Path of Restoration
by the Rev. Stockton Williams
It could have turned out badly for Joseph. In fact, it looked as though it had in the early chapters of his life story, a tale that takes 14 chapters of Genesis (37-50) to tell. The opening verse blandly tells us we are about to read the story of the family of Jacob (37:2), but gives no hint that we are embarking on the ancient’s rendition of Days of Our Lives.
Joseph is born into an amazingly dysfunctional family, with deceit, jealousy, lust, parental favoritism, and sibling rivalry in abundance. (And if God can use that family, he can use ours!) Joseph grows up a mama’s boy, more than a little spoiled. He never has to tend the sheep, but lounges around the tents with mama. He loves to tell his brothers about dreams he has in which they have to bow down to him. He tattletales on his brothers to his parents. Then, to top it all off, his Daddy Jacob gives him a special coat of many colors. Joseph loves to flaunt that coat in front of his brothers’ grungy, gray robes.
It really is no wonder his brothers want to drop the brat down a well. And they do, with the intent to kill him. Surely Joseph prayed, “God, get me out of this well,” though I doubt he added, “so I can be sent to a foreign land as a slave.” But that is exactly what happens. The responsible oldest brother, Reuben, talks the others out of actually killing Joseph. Instead, the brothers sell Joseph to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. To cover their sin, they kill a wild animal and smear Joseph’s coat with the blood, taking it to Jacob and telling him the boy has died.
In slavery in Egypt, over a period of years, Joseph slowly rises to the position of official in Pharaoh’s court. But another official, Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, buys Joseph and puts him in charge of his household. Genesis 39:6 records that the teenage brat has grown into a “handsome and good-looking” young man. Potiphar’s wife notices the young Hebrew and repeatedly tries to seduce him. Joseph always says no, and finally she grabs his robe as he runs off. Things do not look good for Joseph now: running away dressed only in his boxer briefs, with Potiphar’s wife holding his clothes. Potiphar, of course, doesn’t even want to entertain the idea his wife may have wanted this slave, and so he throws Joseph into jail. Surely Joseph prayed, “God, get me out of this jail immediately.” Joseph rots in jail for over two years.
Only it’s not all rotting in jail; Joseph interprets dreams for the head baker who is also in jail, and when the baker gets out and Pharaoh is troubled by dreams, the baker remembers the Hebrew slave in jail. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that Pharaoh needs to start storing food for a coming famine.
Meanwhile, back in the Promised Land, Jacob and his family are dying of starvation due to the famine. So Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to try to buy corn. There’s more intrigue as Joseph does not identify himself, asks for the one brother left behind (Benjamin), silver cups in backpack, and more. It’s a great story. Better than Days of Our Lives. When Jacob finally dies, the brothers are in fear, but Joseph tells them, in Genesis 50:19, not to be afraid: “Am I in the place of God?” In other words, brothers, you don’t have to bow down to me, despite what I told you in childhood. And then v. 20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” God doesn’t prevent Joseph from being thrown into the well, from being sold into slavery, or from being thrown into jail. But God turns it to good. The brothers commit grievous sins in giving in to their jealousy and anger, but God turns it to good. Even Jacob suffers from the loss of his favorite son, but God turns that to good, also.
The story of Joseph has been a touchstone in my life – a perpetual provider of hope for me. As I have read it again and again over the years, I have found five lessons that have stood me well in my spiritual journey.
1. It took many years. Depending on how you count, it took 22 years, (or 40, if you count until Jacob dies and the brothers face Joseph) for God to turn things around. So often I expect God to turn things around for me instantaneously. When I pray for something, I never pray, “God, please turn this around in 22 years.” But, in reality, that’s what often happens.
2. I usually have to look back to see God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm at work in my life. In the well, I seriously doubt that Joseph thought, “Oh this is cool; 22 years from now it’ll all be OK.” Yet God was already working right then. Perhaps he prompted Reuben. Perhaps he worked through the Ishmaelites. Looking back, we can see that our lives are indeed a sacred journey. Looking back we can see all that God has brought us through. What makes us think God’s going to stop?
3. Keep on keeping on. Joseph didn’t just sit around moping, for Joseph was a dreamer. He girded up his loins (as they say in the Bible) and tried to make the best of things. In time, Potiphar put him in charge of his household. Then he had another setback: jail. He worked in jail, made friends with the baker, and in time became trusted by Pharaoh.
4. Weakness turned to strength. God changes things and turns them to good, but not necessarily in the way that I want or expect. And along with that, there are spiritual changes. Joseph became a better person, as shown in Genesis 50:19: “You don’t need to bow down to me.” Paul prayed repeatedly that some affliction would be healed (2 Corinthians 12:7). Did Paul then think God must be callous when it wasn’t healed? Later in life, Paul looked back and could see that out of this affliction he gained strength (2 Corinthians 12:10).
5. God uses ordinary events and people. God used here a very dysfunctional family, and in all those 14 chapters there are no “miracles” in the sense of dramatic, supernatural events. More normally, God is nudging here, tweaking there, slipping here, sliding there, pushing, pulling, maneuvering, twisting, turning.
Thus, Genesis 50 ends with the resurrection principle itself, though Joseph did not have the resurrection of Jesus as proof. The authorities meant the crucifixion for evil, but God turned it to good — to life for many people. God is constantly working in our lives, even through the bad stuff, to turn evil into good, darkness into light, winter into spring, death into new life, crucifixion into resurrection. He does this because that’s who he is; that’s what he does. More importantly, he does that because he loves us, with a love that is infinite, and that goes all the way to the cross for us; a love that will never ever let us go.
The Rev. Stockton Williams is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Kerrville, Texas. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.