‘Qoheleth’ is the narrator of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This Hebrew name is often translated ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and originally referred to someone who gathered a congregation together in order to speak to them. His most famous catchphrase was ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’
from 'Discovering Genesis' p148-150
The Story of Joseph (Gen 37-50)
s we read through Genesis the individual ‘stories’ gradually become longer. The cycle of stories about Abraham is made up of lots of individual narratives with few connecting links. Jacob’s story is a sequence of connected scenes, and, although there is an overarching plot, it tends to get lost in the various sub-plots that keep cropping up. However, the story of Joseph is undeniably a unity, however. Because of this the author has not needed to impose a unifying structure on to the different elements, as in the previous two cycles. It has a natural rhythm that unrelentingly carries the reader along.
In the popular imagination Joseph is best known for his dreams, and for his ‘amazing technicolor dreamcoat’! Both are important themes within the story. The ‘richly ornamented robe’ (37:3), a sign of his father’s favouritism, is stripped from him by his brothers (37:23); but only to be replaced later with ‘robes of fine linen’ (41:42) from Pharaoh. And there are three ‘pairs’ of dreams, all of which have some bearing on the future: Joseph’s two dreams (37:5-11); the dreams of the cupbearer and baker (chapter 40); and Pharaoh’s two dreams (41:1-7).
But the story, at its heart, is more than this; it is about God, and about one way in which God fulfils his purposes in human history; and perhaps also in our own history. In the story of Jacob the Lord appeared to take a step backwards, so as to be less prominent than in the life of Abraham. This process continues even more in Joseph’s life. Although God still speaks to Jacob in a vision (46:2-4), he never speaks directly to Joseph—even in his dreams he hears no voice. Joseph is flung into a situation where he suffers multiple injustice; but God is silent. Joseph is given a place of honour; but God is still silent. Joseph has to hang on, in faith that God is there, with only the rather ambiguous testimony of his circumstances to back up that claim. No heavenly voice encourages him and no angels comfort him.
In comparison, for example, with Jacob, it is less easy to warm to Joseph as a person – he is somewhat obnoxious as an adolescent, a bit too good the rest of the time, and a bit too ‘know-it-all’ throughout his life. (This despite his emotional outbursts; eight times he is described as weeping.) Nevertheless his situation is the more common one: people suffer injustice, or receive unexpected ‘good fortune’, and God is frequently silent. At times, God simply watches, and allows people (even his saints) to work out for themselves what they should be doing in life, and how the different pieces fit together. As a poster once put it, ‘There are no short-cuts through the forest of life.’ It is only at the end of a long process of battling with his emotions, and seeing that somehow things have worked out well, that Joseph can forgive those who caused him pain and say to them: ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…’ (50:20).
We would, of course, be abusing this insight if we were to use it to condone injustice or relax our efforts in the fight against oppression. God may mysteriously use injustice and oppression as his instruments; but nevertheless the calling of the church is to denounce them prophetically. We will never derail God’s plans by speaking against evil.
This is the paradox of this story: in comparison with the stories of Abraham and Isaac, God is apparently least involved with Joseph; but at a deeper level he is the most involved. From an external viewpoint God speaks the least; but instead he is communicating what he has to say through the internal dynamics of Joseph’s life. Whereas God intervened to prevent harm coming to Isaac (22:12), and prevented Laban harming Jacob (31:29), he does nothing to prevent the brothers harming Joseph, or to prevent unjust accusations being made against him. He thus gives far greater rein to the powers of sin and evil, to the forces of jealousy, anger, pride and lust. He deliberately allows his purposes to be hanging by the slenderest possible thread – and only then does he act: Pharaoh has a dream and those purposes are gradually brought to their fulfilment.
Esther, too, understood this paradox. A Jewess in a foreign country, caught in the harem of a pagan king, with her people (as so often since) under the threat of genocide, with God apparently absent; she too hears no heavenly voice directing her, only the voice of Mordecai asking her to put her life on the line: ‘who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’ (Esther 4:14). And again, as she does so, God acts, and gives the king a sleepless night, and God’s purposes once more finally come to fruition.
This is surely the world that we live in; although, as yet, we do not see the final act of God’s drama. God’s purposes seem to hang by a slender thread at times, with the darkness often seeming to gain the high ground. Nevertheless we can have confidence that even the darkness can serve the purposes of God, because this is the pattern of our faith and, in Christ, we have seen the world from the perspective of the cross.
It is this paradox, in which God is often most involved when he appears most remote, that gives the story of Joseph its resonance with the story of Christ; and perhaps with the stories of our own lives. The near-sacrifice of Isaac (chapter 22) foreshadows something of the cross; but that is merely one incident in Isaac’s life. Joseph (unknowingly) has to live an entire life shaped by patterns that bear the fingerprint of God. ‘Humiliation’ followed by ‘exaltation’ is a sequence that Isaiah later adopts for his description of God’s ideal servant (52:13-15), and that Paul uses as the basic pattern of the incarnation and exaltation of Christ (Philippians 2:6-11). The way that God ‘meekly’ allows evil to do its worst, before bringing his own purposes to a triumphant conclusion, is reflected most clearly in the cross – in the moment when God himself appears to be absent (Matthew 27:46), Christ’s decisive victory is won. Joseph’s constant need for faith in a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were’ (Romans 4:17) brings us full circle back to Abraham, and even to the creation itself, as well as reminding us all that Good Friday was followed by Easter Sunday.
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