One of the richest stories in all of Genesis is the Joseph story. Unfortunately, not much of it makes it into the lectionary. We basically get the beginning and the end. In between there are stories of imprisonment, interpreting dreams, false accusations of sexual impropriety, famines, desperation, more sexual impropriety, family drama, and the list goes on. This week, we just get the beginning.
Joseph himself ends up being an incredibly interesting character because he is not altogether good. In fact, at the beginning, it is pretty easy to see that he is basically a snotty little brat who probably deserves what’s coming to him. That being said though, he is also a character who clearly learns a lot and develops a lot before the end of the story. By the end he is able to utter some of the most graceful words in all of scripture (that is for next week).
What I think is so very important about recognizing Joseph for who he is (the good and the bad), is that it shows us a lot about true humanity. Unfortunately, we too often live in boiled down views of the world where, like the Lone Ranger, there are black hats and white hats with no in between. Yet, it is clear in scripture that none of the ‘heroes’ of our faith are actually all good. Noah=drunk, Joseph=snotty brat, Moses=murderer, David=philanderer and murderer, Paul=zealot, Solomon=womanizer, Abraham=attempted infanticide, and the list goes on and on and on. Heroes in scripture are not without their faults.
It also happens to be the case that most of the villains are not necessarily flat characters either. Last week we dealt with Esau, who had every right to hate his brother, yet extended forgiveness. In Joseph’s story, several of his brothers actually try to find a way to help him live while others wanted blood. Pilate at times seems to even be a somewhat sympathetic character while putting Jesus on trial (he attempts to let Jesus off the hook, but the people instead choose Barabas.
The Bible does not come with too many flat characters. There is depth to all of them, and that is one of the reasons it is one of the finest literary works in history. Unfortunately, the complexity that belongs to each of the Biblical figures is not often offered to anyone in our own day and age. Our politics are a prime example of this—if you don’t agree with me you must be a baby killing, racist, fascist, communist, uneducated, easily manipulated, foolish, idiotic, evil person. Why is it we are unwilling to offer each other the same kind of grace that abounds in scripture?
I imagine that if we had the same kind of access to each other’s stories as we do to the characters of scripture, we might be more likely to be open to the possibility that the other might actually have a reason for believing what they do. Of course, we also often think that even hearing out the “enemy’s” story would be tantamount to treason to our side of the political divide. Perhaps that is the place to start though. If we could come to understand that baggage that each of us carry, perhaps we will be more likely to at least understand that they are not necessarily evil because of the views that they espouse.
This is part of the reason why I have become so caught up in story lately. I have been truly stymied by some of the things that others believe, but I have often found that understanding their story helps to understand their beliefs. Joseph is a good example of this. He clearly has a gift from God for understanding what is to come, but that gift nearly gets him killed at the hands of his brothers. Is it any wonder that story eventually leads to someone who can understand that perhaps God worked through the evil in his brother’s hearts to bring about unbounded mercy?
I suppose my encouragement to you this week is that you don’t flatten out any characters—be they Hillary or Trump; be they Putin or Kim Jong; be they Joseph or Judah. Try to get to the complexity that lies beneath. After all, we all have a story. Once we begin to understand those stories, I think we won’t have quite as hard a time understanding one another; even if we still disagree at the end of the day.