“Joseph(ine), Exile, and the Distant Dream of God’s Economy”
Text: Genesis 50: 15-21
I could be wrong but I think we’re supposed to be looking in today’s lectionary readings for a coherent, consistent theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. I tried! I failed. Genesis 50 gave me an especially hard time so I said to myself, “What the heck—why not preach on that one. Maybe somebody will explain it to me (and better than me) at coffee hour.” As far as I can tell, looking back on the earlier chapters, Joseph’s brothers are lying about their father’s dying wish. Jacob has a lot of deathbed words for all twelve of them—none are anything like this story they’re trying to sell in today’s lectionary reading. And who knows if Joseph believed them? All the text tells us is: “Joseph wept when they spoke.” Knowing the backstory—the collective brutality of these brothers, their long habit of deception, their willingness to sell Joseph—I’m inclined to think Joseph saw right through their line. I think Joseph wept because the lie was so obvious, probably thinking “Even after all this time, they’re still at it. I went from slavery and prison to Pharaoh’s second-in-command and they still think they can pull the wool over my eyes. How low their regard must be for me.”
The plot thickens with context and history. Joseph is a revered figure in both Judaism and Islam and is, in both traditions, described in terms of tremendous feminine beauty. The prophet Muhammad is believed to have said: One half of all the beauty God apportioned for humankind went to Joseph and Joseph’s mother, Rachel; the other one half went to the rest of humankind. The revered Jewish poet, Alicia Ostriker, writes of Joseph, “The rabbis say he painted his eyes and walked with mincing step. Showing off the coat of many colors which old Jacob made him. Twirling. Hugging himself.” The Hebrew phrase for Joseph’s coat of many colors, kethoneth passim, is used only one other time in our scriptures—2 Samuel 13: 18, describing David’s daughter Tamar: “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.” In other words, Joseph’s coat is a princess dress.
Does the story now sound more familiar to you, as it does to me? To recap, Joseph is:
1) Pretty like mom.
2) Dressed up like a princess by dad.
3) Abused by brothers.
3) Exiled from home.
4) Trafficked to the big city by own relatives.
6) Thrown into prison after being falsely charged as a sex offender.
When Pharaoh needs guidance and intellect, Joseph is released from jail and brought before him—shaven and with changed clothes, we are told. Wrapped in Pharaoh’s own jewelry and fine linens. Given a new name. And within a few years, wholly unrecognizable to the brothers. Again Alicia Ostriker writes: tradition teaches that Joseph risked deep vulnerability at their reunion, “Yet it is also said that at this moment Judah releases a scream that causes the walls to shake and Pharaoh to fall off his throne.”
A young black transgender Poet out of Philadelphia, J Mase III, wrote piece called “Josephine (What the Bible Says About Transfolk)” and in it he says: Dear Joseph of Genesis/aka Josephine/aka Jo/I am claiming your story for every queer kid told/they are unholy/for every queer told that in order to live you must let your faith die.
We are reminded in today’s reading: the brothers are no longer in a position where they can hurt Joseph. They don’t have the power they once had. Joseph knows this. And tells them, even after all they have done, “Have no fear. I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” This may not be forgiveness exactly, and on the brothers’ end the motivations may not be at all genuine, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point is that Joseph is finally beyond harm. That outcome, for anyone with a story like Joseph’s, is always worth celebrating.
I don’t think God intended it all for good, though. I want Joseph to be right. I’ve wanted Joseph to be the heroine of this story ever since I saw the cartoon version of those wicked brothers and that beautiful rainbow coat in my first grade copy of The Beginner’s Bible. But Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt was so very costly. And of all the parts of this story that we encounter in scripture, that costliness seems to be the piece we gloss over most. Genesis 41 explains that once Joseph’s dreams of the Egyptian famine came true, and Pharaoh placed the administration of famine relief solely into Joseph’s hands, Joseph did not merely give the surplus grain away to the starving people of Egypt and Canaan. Joseph sold it. Genesis 47 is even more explicit. In the first year Joseph took the people’s money in exchange for food. In the second year, their livestock. In the third year, their lands and their bodies. Verses 20 and 21: “Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, Joseph made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”
Joseph helped to set up the system, the super-concentration of wealth and power, that eventually forced the rebellion of Exodus. It is in Joseph’s story where we find the first use of the word “poor” in all of scripture. This is at once devastating and entirely unsurprising. It is, for me, one of the most heartbreaking stories in the whole Bible—but what did we expect to happen? Solidarity is a learned behavior. Who was there to teach it to Joseph? Who was there to teach Joseph that we belong to one another as equals? No one. If we are looking for the structural story of original sin, this is it. Joseph did not “forget” the house of Jacob in order to make a quick and easy buck. To Joseph, “collective action” at best looked like the collective deception of Genesis 50 and at worst like being beaten, stripped of your princess dress, thrown in a ditch, and left for dead or worse. In Pharaoh’s economy, what saves you is how much Pharaoh likes you. In God’s economy, all we have is each other. Small wonder, then, that Joseph did better in Egypt.
We can still do something different today, if we are brave enough. Ideally we hold onto these stories so that we don’t have to relive them anew each generation. This might mean being able to recognize and make room for a sister in a princess dress among our brothers. It might mean putting a Josephine at the head of our own generation’s Exodus, rather than a Moses. Either way, do not be afraid. God intends it for good.