The story of Joseph is usually told as a hero tale, and in general it wants to be read that way. We might interrogate it for more meaning — there might be some significance to the roles of the other brothers in light of the later tribal relations that probably color the telling of the story — but the ‘hero tale’ designation seems to hold. Joseph is marked as a kind of seer, lauded for his moral certitude in the face of temptation and his placid acceptance of his fate. The story, like many such stories, has an ironic twist at the end where everything predicted comes to pass in an unexpected way and everyone lives happily ever after.
Except they don’t. The opening lines of Exodus add another twist, a dark and almost deconstructive turn that throws a wrench in our expectations and shatters the fairy-tale ending. Without getting into speculations about who redacted what and when, Exodus 1:8 unsettles the usual reading of Joseph’s story: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This sets the stage for YHWH to deliver and claim the Hebrew people in a formative act of liberation; in some ways, the import of Joseph’s story is that it gets them to Egypt. But it is more than a narrative device or literary convention. Read in light of verse 8′s unsettling revelation, we can see that Joseph, though he meant well, leveraged the short-term survival of his family against the future of his people.
It is impossible to say what Joseph should have done — the story has to end the way it does, for any number of reasons — but his acceptance of privilege under Pharaoh, this sidling up to power that he uses to his family’s advantage (and understandably so), results in betrayal, in tragic loss, becoming the dark ground against which the figure of redemption and liberation will be defined. All it takes for Joseph’s collusion with the superpower of his day to turn ugly is a regime change, which is not so much a random stroke of bad luck as an inevitable part of life in empire.
In a way, we should see this coming. Joseph’s life is full of circumstances wherein some sort of privileged status turns around to bite him. He rises to prominence in Potiphar’s household in a sub-plot that often serves to underscore a Protestant work ethic: be diligent, and you might just be put in charge of the whole operation. On the dark side, you might also get seduced by the boss’s wife and thrown in jail. Or the privileged status — the technicolor dreamcoat and all that — that raises the ire of his brothers and lands him in slavery to begin with. Sit with this thread long enough and you begin to wonder if maybe if Joseph isn’t really a tragic figure, who never quite learns. The happily-ever-after ending is not just subverted by the opening lines of Exodus, it’s unmasked as false to begin with.
This thread is present in other parts of Genesis as well. Abraham is called out of Ur of the Chaldees, which have been Sumeria and thus the height of civilization at the time. Regardless, Abraham is called out of a settled existence to become a nomad, wandering in the direction of God. Along the way, none of his compromises with the powers-that-be seem to turn out well; he does much better when he simply trusts God for provision and resists brokering deals for protection or support. The Babel narrative is one in which an attempt at civilizational grandeur is thwarted in favor of a diasporic existence, quite possibly an allegory of exile, as is the creation narrative itself. We don’t have time to go into it here, but whether you read covenant and exile as a recapitulation of creation and fall, or creation and fall as a redactionary foreshadowing of what YHWH’s children would learn in exile, the structural similarity is striking.
The life and ministry of Jesus, the message of Jesus and the message that is Jesus, confirms what Yoder calls the “Jeremiac turn”: that the life of diaspora in exile is not an unfortunate cul-de-sac but a new way of being God’s people. A way that eschews power and privilege, seeking solidarity with those for whom such formulations are out of reach. A way that identifies with the “least of these”, knowing that there is always a base of the lowly and the meek on whose backs the burden of injustice rests. A way that seeks to tabernacle in the negative space of empire.
The story of Joseph, read through the lens of this new way, becomes a cautionary tale: when we sidle up to power, when we seek to claim for ourselves the benefits of privilege, or fail to interrogate it even when it seems to be providential, we lose something precious. Sooner or later, the situation will turn and we will stand, as we always do, in need of redemption.
Author Bio:: Ted Troxell is a PhD student at Michigan State University researching Christian radicalism.