The stories of Joseph and Jesus are simple, but loaded with veiled challenges to faith, past and present.
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28.
As the Lectionary readings from the Torah continue with selections from Genesis we come to the story of Joseph. This is a straightforward narrative that tells itself. Unlike much of the Abraham and Jacob story cycles, the long Joseph narrative in Genesis 37, 39-47 is a continuous story, told with almost modern narrative skill. It clearly comes from literary art in ancient Israel, even if older tribal history and folk tradition have supplied the themes.
Joseph was the tribal ancestor of a group of clans that in time settled in the central highlands of Palestine and became the dominant tribal group. Its success led to its splitting into two other tribal powers, Ephraim and Manasseh, which are active tribes in the first glimpses of Israel’s pre-monarchic history (see, for example, these two tribes in the stories of Gideon in Judges 6-8). Thus at the end of the Joseph story, his two sons by his Egyptian wife, Manasseh and Ephraim, are adopted and blessed by the aged patriarch Jacob (Genesis 41:50-52 and chapter 48). The sanctuary site of Shechem, which was central to the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim, claimed to be the burial place of Joseph’s bones (Joshua 24:32, linked to Genesis 50:25 and Exodus 13:19).
Thus, out of old tribal lore that linked the ancestor Joseph with Israel’s descent into Egypt (where he got his wife), the narrators give us a sophisticated story of the envy and rivalry of brothers. The characters in the story reflect the personalities of the tribes. For example, Reuben is the firstborn and makes an attempt to save his father’s favorite son, but like the failed tribe, he is ineffective and misses his chance at leadership. (If the tribe Reuben once led was the bne yisrael, it was long before our recorded history. Nevertheless, it retained its place as first-born in Israelite tradition.) Similarly, the second brother to take a lead in the story, Judah, represents the aggressive southern tribal group who will always be a competitor to the Joseph tribes. In later chapters of the Joseph story, the youngest brother Benjamin is a late-comer and dependent on the others. As a full brother of Joseph, he represents the power that rose late following the dominance of Manasseh and Ephraim, and it is this late-coming Benjamin that actually gave Israel its first king (Saul). Thus the characters of the story act out the remembered tribal history.
There are a few elements of the story unrelated to tribal history. Joseph’s special coat—“of many colors,” in the English tradition—marks the father’s conspicuous favoritism, and Joseph is a dreamer of dreams (and later an interpreter of dreams). The dreams are omitted from the Lectionary’s reading (they are verses 5-11), but they are referred to by the brothers as they plot to kill Joseph (verses 19-20). Not only are the dreams signs that Joseph will be the supreme power among his relatives, but Joseph in the story is naïve enough to report their contents to the very people who are overshadowed in the omens. No wonder he fell victim to malicious brothers! He was completely lacking in street smarts. He had to spend many years in Egyptian slave quarters and prisons to become a master of clever men and mega-economic programs.
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b.
The selection from the Psalm is explicitly about Joseph. When famine came to Canaan, where Jacob and his sons lived, God had prepared a way to save them. One might even say that the psalm treats Joseph as a Suffering Servant, from the viewpoint of both the brothers who sold him and the surprised nations who came to benefit from his suffering (compare Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
He had sent a man ahead of them,
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
His feet were hurt with fetters,
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord kept testing him.
The king sent and released him;
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He made him lord of his house,
and ruler of all his possessions,
to instruct his officials at his pleasure,
and to teach his elders wisdom. (verses 17-22, NRSV)
It does not seem a distortion to suggest that the Epistle reading is part of Paul’s hope that the rejection of Jesus by his contemporary Jews was a part of a Joseph-story drama. In the end, what was done in malice and envy turned out to be for the salvation of all. The Jewish brothers and sisters have not yet recognized Jesus as Lord, but God is not finished.
The distinction between Torah followers and Christ followers was already clear and sharp when Paul wrote. It was stated a little earlier in this letter:
Gentiles [peoples of the nations], who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:30-32, NRSV)
Assuming this sharp distinction, in our Lectionary reading Paul’s argument is based on Deuteronomy 30:11-14. We need to hear that passage to follow the force of his point here. Moses speaks to the Israelites.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
This passage really poses the ultimate issue between Paul and his Pharisaic peers who believed that obedience to the Torah is the only route to salvation. On their reading, the above passage says the divine command can be obeyed. Paul, on the other hand, believed it is humanly impossible to fulfill the command of the Torah, and that only faith in God’s gracious act in Jesus brings acceptance before God.
In Paul’s phrasing, the last sentence in the Deuteronomy passage reads, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (verse 8). He reads this to mean, not that the word in your mouth/lips and heart is a command capable of human performance (as the Pharisees believed), but that God has put the confession of faith on human lips and in human hearts (through the work of the Holy Spirit).
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead [thus confessing faith], you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (verses 9-10).
Thus, the confession is everything, and in that light one can only conclude that the differences between Torah-confessing and Christ-confessing brothers (and sisters) would not soon be resolved.
While the Joseph story seems a very straightforward and open-faced narrative, the Gospel reading is hardly that. This can scarcely be considered as anything other than a weird story. Not only is walking on the stormy lake at night pretty bizarre, the story is full of suspicious things and sudden reversals.
For example, why was it that Jesus “made” the disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, for what is clearly a night passage? Were they resisting? Why the implied compulsion? On what should have been a short lake trip, the disciples battle opposing winds all night, obviously not making good progress. Jesus sends away the people, goes up in the hills and keeps a personal vigil—all before he eventually goes down to the lake and starts the journey across himself. What a jumbling of events. Why all this complication for the disciples?
But there is more. When Jesus catches up with the boat—seemingly in a short time—the disciples are terrified and are sure they see a ghost. From terrifying them, Jesus turns to reassuring words. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (verse 27, NRSV). Then Peter is bold to ask to join Jesus in walking the waves, and does so at his call—until he realizes what he is doing, panics, and is rescued only by Jesus’ extended hand.
Up and down. Terror and comfort. Confidence and panic. Send them ahead then catch up with them. Travel all night but get nowhere. What a confused scenario is presented by this entire passage.
Such literary features are a sure sign that we are dealing with a simple-appearing narrative that is full of symbolism. The most obvious symbols are the boat as the church, the storm as the resistance to Jesus’ disciples making their way without him. Walking on the water is the same mastery of the cosmic powers as in the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Matthew 8:23-27). This much Matthew took from Mark (6:45-52).
The Peter episode, however, appears only in Matthew. Peter tries to walk to Jesus and starts to sink as he loses confidence. The Gospel According to Matthew has a strong interest in Peter as first of the disciples, empowered with special authority by Jesus (16:17-19), but also as the fallible man who had to experience for himself all the challenges of faith. Even disciples can master some of the powers of chaos (walk on the water for a little while), at the Lord’s command, but they face the problem of little faith. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31).
Altogether, this Matthew story, like the Joseph story in Genesis, is a literary embellishment of powerful symbolic realities in Israelite and early Christian worlds. Even Jesus’ actions can sometimes seem erratic, and certainly the voyages he sends followers on can be dark and stormy and loaded with occasions for doubt and panic. Still, “when they [Jesus and Peter] got in the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”