Joseph’s Ordeal

We do not know how long Joseph was in the pit (Gen. 37:24). Perhaps it was only the length of the meal his brothers enjoyed, during which they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way down to Egypt. Perhaps it was three days and three nights. Whatever, we can imagine the emotions that rocked his soul─the shock of betrayal, the suffocating terror of the dark earthen walls about him, the cruel demise in a single moment of youth’s illusion of immortality. Moreover, we see this poor boy’s spirit rise as he is lifted up out of the pit, only to be met by the ruthless, mirthful yet somewhat uneasy eyes of his own brothers as they hand him over to strangers for a few silver coins. (Silver plays a crucial role in this story as it unfolds; cf. 42:25ff., 43:18, and 44:2,17). Be this as it may, Joseph found himself a slave drawn down to Egypt, a curiously complex place that possesses an inevitable pull. There Abraham his great grandfather was forced by famine to seek sustenance, yet narrowly escapes losing his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:10-20). During another famine Isaac his grandfather was tempted to go down as well but warned not to by God (Gen. 26:1-5). As we shall see, Jacob his father goes down only when it could no longer be avoided, forced by famine as well. Egypt symbolizes the world, an unavoidable place of earthly necessity and sustenance, yet a dangerous place that devours and enslaves.

On his way down, Joseph had much time to reflect on these things and to study his soul. No doubt he bitterly lamented the sudden fall from his high position in a wealthy family destined for greatness to being enslaved by gypsy-like mercenaries. As far as he knew, life was over as he had experienced it. He grew up assuming that all things revolved around him. Surely he was the center of reality, and everyone, even his own family, existed for him. Now he had to deal with the truth of the matter. He was not the center of the universe. This is the lesson of the pit and great reversals of status or social standing. They teach us the truth about ourselves, and if we embrace the truth, we learn humility. Young and proud of his favored position and his spirituality, Joseph had to be humbled. Those who long to be humble must not resist the pit of humiliation; the only way to be humble is to be humbled.

Joseph’s situation was extremely tenuous. As a slave, he was completely dehumanized, his worth calculated by a few coins. He had no platform whatsoever with his masters as to how they would dispose of him. His opinion mattered nothing. For all he knew, he could be sent to the mines digging for copper till he dropped, never to see the light of day again, or moving brick under the whip. As horrifying as this realization was for Joseph at the time, something subtle and sublime made its way into his soul. He may not have seen it right away through the pain and disappointment, but he encountered a most elusive fact on the way down to Egypt. This is the fact of our powerlessness and our ultimate inability to manipulate ourselves into a position of security in this transient world. This, of course, is an old hackneyed truism that we all know to some degree by virtue of being mortal. But to really come to terms with this is a grace of God. Those who see it no longer feel that they have to be in control. They are not, nor cannot be, the masters of their own fate. What seemed to be Joseph’s most vulnerable moment was in fact the beginning of his own freedom─the freedom from the illusion of power, of control, of self determination.

One of the grandest illusions we hold dear to our hearts is that loss, privation, suffering, and trials are sort of an aberration, or detour, in life that otherwise should be pleasant and gratifying. This is especially true for Americans and those who enjoy the fruits of Western affluence. In fact, our whole purpose as a society is to bend the material world to our wills, forcing it to smile upon us. Success, security, progress and prosperity are ours by right, and anything that gets in our way is an evil to be abhorred. The truth is that suffering is not an aberration in this life and must not be understood as a mere “set back” in our rush to get to the top. Pain and loss are necessary parts of this existence and are as natural as the yearly turns of fall and winter. Rather than an abnormality, a tumor that must be removed and forgotten at all costs, suffering is the great means by which all aspiring souls ascend to God.

2 Responses to “Joseph’s Ordeal”

  1. Father John,

    I was impressed by your analysis of the psychological aspects of Joseph’s situation. I would like to comment on your depiction of American society in that while I agree with what you said about our rights to success, etc., there is unfortunately a sector of our culture that does not see America in that fashion. Scores of people are born into and accept that their station in life is one of continuing humility and dependence and the idea of success and affluence is only wishful thinking. Again, this is an unfortunate factor in our American culture that we seem not to be able to correct.

    In Faith and Friendship,


  2. Joe – thanks for this correction. I am speaking from my own subculture of American middle class which, the polls tell us, is a dwindling group. Yes, the American Dream is crumbling around us, and there is less hope that Government and Science can create a utopia where we can shield ourselves from the inevitable suffering that must come our way,

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