The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday August 16, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s episode of Jacob and Sons ended with Joseph being enslaved and taken to Egypt and Jacob sitting in grief because he believes Joseph has been killed by wild animals.

Once again the lectionary jumps over a large portion of the story and tonight’s reading doesn’t make sense without that context so let’s get caught up.

Immediately following last week’s reading we get an entire chapter where Joseph isn’t mentioned, instead we find the story of Tamar. Maybe next year we can do a summer series focusing on the stories of women in Genesis that the lectionary skips – there are quite a few of them – but tonight we’re going to keep our focus on Joseph. I would encourage you to read chapter 38 on your own however. It’s a fascinating story.

Chapter 39 picks up Joseph’s story after his arrival in Egypt. Joseph is enslaved by a man named Potiphar who recognizes Joseph’s leadership gifts and makes Joseph the overseer of his house. He doesn’t free him though; Joseph is still an enslaved person.

Potiphar recognizes Joseph’s leadership skills and his wife recognizes Joseph’s physical beauty. Joseph rebuffs her advances but she persists. Genesis tells us that: And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent…”

Day after day and then finally, one day she tries again but this time she also grabs hold of Joseph’s clothes. Joseph pulls away from her and winds up running away, possibly naked.

Which would be funny, if it wasn’t so terrifying. This is a story of an assault in the context of a clear power imbalance. The Collegeville Commentary points out that the roles are very clear here. Potiphar’s wife speaks “as a slave owner to a slave in her efforts to seduce him.” (v.7; p. 119). It’s very dangerous for Joseph to refuse to do as he is told.

With Joseph’s clothing as proof, Potiphar’s wife makes up a story, soaked in classism and racism, and accuses Joseph of assaulting her.  This episode echoes an earlier episode from Joseph’s life when his brothers use his coat to deceive their father and claim that Joseph has died.

Joseph winds up in prison where we learn that not only does he dream elaborate dreams, he can interpret them. This skill leads to a meeting with the Pharaoh where he interprets a series of dreams that have confounded all of Pharaoh’s other experts.

One of the things that is interesting about Joseph’s story is how we see God at work.  Unlike Joseph’s ancestors who spoke directly to God, we never see a scene where Joseph and God speak to each other. God is still present and active, but this is a different relationship.  When Joseph is brought to Pharaoh he makes it clear that he does not interpret dreams by his own skill alone. This is a gift that comes from God and Joseph’s interpretations are messages from God. (16). This sets him apart from all the other experts that Pharaoh has consulted previously.

And this should remind us that there is more than one way to connect with God. If you have never heard God speak to you using a literal voice, that doesn’t mean that God hasn’t spoken.

It’s also interesting to note that by trusting Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh is choosing to trust Joseph’s god over Egypt’s gods.

Pharaoh says, “Can we find anyone else like [Joseph]—one in whom is the spirit of God?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” … “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”… Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (41:37-45)

Joseph was 30. He’d been enslaved in Egypt for 13 years by this time.

Pharaoh’s dreams predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph gets to work storing up food in the time of abundance to be used in the time of scarcity.  As a result, Egypt does not suffer when the years of famine come, but other people in the surrounding area do, including Joseph’s family of origin.

In the seven years of abundance, Egypt was able to store up so much food that not only is there enough to feed their population, they are able to sell the surplus. 10 of Jacob’s brother’s travel to Egypt to buy grain.  Benjamin, the youngest son and Jacob’s new favourite, stays at home with Jacob.  Benjamin and Joseph were Rachel’s only sons. (42:40)

When the brothers arrive in Egypt they meet Joseph but they don’t recognize him. Joseph recognizes them, however, and puts them through a series of tests.

He tests them, and the tests are grueling, but they are tests, meant to help determine what sort of people his brothers have become.  He could just have easily chosen to seek revenge. This part of the story could easily have gone, “And when Joseph saw his brothers starving and in need of food he remembered his own growling belly after they threw him into the pit and he turned them away and forced them to return to their own homes to die.”

But even though he holds the power of life and death over them, Joseph doesn’t leave them to die. But he also doesn’t offer than instant forgiveness and welcome them into his home with open arms.

He accuses his brothers of being spies, imprisons them and then agrees to release them on the condition that they return with Benjamin. Joseph keeps one of his brothers, Simeon, as collateral.  Joseph also orders his enslaved people to hide each brothers’ money in their sack of grain. When the brothers return home and discover the money they are confused and terrified.

When they return to Egypt they bring Benjamin, and twice as much money as the first time – the money they’d found in their sacks and money to purchase new grain. (42:28)

When they return home from this second trip, Joseph again arranges to have their money hidden in their grain sacks but he also has his own cup put in Benjamin’s sack. (44:1-2)

This time, the brothers are caught before they can leave, Benjamin is accused of theft and is sentenced to death. Now the brothers are truly terrified and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s life. (44:18)

The text gives us the sense that from the time the brothers first arrive in Egypt Joseph is watching everything they say and do, every gesture, every facial expression, trying to figure out what kind of people they have become.

Without even knowing they are being tested, the brothers pass each test. These men who chose greed over a human life when they sold Joseph, return the money they find in their grain sacks.

These men who cared so little for their brother Joseph’s life both returned to rescue their brother Simeon and plead passionately for Benjamin’s life.

Judah, the brother who first suggested they sell Joseph into slavery, now begs eloquently for Benjamin’s life offering his own in return.  He begs:

Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (43:33-34)

Not only is Judah willing to trade his life for Benjamin’s, he seems genuinely concerned about his father. A concern that was lacking when he chose to sell Joseph and trick Jacob into believing his favourite son had died.

Additionally, although they do not recognize Joseph, they have not forgotten him. In all of their encounters with Joseph they have spoken through an interpreter, they don’t realize that Joseph can actually understand them. This allows Joseph to eavesdrop on their private conversations and this is how he learns that the brothers regret having sold him. Joseph is able to overhear their deep remorse and regret.  (42:21-23)

This is where today’s reading picks up the story.  The lectionary skipped a LOT.

Today’s passage, which is fairly short, is the conclusion to this whole story arc.  Basically, Joseph tells his brothers who he is, forgives them, and they live happily ever after.

The end.

Well not, quite, but you’ll need to read the rest of Genesis yourself to get the rest of Joseph’s story.

There are a few ways I’ve heard this story misused over the years that I want to highlight for us tonight.

First, we can learn a lot from Bible stories, but not every Bible story should be applied to every situation.

For example, this is not a story about a cheap form of forgiveness. If you’ve ever been pressured to forgive someone who abused you and Joseph is used as an example, ask this person if by forgiveness they mean rising to a position of almost unlimited power and then still spending years putting the person who hurt you through a series of tests before deciding they are truly sorry and offering forgiveness.

Because that seems to be the Joseph model of forgiveness.

We should also avoid using this story to try and imply that slavery isn’t really that bad. Or slavery isn’t always that bad.  It is. It is always that bad.

The brilliant Dr. Wil Gaffney writes, “the lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph’s rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

-Dr Gaffney continues -Joseph’s experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here but God” should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph’s perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.”[1]

God does not speak directly in this story. This is Joseph’s interpretation of events. Throughout scripture we can see that if God needed Joseph to get to Egypt, he didn’t need to rely on Joseph’s brothers. God is more powerful than that. God did not need the brothers to abuse Joseph. That was their choice alone.

So we also can’t use this story to prop up the false belief that “everything happens for a reason.”  Even when Joseph is telling his brothers that God used the situation for good, he still maintains that it was his brothers, not God who sold him into slavery. He still put them through all those tests before he offered forgiveness. (5-8). There is a big difference between saying, “It’s a good thing you sold me to be used as a slave,” and “It’s a good thing we have such a powerful God!”

In the coming weeks we will see stories where slavery is shown to be evil, and where God is shown as a powerful liberator who breaks chains and sets people free.

But those are stories for another time.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



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