Monday, July 24, 2017

Joseph: The Dreamer in Exile

Joseph Pt. 1
Genesis 37-41

Before we go into this story,
I feel the need to go back and review the entire history of the Jewish people.
It will only take a minute, I’m just covering a couple thousand years.
Now keep in mind that these are all approximate guesses,
And not everyone agrees on it, and some things don’t add up,
but that’s how it is when you’re working with ancient history

And this was a group of people who most everyone else didn’t
know how important they would be to us today, so lots of stuff
wasn’t recorded, but this is the best info that I could find.  

Here’s the good years:
1800 – 1700 BC – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael,
1500 BC – Joseph
1280 BC - The Exodus
1200-1000 BC  - Judges
1025-1010 BC – King Saul
1010-970 BC King David
960 BC – Solomon’s Temple Completed

Then things started to go not so good for them.

931 BC – Split between the Northern and southern kingdoms: Israel (
Samaria) and Judah
740-722 BC – The Northern kingdom Falls to Assyria
597 BC -- First deportations to Babylon
586 BC – Jerusalem falls to Nebuchadnezzar and Solomon’s temple is destroyed – The Exile
540 BC – Jews allowed to return to Israel

See that didn’t take long. I’ll tell show you why I reviewed that in a minute.

So the common mythology that was believed until about the 19th century is that Moses wrote the book of Genesis. The image was that at some point when he was wandering around the desert homeless trying to take care of every Israelite, and he sat down and wrote a book.  Some people still adamantly adhere to this belief today, like really adamantly.

Until the 1940’s the Catholics banned their scholars from investigating the origins of Genesis and the rest of the Pentatuch, the first five books of the bible, because they thought it was sacreligious to suggest it wasn’t Moses.

In the 19th century, biblical scholars started to realize that the stories of Genesis did not look as uniform as if they were done by one writer. They seemed like they were more hobbled together from many sources. Some use one name for God, other parts use another. There’s repetition and contradicting narratives. The oral sources are called JEPD.  
We could talk for hours just on this topic, but I’ve got other places to go today.

So today, scholars believe that parts of the book of Genesis were shared orally and pieces were written down by many different authors and shared for centuries and then complied together sort of into what we know as Genesis around the early 500’s BC.  

Now the story of Joseph in contrast to the rest of Genesis seems to be consistent and fluid and seems to be written down by one person and not shared orally first. Scholars think that it was written in the early 500’s, same time that the rest of the stories were complied together, and then put on the end of Genesis.

So, what was happening in the early 500’s?   
The Babylonian Exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was destroyed, the King and his sons were killed and a large portion of the people of Judah were separated sent off to Babylon and lived as Exiles in a gentile country. 

With some adjustments, I think it would have been akin to the Syrian war and the refugees made to leave their home.

Now the Jews that were made to leave, were at least given a place to settle in Babylon.
But this was still horrible moment for the Jewish people.
It was the demolition of their home, their religion, a separation of their people their family, their heritage,
and mostly it seemed like the destruction of God’s promise to them.

The survivors lived in a foreign country against their will and were often treated with hostility.
It was a test of faith in God’s promises.
For the people who thought that God was with them and for them,
they wondered if God had abandoned them,
or if this was all seen as punishment from God for sins.

So this is the time when Genesis and actually most of the
Old Testament was compiled and written down.
It's obvious why land and offspring, and heritage,
and long term stability for their people were the recurring desires in Genesis.

Now I was just reading someone’s  take on this in some book,
and Facebook  Jesus came through again. He wrote:

The Hebrew Scriptures are an artifact of a dying civilization lying on the ground bleeding, going back through its life and wondering what went wrong.
This gave me a interesting take  Joseph and the rest of Genesis that I didn’t really have before.

Joseph, and all of Genesis was written by people looking back from the middle of a huge disaster that  tore apart their whole country, people, and religion.  

If we forget this fact and when it was written, the story of Joseph is just a great adventure story of a slightly conceited, cocky, young guy who has some problems, but always comes out on top because he believes in Yahweh and follows God’s law.

Which isn’t terrible, but it sounds a little like a prosperity gospel,
believe and do your best God will reward you type of story which is not what we usually see.

But if we remember that Joseph was written at the Israelites lowest point,
when it looked like they were utterly destroyed and God had left them,
I think it makes a lot more sense.

So many of us know the basic story of Joseph because it’s been used a lot  in popular culture.

Joseph, the dreamer, is sold by his brothers to some traders, and then he gets sold then as a slave in Egypt, to Potiphar, a high ranking official in Pharaoh’s court.

So the dreamer is displaced from the promised land in the gentile land, Egypt, the empire.  

While he’s in the empire, Joseph is falsely accused based, his strange religion is called out,  and he’s put into prison.  Desperation upon desperation. 
This is not just the story of one boy, it’s the story of the Jewish people.

Joseph Sold into Slavery By His Brothers
Karoly Ferenczy
When we look at it this way, the story of Joseph is a story of hope in desperate times.
It’s about having faith through terrible situations,
it’s about  living as an alien in the middle of the empire, and  not letting God’s dreams die.

So given the reality of the conditions under which it was written, the questions I think this story asks are:

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Is the dream over?
How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?
So we’ll go right to the first question

Is God punishing us if everything seems to be going wrong?
Things are bad for Joseph.
His dream interpretation skills get him in trouble,
his favor with Jacob gets him in trouble.
Even his coat gets him in trouble. He’s sold into slavery, he goes to prison.

If bad fortune was a sign of God’s punishment,
 then Joseph would have to have done something very wrong to anger God.
But we know from the beginning that that was not the case.
The story does not portray Joseph as doing anything worthy of punishment.
Also, we know that Joseph was Jacob’s son,
and if God didn’t punish Jacob then God was not going to punish this family.

Actually, every time he comes into a bad situation, his the special gifts that
God’s gave him seems to come through and he’s put into the best position he can be put in.

This was actually something that happened to Israelites
while they were in exile. Some rose to prominence in Babylon.
They were allowed to live freely and work and run businesses.
They still longed for home and stability and their own land and people,
But it says that when they were able to return to Jerusalem,
some opted not to, but stayed where they were, like lots of refugees do.

The Joseph story shows us bad things happen to good people.
And God can work good things out of bad situations.
This was a hope and consolation for those living in exile.

Now  I don’t want to give the end of the story away, but
Joseph is reunited with his brothers after about 20 years, and
they wonder if he will be angry with them and punish them.
But Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid.” “You planned something bad for me,
but God made something good from it.”

I do like how this translation words this.
The brothers planned something bad, but God made good.
The world does bad things to us. Not God.
God makes good out of a bad situation.
In this world where things are unfair and evil thoughts and actions exist,
the righteous will suffer.
God is always working at bringing good out of bad.
Joseph is seen as nothing but a good servant of God.
His suffering is a sign of the world he lives in and not God’s displeasure.
He actually suffers because of his righteousness.
In the age of the prosperity gospel,
this is a message that we need to be reminded of again and again.
Bad things happen to good people.

So, onto the next question:

Is the dream over?
Joseph, God’s dreamer is sent to a foreign land and then he’s imprisoned. if Joseph isn’t being
punished by God, then it might look like God has lost or given up or left us all together.

Lots of people note, that until this story, God is an actor in Genesis.
He comes and personally talks to people or he sends messengers to consort with them.
But in this story, God is silent. God is mentioned, but God is not to be seen.
Has God lost? Have we lost God?   No, but God is hidden.

In times of crisis, sometimes we have to look beyond the obvious
to find God’s presence and power working through our hopeless situations.
God abides in Joseph, the hero of the story, in the faithful, in the dreamers,
blessing the world, even though the world may not know or serve God.
This blessing comes through Joseph, but it’s never fully in Joseph’s hand.  SLIDE

Just because things are not looking good,
it doesn’t mean that God is lost or the dream is over.
As Joseph shows us, the dream may be in a foreign land,
the dream may be in prison, the dream may be serving another country,
The dream may not look like we think the dream should.
But God’s dream of  people that number more than sand in the desert
and stars in the sky, that  live in harmony and worship him,
and who are a light to all the nations, that dream has not died
and will never die it still lives in the hearts and lives of those who believe,
like it lives in Joseph and in us.

So if God is not punishing us and the dream is still alive,

How should we behave as exiles in a foreign land?

Joseph is definitely depicted as a model for how to act in his displaced situation.
Although Potiphar’s wife tries to, It says that Joseph doesn’t want to sleep with Potiphar’s wife
because he doesn’t want to betray Potiphar or to “Sin against God.”
So even thought Joseph is not in the land of his ancestors,
or the place where Yahweh is worshipped, he still follows Yahweh’s teachings.

Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife (who has no name)
tells us not to be seduced by the wiles of the empire.
Now, some might assume that is a moral for Jewish men not to have relations with gentile women
but by the end of the story, Joseph marries Aseneth,
the daughter of an Egyptian priest,
so Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife is more than a sexual moral.

It’s about not being seduced by the trappings and comforts of the empire which are tempting.
It’s a warning about all the seductions of living in a powerful and well-off place.
It’s about not forgetting that we are God’s children and should behave like it.

Joseph cannot win in this situation, if he sleeps with her, he’s doomed and if he doesn’t he’s doomed,
so Joseph opts to maintain his integrity and his ideals
and face the consequences of not adapting to the culture.

As believers living in the empire, we should be “in the world, but not of the world.”
Sound familiar.
We can talk next week about whether Joseph
actually sticks to his principles by the end of the story.
But for right now, he’s doing pretty well.

There’s also another element to this question.
Again, I don’t want to give away the story if you don’t know it,
but it turns out incredibly well for Joseph
and actually for everyone in the end.

Besides reuniting with his brothers and his father,
Joseph’s presence and actions save the people of Egypt,
and his whole family and all the Israelites from starvation.
Joseph and the dreams that he carried with him were a blessing to others.
So, in a foreign land, even in a hostile land,
the children of Yahweh are a light to the other nations.

Now even though most of us have been born in this land and lived here all our lives,
this advice is still relevant for us.
We are believers in God’s dream and a land that is
hostile to God’s dream.
Sometimes it probably feels  like we are aliens in our own world.
And it should. We live a different way.

But while we’re here, we should not be seduced by the trappings of the empire.
Not be sucked in by the comfort and the ease of living, but remember who’s we are.
But we should still be a blessing to this world whenever we can.

So the story of Joseph is not just a story of one plucky young man
who follows God and is rewarded.
It’s the story of a dream in exile.
Of a people trying to get their heads around how to live in a new reality.
It’s about whether or not God is with us, when everything seems to be against us.
It’s about not giving up on God’s dream no matter what the world gives us.

This is the story of believers throughout the ages
living in a hostile world, but knowing God will always be there.

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