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A desert caravan

With the wrong tone of voice, it can sound trite to talk of the redemptive power of human suffering, but there is no denying the credibility of Joseph as a witness to this belief.

The one reliable thing scripture-starved Britons know about Joseph is his preference for designer labels. The hit West End musical has much to answer for, because this is the least interesting part of a life that reached such heights and plumbed such depths that even burnt-out scriptwriters for a daytime soap opera would hesitate to use it.


Joseph suffered from spoilt-child syndrome, a condition fuelled by the sentimental favouritism of his ageing father. Jacob was one of those parents who could not hide the preference he had for one child over another, a weakness shared by many in life but one which those guilty of it rarely admit. In Jacob’s case, this was symbolised in a rather tacky way by the gift of a dazzling robe, which only aggravated Joseph’s relationship with his siblings. The narrative said ‘they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him’.


Joseph, demonstrating all the emotional tact some may remember from their own youth, tells his brothers of two dreams where he is number one and they fall at his feet. Driven to the limits by his bragging, the brothers plan to kill him and are only persuaded not to by Reuben. Having thrown him down a well in a fit of pique, the brother seem unsure what to do next until a passing Ishmaelite caravan gives them the idea of faking his death and selling him off as a slave to earn them some extra pocket money. Forensic science today might have required them to show more imagination than dipping the infernal robe in goat’s blood, but it worked on Jacob, who went into mourning. Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites sell Joseph to a senior official in Pharaoh’s Egypt.


By this point in the biblical narrative, we begin to notice the apparent absence of God. Some parts of scripture have God plastered over it like the logo of a World Cup sponsor; others are more discrete in their co-option of him. The writer of this story sees God as the prime mover of events but eschews anything as predictable as mentioning it until the very end.


Nevertheless, as Joseph gets to work in his new household and the official he serves goes from strength to strength, we are invited to see God spreading his blessing through him. At least until what today’s lazy media would call Joseph’s Cairogate. The Egyptian official’s wife tries to seduce Joseph but when he rebuffs her advances out of loyalty to her husband, she alleges attempted rape. His word counted for nothing against hers and he ends up in prison.

In no time, Joseph had gone from spoilt, rich kid in Canaan to foreign sex offender in custody. But the drama was only just beginning. His charismatic gift of interpreting dreams led him to make a friend of Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer while in jail, who promises to say a kind word for Joseph to his boss on his impending release. At last things appear to be looking up for Joseph, until the narrator relays the sparse message: the chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.


Joseph had to languish for two more utterly pointless years in prison until Pharaoh needed a troubling dream to be interpreted and the cupbearer suddenly remembers his old inmate. Joseph, seizing the opportunity, predicts years of bumper harvest followed by years of famine. The interview with Pharaoh goes so well he becomes Prime Minister and sets about saving the economy from ruin while every tribe and nation around Egypt slowly collapses from starvation and exhaustion. It is at this point that Joseph’s family re-enters his personal drama, as the sons come looking for food.


The reversal of fortune is so exquisite that you can forgive Joseph for squeezing every last drop of ironic meaning out of it, although he can barely contain his emotion at a reunion where his brothers no longer recognise him because he looks different and speaks in a strange language. After toying with them over the course of two journeys from Canaan to Egypt, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his terrified brothers. Their fate lies in his hands in a foreign country where he wielded more power than anyone bar a despotic Pharaoh. This, the man they sold into slavery, pretending to his father he had been killed by a wild animal; this, the man who had boasted of his dreams that a day like this would come; this, the man who spoke in a new language and who possessed more power in his fingertips that they had exerted in a lifetime.


It was a model of restorative justice, where the victim finally comes face to face with the criminals who ruined his life. And what does he do? He forgives them. The brother can hardly believe their ears, but here is Joseph saying: ‘do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you’.


The long years of loneliness and quiet desperation had fashioned an entirely new human being. Gone was the brash selfishness of youth; in its place, a mature and reflective adult who understood how God had been active through his own pain and suffering to save the lives of countless people from famine.

The story of Joseph, in its epic span, reminds one if the life of David, an equally flawed person through whom God was still able to do great things. In its homage to the hidden hand of God, reminds one of the story of Esther, without the sting in the tail. The narrator believed that God was purposefully active in the vagaries of human nature and happenstance and in such a skilful way that the outcome feels almost inexorable. But the story deceives us if we view it as the strong hand of predestination.


Joseph lived through many years of crushing disappointment and despair and this should be understood if we are to validate the suffering of friends today. Just to point people to the future and say ‘it’s alright, God will bring good out of your situation in time, just wait’ when they can’t see themselves getting to the end of the same day, is a cruel denial of human experience. Joseph lived those desperate years, minute by hopeless minute, just as thousands do in our society. Authentic pastoral care walks with people step by step, listening and whispering into the ear, not shouting from a distance to get a move on.


At the end of it, Joseph could embrace a truth which until then had felt poisonous. Using a phrase that could have come from the cross of Calvary, he said: ‘you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’.


With the wrong tone of voice, it can sound trite to talk of the redemptive power of human suffering and we should tread warily in places full of pain, but there is no denying the credibility of Joseph as a witness to this belief.



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