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.