Joseph and his brothers: a grief commentary

This was originally published in the fall of 2020 by The Disrupt Worship Project.

Though the Joseph story can be resonant for many life situations, today it feels like a story about what happens when the favored child of a church dares to speak God’s vision of change to those they have only known as siblings. That is partly because this old story is playing out afresh in my own denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) right now, as our current favorite child (and Disrupt contributor), Rev. Lenny Duncan, is speaking the vision of a program of reparations given him by God, which will mean as big a change in power structures as Joseph’s dream of bowing sheaves. 

If the church is a family, it is easily as dysfunctional as Jacob’s, and tends toward singling out an identified patient on which to dump all its blame and point to as the problem which needs fixing. How often are these identified patients in our churches also the ones God has called to lead? How many churches have turned on their pastors when they dare to speak their God-given visions of a changed system? How many church leaders have felt betrayed by those they consider family when they reveal the call God has placed on their lives?

Such grief is acute and faith-shaking, when the people with whom God has called you to work cannot (or will not) hear what God has sent you to say. I and too many other faith leaders know that pain intimately, and have invested energy toward our own healing that should have gone toward realizing the visions God’s people wouldn’t see. 

 I wonder how long after this betrayal to slavetraders it was before Joseph was willing to speak the dreams God sent him aloud again. It is very likely that if the brothers had come to Joseph asking for forgiveness within a few years of this incident they would have found him much less compassionate. I wonder who tended Joseph’s grief in its early days. I wonder if he had flashbacks to the betrayal of his brothers when he felt called to speak his dreams to the baker, the cupbearer and finally Pharoah.

However it happened, it is clear when we get to the resolution of this story, that Joseph has processed his grief thoroughly and used the pain of it for his own transformation. He understands that his brothers’ betrayal could not ultimately stop the visions of God, even if they were derailed and their realization more painful than it was meant to be. He speaks his famous (and oft-quoted) line about God using for good what humans intend for evil, and the story seems to wrap up with a happily ever after feel.

I will leave my suspicions about how long that happy ending lasted aside, and end with a caution instead. Though Joseph may proclaim God’s ability to take evil intent and turn it to Their good purposes, and however much I may believe that does actually happen, such a proclamation should never be made while one of God’s people are in the depths of tragedy. It is violence to suggest to a person who has been wronged by God’s people, or by those they considered family, that God will use their tragedy for good. 

God did not desire Joseph’s pain anymore than God desires mine or yours. That is not who God is. When people are betrayed by those they love, by the church, by the people who call on God’s name, that is evil and needs to be so named. There may be time later to talk about how God was able to use the pain of those situations for transformation, but it comes much later. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all, and a tragedy is not redeemed. 

Let us not rush to make every story like Joseph’s, even though some are. There are just as many times in Scripture that the people succeed in killing God’s messengers, including Jesus himself. Tragedy is still tragedy and evil is still evil, even when it is ultimately redeemed.

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