Archive for July, 2014

Jacob in the Sacred Place of His Fathers

Posted in Uncategorized on July 28, 2014 by ancienthopes

The brothers who once came before their father with the bloody garment now had to explain to the old man that his son was still alive (Gen. 45:21-28). We do not know the details of how the brothers broke the news; surely it was most awkward for them, perhaps more awkward than the first time. That first encounter brought death to his soul; he would go down to his son mourning to Sheol. Now he went numb. Upon seeing the carts laden with the wealth of Egypt, however, Israel revived and said, “let me go down, and I will see him before I die” (cf. Chapter 37:34-35 with 45:25-28). His response was correct both times; he would go down to Sheol, or what amounts to the same thing, to Egypt, to see his son. God will have Israel pass through Egypt before she enters the Promised Land. On a historical level this explains how Israel ended up in Egypt. On a spiritual level this explains how humanity cannot avoid Egypt, that great symbol of the world with all its glamour and danger, and must find its way out.

We see the aged patriarch packing all that he had, along with all his family, and setting off down the dusty roads toward the deserts of the south (Gen. 46:1ff.). Circumstances beyond his control were dragging him away from the land promised to him and his descendants, and we assume his soul was full of turmoil and doubt. He came to Beersheba, the place where his grandfather Abraham planted a grove and called upon the name of the Living God. This place was also holy to his father Isaac for it was here that he encountered God as well (Gen. 21:33, 26:23-25). By now these trees had grown large, gnarled with age. It was evening, and as Jacob approached this sacred place where his great ancestor communed with God, a profound hush fell upon his soul. He knew it! He felt it! God was among the trees waiting for him! After twenty years of silence, his soul began to stir with life. The atmosphere was highly charged. With great solemnity and emotion Jacob put the knife to the ram’s throat on the stone altar at the center of the grove. His sons looked on in silence.

That night God spoke to him in visions. The Almighty said, “Jacob, Jacob!” Ah! This was the Same who stayed the hand of his grandfather as he was about to put the knife to his own son’s throat, and called out “Abraham, Abraham” (Cf. Gen. 22:11 with 46:2)! Instinctively Jacob responded like his great ancestor, “Behold, here I am!” God said,

I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes (Gen. 46:3-4).

God graciously gives Jacob the assurance his soul needed and reaffirms the great family promises to him. We must not miss, however, that this encounter, like the one with Abraham, had to do with the restoration of sons. With Abraham it was Isaac, whom God asked for a sacrifice. Here God restores Joseph, whom He took from Jacob. This encounter places the whole issue of Joseph in a broader context than personal loss or gain for Jacob. It places Joseph in the context of patriarchal promise, where he belonged in the first place. Joseph must be more to Jacob than just a beloved son! He is God’s son who has greater purposes than to make the heart of his earthly father happy. At this point Jacob sees his son for the first time as he should have been seen him all along. Joseph ceases to be his idol.

Armed with this new level of spiritual profundity, Israel moves on from Beersheba to Egypt, a company of 70 males (Gen. 46:27). This number is key in the book of Genesis, for it was the number of the nations after the dispersion at the Tower of Babel, symbolizing the whole world. We have, therefore, a microcosm of humanity in this family. In this little company lie the hopes of all the earth! How strange it is to expose this precious and vulnerable group of souls to the wild world of Egypt, a place that devours and enslaves its victims! Yet this is the way God works! He always works exactly contrary to our natural inclinations. God gives birth to his nation in Egypt, the world; the last place one would expect it, right at Satan’s front door!

Joseph’s Glory

Posted in Uncategorized on July 21, 2014 by ancienthopes

Our Lord says to every living soul, “I became [human] for you. If you do not become God for me, you do me wrong.” Meister Eckhart

The brothers could not escape the conclusion that their brother Joseph was a type of God here. Overarching their whole story was a God who knows all things in advance and who only reveals His intentions slowly in time. Likewise, Joseph was in the know and all those around him were in the dark, beginning with his dreams as a boy. Joseph, like God, revealed himself and his intentions slowly over a long period of time until all were in the know (W. Lee Humphries, Joseph and His Family). Joseph orders events like God orders events; he is most God-like.

Perhaps “God-like” is too weak at term to describe this man. Joseph, of course, is not God, for he himself is conscious of the creator/creature distinction when he reassures his fearful brothers after their father’s death, “Do not be afraid, am I in the place of God?” It is not his place to judge and punish them. However, he is portrayed as a “deified man,” if you will. It is likely that the Egyptians, who had not the theological advantages as the sons of Abraham, simply considered him a god. They understood this wonderful man to be the “Father of Pharaoh,” as even Joseph styles himself (Genesis 45:8). Pharaoh, of course, was their god, and to be his “father” surely had theological significance for them. The connection in their mind between Joseph and Osirus, their grain god, was suggested in the June 3rd blog 2014. We do not agree with these pagans theologically, but we do take note of their perception of Joseph’s persona.

The numinous nature of Joseph’s persona, which prompts us to use the word “deified” in describing this man, is further enhanced by the Hebrew word “glory.” When Joseph persuades his brothers to go back and bring their father Jacob, he charges them to tell him of all his “glory” (45:13). The surface meaning of this word “glory” in this context means Joseph’s honor and power, but on a deeper level this word has theological implications. Glory essentially belongs to God only but can be shared with those who partake in God’s image. Moses is an example of this par excellence. Because he “saw” God’s glory, he himself shared in that glory. Indeed, his glory was so evident that he had to cover his head before the people (Ex. 33:18ff. and 34:29-35). Likewise, we might say that Joseph shone what he saw and experienced of God. These men were actual partakers of the Divine; we are, therefore, bold to call them “deified.”

The Hebrews had a special term for this rare state of spirituality; it is called tāmîm, often translated as “perfect.” Noah was said to be tāmîm, walking with God, and we assume Enoch his ancestor was as well, although he is not explicitly called “tāmîm,” for he “walked with God” with the mysterious result that “he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:21-24 and 6:9). Abraham’s spiritual responsibility is summed up by God as “walk before me and be perfect,” or tāmîm (Gen. 17:1). Now tāmîm must not be confused with moral perfection. This is obvious from King David’s application of the term to himself when in fact we know that he was morally imperfect (II Sam. 22:24). Morality, of course, is an aspect of tāmîm, like it is of the Hebrew concept of holiness, but it is not foundational. The phrase “walking before God” that accompanies tāmîm in these passages emphasize the relational core of tāmîm. tāmîm denotes the quality of a person who has walked so closely in deep relationship with God that they begin to look and act alike. Evidently, Enoch achieved such a deep state of perfection that he was “raptured” into the realm of God’s pure presence. For more on the idea of perfection, see the posts from December 10, 2012 to February 5 2013).

Joseph, therefore, was tāmîm. He reached the highest state which theologians of the Spirit call “union,” a term we will discuss in a following post. Here we must repeat what we emphasized in an earlier post when discussing encounters with the Divine. When God blesses someone in an extraordinary way, He does so to bless the world (December 17, 2013). True spirituality is never a private matter. Sure, there have always been those who retreat selfishly within themselves, never to come out. This is a false mysticism and is fruitless. The fact is, however, that true spirituality will always benefit humanity. So we see Joseph here at the summit of his life; he is the savior of the world! The whole earth, or at least that part which could come to Egypt for grain, comes to him for food. He lives in the holy sphere where action and rest are fully integrated. He rules a nation, provides for the poor, and preserves life, yet not to the loss of his inward life of the spirit. This is the supreme summit of spirituality.

Emotions and Pushing the Extremities of Sovereignty and Freedom

Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2014 by ancienthopes

In speechless terror the sons of Jacob stood before their brother Joseph (Gen. 45:3). It was if they saw a ghost, a demonic incarnation of their little brother now grown great, looming over them in absolute power. Surely they tasted at that instant something of the dread all souls shall one day experience before the Almighty “God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 16:22). We may be certain that their initial reaction, leaping out of their bodies in unified fright, was that this was the day of vengeance. However, they experienced something far stranger than vengeance. They simply were not prepared to see this Egyptian apparition, this incarnate Joseph, weeping before them, reassuring them that they were forgiven. Love is more shocking than justice.

We are struck with the great man’s gush of emotion. Here was the embodiment of dignity itself howling so loudly that the Egyptians could hear him clear outside the walls of his palace (Gen. 45:2). At first blush we might think that Joseph was acting out of character. When we consider the story to this point, however, we see that this sobbing man was in complete control. In fact, Joseph’s control over Egypt and himself is absolute. We have seen that Joseph gained mastery of his soul early on; he could control his passions. In his dealings with all whom he encountered since his descent into Egypt, he shows himself master of his tongue, keeping knowledge to himself with the power of the apt word (W. Lee Humphries, Joseph and His Family). Moreover, here we see clearly demonstrated that he was master over anger, possessing the power to forgive.

It is also a fact that Joseph was master of his emotions. Twice before Joseph was overcome with emotion and had to leave his brothers: when he saw that his brothers were convicted of their crimes and when he first saw Benjamin (42:24, 43:30). He showed incredible control in leaving his brother’s presence, lest he would give himself away, and all would be lost. Now, the third time, the number of completion, when the time was perfect, he lets himself go. We see a tremendous power of will here. The mark of spiritual persons is that their wills govern their emotions, rather than their emotions govern their wills. When the emotions rule the will, the result is ineffectual action. Joseph is anything but ineffectual. “It is Joseph’s control of emotion, not its denial, that the wise value” (Humphries).

Biblical wisdom, which is to say biblical spirituality, or mysticism, doesn’t deny emotion like other philosophies or forms of mysticism. We are not to be stoics or emotionally detached Buddhists. Rather, the emotions must be arranged under the will. By nature our emotions, such as fear, sorrow, joy, and hope, control the will so that we fear the wrong things, sorrow over the wrong things, rejoice over the wrong things, and hope in the wrong things (So St. John of the Cross in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, Chapters 16-45). Self mastery means that we, by the inner working of God’s Spirit, reverse this pattern. God wishes us to have strong wills; wills that will what He wills. He wishes that we fear Him, and Him alone. He wishes that we sorrow over the things that He sorrows over. He wishes that we rejoice and hope in Him, rather than take joy and hope in things temporal. Those who have their emotions rightly arranged under their wills, feel not less, but more keenly, than those who don’t. They feel the way God feels, and God feels intensely. He is pure passion!

Joseph’s display of emotion, therefore, enhanced his stature with his brothers, as well as with the excluded Egyptians who heard from the outside. We see the great man gaining his composure and at once addressing the core issue that divides them. He is anxious that they not be angry or distressed with themselves for their evil deeds, for God was behind their actions all along. Now it is true that Joseph wished to relieve his brothers from their dismay with these words. However, he spoke to them not in an expedient, or off-handed way, but as one who had pondered deeply the meaning of causality. Joseph’s God was one who governed the world through secondary causes. That is, humans are absolutely free to do what they want however evil their intentions may be. They are endowed with the power and dignity of causality. Joseph’s God is so great, however, that He works all these actions to His own purpose.

We do not know how philosophical the brothers were, particularly in the emotion of the moment. Once left alone with their thoughts, however, they must have marveled at how God brought good, even their own salvation, out of their own destructive behavior. Completely unknown to them, God fully permeated the whole of their lives and with a skill that did not violate their freedom, brought them all before Joseph in this great moment. And so it is, this ancient story endorses with enthusiasm human freedom and responsibility at one extreme, and God’s absolute freedom, power and foreknowledge over his creation at the other extreme. The story does not achieve a balance between these two but pushes them both to their extremes. Truth lies in the outer extremes when both ends of the paradox are pushed at the same time to their utmost (See Thomas Merton, Introduction to his No Man is an Island). Error lies when one extreme is pushed at the expense of the other. Balance is for those in theological slumber. The theologically alive live on the edges and, therefore, possess all that is between.

Act II: The Brother’s Second Descent

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2014 by ancienthopes

“It is said that only one in a thousand is a true spiritual director. I say only one in ten thousand!” (Francois de Sales as quoted by Abbe De Tourville, Letters of Direction.)

Joseph may very well be history’s first recorded stage director. The drama he set up and began in Act I (See Joseph as Hamlet, June 16, 2014) now comes to a magnificent conclusion here in Act II. We now behold in Joseph a “master” spiritual director at work in his family, bringing about change in those who have known no change for years.

The eerie feeling of déjà-vu intensifies for the brothers when they meet Joseph the second time. He invites them to his own house now, inspiring the suspicion that he would make them slaves on his own estate. They passionately defended themselves before the house steward concerning the issue of the silver, but the steward assures them that the God of their father must have given them the treasure. They present to Joseph their gift, but his eyes turn to Benjamin, his full brother and son of his beloved mother. No doubt he remembered the man standing before him as a mere boy, and precious memories of the past flooded his soul. Again Joseph had to excuse himself and weep (Genesis 43:16-30).

On his return Joseph had a feast laid out for his brothers. Strangely enough, he set them off by themselves to eat. This may have been mere protocol as far as the brothers were concerned, for they knew that Egyptians thought themselves beyond eating with “desert bunnies” such as themselves, let alone one of such illustrious rank as their host. Joseph, however, had something more subtle in mind. The brothers now found themselves eating together apart from Joseph, just as they did twenty years ago near the pit in which Joseph lay (cf. 43:22 with 37:25). Moreover, Joseph has them seated around the table according to birth beginning with Benjamin the youngest. How did this Egyptian know the order of their birth? To top things off, Benjamin was given five times the amount his brothers had. Joseph, no doubt, was curious as to how the brothers would respond to preferential treatment toward the Rachel child. One would think these curious circumstances would disturb their appetite, but they were perhaps too dull to catch such subtleties; they ate and drank and had a merry old time with their youngest brother, unperturbed with their smaller portions.

But what was Joseph up to while they were feasting by themselves? He was plotting like his brothers did long ago. They plotted to kill him; he plots family restoration. Joseph narrows in on Benjamin, around whom the story now turns. He was, of course, the only brother innocent of the crime long ago and, being the last son of Rachel and his father’s pet, has now taken Joseph’s position in the family. Joseph somehow must have an excuse to threaten him to see how their brothers will respond. He asks his steward to place his silver “divining cup” in the bag of Benjamin. Feasted and happy with wine, the brothers begin their journey home with cheerful hearts. Ah, but what is this rumbling behind them? It is the steward accompanied by warriors! He accuses them of stealing silver again, but this time it is his master’s “divining cup.” Confident of their innocence, they challenge the steward to kill the one with whom the cup was found and take the rest of them as slaves. The cup was found with Benjamin. We do not know what the brothers thought of his innocence, but rather than go on without Benjamin, the option the steward gave them, they all went back to share his fate.

Crucial to this episode is the silver cup. Joseph goes out of his way to let his brothers know that this was the cup with which he “divined.” We know, of course, that Joseph didn’t need this cup to divine. The brothers did not know this, however. The effect was superb! Each of the brothers had to contend with the awful thought that this Egyptian could supernaturally penetrate right through them into the dark secrets of their heart by means of his magical arts! This, along with the uncanny circumstances surrounding Joseph which created a mysterious aura of déjà-vu must have been most unsettling. Their guilty past has finally caught up with them. We imagine the desperate thoughts which whirled in these helpless souls as they were led back to Joseph’s court.

What follows is one of the most moving scenes of all time. Judah steps forth from the crowd of his cowering brothers and looks this mysterious Egyptian in the eye. Out from his heart flows a most exquisite speech. Fourteen times, twice seven, the number of perfection, he refers to his father with deepest emotion (44:18-34). There is no longer resentment for Jacob because of his favoritism, just a deep love for the old man in spite of his faults. He offers himself as a slave in the place of Benjamin and says, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” This is the sweet moment of Judah’s glory; he is completely transformed from the brute Joseph once knew. He had gotten beyond himself; he will now offer his life for Rachel’s son. He is free! Joseph could no longer continue his drama. He commands all who were Egyptian to leave and reveals himself. The Hebrew fell into his brothers’ arms, weeping.