Joseph, God, and Success – Held on Sunday, February 09, 2014

Outline of Post on the Scripture Session held on 02/09/14

  1. Introductory Remarks
  2. Background to today’s Reading
  3. Reading Gen. 39: 01 – 23
  4. Discussion

Introductory Remarks

I passed as a handout Walter Brueggemann’s schema of the Joseph Narrative, Gen. 39 – 50.  [Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KT, 2010, page 297]  The schema gives an overview of these fourteen chapters, the dominant themes that run through them and the relationship of the chapters to one another.

Background to today’s Reading: Gen. 39: 01 – 23.

As we approach this chapter there are a number of points to pay attention to, to recognize in the text itself.

  • The chapter opens and closes with reference to Yahweh being with Joseph, bringing him success.
  • Throughout, however, there is no mention of Joseph’s family.
  • Again it is important to realize that it is a literary work and not a history book.  Joseph symbolizes Israel, Potiphar and others symbolize Egypt.  Egypt itself symbolizes imprisonment, slavery.
  • Potiphar speaks not a word.
  • His wife, however,  commands center attention; a woman of power, used to getting her way, commanding with the expectation that she whatever she wasn’t she will get.
  • Sex also plays a central role, though the outcome is quite different than the previous chapter’s presentation sex in the persons of Tamar and Judah.
  • On a final note, Yahweh is presented throughout as being with Joseph.  It reminded me of the very sentence in Matthew’s Gospel, 28: 20, in which Jesus speaks his final words to this disciples, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Of course, the “you” is us.

The chapter itself can be subdivided into three episodes:

  1. Vv.  01 – 06 establishes Joseph rise to power in his new situation because of Yahweh being with him and blessing him with success.
  2. Vv.  07 – 20 tell of the wife of Potiphar’s failed attempt to seduce Joseph and in retaliation has her husband through him into the royal prison.  Joseph’s resistance is couched in words that reveal both the human and the divine dimension of life.
  3. Vv.  21 – 23 reveals, like a book end to the chapter, Yahweh’s presence and blessing of Joseph even though imprisoned.

Reading: Gen. 39: 01 – 23


We took a slightly different tack this time around.  I first pointed out from the Handout, how this chapter fits into a thread that continues through chapter 41 under the heading of “Joseph and the Empire (read Egypt)”.   With that background I read the entire chapter.  I had intended to read the first section again but Rosemarie questioned in a general way why there is so much sex in the bible.  It should come as no surprise that Rosemarie’s question opened up to include not only why there is so much sex but why is there so much violence, war, dysfunction, etc. in the bible.  Of course, this is the stuff of human life.  We quickly recalled J. Edgar Hoover’s uncovering of the seamy side of MLK, Jr. life.  Then there was President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The 50th anniversary the Kennedy assassination was example of violence and his own numerous affairs.

For some, the very presence of this material in “God’s Book” is evidence not to believe in this God.  How are we to respond?  Let’s begin with a simple but profound observation the bible at its core is an account of the entrance of God into human history.  And human history is filled with sex, violence, war, dysfunction, etc.  As Ken remarked, the inclusion of these very human realities is not God’s condoning of them but rather God’s engaging us as we are.  This is the underlying meaning of Paul in writing “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” [Rm. 08:05]  For the believer this is really good news.  In the words of Paul Tillich, “You are accepted.”  It is in being accepted as we are that we are empowered to become whom God intends us to be.  The invitation is to love others as they are so that our love my invite them to be who they are.

Our conversation brought out another critical point.  In any discussion of the bible we inevitably select out some part of it and use it as evidence of what we hold to be the true interpretation of the part we selected out.   To exemplify what the modern world presence to us I offered an example that came up as I prepared for the discussion of today’s passage.

We might recall how Ken a few weeks ago argued that there has to be some historical truth to these stories; they aren’t just literature.  When critical historians have studied the “Joseph Narrative” they have uncovered a related story in Egyptian literature entitled, “The Tale of Two Brothers.” What was discovered historically was ancient Egyptian literature; not Joseph’s presence in Egypt.  The discovery of this material, which cannot really be to denied, raises a series of basic questions.

  1. Did either narrative influence the authorship of the other narrative? If yes, then
  2. Which of the two accounts were written first?
  3. Finally which account influenced the writing of the other account.

Brueggemann thinks that the Egyptian account predates the biblical Joseph narrative.  However, more traditionalist scholars argue the opposite.  Now they both can’t be true.  And we, who are not scholars, are left to believe one or the other or neither.  Such is the case not just with biblical debates, but extends to most significant social issues of the day.  We tend to select out those who believe as we do and thus reinforce our position, right or wrong.  A few examples from today’s hot button issues: Fracking, Keystone Pipeline, Immigration, Same Sex Marriage, etc. etc. etc.

As is often the case, we moved on only to find another point of discussion that somewhat baffled me.  Faryl wanted to know how Potiphar could have interpreted Joseph’s success as being a result of Yahweh’s blessing him.  I pointed to v. 3 “When his master saw that the LORD was with him and brought him success in whatever he did …” Although it seemed clear to me that this verse lets the audience of the final redactor know what that redactor thought; namely that the “LORD,” was recognized as blessing Joseph.  The discussion went on for more than ten minutes.  It finally dawned on me that it might help if we had some sense of the various time frames involved in any biblical account.  What follows are just generalizations, some timeframe that might be more easily remembered but not a product of scholarly work.

  1. The  period of the Patriarchs begins around 3000 BC
  2. The period  of the Kingdoms begins around 1000 BC
  3. The period of  the final redaction of the Torah around 500 BC
  4. To place a date on the final form of the Bible I would suggest reading

Somehow we moved on.  As we discussed the episode of the wife of Potiphar attempting but failing to seduce Joseph, I raised a question, what are the two reasons Joseph gives for refusing the wife’s advances?  Tim quickly identified those two reasons.  There is first Joseph’s sense of obligation to Potiphar who had entrusted all of his belongings to him.  Secondly to violate his wife would be a sin against God.  These two arguments can be generalized to any of our decisions.  In our life we are always involved with both the human and the divine dimensions, even if we do not know it or think about it.  It is the divine dimension, however, that is so different than what we would expect, understand.  It is very a different world than the one we think we live in.  When Jesus reminds us that we are the light of the world that light is an awareness of and appreciation for the Kingdom of God, the world as God intends it to be for us.  To know and appreciate that world is to live in the light and to not know and / or appreciate that world is to live in darkness.

In the final episode we are reminded that Joseph even though imprisoned found favor with Yahweh.  Certainly Joseph was wrongly imprisoned.  Even though the LORD was with him, the LORD did not stop unjust things from happening to Joseph.  That is rather important to keep in mind.  We ended our discussion by bringing out many examples of how we are imprisoned in our life today.  Annette mentioned an example of a person living with Alzheimer.  Tim thought than anyone living with an addition is imprisoned.  There are many other ways in which we can be imprisoned, a false sense of what is important in terms of how we look, where we live, what kind of clothes we wear.  Maybe others can identify more significant ways we are imprisoned.  The message in these final verses is that God never abandons us.

You are invited to respond to these or other questions that might arise within you as you read this passage.  Your comments, observations, questions are welcomed.  See “comment” link below

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