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Genesis 45:3-11, 15

The story of Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-50) and his journey down to Egypt by the treacherous actions of his brothers which then turns into a career that ascends from the depths is one of the greatest narratives in Scripture. The lectionary gives us only this tidbit at the end of the story in which Joseph reveals his identity to his hungry brothers who are now on their second journey to Egypt to get emergency food stores for their family in Canaan. Not knowing that the Egyptian bureaucrat they are begging for food is their long-lost brother who was thought dead, we can understand the depth of their surprise and disbelief when he reveals “I am Joseph!” In fact, he has to reveal this information twice before they are able to process it. It’s not often that brothers come back from the dead.

And that’s how the Christian should read this. Joseph really is a type of Christ. He has been clothed by his father in the promise of peace (a rainbow), abandoned and sold off by his kinsmen, accused of crimes he did not commit, descended into the pit and prison and then has been lifted up from that dank hole (because of his faithfulness to God) to reign over all the known world, distributing life-giving bread both far and wide. Finally, his own brothers come to him and witness that Joseph is, in fact, alive. This is a resurrection. While it may not be one literally, it is clear that it has the same impact. The brothers are deeply astonished—not unlike the disciples in Luke 24. The Hebrew even says that Jacob’s heart “stopped” when he heard the news. And Joseph does what a Messiah should—he makes a way for the people of God to make it through periods of difficulty. By his faithfulness, God uses even the terrible events of his life to save and to redeem.

Joseph makes this quite clear to his brothers. “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (v. 8). This is a difficult passage for those of us who are deeply committed to certain readings of free will over determinism. This can feel like one of those moments in which God orchestrates world events to accomplish his purposes. And I suppose you can read this that way, but then again why not just orchestrate the brothers to not sell Joseph and the world to not have a famine? Isn’t God just as glorified by people making the right choice? It all gets a bit murky and before long, you have left Joseph and his 11 brothers far behind.

Far better, I think, is to take Joseph’s theological musings more as a commentary on his story than a philosophical volley. God has turned their wicked action toward a good result—not for their sake, but for the sake of God’s name, God’s story and God’s glory. Rather than this being a question of the predetermined course of events, this is an example of how God can transform and renew a deeply broken family and situation for his good ends. It is a sign of the extent to which God’s grace bends the long arc of sinful events back within the margin of eschatological hope.

The world is a dark place. The political reality of our world is often quite tenuous. The despair of our cities, families and churches is often unbearable. Hope often seems like such an insubstantial thing that in order to justify having any, we often bind it up with anger and rage. We are hopeful, yes, but we don’t want to be naïve. So we allow our hope to be expressed in our willingness to scream and vent. I wonder, though, if this does not actually betray the hope that we say we have. Our hope is not rooted in our ability to accomplish anything. It is not based on our power to raise ourselves out of prison or take away prisons altogether. It is rooted in God’s ability to preserve God’s people. It is founded on God’s promise to redeem, no matter what.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph is not only the God who “raised” Joseph from the dead. This is the same God who actually raised Jesus from the dead. This is the same God who has harrowed hell and who proclaims that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). We would do well to be reminded of the tradition among the Church’s theologians that “we are permitted to hope that hell might be empty of human beings.” This is the audacious hope which does not take our difficulty or another’s present situation as the end of the story. It sees, as Joseph does, that all this was allowed by God so that God might work a better story.

That story, for the family of Israel, means coming under the care of Joseph and moving into the good land of Goshen. There is a simple reception of the fact of God’s goodness in their lives. We would do well to pay close attention to this, hoping ultimately in the resurrection—even beyond good sense—and living gratefully in the light of God’s provision and peace.