A Fresh Look at the story of Joseph. Genesis 39:1-23

Here is the great paradox about telling bible stories.  

            But a funny thing has happened along the way.   We have told the bible stories to children and sometimes “cleaned them up a bit” so that we could do that.   But then, we forgot to come back to the stories ourselves for a second, adult look at them.   We relegated them to “children’s stories.”

            So we have reduced Joseph down to something like this.   Joseph was the bratty daddy’s favorite who got this fancy coat of many colors, or long sleeves.   That made all his other brothers jealous, and he got on all his brothers nerves with his dream stories about them bowing down to him, so they threw him in a pit.  Then, instead of just killing him, they mercifully sold him into slavery.  

            Joseph ended up in Egypt, where he eventually he rose in favor and became the Pharoah’s right hand man during a time of terrible famine, preparing for it.  So, Joseph saved Egypt, and also his own family, and everyone lived happily-ever-after in Egypt in the end.   Does that sound familiar?   

            The stripped down, child friendly version.

            Today’s readings are the bits we sometimes leave out of the children’s version, the bawdy bedroom scenes where the boss’s wife has her eyes on abusing the hired help.   But these are the parts that are key for seeing in the Joseph story something that we can connect with, and that helps us make some sense of the place that many of us find ourselves in today.

            From the beginning of the story of Joseph, you have a sense that this person is born for greatness.  He is born to “be someone.”  

            Joseph displays at an early age not only a gift for grabbing the stage from his brothers, but also a real talent in the form of being open to the power of dreams, and having a sense that dreams can take you places.  

            So, while his brothers are content to just look after the flocks, Joseph is looking toward the future.   “What can this mean, this dream of your sheaves of wheat bowing down to mine?   What can this mean, this dream of your stars bowing down to my star?”    The gift of interpretation of the dreams will come later, but from the beginning the sense that you could be shaped by your dreams seems to come naturally to Joseph.

            You have to see that, understand that, in order to enter into the disappointment that follows.

            How can you pursue your dreams, if you have been stripped of everything and thrown into a pit?

            How can you live up to your potential, if you have been consigned to being a slave.

            How can you begin to follow your own dreams when you are nothing more than a caretaker of someone else’s household and goods?

            You need to see in this story the depths of the disappointments suffered by Joseph.

            You need to look more closely at the injustices that are done to him, and then ponder what that repeated refrain means in the midst of all of Joseph’s set-backs.   Did you catch that refrain?   “the LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”

            What do you mean, “the LORD was with him,”   … he’s just been accused of rape, unjustly stripped of his position, and thrown into prison???

            What do you mean, “the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands?”    He’s serving prison swill to fellow inmates instead of four-star meals to Pharaoh’s general!   He’s not serving anywhere near this potential, his dreams, what he is capable of.  

            Why is he stuck here?  

            Where is the LORD who is supposedly with him?  

            Why doesn’t life get better for him?

            And, why has this crappy, unjust, awful thing happened to him while Potiphar’s wife gets to keep her plush and cushy life?

            Suddenly, as you look at these stories again, it becomes not just a children’s tale, but a story about how this world sometimes, maybe more often than not, really works.

            How many underemployed people do you know today?   People who for no fault of their own suddenly find themselves doing far less than their potential?

            The company downsized, and you were thrown off because you were too expensive to keep on the payroll, or because it was cheaper to outsource your job somewhere else, or too expensive to re-tool you for another task.

            The office intrigue played out, and someone had to take the fall for decreased earnings, or poor productivity, or seniority rules kicked in and no matter how good you may be, better even than other people in your division, you find yourself out of a job, and your dreams lie in shambles.

            Look at this Joseph story again, with fresh eyes.   This is the story of a gifted, talented, “should be going somewhere” person who finds himself (often through no fault of his own) in a bad place.   Does that sound familiar?

            Often Joseph finds himself in a bad place precisely because of his integrity.  

            All he had to do was slip under the covers on the side with the boss’s wife.  No one would have know except she, and he, and think of the bonus he could have gotten, the power he could have had if he had but turned the tables on Potiphar’s wife.    But his integrity would not let him do such a thing, and now he suffers for making the right choice, the wise choice!

            How many times has that played out in the circles in which you move?  Folks do something as a matter of personal integrity and then end up suffering for it.

            Or you see people who do quite the opposite.  People who cave in under the pressure to compromise in order to keep their jobs, keep the peace, not ruffle feathers, and end up moving through life miserable for what they have done, what they have stooped to, or what they feel they let happen.

            This is a story that takes on fresh meaning with adult eyes.   It is no children’s tale!

            Yet it is a troubling story, because it prompts a question.  “Where was God when all these things were happening to him?    The pit, the false accusations, the injustices, where was God?

            That nagging question in the Joseph story won’t be answered until the very end, and then it is only answered by Joseph himself when he looks back over his life.  Then Joseph will say, “what you meant for evil, God turned to good.”   But it can only be said by Joseph himself as he looks back over where the twists and turns of life have taken him, and where God has been in those twists and turns all along.

            Right now, as he finds himself in the pit, under false accusation, forgotten, all he has to cling to is that repeated phrase, “the LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”  What does such a phrase really mean?

            It means this.   Even though everything external to Joseph’s life was stripped away, what could not be taken from him was his potential, and the gifts that God had placed within him.

            Sure, the fancy coat is gone, but in Potiphar’s household the ability to dream and manage things was still there.

            Sure, the position in Potiphar’s househould is stripped away, but the ability to dream and to interpret dreams and to manage wisely even the meager resources of the prison remain.

            Who Joseph is does not change.   God is with him.  Those gifts, talents and abilities that reside deep within him as gift of God do not change.  His ability to do that which he is gifted to do does not falter, no matter where he ends up.  Whether he is managing the prison swill, or eventually the entire economy of Egypt, the gift is still the same and the ability does not leave.

            That is a word of grace to us today, because you and I far too readily cede or tie our worth—who we are– to our position, our job, or our status.   When the fall comes, as it surely must in this economy anymore, we are more often than not then set adrift. 

            If I’m not a CEO, who am I?

            If I’m not employed, who am I?

            If I’m not a mom anymore, who am I?

            If I’m not a college student any more, what am I??  

            You are a child of God, a participant in a promise.  That is what the Joseph Story affirms.   You are gifted with abilities that are unique to you, and that reside deep within you despite the circumstances in which you may find yourself.  Often, those gifts are meant for this very time, this very place.   Do not ever forget that!   

            This is what that repeated phrase in the Joseph story is all about.   “The LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”   

            Despite where Joseph found himself, Joseph was still Joseph.   Not slave, not prisoner, no errand boy to Pharaoh and not one to Lord over others even when given the power and the ability and even the inclination to do so.  

            “What you meant for evil, God turned to good.”

            In the Joseph story we get a chance to glimpse a life lived.  Not a charmed life, not an easy life, not a life without injustice and hardship…but rather a full life.   A life where the recurring phrase is “the LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”

            Your life.  My life.   A life where the LORD is with us, and the LORD will cause all that we do to prosper in our hands.  Look for God in the twists and in the turns.