Thursday, January 13, 2011

Do Not Interpretations Belong to God?

Before I write about what I want to focus on, here's an aside.  The Bible is full of warped sexual relationships.  So far in Genesis fallen angels have had relations with the daughters of humanity (I realize this is a controversial interpretation of Genesis 6.).  Ham rapes his father Noah while he's passed out drunk.  Abraham allows his wife to be taken as the lover of not one, but two men.  All the men of Sodom want to rape two guests who are staying in their village.  Lot's daughters get him drunk and then sleep with him, and out of that incest two nations are born.  Jacob's oldest son, Reuben, sleeps with his mother-in-law after his other mother-in-law dies during childbirth.  Jacob's daughter is raped and the men of an entire city are slaughtered in revenge, and then there's Tamar who pretends to be a prostitute so she can get pregnant by her father-in-law.  Throw the sin of Onan in there and you have a very full basket of sexual dysfunction.  Here's the thing, sex in the Bible is usually read through a prudish, Elizabethan era lens.  In other words, many people, when they read the Bible, already approach it with the preconceived notion that sex is basically bad to begin with.  If it's not bad, it's at least uncomfortable.  We then read our own biases into these stories.  We want to say that the point of the sex in these stories is the sex, and therefore what God gets angry at in these stories is the sex.  I disagree.  The point of the sex in these stories is the misuse of sex.  That may seem like nothing more than semantics, but I think it's more than that.  Tamar is actually the hero of her story.  She does the right thing by taking advantage of her father-in-law's loose ethics.  It is her father-in-law who is in the wrong by not providing her with children.  I say all that to say this, God is much more angry with how we abuse our power and authority over others than what we do with sex.  Our misuse of sex is just a symptom of a much larger problem.

But I don't really want to talk about that....  By Genesis 39, the book has officially refocused on the character of Joseph, Jacob's 11th son, and here's what stands out to me the way Genesis frames his story.  Joseph's story begins with family tension.  This comes as no surprise considering the family to which he belongs.  Anyway, Joseph's brothers throw him into a pit and then sell him into slavery.  At this point, Genesis throws in a little third person narrative.  As Joseph begins his new life as a slave in the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, Genesis states that the Lord was with him.  I don't know about you, but I wouldn't define betrayal, abuse, and slavery as proof of favor.  We tend to assume that if God is with us things will go well, but that is far from Genesis' assumption.

Joseph's story then continues with the attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife.  Over and over and over again she attempts to get Joseph to sleep with her, but he repeatedly refuses.  Finally, she corners him, grabs his cloak, and presses him once again for sex.  His only way out of the situation is to run for it, but Potiphar's wife has a good grip on his clothing, and as he flees his clothes stay behind.  Potiphar's wife now has the chance to make this obstinate Hebrew pay.  She accuses him of attempted rape and uses his garments as evidence.  Whose story are you going to believe, the wife of the captain of the guard or a slave?  Potiphar sides with his wife and throws Joseph in prison.  As a side note, I wonder if Potiphar knew his wife was making a false accusation but had to side with her to save face.  The reason I wonder this is because even though he arrests Joseph, he allows Joseph to be put in charge of his other prisoners.  That seems a strange thing to do to someone who supposedly tried to rape your wife.  Anyhow, God's part in all of this has been strangely absent, until again, as Joseph is being thrown into prison, the narrator tells us that the Lord was with Joseph.  This seems like a very strange commentary considering that from an outside perspective Joseph seems to be living a very unprotected life.

Up to this point in the story, Joseph has kept his opinion about all this to himself, but while in prison Potiphar places two important prisoners in his custody.  One is the Pharaoh's cupbearer, the other the Pharaoh's baker.  Both of them have troubling dreams, which they tell Joseph about.  Joseph's response to their anxiety over not knowing what these dreams mean fascinates me.  He tells them, "Do not interpretations belong to God."  Now, specifically he's talking about dream interpretation, but statements like that are usually supported by broader, deeper beliefs.  I think Joseph can say what he says about God to the other prisoners because Joseph is willing to allow God to interpret his life in general.  If you were in Joseph's position, how would you make sense of your life?  We humans, we like to understand what is going on in our lives.  We like to be able to wrap our minds around our situations.  We create frameworks to help us do this.  Our values, our sense of ethics and fairness, our spoken and unspoken rules, they all help us make sense of things...but what do you do when your life doesn't fit any of those frameworks.  That is what Joseph's life has been like.  He was a good son who did what his father asked him to do.  He might have been a cheeky brother, but he never tried to usurp anyone's position in the family.  He served his master to the best of his ability as a slave, even refusing to sleep with his master's very willing wife.  And where did that get him?  In jail, torn from his family, with no way out.  How would you respond?  Well, Joseph's response surprises me.  There's no outrage, not anger, not lust for vengeance, only a willingness to let God make of life what he will.  I guess we could see this as a sign that Joseph had given up, but I don't think so.  This statement isn't based on despair; it's based on trust.  That impresses me.

Stopping point: Genesis 40


  1. Joseph is a good man to remember when life has you on the ropes. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. It certainly impresses me as well.
    Never heard or really ever speculated about the possibility of Ham raping his father Noah, but whatever he did was enough to warrant the rebuke he received. In any case you are spot on about the bible being full of warped sexual relationships. Kind of makes you thankful own family tree which looks pretty simple when compared to the to the many wayward branches that stemmed from biblical family tree.

  3. In Genesis 45:5-7 Joseph addresses his brothers telling them that God was using him for the express purpose of preserving their lives because of famine. Joseph was blessed by God because of his faith and loyalty.