Gifts from unexpected places
The story of Jacob just keeps on giving! The story of Jacob’s son Joseph is a dark gift but it is gift. (RCL Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28) The gift of the knowledge that even the darkest pit, the vilest betrayal, cannot necessarily separate us from God’s mercies and purposes. That reconciliation can bind the deepest wound together in the self, the family and dare we pray with and among the nations.
The Jacob story of sibling rivalry and struggle goes on. Jacob, now an old man enjoying the fruits of his belated peace with his brother and a land of his own, has produced offspring who carry on the conflict. It is important to remember that the envy and brutality of the older siblings for the younger Joseph did not emerge out of a vacuum. The rivalry between their father Jacob with his older twin Esau and between their mothers Leah and Rachael carries on among them. All the older sons are the children of Jacob and his wife Leah whereas Joseph is the son of the preferred but until late in life barren Rachael. The rivalry is no doubt reflected and magnified by Joseph being encouraged to report on his brothers back to his father! Many families know this terrible and bitter situation, sometimes through many generations. Many workplaces have some of this dynamic. Many churches are divided and competitive communities. And many of us can remember in the school playground or some other place this sense of being preferred or passed over on the basis of criteria we did not understand or could do nothing about.
As twenty first century people most of us come to this text, and others like it, with the disturbance that slavery is a given, that women are given and taken in marriage and servanthood with little reference to their wants or welfare, that often only male children are valued or even named, and that even business relationships and land deals and inheritance issues are not ethical or just by our standards. I for one find much in this story to be uncomfortable about and there is a lot of work to be done to extricate the hand of God from the socio-cultural behaviours that most of us find abhorrent. Even in its own time frame and context Jacob and his behaviour from the struggle in the womb to this story in his old age is one of someone who is desperate for blessings and takes them by deceit as well as hard work.
Despite all these reservations and cautions I cannot help but recognise a certain accuracy in this depiction of life and desperate striving for successes and misplaced security. Like so many of these ancient stories they work at many levels including at the surface as a dark and uncomfortable mirror of some of our meta-stories. This story also works as a description of the inner striving and the damage we do ourselves and others in the process. Joseph, the relatively innocent one, ends up down the pit, waiting for his fate at the hands of others.
The solution of the older brothers is to remove the competition – to get rid of Joseph. First thought is to kill him but then as an act of compassion they decide to put him down the pit and then get an opportunity to sell him into slavery. There is a whole moral lesson here on the social sin of slavery and more generally the sin of making others suffer to appease our pain – the sin of projecting our fears and anger and lack onto another and then blaming them for looking like the source of our pain.
And at an intra-psychic or spiritual level there is also an issue about the ignorance, naivety and lack of empathy in the behaviour of Joseph. Knowing himself favoured he then shares his dreams with little self awareness or concern for how this impacts on others. He may or may not have been actually boasting but he certainly has shared his sense of being ordained as special in a way that was always going to upset others and increase a sense of competition. Great power is coming his way, according to the dreams, and he does not know yet how to contain it or use it for the good of others. He is not yet wise.
While nothing in the socio-cultural world justifies throwing one another down a pit or selling one another into slavery, in the internal world of our psyche/soul sometimes we need a season in the depths and in submission before we have the wisdom and compassion to use our powers well. While our reading this week ends in suspense (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28) and picks up next week in power and reconciliation (Genesis 45:1-15), in between (why oh why is this left out?) we hear how Joseph came to grow in humility and wisdom and then use that deep broad knowledge as a power for good: he prospers, his master and adopted nation prospers, and eventually his family prospers because of his mature faith and compassionate wisdom.
When we look back on difficult times in our life can we see the wisdom, compassion, resilience, humility, and faith that has grown in us as a result of learning to live fully even in the pit, the prison, in a foreign land? I do not wish to condone the prisons we build for each other in this social world but I do not want to reclaim the wisdom and power of the victim (think of James Alison’s brilliant book “Knowing Jesus” in which he explores the intelligence of the victim) and to advocate a spirituality of the whole of our experience not just the easy and obvious blessings.
In the unfolding story of Jacob and his children we can see the terrible consequences of our wrongdoings and vanities and we can see that grace awaits us in strange places and can use everything in helping us flourish in the life we are given and make with others.
Even so, come Eternal One and help us grow in grace in whatever our circumstance.