Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The great evils of good Joseph

Think back to your days in Sunday School if  you can.  Do you remember the story of Joseph?  No, not Jesus's stepdad Joseph, the other one, the one in the Old Testament.  You know, the dreamer who became a slave, who then became a prisoner, who then became the vice regent of all Egypt.

He's also famous for donning some seriously gay apparel

I'm pretty sure that even if you never went to Sunday School you still know exactly who I'm talking about.  It's one of those really famous Bible stories that everyone knows even if they've never read the Bible.  After all there's been a movie, a cartoon and a very well known Broadway musical about the guy.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that he's such a popular character, his story is one of goodness and persevering faith overcoming all injustice and adversity.  This makes him a great subject for sermons since his story seems to show that if you do what is right, you will be richly rewarded in the end - even if the road to your reward is a dark and difficult one.  He was the ultimate good guy, more of a Pollyanna than Pollyanna and by far my mom's favourite Bible character (since unlike those other Biblical badboys, Joseph never gave in to carnal temptations).  In fact if Joseph ever committed a sin, the Bible never lists it.  Or so I thought.

See, I was so saturated by the Sunday School version of the story of Joseph that I never saw the very dark ending to the story.  To my shame I have to admit that even though I read the words for years, I never realised their meaning until a recent blog by the Slactivist pointed it out to me.  Now that I see it I'm flabbergasted by how I could have missed something so terrible for so long!  If you don't know what I'm referring to, take another look at the "happy" ending of the story of Joseph (Genesis 47:13-21):

"There was no food, however, in the whole region because the famine was severe; both Egypt and Canaan wasted away because of the famine. Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is all gone.”  “Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and he gave them food in exchange for their horses, their sheep and goats, their cattle and donkeys. And he brought them through that year with food in exchange for all their livestock.  When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. Why should we perish before your eyes—we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.”  So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other."

You see what he did there?  He exploited the desperation of starving people to rob them of their money, their property and their freedom.  Does that seem like something a good person would do?  Note that he didn't do this on the Pharaoh's orders, this was all his idea.  He didn't need to do it either, nothing stopped him from giving the grain away for free or even on credit.  He deliberately used food as leverage for a power grab.  I don't care where you come from, that's downright reprehensible!

It gets worse though.  What Joseph did to the Egyptian nation during his time in government reverberated far beyond his own lifetime.  The Book of Exodus goes on to show how Joseph eventually became the architect of the enslavement and exploitation of his own people.  Well, to be fair, the Bible never actually condemns Joseph for the slavery of Israel, yet was he not the one who made Pharaoh the all powerful tyrant of Egypt? 
Was he not the one who created the blueprint for gaining power through exploitation and enslavement?  If the Pharaoh in the time of Moses deserved to be struck with 10 horrible plagues for following this blueprint, how many plagues did Joseph deserve? 

Yet...  I cannot sit here as the judge of Joseph.  The thing is, I don't think I'm that different from Joseph.  Perhaps the only real difference here is that Joseph wielded more power than I ever will and therefore was able to do far more harm.  See, there isn't a whole lot of difference between myself and good Joseph here.  I too would have considered myself a good person, someone who resisted temptation and would do the right thing no matter how difficult.  Yet without warning I found myself doing dark and evil things, using the gifts and opportunities given to me to do harm instead of good.  I'm really in no position to pass judgement on Joseph at all...

You know what?  The story of Joseph should be taught far and wide.  People of every faith, young and old, need to heed the story of Joseph.  Not because it is a story about having faith in difficult times, or about things working out in the end for good people.  Rather because it's a story that shows that a lifetime of doing the right thing in no way immunizes you against doing wrong.  You can in fact be a great person your whole life long and still manage to do something spectacularly atrocious without any prior warning signs.  That, I think, is a truth worth learning.

1 comment:

GumbyTheCat said...

It's amazing what the Bible actually contains, innit?

I wonder if we miss so many important details in the Bible because we read the book expecting it to be the Good Book. In other words, we already have a perception filter installed going in.

Christians are always taught that the story of Jesus is a beautiful, sacred, good, wholesome story. So we read the whole danged Bible the same way. But when you look at the reality of the Bible from an objective standpoint, it isn't very pretty.

I mean really, now... a god who is angry, vengeful and jealous (and by his own admission created evil), creates man and woman, places them in Paradise, and tells them that they can do everything except press the big pretty shiny red button labeled "UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES PRESS THIS AWESOME RED BUTTON". He then sends Satan to tempt Eve, and being the omniscient type, knows full well what the outcome will be. Thus, the gates of hell are opened. He drowns everyone on earth save 8, he kills firstborns, he wreaks genocidal havoc on Israel's enemies, etc. etc. Then he impregnates a young girl, who gives birth to... God... who then has himself brutally tortured to death in order to atone for the sins of a species that God allowed to sin in the first place. His own omniscience means that he allows billions to be born knowing in advance that they will burn forever after they die.

Ugly, ugly, ugly... and it's what Christians call "beautiful", "holy", and "the greatest story ever told". And they call this monstrous genocidal maniac deity, who deliberately caused the condition that put man in the position of having to grovel in fear of hell, a "kind", "just" and "loving" God.

It's all in how you read the words. With the blinders, or without them.