In this blog, I wish to write about Joseph only in glimpses to illustrate a larger problem. As preachers, we love to moralize. The more IMMEDIATE applications we can get out of our sermons, the happier we are. The fact of the matter is, in such moralizing sermons, we miss the greater picture of knowing God. Let’s get started by talking about Joseph to illustrate my theological-exegetical point.
The inspiration of this blog comes from a work called From Victim to Victimizer written by a former classmate in my PhD program. This work has stirred some controversies because it simply portrayed Joseph as an enigmatic character who was originally a victim and then became the victimizer. Is this interpretation possible? I would say, “No,” only if you idealize Joseph and compare him to Daniel. One place people who moralize the Joseph story overlooks is Gen. 47.13-26. This passage says the following based on one of my favorite translations the NET.
16 Then Joseph said, “If your money is gone, bring your livestock, and I willgive you food in exchange for your livestock.” 17 So they brought theirlivestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for their horses, the livestock of their flocks and herds, and their donkeys. He got themthrough that year by giving them food in exchange for livestock.
18 When that year was over, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from our lord that the money is used up and thelivestock and the animals belong to our lord. Nothing remains before our lordexcept our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your very eyes,both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we, with our land, will become Pharaoh’s slaves. Give us seed that we may live and not die. Then the land will not become desolate.”
20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. Each33 of theEgyptians sold his field, for the famine was severe. So the land becamePharaoh’s. 21 Joseph made all the people slaves from one end of Egypt’sborder to the other end of it. 22 But he did not purchase the land of the priestsbecause the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh and they ate from theirallotment that Pharaoh gave them. That is why they did not sell their land.
23 Joseph said to the people, “Since I have bought you and your land todayfor Pharaoh, here is seed for you. Cultivate the land. 24 When you gather in the crop, give one-fifth of it to Pharaoh, and the rest will be yours forseed for the fields and for you to eat, including those in your households and your little children.” 25 They replied, “You have saved our lives! You areshowing us favor, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.”
26 So Joseph made it a statute, which is in effect to this day throughout the land of Egypt: One-fifth belongs to Pharaoh. Only the land of the priestsdid not become Pharaoh’s.
I have heard sermon after sermon about Joseph’s management success. Surely, he did a great job. In fact, he did such a great job that he had gathered all of Egypt’s wealth and handed it on a platter to Pharaoh. Let us now compare what Joseph’s original business plan was in Gen. 41.33-36. Again, the NET translates Joseph’s words this way.
33 “So now Pharaoh should look for a wise and discerning man and give him authority over all the land of Egypt. 34 Pharaoh should do this– he should appoint officials throughout the land to collect one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. 35 They should gather all the excess food during these good years that are coming. By Pharaoh’s authority they should store up grain so the cities will have food, and they should preserve it. 36 This food should be held in storagefor the land in preparation for the seven years of famine that will occur throughout the land of Egypt. In this way the land will survive the famine.”
Joseph’s original plan was to collect 1/5 of the harvest as storage for seven years of famine. Thus, 1/5 of the harvest for seven years of plenty would be enough to feed seven years of famine. If Joseph collected 1/7 of the harvest for seven years of plenty, he would have had enough. 1/5 is a more aggressive saving plan. Now, compare his original plan to what he actually did. Joseph created a system of oppression.
As the story wears on, we know that Joseph’s Semitic (i.e. Hebrew) family benefitted from knowing him and being connected to him. In the short term, Joseph’s aggressive plan both benefitted his family and the boss. Yet, this system easily gave Pharaoh all the power which enabled the oppression and absolutely royal authority that brought the Exodus.
Joseph’s legacy could only go so far. Ex. 1.8 says that a new Pharaoh (after more than four hundred years) did not remember Joseph ruled Egypt. The Hebrew people were then oppressed and enslaved.
So, was Joseph the victim of his brothers’ scheme? Sure! Was Joseph the victimizer? Based on the straightforward reading of the texts and the result in Ex. 1, he intentionally or inadvertently, created a system of oppression. When we read the story as part of the Pentateuch, then Joseph’s management method looks a lot less impressive. Joseph’s policy did not do anyone, maybe other than himself, any favor. This story then was more about “how did we end up in Egypt and how did we end up getting out of Egypt?” than about the moral example of Joseph.
I have just illustrated the danger of moralizing a biblical character. Christians do not want their heroes to be tainted, even if the text says otherwise. A purely moralistic heroic reading of Joseph’s life misses the bigger point. Narratives are narratives. They do things that neat and tidy moralizing lessons can’t handle. All biblical characters are flawed because they’re humans. The story of Joseph only ended properly when there was closure. In Joshua 24.32, the Israelites brought Joseph’s bones out of Egypt into Canaan. This accidental oppressor and opportunist Joseph only illustrated the divine plan after he had become a pile of bones. Sure, he acknowledge God in his success, but he was not perfect. God was however faithful to his promise to the end. God was the real hero. In summary, when we put God as the hero, it does not follow that our sermons should glorify imperfect humans as hero as well. God is God, regardless of the imperfect example of his people.
What then can we do to avoid moralizing where no moralizing is required? The problem with the Joseph story is how wide we should pitch our net when we read. We have just read the Joseph story in the larger context of the Pentateuch. This is one way. I’m not suggesting that there is no limit in our reading boundary, but we should have clearly defined literary boundary when reading any text before we prepare our sermons.