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Genesis 39:1-23

Imagine it is Thanksgiving Sunday. The choir is singing thanksgiving music. The sopranos are singing, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land.” A few bars later the basses come in singing, “Now thank we all our God.” At this point there are two themes or motifs running through the choir anthem at the same time. A few bars later still the altos and tenors begin singing something else. Now there are several themes or motifs wending their way through the one piece of music at the same time. In the hands of an able composer such music isn’t a giant discord that jars hearers; in the hands of an able composer such music is multi-textured and marvellously rich.

Life is like this. There are many different things going on in everybody’s life at the same time. This doesn’t mean that life is therefore distressingly complicated and hopelessly fragmented. On the contrary, it means that our lives are complex. The fact that they are complex means that they are multi-textured and can be marvellously rich.

Joseph, one of our ancestors in faith, lived a life, under God, that gathered up many different themes or motifs. Under God it all issued in a life that was not only rich for Joseph, but rich for everyone whose life touched his back then; and rich as well for every one of us whose life touches Joseph’s now. Today we are going to deepen our acquaintance with Joseph, for as we meet him afresh and find our lives and his coursing through each other, we shall become richer still.

I:: — Let’s look first at the theme of God’s steadfast love. It was Joseph’s conviction that God’s love is steadfast despite the seeming jumble of events that made up Joseph’s life and appeared to contradict it.

Events often seem to unfold around us the way “pick-up sticks” fall out and fall over each other as soon as the child opens her hand and releases the sticks. We’ve all played pick-up sticks. We’ve all watched the sticks fall out helter-skelter, with no apparent order, the sticks merely sticking out higgledy-piggledy everywhere. Life appears to unfold, “fall out”, just like this.

Think of the developments in Joseph’s life over which he has no control at all. His father favours him inasmuch as he is born when his father is old and his father thereafter dotes on him. His brothers resent him. His natural gifts (including his innate business smarts) cause others to envy him. Foreign traders come along when his treacherous brothers have thrown him into a pit and carry him off to Egypt. In Egypt he’s imprisoned. Famine scourges the people. All of this is beyond his control. He hasn’t asked for any of it, isn’t responsible for it, and can’t do anything about it. It just “falls out” the way pick-up sticks fall out.

How is Joseph to react? He could have reacted the way we’ve all seen people react (the way we may have reacted ourselves) as events jumble themselves around us.

– “I’ve been victimized!”, Joseph could have said, “by my family, no less!” Who hasn’t said it?

– “Life isn’t fair!” True! Life isn’t fair. Fairness happens to be an adjective we never get to use of life.

– “I’m powerless!” He is powerless when a nasty woman slanders him and has him jailed. A psychiatrist under whom I studied told the class that powerlessness is the greatest stress anyone can undergo in a stress-ridden life.

– “I’m forever having to `skate on thin ice.’ I’m forever caught in a welter of insecurities.” He could have reacted this way, since if he fails to please Pharaoh, Pharaoh will have his head. There are a thousand insecurities that keep all of us skating on thin ice all the time.

– “I’m not appreciated!” Joseph could have reacted in this manner too. After all, he does the butler an enormous favour which the butler then forgets. The truth is, none of us is appreciated the way we feel we should be, and likely none of us is appreciated the way we ought to be.

We can always react in any of these ways, as Joseph could have too. But shouting furiously while we pound our fist on the wall won’t help. Nevertheless, there is something that will help. We grasp what it is as we follow Joseph in his ups and down all the way down to prison where the text of scripture tells us, “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”

It is years after the most turbulent period of his life that the fact of God’s steadfast love is stamped on Joseph and he sees in retrospect that God’s love has been steadfast in all circumstances. The most turbulent period was the abuse Joseph suffered at the hands of his brothers; their mistreatment, after all, landed him in Egypt and precipitated everything that befell him thereafter. One day his brutal brothers find themselves (and their families) desperate during a famine. They go to Egypt in hope of acquiring food. Joseph identifies himself to his brothers. They think now they are never going to get food, since Joseph has a long memory; they think too that not only will they not get food, they’ll get vengeance. Joseph looks them in the eye and says, “When you fellows abused me and abandoned me years ago you were bent on evil, NOTHING BUT EVIL, weren’t you!” (Now the brothers think they won’t survive another ten minutes.) “Yet the evil you intended, God has turned to good — for I can give you food.”

It’s all true for us as well. Regardless of what befalls us accidentally; regardless of what evil others visit upon us deliberately; regardless of what happens whose nature — bane or blessing — we can’t assess in the moment of its happening; regardless of what it is, God takes it all up and does something with it, something good for us or others, something that can ultimately be only an expression of his steadfast love just because steadfast love is all he himself is ultimately.

Everyone knows that when the pick-up sticks fall out, they fall out in disarray. Everyone knows that there are periods in life bleak beyond telling and black beyond describing. Everyone knows there are developments in life that seem as pointless as they are pitiless. Nevertheless, what the brothers intended for evil — and was evil — God yet wrested for good. Just because Joseph knew what God’s steadfast love had done in the worst moments of his life, Joseph would know for the rest of his life what he could count on God’s steadfast love to do — even if Joseph didn’t see it at the moment.

We who know of that incarnation which postdated Joseph have even more startling evidence of God’s steadfast love: he whose Son was victimized uniquely vindicated that Son — and therein vindicated himself — as he raised his Son and displayed him as evidence of steadfast love.

II: — There is another theme or motif in Joseph’s pick-up stick life. The theme is the forgiveness we press upon those who mistreat us. When his brothers appeared cap-in-hand before him Joseph could have done two things: he could simply have let them starve, or he could have nodded to the Egyptian police and said, “You know what to do with them.” Joseph had his brothers in his gunsight — and he refused to pull the trigger.

Never think that Joseph is a wimp. Wimps don’t forgive; wimps can’t forgive; wimps are too weak to do anything except find themselves victimized again. To forgive requires immense strength, ego-strength. To forgive means the injury that has wounded us we neither continue to absorb in ourselves helplessly nor boomerang back onto our assailant vindictively. The manifestly weak person can only invite further victimization. The seemingly strong person can only boomerang his assailant’s weapon back onto the assailant himself. It is precisely the strong person who can forgive.

A cruel way of ridding oneself of nuisance animal is to put ground glass in the animal’s food. As the animal eats, it swallows tiny fragments of sharp glass. The needle-sharp fragments perforate the animal’s digestive tract and the animal haemorrhages to death in terrible pain. Most people look upon the matter of forgiving assailants as no more than eating ground glass. Why swallow an indigestible substance that leaves us bleeding to death in terrible pain? People who think like this, of course, have it all wrong. It isn’t forgiving that amounts to swallowing ground glass; it’s resentment, it’s nursing a grudge, it’s plotting revenge, it’s biding one’s time, it’s fuelling hatred, it’s settling scores. This is the ground glass diet of those who mistake forgiveness for wimpiness.

Five hundred years after Joseph a prophet appeared, Jeremiah by name, who was mistreated much as Joseph had been. (Among other things, men with murderous hearts threw Jeremiah into a dry well hoping that they had heard the last of him.) Jeremiah survived, not in order to see whom he could pay back next — and thereby stuff himself with ground glass unknowingly; Jeremiah survived to write, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion.” (Jer. 3:22-23) To have as our portion that Lord whose faithfulness to us is great is to be steeped in his ceaseless mercies. Blessed by ceaseless mercies, how can we fail in turn to bestow them?

Forgiveness of injuries little and great is not only a sign of faith in God, it is a sign of wisdom in us.

III: — The rich complexity that was Joseph’s life discloses yet another theme: integrity. The wife of Joseph’s boss tried to seduce him. She tried not once but many times. Joseph was appalled. “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”, he retorted as Potiphar’s wife redoubled her adulterous efforts. Joseph didn’t yield.

Integrity is easy when there’s no temptation. Obedience is easy when there’s no seductive whisper. Obedience comes is difficult, however — and means worlds more — when temptation is relentless. Obedience is cheap when there’s no price to be paid for obeying. But after Joseph had cried “No!” to Potiphar’s wife she slandered him; now obedience was costly. In costly situations obedience is rendered to God and integrity is maintained in us only by grace and by grit.

In Egypt Joseph is a long way from home, a long way from anyone who knows him, a long way from prying eyes and wagging tongues which (let’s be honest) help to keep us upright. Joseph can yield to Potiphar’s wife without fear of being detected. Yet he doesn’t think about this for so much as a second. His instantaneous reaction is, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

We must be careful to note what Joseph’s instantaneous response was not. He didn’t blurt, “But I might get AIDS! or “You might become pregnant!” or “Your husband might kill me!” or even “I don’t find you attractive.” Any of these responses has nothing to do with obedience to the Holy One of Israel and integrity before him; any one of these responses is mere self-interest, as much self-interest as the self-indulgence of the fornicator (albeit somewhat more prudential.) No doubt at some point Joseph said to the Egyptian aristocrat, “But I’m an Israelite!”; and no doubt she replied, “Yes, but you aren’t in Israel now!” Joseph could only have said then, “Nevertheless, Israel is in me, however much I am exiled through having to live in Egypt!”

The business person on a business trip; the schoolteacher at that convention in Montreal; the bank employee counting bills by herself in a back office (after all, the chartered banks write off millions of dollars every year because of employee theft); the preacher sitting alone in his study (nobody knows whether he’s hard at work quarrying in the granite of scripture and theology or collecting his salary for reading Sports Illustrated and McClean’s magazine) — these are the situations where we can “get away from it” (at least at some level). Therefore these are situations where we must be so schooled in the school of Christ that our instantaneous reaction is, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And then having said this from our heart, know with our head too that the matter isn’t over: there remains a price to be paid, as Joseph learned when his rejection of the seductress landed him in greater difficulty still.

Today, of course, a secular world and a secularized church can’t understand Joseph. Instead we are told, “Of course Joseph will yield: the Victorian era is over. Of course Joseph will yield: the sexual revolution has been with us since the pill. Of course Joseph will yield: he’s a young man beset with hormones. Of course, of course, of course….”

Joseph was simpler, profounder, godlier all at once. “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Twelve hundred years after Joseph an apostle appeared, John by name, who wrote to Christian friends whom temptation was hammering. “Remember”, said John, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

IV: — There is yet another theme, along with the other three, multiplying the richness of Joseph’s complex life: the theme of blessing. One of the most startling features of Joseph’s story is the fact that people whose lives intersect Joseph’s find themselves blessed, assisted, enhanced. To be around Joseph is to be graced and to find oneself enriched.

We all know that the opposite kind of person exists as well, the person whose mere presence is a dark cloud, a millstone, a wet blanket — and worse. Years ago I saw such a person depicted in the movie Becket. The wife of mediaeval England’s King Richard, a woman who has to be the world’s all-time nagger, is nagging him fiercely, relentlessly, as her custom is. In addition, her appearance is as off-putting as her tongue: her hair always looks to be combed by an egg-beater, her face resembles the compost pile, and her personality is as lively as a dialtone. Her ceaseless nagging finally pushes Richard over the edge; he turns on her and says, acid in every word, “You, woman, are a barren desert into which I was forced to wander.” Terrible but true. It was just the opposite with Joseph. He was an oasis in which others found themselves growing and their lives fruitful. People who gathered around Joseph found their spirits lifted and their faces brightened and their load lightened. Under God, Joseph himself prospered; through Joseph, others prospered.

God’s people are everywhere called to be salt and light and leaven. Salt forestalls putrefaction and brings out hidden flavour. Leaven (yeast) permeates dough and lightens it, obviating that indigestible lump which only gives people stomach ache. Light dispels mildew, the foul-smelling fungus that ruins anything kept in the dank. Salt, light and leaven aren’t dramatic items. As undramatic as they are, however, they are needed if others are to find their lives lightened and brightened and eased. Salt, light, leaven are scarcely noticed themselves; yet in even the smallest quantities their immediate influence is vast. Joseph was a good person to be around, for those who kept company with him found their lives bettered in every way.

V: — What was it about Joseph that gave rise to all of this? What was it about Joseph that rendered him a blessing? It was this: Joseph always knew who he was. Regardless of where he was, but especially when he was in Egypt, in all circumstances Joseph knew who he was. It’s crucial that we know who we are.

When I was admitted to The Writers’ Union a couple of years ago I was thrilled with this turn of events. I imagined myself meeting Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies and Timothy Findley and the whole host of literary luminaries. About this time I happened to be visiting a very wise man in the congregation one afternoon, and of course I managed to tell him to what august company I had been admitted. No doubt I appeared elated with this frippery, intoxicated even, but he didn’t leap to share my elation. Instead he stared at me for the longest time, face expressionless, and then said quietly, soberly, somewhat uneasily, “Victor, before you run off to The Writers’ Union, just be sure you know who you are.”

Who am I? Who tells me who I am? Who are you? And who tells you who you are? By faith in Jesus Christ I am a child of God. He makes me who I am; and having made he who I am, he — and he alone — tells me what he has made: child of God, not child of darkness or child of night of child of perdition.

Since, as the apostle Paul reminds us, Jesus Christ was known in essence ‘though not by name to patriarchs and prophets, Joseph knew the same Lord as I, knew himself born of the same Saviour as I, and found himself a beacon, a lighthouse, amidst a “crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15), as his descendant from Tarsus was to say 1200 years later.

It is by faith that we become children of God, and are therein made to be those whose lives, as complex as anyone’s, are also as rich and helpful as Joseph’s.

                                                                      Victor Shepherd        

June 1997