Life Has More Bonds Than Mere Slavery
While Joseph carries out the business of feeding and saving the world, the relational story line of his family hangs unfinished. What has become of Jacob and his family?
Chapter 42 opens with Jacob dope smacking this sons who in Jacob’s mind are milling about useless imperiling the family because they have no food. “Don’t just stand there, go to Egypt and get some grain!”
Bondage to our Deep Flaws
Next we are reminded of the ways Jacob is deeply flawed, and deeply wounded. Jacob who lied to his father to secure his brother’s blessing was lied to by his sons to cover up the sale of Joseph into slavery. Jacob, who was lied to on the night he was eager to bed his precious Rachel and was deceived into marrying Leah now clings to the son that Rachel bore at the cost of her life. Jacob is seen in the same moment as being completely pragmatic and completely paralyzed by fear.
The brothers too are bound as we will see. They know they caused the deep wound that invites Jacob to cling to Benjamin. In their responsibility for Jacob’s loss of Joseph they feel themselves bound to protect their fragile father. Their father’s wounding partiality that prompted the evil perpetrated against their brother now must be full accepted and embraced. They too must now mirror their father’s favoritism, their evil forcing them to swallow in shame that which moved them to sell one of their own and cover it up with the blood of a goat. They must embrace the favoritism make it a fixed part of the family system. We all love Benjamin because we did evil against Joseph.
I assume this has become the family culture, someone universally known but never spoken of. To Egypt they must go to buy grain, but Benjamin stays behind.
Joseph’s New Test
Joseph has up until this point has seemed miraculously immune to bitterness. Though he struggles in the prison, suffering for his loyalty to Potipher, nothing can match what he faces now.
The dream cannot be denied. All that is done by the brothers to thwart Joseph’s dream as a boy comes about to serve the dream. This is the way of God. We choose, we navigate, we defy, but God’s ends always come to be.
Joseph is now faced with his brothers coming to buy grain. What will Joseph do?
Joseph the Tester
What if Joseph had been a nice guy? What if Joseph upon seeing his brothers had broken out into a smile and said “look guys it’s me! My dream came true, you’re all bowing to me but not to fret. I’ve got all the grain in the world (literally) and you all come to Egypt to live with me and everything will be cool.”
Why doesn’t Joseph do that?
Joseph of course doesn’t know about Judah and Tamar. Joseph doesn’t know what life has brought to his brothers or who they are in that time? Joseph wants to know.
In some ways Joseph at this point mirrors the God who ordained the famine. He wants to put his brothers in a box, to give them a trial to see who they are and what they may become. When Joseph was young his brothers had the power and used it against him. Joseph now has the power and he decides not to act in vengeance, but to use that power to see who his brothers are.
Changing Places, Different Names
For Abraham Isaac had been the focus of the trial. He was the cherished one. He was the one who needed to be placed on the altar. In this generation it would be Benjamin.
As I mentioned before Jacob’s obsession for the sons of Rachel was passed on to his sons. The 10 other sons, held in bondage to their guilt for what they did to Joseph had to swallow the bitter acceptance of their father’s favoritism. Now it appears Joseph too has absorbed the favoritism and he too wants the lad Benjamin.
Joseph will test his brothers like God tested the world with the famine and like God tested Abraham with Isaac. He calls his brothers liars and spies and demands that Benjamin be produced otherwise they will all be killed.
At this point the brothers are lost in a divine morass. What should have been a simple commercial transaction has turned and become an opportunity for divine judgment on their sin against Joseph. They believe in a sort of karma and they are now reaping what they have sown. Did not Joseph’s cries for mercy fall on their deaf ears? Now their cries are falling on the deaf ears of this Egyptian official.
The brothers are, however, in the dark about the one who has the power and the grace he is looking for in his heart. It’s clear he wants to extend them grace, but he doesn’t know if they are capable of receiving it.
There is a way in which what looks like grace is simply another means of bondage. Doing something good to or for someone can be a way of putting them in your debt.
Don Corleone, the Godfather, works this economy of favors. He grants requests, taking the role of the benefactor, always with the understanding that there may be a day when the balance sheet will need to be made even. This is not grace, it is commerce.
If Joseph simply says “aw shucks” at the sin the brother’s did against him, Joseph may, especially given his position of power, simply now change that evil into a debit on his brother’s books. He may then compound the debt by adding grain and their salvation from famine on top of it. In this way Joseph would not in fact be offering grace to his brothers, but rather his own form of slavery.
Given the fault line running through Jacob’s family, of the sons of Rachel and the sons of the others, this faux grace would quickly sweep Jacob and Benjamin into the equation. Joseph could now wield Jacob and Benjamin into system and together they would rule the rest of the sons.
At this point we still don’t know Joseph’s intentions, and maybe he doesn’t either. Will he want to control his brothers by putting them in his debt and using the power he has over them, or will he want to transcend the status and the power that divides them and actually become brothers once more.
If Joseph is to his brothers in this trial as God is to the world, then perhaps the same question lingers behind that side of the drama. Is famine and hardship a device to put us in God’s debt or are these tests to make us free to be in relationship with God that is capable of love and freedom?
The Trap Tightens
Joseph both relents and doubles down on the test. All the sons but one may return to Canaan with sacks of grain but they must return with the favorite son to free the brother in Joseph’s prison. Joseph continues to play them by returning the money they gave in exchange for the grain in the sacks. When they discover it they exclaim the chief line of the chapter, the chief line of all who both believe in God and suffer “What IS THIS that God has done to us?!”
Cheap Pastoral Care and the Problem of Evil
For the brothers this strange Egyptian is a proxy for God’s mysterious actions in their lives. It is not the Egyptian who seems to be to blame, it is God.
Despite the Secular age that has radically transformed our relationship with good times and bad, health and sickness, fat years and lean years, the complaint against God for bad things and hard things remains. It is for many the reason to try to relieve the relational tension by denying God’s existence. A number of books are out where former Christians express their great relief at freeing themselves from the problem of evil by releasing themselves from belief in a good, powerful and loving God. Now that there is no God we can all suffer without this relational overhead. They say it makes them feel better. I’m not exactly sure how and why.
With each tsunami, earthquake or hurricane we pastors usually trot out as a PR army to defend God’s reputation by claiming that we ought not take these calamities personally in terms of our relationship with God. With much of human suffering there are more proximate perpetrators to cite. George Zimmerman was a racist with a gun. Barack Obama and the liberals are stupid and will kill the economy. The Republicans are backwards and will keep people enslaved to ancient superstitions. The dingo ate your baby.
For materialists there is no reason. We are at the mercy of chance. When the die rolls wrong for us we’ll be done and our place will remember us no more.
For the moralist or the embracer of karma our suffering is our just desserts. Birth defects are the product of past-life moral failure. If the hurricane blows down your house you must have done something to deserve it.
Christianity wants to say inconsistent things on this score. The first chapter of the book of James makes a number of alarming statements:
- Consider it pure joy when you suffer trials of various kinds. These trials produce endurance/perseverance/patience in you. Don’t inhibit this from doing it’s important work of making you mature/complete/perfect, lacking nothing.
- If you are not yet mature/complete/perfect, lacking something, ask God for wisdom. When you ask, believe he will give it to you. Not believing he will give it to you is like splitting your soul or your self, trying to live as two selves will get you absolutely nothing.
- If you are poor you should exalt in your position of poverty, powerlessness, vulnerability and dependence, for you are in God’s care and you can know it.
- If you are wealthy, powerful, and full of options your glory should be in your humiliation, because all of that wealth and power and options will wither quickly the un-watered grass in the hot son.
- Blessed is the one who endures testing (see pt 1) because you will be proven to be able to receive grace.
- Don’t try to get out of it by saying “God is tempting me”. God isn’t tempting you, your flaws are coming from the inside and if they develop they will consume you.
- This is all the work of his choice that we would become the first fruits, the first creatures of his new creation.
Joseph is of course not omniscient. He can’t know his brothers hearts. He must test them and see if they are ready to live with him in the land of Goshen. Benjamin shall be the lamb at risk in this test.
This test is not just a test of information (can they do it) it is also a test of transformation, will they sustain it and in the test become new creations.
Again, Joseph is to his brothers as God is to us in this story. Is Joseph tempting his brothers to do evil? He is certainly giving them a hardship. He is certainly giving them the opportunity to do evil. He might “prevent” evil by locking them in prison and taking away their freedom. He is setting the stage for them to have to make a difficult, self-sacrificial choice. Will they walk through the door? This seems to be what Joseph is about. With the addition of James, this seems to be what God is about.
Jacob’s Test Too
Nine brothers return home, sacks with grain and silver, not knowing what to do. Jacob, is weak with grief but trapped by hunger. The chapter begins with his complaint that his sons were paralyzed by the famine, unable to do the simple, obvious thing that the community needs. Now Jacob too is paralyzed.
Jacob is paralyzed by clingy grief. Somehow he imagines clinging to Benjamin reduces the loss of his precious Rachel and Joseph. Somehow he imagines keeping Benjamin within his sight holds back the age of decay.
Jacob succumbs to despair. In this moment El Shaddai’s faithfulness shown to him against his adversaries Laban and Esau are a dim memory. El Shaddai’s wrestling with him at the Jabbok is forgotten. Jacob is without a God, clinging to a son that cannot save him.
We will have to wait until next week to see Judah and Israel arise.
Testing tells. For those of us who don’t know who we are or who each other are, testing tells.
Testing creates. It is in the place of testing that faith arises and God is revealed and seen as the creator, the rescuer, the father of lights who gives good gifts and with him there is no shadow of change.