When dissecting the meaning and message of the Joseph story, I’m drawn to the image of a word puzzle. If ever there was a particular Bible story that contained more intertwined themes, I would be hard pressed to find it. Let’s look at this word-puzzle-of-a-story and see how many theme words we can find hidden in it.
I find such words (in no particular order) as deceit, jealousy, pride, arrogance, sibling rivalry, anger, sin, fear, forgiveness, salvation, redemption, family values, greed, humility, dreamer, favoritism, revenge, rebellion, and punishment. And, the list could go on the more you look. These themes are scattered throughout the Bible and find their final meaning and fulfillment in the Good News of Jesus in the New Testament. There the lessons are revealed as we see parallels and foreshadowing of Christ take place throughout the Old Testament.
We have all experienced the interesting dynamics of family life. Some of us have endured and survived great dysfunction in the process and have even seen family life disintegrate. What about Joseph and his large family – how did they get to this point?
Sometimes size of family doesn’t matter. We’ve already seen some of these themes play out earlier between brothers, Cain and Abel, then between Esau and Jacob, Joseph’s father. It seems that the same issues run in the family and just get passed on, except in Joseph’s case, on a much larger scale, as he has 11 brothers.
As in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), this story of Joseph is as much about the sons as it is about the father. Jacob, the father, has a history of deceitful behavior by playing into his mother’s favored status; he cheats his brother, Esau, out of his birthright by fooling his father, Isaac (Genesis 27:1-40). He continues the trait of favoritism by giving Joseph a bright coat to wear. And, in his young, immature way as a dreamer, Joseph flaunts himself to his brothers saying they would bow to him. Maybe this was just childish acting out of his royal aspirations, but the brothers had enough of his taunting dreams. “That little twerp,” they thought. Their move that was a plot to get rid of their annoying, obnoxious brother was also an act of rebellion and deceit against their father playing favorites. They were about to end that family tradition.
Just like the Roman soldiers stripping Jesus of his robe and vying for it, the brothers strip Joseph of his brightly colored coat, a controversial gift from the father, Jacob. In casting Joseph into a cistern for three days and bringing him back up to sell him into slavery, we can relate this to Joseph foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Christ. His brothers, like the apostles, abandon Joseph and symbolically, through their brother Judah (note the similarity in name and behavior to the apostle and traitor Judas), sell him off into slavery for 20 shekels of silver.
What happens next, after this treachery, is the brothers’ deceit about Joseph to their father (again, the family trait), and Joseph’s journey to Egypt where he resurrects himself through his God-given gift of interpreting dreams for the Pharoah – reminiscent of what we will see later on in the book of Daniel. Joseph rises in prominence and power in a country that would become a major oppressor of the Jewish people. Joseph proves to be quite adept at handling his role which, because of the famine, puts him in front of his unsuspecting brothers again.
Many of us might disagree with the way Joseph dealt with his brothers. However, Joseph had learned the principle of servant leadership and chose to show kindness and mercy to his family and forgive them – a Christ-like gesture of love and reconciliation. Looks like everyone has grown up and gone beyond pettiness to an all-embracing, unconditional love.
I think we all struggle with some, if not all, of these word themes in our lives. I know that life sure doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. We all hit bumps in the road and get sidetracked by detours. The following line from a John Lennon song sure speaks to me and resonates this reality – “Life is what happens while making other plans.”
So much of the Joseph story is our story. God involves himself in our journey back to him but not without difficulty. So many of these themes play out strongly in our lives. Seeing how God interacts in our lives and the lives of those around us (our extended family) in these stories in the Bible gives us hope and encouragement for a positive and pleasant outcome.
If we fast forward the lessons of this story up to the time of Jesus, we still see the squabbling going on even among the apostles. Three accounts (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10: 35-45; Luke 9:46-48) in the gospels reveal that the message had still not sunk in. They were still arguing over favored status with Jesus, when he gently rebuked and reminded them that this type of jockeying for power and position was not to be in his kingdom – “But among you it will be different.”(Mark 10:43). This quote from Mark became the recurring mantra for me going through “The Journey” and helped me realize more fully that all followers of Jesus must have a servant’s heart. We all share together in God’s favored status of salvation. No need to bicker and quarrel! Love one another – we’re all part of God’s family.
Don’t stop – keep looking for more word themes that stand out and speak to you.
Praise God for his patient love, kindness, and mercy!
Your fellow traveler on the road to Heaven – we’re family, you know!