God knows our imperfections
In this his last reflection on Genesis, Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer takes us through its last chapter with 45:1-28
This week we come to the last chapter of the book of beginnings. The endless end of a story that has become the story of our faith.
The story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers concludes this cycle of patriarchal stories in quite a dramatic way. Of all the patriarchs, his story has the most intrigue, drama and takes the longest time to unfold. To really appreciate what it happening here, we need to fill the gaps left by the lectionary by reading the omitted chapters at home.
To summarize these very briefly: After Joseph was taken to Egypt by the traders he was bought by Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, who according to the bible, was a good looking and well-built man. (39:6) Joseph resisted her advances but was nevertheless thrown in prison when she framed him. In prison Joseph proved himself, not so much as the dreamer, but as the interpreter of dreams. This allowed him to be called upon when the Pharaoh himself had a particular troubling dream. Joseph interpreted the dream as a message from God about seven years of drought and famine which were to follow seven years of plenty in Egypt. The Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph that he was made the governor of the country at the age of thirty.
When the years of famine hit the ancient Middle East, all the other countries suffered, but Egypt was the only one to have stored up sufficient grain. This is how the brothers of Joseph ended up in Egypt: to buy food. The story of Joseph’s first meeting with them is worth reading; how he immediately recognized them but how they failed to recognize him. But the most dramatic part is how they bowed down before him just as he saw it in his dream; the dream that annoyed them and that prompted them to sell him to the traders.
Chapter 45 takes the story up after Joseph’s brothers had pleaded with him to let Benjamin go. We are told that Joseph could no longer control his emotions; he sent all the Egyptians out and revealed to his brothers who he was.
It is a scene filled with conflicting emotions: Joseph crying and the bewilderment of his brothers. One could hardly begin to imagine their shock and fear. However, Joseph reaches out to them, putting their minds at ease with the words:
“God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and make sure you and your descendants survive. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…”
Walter Brueggemann calls this the key speech in the entire Joseph narrative: “We have not had a hint before now that Joseph had any notion of being a part of God’s purpose. (And) the revelation breaks as news upon the entire family.”
Here at the end of the patriarchal stories there are two burning questions still up in the air: The first one pertains to the patriarchs themselves. If we had to start a religion, I am quite sure that we would probably have looked beyond Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and perhaps beyond the young Joseph too.
All too human
None of them offer us particularly moral examples of faith or Übermensch (Nietszche’s ‘superior human’) qualities of humanity. They are all-too-human; just as frail and flawed as we are.
But perhaps that is the point. The bible never tries to sanitize the patriarchs to us. We are given the stories with all the gruesome detail of fraud, murder, deceipt etc.
The second question hanging there pertains to the God who has chosen these figures and the way that God is present in their stories. We know by now that God called Abraham; that God had chosen Jacob; we know God as being present in the dreams of both Jacob and Joseph. Every now and then God speaks, but for the greater part God seems to retreat behind the actions of God’s chosen.
In a certain sense we can treat these two questions as the same one: what are we to make of God and God’s involvement with people like these?
The first thing that we have to realize in asking this question, is that the question may reveal more about ourselves than it does about God. For the assumption in our question is that God’s work and presence should be far more transparent and also, that when God uses people, God should use heroes, rather than people just like us.
In dealing with these questions, I think the patriarchal stories help us to set two things straight.
The first one is the widespread and pervasive idea that religion in general and the Bible in particular are ancient devices – with a surprising modern tenacity – of individual moral improvement. (That it is meant for those poor souls who can’t find a deep moral core within themselves and therefore need ‘religion’ as a moral crutch!)
For most people in contemporary society religion and faith have to do with ‘private and personal’ convictions or private ‘moral views’.
In this context the patriarchs and their moral imperfections offend us.
But all of these offend us simply because they do not conform to our expectations, because they do not deliver what we deem spiritually enriching and in tune with our moral and cultural sensitivities.
Is it not striking how contemporary society always seems to look for heroes; people we can admire or that inspire us? By contrast, the bible seems uninterested in finding or identifying heroes. Even the most important figures are not hailed as heroes.
The bible, in the words of Abraham Heschel “…is not an epic about the life of heroes but the story of every man (and woman) in all climates and all ages. Its topic is the world, the whole of history…It shows the way to nations as well as individuals. It continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion, to echo God’s cry to the world and to pierce man’s callousness.”
Faith in humankind
Most important, he adds that if the great problem in the life of humans is whether to trust, to have faith in God, then the great problem in the life of God is whether to trust, to have faith in humankind.
“The central issue is not our decision to extend formal recognition to God, to furnish God with a certificate of existence, but the realization of our importance to God’s design; not to prove God is alive, but to prove that humankind is not dead; not to prove God, but to prove ourselves.”
This means that the bible records the stories of God’s eternal efforts with humankind: God’s voice that goes out to people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph; people just like us. It records their stories of how they heard, ignored, obeyed and disobeyed this Voice. And in their stories we hear our own stories; our own stories of how we heard, ignored, obeyed and disobeyed God’s voice.
And in their stories we have been given the benefit of hindsight, their testimonies of how in and through their best and worst efforts, in and through their faith and unfaith, God had been at work.
Fallible and fragile people
These stories are captivating because they are so human. The fathers of faith are fallible and fragile people. One can follow their stories, but you can hardly fathom it. You can be intrigued, but always grappling for insight. For weaved into these stories of conceit and betrayal, these stories of faltering faith and brutality are threads and dreams of another world; another reality…are moments of forgiveness and repentance. Even more; moments of repentance and redemption.
This is a story of people who are at their greatest, not when they are standing tall, but when they could bow down. The story of a different courage: not only the courage to grant forgiveness, but the courage to ask, to plead for forgiveness. The story of redemption that goes through repentance. The story that continues hundreds of years later when a Roman soldier exclaimed before a man dying on a cross: Truly, this man is the Son of God!
None of this is obvious for all to see.
To discern this is as difficult in our lives as it was in theirs. What it is that changes us from being our brother’s persecutor to become our brother’s keeper? What is that makes us big enough to grant forgiveness and even bigger to ask for it?
Perhaps there’s a clue in this story. And again, almost unseen, it runs through the lives of all these people. When Joseph consoles his brothers, four times in these few verses, he tells them: do not be distressed because you sold me, for God sent me before you to preserve life. He doesn’t absolve them by saying: you didn’t do it. He says: you did it, but the bad you perpetrated, God somehow used and transformed into something good.
The parts which compels us to conclude that we have witnessed God’s dealings with people, are not the moments when the patriarchs rise above the ability of human beings, it is exactly the moments they sink into the very imperfections we all wrestle with.
God knows our imperfections
For to bring any plan or purpose to fruition through success is a very human achievement; to bring a plan or purpose to fruition in and through defeat and failure is something only God can do.
When Jesus Christ dies, what is by ancient standards, a shameful death on a cross, God works in and through his death to bring about new life: the life of the resurrection.
That is why Paul can say that the treasure of God’s love in Jesus Christ lives in clay jars – so that it may be made clear that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor 4:7)
But more than anything else, so that we, who know our own imperfections, who know our own fragility and defencelessness, that we may never despair of these. Our faith is not about the ways we triumph over our imperfections and failures, our faith is about the way God’s purposes triumphs in and through these imperfections and failures.
Our faith in God is based, not on God’s pride in us, but on God’s love for us.
That is gospel of Jesus Christ; that is why we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Yes, even Jacob.
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, United Theological College
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