By Kimberly D. Russaw.
People talk about how they give to those in need.
Those readers who have a passing acquaintance with the biblical story of Joseph may simply remember him for his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, while others more theologically invested in Scripture may understand Joseph’s as a story of God’s providence. Still others may read this story at the end of Genesis as one about a younger brother’s largess surprising his bullying older brothers as a literary forerunner to the television series, “Undercover Boss.” Television viewers watch as a CEO works alongside company employees in disguise. The CEO’s grand reveal renders workers overwhelmed with emotion, in much the same way Joseph’s revelation renders his brothers speechless. On the show, poor work habits and questionable ethics place many employees in precarious positions, while others receive extravagant rewards for their stellar on-the-job performance.
Joseph’s story, the last among the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, begins when he, the favored son of Jacob, shares his dream of family members bowing down to him with his brothers, a dream that causes his brothers to hate him all the more. The friction and dysfunction escalates when Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit and eventually sell him to a group of Ishmaelites. Away from his family, Joseph overcomes various trials and tribulations before he ascends to great power. The Pharaoh promotes him in the Egyptian palace, renames him Zaphenath-paneah and sets him “over all the land of Egypt.” In Genesis 45, Joseph reunites with his brothers, and the narrative focus shifts. The Israelites migrate to Egypt, and readers anticipate The Exodus.
Joseph’s is a story of family strife, forgiveness, reconciliation, providence, provision, and humility. After two encounters with their brother (who has assumed an Egyptian name and remained incognito), Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt seeking pardon from the Pharaoh’s vizier. The brothers require exoneration because a palace steward accuses them of stealing a cup from the palace. In Genesis 45:1-15, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, restores his relationship with them, and relocates his entire family—brothers included—to Egypt. In the fifth verse, after identifying himself as their long-lost brother, Joseph tells Jacob’s sons, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph proactively acknowledges that The Divine positioned him to save the lives of others.
This story begs modern readers to question, “What if each of us has been divinely positioned for life-giving, sustaining, or reviving purposes?” Who might we be standing in front of such that our actions—big and small—could save or preserve their life? The homeless person asking for change? The mentally ill or under-treated living outdoors without warm clothes, food, or shelter? The disoriented man or woman looking to “re-enter” society after living as an incarcerated inmate? The nervous individual whose eyes you met in the convenience store and who may, in fact, be the victim of human trafficking? The immigrant children who seek asylum within our country’s borders? The teen who hangs on the street corner late at night because she wants to put off returning to the abuse that is in her home? What ought we to do?
When confronted with the uncomfortable presence of so many relegated to the social margins of our society, we tend to shrink inward lest the enormity of life’s injustices overwhelm us. When we hear of another shooting, we heighten our vigilance with our own kids. We do not allow them to take public transportation. We drop them off and pick them up with little time for them to wait aimlessly. We fill their days with activities we can monitor. We are overwhelmed. Sadly, we turn our backs on the child whose parents are absent or on the community conditions that allow the crime to continue. When we see a disheveled, animated person, we bristle, avert our eyes, rehearse our “I don’t have any money to give you today” response, or redirect our path to avoid them altogether. We are overwhelmed by social displacement. We do not know how to fix what is wrong. We feel inadequate. We experience dis-ease. But what if our overwhelmed, seemingly insignificant, and certainly inconvenient act is the very thing that will preserve life?
As the Pharaoh’s second-in-command in charge of administering the empire’s grain silos during the famine, Joseph preserved life long before his brothers appeared before him. As the dream-interpreting, forward-planning Vizier of Egypt, Joseph had already saved the lives of many—the entire Egyptian community and all those who travelled there seeking relief from the famine in the land.
Though his act of providing for his family seems magnanimous and extreme, as the Pharaoh’s senior administrator, Joseph had the weight of the entire empire at his command. Relocating his family from impoverished Canaan to resource-rich Egypt was an important thing, but it was a small thing. Sometimes a relatively small thing preserves life. Sometimes preserving life is the change in your pocket, the attentive eye contact that assures another that you see and value their humanity, or the willingness to help another find the help they need. Preserving life may mean giving more than the change in your pocket, changing laws that devalue the humanity of others, or leveraging your privilege to connect those who need care with care-givers. All to preserve the life of many.
Joseph is clear. God sent him to preserve the life of others. I suspect it feels good to act in confidence knowing that God sent you. That you did not take the subject position, but are the object of God’s life-preserving work here on earth. That The Divine—not you—puts you where you are supposed to be: in front of people for life-giving, sustaining, and reviving.
Genesis 45:1-17 is relevant for modern readers because it calls us all to a communal accountability and responsibility. To this end, I invite you to consider your choosing to read this post as a divinely providential reminder that perhaps you may have come for such a time as this. Now. Go and do! Go and do those things that preserve the lives of people around you!
Bible Study Questions
- With which character or characters of Genesis 45 do you most identify? Why?
- In front of whom are you standing such that your actions may save their life?
- Despite your discomfort, how might your actions preserve the life of another?
For Further Reading
- Ellison, Gregory C., Cut Dead but Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men. Nashville: Abingdon, 2013.
- Lewis, Barbara A., The Kid’s Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose-and Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1998.
- “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilber” HBO documentary
Kimberly Dawn Russaw is a doctoral candidateat Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) studying the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel. She is an active member of both the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, and has presented and published in numerous scholarly and ecclesial contexts.
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