chosen one, devious Jacob whom God will finally bless with the 12 sons who will become Israel. In the chapters just prior to this story, Rachel has died, the 12 sons have been identified, and the line of Esau has been outlined. Now begins a whole new chapter in that sweeping saga.
It is important to read this story, not as a moralistic tale about family dysfunction, but as an historical explanation of how the family of Jacob in Canaan became the nation of Israel in Egypt. Here’s how the blessed family became the blessed people who would bless the world, as God promised Abraham in Genesis 12. Our story today is the beginning of the larger narrative about how God’s chosen people moved from the Promised Land to the house of bondage, which would, in turn, be followed by the Exodus and Conquest of the Promised Land. Let’s not get lost in the fascinating details of interesting characters and tangled interactions, lest we miss the overarching message of God’s hidden actions to save his people and the world.
“This is the account of Jacob,” says verse 2, but then the focus of the story is all on Joseph. Clearly, the author means that what follows is really about the house of Jacob, the covenant line of the man now called Israel, the people who will become Israel. Joseph is the key figure in that development.
It was an unlikely development because Joseph was a tag along child, the last in the bunch (until his little brother Benjamin was born). As the baby of the family, he became the favorite child of his father, Jacob. Sadly, Jacob did not hide his preference, clothing his little one in a royal robe. Joseph did not wear the crown well, prancing about proudly, choosing to tattle on his older brothers, and smugly reporting his dreams of superiority to his brothers and father. As a result, they roundly hated him, jealous of his privileged place, arrogant attitude, and hostile behavior. In their eyes, he was a little brat whom they wished would vanish.
The RCL’s omission of the verses that detail Joseph’s dreams is inexplicable and unfortunate, given how crucial those dreams are in this opening story and in the larger story. Brueggemann claims that “The Dream” contained in these two dreams drives the whole saga of Joseph. Without that dream, it makes no sense that his brothers would call him “that dreamer” just prior to selling him to passing traders. More important, it is clear that the dream/prophesy of Joseph’s ultimate rise to superiority is exactly what the whole story is about. Joseph is the way God fulfills his dream for his chosen people.
But that dream became a nightmare for Joseph, and for his brothers, and for their father. Filled with hatred for “that dreamer,” his brothers take advantage of Jacob’s clueless order that Joseph go to visit them far away from his protecting influence. They were tending flocks 60 or 70 miles away from home, so when Joseph wanders into their murderous grasp, they seize the opportunity to rid themselves of the little pain in the neck.
The account of their plot is filled with confusion, as most mob scenes are. They begin with murder, move to imprisonment, and end with selling him to a caravan of traders, who are given various names. Older brothers try to intervene to save his neck, but in the end, he is gone. That’s when someone realizes that they have to explain his absence to their father. They concoct a likely tale about lions or tigers or bears (oh my!), proving his slaughter with his royal robe dipped in goat’s blood. That’s when Jacob’s nightmare begins. As far he is concerned, it will never end. So, this chapter concludes with everyone suffering over the loss of Joseph, with varying degrees of guilt and sorrow and despair.
There is one note of hope. The very last verse of Genesis 37, not part of our reading, tells us that Joseph has been sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. What that will mean, the reader does not know. But it does mean that the end has not come yet for Joseph. And that means that The Dream is not dead.
God is not mentioned in this story. God is apparently absent and inactive, unless we take the dreams as a revelation from God. In contemporary psychology, dreams are the way our subconscious works out its conflicts; we produce our own dreams. In the biblical world, dreams are often the way God reveals his plans. God gives us God’s dream for our lives. In his dream for Joseph, God intimates that “the ways of God are at work, regardless of human attitudes and actions.” Brueggemann continues, “in the contingencies of history, the purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnatural ways. But the ways of God are nonetheless reliable and will come to fruition.” So perhaps there is hope for Joseph and his family, and for Solomon and his family, and for the human family in this time of chaos and pain.
In this racially fraught time, the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King continue to lift hearts. “I Have a Dream,” he proclaimed back in the l960’s. The fact that 60 years later we are still battling over racial equality is a discouraging thing. Where is God in all this?
The story of Joseph reminds us that God has a dream that will come to pass. It will depend on another child of Israel, the Chosen One who will suffer and die to unite all things in heaven and earth (Ephesians 1). The ultimate fulfillment of that dream for humanity is shown to St. John in a vision (Rev. 7). “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nations, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” When John asked one of the Elders who these white robed people are, he is told (in words that echo Genesis 37), “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That is God’s dream for a conflicted and sinful humanity. Thanks be to God.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 9, 2020
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Commentary