James, Joseph, Wisdom and the Meek Sufferers of Empire

Part of the fun of the pastoral life where I have two weekly Bible preps are reading books I wouldn’t normally put together, together. Right now I’m in James and Joseph.

Joseph and Wisdom

Yesterday I was wrestling with “wisdom” in the context of James. David Snapper protested that my posting didn’t define “wisdom” and he was right. The term is very broad and for each context one needs to get specific. Joseph adds a new dimension to “wisdom”.

God’s favor on Joseph doesn’t take the shape of insuring happy circumstances for him. Joseph is disrobed, tossed in a cistern and sold into slavery by his brothers. In Potipher’s house God’s favor takes the form of fruitfulness of Joseph’s labor. Joseph is a poster child for someone with the gift of leadership and administration. Everything he manages goes well. This is one aspect of how the Bible talks about “wisdom”.

Joseph of course goes from Potipher’s house because he won’t betray his master by sleeping with his master’s wife into prison, but there too his gift of “wisdom”, the shape of God’s favor on him, propels him to the top of that pecking order.

With the opportunity of interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker we begin to see a new dimension of “wisdom”. Joseph tells his prison chargers “do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

This is of course making the assertion that God reveals his future plans to Joseph and that Joseph is authorized to disclose them.

The nature of the disclosure, however, is different from that of prophesy, where the prophet tells what is going to happen. Here the future telling is a combination of skill in interpreting dreams. Apparently “God” (note the use of Elohim, the generic use of “God” with the pagan Egyptians, rather than the Hebrew particularist YHWH) has revealed the future to the individuals to whom it pertains in combination with giving Joseph the interpretive key. Unlike, for example in the Daniel story where Daniel furnishes the whole bit as verification to Nebuchadnezzar, God discloses to the pagan recipient and Joseph only interprets.

When we come to the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, not only is the connection made to revelation of the future but also administration of the future. Upon the prompting of Joseph’s management idea of grain collection and storage Pharaoh asks “Can we find a man like this in whom is the spirit of God? Since God has made all of this known to you there is no one as discerning and wise as you.” and then puts Joseph in charge of everything. A rather impulsive move for the despot of an imperial superpower but there it is.

A Secular Age

Part of my interest in this is of course reading this while also reading Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” where he explores the transitions of the deep assumptions of secularism. In the ancient world the wisdom as displayed in the excellence of leadership and administration that Joseph possessed went hand in hand with someone who possessed the spirit of God. It should be no surprise that a Pharaoh would make this assertion given the tradition of ascribing deity to his own office.

Joseph and Empire

One of the themes in reading the Joseph story for Walter Brueggemann in his Genesis commentary is following the story with respect to the matter of empire. Brueggemann shrewdly notes that in this Pharaoh story we find the monarch in waters familiar to commoners but strange to potentates. He is a receiver of unwelcome information and the steward of a problem he is without the power to resolve.

Brueggemann all along has been tracking Joseph’s relationship to empire. While Jacob wrestled with God, Joseph has been wrestling with empire. Joseph and Daniel track nicely. A clear theme of this story is that God trumps empire. Empire is dependent upon the powers that God controls (the cows come from the Nile) and that when the mechanical assumptions of the natural order (cows graze upon the grass along the Nile) are undone (carnivorous cows, carnivorous ears of grain) empire is shaken. Again, you’ll find similar themes in the book of Revelation. The wise Pharaoh of Genesis (unlike the foolish Pharaoh of Exodus) submits to the power and “wisdom” of God by elevating and employing the servant of God in whom the spirit of God resides.

James and Empire

The relationship of empire to God’s people is subtext in the book of James and like in the Joseph story what is needed is wisdom. Again, here, the definition of wisdom is not sharp and precise but rather broad and thick. What does it take to live as an impoverished, oppressed people in the midst of devouring empire? Wisdom. For James, however, (like John in Revelation), that wisdom now includes the revelation of Jesus in his life, his death and resurrection. That new revelation re-calibrates the complex calculations of living wisely as the victim of empire.

The wisdom of empire is the use of power to elevate your own position at the expense of others. Joseph will save the world (the language of Genesis) through the wisdom of God as handmaiden of empire. Jesus will save the world through the wisdom of God even being opposed by empire.

Jesus way, however, will not employ imperial soldiers or imperial taxes, but will employ his manner of conquest, love of enemies and service to the poor. James will repeatedly ask his community to reject the means of empire (anger, violence, coercion, manipulation) and employ the means of Christ: love, hope, faith, giving. It is at the hands of this army that only Satan finds loss. 

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon, Understanding the Bible and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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