Introduction: The Context of Joseph’s Story
The story of Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-50) is one of the longest sustained narratives in the Old Testament, and is the longest in the Book of Genesis.
This week’s narrative lectionary picks up midway through the story of Joseph. We drop in on Joseph after he has been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Worship planners will need to decide whether they read Genesis 39, or Genesis 40, or both chapters. But no matter which decision planners make, Joseph will remain in prison at the end of the reading.
In the wider context of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s story brings the “family” story of Abraham and Sarah to a culmination. In Genesis, the people who God elected in order to be blessed to be a blessing are a family. This family has grown from a childless old couple into a fairly large, extended family — but they are still a family. This family has grown by marriage (to such “righteous” outsiders at Tamar in chapter 38) and by procreation — but it is still a family. When the Book of Exodus starts, the family has become a nation. . . but that story is for next week.
Theological Theme: Human Unfaithfulness
One major theological issue that the early chapter of Joseph’s story raises is the theme of human unfaithfulness.
Why is Joseph a slave in Egypt at the start of chapter 39? Because Joseph’s brothers have been unfaithful — they have betrayed him by mugging him, stripping him, selling him into slavery. And just to dress their betrayal up for dinner, so to speak, Joseph’s brothers take Joseph’s clothes and present them as false witness to their father, saying that Joseph is dead.
Why is Joseph in prison at the end of chapter 39 — even though he has caused Potiphar and his house to thrive? Because Potiphar’s wife has been unfaithful — she betrayed her husband’s trust by seeking to lie with Joseph, then betrayed Joseph when he denied her. And just to dress her betrayal up for dinner, so to speak, Potiphar’s wife takes Joseph’s clothes and presents them as false witness to her husband, saying that Joseph tried to rape her.
Why is Joseph still in prison at the end of chapter 40 — even though the chief jailer entrusted all of the other prisoners to Joseph’s care? Because the cupbearer, whom Joseph saw would be freed from prison, was unfaithful to Joseph: “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
And then Joseph remained in prison for two more years, before he eventually was freed and elevated to responsibility in Pharaoh’s household. Thus, one repeated theme from these early chapters of Joseph’s story is the theme of human infidelity.
When one preaches this week, one imperative is to dwell with Joseph in his slavery, in his imprisonment, as he is betrayed, as he is forgotten — in short, dwell with Joseph as he suffers. Just as it is natural for one’s eyes to slide away from beggars who panhandle at the end of freeway offramps, so it is a rather natural inclination to want to speed along past this part of the story — to get Joseph out of slavery and out of prison and get him moved into Pharaoh’s mansions.
But resist the temptation. The biblical witness does not agree with the Buddha’s “first noble truth,” which teaches that “life means suffering.” But the biblical witness does not deny that suffering is a reality — that all life includes suffering. Dwell with Joseph in his suffering this week, and explore the biblical promise about God’s presence and activity in suffering.
Theological Theme: God’s Presence and Activity in the Midst of Suffering
A second theological theme that is present in the early chapters of Joseph’s story (indeed through Joseph’s story) is the theme of God’s presence in the midst of suffering — and of God’s activity where suffering is present.
In Genesis 37, as Joseph’s story begins, there are signs that God has special plans for Joseph and has given Joseph special gifts: Joseph receives special, divinely sent dreams (Genesis 37:5-11).
In Genesis 39-40, God’s presence with and choice of Joseph are repeatedly made specific:
“The Lord was with Joseph [in slavery], and he became a successful man” (Genesis 39:2a), “His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.” (Genesis 39:3) “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love” (Genesis 39:21a) “The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (Genesis 39:23)
Then, following these explicit mentions to the Lord’s presence with Joseph in suffering, in chapter 40-41, Joseph is able to interpret the dreams of the baker, the cup maker, and finally the Pharaoh. This gift, too, is a sign of God’s presence with Joseph, as Joseph himself confesses: “Do not interpretation belong to God?” (40:8). The repeated point is obvious and clear: God was with Joseph, even in his suffering.
Theologically, the point of God’s presence cannot be separated from God’s agency. God is present with Joseph toward particular ends and purposes. God’s presence is not merely, well, a presence. Rather, God’s presence makes a difference. God meets Joseph in his suffering, but God does not leave Joseph there. God enters into Joseph’s suffering in order to bring Joseph out of it, to another and better place. And this is important — and in the process, God blesses others through Joseph.
Not only does Joseph prosper and thrive — but through God’s presence with Joseph and the blessings result, others are blessed: First Potiphar and his household, later the chief jailer and all those in prison, and finally Pharaoh and all of Egypt. In the end, even Joseph’s brothers receive blessing — through Joseph. Notice that in this way, the Lord was fulfilling the promise to Abraham — that he and Sarah and their descendants would be blessed and that through them, all the nations of the earth would be blessed in turn.
At least part of the preaching challenge is not to move Joseph too quickly from suffering to blessing — from slavery to freedom, from prison to Pharaoh’s house. Similarly, when proclaiming the promise of Joseph’s story, the challenge is not to over promise for God — we cannot promise that God will move us from weeping to laughter according to a timeline that we will be satisfied with.
God’s presence with those in suffering and the way God works almost never seems fast enough for those who are suffering. The psalm writers usually scream, “HOW LONG, O LORD!?” Some people in the tradition have said that, ‘God’s timing is always the best time,’ but this never seems the case for those who suffer. Even after the fact, many who have suffered wonder why God could not have acted more quickly.
But nevertheless, the biblical promise is that God meets us in our suffering. And God does not leave us there. God meets us in suffering and moves us to what one psalmist called more “pleasant places” (16:6). And in the process, God will bless others through us.