For all its plot twists and hairpin turns, the story of Joseph seems almost . . . straightforward.
No one has to die. No one has their inheritance permanently taken away from them or is irreparably condemned to wandering alone in the wilderness. There’s some presumably unfortunate prison food and some rampant defaming, but in the end, justice reigns and our slighted underdog protagonist ends up with a profoundly increased sociopolitical status.
The narrative is more complicated when we find ourselves closer to it, however.
Let me tell it again.
Joseph, a privileged teen with the unfortunate predicament of being both naïve and “gifted,” is just about to graduate high school in Chicago (he’s 17—a year ahead).
As a graduation gift, Joe’s dad buys him a cherry red 2022 Maserati MC20. This is nothing new; the car’s new, of course—brand new. But it’s one more token in a long line of insults, as his ten older stepbrothers who work down at the dealership see it. They don their wingtips and sportcoats each day and cut their quota; they do good work. And they never get more than a hefty paycheck—which doesn’t count because they worked for it.
Joe’s good at math. Perhaps it’s genetic, something that got his dad to the head of the Maserati company back in the day, where he still sits. Joe’s always been precocious (translation for smug), and he’s got this thing for prediction using mathematical models, not totally unlike Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory, which predicts group behavior.1
Joe’s no prophet, not in the way Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel were. But, by messing with some statistics combined with Carl Jung’s theories on birth order (originally gleaned from his high school psychology textbook), Joe posits that he’ll wind up as the boss of all the rest of his siblings. His brothers are good at math, too, and his theory is just reasonable enough to them that it drives them crazy.
When Joe’s parents wind up in the economy class of his second theory about his own success, his dad is a little angry. But his dad is fairly oblivious to the magnitude of his other sons’ frustration about things like this, and once he thinks enough water has passed under the bridges on the Chicago River, he sends Joe down to the dealership to take hot lunch from Whole Foods to the rest of the gang. Naturally, they see the gleaming cherry red MC20 idling at a light from six blocks away, and they come up with their own theory of how this is going to go down.
They’re not going to kill their brother or anything—they’re far more creative than that, and besides, in some small way, he’s still one of them. But it would certainly be quite a shame if anything happened to that car . . .
Interestingly, Genesis never explicitly states that God gave Joseph the dreams of the bowing sheaves or the bowing sun, moon, and stars (whatever the latter looks like is a fascinating thought experiment—there’s a conspicuous lack of visual art on this matter). The Hebrew word used for “dream,” חֲלוֹם, can translate to either an ordinary, nightly dream or the kind we usually picture when we think of those dreams “given by God” (as if not everything is in some way given by him).2 Presumptively, this was the latter kind of dream. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting window to explore what prophecy could include and how broadly it could be spread.
Is it possible to generate prophecy on our end? Naturally, it seems like the answer would be “no.” But where is the line between God’s gift and our work? If we use the broad gifts of information and reason to predict a 3.6 Fahrenheit increase in global air temperature by 2100, is that prophecy? Does effort on our part negate the possibility of prophecy or miracle?
What if what we think of as miracles (which would naturally include prophecy, as “inexplicable/divine intervention”) are more of a speeding up or a “short-circuiting” of the usual process?3 George MacDonald, one of C. S. Lewis’s chief inspirations, had some thoughts on the matter. Concerning the multiplication of bread and fish, he writes, “There was in these miracles, and I think in all, only a hastening of appearances: the doing of that in a day, which may ordinarily take a thousand years, for with God time is not what it is with us . . . Nor does it render the process one whit more miraculous. Indeed, the wonder of the growing corn is to me greater than the wonder of feeding the thousands. It is easier to understand the creative power going forth at once—immediately—than through the countless, the lovely, the seemingly forsaken wonders of the cornfield.”4
While it seems that there is a difference between God telling Noah it was going to rain and the rest of humanity—from tolerably sound reasoning (that it had never rained)—asserting that it was indeed not, the line between God’s “intervention” and the work he has given us to do may be blurrier than we often make it to be. This is not to downplay God’s role to any degree—in fact, the opposite. We ask why he speaks to us so much less clearly and more infrequently than he did many millennia ago. Are we simply that much more corrupted than we were, even 150 years ago? He may be speaking to us in places where we do not think to look for him.
If so, we may be among more prophets than we realize. When we ask God’s blessing on our work as he blessed Joseph’s work, we may be more voluntarily joining the process we are already a part of, the process that is not obviously “short-circuited” but is nevertheless no less miraculous than more conspicuous instances of God’s speaking to his people. He may speak to us through processes that are already in place, which he has ultimately set into motion—our genetics or personalities, for instance. The Spirit permeates the deepest levels of our being, not excluded from physical body as it is not excluded from imagination or emotion or deeper.
Joseph’s dreams were links in the growing chain that eventually wrapped around his wrists, bound him to a camel, and hauled him into slavery. Would the story have played out in the same way if he were humbler or more attuned to the attitudes of his siblings? “What-ifs” don’t tend to work well in either history or theology, unfortunately, but it’s an interesting question. Would he still have worked his way to near the top if he hadn’t restarted near the bottom?
The lesson notes that “Joseph’s success . . . does not corrupt him.” There seems to be an implication about the inherent dangers of doing too well, a voiced wariness on the part of many of the treachery that must flow naturally out of achievement too high. “Eventually, the Lord acts, and it has an impact on Joseph’s relationship with the officer of the prison. Here, too, as in his master’s house, the Lord blesses Joseph . . . Whatever his gifts, however, the text makes it clear that, in the end, it was only God who brought him success . . . How important that all who are gifted, all who are ‘successful,’ remember where it all comes from!”
While “every good and perfect gift is from above,” this of course does not rob us of the opportunity we have to play an active and deliberate role in God’s work, whatever that may look like.
There is no evidence that Joseph climbed to positions of governor of Potiphar’s house, the prison, or most of Egypt by clawing up the social ladder and stepping on faces on his way to the top, but he also shows no sign of shrinking from responsibility, rather a Christlike ambition. The account says that “the Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man,”5 which does not imply a lack of effort on Joseph’s part. In exploring the Augustinian approach to the topic of ambition, James K. A. Smith writes,
Ambition is a many-splendored, much-maligned thing. Your take depends on what demons you’re trying to exorcise. If you’re surrounded by prideful, power-hungry egomaniacs bent on making a name for themselves through Babelian endeavors, ambition looks ugly, monstrous, and domineering. But if you’re surrounded by placid, passive, go-with-the-flow, aw-shucks folk who are leaving unused gifts on the table and failing to respond to their calling, then ambition looks like faithfulness. Sometimes ambition is ugly; sometimes the critique of ambition is uglier, as when powerful white men worry that others (brown women, say) are getting “uppity.”. . . The opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency . . . It is the telos of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement.6
We return to our story of Joseph, as it might look today.
As far as Israel knows, Joe is dead. He saw his son’s car bashed and dismembered, the shiny, blood-red hood crumpled like a discarded coat. The funeral was extravagant; no open casket, of course (the fund submitted by Joe’s brothers to the mortician spoke loudly enough).
Now many years later, Joe has been sitting for quite some time in Bayview Correctional Facility, Manhattan. A couple of co-imprisoned mayor’s officials have received cryptic emails lately and talk them over with Joe during breakfast one morning. He’s intrigued by the projects, and he sets about tinkering with his God-given gifts of puzzling and reasoning to try to determine if any of their concerns add up.
Everything is in God’s hands. And he is, as we are, the hands and feet of God.
The lyrics of Matthew West’s song “Do Something” echo the refrain of God working in and through us in ways more subtle yet no less grand or miraculous than we often recognize.
I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now, thought
How’d we ever get so far down, and
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did . . . I created you.”
1. Isaac Asimov’s 1951-1953 science fiction novel series, The Foundation, featured a “prophet” who, as a mathematician, was able to predict mass group behavior modeled on the kinetic theory of gasses, in which, though individual molecules moved randomly, average gas behavior could be predicted.
2. James 1:17, ESV.
3. C. S. Lewis, “Miracles,” in God in the Dock (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: 2014).
4. George Macdonald, Epea Aptera: Unspoken Sermons, Vol 1 (United Kingdom, A. Strahan: 1867) 139.
5. Genesis 39:2, ESV.
Christina Cannon is a pre-med history major with minors in philosophy and chemistry at Southern Adventist University, where she recently served as opinion editor for the Southern Accent student paper.
Title image: Brothers Sell Joseph into Slavery by Konstantin Flavitsky, 1855 (public domain)
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