Archive for February 24th, 2010

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Mind Games

Joseph converses with Judah.

Genesis 41-43

To continue the tale of Joseph, we must return to Jacob and family in the land of Canaan.  Over twenty years have passed since the brothers sold Joseph into slavery.  The famine lays on the land and their food runs low.  Starvation hangs over their heads. Not knowing how to deal with this, everyone sits and stares at the others hoping one of them has a plan.  Burdened by the ineptitude of his sons, Jacob gets angry with them for doing so little in the face of such a threat.

“Why do you keep gaping at one another?  I hear,” he went on, “that rations of grain are available in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, that we may stay alive rather than die of hunger.”

Jacob never did respect these loutish sons of his much.  So sheepishly, they left to buy what food they could.  All the brothers went except Benjamin who had taken Joseph’s place as favorite in his absence. Having lost one son already, Jacob wanted this one at home so as to not risk him.

The ten brothers arrive in Egypt and who do you think they meet while attempting to purchase food.  Why, their brother Joseph, of course!  He recognizes them instantly as they are kneeling before him, faces to the ground, but they do not know him. They assumed Joseph died in slavery long before.  Seeing them lying there reminds him of the dream he had long ago of sheaves of wheat and stars bowing to him.  Seeing a great opportunity for mischief, Joseph decides to use a ruse on them.  Can you really blame him?  They sold him into slavery,  for Darwin’s sake, so a few simple mind games is better than they deserved.

Like a parent simplifying things so a child could understand, the author of this tale left much out. One implausible element of this scenario is that Joseph is the one to whom everyone comes and asks for food.  By the Bible’s account, he is in charge of Egypt’s entire food storage system.  This would involve massive responsibilities over the whole nation but mostly centered in the capital.  His brothers just happen to trek all the way to this particular city to buy food? The story acts like Egypt is more like a single village instead of network of cities and towns all along the Nile and throughout the delta.  In all of Egypt is there only one food granary? To save the amount of food for an entire nation for seven years would require every city and village to store it’s own food.  Would Joseph’s brothers come all the way to the very capital, the center of the nation, to buy food or rather a town towards the frontier.  If they were forced to travel all the way to central Egypt, is their incredibly important brother really going to personally OK every single grocery sale for the entire region.  If a devastating God-Famine struck the region and Egypt was really the only place selling food, there would be thousands of people from all over buying food every day.  Joseph could not have handled them all personally. The majority of his job would have to be delegated; this is what underlings are for.  So there’s a very small chance that he would have met his brothers directly.  The tale is too simple and the coincidence too great.   A Christian would likely counter my  view with the concept of “Divine intervention.”  I’d probably have to respond with “Bovine shit!”  I mean how many times can they play the same trump card.  Something in this damned book has to make sense without God constantly rearranging the quantum probabilities.

Back to the story.  Joseph pretends ignorance and accuses his brothers of being spies and planning bad things for Egypt. They in turn become revoltingly servile and beg for food.  Not that I blame them for their meekness.  This is, after all, a nation where they impale bakers on the Pharaoh’s birthday.  Joseph demands to know of their kin back in Canaan and they respond with news of their father and youngest brother.  As we will see, this last little tidbit is rued mightily later.  Joseph sees a way to continue their persecution and at the same time test their honor to see if it had improved any since they had enslaved him.  He demands that they return with their younger brother, and when they show reluctance, locks them up for three days to think about his “offer.”  He then returns and says:

“Do this, and you shall live; for I am a God-fearing man. If you have been honest, only one of your brothers need be confined in this prison, while the rest of you may go and take home provisions for your starving families. But you must come back to me with your youngest brother. Your words will thus be verified, and you will not die.” To this they agreed. To one another, however, they said: “Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us.”  “Didn’t I tell you,” broke in Reuben, “not to do wrong to the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”  They did not know, of course, that Joseph understood what they said, since he spoke with them through an interpreter. But turning away from them, he wept.

Fascinating isn’t it?  Joseph is testing and probing them to see how sorry they are for their crime. He learns that they are sorry for their sin, but much like his God, Joseph continues to punish them.  Not that I’m blaming Joseph here.  He is wonderfully human and subject to those very human flaws.  In fact, under the circumstances, I think he is being wonderfully decent.  But the real question is why God seems to be subject to the very same human flaws?  Isn’t he getting a little old to be carrying on so.  Infinity’s pretty old.  These are the questions we have to ask.

First, Joseph locks up Simeon, the murderer of village of Shechem, as a hostage for the others return.  Then he gives the rest as much food as they can carry and orders their money to secretly be hidden inside their bags.  Why?  I believe it’s to mentally play with them some more.  The brothers leave and only later that day discover the coins.  They are terrified as to what this could mean.  “What is this that God has done to us.”  I’m sure the thought of being accused of thievery weighed heavily on them.

Again doesn’t this seem to treat the mighty nation of Egypt as a village.  They are only out of the capital not the entire nation. There would be villages and outposts for quite a while if they wanted to make amends for the money. It’s as is the author had never been there and could not imagine its vastness.

They return to Canaan and tell their father what has happened and that they must return with Benjamin or Simeon’s life is forfeit.  Jacob then goes more-or-less apeshit!

Their father Jacob said to them: “Must you make me childless? Joseph is gone, and Simeon is gone, and now you would take away Benjamin! Why must such things always happen to me?”  Then Reuben told his father: “Put him in my care, and I will bring him back to you. You may kill my own two sons if I do not return him to you.” But Jacob replied: “My son shall not go down with you. Now that his full brother is dead, he is the only one left. If some disaster should befall him on the journey you must make, you would send my white head down to the nether world in grief.”

Can’t say I blame him.  To calm him, Reuben offers his own two son’s life as a hostage.  What a horrid concept.  Just when you start to sympathize with these people, they throw something like this at you.  At least, Jacob didn’t even consider it.  He acted like he didn’t even hear.

Unfortunately, the famine worsens and the brothers know that they have to return to Egypt for more food.  But they also know that they cannot return without Benjamin and survive.   Their father, however, is unwilling to admit this.  He is mad and irrational as a father can get when his son is threatened.  Quite the quandary, eh?

Israel demanded, “Why did you bring this trouble on me by telling the man that you had another brother?” They answered: “The man kept asking about ourselves and our family: ‘Is your father still living? Do you have another brother?’ We had to answer his questions. How could we know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down here’?”

I laugh every time I read that part.  I understand the seriousness of it, but if anything in the book rings true, it’s gems like this.  Jacob/Israel blames the boys for this trouble and they respond with the time honored reply “How were we to know?”  And honestly, how were they?  They were far too busy kissing Joseph’s ass to watch what they said.  But in the longer run, it’s a good thing they did not. The Bible’s true value is when it shows us these stories of people not gods, tales of humanity not superstition. This seems exactly like what happens at my house . I have a twelve-year-old boy and “How was I to know?” is heard far too frequently.  Because it’s so true, it has a beauty to it. This is the same beauty that a literal interpretation crushes into the mud. If we cannot just pull out the wonderful tidbits and instead must swallow the whole decaying mass… well then, I’m just not that interested.

Judah convinces his father to let Benjamin go by offering to be responsible for anything that happens to him.  And yes, this is the same Judah who thought his daughter-in-law was a prostitute and slept with her.  Jacob finally sees reason and relents. He gives them expensive gifts to appease Joseph saying:

Also take extra money along, for you must return the amount that was put back in the mouths of your bags; it may have been a mistake. Take your brother, too, and be off on your way back to the man. May God Almighty dispose the man to be merciful toward you, so that he may let your other brother go, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to suffer bereavement, I shall suffer it.”

Now Joseph’s cruelty to his brothers is understandable.  But the pain he causes his father is not.  Perhaps, he never thought of it, but the trip to Egypt and back must take weeks and all that time Jacob would have to worry on the fate of Benjamin.  I also find it fascinating that Jacob doesn’t truly seem to love the other boys.  Only the children of Rachel ever held much of his heart.  That happens, I guess.

The eleven brothers traveled the long road back to Joseph’s city. I don’t actually know which city it was. In its simplification, the bible just calls it Egypt.  Once there, Joseph took them into his own house for a feast.  Jacob’s sons became apprehensive and wondered it they were entering a trap.  Could it have anything to do with the money that had been found in their bags?  They offered to return it along with more for the needed food, but the Joseph’s steward said:

“Be at ease,” he replied; “you have no need to fear. Your God and the God of your father must have put treasures in your bags for you. As for your money, I received it.” With that, he led Simeon out to them.

The feast began.  The boys gave their gifts and bowed very low when Joseph entered, another reference to the dreams Joseph had as a teen.  He then greets Benjamin but his affection was too great and he had to hurry from the room to compose himself.  The servants bring the meal and Benjamin’s portions are five times the size of any of the other.  He must have had a really big plate.  “So they  present drank freely and made merry with him.”

The brothers thought they had it made.  They’re in good with the Pharaoh’s man, feasting in his very house.  They were to be given food and released back to Canaan.  What could go wrong?  And yet they still failed to recognize the brother they had sold into slavery twenty some years before.  And for them, he had one more very special test in mind.

There are delightful parts to this story as long as you read it as a work of literature.  There are tones of human nature here that ring true even today.  This is a saga that works through the ages because of its human frailty. God remains in the background, (Only temporarily, I know.) and people take front stage. These are the bible stories I like.  As a work of fiction, it has much to recommend it.  As literal truth or history, it becomes trash.  This is a story for children, one that could be fleshed out for adults, but it is not history.  It is not part of an inerrant record of God’s dealings on Earth. It is not the Truth.

Toss that concept to the side and it’s not bad.  Spread the shit of literalism all over it and my gag reflex just won’t allow me to swallow,… on the dim chance I wanted to.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 52 other followers