One Heck of a Story
St. Philip Lutheran Church
20 February 2022 + Lect. 7c (Epiphany 7)
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s one heck of a story. Enough, in fact, to occupy the last fourteen chapters of Genesis. That’s 28% – over a quarter – of the first book of the Bible.
Not many biblical stories can also claim a Tony-nominated Broadway musical to their credit. But with all due respect to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” may not have actually been so “technicolor” after all. It might be “a coat of many colors” – or it might just be “a long robe with sleeves,” depending on your translation.
Whether the robe is technicolor or long-sleeved though, it’s clear that Joseph occupies a special status in the eyes of his father, Jacob. Joseph is, after all, only one of two children born from Jacob and his second and favorite wife Rachel – the other son, Joseph’s younger brother, being Benjamin (that’s important for later).
The trouble starts with Joseph’s dreams – though it would be his dreams and, more importantly, his ability to interpret them, that would ultimately save him, too. But long before that, when he’s only 17 years old, his dreams get him into trouble with his brothers. Then again, who can blame them? How would you feel if your brother, already very clearly your father’s favorite, insists he has literal dreams where the rest of the family is bowing down to him?
Maybe plotting to murder him is a bit extreme, but the alternative – throwing him into a pit in the wilderness and then deciding to sell him as a slave – isn’t much better. And it gets worse: Taking his robe, they tear it, slaughter a goat, and dip the robe in the goat’s blood – all in order to show their father and convince him of Joseph’s untimely death. If the Ancient Near East had Forensic Files, this would surely be an episode.
As bleak as circumstances get for Joseph though, surprisingly, things actually start to look up, at least for a brief moment. In Egypt, Joseph finds himself in the house of Potiphar, an official of the pharaoh. Having found favor in Potiphar’s sight, Joseph is made overseer of all of Potiphar’s house and possessions. At the same time, Joseph also finds favor of a different sort in the sight of Potiphar’s wife. Despite Joseph’s insistence that he would not sleep with her, and in fact as a direct result of trying to avoid that very thing, he ends up being framed with no recourse or appeal – and winds up in prison.
While in prison, Joseph’s dream interpretation enters a new phase – this time interpreting not his own dreams but those of two of the pharaoh’s officials, his chief cupbearer and his chief baker, both of whom have also found themselves in prison.
For the chief baker, Joseph sees a not-so-promising future in which the pharaoh has the baker killed. But for the chief cupbearer, Joseph sees in his dream a future of the restoration of his position and his favor with the pharaoh. “Remember me!” Joseph pleads, once the cupbearer is back in the pharaoh’s good graces.
Sure enough, both interpretations come true, but the cupbearer, delighted and distracted by his change of fortune, forgets all about Joseph, who continues to languish in prison.
That is, until two years later, when the pharaoh himself has a puzzling dream that none of even his best magicians and advisors can interpret. Suddenly guess who has an inkling of a memory about the man he left in prison who can interpret dreams?
Enter, once again, Joseph. Pharaoh’s dreams, he says, predict seven years of plenty and seven years of famine in Egypt. So impressed by Joseph’s ability to interpret his puzzling dreams, the pharaoh sets Joseph up as overseer of a large-scale endeavor to take advantage of these seven years of plenty in order to ensure Egypt’s survival and even prosperity in the seven years of famine to follow.
When the famine sets in, word of Egypt’s prosperity spreads – even to Canaan – even to Jacob’s family. In an effort to get food for his family to survive, Jacob sends his sons – all except for Benjamin (remember him?) – to Egypt, where they encounter, of all people, their brother, Joseph. Except they don’t know it’s him.
But Joseph, with as much time as he had to think all those years, instantly recognizes them. Through a series of interrogating questions, Joseph “learns” they have come on behalf of their father and their youngest brother – both of whom have stayed behind. Then Joseph insists they return home and this time bring back Benjamin, all the while holding another of them as hostage.
By this time, Jacob is all but certain he’s now lost a second son when only nine of the ten he sent to Egypt come back, and you can imagine his stubborn hesitance to let them return with Benjamin. But, with the famine continuing and their own survival at stake, let them return he does – and so the brothers, for the first time since abandoning Joseph to a pit in the wilderness, all reunite in Egypt.
Everything seems to be going well, all things considered. Joseph is going to send them all on their way back to their father, with as much food as they can carry, and all their money with them. So why, then, does Joseph put his silver cup in Benjamin’s bag and send his steward after them to trap him and expose the alleged theft?
Revenge maybe? A power play? I’m not so convinced. If Joseph let them go, when would he see them again? It was already improbable enough that his warped twists of fate had led him to Egypt and brought him into a position of power and privilege, and had led his brothers also to Egypt and reunited them… He couldn’t let them go… not just like that…
Entrapping and catching Benjamin was a last ditch effort to extend the visit, however messed up it is, to buy Joseph more time… to figure out what to do next…
Only when Joseph’s older brother Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release, offering himself in his place, and disclosing all the family secrets and pain they have caused… only then can Joseph contain himself no longer…
“I am Joseph,” he confesses, weeping so loudly that all the Egyptians in the pharaoh's household hear him. “Is my father still alive?”
It really is one heck of a story, isn’t it?
It’s a wild story with all the makings of a good biblical drama – with one notable exception… Did you notice who’s missing? Where’s God? I mean, this is the Bible, right?
Sure, God is there on the sidelines, but never once in this story does God act or speak as a character on their own – only reported by way of observation in retrospect.
I wonder if that’s more often than not how we experience God. From Sunday School on up, we’re taught to think of God as a vocal and active presence in our lives. God has a “plan” for us and for all people, or so we tell ourselves. God is there in the little things and in the big things, if we can just pay attention, pray, and have “enough” faith.
But what happens when we don’t feel God’s presence? When we doubt that plan? When we can’t, for the life of us, detect even the slightest sliver of divine presence in the moment – perhaps especially when the going gets rough?
God’s presence is sometimes like that though. But that doesn’t mean God’s not there. Hindsight is 20/20, the saying goes.
In the three years I spent in between my college graduation and what would end up being the start of seminary, I struggled to find meaningful work. I had changed degree programs once from teaching to pre-seminary, but coming out as gay in a denomination that wanted nothing to do with me derailed those plans too, leaving me with a very prestigious but practically useless liberal arts degree in English.
On the nights I spent walking back from the train to my apartment, from one or the other of my two concurrent part-time jobs, I wondered – sometimes very vocally and brutally honestly with God – if that period of my life would ever come to an end, if things would ever change.
Now that I look back on those walks and that time period, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because of where it led me – to a church home that for the first time showed me I could be gay and Christian, to a reawakened call to ministry I had thought was dead in the water, and to a calling where I get to embody even a tiny sliver of that same kind of radical welcome and affirmation that I experienced.
To be clear, that’s not to suggest “everything happens for a reason” – because I don’t really believe that either. But I do believe that God is present in everything that happens.
In the end – and maybe long before the end (he did have a long time to think, after all) – Joseph recognized that, too. That’s the power of his words to his brothers – almost like a “confession,” as one biblical scholar (Liz Goodman) puts it: “Though none of what has happened to him over the course of his life is what he’d have chosen it to be, [Joseph] can yet now see that God has set him up to preserve life.”
I wonder why God isn’t an active and prominent character in Joseph’s story – over 25% of the first book of the Bible.
I wonder if the biblical writers did that on purpose. I wonder if the biblical writers wanted us to question and to wrestle with the presence of God in order to come to realize, like Joseph, like his brothers, that God was there all along.
I wonder where you have wrestled with that very same question. I wonder where you have found God in the last place you would’ve thought to look.
I wonder what twists and turns of your own life have led you to a more profound experience of grace and reconciliation and wholeness, like Joseph and his family experienced, than you could have ever dreamed possible. I wonder if there’s one heck of a story you can tell.
I wonder where God is right now. I wonder where God is about to break open that kind of extravagant grace next…