Forming Faith Blog

The Story of Joseph (September 27, 2020)

Stories have the power to form us, so we need to take the time to tell others the biblical stories like that of Joseph.

The great pyramids of Egypt. The story of Joseph ends in Egypt.
The Power of Storytelling

This week, we continue the story that leads to the creation of the people of Israel. But this—the story of Joseph—is more than merely a continuation of the origin story. It is bigger, more detailed, and (in my opinion) better. But I might be biased because I love this story.

A focus on storytelling is the key to the Narrative Lectionary (thus the “narrative” part). Stories are powerful. Whether factual or fantasy, stories shape us, shape even our brains. While it is useful to mine biblical stories for a list of what they teach us (doctrines), it can also defeat the purpose, as stories help us to remember facts, possibly 20 times more likely. Sometimes, we need to just let a story stay a story. Stories form us, so those of us in faith formation need to learn to tell, and listen to, stories.

A Foolish Dreamer

Once upon a time in ancient Canaan, there was a seventeen-year-old boy, Joseph. He was one of 12 sons. His father made it obvious that Joseph was the favorite, either not know or not caring how this might make the rest of the family feel. And Joseph was completely oblivious. He didn’t seem to notice that he was privileged, that his brothers were being treated worse than he was, and they hated him for it.

Then, he had two dreams, prophetic dreams. Perhaps Joseph didn’t know what the dreams meant. Perhaps he did. But he shared them with his family, and they didn’t have any trouble interpreting their meaning. Joseph’s brothers—who already hated him—were going to bow down to him? Is anyone surprised that Joseph’s brothers hated him even more afterward?

The Cycle: Blessings and Sufferings

This situation was the beginning of a pattern that would last the rest of the story. Things would be going great for Joseph and then there was a drop and things would suck. Let’s look at this pattern:

  • Joseph is daddy’s favorite, then he was almost killed, but instead he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:1-36).
  • Joseph becomes his owner’s favorite, but then his owner’s wife accuses him of rape, so he is sent to prison (Genesis 39:1-20).
  • Joseph became the prison warden’s favorite, but he remains in prison for years (Genesis 39:21–40:23).
  • Joseph becomes the Pharaoh’s favorite. The story ends here without a fall, but we know that all of Israel falls into slavery after this (Genesis 41:1–47:26).
Dreams and Dreamers

Along with this cycle, there are many other threads that weave through this story. Dreams and their interpretation set the drama going. Dreams and their interpretation eventually get Joseph out of prison and begin his sudden rise to almost-absolute power. But Joseph himself emphasizes that the dreams and their interpretations come from God, and the writer emphasizes at the beginning that “the LORD was with Joseph.” Joseph was the protagonist in this story, but God was the primary actor.

Setting up for Exodus

The whole Book of Genesis is basically a lead-up to the defining story of the people of Israel: the exodus from Egypt. It answers the question: where did we (the people of Israel) come from? The story of Joseph is the climax of this. God’s dramatic actions bring the nascent people to Egypt, just as God will bring the maturing people out of Egypt and back to the land they came from. But as I was reading the story through this time, I noticed another—darker—detail that sets up the exodus. It was Joseph who put the people of Egypt into slavery (Genesis 47:20-21), taking their money, possessions, property, and ultimately their bodies in exchange for food during the famine [food that the people likely grew in the first place]. Is this related to the enslavement of these “foreigners”?

Faith Formation

My advice for this week, in terms of faith formation, is to simply tell the story. Tell it in the most entertaining way you can. The passages that the Narrative Lectionary assigns focuses on the sin of Joseph’s brothers and Joseph’s forgiveness of them in the end. That provides a shorter, simpler story to tell. However, if it’s appropriate to your context, tell the whole story, from Genesis 37 through 50 (excepting chapter 38 which is about Judah and Tamar. You can also leave out the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which is the only other portion of the Joseph story in the four-year Narrative Lectionary).

Plenty of people would disagree, but I think this is the week to skip the sermon, or, rather, use the sermon to tell the story.

In God’s love,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

This week, you can download and use a story-telling activity, Evil for Good, from Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (Narrative Lectionary), an activity that can be used easily at home, online, or gathered in person.

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