Monday, August 1, 2011

The Pattern of Promise

Throughout the book of Genesis, God's promises, which is to say God's plan of redemption for our world, have been continually at risk.  God's promise first came to Abraham in Genesis 12 as a promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and that God would make his name great and make him a blessing.  In the simple reality of Abraham's aging, this promise comes to be at risk for Abraham grows old without having an heir.  It's difficult to become the father of a great nation if you aren't even the father of one child.  But out of the deadness of Sarah's womb and Abraham's old age, God brings forth life, a son, and therefore new possibility for his promise.

The promise is set at risk again as God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, this very same son who was so graciously and miraculously given.  There is no hint in this story that it has a forgone conclusion.  It is only after Abraham shows he is willing to sacrifice Isaac that God says "now I know that you fear God".  What if Abraham fails to trust God?  Will that nullify the promise of God?  What if Abraham does trust and actually kills his son?  How will God fulfill his promise with Isaac dead?  But out of this conflict between God's command and God's promise arises a new future in which God's promise can continue.

Abraham's son Isaac marries Rebekah and they have two children, Esau and Jacob.  Perhaps we begin to think now that the promise is well on its way; the family lineage from Abraham is continuing and gaining strength.  However, the relationship between Esau and Jacob is characterized by struggle and conflict even within their mother's womb.  We come to know Jacob as a deceiver and con-artist whose only real goal is self-preservation and advancement.  As such, Jacob poses a new kind of challenge to the promise of God.  Can God really fulfill his promises to Abraham and Isaac through a person like Jacob?  If the fulfillment of God's promise earlier depended so much on Abraham's obedience, will not Jacob's complete lack of moral character and total inattention to God force God to find someone else to work with, thereby abandoning his promise to Abraham?  Apparently not.  God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Abraham and Isaac and God keeps those promises despite Jacob's character (or lack thereof).

Twelve sons are born to Jacob, who is now renamed Israel, and so the picture of Israel as the mighty nation promised to Abraham begins to come into view.  These twelve sons are the patriarchs of Israel.  But rather than the promises of God being established firmly in these twelve, the promise now faces what might be its greatest risk yet.  For this is a family torn apart, even driven close to murder, by favoritism and jealousy.  Joseph is Jacob's favorite son and he makes no attempts to hide this favoritism but actually flaunts it by giving him a special robe that was more than just a piece of clothing; it was a designation of this son's status.  Add to this the fact that Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons (and for some time the youngest since it seems Benjamin was not born until much later) and Joseph's propensity for grandiose dreams in which he played a role superior to his brothers, it becomes easy to see how Joseph's brothers "hated him and could not speak peacefully to him."  As a result, Joseph's brothers begin to plot his death, only swerving from that plan because they decide it would be better to profit from their brother than to simply kill him and so they sell him into slavery.  Again, the promise of God is in serious trouble.  God had spoken to Joseph in dreams just as he had spoken to his father Jacob in dreams but now instead of those grandiose dreams being fulfilled, Joseph had become a slave.  Moreover, how was God to raise up a great and holy nation out of a family like this one; a family willing to sell their own brother into slavery?

And yet, in the attempt of Joseph's brothers to kill his God-given dreams, they have actually put the fulfillment of those dreams in motion.  Joseph's being sold into slavery is what will bring him into Egypt which, through a series of events involving more dreams, is what will ultimately allow him to become known to Pharaoh and thereby become the powerful man he dreamed he would be.  By Genesis 45, the story has come full circle.  The same brothers who sold Joseph into slavery now come to him in a position of humility, needing the grain which only he can supply.  Joseph aptly sums up his story in Genesis 50:20 by saying to his brothers "you meant evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive".  One again, the promise of God has not failed.

Even with Joseph in charge, the promise of God does not rest safe and secure.  For Joseph will eventually die and the eighth verse of Exodus tells us that "there arose a new king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph."  This will lead to the entirety of Joseph's descendants being enslaved, again causing us to wonder if this where the promise of God will come to an end.  But like the story of Joseph himself, the enslavement of his descendants is only setting the stage for God to bring life where their seems only death, for God to create a new future for the people of his promise.  God delivers the people from their slavery in Egypt and thereby makes them the nation he had long ago promised to Abraham.  The story of God's promise is the story of God making a future that seems impossible in the present.  That is, in fact, why it is promise at all.  It is not merely an accumulation of human events.  It is God's speech made real in our world.

Thus the Joseph story is especially adept at highlighting a theme that has run through Genesis and continues on through the rest of scripture: that God's promises will be kept, God's will will be done.  Which is NOT the same thing as saying that God's will is always done in every circumstance or that everything that happens is the will of God.  All kinds of things happen in our world that are not willed by God.  God does not will slavery, rape, famine, and genocide.  No, what the story of Joseph and many of the stories in Genesis teach us is not that God willed everything that happened but that God will accomplish what he desires one way or another in spite of all that happens against his will.  There is nothing in scripture that indicates that God willed Jacob to be the kind of man he was or that God willed the jealousy and hatred that existed among Joseph's brothers but God was able to work through it to bring his promises to fruition in spite of those things.      This is not determinism but, in fact, its opposite: hope, a hope that God can bring wholeness even out of our brokenness and faithlessness.  It is a hope that where our past and present seem impossible the word of God can speak a new future into existence in which God's promise can prevail.

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