November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues.
But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, in fact, he is second only to Pharaoh.
If he wanted to, he could have them imprisoned — or killed. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. Do they miss him? Do they ever think of him? Do they ever wish that they had acted better?
After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, sobbing. This process of testing proves to be difficult for him, and emotionally wearing on him. Reconciliation is what he really wants.
As part of his weepy speech, Joseph also says something rather problematic, from a theological perspective. It’s not obviously bad, and, frankly, it’s a pretty common theology. He tells them: ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.’
This kind of theology can wound you. What happens if it does not seem like God has a plan for you? What happens if you face a tragedy that makes you re-think all those carefully constructed ideas?
That is to say: it very well could be true that God has sent each of us to do a specific set of things. It could be that we are here for a specific reason. It is in fact quite comforting to think that God has plans for us.
The difficulty, however, is when that kind of theology breaks down: what happens when life itself is breathtakingly cruel? What happens when we find we just cannot make sense of it? How, then, do we put ourselves back together in the wake of an unimaginable loss, a great catastrophes, or an overwhelming defeat?
That is to say: the rationalizations might fail us. The narrative might become impossible.
Then, ideally, we might come to realize that even in its most extreme situations, even at the worst times, even when the world does not work the way we think it should, our life — the individual life of each and every one of us — matters. Even then.
November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
Joseph the dreamer tells his brothers all of his dreams. All of the sheaves will bow down to his. All of the stars will bow down to his. He will be the ruler of them all. And his brothers hate him when he tells them these things.
Why do they hate him? Because they know that the dreams are true. He is the kind of kid who can be dropped in the middle of a pit in an open field and end up second in command of all of Egypt. He is beautiful, charismatic, and smart. And they hate him for it.
But there is a harder question to answer here: What about his father? Joseph’s father Jacob clearly bears some of the responsibility for what happens to Joseph at the hands of his brothers. The father buys him an ornamented coat and makes his favoritism clear. And when the brothers complain about Joseph, their father ‘keeps the matter in mind’ but does not intervene. Rather, he sends Joseph out in this elaborate coat in search of his brothers. Why does he send the immature and entitled Joseph to search for his brothers? Perhaps he thought that they might teach him a thing or two? Perhaps he thought that Joseph would return after an unsuccessful search?
Joseph finds them yet does not return. And his father fears the worst: he does not send a search party, but grieves straightaway. It does appear that he believes the story that Joseph is dead — but it seems to me that he does not believe the story of a wild beast. Wouldn’t they want to follow the trail of blood to find him? After all, maybe Joseph survived the attack and is still alive? And shouldn’t they be able to tell him — at minimum — what kind of beast it was? Any question about ‘what kind of animal tracks did you see?’ is met with confusion and deceit.
Rather, it seems likely to me that Jacob suspects that the brothers did it: they return to him carrying a bloodied coat and exhibiting a weird tension among them. Something has happened — and no one is talking about it.
That’s why — later in the narrative — Jacob initially refuses to let them take Benjamin with them when they return to Egypt. He fears their jealousy: he believes that they are jealous of the sons of his favored wife. He has lost one and does not want to lose the other.
Joseph eventually finds a way to forgive them. Joseph is a model of family reconciliation. But their father, in his final speech, makes it clear that he does not.
Yet does he not also bear some of the responsibility as well?
Perhaps that is why he cannot forgive them: he cannot forgive himself.