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I don’t know how much of it had to do with Joseph.
Sure, it would be wise of the tattle-tale with a privileged position in the family not to rock the boat. It would have been wise for him to actually be a helper, like the text claims he is, instead of bringing a bad report on his brothers. He gets the love, a fancy coat, and a good deal of resentment from his siblings. It would have been wise to keep quiet. But, instead, everything he does seems to rub salt in his brothers’ already raw wounds. He has these dreams, which he proudly offers to anyone who will listen. Sheaves of wheat stand in a field, and all of theirs bow down to Joseph’s. Then the moon and the sun and the stars, symbolizing all the rest of the family – parents included – bow down to the ridiculous dreamer. At this point even his father gets annoyed: “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”
The anger built, and built. If you’ve ever been really mad, at a sibling, you know how they felt. Somehow it’s the strongest with people we love. Jacob sends Joseph out to find his brothers and the flocks, to “see if all is well.” Jacob simply wants a report, but the brothers, I am sure, count Joseph as a spy. I can hear them now…Look, guys, look who is coming, strolling over the plains in that fancy robe. You feel how hot it is out here, he doesn’t have to wear that robe. I wonder what he will say about us this time. I wonder what report he will bring back to dad this time, who will most certainly believe him over us. It filled them with fury, until one speaks the thought others had: let’s kill him, and throw him in a pit. No one has to find out. No one has to know. Then one of them says something remarkable: “Here comes this dreamer,” he names Joseph. “Come now, let us kill him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” And we shall see what will become of his dreams…
Because even though it started with Joseph, I think it was really about those dreams. The dreams Joseph had for who he was, for their family, for who they were all to be. These dreams, for us and for others, grip us, drive so much of what we do. I am not talking about the monster-in-the-corner dreams, or the recurring falling dreams. I am talking about the dreams that change things, like prophets like Isaiah and Micah voiced for justice, a Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial kind of dream. Maybe it’s a vision of your family, of who your kids will be, of the gifts they bring, of the people they will become. We fill our lives with dreams, for those we love, for the ways our careers will work, the successes we will have, the things we know, deep down, we can make happen if only given the right kind of chance. Sprinkle in a way to retire early, travel the world, spoil the grandkids, reading for long afternoons in the back yard.
But these dreams, even the best of them, seem so tenuous at times. We dream for a world in which our leaders can speak to each other with humility and grace, and we turn on the news and see them posturing to a bank of cameras. We dream for a world in which spouses don’t cheat or abuse, in which addictions and mental illness don’t cling to people we dearly love. We dream about safe schools, troops coming home, institutions from churches to banks to governments that operate with integrity, that are filled with people with honesty and compassion. And another leader is caught up in a scandal, and another dear friend calls to say that her marriage is falling apart. We yearn for a world in which no one goes hungry, and that everyone has a safe and warm place to sleep. And then you head downtown one evening and see someone walking with a blanket and a bag, sliding up underneath a bridge to sleep. And you meet someone, like our Middle Schoolers will as they serve in Durham at Housing for New Hope, Urban Ministries, Threshold and the Food Bank, and you see how it is terribly easy for our dreams to be crushed, for hope to slip right through your fingers…
That is one reason I believe this Joseph narrative is so important, and worth us lingering over here in these warm days as summer concludes. After creation and the flood, the prehistory of the Israelites, we leap into a series of longer narratives. God calls to Abram in chapter 12 and, even through a series of threats to the promise, God’s presence is constant. God speaks to Abram often. Angels show up in Abram and Sarai’s tent. Even when things get hard, there is a clear sense that God is nearby, waiting in the wings with redemption. A couple of chapters on Isaac, and the narrative jumps to Jacob, the trickster, the younger brother who supplants his older twin, who steals his birthright, who runs away, finds refuge and a wife, begins to build a life. This is more visceral, gut-level stuff, and God is still very near, near enough to wrestle with, physically wrestle with, by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob and his brother Esau reconcile, and they worship together. But this Joseph narrative, longer than the other two, is different.1 God doesn’t pop up much, doesn’t make grand pronouncements. The beginning of this narrative is tough, with the sense of dreams lost in the midst of family tension. Not much hopeful happens, which feels like the news lately, with the debt ceiling/credit rating debacle, as a helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan and more brothers and fathers and son and daughters die. This narrative begins with a feeling of desperation. But, the text says to us as we read, it is in times such as these we get to choose. We can choose to believe that it is all chaotic and meaningless. Or, as the Joseph story argues, we can choose to believe that even when things feel most desperate, God is at work, waiting, underneath the surface even, nudging, coaxing us into greater faithfulness. Sometimes it feels like hope is lost and, after a time, at the last minute, grace bubbles up where you least expect it.
We were back from vacation last Saturday night, and I was getting ready to head down to University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill to join my colleagues there for worship. I flipped on the news and, in a random story in the midst of the debt ceiling childishness, was floored. It was a story about a woman in Iran named Ameneh Bahrami. In 2004 a man named Majid Movahedi proposed marriage. She refused, so Movahedi got some acid and attacked her, pouring it on her face, leaving her severely disfigured. She lost her sight and suffered horrific burns to her face, scalp and body in the attack. It is a legal right for victims in Iran to ask for a strict enforcement of Islamic law, under which an attempt is made to reach a settlement with victims or their families. If no agreement is reached, then “qisas,” or eye-for-an-eye retribution, is enforced. This is the same kind of sentence called for in the Hebrew Scriptures, in Leviticus 24. Under the Iranian judiciary’s policy, convicted murderers are sentenced to death. In 2010 authorities amputated the hand of a convicted thief. In this case the court had ruled that a doctor would pour a few drops of a corrosive chemical in one of Movahedi’s eyes as retribution. And early last Sunday morning they stood in a doctor’s office, ready to apply the punishment. And eye for an eye. And at the last minute, Bahrami stepped forward and said, ‘no.’ She stopped it all. Told the doctor to step back, and told the people gathered that she forgave him, as he sat, weeping, against the wall. He still has to serve some jail time, still has to pay a fine. But he can see, even if she won’t again.2
There is much to come. Joseph goes through fits and starts, gets in trouble, then works his way out of it. For a period he is quite powerful. Then it collapses again. But hope persists. Not in grand dramatic ways, not most of the time. But in the slow and subtle moving of the Spirit of God, who creates us and claims us and promises to never, ever let us go. Who plants within us dreams – for us and for the world – that through that grace we might be more than we are, filled with forgiveness and sustained with power. And God never gives up on those dreams, even when we might be tempted to. Joseph gets close. His father, thinking him dead, surely does. “Amazingly,” Brueggeman again reminds, “even as Joseph heads off to Egypt, God has still not abandoned the dream…”3 And God will not do so for you or for me.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- This idea comes from Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 288. “Its presuppositions suggest a cool detachment from things religious that is contrasted with the much more direct religious affirmation of the Abraham and Jacob stories.”
- Brueggemann, 306.