The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 is a ripper of a story! It has loads of action and drama and suspense. It doesn’t mention God very much. This leads us to ask some questions about the place of this story in the Bible. Where is God? Occasionally, there is a comment saying that God caused someone to look favourably on Joseph. The big God-moments seem to be dreams that are disturbing – Joseph has dreams in this chapter, his jail-cell friends have dreams, and the Pharoah has dreams. All of these are upsetting dreams – they rattle either the dreamer or the people who hear about them. So they are pivot points, catalysts for the next big shift in Joseph’s life. But it’s not like God is having conversations or directly acting or rescuing Joseph.
How do you see God acting in your life?
Some people have a view that God makes absolutely everything happen – the car park is reserved for you, miracles happen every day, nothing happens without God’s control. Some people think that “God has no hands or feet but ours” and it’s up to humans to make God’s purposes happen: God doesn’t intervene, life is just random and it’s up to the moral values that God gives us to be acted out by us.
My guess is that you’re somewhere in the middle of these two ideas, but which way do you tend to lean?
The narrative of Joseph was written in a time of intellectualism – a comfortable society which tended not to engage with vehement faith. People were not desperate for God’s help, they were not under threat and that means they didn’t have a strong sense of a need for God. They took a position of “reasonableness”. The assumption at the time was that society was under control.
The key question of challenge in the story of Joseph is: “What does it mean to trust in God?”
It's possible that through the unsettling dynamic of the past two years, our understanding of God's activity and our control have shifted. We might have thought that everything was up to us, but discovered the limits of our power and called on God for help.
Like the pandemic, this story challenges the assumption that humans control their world. In Joseph’s life everything went out of his control – but God has intentions of shaking things up and working beyond our influence and through our influence.
The hiddenness of God in the story is also key – we don’t see what God is doing, we often can’t tell who has God’s favour. But there is a purpose in those unsettling dreams. In this first chapter, we see a pattern – an unsettling dream and then people choosing their responses that bring about consequences.
This text is avoiding both the “God’s got everything under control and I just need to believe because I have no agency at all” and “God only works through humans so we are his hand and feet and God can’t do anything without us” extremes. (God does everything without us; God does nothing without us.)
According to Breuggemann there are three transformations or upsets to power structures in the story:
1. The family – Joseph is the young one, sheltered, favoured by his father but rejected by the larger family system; the dream says that instead he will be at the top of the family and the others will all be bowing to him.
2. The national political landscape – Israel is independent but less powerful than Egypt, forced to come begging to Egypt for survival; the dream is about an Israelite with rule and reign over the whole known world (even to the universe of stars and moon). Joseph does rule and reign Egypt and ends up setting Israel up in a powerful position. Joseph goes from slave to second in command; from prison to prime minister.
3. Joseph himself – an arrogant an insensitive person you want to kill; to a generous and sensitive, weepy brother and son who honours his family.
Some things for us to consider:
1. The pandemic is our unsettling event. We have lost control. Learning that we do not completely control our universe is a good lesson to learn.
2. God is hidden, but not inactive. There are times where we do need to do the best with what we’ve got.
3. Are you despairing at the unsettling? Can you imagine how is God using this time to transform and invert power structures; family dynamics; your character?
4. Review the week ahead – what do you have agency over? Where do you need God’s intervention?