Title: Control and Faith
Date: August 17, 2008
Texts: Genesis 45:1-16; Matthew 15:21-28
Author: Isaac Villegas
Self-control. It’s important. Without it we would get ourselves into a whole lot of trouble. I’m sure you can remember when you wish you exercised a little more self-control. For me, I don’t have very much control when it comes to food. It’s hard for me to stop eating. I blame it on my parents. They instilled in me the necessity to eat everything on my plate. I do that, and go back for more. I don’t feel very good after eating too much; but I do it anyway.
Self-control. Joseph has it. We all remember the encounter with Potiphar’s wife. She’s wants an adulterous relationship with him. But Joseph resists her pursuits. He’s in control of his lustful desires. That’s good. He may be the epitome of control. But what happens in our passage this evening when he sees his brothers?—he loses control. Genesis 45:1, “Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him… And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.”
He lost control. And that’s not so bad in this circumstance, especially for Joseph. He needs a breakthrough. Joseph needs something to crack open his controlled Egyptian façade, and breakthrough to his repressed Israelite soul. Up to this point in the story, we wonder if there is any Israel still left in Joseph. Have his heart and passions gone Egyptian cold? Has Egypt successfully assimilated this child of Israel? Or, does Joseph still long for his people and the God of his ancestors?
His tears speak volumes. The tears keep alive our hope for Joseph. The tears show us a Joseph who is not entirely in control, a Joseph who hasn’t yet mastered himself—and that’s a good thing. Because the tears reveal a Joseph who, as much as he tries, cannot become Egyptian. For Egypt is the land of control—control of the self, and control of the cosmos.
This is why Egypt and Israel are worlds apart. Israel wandered from place to place, completely dependant on the unpredictable flux of creation, which taught the people to trust and struggle with God. They lived by the shear grace of God. They worshiped the God who is the provider, the sustainer of life. They learned how to be a people of thanksgiving, of gratitude.
Egypt, on the other hand, prided itself is making the world orderly, controlled, and predictable. The people of Egypt systematized the heavens so they could predict and control the flooding patterns of the Nile. They mastered nature and the gods who enlivened the earth. Pharaoh exercised Egyptian dominion over the gods of life. Pharaoh became the god who controlled the rising and setting of the sun, the cyclical pattern of seasons, and the earth’s fertility. Egypt controlled nature through sophisticated administration, technology, and divinization.
Egypt, the land of efficient management and divinization: and Joseph fits right in. In a lot of ways, he embodies the Egyptian way of life. He is a microcosm of Egypt. He subdues the land and the people with new forms of organization and administration. Centralized power and centralized control, a society of control. And in our story, Joseph is the center of Egyptian control. He’s at the helm of the empire.
Joseph becomes Egyptian without looking back. We can see the beginning of his Egyptian assimilation when sheds his old clothes and takes on the appearance of an Egyptian. When Joseph is summoned from the dungeon to appear before Pharaoh and interpret his dreams, he takes off his old clothes and puts on the garments of Egypt. But that’s not all. He also drastically changes his appearance. How? By shaving. No big deal for us, right? I mean, us males have to shave our faces daily so we can appear civilized. Well, that wasn’t the case in Joseph’s day. “The Egyptians alone among the peoples of the ancient Near East shaved their faces and also their heads” (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, p. 563).
And now, so does Joseph. He shaves off the link to his people, and walks into Pharaoh’s presence as an Egyptian. Why do the Egyptians shave their face and heads? Well, because it’s a way for them to hide their age. It’s part of their culture of control. As one scholar says, “Shaving is a perfect emblem of the Egyptian [desire] to deny change and to conquer decay by human effort, the bringing of self-ordering to unruly nature” (Kass, pp. 563-564). They shave because they want to deny the effects of time, of linear time.
For the Egyptians, shaving is another way they can control nature. It’s a way to appear ageless and changeless. No graying or thinning hair. No stray, unwanted hair. No receding hair line. They shave off all that keeps a record of their journey through time. They live in denial of death.
This is why they revered the dung beetle, one of their symbols for eternal life and the cycle of reincarnation. “The dung beetle forms manure into a large ball (as big as an apple),” then it buries itself and the ball in the earth. “It feeds on the dung ball and lays its eggs.” Then the dung beetle emerges renewed, reincarnated, or so they thought. Death is under control. Egyptian burial practices took the form of the dung beetle: they mummified corpses in preparation of their return to life, their reincarnation. Just like the beetle. (see Kass, p. 557 n. 9).
But Joseph, the embodiment of Egyptian control, loses control of his Israelite nature in the presence of his brothers. It’s an embarrassment. He feels something uncontrollable stirring inside him—will the subdued child of Israel emerge? He can’t manage it. He’s about to burst. At least he can manage the effects of the outburst; just like Egypt manages the Nile’s flooding.
He won’t let the Egyptians see his tears. He won’t appear uncontrolled before his adopted people. He saves face by quickly dismissing his Egyptian entourage: Gen 45:1b-2, “‘Send everyone way from me,’ he cried out. So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.”
When Joseph sees his brothers, he is reminded of who is supposed to be. The brothers remind Joseph his father, of his origin, and his people. And as much as he tried to forget his past, those unshaven, shepherd faces crack open his Egyptian façade and unlock his longing for his people. “I am your brother,” he confesses. “Come close to me.” He wants to belong again. Verse 15: “And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.”
Assimilation kills our longing. Assimilation kills our passions. Assimilation redirects our energy. That’s just the way it goes in Egypt, or America, or wherever else we end up. Assimilation makes us forget where we belong, and to whom we belong. Assimilation tempts us to shave off our identity, and adopt a new people. Assimilation makes us think we can have it both ways: part of God’s people and well-adjusted Egyptian citizens, at the same time.
Joseph’s tears show us that it’s impossible to kill our true belonging, no matter how hard we try. But we also notice how quickly he regains his Egyptian composure. In his speech to his brothers, Joseph reasserts his Egyptian power and control to the point of delusion. He says in verse 8, “I am father to Pharaoh…and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” That’s troubling. Usually the gods are father to Pharaoh. But Joseph imagines himself in a godlike role. It’s his childish and blasphemous dream of cosmic dominion all over again.
Joseph doesn’t return to his home. He doesn’t leave Egypt behind. There is no exodus. Instead, he plays the part of a godlike ruler of Egypt by issuing a command to his father, to be delivered by his brothers, who are put in the role of messengers or servants: “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children… I will provide for you there” (9-11a).
How strange. Joseph tells Israel to “settle in the land of Goshen.” Joseph should know better. Israel doesn’t settle in lands. They are a people who wander, nomads; they are sojourners. They belong to no land except the promised land. Israel cannot and will not settle in Goshen; they belong elsewhere. They won’t cultivate the land like Egyptians; they will continue to be shepherds, unlike Joseph, who doesn’t even consider returning to the land of his people. He won’t part with his godlike position of power and control. It’s hard to let go of Egypt.
It takes death. At the very end of Genesis, we find Joseph on his death bed, finally thinking like a child of Israel. Gen 50:24-25, “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’”
It takes death for Joseph to remember that he doesn’t belong in Egypt. His bones can’t rest, or settle, in Egypt. He belongs to the promised land of God. And as Monica showed me a few weeks ago, this is how the Epistle to the Hebrews remembers Joseph. This is Hebrews 11:22, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” He is remembered for his final act against Egyptian assimilation. God will save Israel from Egypt, so take my bones with you. We don’t belong here.
Joseph finally knows that he is not in control. Ultimately he can’t save himself or his people. Despite his shrewd Egyptian ways, he can’t defy death and slavery. But at the end, Joseph finally speaks prophetically; from a distance, he can see what God will do, that God will save. He finally has faith.
What is faith? It’s what happens to Joseph when he can no longer control his affection for his brothers, his people. Faith is that hidden desire that manages to break through our façades and reveal our need for God and God’s people. Faith is when we manage, despite our efforts to the contrary, to confess our need for grace, for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for provision.
Faith happens when we become grateful for everything, because we know that we are not the source of our being, of our existence, of our life. Faith comes to Joseph when he sets aside all delusions of grandeur and admits that he is not god or godlike—only God is God. So Joseph stops playing that role.
Faith happens when we learn that we are all beggars, despite our lavish appearances. Faith happens when we learn to cry out like the Canaanite woman in our story from Matthew. She runs up to Jesus, a Jew, the enemy of her people…and she begs. It’s one thing to ask someone in the family for help; it’s quite another to openly beg from an enemy: she says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
This woman is not in control and she’s letting the world know that she isn’t. She doesn’t wait for a private audience to make herself known, like Joseph did with his brothers. Instead, she cries out in public, out of control, because she’s desperate for mercy.
And what does Jesus do? Absolutely nothing, at first. “Stone silence.” Yes, sometimes Jesus is silent when we beg. But this woman is desperate; and desperate people don’t know when to take a hint. She struggles with God, like Jacob struggled with God on Mt. Peniel. And Jesus recognizes that she has great faith. Matthew 15:28, “Woman, great is your faith!”
What does it mean to have faith? It means that we come to know that we don’t belong in Egypt, despite our assimilation and our ability to pass as Egyptian, or American, or whatever. That’s why our gathering for worship is an act of faith. It’s the beginning of our exodus. We are called together as a people, the people of God. Our worship becomes our form of resistance against Egyptian assimilation. We are reminded of our belonging. And then, at the end of worship, we are blessed and sent out into the world as nomads.
Maybe the most important part of our worship service is our time of prayer and sharing. That’s when we learn how to beg. We pray, “Lord, have mercy.” We confess that we aren’t in control, and are in desperate need of God’s provision. It’s also the time when we make public our thanksgiving. We thank God for a multitude of gifts. And as we listen to what someone else is thankful for, we are reminded of God’s provision in our own lives.
Praying is our act of faith. When we pray, we confess that we are not in control. We are only beggars, like the Canaanite woman. She is our guide. With her, we struggle with God and learn how to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on us.” And that, Jesus says, is faith.