Wednesday, May 25, 2011

First Dysfunctional Families (4): Redemption for All - Victims and Perpetrators

Genesis 37:2-4, 12-13, 18, 21-27 (story told with kids)

Genesis 44:18 - 45:8

With kids – Joseph hated, sold into slavery by Judah and brothers

Preview, summary of intervening story:
Joseph’s brothers covered up the deed, never telling their father, what had happened, making it appear as if Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

But God was with Joseph in his slavery. He was promoted to running the household of a prominent official, then framed for attempted rape of the official’s wife. In prison, he became the leading inmate. When the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, had a disturbing dream, he was referred to Joseph for an interpretation. Joseph delivered and rose to become the most powerful man in Egypt, other than the Pharaoh himself.

A severe seven year famine came, affecting the entire region, but Joseph had Egypt prepared. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain. They did not recognize Joseph, so he began to test them and their family loyalties. “Do you have any other brothers?” “Yes, the youngest one is back home.” “To prove you are not spies, you must bring him the next time you come for grain.” And, when that next time came, Joseph had the younger brother, Benjamin, framed for theft. All the brothers came back to meet with Joseph, still not realizing who he was, and Judah – the one who led in selling Joseph into slavery – took the lead.

READ Genesis 44:18 - 45:8

Today we come to the Joseph story, surely another example of the first dysfunctional families. Anyone here ever felt like trading away a brother or sister or child? We may have entertained the idea as a joke or in a moment of frustration. Joseph was on the short end of that experience.

It’s a long story, actually described by scholars as a “novella”. Today we are looking at the big picture, not the small brush strokes, and we will give our attention primarily to elements of plot rather than language. Sections of the plot are reported to us without comment on emotion. In those cases, we have to engage our imagination. Was Joseph angry? Was he dealing with the memory of his hurt? When he had his brothers in prison for three days, did Joseph overhear them talking about their common guilt in selling Joseph into slavery – and thus learn more about the story than he had known before?

Joseph the Favorite
Let’s remember that the story opens with Joseph as a seventeen year old favorite son of his father Jacob. He is given a special coat – and the translation is difficult. One of the possibilities is a “long sleeved” coat – the kind of coat that you can’t wear and do manual labor too. Just how would that feel if you were the brother who did not get a coat like that? The expression for that coat shows up elsewhere in the Bible as the clothing for royals (Janzen, 149).

Joseph is the favorite. That’s a repeating theme in the family system. Abraham had to choose between Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac favored Esau, but Jacob stole the blessing. Jacob favored Joseph. The things we struggle with in our families tend to get passed on from one generation to the next – whether favoritism or addiction or abuse or obsession. It is remarkable how much our baggage matches that of the generation before us. Change doesn’t come by accident. We have to be deliberate about it.

Joseph is the favorite. Sometimes we talk about him as a spoiled brat. “Joseph brought a bad report of [his brothers] to their father” (37.2). The phrase could also be translated, “They brought a bad report of Joseph”. And, since, in 37.4, we are told that they could not “speak peaceably” to Joseph, it would not be inconsistent for them to bring a bad report as well.

For this favorite, “God’s way up is down” (Harry Oosthuysen, spelling?). He is sold into slavery. He is the favorite, promoted to run the official’s household. He is the favorite, the target of the official’s wife. When he turns her down, he goes to jail. He is the favorite, promoted to run the prison. He is referred to Pharoah, becomes the favorite, and is promoted to run the country.

Then, his brothers show up. The same guys who roughed him up and tossed him into a pit. The same guys who sat around deciding whether they should kill him or sell him as a slave. These same brothers show up and now Joseph has the upper hand. He keeps his identity concealed. He tests them – tossing them in jail, accusing them of spying, getting information on their family (his father and his younger brother). Finally, he frames his younger brother, also born to the same mother who bore him, and pronounces the sentence – slavery.

We’re not told about all the emotions operating in his heart. We know he breaks down in tears at the end. But what do his tears consist of? Is it the pain of rejection that he experienced at the hand of his brothers, is it the joy of hearing their new commitment to the integrity of the family? And, what is going on through the prolonged test? He seems to be gracious, then be tough, as if he hardly knows how to feel, all the time testing to see if there is any change of heart. I can’t blame him for not knowing how to feel. Families are confusing enough, even when they aren’t being dysfunctional at the moment. And we’ve all got “issues”.

Judah the Rival
Judah became Joseph’s chief rival. He leads the other brothers in selling Joseph into slavery. Then, he moves away from the family for a while and starts his own family. By the time the famine comes round, Judah is back with the family and back in his familiar role. But he knows, and seems reconciled to the fact, that his father has a new sentimental favorite, Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin, born to the same mother, the favorite wife.

In his speech to Joseph, he says, “My father’s life is bound up in the boy’s (Benjamin’s) life” (44.30). And, Judah says, “I, your servant, became surety for the boy to my father” (44.32). That is, Judah became the guarantee, the earnest. Judah has taken responsibility for the integrity of the family, with all its baggage and dysfunction. Judah volunteers to become a slave in place of his brother. Judah is a changed man.

But is Joseph able to forgive?

Redemption for All
Most of the redemption stories we find, and many of the redemption stories in the Bible, end with the oppressed delivered, with the poor receiving good news. It’s not good news for everyone. When Israel escapes slavery in Egypt, the Egyptians aren’t happy. When the poor receive good news, the rich aren’t happy. Most of the redemption stories are good news for the victims, but not for the perpetrators. In fact, what can happen is that the tables turn so thoroughly that the victims become the next generation’s perpetrators.

One of the remarkable features of the Joseph story is that God is celebrated for delivering the victims and for delivering the evildoers (Janzen, 148). Joseph’s brothers could die of starvation, but they are delivered, and they are delivered by Joseph, by the one they wronged, by the victim.

Joseph has plenty of emotional work to do, plenty of tears to shed in this process. But he understands that God is at work, he sees the signs and knows that “God” is written all over it. His brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but it was God who sent him there. His brothers meant to harm him, but God meant to deliver them all. Seeing the hand of God surely makes it easier to forgive, on the intellectual level, but there is still that emotional work.

There’s a couple parallels to our own redemption:
First, as we pray “the Lord’s prayer” we are reminded that our own experience of forgiveness is tied to our willingness to forgive. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” If you struggle with guilt, maybe it is because you refuse to forgive, because you cherish bitterness. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive.”

Second, like Joseph’s brothers we are delivered by the one we have wronged, we are delivered by Jesus Christ, the victim, who died on a cross in our stead.

Today we come to the Table of the Lord. Today we are invited to share together in Holy Communion. As we do so, we are reminded to be reconciled to one another, to let all bitterness go, to forgive. As we do so, we are reminded that it is Jesus’ death, Jesus as our victim, that delivers and saves us. And we marvel at the mystery – redemption for all.

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