Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 45

In this chapter, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends them back to bring Jacob to Egypt.

Joseph, confronted with his brother Judah doing something noble for the first or second time in his life, has finally had enough and reveals himself to his brothers rather than continue with the charade.  It makes for a very colorful scene, with Joseph crying "so loudly the Egyptians heard him" and his brothers (understandably) freaking out.  The bible uses muted terminology to describe their response, in the NASB it says they "were dismayed at his presence", which is a pretty amusing understatement.  I mean, just last chapter they are telling each other that this guy is going to kill them.  And now he's crying out loud and saying "I'm Joseph!", the brother they tried to kill at one point before resolving to sell him into slavery.

Joseph's speech is a pretty clear summary of the story: God used his brother's bad actions to place Joseph so that he could bring about their salvation from the famine.  Of course, this is Joseph sharing his opinion, and not God speaking, but there are a couple positive aspects.  First, we see that Joseph is not actually embittered towards his brothers.  This isn't clear when he first meets them, because he lies to them and deceives them into bringing down Benjamin.  As I've said before, his motivation for doing this wasn't entirely clear.  But now we can see that he doesn't intend to harm them.  Second, Joseph is not embittered towards his experiences in prison or in slavery in Egypt.  The most consistent theme of what Joseph says is "God orchestrated this for you deliverance"  So his focus is almost entirely on the positive aspects.

To be sure, this is Joseph speaking while he is the Pharaoh's right hand and exalted above all people in Egypt, but even so, he is now facing the men who sent him here, so if he had any hard feelings, they would almost certainly be showing through by now.  Instead of talking about such things, Joseph offers his brothers and their families refuge in Egypt from the famine, where he will provide for them everything they need in a rich land.

We again see Joseph favor his brother Benjamin over all his other brothers, because he and Benjamin had the same mother.

The other part about this chapter I love is when Joseph tells his brothers, "Do not quarrel on the journey!"  It is such a motherly exhortation it makes me smile every time I read it.  It is consistent with the generally softer portrayal of Joseph (who weeps frequently).  Joseph is indeed portrayed as somewhat gentler in this way, yet this is a gentleness that survived the rigors of years, *if not decades*, in an Egyptian prison.  This is a gentleness that refused sexual immorality repeatedly, as he fled from his master's wife, so he adhered to his principles regardless of the situation.  In spite of all the difficulties he has faced, none of these things seem to have "stuck" to him in a negative sense.  He has maintained much of the attitude of his youth in spite of both trials and success (for indeed, success itself often changes a person more than trials, by bloating the ego into foolish deeds).  While Joseph remembered his dreams of supremacy, and while he did deceive his brothers for a time, in the end he does not harm them and uses his position to benefit his entire family.  This is the faithfulness of Joseph.

Like I mentioned before, I think I personally prefer Jacob's story to Joseph, because while Joseph is an interesting figure from whom we can learn much, he never shows the dynamism and transformation that we see in Jacob's life.  If Jacob is the model of an overcomer, beating his past and his demons, then Joseph is the model of perseverance, maintaining an attitude of purity and diligence in spite of years of challenges and then years of success (remember, he was lord over Egypt for 7 years of abundance).  In the end, none of these things changed him negatively.  This is parallel but different than Abraham's struggles.  Joseph was a man who did not explicitly interact with the Lord in his entire life, as told by the bible.  We can see here, in his speech, how much God is reflected in his inner life and attitudes, but unlike his forefathers, he never spoke with the Lord that we can read about.  All of his trials were related to his physical circumstances, whether in slavery or in prison or in lordship over the most powerful nation on earth at the time.  We can see the results of his perseverance and success through these challenges.

With Abraham, all of his struggles seem to relate directly to his relationship with the Lord.  In physical circumstances, he is always victorious over everything.  When Lot gets kidnapped, he goes and destroys an entire army with 318 men.  I think we have a badass over here.  I mean, he went 100% Chuck Norris on those guys.  He grows exceedingly wealthy through his herding.  When he goes to Gerar and lies to Abimelech, God comes in and backs him up by threatening Abimelech to treat Abraham well or else.

But contrariwise, Abraham struggles in his relationship with God for almost the entire story.  Starting in chapter 15, he wonders about the meaning of God's promises when he has no son.  Then he struggles through the Hagar and Ishmael situation, which was awkward and painful.  Then God tells him to sacrifice Isaac and he goes through several days of agony over that one.  And eventually things settle down for him after that.

In both cases, Abraham and Joseph, they model the life of perseverance.  Both of them begin life, at the very beginning of their respective stories, already modeling mature aspects of their spiritual walks.  Abraham is the man of faith in Genesis 12 when God commands him to go to a new land, an unseen land, and he does it without question or even comment.  Joseph is already the favored son of Jacob and he begins his faithful service to Potiphar from the very beginning.  That's why I say we never really get to see them grow, like Jacob grows.  However, we do get to see them take their lives of faith through the many perils of circumstance and time.

In the case of Abraham, his rocky road is the forerunner lifestyle of being the progenitor of an entire race of people living under the promise of God's blessing.  He was given the covenant of circumcision and the promised seed, the Messiah.  While there were faithful men before him, like Enoch or Noah, Abraham truly is the first of a whole new line of people, living in a new way.  All of his challenges were centered around these issues, and the physical circumstances around him are almost ignored.  He is successful in everything he does, both in wealth and power.

In the case of Joseph, we see very little of his spiritual life.  All of his challenges are in the physical realm, as I previously described.  The silence around his spiritual life is peculiar and fascinates me.  We are never told of Joseph praying or worshiping or building altars, or any of the things of his forefathers.  We do see him interpret dreams, work diligently, live in purity from sexual sin, and overcome bitterness against his backstabbing brothers, a stunning list of accomplishments in my opinion, and I would be greatly pleased if I could do as much in my own life.

As I've previously mentioned, Joseph is the first one in Abraham's life whom God does not directly hand off the Promise.  This is almost certainly because after Jacob, the promised is shared amongst all his sons and not the property of Joseph alone.  So this is the time window when the promise of Abraham passes over from being carried by a single man to covering a whole community.  We will see the interactions with God change accordingly, especially going into the book of Exodus, when instead of primarily relating between God and a single man, the covenant is increasingly defined between the entire Israelite community as an organization and God.  This is somewhat contradicted by Moses's relationship with God, but.... well, I'll talk about it more when we get there.  :)  The important point here is that this time window, when Jacob is about to die and his twelve sons take on the blessing and covenant of Abraham, is when the promise passes from a single man to a community, and so while the nature of the promise doesn't change, the form of how it is manifested and how God relates to people through the promise changes.  The specific nature of that transformation is seen in part in Joseph's life, and more fully in the lives of his children in Exodus.

So in conclusion, I see Abraham and Joseph as modeling two different aspects of perseverance, the physical and the spiritual.  If one wonders how to get to a place like where they started their lives, I look to the example of Jacob, who models the life of overcoming habitual sin and trials.  After overcoming such habitual sins and other problems, then one moves on to perseverance and maintenance of those mature attitudes in the face of further difficulties, which are inevitable in life.

This is basically the end of Joseph's story.  Jacob hears that Joseph is alive, and it revives Jacob's spirit.  He truly loved Joseph more than the rest, and now he travels down to Egypt to see Joseph again before he dies.  So this turns out to be a happy ending for Jacob as well, even though just last chapter Jacob was deeply torn when he was forced to send down Benjamin to Egypt.  Things turn out better than he could have possibly hoped or expected.

One might wonder why I haven't mentioned Isaac in this long discourse.  Well, to be blunt, he doesn't really do much in his lifetime.  He is faithful to the Lord and to the promises, but his story is short and relatively uneventful.  You could perhaps also call him a model of perseverance, but the truth is that we don't get to see him face very many challenges.  His best action is praying for Rebekah's barrenness, rather than struggling in the ways of his father Abraham or his son Jacob, but in the many decades of his life this is a fairly isolated incident.

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