Title: Joseph and Slavery
Date: July 6th, 2008
Texts: Gen 41:41-57
Author: Isaac Villegas
In a lot of ways, the story of Joseph feels like a ‘rags to riches’ story. He’s in a dungeon, but not for long. Soon he’s discovered; Pharaoh hears about his gifts and takes Joseph to the very top of Egyptian power—from a filthy prison to the top of the world. It’s everyone’s dream. It reminds me of a friend in LA who works in restaurants while waiting for his acting skills to be discovered. There’s a certain part of us that loves it when some no-name finally gets their break. That’s Joseph.
Despite things going from bad to worse, the storyteller reassures us. We are told that “the Lord was with Joseph.” We hear that sentence four times in chapter 39 (vv. 2, 3, 22, 23). The Lord was with Joseph. There’s still hope. Maybe he’ll get his break. God won’t abandon him in the pit of Egypt—that godforsaken land.
It finally happens. Pharaoh calls Joseph from the pit to interpret his dreams when no one else dares. Joseph not only makes sense of the dreams, but also offers a plan for Egypt to prepare for a famine. 41:35—“They should collect the food of the good years and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities.”
Pharaoh likes his plan so much that he names Joseph as the man for the job. In a matter of minutes Joseph goes from a dungeon, to wearing royal clothing while riding in Pharaoh’s chariot, with everyone bowing down before him. In Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh. And he ends up saving countless peoples from famine.
Is Joseph our model for how we relate to government and society? That’s what we’re focusing on today. We’re thinking about Article 23 in our Confession: “the church’s relation to government and society.” Is Joseph our model? Like us, he is in Egypt through no fault of his own. We didn’t have a choice to be born into our nationalities. Citizenship just happened to us. It’s what we’ve got; it’s where we are. So, since we’re here, at the heart of the most powerful empire in the world, why don’t we make the best of it and save some lives? That’s what Joseph did, right?
Let me take a moment to anticipate a common misunderstanding about our involvement in society and government. Lots of people, when they think about society and government, focus our attention on presidents, senators, representatives and federal, state, municipal governments. That’s where government happens, they say. So, the question about our Christian relationship to government and society has to do with whether or not someone should get a job on capital hill or Raleigh.
But that way of thinking ignores all the ways that we are involved in politics, everyday politics. There’s no escape. Aristotle calls human beings “political animals.” We are shot through with politics. We pledge allegiance when we swipe our credit cards or make a deposit; we practice political responsibility when we save or spend our money. That economic stimulus check I received yesterday recognizes the political power of everyday spending. But our relationship to government and society is not only economic, it’s also about the way we inhabit this land, land secured and sustained by powerful military forces and savvy leaders.
The point is that we are all politically responsible, politically involved, in everyday sorts of ways, for better or for worse. Even the Canadians in our midst are involved in U.S. politics, although they can’t vote. Whether they like it or not, the Amish are also part of this system, although in different ways.
So, what do we do, or not do? Our article in the Confession gives us some good advice. “We are citizens of God’s kingdom,” it says, which pulls the rug out from other claims of citizenship and belonging. “Because Jesus Christ is Lord of lords,” it says, “we recognize no other authority’s claims as ultimate”—which means we can disobey the law if we have good reasons. The article also makes clear that despite the propaganda and wishful thinking, “at its best, a government cannot act completely according to the justice of God.” All governments trade in injustice. But that’s no reason to think we can wash our hands of the matter: “We may participate in government or other institutions of society,” just so long as we do so without compromising our Christian way of life, our fidelity to God and God’s people.
And that’s what’s so troubling about the story of Joseph: does Joseph sacrifice fidelity to God so he can get stuff done in Egypt? There’s a lot here to make us wonder. Joseph takes on a new name, given by Pharaoh—so far in Genesis, it’s the Lord who changes names (Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel). And Joseph takes as his wife a daughter of an Egyptian priest, whose name remembers the Egyptian goddess, Neith—Asenath.
The issue of forgetting God and God’s people is pretty much summed up when Joseph names his children: Manasseh and Ephraim (41:51-52). Joseph names his second born, Ephraim, which he tells us means, “God has made me fruitful.” Which God is Joseph remembering? He uses the generic name for ‘God’—elohim. Is this the God of Israel, the god of his ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Or, does this name remember the Egyptian gods of fertility, the ones who have made Joseph fruitful in this foreign land, the god of his fruitful wife? It’s hard to know.
It may be clearer when he names his firstborn son, Manasseh. “Because,” Joseph says, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” But the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob is not a god of forgetfulness. Is Joseph trying to forget the God of his ancestors so he can become Egyptian?
I don’t want to offer an investigation of Joseph’s motives—his interior life, his psychology, how he justifies himself. There’s enough in the story to know that the God of Abraham provides for Jacob’s family during a famine through Egypt. In Egypt, God uses Joseph to provide for his people, maybe even to save his people.
But it’s also important to see how Joseph is the brain-child behind the Egyptian empire. Joseph takes all the grain from the country, from the rural farmers, and stores them close to Pharaoh, in the cities. He consolidates Pharaoh’s power. Later, in chapter 47, we hear that Joseph lets the people of Canaan and Egypt sell themselves into slavery for food. Joseph, sold into Egyptian slavery, ends up buying more slaves for Egypt. Joseph single-handedly turns Egypt into the regional power that enslaves Israel. Ultimately, it’s Joseph who invites Jacob and his family into the very heart of the beast—Israel settles in Goshen, and they soon become Egyptian slaves.
For a time, God may have used Egypt to sustain his people, to keep Israel alive. But that doesn’t make Egypt a chosen nation. In a few years, Egypt turns into the enemy of God, and God punishes Egypt with plagues.
We are Christians who live in tenuous times and in an ambiguous land. There are Josephs in our recent past who brought us to North America—maybe for religious freedom, maybe because of the good farm land, maybe to escape death and violent governments.
But the story of Joseph also makes me wonder if I’m now working for the powers that will enslave the world. This is not to say that we shouldn’t appreciate what we have, how God has sustained us. It’s a wonderful thing to go where I need to go without waiting at checkpoints. It’s wonderful that I can meet with some of you in public places and pray and study our bibles. It’s a great blessing that we don’t go hungry, even the homeless can find food.
But we must also remember that Israel enjoyed much prosperity in the beautiful land of Goshen. It was only a matter of time before slavery. And even before Egypt formally made the residents of Goshen slaves, Joseph was already at work amassing slaves for Egypt.
Are we a bunch of Josephs? Are we in Goshen, enjoying the comforts of Egypt, tending to Pharaoh’s cattle, while slaves are amassed? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to predict the future, or even see what’s happening in front of our eyes.
But maybe that’s the problem—prediction. Joseph wants to predict the future, and make sure his team comes out on top. He does what he thinks is best, and ends up enslaving his people. Maybe the problem is that Joseph forgets, or at least he tries to forget, so he can get on with his future in Egypt. He forgets his home and he forgets his God.
So, what should we remember? On this 4th of July weekend we remember that this place is Goshen at best. We remember that our people, the people of God, extend beyond the borders of this country. When there’s famine in distant places, we remember what Joseph forgets, that there are people over there who are part of our family. When our Egypt declares war, we remember that our family is among those foreign countries. When our candidates talk about universal healthcare, we remember that they are merely provincial thinkers who don’t really mean universal like we do when we say that we believe in the church universal.
Finally, we remember that our God remembers us, even while we are away from home, dwelling in Goshen, sojourning in Egypt. God remembers us. God goes into Egypt with Israel, and God will set Israel free. Even though we may not feel like slaves now, when we do, maybe in the near future, we can remember that God brings Moses, we remember that God sends Jesus, who never leaves us nor forsakes us.