You Gotta Serve Somebody

For the week December 16, 2017 / 28 Kislev 5778

Business man inside gears (hamster wheel metaphor)

Mi-Kez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 7:30 – 41
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:46)

The story of Joseph is one of the greatest “rags to riches” tales of all time. Sold into slavery by his own brothers due to their murderous jealously, he is purchased by an Egyptian captain named Potiphar. After refusing to give into Potiphar’s wife’s advances, she frames him, resulting in his spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. In both situations, Joseph is given significant responsibility. Be that as it may, few can comprehend how difficult those many years must have been, especially his time in the dungeon.

As we know, due to the predictive dreams Joseph had before his enslavement, God had big plans for him. How it would be that he would rise to some sort of rulership position over his family someday was unknown. We also don’t know what was going on in Joseph’s mind all that time. Whatever he figured the dreams meant, it must have seemed impossible given his predicament.

Then the surprising day came. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having heard of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, called him to attempt to explain the meaning of two most troubling dreams he had. Pharaoh was pretty impressed with what he heard and appointed Joseph second in command over the whole country. Joseph’s main responsibility was to administer grain during the coming years of plenty and the subsequent famine.

It was only recently that I thought to myself, if Joseph was given such authority, why didn’t he go see his family? While he may have had no interest in his jealous brothers, we know he was concerned for his father and had a heart for his younger brother, Benjamin, who likely had no part in the plot against him. If he was concerned about his older brothers, he could have brought along an armed guard for protection. And why settle for a visit? Now that he was freed from prison, why stay in Egypt at all? Was it for the job? It’s not every day you’re offered anything close to Vice-Pharaoh with its prestige and other benefits. What would he do back home anyway? Be a shepherd? And with the coming famine, maybe staying in Egypt wouldn’t be too bad after all. Then again, why not at least visit?

Then it occurred to me, he couldn’t go home even if he wanted to. Pharaoh didn’t offer him a job; he appointed him to it. Pharaoh’s authority over Joseph wasn’t simply due to his being king, but that Joseph was still a slave. He was released from prison, but nowhere do we read he was made a free man. I imagine his life of service under Pharaoh was far more comfortable than most non-slaves anywhere in those days. But whatever perks he enjoyed, personal freedom was not one of them.

Looking at Joseph’s circumstances through a modern lens, we might determine that no perk could ever be a substitute for freedom. However, besides misunderstanding how difficult life must have been for people in those days, we also misunderstand the very essence of our God-given roles as human beings. When God created man and woman, he assigned them, and everyone else since then, to care for the creation under his rulership. A key theme of the Bible’s story is the broken nature of the world due to human refusal to submit to God’s established authority structure. We were designed to be servants, fulfilling God’s call in our lives as stewards of his creation. Never were we to be free to do whatever we wanted. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be subjected to slavery. That’s clear by both God’s providing moral freedom to Adam and Eve as well as the liberation of the nation of Israel in Egypt some generations after Joseph. Still, while slavery is an unjust, evil institution, we are to be servants.

Absolute personal freedom doesn’t exist in the real world. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a vast interconnected, complex system of life. In the design of God, our role is to serve his interests within that system, making positive contributions in the world. Yet it seems most people choose to serve their own interests instead; many creating the illusion that they are free, not realizing that they are being controlled by nefarious forces.

In 1979, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan got it right in his song “Gotta Serve Somebody”:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Like Joseph, we’re gonna serve somebody. The only question is: who is it going to be?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Internal Forces

For the week of December 9, 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778
Arrows depicting external and internal forceVa-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

While the story of Jacob’s son Joseph is one of the more comprehensive Bible stories, his personality is often overly simplified to be the God-favored victim of his brothers’ murderous hatred. Staying faithful to God through it all, God uses his terrible circumstances to save the day. The message to us is equally simple: trust God and he will take care of us no matter what. Nice thought. It certainly contains dependable truth. The problem is this story, including Joseph’s part, isn’t that straightforward. Neither is real life. Within the complexity of Joseph’s character, we can find real hope for our own complicated lives.

Was Joseph a passive victim? No one should blame him for being his father’s favorite. That wasn’t fair to his brothers, of course. But life isn’t fair. God also favored him by giving him dreams. I am aware favored persons can be the object of other people’s ire. But that’s not really Joseph’s story. Without excusing what his brothers did, Joseph was not passive. Joseph had a bit of a mouth. When we are first introduced to him, we are told he had brought a bad report of his brothers to their father. Not given the details of that, we don’t know what he said or how he said it. He may have been completely in the right. But when trouble ensued later on, most people would wonder if they could have done things differently.

It’s the sharing of the dreams, however, that is of greatest concern. The bad report may have been necessary. But did he have to tell his brothers and father about the dreams? Didn’t he know he would further infuriate his brothers? Even if he was clued out about the meaning of the first dream, he knew how his brothers took it (and correctly so) as a prediction of his eventual prominence in the family. Therefore, he knew exactly how they would understand the second similar dream. He may have been purposely trying to put them in their place. Joseph most likely figured his being favored by his father and God would protect him from his brothers’ wrath. If so, he figured wrong.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what was going on in Joseph’s mind through his ordeal. What we do know is after all was said and done, he was able to be gracious to his brothers in spite of what they did to him. His perspective he expresses as “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20) is an unusually healthy balanced understanding of the interplay between human activity and God’s sovereignty. It’s easy to say, but Joseph’s freedom from bitterness and demonstration of generosity towards those who aggressively hated him is extraordinary.

Still, that was his state at the end of a very long and arduous personal journey. What about all the time in between, especially as he finds himself enslaved in Egypt, followed by unjust imprisonment in a vile dungeon? Shall we assume he took it all in stride as he made up songs about ruling over his family one day? That’s possible, but not probable. It’s reasonable to assume he wondered about his big mouth. Did he really have to talk up his dreams? Too late now, of course. But what if he had kept his big mouth shut?

Perhaps he didn’t give much thought to his contribution to his dismal situation. That would make him even more remarkable than most people think. Most of us spend considerable amount of time with our should’ve/ would’ve/could’ves. We obsess over the possibility that we are the ones who got us into our messes. Others blame shift, of course, refusing to take any responsibility for their lives. But that’s a different story for another time. Here I want to address those of us who get stuck over ourselves.

Whether or not Joseph blamed himself partly or completely for his situation, it is clear it didn’t cripple him. Dreams, something that got him in trouble earlier in life, would be key to his release and promotion in Egypt later on. Also, whether as a slave, prison foreman, or Prime Minister; his leadership skills, which may have helped precipitate his tense relationship with his brothers when a teenager, were fully expressed. How many people, when their abilities get them into trouble, out of fear vow to “never do that again”? Some may even think they are being responsible by avoiding the potential damage their God-given abilities may cause. Somehow Joseph didn’t fall into that trap.

Perhaps the way Joseph dealt with the relationship of his brothers’ evil to God’s sovereignty is a clue to how he coped with his own role in the story. Consciously or unconsciously, Joseph’s trust in God set him free to fully function in the role God assigned to him. He knew God was bigger than the outside forces of his life. Obviously, he also learned that God was bigger than his own internal forces as well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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