Blogging the Bible – The Story of Joseph

I have a daughter who turns 17 tomorrow. Was it really all that long ago she was a half-bald, half-blonde preschooler who enjoyed neatly lining up her markers, and then using them systematically, one-by-one, to make her work of art? Was it really ten years ago that she would stand in the hallway in our house, repeating the name of her favorite person, when said person was gone (said person, by the way, was mom). Can she really be 17 and making college visits and beginning to dream about what’s next?

When Joseph was 17, he had some pretty big dreams. They involved his brothers bowing down to him; you can imagine how well this went over with those brothers. But his dreams were even grander than that; he even sees the sun, moon, and stars giving him honor.

But those dreams came true. You can read about it in Genesis 37-50, where Joseph faces the wrath of his brothers, as well as a vengeful woman, but he keeps the faith. And, in his case, his integrity keeps opening doors — and by those open doors God uses Joseph to save those same brothers — brothers who would become the people of Israel. The Bible tells us that each of the brothers would have a part to play in this new nation; that 12 families within the Family of Israel would be set apart, and given a name. And where does the name of each family-tribe come from? From each of the 12 brothers.

Except one. That one? Joseph.

Huh? How is that the one brother who shows integrity, who trusts in God through all circumstances, how come he doesn’t become a part of the Family of the 12 Tribes? Well, because, he gets TWO tribes. While in Egypt, Joseph has two sons, Ephraim and Mannaseh — and those two sons become a part of the 12 Families that make up the Family of Israel. It’s as if God, for all time, honors Joseph by giving him a double blessing.

But even more than that, something else jumps out at me. Who is mom to these two boys? Or, even more interesting, who is their grandpa? We find that out in Genesis 41.50-52. Their mom was Asenath, and their granddad was Potiphera (not to be confused with Potiphar). And what was Potiphera’s occupation? He was a priest of On, an Egyptian god. Which means that within the people of Israel, two of the tribes trace their lineage to boys who were half-Jew, half-Egyptian — and whose mother’s lineage was rooted in worship of other gods.

In other words, nestled deep into scripture is this reality: even as God was calling to Himself the people Israel — even as God’s work began with them — there was this glimpse that God’s grace and calling would reach all people. For from the very beginning, nestled into the foundation of the People of God, are two tribes (not just one!) of mixed background. From the very beginning, God gives a glimpse of His plan — to call all people to Himself. And when we fast-forward to the end of the Bible, we read in Revelation 21.12-13 that the New Jerusalem, the City of God, has 12 gates. And written on those 12 gates are the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Names, for all eternity, that show: God’s love reaches Israelites and Egyptians. Europeans and Eritreans. Chinese and Chileans. People like you and me, and people very different from you and me. In other words: ALL people.

Blogging the Bible: Genesis 1-11

This week, I hope you are joining me as we begin to read through the story of the Bible. We are starting at the beginning (a very good place to start), in the book of Genesis. It starts with a familiar story – Creation!

But right off the bat, something jumps out. Two verses in, we read that a formless void exists when God begins His creative work. In short, God makes Something out of Formless Nothingness. Before God – chaos and meaningless. When God begins to work – purpose and beauty. And Genesis 1 then unfolds that beauty.

There are a lot of arguments about how to understand Genesis 1; how to interpret the seven days of creation; and the means by which God created. But the most important thing to remember is that God is behind all that is meaningful. In fact, when God steps in is precisely when it takes on meaning. The purpose of Genesis 1 isn’t to give us science, or answer 21st century questions. The purpose of Genesis 1 is to give us faith, and answer timeless questions: Where did we come from? And why? And what are we supposed to do?

And what we are supposed to do is live a purpose-filled life in relationship with our Creator and with each other. That was the invitation to Adam & Eve. But they decided that reaching for what they should not have was more important than receiving the gifts God had given them. In other words, they used their freedom to do wrong – wrong that harmed them, and their relationship with God.

So they leave the garden, and find that life on their terms isn’t as exciting as they thought it would be. And they have a son named Cain who follows in their footsteps. And he takes his freedom even further – and kills his brother. He asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, he should have been; as should all of us, though it is much easier to blame our brother, or God, or circumstances, for what is wrong with us and our world.

So, to this point, the first humans use freedom to fracture their relationship with God and with each other. But along comes Noah; surely he will make things right. You know, the ark, animals, rainbows, and all that. But did you notice the part of the story that we often overlook – the part that never makes it into the children’s Bibles? It’s the part where he gets drunk – naked and unashamed of his misuse of God’s good creation. Even though God has restarted everything with Noah, he still fails – just as his ancestors did.

And then, one more story in Genesis 1-11 stands out: the Tower of Babel. In this story, we see people coming together to stand up to God; deciding that they can reach God on their own. In essence, they say to themselves, We can make our way to God on our terms, and by the work of our hands.

Where have I heard that before? Only in every commercial and in most every promise made by the makers of whatever gadget will save us now. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the Babel-onians try to reach God based on their technological ability, not their moral character. It’s not that God is opposed to our technology and creativity; it’s that we so often get things backward. Our technology doesn’t lead us UP to God; instead, our accomplishments must be rooted in the life we have IN God. For the folks of Babel, they sought salvation by self-styled accomplishment, rather than by self-sacrificial surrender.

So, here’s the scenario, according to Sacks: Adam & Eve lose Eden; Cain is left to wander; Noah descends into drunkenness; the tower goes unfinished. Other than that, everything looks great!

Perhaps in all of this is the reminder that the human condition hasn’t changed. We still misuse our freedom and thus fracture our relationship with our Creator. We still ask, skeptically, Am I really my brother’s keeper? And we still seek to build a spiritual life on our own accomplishments.

The Bible is nothing if not realistic. And it begins, in its very first chapters, addressing the stark reality of the human condition. Even so, we have a God who does not give up on us. After Noah’s flood, God makes a covenant. A promise for life. God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature…” to never again destroy the world. The rainbow will be a sign of the promise that I have made this “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

The Bible tells us the reality of our situation, which goes all the way back to the beginning. But it also tells us that, even more real still, is the faithfulness and mercy of our God. So, remember that truth. When you see a rainbow. (And when you don’t.) And allow that faithfulness to transform you, helping you to use the freedom you’ve been given to love God and to love others.