Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Joseph

Yo, You Are Not the Father: A Meditation on St. Joseph

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads

 

Every year during Christmas and Advent, I think about St. Joseph. I remember a sermon I heard from his perspective more than a decade ago. The preacher-man was saying how hard it is for men to raise children that are not theirs, particularly when they feel that they have been deceived. It’s one thing for a man to marry a widow, divorced mom or single mother, or for a couple to decide to adopt or even use a reproductive technology that involves donor sperm. It is an entirely different matter for a man to stay with a woman who has been impregnated by someone else after they made a commitment to each other. It must have been unimaginable for Yosef, Yusif, José, or Joseph to hear his woman saying that she had never cheated, never been unfaithful and was pregnant and the Holy Spirit – She! – was the Father.
I wonder if Yo thought Miryam or Mary or Maria was mentally ill. I’d like to believe that he loved her. That the quiet divorce was to spare her shame, protect her family honor and his, and to save her life. It’s also possible that he wanted to annul their betrothal quietly so that he wouldn’t lose face. Even if Yo came to believe Miryam’s crazy [@$$] story – and let’s not be so sanctified that we think that makes sense – even if he believed her,  his family and his boys wouldn’t. They would say that he got punked; that he was a punk; that he was pitiful for staying with a girl that played him so badly, so publicly.
Yo doesn’t get a lot of ink in the bible. But what he does get is continual reassurance from God through his dreams, for a while. God appears to him over and over again. And like his eponymous ancestor, he doesn’t need anyone to interpret his dreams for him.
To his eternal credit and well-earned sanctification, Yo stays with his woman. But he doesn’t touch her, for a while – a long while. I can’t believe that he didn’t feel bitter, betrayed and trapped at least some of the time. But he stayed.
Although he is absent from the Epiphany story. Where was he? Were they separated then? If so, they worked through it. And they had a real marriage. The scriptures are clear that they had four sons and an unknown number of daughters. (The perverse interpretation of the scriptures denies them their holy, healthy, God-given sexuality is blasphemy.)
But Joseph eventually disappears. He may well have died. But that is not the only possibility. As the strange boy-child became an even stranger man-child it became more and more clear that he was a stranger. And in spite of all of that God-talk the memories of those dreams were faded memories. The boy was trouble, running off, getting lost, causing a scene in the temple before the elders, reminding everyone about the possibility that Yo had been cuckolded. Joseph left.
Miriam was widowed by death, by abandonment or indifference. When she needed him, he wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was arrested; Yo wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was executed; Joseph wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was taken down from his lynching tree; Yusif wasn’t there. When her son – not his – was bathed after his death for his burial; Yosef wasn’t there.
José didn’t come back when people started saying that her son – not his – had risen from the grave. Joseph didn’t gather in Yerushalyim to see if her son – not his – would really meet his disciples including his mother, sisters and brothers for Shavuoth. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he heard all that miraculous, unbelievable resurrection talk and was ashamed of leaving, after all he hadheard from God in his dreams.
The silence in the scriptures surrounding Joseph’s absence at the end (and new beginning) of Jesus’ life is intriguing. If he was dead, why not say so? If he was a great age when he married Miryam and impotent and had children from a previous marriage, why not say so?
But if he left, left God’s son fatherless, how could that be explained? If he lost his faith, how could the rest of us come to believe?
I think he left. I think that the very humanity of Christ made the Incarnation harder and harder for him to believe. And I believe that as a saint who lost his faith, St. Joseph has much to teach us. Our faith is not rational. It is nearly unsustainable in the real world. I wonder if Joseph had other dreams that he disregarded. I wonder if having received his last divine visitation he believed he needed one more, and then another, and another, like an addict. I wonder if he ever really believed. I wonder if his pride got in the way of him asking Jesus the man, “Who are you really? Where did you come from? I need to know.”
Perhaps the disappearance of St. Joseph teaches us that we have to invest in our faith on a daily basis, making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule and the scandal of the gospel. I have to believe that when God called Miryam and Yosef into service God knew that they were capable of living into and up to their calling. And, God knew that they were capable of failing.
St. Joseph’s disappearance and likely abandonment of his family, God’s family, the family that he had promised God he would nurture on God’s behalf, also teach us that marriages fail and families rupture even when God is Incarnate in their  midst. And, we learn that a single mother can raise a child who will change the world by her [d@mn] self. And we learn that children from single-parent homes may be a little odd, lacking in a few social graces, but full repositories of God’s gifts and graces.
St. Joseph, I’m not mad at you. I think I understand as much as I can how hard was your calling. I’m just glad you were able to hang in there as long as you did. You guided them to safety and saved their lives, risking your own. I honor you for that. And I think you can claim some of what he grew into. Your mark is on him and no one can take that away from you.

St. Joseph, Patron Saint of Fathers
Patron Saint of Step-Fathers
Patron Saint of Adoptive Fathers
Patron Saint of Dead-Beat Dads
I call your name. I bless your memory. Ashé.

Joseph and Family Values

My commentary on Genesis 45:1-15 for WorkingPreacher.org.
The story of Joseph's reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.

His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They "settled" for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.

And now, in today's lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.

The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.

The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh's other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh's idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.

Today's lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.

Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel's father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.

Joseph's complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph's story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).

Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today's lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.

One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph "enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other." Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.