What Will Joseph Do?

Famine in the Horn of Africa, 2011
Photo Credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
– Genesis 45:1-15

Today as this post goes live, and this weekend as many Christians will hear it read in their churches, we would do well to observe that this is a time of famine. In the story, and today. The worst drought in 60 years has hit parts of East Africa affecting more than 10 million people.

The story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is, of course, a happy one. But the backdrop is one of global disaster. The reason Joseph’s brothers have come is that there is no food. There has been no food for two years, and there will be no food for another five.

The take-away we commonly hear is this line about how they (the brothers) meant for ill but God meant it for good, and there’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But in this story’s global context, Joseph’s words about how God sent him to Egypt “to preserve life” takes on a much greater significance. Indeed, Joseph preserves the lives of countless Egyptians along with the Israelites, but he does so in a way that makes them all slaves to Pharaoh. Joseph’s divine vision and insight is mixed with a healthy dose of political opportunism.

Such is always the case with claims of divinity. They come wrapped in human agendas. And, while the human agenda doesn’t negate the possibility of divine revelation, it makes religion in politics a particularly harrowing proposition with a propensity to end up in slavery.

To come back around to the connection between the famine then and the famine now, we might take at face value Joseph’s assertion that God intended his being there for good. Indeed Joseph had the power and used it to save lives. Given that assertion, that God places people, in advance, in the position to save lives in times of famine, then there are three compelling questions:

  1. Who has God placed in the position to save lives in the Horn of Africa today?
  2. Will they exercise their power? And,
  3. Will they exercise it in a way that will not enslave those who are saved?

Or, to put it a more colloquial way: Who is today’s Joseph? And, What will Joseph do?

By way of beginning an answer, there are plenty of aid groups on the ground in Somalia and Kenya. They are doing the best they can under extreme conditions, and they are to be commended. There have been millions of dollars dispatched in aid to the region. That’s good, it’s necessary, and it’s right.

That said, of all the governors and representatives pandering to the pious sensibilities of folk in today’s politics, will the real Joseph please stand up? Joseph is someone who has real power to influence the known world, who has the foresight to see what is coming, and the political savvy to get resources where they need to be. Who is (and where is) the world leader who has the vision to anticipate the famine that is coming seven years from now? Three years from now? Who will go ahead while so many others mean for ill, selling their brothers and sisters into slavery for their own convenience, to be the one to “keep alive many survivors.”

That person is the instrument of God. I don’t care what religion he or she may (or may not) be. Do you?

Meanwhile, if you want to help now, here is a list of reputable famine relief organizations compiled by CBS, some faith-based, some not.

Behind Door Number 3 – Free Joseph

Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monument to the Slave Market in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo credit: "Irene2005"

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
– Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The second and third paragraphs bring together two versions of this story. In the first, Reuben gets to be the one to save Joseph’s life. In the second, Judah gets to be the “hero.” But neither brother is a beacon of light here. Reuben is a crass opportunist, hoping to be the one to gain advantage over the others by “proving” his loyalty to their father in the act of delivering his favorite back safe and sound – except then it all goes wrong. Judah’s appeal is not much better. What kind of moral argument is: “Let’s not kill him, since he’s our brother, let’s just sell him”?

And don’t let the story’s opening justify what these brothers did. Trying to argue that Joseph somehow deserved what he got for being so uppity doesn’t cut the mustard. They sold him as a slave. Period. The story ought to be the occasion for us to think about how we have sold out our brothers (and sisters), and how we desperately try to rationalize our choices to do what we know is absolutely unconscionable. If you want a three point sermon, you can focus on three typical rationalizations:

  1. They deserved what they got. Sometime in the past, someone brought a bad (false) report about us or someone close to us. They upset the family’s (read also office’s or church’s or nation’s) sensibilities. They were too insolent, offensive, snooty, proud, or ambitious. So, we had to do what we had to do.
  2. I was just doing what was necessary to get ahead. See a need, fill a need. Joseph doesn’t want to die, Jacob wants his son back. I can persuade them to hold off, and then I can leverage that into a better deal down the road. It’s not just back door deals in business and politics.
  3. It was the lesser of two evils. Except that most of the time, we tell ourselves that we are choosing between two evils, when those two evils aren’t the only options. You didn’t really have to choose between one or the other. You could have chosen door number 3 – free Joseph. The average is the enemy of the good.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m just saying that if we can learn anything from this, it’s that no matter how you try to make it seem right, or justify it later on, selling someone out is still selling them out. And selling out always comes at a catastrophic human cost.

Today there are more people in slavery worldwide than at any time in history, as many as 27 million. They make the cocoa that goes into your Hershey’s chocolate bar. They make your Converse All-Star shoes. They are forced into the sex “industry” and to wage war as child soldiers. Their lives are no happier than the children memorialized in Zanzibar. We can tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do. But that’s a rationalization, too. To do nothing, and to say nothing, is to be one of the other 9 brothers in this story, who are never mentioned by name, who said nothing, who went along to get along, and did nothing to stop the unconscionable from happening.

I wonder how many preachers will have the guts to say something about it this Sunday. What will you say? What will you do?