Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 42
by Marc Nelesen
Outline of some not-to-miss items in the essential story
• Jacob sends 10 sons to Egypt to buy grain during a time of famine and protectively keeps Benjamin close to home.
• Little did anyone know that the Egyptian in charge of grain to whom the brothers would go was none other than Joseph, the brother whom they sold into slavery.
• Joseph recognizes his brothers, though they do not recognize him. He remembers his dreams of his brothers bowing down to him.
• Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies, throws them in jail, and insists that they prove their innocence by bringing their younger brother to Egypt. He holds one of the brothers as insurance that they will return.
• In their distress about the situation, the brothers remember what they did to Joseph, voice their regret about it, and cause Joseph to secretly weep.
• Joseph sends them away, orders their sacks to be filled with grain, and returns the purchase price along with their bags of grain.
• The brothers discover the returned money and tell their father of their experience in Egypt.
• Jacob laments losing two sons – Joseph and captive Simeon – and resists putting Benjamin at risk by sending him to Egypt.
Chapter 42 contains a story that is one of the most dramatic stories in Old Testament. It holds tension, drama, secrets and surprises. Prior to working with chapter 42, every preacher ought to read chapter 37. Chapter 42 fulfills and reverses everything that had been in the case in Chapter 37. The crisis at hand is a famine in the land. In the world of the Bible, everyone knows that Egypt is the breadbasket of the ancient world. Egypt was overflowing with food and grain; famine and blight might curse other regions, but Egypt always seems to have ample reserves.
The narrator of 42 exquisitely tells a story of those reversals. The spoiled, favored younger brother Joseph has his dreams fulfilled: he is a man of power, his bullying older brothers bow down to him, and he controls his brothers’ destiny rather than having them determine his. As a bonus, the narrator continually shifts the camera angles in the story so that we join Joseph in knowing more than the brothers. This puts Joseph and the readers at a distinct advantage. We know Joseph’s backstory and we also know the backstory of the brothers.
Preachers will likely need to decide on how to paint Joseph’s use of power; not only with his brothers but in developing a food and economic system that is nothing short of a monopoly (47:13-26). Shockingly, the people will even thank and praise him for creating the conditions that will lead to the enslavement of Israel. Preachers can regard his toying with his brothers as “just desserts”, or can regard it as an expression of revengeful manipulation. Similarly, chapter 47 affords the preacher another glimpse into the man who is both shrewd and savvy, or else a royal shyster. In chapter 42, Joseph takes hostages; in 42, he takes slaves. Joseph may very well be a figure like Oskar Schindler who is shrewd, self-aggrandizing, savvy, and beneficent – all in the same person. Joseph is a complex character who ought not to be over-simplified. Attentive preachers will also pay attention to your own place in your family’s birth order. Preachers who are firstborns are likely to see this text and preach it differently than preachers who are the youngest in their family. Our own families and our own stories will inform how we see and hear this text. The sons of Israel (42:5) are not the last rival siblings.
Ten of Joseph’s brothers are on a mission and by the time they arrive in Egypt, readers have an inkling about what is about to unfold. Joseph the dreamer has his dreams come true with his brothers bowing in front of him. Now, however, he holds all the cards and all the power. Making an appeal to homeland security, Joseph accuses his brothers of being border-crossers who intend to spy. The text is not clear whether his imposed three-day incarceration on his brothers ends as a result of fear for his father’s well-being, concern for the starving in his homeland, or if the burden of his game with his brothers grows too great for him to suspend. Joseph wants to see his blood brother Benjamin and his game of “cat and mouse” with his brothers is his strategy in this text.
Perhaps one of the most compelling minor characters in this story is Jacob. Although we are in the section of Genesis that orchestrates readers’ attention on Joseph, most of us have not forgotten about Jacob. At this point in the Genesis narrative, it is easiest to see him as an old man who has lost a favorite son and is now scheduled to lose another. In light of this, it is also easy to forget that Joseph’s way of finagling is not all that unfamiliar. While the text makes no commentary on Joseph’s mind games or maneuvering, attentive readers and preachers are going to remember that in regard to Joseph and Jacob and their shared trickery, the apple does not fall far from the tree. It might be interesting for a preacher to playfully imagine whether someone sympathetic to Isaac or Esau had a hand in writing this text; Joseph’s dreams come true, perhaps some of Esau’s did too!
The story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 42 should leave preachers a little stumped in terms of approach. Here’s why. Readers of this text are likely experiencing some conflict. On the one hand, it is simply delicious to see the plotting brothers “get what is coming to them” in the Joseph story. They made life hard for Joseph and put their father through hell (in the text it is Sheol [vs. 38]). Having “sown the wind, they are reaping the whirlwind.” On the other hand, we know that Joseph was an egotistical, spoiled younger brother who was favored above all others by their father. What Joseph does to them and to their father is rather cruel. I suspect this text did not make it into the lectionary in part because it simultaneously stirs so many primal responses in readers that a 20 minute sermon is not enough time to resolve them. The only thing that may be worse than what this text stirs is for a preacher to remedy the tensions. The tensions exist in Joseph and his brothers and through the enactment and recital of the text. These tensions are stirred in readers and hearers and should not be too quickly resolved. Neither vindication nor condemnation of Joseph seems to be valid. To do either seems to disguise some truth about him, and ultimately ourselves. The power of this text is that it may reveal things about ourselves and other heroes we might not want to know.
The text uses the literary strategy of dramatic irony whereby the audience knows something that some characters do not. Jacob and his sons do not know what we know about Joseph, and Joseph does not know what we see unfold between the sons and their father. Part of the suspense of this story is not just the unfolding of the narrative, but what readers are to do with their multiple conflicted emotions. In the story, the “good guy” stealthily toys with the “villains” and the villains act in good and virtuous ways in spite of their villainous past. Joseph’s strategy for reunion with his father and his brothers leaves readers confused about how to feel about the story. Preachers are hard-pressed to find a parallel illustration that carries the emotional freight of this text with its dramatic irony, disguise and deception. All three are present here. Literature and film generally can capture one or two of these strategies, but one of the compelling features of this story is that it does all three simultaneously in a protagonist like Joseph.
• In Macbeth, the audience knows that Macbeth acts loyal to Duncan while planning his murder.
• In King Lear, the audience knows that Lear’s most loyal daughter is Cordelia and he can’t see it.
• In The Emperor Who Had No Clothes everyone knows something about the emperor and the people, but everyone but a little boy pretends not to know.
Film and Television:
• In Undercover Boss, viewers know the secret identity of a business owner who poses as an hourly employee when in fact s/he is the CEO.
• In Star Wars, viewers know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father before he does.
• In dramatic criminal television and horror films, the audience sees and knows an attacker long before the helpless and hapless victim.
• The prophet Nathan disguises a story in such a way that only he and the audience of the text know what he is up to while King David remains clueless until the punchline is delivered.
• Tamar uses disguise and deception to secure her future when no one will look out for her.
Rev. Marc Nelesen is the Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Hudsonville, MI.