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Plans and Chances (I):  

The course of true love never did run smooth, and tracing the course of God’s loving purpose in history has many bumps along the way, so many that one might well wonder if God knows what he is doing. As we trace his works in creation, in Israel, and in the church, it can seem that his plans and purposes are continually breaking down, over and over again. He lavishes all his bounty on the creature, and what does he get in return? A pretty paltry bearing of fruit at the best, and outright rejection or rebellion at the worst. That’s why the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50), which we read again this week past in the Church’s daily prayers, is such an important story to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. It supplies us with the clue we need to make sense of the unfolding of God’s purpose in the history recorded in the Scriptures.

It begins with an unprepossessing family – Jacob the patriarch, never anyone’s idea of a saint, who commits the folly of openly favoring the child of his favorite wife, Rachel, at the expense of his older brothers, the children of other mothers. The young child himself, Joseph, brings unfavorable reports of his brothers to his father, and foolishly shares with them dreams of his own superiority to them. They naturally but culpably respond in envy and anger, and when opportunity strikes, devise a plan to get rid of him – at first by murder, but then by selling him into slavery.

That’s all in chapter 37, yet already there are some oddities in the telling of this tale. A few verses could have sufficed to tell us that the brothers took an opportunity to get rid of Joseph, and he was sold into slavery in Egypt. Instead, we get twenty-four verses telling a tale of misfired plans and mischanced encounters. It starts when Jacob sends his son Joseph to meet his brothers, and thus exposing him to their malice – a failure of fatherly foresight. Then, when Joseph goes looking for his brothers at Shechem, he can’t find them; but he meets someone who knows where they have gone, and so as a result of that chance encounter, Joseph goes to meet them. Why bother with these details? When the brothers see him coming, they make a plan to kill him, but Reuben is opposed to killing him, and they throw him temporarily into a pit. Reuben has his own plan to win favor from his father, by rescuing Joseph; yet it is Judah who persuades the brothers not to proceed with murder but to sell the boy into slavery instead. In the event, neither plan goes as expected. Some Midianites come upon Joseph “by chance”, and it is they who sell him to Ishmaelite merchants on their way to Egypt. When Reuben goes to fetch the boy from the pit, Joseph is missing, and the brothers accept Reuben’s report that Joseph is dead, a report they bring to their father with evidence they have manufactured – Joseph’s own coat of many colours, torn and bloodied. Jacob accepts that Joseph is dead, and raises no overt question about the brothers’ role in this outcome, but he refuses to be comforted, and in his grief, there may well be an element of guilt, for having sent his son into danger.

So there is closure and no closure: the brothers have gotten what they wanted, Joseph is gone; but even as dead, Joseph is still present, in their father’s inconsolable grief. Even as dead, Joseph still gets in the way of their enjoying their father’s favor. Moreover, they are stuck with the guilt of the misery they have inflicted on their brother and their father, through their own hatred of the one, and the lies they told each other. Like Cain before them, they have refused the God-given duty of being their brother’s keeper. And what of Joseph? By his father’s action, he has been exposed to the murderous malice of his brothers; and the one who was now the favorite son is now a slave in transit to a strange and distant country: his old life has come to an end, with a painful, traumatizing finality like death itself. Surely he can only regard both father and brothers with anger, as those who have betrayed and victimized him.

This is not just yet another story of toxic family dysfunction, such as we have been hearing about in South Carolina; this is the family of Abraham, the heirs of God’s promised blessing to Abraham and his seed forever. The story leaves us also with a sense that God’s own plan of redemption through Abraham’s family has misfired also. How can a family laden with such toxic grief, guilt, and grievance be the ones to carry forward the purpose of God? That’s the question this story raises, and will indeed eventually answer, to supply the clue we need to make sense of the purposes of God. We will need to wait for that answer to emerge, but right now we are given a pattern of misfired plans and mischanced encounters to ponder.


Plans and Chances (II): 

The account of Joseph and his brothers with which Genesis ends, is a strange story of mischances and misfiring plans, in which we may well doubt whether God knows what he is doing, let alone his chosen people! Last week I reviewed the oddities of its beginning in the thirty-seventh chapter, and I cannot do the same for the remaining thirteen. Those of you familiar with the story will have guessed what I was trying to bring to light, the strange way that God’s plan and purpose works in and through the mischances and misfired plans and intentions of human beings. Joseph’s own arrogant dreams of superior status that excite his brothers’ angry malice, Jacob’s sending Joseph to visit them, the stranger met in the field “by chance” who tells Joseph where to find them; the Midianites who scoop up Joseph and sell him to the Ishmaelites, foiling Reuben’s plan to rescue him; the acceptance of Reuben’s own mistaken report of Joseph’s death, this comedy of errors hints at a deeper purpose at work, one that works through our failures and follies. In Egypt, Joseph is thrown into prison unjustly, but meets the butler of Pharaoh, who remembers him years later, when Pharoah is in urgent need of a dream interpreter. From the depths of misery – forsaken and victimized by his brothers, sold into slavery in a foreign land, unjustly accused and imprisoned – Joseph vaults to the pinnacle of power in the greatest kingdom of the ancient world. Then by another strange chance, his brothers appear before him, driven by famine to buy corn from the stockpiles Joseph has gathered against the years of famine his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold. Joseph has the upper hand, and it is not clear that he is at first ready to reconcile with them or with his father, but eventually he does, and when he reveals himself to them, they are at first afraid. Joseph reassures them: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be eating nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God…” (45:5-7). Reflecting on the strange mischances and reversals of fortune that have brought him and them together, Joseph has concluded that a greater purpose was at work in these events. And some years later, after Jacob dies, Joseph once more reassures his brothers, “Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (50:19,20).

As Leon Kass has perceptively argued in his study of Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, Joseph’s perspective is a bit too neat, and a bit too pious, and a bit too self-exalting. Joseph thinks he has “saved” his family; and indeed he has saved them from famine, but at the cost of bringing them from the land God has promised them into Egypt, where eventually they will be subjected to oppressive tyranny that Joseph himself helped to establish, and from which God must bring them out by a mighty hand. He has “saved” them, by setting them on the road to enslavement, and putting their future with God at risk.

Nonetheless, Joseph speaks better than he knows; for even his pride and folly falls within God’s providential government; for it is precisely in allowing them to fall into bondage, and bringing them out of it, that God will advance his purpose and reveal his glory as their true and only Savior. The ending of Genesis is therefore subtly ironic: Joseph has grasped the principle of God’s providential action, even though he does not recognize the limitations of his own purposes. Perhaps that is both humbling and encouraging for our own good intentions, so often braided with our pride and folly also; that God can use even them for his purposes. This is the thread that makes sense of the whole bumpy course of Israel’s history in God’s true love; that in and through our failures and flaws God brings about good he wills. “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good”. Through judgment he brings us to hope, through death he brings resurrection. The history of God’s people written for us in Scripture and experienced still in our own lives as Christians, is not the story of (sadly unrealized) human perfectibility, but the story of the Creator working in and through the limitations of his creatures to accomplish his good and perfect will, in ways past our knowing. To him be the glory.

This essay by Fr. Dunbar was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on March 5 and March 12, 2023.  Image:, Joseph’s coat being brought to Jacob