Archive for May, 2014

Joseph Among the Wizards: True Enlightenment vs. Magic

Posted in Uncategorized on May 26, 2014 by ancienthopes

We imagine Joseph going about his duties in the dungeon with his usual diligence, yet having to deal with the disappointment of being forgotten by the world outside─and seemingly, by God Himself. This went on for weeks, months…to be exact, two whole years. One morning Joseph woke up with his usual agenda in mind when the royal messengers came to the door (Genesis 41). The day before he was organizing activities for criminals. That day he would stand before Pharaoh. In spite of the initial shock, we believe that in some strange way Joseph was really not all that surprised. As the Egyptians rushed about him in excitement, doing their best to make this grimy Hebrew presentable before their god the king, Joseph instantly knew what was happening. This was his hour! God had prepared him for this moment! With calmness and dignity he went before Pharaoh to meet his destiny. Pharaoh was about to be introduced to the most unusual person that he would ever meet.

To appreciate more fully how unusual Joseph had become by this time in his life, we must compare him with the Egyptian magicians. These were no ordinary folk themselves. They were the elite group of wizards in a land famous for magic and the dark arts, rivaled only by ancient Mesopotamian cultures like Babylon. By Joseph’s time their guild boasted an aged past, collecting metaphysical lore and practicing rites for at least a millennium, perhaps two. Out of their labors came magical texts, such as the famous “Book of the Dead,” the primary source for witchcraft to this day. That they understood spiritual realities and possessed “paranormal” powers is not disputed by the Scriptures; they could turn common rods into snakes, water into blood, and even produce frogs from what seemed to be nowhere (Ex. 7:11, 8:7). We assume that they understood that dreams were mediums of spiritual revelations and insight, and were very adept in interpretations. On this occasion they did not have the ability to satisfy Pharaoh’s heart concerning his dreams.

Here we cannot resist the parallel with Joseph’s counterpart in Babylon, Daniel. He achieved the auspicious title “Dean of Magicians over all the Wise in Babylon” (Dan. 2:48) and in another place filled the rather alarming position of “Chief sorcerer” (Dan. 4:9; See Montgomery and Goldingay for etymologies). The word for sorcerer is the very same word used here in our Joseph story, usually translated “magician” (Cf. Gen. 41:8 with Dan. 2:48 and 4:9). It is difficult for us, with our rather austere conception of this prophet, which arises out of our desire to protect his orthodoxy, to imagine him presiding over such an infernal collection, comprising of wizards, warlocks, soothsayers, mediums, and God knows what else. Tradition doesn’t elaborate for us what this might have looked like. It merely emphasizes Daniel’s complete power and authority over what was then the most elite group of spiritual power brokers. The same could be said of Joseph in this instance. He was a man who, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was more connected to the mysterious realm of the supernatural than anyone available to him.

It is here that we must distinguish true biblical mysticism from magic. Because both share the metaphysical sphere as its field of consciousness, there are bound to be similarities in vocabulary, concepts and perhaps even method in some cases. However, they belong to opposite poles. On one end is true mysticism, which seeks Transcendence in order to give and to die to self. On the other end is magic, which seeks unseen realities to get power so as to exalt the self. (For further discussion, see Evelyn Underhill’s “Mysticism,” p.71.) Both passionately seek to free themselves from the ordinary limitations of humanity and to live supernaturally. But the motives and the goals are as far apart as Heaven is from Hell. Moreover, the purest form of mysticism is biblical at its core, for the Holy Scriptures provides a map for those who venture into the supernatural, interpreted and guided by God’s very Own Spirit within. We simply do not know what this meant for Joseph, who did not have access to the Holy Script as we now possess them. To him belonged the rare circumstance of living out the drama of the holy story itself, a part which he was most probably aware of on some level, being a son of the promises. He was, no doubt, inspired by the God of his fathers, who raised him above the lowly realm of magic and the nature gods. The stage is set for the inevitable confrontation between true spirituality and magic.

Joseph the Forgotten

Posted in Uncategorized on May 19, 2014 by ancienthopes

This episode in Joseph’s life is structured by the storyteller in an interesting way. There are three segments leading up to the central issue of this episode and three segments leading back down to the result of the story, forming what is called a “chiasm.” This structure may be outlined like this:

A Joseph meets Cupbearer and Baker (Gen. 40:1-4)
B Joseph’s inquiry into the anxiety of these two men (40:5-8)
C Cupbearer’s dream and interpretation (40:9-13)
D Joseph’s request (40:14-15)
C’ Baker’s dream and interpretation (40:16-19)
B’ Dream fulfillments; Baker’s anxiety realized (40:20-22)
A’ Cupbearer forgets Joseph (40:23)

The first segment records the meeting between Joseph and the Cupbearer and the Baker (segment A), the gist of which has been described in the last post as we imagined the Warden giving these men into Joseph’s care. The second segment informs us that these two officials had dreams which made them uncomfortable and perplexed (segment B). Joseph out of sensitivity and compassion inquires about their state of mind. They tell him that they had dreams but did not know the interpretations. Joseph responds that interpretations belong to God and encourages them to tell their dreams, confident that God would show him insight into the matter. Evidently, the Cupbearer was the more hopeful of the two and divulges his dream first (segment C). This dream, of course, is known to us all; he dreamed of a vine with three branches budding, blossoming, and ripening with grapes all at once. He pressed the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. Joseph immediately interprets the dream favorably; in three days he will be restored to his former post.

What is most significant is not that Joseph could interpret the dream, but what happens next. Here we come to the midpoint of this episode where something truly unusual takes place (segment D). For the very first time in the life of Joseph, as we have it handed down to us, we catch a glimpse into his heart. He opens up, and the reader is allowed to see his deepest fears, and how he really feels about things.

But remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place. For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon (Gen. 40:14-15).

The word translated “dungeon” above is in fact the Hebrew term for “pit,” the same word used for the hole that his brothers threw him in years before. (The Hebrew word is bor; cf. verse 15 here with Gen. 37:22. The “pit” becomes for Joseph a metaphor for the dark trials he has endured for so many years. There is a sense of urgency, even desperation in this plea. We see him suffering “within the story rather than above the story where we see God working all things out for Joseph.” He is in the dark about his future, and he is afraid. His deepest fear is that he will remain forgotten in this pit for the rest of his life, and then what will come of his dreams and the destiny he felt God was guiding him toward?

The story moves on, however, and our brief window into Joseph’s soul is quickly shut. The Baker, emboldened by the Cupbearer’s sunny interpretation, blurts out his dream (designated segment C’ because it parallels the Cupbearer’s dream in segment C). This segment begins to move the episode back down to its conclusion. As we know, things do not work out so well for the Baker, who dreamed of three baskets on his head, the uppermost filled with baked food which the birds were devouring. Whereas in three days the Cupbearer would lift up his head before Pharaoh, in three days Pharaoh will lift the Baker’s head from off his shoulders. Moreover, his body would be thrown out into the open for the birds to pick away, a fate worse than death itself for an Egyptian. The narration moves on in describing the fulfillment of these dreams just as Joseph predicted (segment B’). Finally, the episode ends with the disappointing fact that the Cupbearer forgot Joseph when he was restored to office (segment A’).

This structure highlights two critical things about Joseph and his experience. First, the D segment, which is intentionally positioned in the middle of the structure, contains Joseph’s request and is central to the whole episode. As described above, this segment reveals his deepest fears. Second, segment A’ is emphasized by its concluding position where Joseph’s deepest fears are realized. He becomes the forgotten one. We are mistaken, however, if we merely conclude that the forgetting here is on the part of the Cupbearer alone. The Cupbearer is incidental to the story. What is primary is something implicit and has to do with God Himself. When we compare this episode in Joseph’s life to his rise and fall in Potiphar’s house, we are struck with the fact that there God was “with” Joseph. Indeed, the structure of that episode “hugs” Joseph; God was “with” him in Potiphar’s house and was “with” him in the prison; in between is the disastrous account with Potiphar’s wife. God surrounds Joseph with His presence in spite of the circumstances. In contrast, nowhere does it say that God was “with” Joseph in our present episode. This, of course, doesn’t mean that God actually abandoned Joseph. Rather, the reader is invited for the first time into Joseph’s perspective. He feels utterly forgotten by God. For two years (41:1) he languishes in the prison with a torment far worse than family betrayal, slavery, and unjust accusations that brought him to the pits of life. The One that really mattered to Joseph, whose presence he always felt and never doubted even in the toughest of times, now becomes utterly remote. Joseph now finds himself experiencing the dark night of the soul.

Joseph’s Initiation to the Dark Night of the Soul

Posted in Uncategorized on May 12, 2014 by ancienthopes

Joseph had suffered much. One would think that it was time now for God to relax his heavy hand and give the man a break. But God knew the task for which He had called him and saw fit to take him deeper into the dark interior regions of his soul. In fact, God sends him down to the bare bottom of his being. He invites Joseph to experience what has become known as the “dark night of the soul.” This terminology was coined by St. John of the Cross who described this experience in the two great works, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and its sequel The Dark Night of the Soul. In the Ascent John describes the ascent to God as an active dark of the senses and spirit. By “active” he means that we can and must orient ourselves to the task by taking an active role in the purgation of our senses and spirit. We have touched upon this in our last post “Joseph’s Self Mastery” (May 5th, 2014). In the Dark Night sequel John describes what he calls the passive night of the senses and spirit, which is far more intense and difficult than the active night, for here God seems to abandon the soul so that we learn to love Him for Himself, and not for the feelings and gifts He gives us. This will be described in the next post. For an excellent translation and comments on the Saint and his works, see K. Kavanaugh, and O. Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington D.C.: ICS Pub., 1991).

This phrase, “the dark night of the soul” is very dramatic, and this is intentionally so. No doubt, one’s first impression of it will depend on one’s temperament, and most probably this first impression would be wrong. For instance, many will find the phrase disheartening, especially in a culture where such imagery is more likely associated with the old Saturday afternoon horror matinees. Mystics tend to be fond of shocking and volatile words, however, for their experience is so intensely beyond the “normal” that they grasp for whatever words they can to wake us from our slumbers. They know that those who are really desperate to know what they are talking about will work their way through their vocabulary.

It is a fact that God does not let all of His children experience this “dark night.” There are some who say that God reserves such experiences for only a chosen few. What is behind such thinking is not so much an elitist attitude but a desire to protect a sacred experience from being misunderstood and misinterpreted to mean something other than it is. In fact, there are signs that this may be happening in some circles where this particular phrase has been kicked around a bit too much of late, and has increasingly become common. Still, there is no reason not to believe that this experience of the “dark night” is in fact one which many Christians have passed through to some degree or another. Be this as it may, it is a truly biblical experience and one which the life of Joseph opens up for us to see.

We have seen that Joseph prospered in the dungeon because God was “with him.” While we cannot minimize the trauma of his situation, or the anguish of soul brought about by this trial, things were not as bad as they could be for him. The fact is that when someone senses the presence of God in their lives, circumstances mean very little. We imagine him going about his duties in his normal fashion when one day two very unusual persons arrive in the prison (Gen. 40). Things were about to change for Joseph; things would never be quite the same again for him, both in the immediate future and long term. These new prisoners happen to be officials of the highest rank holding the titles of Chief Cup-bearer and Chief Baker of the King. Of course we know that these men were not common house servants who poured wine and baked bread for royalty, but held positions given to men who administered and controlled vast sectors of Egypt’s economy in Pharaoh’s service. For some reason they fell into disfavor, and the king was waiting to decide their fate. Handling such men was a sensitive task demanding tact. The Warden placed these powerful officials in the care of Joseph, knowing that he had experience serving Potiphar, a man who held similar rank in the kingdom as these men.

Joseph’s Self-Mastery

Posted in Uncategorized on May 5, 2014 by ancienthopes

We know, of course, that Joseph was not sent to the mines or the chain gangs but to Potiphar’s estate, a man who happened to be a highly placed official of Pharaoh himself, the captain of his guard (Gen. 39:1). There Joseph prospered, not particularly because he was more clever, able, or lucky than the other slaves, but because YHWH was “with” him. (The chapter is framed by an inclusio with the phrase “YHWH was with Joseph”: cf. 39:2, 3 with verse 23.) YHWH is not “with” just anyone, at least not in the same sense as He was with Joseph. He is “with” those He has singled out for His own relational pleasure and personal purposes. When God is “with” someone in this sense, He follows in their shadows, moves obstacles out of the way, protects from danger, and directs the pondering of the mind so that they prosper in everything they do. Though they get knocked about, they somehow always end up on their feet. This Presence always raises the soul above the outward circumstances; the soul is ever aware, deep within, that it will reach the destination God destined it no matter how low it is shoved. The fact of God’s presence surrounding someone may not be obvious at first glance, but upon closer observation, there is something indefinable, something unusual about that person. In time Potiphar saw this in his Hebrew slave, and it did not take long for him to elevate him to the highest position in his estate.

Joseph caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife as well, for with his spiritual persona was a handsome physique. Throughout Scripture pagan women, as we have observed already with Esau and Judah, embody the downward pull of sensual gratification, that urge to give up all that is eternal in a single moment for that which is transient. We are told that she offered herself to him daily, placing the young man in a constant state of temptation. Joseph had to deal not only with a woman who spared no expense in cosmetics and revealing attire, but also with the possibility of furthering his advancement if he yielded and the potentiality of disaster if he refused. The possibilities for sensual fulfillment and for rationalizing were legion. Yield he did not, both out of loyalty to his master and, what was more, out of fear of God. This places Joseph in direct contrast to his brother Judah and his uncle Esau, who had no fear of God in these matters but followed the lower parts of their natures. Joseph emerges out of this episode as a master of his senses rather than being mastered by his senses.

To become a master of the senses is no small thing. No one achieves this without pain. It is not a quirk of nature or a favorable DNA pattern that sets a fortunate few above the passions. Nor do we find ourselves free from lusts after divine encounters or profound religious experiences. The assumption in our story is that Joseph was very deliberate and intentional in keeping himself pure, both soul and body. Here the parallel with Daniel, his counterpart and soul-mate of a future generation, is revealing. We know that when Daniel was in Babylon suffering similar circumstances as Joseph, he refused to eat the food placed before him by his masters. It is not clearly stated why he did this. Whether he feared contamination with foods not according to the Mosaic standards of holiness or losing his Hebrew identity in a pagan environment, we can fairly assume that this took a great deal of personal discipline. There is an avoidance of giving into the senses on Daniel’s part. Indeed, there are various instances where he fasts with the purpose of seeking God. Implicit is that when one is ruled by one’s sensual appetites, one is darkened to spiritual realities. Joseph and Daniel become masters of the flesh, and they became so by starving their sensual desires, whipping them mercilessly into submission to their higher powers.

Such power often unleashes the wrath of hell; it did so for both of these men. Whereas Daniel was persecuted out of jealousy, Joseph was brought down by the wrath of a woman spurned. By the time he faced this ordeal he had made deep advances in the way of the spirit. He discovered the goodness and honesty of humility after his adventures in the pit and as a slave. Moreover, he carefully nurtured his resolve to keep himself pure; his self control was probably admired throughout the estate. In a community like this we may well imagine that the latest gossip revolved around the master’s chief servant who dared to spurn the advances of the mistress. Perhaps Joseph began to notice his emerging powers and reputation and secretly took delight in them. Pride is an awful beast; there is nothing which it cannot feed on, even the fruits of the Spirit. True, the story doesn’t let us into Joseph’s inner thoughts, but we do know that God saw fit to bring him down low again. This time it was a dungeon. Joseph must endure yet another trial to further refine his soul. While the pit became the place where he lost his illusion of being the center of reality, the dungeon became the place where he lost his reputation. Here his integrity was questioned. He no longer could be certain that others saw him justly. In the eyes of many he was just another grabber who would stab his master in the back, an adulterer caught in the act. Joseph is brought very low, almost to the very floor of his soul. And so it is, when God means to build high, he digs deep.

It is essential to notice, however, that this episode in the life of Joseph ends as it begins. Sold as a slave to Potiphar, he rises to the top because God was “with” him. Tossed into the dungeon, he rises to the top again, because God was “with” him. We find Joseph running the dungeon for the chief jailer much like he ran Potiphar’s house. Moreover, God showed him there His loving-kindness. He was not alone. In the most austere and unlikely place God surrounded, sustained, and even prospered him where the souls of most would sink in despair.