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God’s Purpose, Anxiety,and the Heart of Joseph (Nick Boone)

by

Nick Boone

 

NickBooneThe book of Genesis is not a simple narrative.  It is a layered text in which a number of separate stories are brought together under one heading.  Many times, the stories in Genesis are divided up and studied separately for the purposes of more coherent Bible lessons.  However, as Walter Brueggemann’s interesting commentary on Genesis reveals, the first book of the Bible does contain at least one single dramatic thread that ties the entire book together.  Brueggemann states that the dramatic tension of the book of Genesis revolves around “the faithful, anguished, respectful purpose of the Creator, and creation’s mixed response of obedience and recalcitrance” (Genesis 13).*  Throughout the entire book we are presented with instances of God’s most precious creation, humanity, stubbornly refusing His will for themselves and for creation as a whole.  The relationship between Creator and created becomes somewhat distanced and rife with anguish and anxiety.  However, the book ends quite beautifully as one creature, Joseph, is finally able to resolve these issues of anguish and anxiety by faithfully following God’s will, even when there seems to be no good earthly reason to do so.

God’s creation is good, but it is not long before the serpent interjects anxiety into the relationship between God and his creatures.  God has placed a limit on what humanity can do.  This is perfectly normal and rational.  Each one of us understands that life is complex and dangerous, and that without drawing proper boundaries on behavior, terrible things can result.  Parents, especially, understand this as they raise children.  Everyone needs boundaries.  They make life more safe and secure.  But the serpent blinds Adam and Eve to the truth of the goodness of God’s law and convinces them that God’s boundaries are infringements on their individual freedom.  As Brueggemann says, “The givenness of God’s rule is no longer the boundary of a safe place.  God is now a barrier to be circumvented” (48).  Brueggemann also makes an interesting note in saying that the serpent is the first theologian to appear in the Bible.  He claims to know many things about God, but he places that knowledge ahead of obedience (48).

When we leave God’s providence behind, when we decide that his will for our lives is inconsequential or is simply an infringement on our freedom that we can bypass, we create for ourselves a major source of anxiety.  And we create, for God, anguish.  We see the anguish of God all over the flood narrative in Genesis chapter six: “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth and his heart was filled with pain” (Gen. 6:6).**  God, throughout the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, continually displays his grief at the stubborn heart of a recalcitrant human will.  On humanity’s side, though, is anxiety.  By looking at the will of God for our lives as a barrier to be circumvented rather than a safe boundary or a source of goodness and truth to be cherished and obeyed, we bring numerous burdens on ourselves.  Adam and Eve first witnessed this tragedy.  But throughout Genesis the same predicament recurs again and again.

Take, for instance, Cain.  God counsels Cain, in a very fatherly, gentle way, by warning him that he must master sin, or he will not escape its grasp (Gen. 4:7).  When Cain resists God’s counsel and murders his brother, we immediately see Cain’s anxiety.  He doesn’t know what to do with himself.  Ironically, he asks God to protect him, a murderer, from being murdered himself” (Gen. 4:14).  Such is the twisted result of a will reluctant to heed God’s warnings.

Abraham is a noted man of faith, but even he created much anguish and anxiety when he decided to take matters into his own hands and have a son through Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.  Where there was once no enmity or division in Abraham’s family, it now exists in abundance.  Abraham’s sons also fail to perfectly follow God’s will, and they pay for this mistake with loads of anxiety.  Example after example of Abraham’s seed failing to follow the will of God could be cited, but the end result stays the same.  Though God’s people continually fail to perfectly obey him, God’s will gets fulfilled. Ultimately, humanity cannot stand in the way of what God wants, though they can make a lot of grief for themselves, and for God, in the process of disobeying him.

Finally, though, Joseph enters the story.  He, although the youngest of Jacob’s eleven sons at that time, is the chosen son.   Jacob seems to recognize this fact of God’s preference for his youngest,  but his other sons, for a variety of reasons, fail to see what God sees in Joseph.  Some make a point of saying that Jacob creates strife between Joseph and the brothers by favoring Joseph overmuch.  This is almost certainly true to an extent.  It is also somewhat true to say that Joseph, by recounting his dream of superiority to his brothers, brings about his own mistreatment.  But while those two points have some validity, it is most important, in the context of the entire book of Genesis, to see that the brothers are culpable, not only of committing an atrocious act that borders on fratricide (the intent to murder a brother), but also of not properly hearing, or heeding, the will of God.  God has chosen Joseph to be superior, but they, feeling they have much to lose if the tradition of primogeniture (the eldest sons getting the most inheritance) isn’t followed.  They get rid of Joseph for their own selfish interests.  They are committed to keeping the status quo instead of being open to the dream, as Joseph was.  Unlike Joseph, they are not open to listening to what God has planned for their lives, and the life of their family as a whole.  No wonder God chose Joseph instead of Reuben, or any of the other brothers.  As I Samuel 16:7 reminds us, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

Of course, the brothers’ failure to heed the will of God creates much anxiety in the family.  And this anxiety follows the brothers through the story even to the last chapter of the book.  And it is in this final chapter that we witness the final resolution of the theme of “disobedience creates anxiety” in the book of Genesis.  Joseph, and his godly heart, his willingness to follow God completely, even when there seems no benefit in doing so, resolves this theme.

For daring to talk of God’s will, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers.  For staying committed to God’s will, Joseph was thrown into prison by Potiphar and his wife.  For carrying out God’s compassion on the cupbearer, Joseph was forgotten.  But throughout the narrative, Joseph never wavers in his obedience and his willingness to follow God’s call.

This fact is demonstrated nicely in chapter 48, when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Jacob gives the best blessing to Ephraim even though Manasseh is the eldest.  Though Joseph is at first confused by this, he easily comes to accept this order as God’s will for his family.  Unlike other father/son/brother/inheritance relationships in Genesis, this situation is happily resolved largely because Joseph is so quick to accept the idea that God has willed Ephraim to be the chosen son.  Other fathers (like Abraham and Isaac) were more anxious about how God was carrying out the family plans, and tried to do His job, resulting in much heartache.  But Joseph, as always, accepts God’s will.

The climax of the triumph of the heart of Joseph is witnessed in chapter fifty.  Even after being reunited with Joseph for years, and after seeing his character, the brothers are still haunted by their evil deed of selling Joseph into bondage.  After Jacob dies, they are frightened that Joseph will seek revenge, so they lie to him, saying that it was Jacob’s wish that Joseph continue to treat his brothers well even after he is gone.  The anxiety the brothers brought upon themselves by disobeying God has never been resolved.  In fear they bow down to Joseph proclaiming, “We are your slaves” (Gen. 50:18).  Joseph’s response reveals much about the heart of one who has devoted his life to seeking God’s will.  He responds to his brothers by saying, “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19-20).  Notice not only the reflection of God’s forgiving heart in Joseph’s response, but also his humility in saying “Am I in the place of God?”  To his brothers, he is in the place of God, since his political position gives him power over their lives.  “Surely,” the brothers think to themselves, “if we were in his position, the position of God, we would seek revenge.”  The brothers’ problem is that they fail to understand who God is and their proper relation to his will.  Joseph bends in obedience to God’s will because he stands in humility before God’s holiness.  He therefore also shows a heart of forgiveness, for it is easier to forgive with a humble view of oneself in light of God’s perfect holiness.  But the brothers seem to continually assert their own wills in the place of what God wants.  They cannot understand Joseph’s heart, why he would forgive them,  because they have not spent their lives in pursuit of God’s will.

Thus, the great book of Genesis ends on a hopeful note as the problem of anxiety and anguish caused by humanity’s disregard of God’s will meets its perfect resolution in the heart of Joseph, who steadfastly and humbly seeks God’s purpose throughout his life, and brings harmony back to Abraham’s strife-riven family.

 

 

* Whenever I mention Brueggemann in this essay, I am drawing from his book, Genesis.  Here is the publication information.  Brueggemann, Walter.  Genesis.  Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.

 

**Interestingly, Brueggemann mentions that the word for “grieve” in Genesis 6:6 is the same word used for “pain” in Genesis 3:16, where God describes the pain women will have to bear in childbirth.  Obviously, God is exceedingly grieved by the sin of humanity in chapter 6.

 

Nick Boone is a Professor of English at Harding University

 




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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33