A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Road to Reconciliation. The Story of Joseph and Judah
August 7, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 19 Gen 37:1-4, 12-28
Power does not bring peace. Peace comes with the willingness to forego one's own self-interests for the good of all. The Bible calls this wisdom. To be a peacemaker it is important to discern the difference between power and wisdom.
In those pre-Jungian days, when the Book of Genesis was compiled, dreams were powerful. They were sources of divine insight. The dreamer and, more importantly, the dreamer interpreter, had significant power. Yet there is a world of difference between having power and having wisdom.
Part of Joseph's problem was that he never seemed able to distinguish clearly between power and wisdom. Joseph was the first-born son of Jacob and Rachel, and the 11th born son of his father. He was his father's favourite. His father, Jacob, was indifferent to and neglected his other children. Joseph was also the recipient of dreams - dreams that had Joseph in the centre and his elder brothers bowing down to him. He broadcast and boasted of these dreams.
So began Joseph's journey to power. Joseph believed from the outset that he was born to greatness, and he continued throughout his life to assume that he was unquestionably the leading character in the scenario that unfolded around him and that he was directing events. The dreams would come to pass. The dreams were power. What Joseph did not have, and didn't realise he was missing, was wisdom. This point is totally absent from Lloyd-Weber's musical. The Technicolour Dream Coat is a rags to riches story. Joseph is a victim of jealousy, nearly murdered, and then, through the goodness of God and his own abilities he makes it to the top of the Egyptian power tree. At the top he tests his brothers, forgives them, and they all live happily ever after due to the magnificent, God-blessed, Joseph. Or so it seems.
While Joseph was journeying up the Egyptian pyramid of power, back in Israel another journey was underway, a journey towards wisdom. In chapter 38 of Genesis there is, suddenly, an interruption. A story, seemingly totally unrelated to Joseph, is REPLACEed. It tells of Tamar who is married to Judah's eldest son. The son dies and, as is the custom in order to protect Tamar's right to progeny, she marries the next born son. This son also dies. Judah as you can imagine is devastated. Of his three sons two are now dead. It seems as if Tamar is jinxed. So, instead of following the custom, protecting Tamar's rights, Judah refuses to let his third son marry her. Tamar is left on the outer.
But Tamar, in the great tradition of Hebrew women, doesn't take this lying down. When Judah is out walking, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, and offers him her services. As surety in lieu of payment Tamar keeps Judah's ring and staff. In time, Tamar conceives from her encounter with Judah and the proverbial hits the fan. Tamar has taken a frightening risk. Judah condemns her to death. In response she produces the ring and staff. Judah allows himself to perceive the truth. "She is more right than I," he admits, "since I did not give to her my [third-born] son." Judah humbly acknowledges that he is wrong.
While this is a story of a woman's courage, it is also an important part of Judah's journey - a journey that would take Judah from selfishness and ignorance to wisdom. He learned from Tamar that it is impossible to save what he loved by holding on to it, in defiance of what he knew to be right. To save what we love there are times when we need to let go. This truth is at the heart of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, over in Egypt, Joseph's journey to power continues. He uses his abilities. He is politically groomed in Potiphar's house. He has sound boundaries when it comes to sex. Although he spends some time in gaol, he goes to the top - becoming Pharaoh's 'right hand man'. But Joseph had buried rather than dealt with his animosity towards his brothers. He also had not overcome the arrogance of his youth. Joseph was an excellent C.E.O. with great talents and economic insight, yet in Biblical terms that didn't make him wise.
Then came the encounter with his brothers. Due to the famine they travelled to Egypt to seek help. They didn't' recognise Joseph and bowed down to him [thus fulfilling Joseph's egocentric childhood dreams]. Joseph is awash with the past. He remembers its pain and his anger arises: "You are spies!" he yells. Joseph has three concerns, none of which have to do with spying. Firstly, his past - he wants his brothers to feel remorse and repent for wronging him. Secondly, his brother Benjamin [Rachel's only other son] who is back in Canaan. Lastly, his father Jacob.
Joseph sets himself up as a kind of therapist. He metes out a bit of shock treatment - the brothers are thrown into jail for three days. And then one of them is kept captive while the others return to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. The therapy does seem to begin to work. "Alas we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother [Joseph]," they cried. Joseph, in private, also cried. The therapy was working on him too.
The brothers return to Canaan where, surprise surprise, Jacob is not keen to lose his favourite Benjamin. So the brothers stay at home until the famine strikes again. Then Judah [note well!], who is not a favourite son or a firstborn [he is actually the fourth born], re-enters the picture. It is Judah who persuades Jacob to let them take Benjamin to Egypt. Judah had learned from his own experience that it is sometimes necessary to let go.
When Joseph sees Benjamin he is overcome with emotion. The pain and rage that had hardened during Joseph's 22 years in Egypt were beginning to melt. But he was not so transformed that he had lost all his old desire to dominate. Joseph engineered yet another test for his brothers, which ended with his threatening to keep Benjamin behind with him in Egypt - a loss that their father Jacob would be unable to sustain.
Finally, it was Judah, not Joseph, who brought about the reconciliation and final outcome. In an impassioned speech Judah accepted full responsibility for the crimes of his family. Twenty-two years earlier he had been ready to sell his brother into slavery. Now he was prepared to remain in Egypt as a slave to ensure that Benjamin was free. He offered his own freedom. He had learned what it was like to lose beloved sons; he had learned to empathize with his father, Jacob, and to forgive Jacob for the years of indifference and neglect. His own suffering had enabled him to enter the inner world of the father who had wronged him. Judah had also learned from Tamar that it is only when we admit we have been wrong that we can take full control of our lives and stop the ongoing cycle of violence, deception and reprisal.
Twenty-two years earlier Judah had stood silent as Jacob wept over the loss of his son Joseph. Now he could not endure the thought of his father going through that again. At last, after three generations one member of the family had learned compassion, and was prepared to give up his freedom for it. Joseph was profoundly moved by Judah's plea. He burst into tears. "I am Joseph," he told his astonished brethren. Suddenly Joseph understands the meaning of his life. A light bulb comes on in his head. He could forgive his brothers, he told them, because they had only been "God's tools". Had he not risen to power in Egypt the whole family would have died of hunger.
It's a great Lloyd-Weber finale: hugs, tears, and kisses all round, brother loving brother... or so it seemed. Actually the only person weeping, save Benjamin, was Joseph himself. Joseph's speech has a number of disquieting elements about it. It is still full of the egotism that helped to cause his suffering all those years before. He, Joseph, was the chosen deliverer; he, Joseph, would be the provider! Joseph had not confronted his own faults in relation to the past but, still possessed by dreams of power, he set himself firmly at centre stage. There is something insulting in the way he completely discounted his brothers' responsibility for their crime - turning them into pawns of God. Indeed for all Joseph's sudden talk about God, he really believed he was the one in control.
The silence of the brothers' response to all this is telling. When seventeen years later their father Jacob dies the brothers were filled with fear. "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back...?" All those seventeen years they had worried about his intentions and never fully trusted him.
Joseph had tremendous power, but not tremendous wisdom. The wise one in the story, the one who brought reconciliation and peace, is Judah. Judah had through painful mistakes learnt integrity. Judah had learnt compassion - even towards those who had hurt him like his father. Judah had learnt the humility of accepting responsibility for, and the consequences of, his actions. Judah had also learnt the importance of letting go of what one loves: the journey to wisdom requires us to hold lightly to many things.
May we be always attentive to wisdom and careful of power.
(I am indebted to Karen Armstrong's work on Joseph in In The Beginning Great Britain : Fount, 1996)