THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOE

Do you read God’s mind? 

Do you know how he feels about you? 

Does that even interest you? 

Shouldn’t you desire to connect to your LOVER at the deepest levels?  Or is your religion, liturgy, and relationship with God all geared to dodging that kind of intimacy?  If you want more depth of sharing with God, you can hardly do better than to spend some time in the Gospel According to Joe.  God will meet you there afresh. 

I would be happy to arrange a meeting.

As parts of two different research projects, I find myself diving more deeply than ever before into the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, as found in Genesis 37 – 47 (really the end of the book).  In fact, I find myself more stirred by his life story now than I can relate in a blog post – maybe even more than I can fathom within my own spirit.  I find Jesus bursting out from every noun, every verb, and every adjective it seems, and the multicolored tunic bursts forth with color for the whole story, whereas so many times I have sat silently looking down at my communion wafer and thimbleful of grape juice and my faith seemed so black -n- white. Thus, I want to talk a little about what I find in Joe’s story.

There is so much to say, and most of it will go unsaid here.  But to help map out my discussion, I will ramble a bit in four categories of thought: 1) Surface Narrative and Deep Narrative, 2) Echoes of Baptism, 3) Echoes of Eucharist, and finally 4) a Model for Ministry.  Each category, I hope, will have its own discernable thesis, and then after exploring all of them, I will attempt to draw a larger conclusion if possible.  But bear in mind, like so much of my writings, there is a ramble-effect – a thought soup – from which a point (or several maybe) can be drawn about which my reader will make their own conclusions.

Surface Narrative and Deep Narrative

Narrative in general, and especially narrative done well, bridges communication gaps between senders and receivers.  I can tell you that I am sad; I can demonstrate my sadness with tears on my face, and you may well get the idea.  But when I share with you my story, you begin to feel sad with me.  Narratives need not be extravagant to do this either.  And I find in my own experience that watching sport games (football, baseball, golf etc.) generally does not excite me much, but movies about sports usually do.  I have come to appreciate that die hard sports fans typically familiarize themselves with the stories of the athletes over time, and I expect that goes a very long way in making golf interesting to watch!  That is the power of narrative to connect storyteller and hearer.

The story of Joseph found near the end of Genesis is an epic story which ostensibly tells of the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the young man Joe.  As such, it is a straightforward narrative in its own rite, and that is plain to see just with a casual read.  But it is an interesting story too – a page turner.  The epic nature of it draws the reader into plot twists so powerful that it struggles to be resolved in the end, yet it ends with more grandeur than it seemed was promised at the start. But, the deep narrative plot seethes beneath the surface so palpably it cannot be ignored.  This story has “levels” and “meaning” jumping off the page like a whale leaping from below the surface. This begs the reader to try and keep up, to think deeply about what massive things lurk below.  This aspect needs to be acknowledged early in any discussion of the story so that we can talk coherently about its impact on faith.

I think, it is my humble and not overly skilled opinion, that Joe’s story has a look and feel very much like ancient Greek tragedies and comedies.  The gods are at work moving the plot along whether in tandem with or in spite of the characters.  This alone is interesting, but there is more too – so much more if you read this as a Jew or Christian (or both).  For surely YHWH can out god the gods of Greece or any other pantheons, and this story has a shape and feel which puts it in a category with Oedipus or Achilles, but of course the character of YHWH is decidedly not pagan though.  YHWH does not manipulate humans for sport, but he moves through them (even their sins!) like the Spirit on the Wind which we do not know where he comes from or where he goes, yet his movements ultimately prove his LOVE and SALVATION for his people – and through them for the entire world.  The outcome of YHWH’s LOVE and SALVATION are as assured as Oedipus’s demise!

There may well be good reason to continue analyzing Joe’s story vis-à-vis Greek epic tales, but I am neither skilled for that nor do I find it to be the most fruitful direction.  I think it is worthy of mention, for sure, but we have done that now   It helps set the stage for thinking about the deep narrative.  As a Christian, though, the fact that I can so plainly see the story of Jesus echoed in Joe’s life is the more compelling part.

I find it odd that the New Testament doesn’t make more use of this story.  Thanx to the New Testament, I can easily see Jesus in David’s story, and I easily see Jesus play the “Moses card” in his ministry, and there are other echoes, and resonances with yet more Bible characters all through the Old Testament (Esther, anyone?), but Joe’s story is so epic and so in tune with Jesus that I get the sense practically all Christian readers see and feel Jesus in every twist and turn.  And yet, the two stories are not the same.  They are not in perfect lock step.  There are points where they are completely different, and those differences stand out as important.  But the likeness of both men and their lives is overwhelming, I think even to a casual reader.

In fact, I am finding that Jesus unlocks levels, colors, and depths of Joe’s story so profoundly, that we have access in Joe’s story to the very mind and heart of God.

Yeah… You read that right.  Who can know the mind of God?  (See I Corinthians 2 for more on that, but then come back to Joe’s story and read it with the Spirit as your guide.)

At some point (perhaps different points for different readers), the deep narrative begins to reveal what God thinks and feels about you and me within Joe’s story with Jesus as a key which unlocks doors through which the Spirit blows in and out.  This story bounces sparks with other stories in the Bible both in the Old Testament and the New.  We find Jesus in those stories too, and eventually, we find them all dancing together throwing color, meaning, and depth of dimension everywhere in our relationship with God.

God is LOVE. 

God loves you. 

You love God.

So, do you ever know his heart?  His hurt?  His love? 

How?

Let’s look at Joe’s story together and see if you don’t find yourself in it and find God ready to meet you there.  And keep in mind, this epic story draws Genesis to a close – Genesis, the first book of Moses and the first book of the whole Bible.  Joe’s story bookends with the story of Creation, of Adam and Eve, but it also encapsulates Jesus to come and Redemption is previewed in echoes all the way through Revelation.

That is a LOT of freight for a narrative to carry.  This one does not disappoint!

With all that said, I want to take just a moment to point out a handful of departure points scattered throughout the surface narrative which open doors to greater depth.  For starts, I note that Joe is only seventeen years old when we meet him, a favored son of his daddy, he is already dreaded by his brothers.  He had dreams of grandeur though, dreams which he cannot seem to keep to himself, but in which he feels compelled to rub the noses of his brothers who dread him.  These observations come from the surface narrative, but if you have ever experienced a sibling rivalry – even mildly – you should be sympathizing readily with the older brothers.  This is an impossible situation.  Joe is a tattletale brat, spoiled by their father, and just won’t shut up about his dreams which feature them bowing down to him!  Even his own father, at one point, chafes at some of this!

So, later when the brothers contemplate murder, we readers completely “get it.”  It might not be the choice you or I would make, but we certainly understand why some of them do.  I would like to think that I would be like Rueben, and later Judah too, taking a more honorable approach to this problem, but I would be lying to myself and to God if I claimed Joe was just in the right for his attitude and behaviors.  Joe is not humble, is not putting others first, and is stirring up needless strife.  Somebody needs to put this arrogant punk in his place.  Good narrative structure demands it.

I need to come to terms with this notion within myself as the reader of the story.  I sympathize with the brothers’ and their jealous anger.  Joe is pretty much all up in their hostile face with his hot mess self!  Finding myself in sympathy with them here is going to facilitate the story’s personal and spiritual impact on me later.

But, going deeper, I also need to see Jesus in this juncture.  Jesus is the favored Son of the Father! He too has dreams of grandeur, dreams which will lead him to a crucifixion/coronation.  Mark 15:10 (and par.) reveal to us that even Pilate knows that Jesus has been delivered up to him for execution out of envy!  Jesus’s own brothers envy and kill him.  In fact, so do we sinners of today.  Thus, we already see Jesus seething beneath the surface as Joe’s father favors him with a special tunic, and he dreams big dreams about his brothers bowing to him.

None of this makes Joe right.  He was not holding the interests of others as more important than is own (as St. Paul instructs the Philippians).  Joe was a snotty, little punk playing his daddy’s favor off against his brothers.  In this sense, he surely is a departure from Jesus, and as such Joe thus points beyond himself to Jesus, but it is these surface matters opening up the depths which send us there.

Another surface element I find ripe for deep exploration is how Joe is considered to be dead – long dead.  It is a lie, of course, but the lie is lived out as if true for so long and the supposed death so severely grieved that his family reunion many years later will mimic resurrection quite vividly!  This is not the only instance of this in the Old Testament by a long shot, but considering how palpably Jesus seethes beneath the surface of Joe’s life and story on other grounds, we have all the spiritual license we need to see Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection in Joe’s lived experience.  And if we are seeing all that in Joe, we are also seeing baptism.

Wanna know what Jesus’s experience was in the grave?

Read Joe’s experience in Egypt, for in it we find a poetic and prophetic revelation of Jesus being delivered by his brothers to death.  In my view, the experience is quite dark.  Joe descends into the belly of the imperial beast.  He is sold into slavery, where even though he excels as a servant and is given favor and charge, he also suffers separation from home on the one hand and false accusation on the other.  This leads to further descent as he goes to the king’s dungeon.  As good as dead there for years on end, he seems to be doing well in the pit of hell (poetically speaking) because he finds favor there too.  What was it like for Jesus to die and lie in a tomb three days?  It must have felt something like this!

Each passing day of slavery and prison just hammers home the point to Joe that his dreams of grandeur are all lies.  They are smashed to bits.  He is not destined for greatness!  His brothers will not bow down to him!!  They will be happy now he is finally gone!!!  Meanwhile, Joe’s dreams just rot!

And rot they do! as Joe descends deeper and deeper into the mists of time and the scorn of his brothers and into slavery and prison.

Oh… all except for the fact that while in prison, he begins interpreting the dreams of others.

Hmmm…

I don’t know.  That does seem to be a ray of hope in this hellacious existence, but I am pretty sure that if it were me living this story, I would find that this gift of dream interpretation I have even in prison is well suited for others and not me.  My own dreams are just hammered down every day even as I interpret successfully the dreams of others.

Oh… and then to plead with the cupbearer to remember Joe only to be forgotten yet again… well that is more salt in the wound!

I get no sense from this narrative on either the surface or the depths that Joe is being encouraged to hold fast to his dreams.  I get, on the contrary, the notion that his dreams are ever bit as dead as his daddy thinks he is.  I get the idea that when his own dreams come true, later, that the dreams are resurrected after having been mercilessly killed by the brothers who he had dreamed would bow down to him.  And that is the way I see Jesus – completely not encouraged by anyone as he is handed over for crucifixion.  All is lost.

But there is another point of interest in the surface narrative which opens us up to depths we might need to consider carefully.  The king’s officials who meet Joe in prison and whose dreams Joe interprets are none other than the “cupbearer” and the “baker.”

Can you see Eucharist in that?

Yeah.  Just seething beneath the surface we have wine and bread here, and make no mistake, food will quickly become the point of this story by the time the epic twists and turns the plot into worldwide starvation!  But the Spirit who knows the mind of God is already setting us up to find communion in this story!  We will get more into these depths next, but for now I need only gather a few of them (and there are more) into some introductory remarks and set them up side by side like this so that you can see what I see: The Gospel According to Joe!

So, with that, let us get into the other bits.  The depths.  Go there with me now for just SOME of that.

Echoes of Baptism

Well, I have already pretty much played this hand, I think.  I have said enough that surely I don’t need to convince you to find baptism in Joe’s story, but perhaps I could still offer a few thoughts on the depths to which we might explore baptism here anyway.

Joe’s brothers return to Jake, their daddy, with the very multicolored, celebratory tunic Jake had made for Joe, only now it is ripped to shreds and dipped in blood.  The brothers present Jake with a story, a lie.  It is a false version of reality.  If they would only come clean with Jake, they could presumably confess their sin, take their lumps, and mount a rescue mission where they seek out Joe in Egypt and buy him back.  Most assuredly, Jake would mount such a mission for his favorite son!

But here we have a symbolic interplay between Jake vis-à-vis God and Joe vis-à-vis Jesus.  God honors Jesus with special favor among his brothers who hate and envy him, and who will kill him, but to whom God will, in the end, have them bow the knee.  Jake is not in one-to-one correspondence with God all down the line.  There are differences, but the similarities are not diminished by this. Joe is as good as dead, and his reunion with his family will be as good as resurrection.  Those things point to Jesus, the one and only who fully experiences this before the Age to Come.  But even that, then points us to baptism which is our undergoing of death, burial, and resurrection with Jesus (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:4).

Just to read this story in faith is to undergo baptism – an immersion into the heart of God!

God is willing to work through Joe and his brothers in their fear and trembling.  His ways are beyond their ways.  Joe enjoys all this favor, and unlike Jesus, he seems to grasp at it and to subject his brothers to himself in it.  He is not, therefore, sinless – only God is that.  But he comes so close to a Christ figure despite that, and God wills to work through these flaws anyway to achieve so much more than they will dare to imagine! While Joe is having petty dreams of grandeur, God is having bigger dreams of even bigger grandeur – dreams so big that Joe’s dreams will pale by comparison.  God’s bigger dreams will destroy Joe’s little dreams on his way to their fulfillment.

The brothers are wanting some relief from this pesky little brother and go to some extraordinary lengths and some very dark places in their own hearts to get it.  But God is thinking long before this epic even hints at it, that there is a whole world to save, to feed, to make himself known to through these wayward chosen people and their petty squabbles. 

It would seem there is life, and then there is LIFE!  These ignorant, wayward, willful people are dreaming of the good life while God is maneuvering them into his plans to bestow LIFE ABUNDANT beyond measure!

There is a death to all the little dreams in which God gives birth to his big dreams.  A death that leads to life.  In fact, there is a sense in which the death is the lie and LIFE is too big, to bright, to heavy for mere human dreams and schemes!

Perhaps this is why Jesus will speak of the dead as though sleeping (Mark 5:39 and par.).  Death does not belong in God’s world, not permanently.  The death of your wayward dreams and the birth of God’s dreams in you and for you is the only place for death, and you will suffer it.  That sure sounds a lot like baptism to me.  And it is exactly what I find in Joe’s story.

Echoes of Eucharist

Like the apocalypse of baptism before this one, I have already tipped my hand, I think.  But only partially.  The dreams of the royal cupbearer and the royal baker reveal wine and bread in this story.  I can’t help but imagine that the wine and the bread yearn for me to interpret their dreams!  So here we have young Joe, his dreams of grandeur crushed by the very brothers who were supposed to bow down to him, then ground down to the nub by the slavery he endures in a foreign land, the false accusation, and finally the unjust punishment of prison, and here God’s wine and bread come and minister to him as he ministers to them.

There is so much to unpack in that notion alone that a preacher could fill a year of Sunday lessons exploring it, I think.

What prison are you in?  What accusations do you suffer?  Is your life darkened by clouds of despair?

Come to the table!

Jesus’s own body and blood are there with Joe in prison.  Moses (ostensibly the writer of Genesis) tells us already in 39:2, 3, 21, and 23 that YHWH was with Joe in his slavery and imprisonment, but now we are seeing it with our literary eyes too!

Just imagine if all we had was the surface reading.  This would still be an amazing story, for surely we see Joe put in charge of the prison and running things on behalf of the jailer.  We see two court officials get their dreams accurately interpreted, one leading to release and restoration and the other to death, and we see that setting Joe up for the real encounter with dream interpretation with Pharaoh soon enough.  But if we let the deep narrative have its plot twists too, we see Jesus himself come in bread and wine where both dream interpretations come true for him at the cross and resurrection, and in the meantime in them he minsters to Joe in his hour of need. We see that the presence of Jesus in this way does not wave some magic wand and just make Joe live happily ever after, but we see now a flesh -n- blood picture of how counting trials as joy (James 1:2-3) fits into God’s will.  Jesus is there with Joe in his darkest hour and is preparing the way for Joe even though there will be need for much more patience since his ordeal is still a long way from over.

But there is a LOT more Eucharist at work in Joe’s story than just this dungeon seen.  A LOT!  In fact, we have a chance to see right into the mind and heart of God as we join Joe and his brothers at table chapter 43.

This scene, a continuation of course of the brother’s first trip to Egypt in search of food (where they met and bowed down to Joe but did not recognize him), carries all the echoes of Jesus meeting us in communion today.  Jesus, our brother who we sold for 30 pieces of silver into a death sentence, meets us in the wine and bread where he is revealed to us too (see Luke 24:30-31).  But Joe’s story gives us much more insight into the heart of God as Joe must withdraw to weep at the sight of his brothers, as he sets them up to struggle with their own conscience (as if to wrestle the Angel of the Lord) by putting their money back into their luggage (thus making all food free) and inquiring endlessly about his other brother and father and accusing them of being spies!  

They all, Jesus, God, and the guilty brothers, come to the table of reckoning where SALVATION is enjoyed, but getting real with each other also happens.

Suddenly, I have insight into the heart of God!  I come to the table a betrayer too. Remember, I sympathized with these brothers in their envy when they got rid of Joe and started living a lie of death and deception.  Jesus withdraws, disguised and unknown to me, to weep about our reunion.  How can I revere this properly? 

By coming to this insight through Joe.  That is how. 

And Jesus reveals himself to me at the table as we work our differences, and I dine at the kings table free of charge.

BUT WAIT; THERE’S MORE!

This whole deep reckoning that Joe is having with his brothers, that I am having with Jesus, is set within a larger epic.  God is feeding the world!  The whole world has fallen into starvation and despair, and on the grandest of all epic stages, Joe/Jesus is now the feeder, the grand man who feeds the world, and in the midst of this massive soup kitchen scene, the very personal and deeply spiritual connection God wants with me is unfolding as part of all of that.

Joe’s wildest dreams do in fact come true.  But only after they have died a thousand times over.  There is resurrection and nourishment here that his original dreams never imagined – great as they were.  God’s ways are mystifying to us, bigger than ours, and crush us as they give us LIFE

Joe’s story is filled to the brim with Eucharist.  Though Joe in no way imagined Eucharist when he first dreamed of greatness, and though his dreams of greatness were surely dashed, thrashed, and trashed, they found fulfillment in the end, and found it amid Eucharist, both personal and worldwide Eucharist.  

You gotta go below the surface narrative to get here, but it is all seething there just beneath.

We know Joe finds some kind of relief even before his brothers return and bow low before him.  We know this because the storyteller informs us that a couple of years before the famine sets in, he starts his own family as second in command of the whole known world.  He names his kids after God’s care for him, and it appears his faith is refreshed.  But, like you and I today come to the table for refreshment in the wine and bread, there is a future before us which the wine and bread point us to which we cannot fathom and which we cannot imagine.  We meet Joe there too.  Thus, we are all the more assured of our future when we find his life so poetically completed in God’s plans.  

My own heart breaks with his as I come through this journey with Joe, through the despair and dashed dreams to the point where he confronts his brothers with his true identity.  “I am Joe, your brother!”  

This is ironic, I think, for whereas Jesus comes to us as a peasant we find revealed to have been our king, Joe comes to his brothers as the king revealed to have been their brother.  But after so much heartbreak, Joe is not rubbing their noses in his old dreams of grandeur anymore.  He too has been humbled by now.  But instead he tells them, “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Wow!  

This was God’s story all along. It wasn’t the brothers who dashed his dreams by selling him into slavery, it was God, the One who first gave him those dreams! And God gave, and God took away.  And God replaced what was taken with something even bigger. (Almost sounds like yet another Bible hero I know.)

All these characters came to God’s story and took up bit parts trying to improvise their own story in his, but despite themselves, God willed to work his good pleasure in them and through them and to bring SALVATION to a hurting and starving world!

That’s an awful lot to pack into a pinch of cracker and a thimble full of grape juice, but when I read the Gospel According to Joe, I find every ounce of it bursting out!

(I can’t believe I am going to stop there, but I am writing a blog post here, and so we must move on.)

Ministry Model

You have heard it said, “Let go and let God,” but I tell you, if Joe had let go of his dreams of grandeur and not rubbed his brothers’ noses in them way back when he was seventeen, we would not have this story. 

Perhaps instead we should say: Don’t worry.  God’s got this – even despite you. 

That might be the better sentiment.

Joe is a punk brat in chapter 37.  He is “asking for it.”  

And yet, I don’t doubt for a moment that his dreams were from God.  In fact, I don’t doubt for a moment that grandeur was promised him by God.  He was right to believe it.  And though we are never told he gave up on that dream, there is every reason to believe that dream suffered the death of Christ before it was resurrected like Christ. 

One thing I am sure of: Joe could not have planned for this.  This was orchestrated from Above.  God gets all the glory here.

And yet, Joe’s life is so deeply congruent with the life of Jesus that even a casual reader sees Jesus seething beneath the surface!  All that suffering, living a lie, lost in slavery and prison in the belly of the imperial beast… All of that bears the marks of Jesus all over his life.  Yet none of that makes for planning sessions in any missions committee meetings that I know of.  We shoot for success and the wise use of money and time and expertise like we might just ask God to bless it all and then take the credit when we are done letting go and letting him at the end of it.  Joe, on the other hand, has great ideas about his own greatness, but finds them all obliterated, ground down to the nub, and then fulfilled beyond his imagining.  Then he finds God having sent him to Egypt ahead of his brothers to preserve life.

How do you devise that model?

Say… take nothing with you for the journey?  Not even an extra coat?  Stay with the people who you minister to when you get there?  (I might have read that somewhere…)

On the other hand, if you are a minister for Jesus and things are not working out so well, like you dreamed, perhaps you should take heart and interpret the bread and wine.  Wait on God and see where that takes your ministry.

I am extremely cognizant of the fact that repeatedly Joe is humbled and humiliated in a living death, a life of utter sacrifice, and yet he is also repeatedly put in charge of whatever domain (however humble and sad) with the exception of God almighty and the one superior who appoints him.  Potiphar the slave owning captain of the army puts him in charge of his whole house!  Joe answers only to Potiphar.  When he goes to prison, he likewise rises to be in charge of all the other prisoners and answers only to the jailer.  When he comes out of that hell hole, he rises to the very top of Egyptian power and glory except for Pharaoh’s superiority (and even then it is said he becomes like a father to Pharaoh!).  There is always a profound measure of humility put upon Joe at every level of his life except before his epic adventure begins, and his brothers hate him.  Thus, God gets the glory!

But even more intriguing to me, it is the one thought dead, the one left to suffer, who bears the movement of God.  God is with Joe in the midst of overwhelming despair and oppression.  That despair and oppression is real.  There is nothing easy or light about it.  He is LOST in every sense of the word except for God’s most mysterious and beloved intervention.  And in all of that, he is the tip of God’s spear.

What do these things say for ministry?

I think they quicken our faith and call us to count our trials a joy. That lostness you feel?  Well, is this where God was pointing you when you started?  I don’t mean your sin got in the way and caused God not to care anymore.  I mean, if he put you here, it is his plans working toward greatness you have yet to imagine.

Are you baptized with Christ?  Read this story.  I got dipped in cold water when I was fourteen, but I am only just now discovering the depths of those waters all these years later.  

Do you commune with Christ and the brotherhood?

If so, God is doing business with you down where it hurts.  But, he is revealing to you that even he must withdraw to weep, and in Joe’s story you can see why!  You can see how!  You can see into his very heart.

And so as your ministry seems dashed, thrashed, and trashed, perhaps you can come to the wine and bread and find sustenance pointing you to hope beyond the imagination.  Suffer this life on your way to LIFE and see how many people are saved for your trouble.

Thanx for reading here.

Please share with me your reading both surface and deep.  I have not even begun to exhaust this passage of Scripture.  But perhaps the little I share with you will open up something you need to share, and together maybe, just maybe, we will see even deeper into the mind and heart of God and into the glory he holds out for us to share with him in the Age to Come.

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