Where is God when it all goes wrong? – A Bible Month reflection on Joseph’s story from the book of Genesis

Bible Month graphic showing Joseph’s bloody robe on the left below the words ‘You intended to harm me…’, an image of Joseph in jail in the centre, and Joseph in Egypt, with the words ‘but God intended it for good, the saving of many lives’. Click image to enlarge.

TODAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool.

The inspiration came from the theme of Week 4 of Bible Month, an annual campaign that invites the whole Methodist Church to focus on one book of the Bible. This year it’s the book of Genesis, and Week 4 focuses on the story of Joseph. The readings were Genesis 37:2-4, 12-28 in which Joseph’s brothers pretend they have killed him and sell him into slavery, and Genesis 45: 1-15, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers many years later. My interpretation of Joseph’s story was informed by the work of Peterson Toscano.

Where is God when it all goes wrong?

This is a question that Joseph, hero of our faith, might have asked himself.

Joseph, a son of Jacob, the last of Israel’s ancient patriarchs, is at the centre of a 4,000-year-old family drama. It’s a story of favouritism, jealousy, hatred, temptation, suffering and reconciliation.

Perhaps this is a situation with which you can identify!

But the Joseph story is bigger than that. The central character, it turns out, is not Joseph but God, who directs, protects and intervenes according to his providential plan. That Joseph survives the trauma inflicted on him by his brothers to become Egypt’s most respected civil servant is a miracle only explained by God’s patient designs and Joseph’s belief that he can play a key role in them.

A performance of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd-Weber and Tim Rice, with
Chris McCarrell (centre) as Joseph.
Photo by Jason Niedle. Click image to enlarge.

Joseph is one of the best-known characters in the Hebrew Bible, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical about him and his ‘Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’.

Joseph is the second youngest of Jacob’s 12 children. Jacob loves Joseph more than any other of his sons, and gives him a gift of a robe, which the King James Version of the Bible calls ‘a coat of many colours’. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is described as ‘a long robe with sleeves’.

When they saw this, Genesis tells us, Joseph’s brothers

‘hated him and could not speak a kind word to him’.

– Genesis 37:4
Joseph’s tunic (1630) by Diego Velázquez.
Click image to enlarge.

Jealous of the attention Jacob gives Joseph, they plot to kill him, pretend he is dead and sell him into slavery in Egypt, where he ends up in prison. After correctly interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, Joseph becomes the equivalent of Pharoah’s Prime Minister and saves the land from famine. Jacob’s family travels to Egypt to escape the famine and, because of Joseph, are allowed to settle there.

What we don’t usually hear in Joseph’s story is that the ‘coat of many colours’ may be a clue to why his brothers hated him. In some Bibles, a footnote next to this phrase for the robe which Jacob gives to Joseph says ‘The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain’. Some scholars have noticed that the same Hebrew phrase only appears in one other place in the Hebrew Bible, and it includes a definition.

From Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, illustrated by Quentin Blake (1982). Click image to enlarge.

In the second book of Samuel, the same Hebrew phrase is used to describe the dress worn by Tamar, daughter of King David. It is described as

‘a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin
daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times’.

– 2 Sam 13:18

So the most literal reading of Joseph’s robe is that it was a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps Joseph’s brothers hated him because he wasn’t like them, because he didn’t conform to what they thought a man should be – an effeminate dreamer whom their father seemed to love more than them, threatening their place in the family. Joseph also had dreams that they would bow to him as if he were royalty, which didn’t help!

Esau selling his birthright (c. 1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen. Click image to enlarge.

Genesis 37:2-4, 12-28 tells us that Jacob treated Joseph as his favourite because ‘he was the son of his old age’. But perhaps this isn’t the only reason Joseph is Jacob’s favourite?

Jacob is a twin, though not identical. In Genesis 27, Jacob describes his brother Esau as ‘a hairy man’. Esau is a macho, outdoor-loving hunter. Jacob describes himself as ‘a man of smooth skin’ – he has little body hair, his temperament is sensitive, and he dwells among the tents with the women, learning to cook.

You don’t often see men cooking in the Bible. Men give burnt offerings to the Lord in the Hebrew Bible, like a holy barbecue, but no other man is portrayed as preparing meals. Jesus caters for multitudes, and grills fish on the beach, but actually preparing a whole meal is portrayed as exclusively done by women. So Jacob is portrayed in a more feminine way, and perhaps sees himself reflected in the young Joseph with a robe fit for a princess! Neither is typical hero material by the standards of their own time, yet we still celebrate them as heroes of the faith.

They are just two examples of the surprising choice of individuals God calls to participate in fulfilling his long-term plan of bringing liberation to the world.

Joseph recognized by his brothers (1863) by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois.
Click image to enlarge.

Genesis 45:1-15 is the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, who don’t recognise him many years after they cast him out of the family. He has just heard them reflecting on the wrong they have done to him. He tells them not to fear, because what they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. He commands them to go and bring their father and his entire household to Egypt to protect them from famine. This is where his dreams of having power over his family come true.

Joseph has the power to take revenge. He could have cast out the ones who had cast him out. Instead, reconciliation begins with him – the one who was outcast teaches them to be better, not bitter. Joseph sees God’s vision for them, to preserve their lives, and the lives of their descendants, as God’s chosen people. Jacob’s 12 children become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel.

God’s promise to Abraham, grandfather of Jacob, whose children led the twelve tribes of Israel, is that

‘through you, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’.

– Genesis 12:3
Burying the Body of Joseph – illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. Click image to enlarge.

The story of Joseph is the story of God’s faithfulness in turning things around against the odds. As Joseph say to his brothers just before he dies:

‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’

– Genesis 50:20

This echoes the way Joseph calms his brothers’ fears by expressing a theological outlook that puts God at the centre of events.

Joseph remains faithful despite three points of injustice in his life:

  • Genesis 37: as a teenager in a dysfunctional family, Joseph is obedient but hated – obedient to father Jacob, and to God, who reveals to Joseph a part of God’s plan for him. Joseph seems to have done the right things, but it costs him his home and his inheritance.
  • Genesis 39: as a young adult slave, Joseph is honorable but slandered, working in the home of Potiphar, a high official in the Egyptian courts, he served with integrity, and was promoted to the highest position. When Joseph refuses seduction by Potiphar’s wife, she accuses Joseph of seducing her, and he is imprisoned.
  • Genesis 39: The prison keeper puts Joseph in charge of other prisoners ‘because the Lord was with him’. Joseph is used by God and forgotten by men: When two of Pharaoh’s officers are assigned to Joseph’s care, he interprets their dreams, predicting that one would be reinstated in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph asks for his service to be remembered so that he too might be restored to freedom. But his good deed is forgotten, not rewarded.
Bible Month illustration of Joseph in prison.
Click image to enlarge.

Genesis does not describe the conditions in Joseph’s prison, but Psalm 105 says:

‘His feet were hurt with fetters,
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord kept testing him.’

– Psalm 105:18-19

In a commentary on Psalm 105, the Baptist evangelist F. B. Meyer wonders whether Joseph asked himself:

‘What had he gained by his integrity?…
Was there a God that judges righteously in the earth?’

Then Meyer addresses us:

‘You who have been misunderstood, who have sown seeds of holiness and love to reap nothing but disappointment, loss, suffering, and hate – you know something of what Joseph felt in that wretched dungeon hole.’

Joseph endures all this without losing faith in God. He avoids the conclusion that God isn’t just toying with him, raising his hopes only to crush them. As Joseph’s reunion with his brothers shows, he does not become bitter, vengeful, or angry as he faces the prospect of dying in a dungeon in a foreign country.

How does Joseph do it?

In the modern animated film Joseph: King of Dreams, Joseph sings:

Watch the full song here [4mins].

If this has been a test
I cannot see the reason
But maybe knowing
I don’t know is part of getting through
I tried to do what’s best
But faith has made it easy
To see the best thing I can do
Is to put my trust in You.

You know better than I
You know the way
I’ve let go the need to know why
For You know better than I.

Better Than I by David Campbell, from Joseph: King of Dreams [2000]

Joseph remains faithful, and the resolution of his troubles begins. His wisdom is recognised as he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, he is released to a position of authority, oversees food conservation in anticipation of a coming famine, and is reconnected and finally reconciled with his brothers and father. They are reminded of God’s promise to ensure the future of his family, and all people.

Joseph’s story focuses our attention on the mystery of God’s hidden work within human history. It invites us to look beneath the surface, consider what is going on and apply this to our own lives.

These events show that we, like Joseph, can know that God is at work, even when we think God may have forgotten us. God’s ways may seem mysterious or hidden, and there may be difficulties along the way, but God’s unfailing commitment does not depend on human infallibility or favourable circumstances. As Joseph shows us, wisdom comes through participating with God – acknowledging our limitations while anticipating the fulfilment of the Creator’s purposes. As Joseph shows, blessing and liberation might not come easily, but because they are God’s continuous activity, their promised fulfilment will come.

Throughout history, God has been achieving human transformation through creating new beginnings and bringing hope, as we see embodied in the life of Jesus.

God’s plan ultimately leads to Jesus, a liberator who enables reconciliation. Jesus enables us all to take our purposeful place in God’s enduring plan for creation. We anticipate the fulfilment of human history in the light of the story of its beginnings in Genesis.

The invitation to join God in this work requires a committed response, that brings hope of liberation to every personal and collective struggle.

How do we as followers of Christ stay faithful to God and to each other when the going gets rough?

St Paul, who was imprisoned like Joseph, writes:

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’

– Rom. 8:28

That verse only makes sense if we can trust that God is working for good in all our lives, and we are open to trusting, like Joseph, that ‘God knows better than I’. This is an assurance that justice, kindness and humility will have the last word.

Joseph learned that people will let you down, but God will never fail you. He learned to trust in this source of comfort, endurance, and hope. I pray that, like Joseph, our temptation to disillusionment with people may bring us back to God’s faithfulness

I wonder:

  • Where else, in Scripture, and in our lives, do we see Joseph’s insight at work – that God can turn humanity’s intended harm towards our good?
  • How might believing in God’s continued involvement in human history help us cope with suffering and injustice?

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2024/06/30/where-is-god-when-it-all-goes-wrong-josephs-story-from-genesis/

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