Wild Lectionary: Joseph—God’s Agent or Agent of Empire?

Field Egypt Farmer PeopleEleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15(20)

“God has made me lord of all Egypt…” Joseph, son of Jacob (Gen 45.9)

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Paul of Tarsus (Rom 8.19)

By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson

A decade or so ago, we spent two years of our monthly Saturday teaching/retreat series with the book of Genesis. Folks eagerly engaged Genesis’ anti-city perspective and its all-too-human characters. But when we got to the Joseph story, several rebelled angrily against our starting characterization of Joseph, son of Jacob, as a self-absorbed, manipulative power seeker, who “succeeded” by teaching Pharaoh how to manage famine for personal profit. What is it about Joseph that leads so many to want to see him as a heroic expression of faith?

This week’s first reading from Gen 45 comes near the end of the long saga of Joseph and his brothers that begins in Genesis 37. Taken by itself, it indeed seems at first glance to celebrate Joseph’s alliance with God in bringing his father and brothers out of the Promised Land and into settlement in Egypt. After all, Joseph insists that “God [pointedly not named as “YHWH” throughout this chapter] sent me before you to preserve life” and “God has made me lord of all Egypt.”

Joseph, like countless monarchs and their minions over the millennia, insists that his own actions have divine support. But should we take Joseph at his word? It is too simplistic to say, “Well, it’s in the Bible so it must be true.” The biblical collection as we have it expresses a wide range of perspectives on the nature and purposes of the Deity. It is impossible to square them all, as Wes sought to explore in “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond (Orbis 2010). To answer the question, we must look at the whole Joseph story in the context of the larger struggle between what we call the “religion of creation” and the “religion of empire” (see http://abideinme.net/comp/COMP_TOC_preface_intro.PDF for an overview of the two “religions”).

We likely are familiar with the beginning of the tale: Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel, is treated like royalty by his aging father, who famously gives him a long-sleeved robe that arouses his brothers’ jealousy. Naïve young Joseph seems to flaunt that favoritism by telling first his brothers and then his father also about his dreams of dominance (Gen 37.5-11). Naturally, they despise him for it. Eventually, the brothers choose to sell him to passing Ishmaelites while deceiving poor Jacob into believing that his precious son is dead (Gen 37.18-35). Joseph ends up in Egypt, where he secures a post with Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar, until Mrs. Potiphar’s repeated attempts to seduce Joseph end up leading the young man into prison.

Eventually, Joseph gets out of the dungeon because of his reputation for dream interpretation.  Key to the entire story that follows is an often-overlooked detail of Pharaoh’s dream:

“After two years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing on (Heb, `al) the Nile.” The NRSV sidesteps this key point by translating the Hebrew as “by.” Pharaoh dreams not of standing along the Nile, but of being the lord of the Nile, the sacred source of life for Egypt for many millennia. Joseph understands both the dream and the dynamics of imperial power quite well for a shepherd’s son. He not only interprets Pharaoh’s dream of fat and skinny cows as years of plenty and years of famine, he goes on to give Pharaoh some free advice. It is worth listening to the whole passage:

Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.” The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone else like this–one in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 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.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” (Gen 41.33-41)

In other words, Joseph “wisely” shows Pharaoh how to use famine to increase his own (and Joseph’s!) power over both the Egyptians and the land itself.

The chapters between this scene and our lection show Joseph putting his brothers to a brutally cruel series of tests, emotionally torturing them and their poor old father back in Canaan. It is only after he has blackmailed them into bringing his little brother, Benjamin, along with them to Egypt that he unmasks his royal disguise to reveal himself as their long lost brother. It is here where he claims that God’s power is behind the whole sequence of events.

But is that so? First, we’ve seen that Joseph is perfectly willing to lie and manipulate to achieve his ends. By the time of this scene, he has been in power in Egypt for many years and has mastered the arts of imperial authority and propaganda. Second, his proposal to settle his family in Egypt runs completely against the promises made by YHWH to Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah and their children and grandchildren. As problematic as it may be in other ways (such as the question of the indigenous population), it is the land of Canaan, not Egypt, that is God’s place of promise for the people who are in the process of becoming “Israelites.” It is as independent nomads, not as imperial subjects, that YHWH has led them since coming out of Babylon. But perhaps most importantly, if Joseph is right, then God’s economy is the imperial economy of debt and scarcity, not the initial Genesis vision of gift and abundance (Gen 2). If Joseph is right, than God’s people are to be dependent on their relationship with people who purport to control the earth’s fertility for their own profit, rather than directly on the Creator.

The final nail in the coffin of Joseph’s theological claim is what follows in the canonical sequence: the book of Exodus. We hear there that as soon as Joseph and his pharaoh were dead, the deal was off and the Israelites were now to be slaves to the new pharaoh (Ex 1.6-11). It is out of Egypt, not into Egypt, that YHWH calls YHWH’s people, precisely to liberate them from this imperial chokehold. (In the NRSV, the phrase “out of Egypt” is used 58 times to recall this primal, salvific act).

How often are we taken in by the claims of those who would purport to control the earth’s fertility? Corporations like Monsanto present themselves in soothing language that echoes Joseph’s without the explicit reference to “God.” Nonprofit foundations like that of Bill and Melinda Gates similarly claim to be serving people who have been subject to famine. Yet decades of research has shown that these and similar organizations mostly enrich themselves and their fellow elites, while systemically alienating people from the earth’s own ways of bringing forth overflowing life (examples here).

It is as true today as it was 2000 years ago when Paul first noted that all creation is groaning to be set free from this captivity. And who is to be the source of such liberation? None other than the “children of God,” that is, those whose trust is completely in the Creator’s own power and authority over earth’s fertility.  It is up to us, working individually and in our communities and networks of trust, to help set creation free from its captivity to empire (e.g., see the groups and resources gathered here: https://watersheddiscipleship.org/). In this season of summer’s abundance, may we continue to reject imperial attempts to control creation and grow in practical reliance on the Creator’s own provision.

Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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