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The Selling of Joseph

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Aug 10 2014


How could it have come to this? Joseph’s brothers, all of them together, had laid violent hands on him, beaten him, stripped him of his multi-colored coat, and thrown him into a deep pit. And all over what? Over dreams? Over jealousy? Even as Joseph cried out to his brothers for mercy, pleading for his life, they sat down beside the pit to eat. They were going to enjoy a meal together before leaving Joseph to die in the wilderness. But then, while they were eating some slave traders heading to Egypt came along. Joseph’s brothers did want to be rid of Joseph and his idiotic dreams that they would bow down before him, but no need to kill him. Why not make a little money while they were at it? Why not sell him as a slave? So 11 sons of Israel sold the 12th son as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, and just like that, in one fell stroke, Joseph became a slave in Egypt.

It was an act of great evil, the consequences of which the sons of Israel would never have been able to predict. Because although Joseph’s connection to his homeland seemed irrevocably severed, his connection to the spiritual realm of dreams was stronger than ever. Joseph, somehow, could see the future in people’s dreams. Whether a dream portended weal or woe, good fortune or bad, it made no difference. Joseph was never wrong. No matter how unlikely his predictions seemed at the time, they always came true. So famous were the abilities of the sooth saying slave that even the pharaoh heard about him, and he consulted Joseph on what the future held for Egypt and how to best govern the nation. And so uncanny were Joseph’s predictions that the pharaoh decided to simply allow Joseph to govern Egypt however he pleased, since everything he set his hand to turned out well.

The first thing that Joseph did with his newfound power was to start buying grain. And not just a little grain, Joseph bought up all the grain he could lay his hands on. It seemed an odd thing to do because times were good, better than anyone could remember, actually. Everyone had more grain than they knew what to do with, but Joseph was buying. He was building and filling storehouses everywhere, a network so massive that Joseph stopped bothering to try to measure it, other than to know it could feed whole nations for years and years and years.

But then, everything changed. The good times came to an end, and one crop after another failed. One year became three, which became five, and the people had run through their reserves, scraped the bottom of every barrel, eaten every cupboard bare. No one had enough food, no one. There was a famine and not just in Egypt either. All the way to the eastern desert, all the way to Joseph’s hometown of Canaan, a famine had a death grip on the land. And suddenly, Joseph was sitting on a stockpile of the only thing that had any value—he had grain. Grain beyond measure, enough grain to feed whole nations for years.

The word went out. The pharaoh’s right hand man was selling and the whole world was buying. The roads into Egypt were jammed with people trying to buy food, including Joseph’s brothers. The sons of Israel traveled to Egypt to buy food so they wouldn’t starve. And there in Egypt, in a lavishly decorated audience chamber, appearing before the right hand man of the Pharaoh, the sons of Israel bowed down low. They bowed before Joseph, they all bowed down before the brother they had betrayed, just as Joseph’s dream had predicted—he was never wrong.

Prostrate before Joseph were the brothers who had sold him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, and they came carrying silver coins to buy their lives from Joseph. The men who had mercilessly ignored Joseph’s pleas for as he lay in a pit were now totally at Joseph’s mercy. But Joseph, ever surprising, forgives them completely. So merciful is he that he even gives each of his brothers land in Egypt to live on—the best land there was actually—and he gave them food from his own storehouses, as much as they needed. Joseph saw to it that all 12 of the sons of Israel would thrive in the land of Egypt. And thrive they did. They all became prosperous and had many children, living the rest of their lives in peace. And Joseph died, an old man and full of years. He was gathered into the arms of his ancestors, and he and his whole generation went the way of all flesh.

Generations passed, and centuries flowed by like the Nile. The descendants of Israel became so numerous that they were like a nation all to themselves. There were millions of the people of Israel prospering in the land of Egypt, but then a new Pharaoh came to power. And this new Pharaoh said to himself: “Joseph? I do not know anyone named Joseph, but what I do know is that these foreigners, these Israelites are raking it in while we Egyptians are just getting by. Whose empire is this anyway?” So Pharaoh seized all of their land and all of their property, and he forced the people of Israel into slavery, them and all their descendants. In one fell stroke, the people of Israel became slaves in the land of Egypt, forced to build warehouses to store grain.

That is the story of how the people of Israel came to be slaves in Egypt. It was because of Joseph. Or rather, it was because of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. If they had not sold Joseph as a slave, then their descendents would never have been slaves in Egypt, because they would never have lived in Egypt at all. The day the sons of Israel sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, they set in motion a course of events that would lead to the whole people of Israel being slaves in Egypt. Selling one man into slavery led inexorably to a whole nation becoming enslaved.

This wild tale about a multi-colored coat and a man who can see the future in dreams, this story is one of the most sobering stories in the bible because it reveals the nature of human evil. Human evil is a living thing; it is a breeding thing. It is almost like a law of nature that evil creates more of itself.

It is true about war. The only thing that a war will create is the next war. War whispers promises it will not keep of endless safety to the victors and vengeance to the vanquished. That’s where war lays its eggs, in the deadly spiritual wounds that war inevitably inflicts on both victor and vanquished. You can’t use war to create peace any more than you can use a gun to prune an orchard. It simply is not what they are for.

Evil begets evil. It is true of poverty too. Indifference to the needs of the poor will not reduce the number of impoverished people. No, in fact, ignoring the cries of the poor will only lead to more people being swallowed up into poverty. Because while it is easy to fall in to the deep pit of poverty, it is hard to climb out without help. That is where poverty builds up.It is a congestion of the human heart when we accept as fact of life that some children will be born into destitution.

That is what is revealed in the story of how the selling of Joseph into slavery led to the enslavement of all of Israel. The power of evil to recreate itself.

But, of course, Israel did not remain slaves in Egypt forever. God sets Israel free from slavery, and God breaks the chains of bondage that constrains human destiny to the mere recreation of past evils. Evil is not the only power that is alive in the world. God is also living, and the God of Israel is a liberator. God liberates the people from a misery whose roots were in their own history of wrongdoing. God is a liberator, because God refuses to leave humanity alone as the ultimate arbiter of our own destiny. God is a liberator because God refuses to leave humanity alone to face the fate we create for ourselves. God leads people away from the slaveries of their own creation and calls them into a new future, a new destiny to live according to God’s ways.

And when people are liberated, God calls them to places they would never imagine or have thought themselves capable of going. God called Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and found himself walking through the Red Sea at the head of Israel. God called Ruth to expand the reach of God’s people beyond one tribe or nation, and it led her to a new land to learn it is love that binds us to God. God called Harvey Milk to show that open and proud gay leadership is necessary for a thriving city. God called Samuel Sewall to show the power of repentance, going from a person who executed women as witches to a champion dignity of all persons; it led him to publish the first anti-slavery tract in America called the Selling of Joseph. God called Dorothy Day to live her life showing that the poor are at the very heart of God’s Kingdom. God called Stokely Carmichael to stand against the racism of Jim Crow America, proving that even when a man is unjustly jailed in Parchman prison, he is truly free whenever he is doing what is right. God called Lois Gunden to travel from her home in Indiana to be a French teacher at a Mennonite school in France where she encountered the horrors of the holocaust. It led her to become an outlaw and a smuggler of Jewish children, a Yad Vashem, one of the righteous among nations.

God hears the cries of Her children, and will not allow humanity to be held captive by the evils of our own creation. God will liberate us from that bondage to give us a new life ordered according to God’s ways. And it will lead us to places we could never imagine and would not have thought ourselves capable of going. God’s voice calls even today, even now, even here God is calling each of us to be free, to walk without fear into a new future, a new destiny to live according to God’s ways. God is calling you, and if you follow, you will never believe what will become of you.