Archive for June, 2014

Reuben’s failure and Judah’s Rise; Resolve to Descend to Egypt

Posted in Uncategorized on June 30, 2014 by ancienthopes

The old man didn’t take the news so well (Gen. 42:29-43:10). We feel the unease of the sons as they explained as best they could what had happened. Jacob didn’t say a word, even when they mentioned the terms of the deal which included his dear Benjamin. It was only when they all stood aghast at the silver discovered in their open bags that the bleakness of their situation hit them with full force. We hear Jacob’s bitter exclamation, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin” (42:36). He had not missed that his sons were slowly disappearing because of their bungling.

Reuben would have felt the sting of this rebuke the most, being the first born and, therefore, the one most responsible. Back in Egypt when the brothers first discussed their guilt in the matter of Joseph, Reuben came off as a self righteous “I told you so” (42:22). Here he comes off as a melodramatic buffoon, blurting out to his father that he could kill his two sons if he didn’t bring Benjamin back to him, as if butchering his grandsons would soothe Jacob’s soul (42:37). Jacob doesn’t even honor him with an answer but makes it clear to all that he will never let Benjamin go down to Egypt. Jacob knew sorrow and feared its power; if he lost Benjamin he would descend bitterly into Sheol, losing all hope of a peaceful death.

This is the last we hear of Reuben until his father all but curses him at the end of his life. He is forever remembered for his crime of forcing himself on Bilhah, Rachel’s maid and father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Most likely this was not a crime of lust; he wished to humiliate his father for the way he treated his mother Leah by favoring Rachel and her maid. Perhaps he even desired to usurp himself over Jacob like Absolom did with his father David. Reuben is truly a tragic figure, a symbol of those who never are able to get out of themselves. No matter how hard he tried, and he tried very hard, he could never exert his role as firstborn. He was too full of himself to be respected. Because he wanted to be respected, he never was.

Judah, on the other hand, emerges as the undisputed leader among the brothers. When Reuben speaks, he is ignored. When Judah speaks, there is action. The family consumed all the grain that they had brought from Egypt, and now Jacob had to face the inevitable. Judah convinces his father that they must not go back without Benjamin and places himself as surety for his youngest brother lest harm befall him (43:3ff.). The old man is forced by his circumstances to detach himself from his son. We sense a certain resolve in him under the heavy hand of God; perhaps he remembered the grandeur of his grandfather in his willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Jacob’s own father. Unlike Abraham, we do not find a willing soul; yet we may take comfort from the fact that God works with the timid heart as well as the lion hearted. God eventually has His way with those He loves.

With a sort of irony we behold the caravan moving toward Egypt (43:11-15). Israel, for that was the name the God of his fathers gave Jacob when He wrestled with him at the river Jabbok, did not wish for them to go before this Egyptian without a gift. He loaded up his sons’ donkeys with the goods of Canaan: balm, honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. The reader will not miss that this was the same merchandise that the Ishmaelite caravan was carrying, bringing us all back to the original scene of the crime (37:25). Twenty years ago it was Joseph going down in such a caravan to Egypt to meet his fate; now the brothers are making their way down in the same manner. Perhaps way back in their subconscious they made the uncanny connection to their past.

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Back Home in Palestine; Slowly Going Nowhere

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2014 by ancienthopes

So easy it is to get caught up in the adventures of Joseph that we have almost forgotten that this story is not about a person but a family. The scene now shifts back to Canaan where we first began (Chapter 42). It is now twenty years later, and we catch a glimpse of the old man, Jacob, sitting at the entrance of his tent with his eleven sons, the older of whom are now showing signs of graying age. The famine that we know so much about through Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation has now settled over the Land of Promise. Reports have come that there was grain in Egypt. The topic of discussion most certainly centered on what to do for family survival.

There must have been a certain hesitancy around this circle to mention Egypt, especially for the sons. This is evident by Jacob’s rather gruff words, “Why do you keep looking at one another …?”(Gen. 42:1). They were, no doubt, plagued with old, secret sins─sins which they never mentioned to one another even in their most candid moments, and which they desperately tried to forget. Just the thought of Egypt threatened to rip open wounds that refused to heal. The gruffness of the old man seems to indicate that he was still not at peace with those around him, even his own sons. The glaring fact that he would not send Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother and son of Rachel, down to Egypt with the others reveals that Jacob did not change much over the years (Gen. 42:4). He grasped onto Benjamin with the favoritism that he once held for Joseph. By all accounts the family had not progressed in soul searching─their souls lay dormant, each man living within his own locked room.

Here the reader is invited to wonder how these brothers could live with themselves and their crimes for so long. Our first reaction may be judgmental until we begin to see ourselves in these men. We sinners are masters in the art of absolving our guilt. No doubt the brothers began by justifying themselves, much like we would in their position, by blaming their obnoxious father and his dreaming pet son, a creature of his idol Rachel, that woman who caused so much grief for their good mother Leah. In all honesty we feel for them, for it is true that they got a raw deal in life. But it is equally true that life isn’t fair, a fact that Joseph himself often contemplated in prison. The brothers went the wrong way with the wrongs against them. They labored under the sins of anger, resentment, and hatred─pride’s offspring.

Once we have justified ourselves of our crimes, we simply block them out of our memories. It is sobering to consider our power to erase our memories of evil deeds done, as the story of King David, who hid himself from his crimes for a whole year, testifies (II Sam. 12). Selective memory, of course, comes at a great cost to the soul, which writhes underneath the surface in pain, at least until the conscience is dead, and then the soul dies before the body. Some of the brothers might have been self deceived like Achan who stole from the Lord and thought that he could get away with it (Joshua 7). Whatever their motives, it is clear that the brothers could not come to terms with their own evil. Dealing with our own evil is a most elusive thing. We need help from without. We all need an honest mentor that understands the ways of the soul and can help us out of our funk of going nowhere, leading us to the truth. Jacob and his sons were about to meet up with theirs.

Joseph as Hamlet: Opening Scene of a Play

Posted in Uncategorized on June 16, 2014 by ancienthopes

I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
─the play’s the thing,
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 2

Necessity forces Jacob to send his sons to Egypt, a place that he himself would prefer to avoid and certainly would never let Benjamin go. It is the land down underneath, a dangerous place, but an unavoidable evil, like the world. God Himself is drawing them down by circumstances out of their control. Here Joseph saw the whole world coming to buy his grain, and by an amazing stroke of divine fortune Joseph himself happened to be there when his brothers arrived. It is said that Joseph “recognized” them, a word that takes us back into the family’s past when Jacob “recognized” Joseph’s coat, and Judah “recognized” his belongings which Tamar had taken for her favors. Moreover, it is of no little importance that Joseph’s brothers did not “recognize” him, as Judah once failed to “recognize” Tamar (Cf. Gen. 42:7 with 37:32, and 38:25f.). Jacob “recognized” his son’s bloody coat and, drawing his own conclusions about what he saw, lived in darkness for twenty years. Judah “recognized” his belongings when Tamar presented them to him as evidence and, drawing the correct conclusions, perceived himself as he really was. How we perceive reality, regardless of the truthfulness of our perceptions, is the reality we live by.

Immediately, by the spontaneous instinct that belongs to the wise, Joseph begins a course of events that will flower into a drama of world renown. The word for “recognize” above also has another nuance to it in the Hebrew, which means “to plot” (42:7). Joseph, upon “recognizing” his brothers, “plotted” against them, treating them harshly as strangers. This also brings us back to the murky past when his brothers saw Joseph from afar and “plotted” to kill him. Joseph sets in motion a drama that will re-enact the past before their eyes, like Hamlet did with the traveling players, who dramatized before the king, his father’s usurper and murderer, the scene of the crime (Act III, Scene II). In Shakespeare’s play, the king hardens all the more, and though he kneels in guilty remorse at the royal chapel, he plots Hamlet’s death in England. Likewise, Joseph had no assurance how his play would pan out.

It is remarkable what all can happen in a single instant. Not only did the plot of a complex play begin, but it is said that Joseph “remembered” his dreams (42:9). In the last post we left Joseph in Egypt’s splendor, not sure as to whether he would become Egyptian, or if he would come to terms with his past. We surmise that when he took his Egyptian wife, he set himself on the path of willful forgetfulness. Surely it would be easier to forget his dreams, push back the pain and disappointments of his family memories, and get on with life. He, like his brothers, was sitting on a spiritual powder keg and was not done with his soul work. Yes, even the enlightened Joseph had a further pace to go in his spiritual development. All the emotion of this revelation suddenly swooped upon Joseph at this moment. That Joseph instinctively controlled this emotion for the sake of a greater cause, shows that he was master of himself.

The fact is that one can never forget one’s encounter with God and His promises. One can push them aside and neglect them out of despair because of life’s circumstances or out of sheer time lapse. But like his brother’s sins, they will never let the soul rest. More often than not, God takes a ridiculously long time to fulfill His promises. At least it seems that way to us time-sensitive humans. Moreover, He comes around knocking at our doors when we least expect it, fulfilling his word in totally unsuspecting ways. We cannot know the form in which His promises will be fulfilled. Prophecy is dark even to the prophets. When Joseph dreamed his youthful dreams, he could never have divined that He would one day be ruler of all Egypt and that his brothers would come and bow before his splendor. But here they were, the ten that plotted against him, on their knees.

Nagging Questions

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2014 by ancienthopes

What an unusual association! Pharaoh and the son of Jacob walked about the Land of Egypt like gods. The one embodied the sun, the other provided the grain; at least this was how the common folk understood it. Pharaoh could not have been happier with his mysterious friend who probed into his deepest secrets and drew up a plan that would not only save Egypt, but enrich the crown. Such a man demanded recognition. He, therefore, arranged a marriage for him; he would give him Asenath, the daughter of the High Priest of On, that grand and ancient city where the sun was worshipped (Gen. 41:45). Joseph simply could not have done better, at least in the eyes of the Egyptians. This meant that Joseph entered into the ranks of Egyptian nobility by marriage, for the High Priests of Egypt were of proud and ancient lineage.

As usual, we are not privy to what Joseph thought about this arrangement, for like the wise, he keeps his thoughts to himself. The old man Jacob, however, would certainly have received a jolt at this news! Joseph his favorite, and the daughter of a pagan priest? Ah, but this dear father belonged to the shadows of the past. And his brothers? They were now but ghosts that lived below his consciousness that rose up only on occasion to haunt his dreams. So much had changed since then. He was no longer the Hebrew lad who ran errands for his father; he was now the Lord of all Egypt. Joseph embraces Asenath, and so embraces Egypt, his new home. Out of the embrace come his two sons. The one he called Manasseh, a name based on the root word “to forget,” for “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The other he called Ephraim, meaning “to be fruitful,” for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes” (Gen. 41:50-52).

The past, however, is not so easily dealt with. In the naming of his boys Joseph lets his innermost thoughts slip out for a second time. Only the most casual of readers would miss the obvious fact that Joseph did not and could not forget the past, no matter how hard he might have tried. In fact, the names reveal his deep hurt from loss and longing to be reconciled. On the outside he was whole; the wounds healed. However, something was not resolved in his inner depths. Now Joseph was spiritually astute; he was no stranger to the inner chambers of the heart. Long hours in silent thought and suffering brought him spiritual depth and enlightenment. Yet he was not completely cognizant of a dark shadow within lurking in an unexplored corner which was occasionally stirred by a thought or a word, invoking involuntary feelings. He had not yet reached his highest level of spiritual maturity; he was still holding on to something that he would not, could not, let go─hurts from his remote past.

Indeed, at this point neither the first-time reader nor Joseph himself knows what will become of Joseph. Will the great grandson of Abraham, who conversed with El Shaddai, and called the friend of Elohim, succeed in forgetting the past and be totally assimilated into Egypt, which is to say, the world? Will he, can he, forget the dreams and encounters of his youth? What is Joseph now? A Hebrew driven by a strange God who makes outlandish, even crazy promises to naive souls in youth, only to disappear from the scene for years, yes … even decades? Or is he Joseph of Egypt, Osiris the provider, wedded to Asenath, daughter and incarnation of Egyptian and its spirituality?

Emerging from the Dark Night into Enlightenment

Posted in Uncategorized on June 3, 2014 by ancienthopes

Pharaoh assumes at first that Joseph is just another magician, or another religious man. We know this by the assumption in his greeting “I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it” (Gen 41:15). The assumption is that Joseph is a man of power. Joseph immediately corrects the Egyptian deity and responds, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Cf. gen. 41:16 with Daniel’s response in Dan. 2:27f). This is much more than a pious, or even a proper religious, response. Joseph is revealing the nature of his spirituality and unlocks the secret of true mysticism. Spirituality is not becoming something, but becoming nothing. Joseph learned this in his dungeons, and this elusive truth was perfected in his soul during his dark night. Spirituality is not the filling of the “me,” but the emptying of the “me.” In the holy chambers of the mystic’s heart, there is no room for the ego; the first person pronoun is all gone. Spirituality is not gaining power, but being absolutely powerless. It is becoming deeply familiar with the fact that one is really poor in spirit, that one has nothing at all to lie on the table. What made Joseph so great as he towers above all his other religious rivals is his nothingness; he could not have stood before Pharaoh barer if he was completely naked.

We imagine Joseph in the great hall of the Pharaoh. He had no resources of his own to meet the challenge ahead. In this way he was completely different from the magicians standing off to the side waiting to see what would come of this Hebrew dungeon rat. Many years later, Moses would stand in the same place. Later still, far off in Babylon, Daniel would join them, sharing situations. These were numinous men of the Spirit, metaphysicians par excellence. We should not think of them engaged in a grand magic contest, sparing power for power against the magicians. These men of God and the magician guild existed on completely different levels. These Hebrews were empty of their own agendas so as to be possessed by the Power Source. They were directly linked to God. The magician’s power was derived, acquired by the manipulation of powers allowed to them for the purposes of Him who determines all things. They soon sensed this and had to bow out of the picture, mere foils for the Almighty to display His own greatness before the world.

Joseph, therefore, emerges out from the night into the dawn of the enlightened. “Enlightenment” is a term that describes the stage in the mystic’s progress where one can penetrate into reality, and see what others do not see, and know what others do not know. In itself, this stage may be good or bad, depending what the motive is for pursuing such things. Magic, in as far as it goes, is a sort of “enlightenment.” For Joseph enlightenment meant achieving a most holy state whereby he had insight into the nature of his environment that could not be reached by natural reason or observation, all for the glory of God. No doubt he showed evidence of enlightenment before in Potiphar’s house, and in the dungeon where he rose to the top, and could even interpret dreams.

When Joseph emerges out of his night, he is a different man. This fact is most noticeable in the dialogue between him and Pharaoh. Those who make it their business to understand grammar and biblical discourse notice how unusual it is for Pharaoh to banter back and forth in extended dialogue with another: “And Pharaoh said to Joseph … And Joseph responded to Pharaoh … And Pharaoh spoke to Joseph … And Joseph said to Pharaoh.” This indicates that the narrator regards the speaker and the addressee on equal status. For the ancient, this would elevate Joseph to a divine level, for Pharaoh was a god. Of course, the Hebrew narrator would not think so highly of Pharaoh. Still, he wishes to use this dialogue to emphasize how Joseph appeared in Pharaoh’s court; he was extra-ordinary in a godlike way. We will discuss the concept of deification in a later post. Here we will assert that Joseph was enlightened, to say the least, and perhaps at this time so deeply in union with God that he seemed divine to those who beheld him.

Along these lines, we must add that Joseph functioned in the land as a god in the eyes of the people of Egypt. The central Egyptian deity of vegetation was Osiris, the god who died annually and rose again each year in the spring bringing forth fertility. Joseph becomes a personification of this god in that he now becomes the great grain provider for the peoples. With deep spiritual insight comes great responsibility. With an almost reckless boldness, Joseph urged Pharaoh into action without being asked his opinion. Pharaoh could only acquiesce to this mysterious man, eventually putting him in charge of the whole nation. True, pure mysticism always has practical results. The head is in the clouds, but the feet are on the ground. So it was with Joseph, the provider.