Monthly Archives: July 2008

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 42: The End

Genesis 50 – Conclusions

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 9, 2006 Craig Atwood,

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. There was much sad news this week. My uncle Henry died in his sleep Friday night. He was a brilliant electrician turned preacher. Also this week, Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, was killed in a freak accident. Steve tried to help us see how gorgeous every animal is, affirming God’s statement that creation is good. Our hearts also go out to the White family in Stokes County. Our whole nation, of course, is reflecting on the events of 5 years ago. Last year I offered reflections on 9-11, which are available from the church office. This week we come to the end of our study of the Book of Genesis. We started on September 18, 2005 and a year later, we have reached the end. I’ll be reading from Genesis, chapter 50.  


Back to Canaan:            The only references to embalming in the Bible are in chapter 50 because that was the Egyptian way of caring for the bodies of important people. Embalming also meant that Jacob’s body could be taken back to Canaan. Pharaoh tells Joseph “go, bury your father, as he made you swear.” In Exodus, the Pharaoh has to be forced to allow the Israelites to go into the desert to worship the God of their fathers. Only after plagues does Pharaoh say, Go.


The other death we read of is that of Joseph. His story also looks forward to the Exodus. He made his brothers swear that one day his bones would be carried back to Canaan. He also prophesied that God would one day take the children of Israel out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land. Though Genesis ends with the deaths of the patriarchs, it is a book of beginnings that is looking toward the remainder of sacred history.


Genesis as a Whole                        We have been carefully studying Genesis chapter by chapter, which has allowed us to give focus to individual units. Today let’s contemplate this book as a whole. Remember that in ancient times, this would have been on a single scroll, written in Hebrew. It would have been read to the worshiping community and interpreted by a teacher. The priests and teachers of Israel would have been able to read and study the entire scroll, but the people would have heard it read aloud, just as we have done over the radio.


We do not fully know the history of the writing of Genesis, but we can deduce that some of the stories were originally oral tradition passed down by priests, prophets, sages, and matriarchs. They were told in the women’s tents, around campfires, and during religious festivals. Some of the stories were told to help children become part of the tribe, others were told to teach the tribal elders how to act. Some stories were probably written for political purposes, to train government officials, or to help form a nation. We cannot accurately date the different parts of Genesis, but it seems evident that some material is 500 years older than other material. Even people who insist on the legend that Moses wrote Genesis must acknowledge that much of the material in Genesis is older than the time of Moses.


During the past year we have seen that the author of Genesis was an editor rather than an author. He took two long narratives and blended them, and added bits and pieces that he found in the archives or knew from oral tradition. He also added some of his thoughts. If you prefer analogies, you can think of the author of Genesis as a brick-layer or a knitter, someone who takes various bits of material and carefully arranges them into a new whole.

This is why it is hard to date the writing of Genesis. Are you dating the individual elements or the book as a whole?


How old is a patchwork quilt that uses pieces from many years worth of clothing? Genesis is more like a patchwork quilt than a seamless blanket. Like a quilt, though, it appears that a later editor added to or tried to repair Genesis. The translator Stephen Mitchell put some of that material in his endnotes rather than in the main text.


Exile:                        It is helpful and fun to look at a quilt or mosaic and look at the individual pieces, which we have done this year. But it would be foolish not to step back and enjoy the quilt itself. We need to keep in mind that there was a reason that the editor produced this sacred Hebrew text in its final form. Throughout the year, I have mentioned that this scroll was probably written either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, which took place in the 6th century before Christ. Christians don’t talk much about the Babylonian Exile, but it was one of the most important and traumatic events in the history of Israel. It rates up there with the Exodus from Egypt and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD as a formative event.


For two centuries there had been a northern kingdom of Israel, and much of the Old Testament was written in that kingdom. Many of the stories of Genesis, particularly the story of Jacob, came from the north. In 722 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and those tribes were dispersed. The southern kingdom was all that was left of Israel, and it was struggling for survival in a world dominated by two super-powers: Egypt and Babylon. Despite the warnings of prophets like Jeremiah, the king of Judah decided to rebel against Babylon. Emperor Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and destroyed the capital city in 586 BC. The temple was razed to the ground and the leaders of Judah, including the priests, were taken to Babylon.


The Scribes:                        In Babylon, the priests, prophets, and scribes began writing what we call the national history of Israel and Judah: the stories of the prophets, patriarchs, priests, and kings. Scribes assembled collections of the sayings of the prophets and the laws of Israel. All of this material was collected in the hope that one day God would bring the Jews out of bondage in Babylon and restore them to the Promised Land, just as he had done in the Exodus. The priests and scribes hoped to restore the legal and religious framework of Israel when they returned from exile. They also tried to find an explanation for their suffering. How could God have allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy his house in Jerusalem?


Throughout Genesis, we have had discussion on the use and abuse of power. We have seen the wisdom of Abraham in making peace with his neighbors and even his enemies. We have also seen how foolish it was for Jacob to cheat his brother or Laban to cheat Jacob. We have had ample opportunity to use Genesis as a tool to reflect on the way we deal with one another in our homes, in our business dealings, and in international politics. I think John Adams had a good understanding of the teachings of Genesis when he wrote: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.” In case you were wondering, it was because the Founding Fathers knew history and the Bible that they insisted on a Bill of Rights that could not be violated even in times of conflict and war.


Restoration:            As we have noted in our study, portions of Genesis originated in Babylon and reflect Babylonian ideas and culture. The Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel were in Babylon. The story of Abraham begins in Babylon and ends in Palestine. The story of Joseph ends in Egypt but anticipates the return to Palestine. Throughout Genesis, from the story of Adam and Eve to the story of Jacob, there is the theme of exile and restoration; judgment and forgiveness; condemnation and grace. This theme of exile and restoration looks ahead to the story of the Exodus, but it was also written to encourage the Jews in Babylon. It continues to speak to people of faith in times of crisis.


The conviction that God was with the people of Genesis in times of exile has strengthened people of faith throughout history, even when the exile was a result of their own disobedience. When Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise, God was still with them. We can read the story of the Tower of Babel as a story of punishment, but we saw that God did not abandon the human race. One person was chosen to bring a new perspective into the world. Abraham was sent out from Babylon by God to a land he did not know. Abraham is depicted as the first monotheist and the first pilgrim. Even in his homeland, he was a wanderer in the world. For him, exile and restoration were the same thing because he was always with God.  


Covenant:            This relates to another major theme in Genesis: the covenant. A covenant is a sacred contract between God and people. Christians in general have difficulty talking about the covenant with Israel, but it is the unifying theme of the Old Testament and especially the book of Genesis. Interpreters differ in their counting of covenants in Genesis, but there were several. There was a covenant with Adam and Eve, which they broke. Then there was a form of covenant with Cain, which God made for his protection. From that covenant came cities and culture. There was a covenant with Noah that promised that God would not destroy the earth by flood again. Although commandments were given to humans, God’s covenant was unconditional. It was God’s promise to the human race.


Then there was the covenant with Abraham, which was confirmed with Isaac and Jacob. This was the covenant that the descendents of Abraham would become a great nation, several nations in fact, and that they would have a land of their own. Much of the Old Testament is about the fulfillment and breaking of this covenant. We have seen that God included all of the children of Abraham in the covenant, to some extent, which has become a source of conflict in the Middle East in our day.

One of the most surprising things we discovered this year is that the LORD did not reject Ishmael and Esau or their children. One of the few people to speak directly with the LORD was the Egyptian Hagar. The children of Joseph had an Egyptian mother, and yet they were part of the covenant. For centuries, the Bible has been used to divide Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but Genesis offers us resources for a more universal view of God. Jacob was welcomed by his brother Esau, just as Joseph forgave his brothers.


Israel:                        The most important part of the covenant with Abraham was that the LORD would be the God of his family for all time and they would be the people of God. The story of Genesis, as we saw, became the story of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Israel would be the people of God who were sworn to obedience, but the name Israel meant “one who strives with God.” The covenant would not be easy, and it would be frequently broken, but God remained faithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob despite their failures. This message inspired hope during the Babylonian Exile and in many dark years later in Israel’s history. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul took up this theme of God’s covenant. Paul recognized that one of the major teachings of Genesis is that God remains true to his promises even when humans fail. The covenant with Israel remains in place.


Flawed Heroes of Faith:            One of the things that bothered many people in the class is that Genesis is not a moralistic book. On the surface, you might expect it to be a series of morality tales useful for teaching children, but the stories themselves are remarkably ambiguous. They are almost modern in their neutrality toward the characters. The first parents rebel against God and eat the forbidden fruit, and they are punished. But they became the parents of the human race.


Cain murders his brother and is protected by God. Noah is righteous, but after the flood he gets so drunk that he is lying around naked. Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister and lets another man take her into his harem. But he is rewarded. Isaac does the same thing. Abraham almost murders his son and is praised for his faithfulness. Lot gets his daughters pregnant. Jacob cheats his brother out of a birth right and is blessed by God. Rachel steals her father’s idols. Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law, and she is praised for deceiving him. Jacob’s sons massacre the city of Shechem, and they sell their brother into slavery. We have looked at these stories individually, but seen together, one wonders why this would be the national history of Israel.


The answer lies in Joseph’s claim that his brothers acted out of evil intent, but God brought good out of it. One of the main themes of Genesis is the corruption of the human race and God’s ability to bring good out of. This was a very important message for those who had been in exile. Even though their enemies had meant this for evil, God could use it for good. Jerusalem would be rebuilt. The covenant was still in place. The nation would be restored. It is a hopeful message of God’s providence in our time as well as reflect on the destruction and war. We have seen that there are not many miracles in Genesis. God generally works through natural means and human agents, even though they are flawed. God is active in Genesis and is moving events forward, working to bring about the redemption of Israel and the world.


Women:            Another theme we examined was the role of women in Genesis. They are complex and important individuals. God spoke to Hagar. Rebekah and Rachel played key roles in the drama of salvation. Eve was the first theologian. It is quite likely that some of the material in Genesis was the oral tradition of women in Israel, and they recalled the faith and courage and flaws of the matriarchs.


Creation: Speaking of Eve, we are brought back to the beginning of the beginnings. Genesis is an important book because it sets forth one of the most important ideas in human history. The universe was created by an intelligent being and it is a good creation. Despite the mistakes and sins of the patriarch that we spoke of earlier, Genesis affirms that God’s creation is good and humans bear the image of God. Genesis is ultimately about creation and life, blessing and redemption. This conviction that the universe is good and works by God’s laws was the foundation of modern science and is a strong ethical foundation for environmentalism. The axiom on which Christian ethics is based is simply this: God saw all that he had made and it was very good.


As we look ahead to our study of the Gospel of John, keep in mind that for five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the descendents of Abraham had been reading and studying the scroll of Genesis. They discussed and debated ideas like creation, covenant, sin, redemption, and God’s promises. Jesus was born into a world that was shaped by the good news of God’s creation and engagement with his world. Let me leave you with this conclusion about Genesis from Walter Brueggemann: “From the speech of creation to until the affirmation of Joseph at death, we have been attentive to God’s call. We have attended to the sovereign call by which ‘God calls the worlds into being.’ We have also considered the way in which God calls us into his church. That call has been embraced by Abraham and Sarah, has set Jacob into many conflicts and has worked its hidden way through the life of Joseph. … The listening community waits with Israel. And while waiting, it, too, must decide about the call.” (Genesis, 379-380) Next week the lesson with be brought by the Rev. Scott Venable.

I Samuel 19-20 Saul’s Madness and Jonathan’s Love

I Samuel 19-20: Saul’s Madness

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 27, 2008 Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church during this hot month of July. I will be leaving right after class to go preach at Christ Moravian Church on Academy Street. If anyone from Christ is listening, let me assure you that the sermon is different from the radio lesson. Let me give a shout out to my father who has a birthday this week. It’s been a quiet week in the Atwood home. For the first time this month, we are all at home together. There was big news in the world. One of the worst war criminals in Europe since World War II was arrested in Serbia this week. Radovan Karadzic will finally face justice in the world court for his role in the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s. The wheels of justice may move slowly, but we should be thankful that they move at all. The thing that truly separates dictatorships from democracies is an independent judiciary that observes the rules of law. That is a treasure we need to protect.

David’s Escape:            We left our lesson last week with Michal choosing to help her husband in defiance of her father. After class we talked a lot about divided loyalties and the difficulties of living in a patriarchal society. This remains true in the world today. Two members of Home Church, Tamra Thomas and Mallie Graham just returned from an international women’s conference that focused on courageous women confronting dangerous times. There were representatives from Africa, North and South America, and Europe meeting in Herrnhut. One of the themes was the need for the modern church to highlight the stories of women in the Bible, especially women like Michal, who took strong and courageous action in the face of great danger. Women around the world need to know that God is on the side of justice. God was on the side of Michal as she defied her father and helped David escape from Saul.

According to 19:18, David fled to the home of the priest Samuel at Ramah. Scholars have many reasons to doubt the historicity of this claim since it is unlikely that Samuel was even alive at this point. There are a number of inconsistencies in the text that make it hard to establish the chronology of the story, but the literary meaning of this statement about David going to Ramah is to remind the reader that Samuel had prophesized that Saul’s kingdom would be torn from him. By having David run to Samuel for protection, the storyteller connects several parts of a complicated tale. Whether or not things happened precisely this way is less important than the meaning of the story: David remains the Lord’s anointed even when he is running for his life.

Ecstatic Sanctuary:                        What happens next is very odd. Saul sends some of his men to go and get David from Ramah. They found Samuel there among a band of prophets who were in a frenzy. We talked earlier about prophecy in Israel being much more complicated than one might think from reading Jeremiah or Isaiah. In the days of Saul, prophets were men and women who sometimes fell into prophetic trances or who experienced ecstasy. They were “beside themselves” when they were filled with the Spirit. In short, many of the prophets of ancient Israel were probably like the shamans of tribal peoples around the world today. For whatever reason, there are people who seem especially sensitive to the spiritual world. Sometimes prophets in Israel received a message from God to deliver, but sometimes they merely experienced the divine world. You can see similar behavior in modern charismatic churches where people may be “slain in the spirit” and lie immoveable for a period of time.

It was not unusual for prophets in Israel to band together for mutual support, and it would be reasonable to expect that they would be associated with particular shrines, like the one of Naioth where David went with Samuel. We don’t know what was going on when Saul’s messengers arrived, but the prophets were in ecstasy and the spirit could not be contained. The king’s men were overcome. Saul sent more men, and the same thing happened. The implication of this story is that by seeking refuge with Samuel, David was protected by the Spirit of God. The king’s men could not get him. David was provided sanctuary by God himself. It is interesting that God’s spirit does not harm those who were trying to kill David. They experienced what the prophets were experiencing – an encounter with God’s spirit.

We have become so secularized in our modern world, and in our modern churches, that we forget that holy things are dangerous. We forget that it can be profoundly disturbing to come into the presence of the Holy One or be filled with the Spirit. Prophets, you may remember, tended to be on the fringes of society even when they were allowed to speak to kings and priests. They remain dangerous because they are gripped by an unseen Spirit and are zealous for justice. Prophets may be shaken and are sometimes shattered by their experience, but what happens when men of hatred are seized by the Holy Spirit? What happens when people whose first instinct is to obey earthly authorities are swept up by the Spirit of God and learn that there is a law that even the king must obey? It can be profoundly disturbing.

The Madness of King Saul:                        Saul’s men are unable to do the evil that he has commanded them to do. So the king himself goes to Ramah in search of David. This contradicts the earlier statement that Saul did not see Samuel again after the time he tore his robe, and most scholars are convinced that this text was edited many times over the years, and that the chronology was changed for dramatic effect. We don’t need to worry too much about minor contradictions in a 3000-year old story since we are focusing on the meaning of the text for the life faith rather than trying to establish the mere facts of history. According to the text as we have it today, Saul went to Ramah to kill David, but he fell into a frenzy.

This is almost a reversal of the parable that Jesus told of the king who sent messengers to the tenant farmers and finally sent his son. In that story, the messengers and the son were abused by the farmers, and finally the king comes and destroys them. In this story in I Samuel, the king finally comes to Ramah, but even he falls before the prophet Samuel. King Saul was overcome by the Spirit, and he lay on the ground naked and writhing for a day and a night. Here we have a vision of Saul falling completely into madness. This is far beyond the evil spirit that sometimes afflicted him. It is beyond melancholia or even paranoia. He has stripped himself of his robes of office and is lying naked before the prophet of the Lord.

This kind of thing still happens to people, as mental health workers know. People do fall into catatonic states, sometimes naked. Here in I Samuel, Saul’s nakedness is symbolic of being spiritually naked before God. Saul cannot hide behind his throne, his office, or his robes. His intentions are laid bare, and he is found to be unjust. Thus he is rendered powerless. There are people who go through this kind of spiritual journey and emerge enlightened, such as a different Saul who was struck down on the road to Damascus.

The narrator of I Samuel tells us that this was the origin of the phrase “Is Saul among the prophets.” We read that phrase earlier when Saul was chosen as the king. In that earlier story, Saul’s prophetic ecstasy was taken as evidence that the Spirit of God was upon him and he was the true king. This story in chapter 19 is far different, and a phrase that was originally positive is now used with derision. Saul has been humiliated and defeated by God. He belongs with the ecstatic prophets, not on the throne.

I have a final observation about this strange interlude in the story of the rise of David: we see here just how thin the line is between prophetic ability and mental illness. Throughout the history of religion, there has been a debate over the sanity of prophets, mystics, and shamans. The true test of sanity in relation to religious prophecy or mysticism may depend on what one does with such unusual spiritual experiences. When Saul first fell among the prophets he was empowered to be the king. Now he has been so diminished by his fear and hatred that he is left catatonic and impotent. He will emerge from his prophetic fit no wiser than he was.

David and Jonathan part – chapter 20

Chapter 20 of I Samuel is a beautiful piece of ancient literature. In it, David flees from Saul in Naioth near Ramah and goes to visit his close friend, Jonathan. Though the editor tries to connect this story with the independent tradition of Saul following into frenzy in the previous chapter, it is really hard to make sense of the chronology here. If David had been pursued by Saul all the way to Ramah, it is unlikely that he had any doubts about the king’s intentions. Originally chapter 20 probably followed directly on the story of David fleeing in the middle of the night from his bedroom. The conversation with Jonathan makes more sense if we picture David having fled from the king without knowing for sure whether Saul was really planning to have him killed. Michal had warned him to run away, but now David needs to know for sure if his life is in danger.

Chapter 20 is very long and intricate, like a beautiful tapestry on a castle wall, and we cannot do it justice in a few minutes here. The story as we have it today shows signs of having been edited and added to over the years. Verses 12-17, for instance, interrupt the narrative and seem to have been a later insertion to explain David’s concern for Jonathan’s son. Even without those verses, the original story emphasizes that Jonathan is siding with David rather than his father, just as Michal did. We will only have time this week for the first part of the story and will continue it next week.

Is the King Angry?                        David has fled in the middle of the night and is afraid to return. Naturally he seeks the help of his closest friend and ally. If you have ever lived with or worked for someone with a severe mental illness, you can appreciate David’s dilemma. He knew that Saul was prone to fits of bad temper since one of his major jobs was to play the lyre for him when an evil spirit afflicted him. But he has to figure out if Saul was really trying to kill him the night he threw the spear or if it was just one of his fits. Is this the kind of thing that Saul would forget about or was he seriously plotting to end David’s life? It all boiled down to the crucial question of whether it was safe for David to return to the presence of the king. He needed Jonathan to answer that question for him.

David somehow manages to get in touch with Jonathan, presumably at the place Saul had made his headquarters. David tries to explain to Jonathan that his father has “gone round the twist” and is trying to kill him. Jonathan responds the way most of us do when someone tells us something about our fathers that we do not want to believe. Children tend to idolize their fathers, and the news that they have acted immorally or stupidly can be very disturbing. Jonathan is such a guileless young man that he cannot conceive of his father doing something as nasty as having David killed in his sleep. Jonathan is also shocked that his father could plan something like this without letting him in on the conspiracy. After all, he is Saul’s closest confidant and second in command.

Jonathan’s claim that he has not heard anything about his father’s desire to kill David, of course, contradicts the earlier statement that Jonathan had talked Saul out of killing David. Clearly, the author of I Samuel was drawing upon a variety of written sources about the rise of David and could not stitch them together without the seams showing. Here in chapter 20, David has to convince Jonathan that his father has not told him about his plans because he knows that David and Jonathan are friends. For the first time, David is actively sowing doubt on Saul in Jonathan’s mind.

The Plot            David planned to use an upcoming feast as the way to test the depth of Saul’s animosity toward him. In those days in Israel, the New Moon each month was an occasion for a religious festival. It was the kind of feast that the king would expect his most important followers to attend, and David knew that it would look very suspicious if he were absent. It would be like the Vice President of a company not showing up for the CEO’s birthday party. David was playing a dangerous game. If he attended the feast, it would give Saul ample opportunity to have him murdered, but if he were absent, it might make Saul even more willing to kill him. Saul might think that David was planning a coup of some sort.

Since David could not avoid the dilemma of not attending the feast, he decided to use it to his advantage. He gave Jonathan a cover story to explain his absence. It was, of course, a fabrication. The Bible is not the least embarrassed by the fact that David and Jonathan lied, which is a nice reminder that the Bible is not as moralistic as people think. David was placed in a situation where honesty might not be the best policy. He had to force Saul’s hand. If Saul asked why David was absent from the feast, Jonathan was to say that David had gone to his father’s home for an annual sacrifice. If you are going to lie to someone, it is always best to claim that you are being pious.

David tells Jonathan to report to him on how the king received the news that David had gone back to his father’s house instead of sharing in the king’s New Moon banquet. If the king gets angry, then David will know that it is because his plans to kill him have been frustrated. Saul will know that David has slipped from his trap, and he will suspect that David is mustering support from his own tribe against Saul.

David assures Jonathan that he is innocent of any crime against the king, and that his anger is unjustified. The innocence of David is repeated so often in I Samuel, that we can assume that many people doubted that David was the legitimate king. Part of the original purpose of this vignette with Jonathan was to reassure people that even Saul’s son recognized that David was not trying to usurp the throne. David goes so far as to tell Jonathan that he was willing to die by Jonathan’s own hand if he is guilty.

The Covenant            At this point there is a break in the original narrative, and we have a very moving conversation between Jonathan and David. Jonathan swears his loyalty to David. Jonathan recognizes that his love for David has put him in a dangerous position. We saw earlier in the book that Saul was willing to kill his son for having broken a religious oath. Surely his life would be forfeit if he assisted an enemy of the king. Jonathan courageously chooses to remain loyal to his friend.

The Hebrew word used to describe Jonathan’s faithful love to David is Hesed, which is a word most often used to describe God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with Israel. It is an enduring love that goes beyond emotion. Hesed is not affected by the changing circumstances of life but remains as constant as the Pole Star. In other words, Jonathan is reminding David of the covenant they made with each other, and that he will never betray his friend. Even if the king is trying to kill David, Jonathan will stand by him. Their lives are twined and cannot be separated even though they may never see each other again. Jonathan asks David to show Hesed to him and to his descendents should he die. This is the first hint in the text that Jonathan will die before David becomes king. On that somber note, we have reached the end of our lesson for this week.  Tune in next week to discuss the rest of chapter 20.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 41

Genesis 46-49: Israel in Egypt

Adult Bible Class HMC, originally broadcast Sept. 1, 2006. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We sent Lehoma off into her semi-retirement last week with a lovely party in Fellowship Hall. Lehoma joined Home Church with her children in 1978 and eventually left her vocation as a teacher to become a pastor here. Her story is a wonderful reminder of the importance of valuing each individual in a congregation and letting every flower blossom.

Labor Day: Happy Labor Day weekend! I know that many of our regular listeners are away this weekend enjoying the last bit of summer. Throughout the year letters to the paper and people on radio complain that we no longer observe Memorial Day or Independence Day with parades and patriotic singing. Less often do we hear complaints that we do not properly observe Labor Day, a day to honor all those who work, especially in manufacturing. We don’t hear much any more about the daily heroism of those who rise early or labor through the night, often for minimal wages.

            The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr caused a sensation in his congregation in Detroit in the 1920s by speaking out for the rights of auto workers. Niebuhr observed that churches have no trouble condemning the sins of alcoholism, fornication, and unbelief, but they ignore the sins of exploitation, intimidation, and extortion. He wrote in 1925, “The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society?” Ask yourselves if things have changed since 1926 when Niebuhr wrote: “look at the industrial enterprise anywhere and you find criminal indifference on the part of the strong to the fate of the weak. The lust for power and the greed for gain are the dominant note in business.” (Leaves from the Notebook, 65, 76)

Overview:            We are nearly to the end of our study of Genesis, but we still have 5 chapters to go! I am afraid that we will not give these chapters the attention that we gave to the earlier chapters of the book. This is in part because we have exhausted our time for Genesis, but it is also because these final chapters are not as important as some of the previous ones. After Joseph has been reconciled to his family, the story becomes anti-climatic. The final chapters appear to be an almost random collection of materials rather than a narrative. Much of the material was probably collected by the priests of Israel to establish family lines and property rights. Rather than read all of this to you, I’ll give a summary of the material with commentary on the more interesting sections.

Chapter 46            In chapter 46 we have the account of Jacob coming to Egypt with his entire household. Here we learn that the family had grown quite large, and Jacob already had many grandchildren when he came to Egypt. We don’t need to go into the genealogy in detail, but it is worth noting that it includes several people not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. The main functions of the genealogy here is to put all of the tribes of Israel in Egypt. We need to remember that the two most important events in the history of ancient Israel were the Exodus from Egypt and the Babylonian Captivity. In many ways, the story of the patriarchs is connected to these two events. Genesis is a prelude to the story of the Exodus and conquest of the Promised Land, but it was also written to encourage those who had been in exile in Babylon. We have seen that the theme of exile and restoration runs throughout Genesis.

            The Exodus remains the central story of the people of the covenant. It was a story that was used to unify the tribes, to make them a nation. All the children of Israel through the centuries shared in the Exodus; therefore it is not surprising that Genesis goes to great lengths to place all of the tribes in Egypt. In a way, the story of the Exodus and the Passover function like Thanksgiving and Independence Day for Americans. If you go to schools during November, you’ll see pictures of Asian Americans and Hispanics drawn into the traditional Thanksgiving tableau of English Puritans and Indians. The Israelites did that with the story of the Exodus. The original Exodus probably involved just a couple of tribes, but the story of the Exodus because the story for all Israelites.

Goshen:            The story of Israel coming to Egypt is personalized by having Joseph ride out in a chariot to meet his father in Goshen, which lies between the Nile and the Red Sea. Joseph told his family to say that they were herdsmen because the Egyptians had herdsmen and shepherds. I don’t know if this was a true perception of Egyptians, but it is consistent with the earlier story that Egyptians would not eat with Israelites. According to Genesis, the Israelites did not assimilate to Egyptian society the way Joseph did. By the time of Jesus there were Jewish enclaves in many of the cities of the Mediterranean. One of the largest neighborhoods was in Alexandria in Egypt where the Jews governed themselves by their own laws. According to Genesis, the Israelites in Goshen had a similar separate existence.

            There is evidence that the Egyptians viewed shepherding as unclean, and they often used other people to keep their flocks. It is a little hard for those of us who follow the Good Shepherd today to understand that shepherds were looked down upon in many ancient cultures, just as cow herders once were. In fact, the word coward comes from cow-herder. Basically, Joseph was telling his father that he should claim to be a shepherd rather than a sheik. He should deny that he was a wealthy and powerful man who owned large flocks. In this way, Jacob and his household would not be threatening to the Egyptians.

Chapter 47            I’ve mentioned several times that the chapter divisions in the Bible are not in the original text. They were added by Christian scholars in the Middle Ages, and the division between chapter 46 and 47 is not in the right spot. The first 12 verses of chapter 47 continue the story of Joseph getting his family settled in Egypt. He negotiates with Pharaoh to allow his family to settle in Goshen where there was pasture for the flocks. Goshen was probably in the NE part of the Nile Delta. No one knows for sure. The key points in this little story are that Pharaoh himself gave permission for the Israelites to settle in Goshen and that they lived in a separate community. It is interesting that Pharaoh asked Joseph to supply herdsmen for his own flocks in that area. Scholars have long speculated that this all fits with the Hyksos period of Egyptian history. The text says that the Israelites settled in the “best part of the land,” which would have caused problems in Egypt during a time of famine. The phrase probably meant the best land available.   

            Chapter 47 was probably meant to increase our respect for Joseph, but in our modern world it may have the opposite effect. We are told that Joseph used the famine to increase the power of Pharaoh. He made Egyptian farmers sell their land in exchange for food, reducing them to the status of tenants. The farmers had to pay about 20% of their produce in taxes. Part of the tax went to keep the supply of grain plentiful, but a large part of it went to the Egyptian temples. There the poor could go for free bread. In many ways it was a more efficient system that our complex welfare and taxation system. In reality, the Egyptian political system was less oppressive than it sounds in Genesis 47. Part of the reason for including this peek into Joseph’s political life is to prepare for the Exodus story. In effect, Joseph’s policy of reducing Egyptian farmers to tenants of the Pharaoh contributed to the later enslavement and oppression of the Hebrews in Goshen.

            The key thing for biblical history in chapter 47 is that Jacob made Joseph promise to bury him in Canaan. One of the most important themes in Genesis is the Promised Land. Jacob’s destiny was not in Egypt, and he insisted that he be buried with his ancestors.  The wandering Aramean would find a lasting resting place with his ancestors. Jacob also used this request as a way to bring the family back to Canaan, at least for a while.  

Chapter 48             Like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob blessed the next generation before he died. This is an important part of life’s transition. As he faced his own death, Jacob remembered his ancestors, but he also looked to the future. This is not a major part of modern American culture. We view each generation as distinct. The past is gone. The future will care for itself. It is the needs of the present that matter most to me. Our children satisfy our desires for love or status. For over a century, each generation in America has rejected what it received from the previous one and has little to offer the rising one. We have little genuine sense of an organic connection with those who have gone before us and will come after us. It is different in pre-industrial societies.

            Jacob will be buried with his father, and before he dies he wants to lay his hand on Joseph’s children. He is giving the children a great inheritance, not in gold and jewels. He is bringing them into the covenant with God. He is passing on his own faith in God and his striving with God. He is giving to them the promises and placing on them the duties of faithfulness. Jacob reminds Joseph (and us) that God once appeared to him at Luz and promised that he would be a great nation. El Shaddai (God Almighty) gave the promise, which Jacob gave to the future generation. The experience at Luz was not about the past; it was about the future.

Blessing:            Jacob begins his dying ritual with a special blessing of Joseph. You may wonder why Joseph, of all people, needed his father’s blessing. His dreams had come true. Not only his brothers, but all of Egypt had bowed down to him. He had power and wealth beyond his imagination, and he had been the savior of the entire family. Joseph had been blessed many times over, but he still came to his aged father to seek a blessing. He still wanted his father to lay hands on his children and speak words of hope for the future. For all of his wealth and power, Joseph was still a son of Israel, a child of the covenant. He had been denied his father’s presence, guidance, and love for so many years. Now that Jacob was dying, Joseph wanted a final blessing for himself and especially for his children. He wanted to belong again.

            Jacob’s blessing was not given to Joseph the Egyptian, Joseph the ruler of Egypt; it was to Joseph the son of Israel. Joseph was blessed in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was part of the house of Abraham, part of the covenant. The story of the family of Abraham will continue through Joseph and his sons. The book of Genesis is coming to end, and the story of the Israelites will soon begin.

Manasseh and Ephraim:            Jacob assures Joseph that his two sons, who had an Egyptian mother, were part of this covenant. This was an important idea for the original readers of Genesis, many of whom had been born in Babylon. The fact that they were born outside of the Promised Land did not mean that they were born outside of the covenant. God’s promises to Abraham remained true despite the accidents of geography. To emphasize the inclusion of Joseph’s Egyptian-born sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob adopted them as his own sons, equal to Simeon and Reuben. We know from archaeological records that this type of adoption of grandsons did happen in the ancient Near East, so this may simply be reporting an historical fact. But I think more is informed here. This adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh was an attempt to establish the legitimacy of these tribes as part of Israel. There is probably a whole lot more history and intrigue represented in this story of blessing than we are able to decipher in our day.

            It is also far too tedious for a Sunday morning Bible class! So I’ll give you a short version of what archaeologists and biblical scholars have discovered. They have labored for decades trying to reconstruct the history of the Israelite tribes, and it remains very confusing. One thing we know is that the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were always linked together. Over the centuries, Ephraim emerged as the stronger tribe. By the 8th century BC, it had become the major tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the prophets used the names Ephraim and Israel almost interchangeably. There is an obscure reference to the city of Shechem (“mountain slope – sekem, v. 22), which Jacob says that he captured from the Amorites. That will become the capital of the tribe of Ephraim and at times the seat of government.

            The changing fortunes of Manasseh and Ephraim are symbolized in this story of the blessing. Jacob placed his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son, rather than on Manasseh. Joseph tried to intervene and correct the mistake, but Jacob will not let him.  This is yet another story in Genesis where the younger son is blessed. It is a reminder that God’s work in the world does not always match our expectations of what should happen. We, like Joseph, keep trying to straighten God out rather than receiving the blessings that God has chosen to give.

Read: I’ll read 48:14-21

Chapter 49 is a long and ancient poem about the twelve tribes of Israel. We don’t need to into the details here, but many scholars think that this is one of the oldest pieces of biblical literature. The poem is very complex and appears to have evolved over many years. There are different kinds of material here. Some verses are short, punning verses; others are extended oracles directed to individuals. It is interesting that the order of the tribes here is unique in Scripture. Leah’s children come first, Rachel’s last. The poem itself interrupts the narrative a bit awkwardly. It is also a little surprising that this “blessing” by the dying Jacob includes so much condemnation of the tribes. This corresponds to historical reality. The tribe of Reuben was absorbed by the Moabites, Simeon was absorbed by Judah. Levi lost its land and became a priestly casts.

            The two tribes that get the most attention are Judah and Joseph. This is not surprising since these will be the two kingdoms of Israel, but the poem does not fit the Joseph narrative well. Here it is Judah to whom the sons of Jacob will bow. Judah will have the scepter of royal authority, and the tribe will be prosperous. They will be up to their eye-balls in wine. These verses were probably part of the royal propaganda of the house of David, but they would have resonated well with the Jews in captivity in Babylon who longed to restore the Kingdom of Judah.

            The other son richly blessed was Joseph, but here it speaks of his descendents as one tribe rather than two. There is no mention here of Ephraim and Manessah, but clearly the poet had these tribes in mind. The other tribes will have their struggles and make their contributions to the Kingdom of Israel, but Ephraim will be the heart of the kingdom. Ephraim will flourish in all ways. Joseph had been separated from his brothers, but in the end, his descendents will rule. Most scholars are convinced that these verses about Joseph’s descendents were written in the 9th century when the northern Kingdom of Israel was prosperous and powerful. The first Israelite to be mentioned by name in any Egyptian source (that we know of) was Omri, the king of Israel. Until the kingdom was destroyed and the tribes dispersed in 722 BC, Israel was more powerful than Judah. We can see that in this poem.

Conclusion: Next week we will come to the end of our year-long study of the Book of Genesis. The church office has most of these lessons on computer files if you would like any that you’ve missed. It has been a long journey, and next week we’ll summarize some of the important things we’ve learned from Genesis. On September 17, we’ll have a guest teacher, and then on September 24 we’ll begin our year-long study of the Gospel of John. 

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 40 – Israel Reunited

Gen. 43-44: Family Reunion

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast August 20, 2006; Craig Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and the people you love. There’s a lot going on in the Moravian Church and in the community this week. School begins in the public schools and at Wake Forest. One of the new pre-school teachers in town will be Lehoma Goode who is retiring from the Moravian ministry next week. In addition to all of her duties as Associate Pastor of Home Church, Lehoma is a regular member of the Adult Bible Class. I hope we can convince her to teach occasionally even in retirement.


Next week I will be the preacher for the anniversary lovefeast at Hope Moravian Church, which is my home congregation. Their service is at 10:00 a.m. so I will not be on the air. Instead we have a special treat. Dr. Bill Leonard, one of the leading public intellectuals in America, will teach the Adult Bible Class. If I don’t see you at my home church, which is Hope Church, then I hope you’ll be listening to Home Church. Seriously, though, I hope you will be able to come out next week for Lehoma’s farewell address and reception.


Memoir of a Life Well Lived:            In the past two weeks I’ve attended memorial services for two saints that I was blessed to know, Bob Williams and Dick Gillette. In the Moravian Church, the pastor gives a memoir of the person who has died as a way to remember a life well-lived. The memoir bears witness to God’s work in the life of the person who has died. The memoirs for Bob and Dick were beautiful sermons on what it means to view your own life as a sacred trust from the Creator. These stories in Genesis function the same way by offering us insights into faith and life.


Return to Egypt:            Last week we ended with Jacob agreeing to send Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers. Judah, the eldest son, told his father that he would take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. But Jacob also took practical steps to gain the favor of the Egyptian potentate who held Simeon in prison. He sent honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds along with money for the grain. It is unlikely that you would have such delicacies two years into a famine, but that is not important. The list gives us a nice look at what were considered treasuries in ancient Israel. The gifts were not impressive enough to be bribes, but Jacob knew that Pharaoh’s vizier would recognize the sacrifice these gifts represented for a common man. They were merely ways to establish a human connection between strangers.


Benjamin in Egypt:                        You may remember from last week that when the sons of Jacob returned home they found that their money had been put in the sacks of grain. When they returned to Egypt, they tried to return this money to Joseph. He refused to take it, but he learned that the brothers had become honest men. They had sold him into slavery once, but now they tried to return money they thought they did not deserve rather than trying to keep the money.


            When they introduced Joseph to Benjamin his emotions almost overwhelmed him gave away his secret. He had to leave the room so he could cry. How many times have you turned away or gone into another room to cry because you did not want the people you love to see your sorrow? It is nice that this story reminds us that our ancestors in faith shared our emotions. The characters of the Bible are not cardboard cut-outs; they were people who knew love and loss, joy and grief, anger and forgiveness.


Dinner with Joseph:                        Simeon was returned to the brothers, just as Joseph had promised. But then Joseph had dinner served to all of the sons of Jacob. This was the first family meal they had had in over decade, but this was in part a political move. What better way to demonstrate to foreigners the might of Egypt than to prepare a feast for them in the middle of a famine? What better way to impress upon the brothers that Joseph had become very powerful in Egypt? There was more to this meal than crass politics, though. It was another step toward reconciliation in the family. Joseph treated his brothers with kindness rather than punishment; he fed them.


The text says that Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews because that was an abomination to them. It is an odd comment, since at the time Genesis was written, it was the Jews who were developing religious laws that prevented them from eating with foreigners. This is the first mention in the Bible of food being used as a way to divide people ethnically, but it is blamed on the Egyptians. The irony in the story is that Joseph ate with the Egyptians even though he was a Hebrew.


Joseph continues playing games with his brothers during the meal. He kept sending food from his table to the Hebrews, but Benjamin was clearly singled out for special treatment in front of his brothers. Joseph probably wanted to see how his brothers responded to this. Would they be jealous of Benjamin like they had been jealous of Joseph? Would they begrudge the good fortune of one brother and let envy destroy them all? Although they were amazed that Benjamin was treated so well by this intimidating official, they all ate and drank and were merry. In other words, they did not let envy destroy the pleasure of the evening.


The Silver Cup            It appeared that Joseph’s brothers had changed for the better. They were honest and no longer jealous. Most important, they had expressed regret over what they had done to Joseph. But there was a final test, and this one was the cruelest trial of all. Joseph told his servants to fill the Hebrews’ sacks with grain and put their money in the sacks, just like before. But this time, he told his steward to hide his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. It was a cunning trick, which authorities still use sometimes. Police and secret service have been known to plant evidence. Only in other countries, of course.


We know what Joseph was up to when he planted the cup because we’ve read this story dozens of times. But think about hearing this story for the first time. Think of the tension this raises in this saga. Why would Joseph set things up so carefully to prove that these Hebrews were ungrateful thieves? The simplest explanation would be that Joseph planned to have them arrested, tried, and convicted for theft. There would nothing to stop him. Perhaps as they ascended the scaffold, he would reveal himself to them, like Edmund Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo revealing himself as he exacted his revenge on those who had imprisoned him and stolen his happiness.


Perhaps he had another plan. When the Egyptians discovered that it was Benjamin who had the silver cup, Joseph told the brothers that they were free to return to Canaan. Only the thief would have stay behind as a slave. This was one way that Joseph could keep his brother Benjamin with him. Benjamin would be safe, and the brothers would have to go back and face their father whom they had deceived years before. It would not have been a bad plan. But perhaps Joseph did all this just to test the brothers/


Judah                        Judah was the oldest. He was also the patriarch of the tribe of David. The Jewish people are named for Judah. Thus, it is not surprising that the story would have Judah as the hero who spoke up to Pharaoh’s grand vizier. Judah told the vizier of Jacob’s grief and the despair he would face if Benjamin were to be taken from him. No doubt Joseph was moved by this, but Judah went further and told the great and powerful vizier that he had pledged his own life for Benjamin, and he would make good on his pledge. “Take me in Benjamin’s place,” Judah begged Joseph. “I will remain in Egypt as a slave if you free Benjamin.”


This was an extraordinary offer, one that is easier to make in a novel than in real life. Judah was sacrificing everything, even his family, to save Benjamin. Perhaps he did it out of love for the boy, or perhaps he did it because slavery appeared preferable to telling Jacob that Benjamin was gone. Judah may have even seized this opportunity to atone for the sin he had committed against Joseph all those years ago. All we can judge are the actions themselves. So, whether it was from love of Benjamin or fear of Jacob, Judah did offer his life in exchange for Benjamin. It was a noble action, and it moved Joseph greatly.


Redemption:                        Joseph cried for a third time, this time in front of his family. Again we can ask why he was crying. Was he saddened by the thought that Judah had not defended him this way? Was he moved by the love and sacrifice of Judah? Was he grieved at the thought of the suffering of his father? Or did he just break down under the strain of his charade and his overwhelming desire to return to his family?


The tears were a sign that the dam had broken. Joseph had seen all he needed to see. He saw that his brothers had changed. They would not sacrifice Benjamin the way they had sacrificed him. Joseph ended his games and revealed his identity to the other sons of Jacob. “I am your brother, whom you sold into slavery.” There is so much packed into a single sentence. I am your brother, flesh of your flesh. I am still your brother even though you disowned me, dishonored me, and nearly destroyed me. I am still your brother, whom you sold.


The original meaning of the word “redemption” in the Bible was to buy someone out of slavery and set them free. It was like paying a ransom. Joseph had been sold by his family, but he had been redeemed and set free by God himself. In this great moment of reconciliation, Joseph redeemed his own brothers. They had sold him, but they were the ones enslaved. Joseph saw that they were bound by guilt and fear and grief. By saying, I am your brother, Joseph freed his own brothers. The ordeal was over. The tests were over. Revenge is never as sweet as the tears and laughter of redemption.


God’s Work:                        Joseph did more than reveal himself to his brothers. Over the years, he had amble opportunity to think about his life and its twists and turns. He had had time to think about his dreams that his family would bow to him. Those dreams had come true in unexpected ways, but he did not remind his brothers of this. In this moment of recognition, he did not lord it over his brothers. They knew that the one whose anguish they had once ignored now had their fate in his hands. He did not indulge the sickly sweet delight of gloating over those who had wronged him.


Joseph was a man of faith who was confident that God had worked through him. Joseph told the brothers something that remains powerful in its simplicity. “Do not be distressed or angry at yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” This is the heart and soul of the whole Joseph saga in a single sentence. Forgiveness remains incomplete when we cannot forgive ourselves. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers was so complete that he did not want them to dwell on their crime any longer. Forget it, he said, and he meant it. He wanted to redeem his brothers, not make them slaves to their guilt and fear. As long as they hated themselves for what they had done, they would also fear and hate Joseph, too. Revenge never brings peace, only more hatred.


In this moment when Joseph tells the brothers to forget what they had done, we see how great Joseph has grown. We knew he was smart and clever and beautiful to look out. Now, we see that he was noble and generous and wise. He was also a theologian. Even though the sons of Jacob had acted abominably and for the worst possible reasons, God had used their crime for a good purpose.


John Calvin and others have used this verse as evidence that the Bible teaches that God has foreordained all of history; that we are mere puppets in God’s play. The good and evil that we do is scripted by God who controls all thoughts and actions. I don’t think that is what Genesis is saying here. At least I hope it is not saying that. Joseph seems to be saying that even the harm we do may produce good. There is a force for good in the world that seeks to turn even the greatest personal tragedy into a possibility for redemption. One point of the Joseph story is that we should not become too distressed over the ills of the moment because the future may turn out far better than we anticipate. Genesis is also telling us that even though God is at work in history. we are not puppets, we are co-creators of the future.


Joseph’s statement that “God sent me before you to preserve life” provides a touchstone for determining whether something is of God or not. God is the God of the living, a God of life, and he calls upon us to preserve life and promote reconciliation.


Conclusion:                        After this, the brothers returned to Canaan with wonderful gifts for the whole family of Jacob. Jacob was too stunned by the news to believe it. Like the waiting father in the story of the Prodigal Son, the son he thought was dead was restored to him. According to ancient legend, by this time Jacob was blind like his father, but when his sons gave him the coat that Joseph had been wearing in Egypt, he smelled it. He recognized Joseph’s scent on the coat and he knew his son was alive. One coat brought grief; the other redemption.


So, in the end, Joseph was restored to Jacob, and the family survived the famine because of Joseph. There are many ironic twists and reversals of fate in the Joseph story, but the major themes shine through. The brothers had sold Joseph because they did not want to bow down to him, but in the end this is what they had to do to save their own families. In saving the Egyptians, Joseph had also saved his own family. And by finally giving him his son Benjamin, Jacob was restored to his lost son Joseph. It is a story of loss and gain, grief and forgiveness, wisdom and mercy. 

I Samuel 19 – Attempted Murder


I Samuel 19 – Attempted Murder in the Palace

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 19, 2008. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. It is good to be home after our two week trip to the birthplace of the Moravian Church. I am grateful to Neil Routh and Scott Venable for covering the class while I was away. I asked them not to be too good lest you be disappointed to have me back. I think that is the real reason pastors are reluctant to take Sabbaticals, by the way. They are afraid the church will do just fine without them. I wish I could remember a single one of the jokes that we laughed at so hard on the trip, but then again, it might be best that I’ve forgotten them. I do recall that our Czech guide was amused by our efforts to pronounce the name of a city spelled BRNO. That word does not have enough vowels for Americans.

The Trip            There were 28 of us on the trip, including a very competent representative of Aladdin Travel. I’d like to give a shout out to the folks at Aladdin who put together a wonderful itinerary for us that included some fabulous meals. The first part of the trip was spent in Prague where we toured Bethlehem Chapel where John Hus preached. We saw St. Martin in the Wall Church where the laity first drank from the chalice in opposition to the policy of the Catholic Church. We also toured the Prague cathedral and castle, and saw the tower where Moravian bishop John Augusta was imprisoned and tortured during the Reformation. Before we left Prague we shared Holy Communion in front of the statue of Hus on the Old Town Square, right in front of the Tyn Church where Brother Gregory first got the idea of starting our church. It was a wonderful way to experience the founding of the church five and a half centuries ago.

We also took a day trip up to Herrnhut and Berthelsdorf where the Moravian Church was resurrected during the time of Count Zinzendorf. My friend and colleague Peter Vogt introduced us to the Saal and God’s Acre in Herrnhut. From Prague we journeyed east toward the region of Moravia. At one time Moravia was a kingdom, but now it is the agricultural heart of the Czech Republic. We stopped in Podebrady, the home of King George of Podebrady who was the first Protestant monarch in Europe. It was during his reign that our church was founded. From there we traveled past Lhotka where the first Moravian ministers were ordained in 1467 and Rychnov where our first confession of faith was written.

After driving on some very small roads that rarely see tour buses, we arrived in Brandys, which was one of the major headquarters of the Moravian Church at one time. It was in Brandys that Brother Gregory was buried in an unmarked grave, and it was there that Luke of Prague helped moderate the original sectarianism of the church. It was also in Brandys that Comenius wrote Labyrinth of the World when he was in hiding from Catholic authorities.

We spent a night in the charming town of Litomysl and stayed in a hotel where seven presidents have stayed. We toured the beautiful castle and garden, and a few people cooled their feet in the fountain. Our guide wrote down the phrase “I would like tap water with ice” in Czech for a member of the group so she could get ice water at her meals. Ice is still a rare commodity in Central Europe, but you do not need ice for beer. The Czechs drink more beer than any other nation. Almost as much as the students at UNC.

The next two days were spent in Moravia tracking down sites associated with Comenius. We visited Fulneck where Comenius had been pastor. There is a lovely museum dedicated to him there. Then we were led by a bicyclist to Suchdol, the village where a few families had kept alive the memory of the Unity of the Brethren during a century of harsh persecution. Some of the most famous names in Moravian history are associated with Suchdol. We saw the foundation stones of the house of David Nitschmann, who became a bishop and missionary. Anna Nitschmann, the Zeisbergers, Neissers, and other families left Suchdol at great personal cost and built the village of Herrnhut in Germany. They have a new grove of trees in Suchdol with trees from all of the provinces of the Unity serving as a living memorial of the witness of those original refugees. Having chosen exile because of their love for Christ, they went to the most marginalized people of the world with the revolutionary message that the Creator loved them with an infinite love. Thanks to them, we now have brothers and sisters on almost every continent.

One of the most magical moments on the trip was when we were driving past fields of sunflowers covering the rolling hills. The sky was filled with dark gray clouds and suddenly the widest rainbow I’ve ever seen burst out in bands of color reaching down to touch the sunflowers. It truly looked like we had found the fabled pot of gold, and it was a reminder that the greatest treasures are those that you enjoy for a time and allow to return to the giver.

We visited the area where Comenius was born and spent time in the museum at Uhersky Brod where there is a companion to the statue of Comenius that stands proudly at Moravian College. It is a fabulous museum and the library houses virtually every book ever published by or about Comenius. Some of the titles were in Japanese even. On our way out of Moravia, we stopped in Kralice where there is a museum dedicated to the famous Kralice printing press where the Moravian Church published the first complete Bible in the Czech language – forty years before King James published his famous English Bible. Our last stop in Moravia was to visit the enormous Slavic epic paintings of Alfonso Mucha. There we saw the artist’s vision of the history we had been discussing.

We also had a nice time in Vienna, where many of the group enjoyed a beautiful concert of Viennese masterpieces. I rode the Ferris Wheel, and we took a day trip to Budapest where we learned about the tragic history of Hungary. It is a beautiful city. Our last day was spent cruising down the Danube through the Wachau Valley, which is where Wachovia in North Carolina got its name. We saw the original estates of the Zinzendorf family that they had to abandon when they became Lutheran, and so the whole history came full circle to Herrnhut and Salem. You’ll have to ask I. B. Southerland or David Pfaff about the closing dinner and the funny hats. Except for getting stranded in Atlanta on the return journey, it was an incredible trip. It was a good group of people to travel with, and I think some life-long friendships were made.

Even with all of the memories and adventures, it is good to be back home with the family; however, it is a little hard to get used to having a crazy kitten pounce on you as you walk through the house.  She has a new name “Warp Kitty” because she suddenly appears places that you don’t expect to find a cat, like in the refrigerator. But enough about life in the Atwood home – we are returning to our study of I Samuel this week. I’ll be reading from chapter 19.

Jonathan’s Intervention                        So far in the book of I Samuel, the narrator has indicated that Saul was growing jealous of David, and we’ve had hints of the conflict to come. Here in chapter 19 Saul finally goes over the edge. He tells his closest advisors and his son that he wants to kill David. 3000 years later, it is hard to tell if this was originally a matter of Saul blowing off steam and saying that he wanted to kill David or if he was actually plotting with his men. In other words, should we look at the opening of chapter 19 like a scene from the Godfather where the head of a mob puts a price on someone’s head or like a scene from the Honeymooners with Ralph threatening to send his wife to the moon. Quite likely it was somewhere in between with Saul being like King Henry expressing his desire for someone to rid him of the troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury.

In any case, the main point of this story is that the king’s son objects to his father’s murderous intent. Jonathan reminds the king that David has served him well and has done nothing against him. Not only that, Jonathan conspires with David against his father. Some biblical scholars point out that this scene is a little confusing and the text may have suffered corruption over the centuries, but the basic idea is clear. David was to hide somewhere so that he could hear Jonathan and Saul discussing his fate. Jonathan convinces his father that David is not a threat and his life should be spared. After that, Jonathan thinks it is safe for David to return to Saul’s service, but there are reasons to doubt Saul’s sincerity in sparing David.

It is interesting that we are told a great deal about Saul and Jonathan and their feelings, but David remains a cipher in this story. We don’t know if he was frightened as waited in hiding, or if he was angry with Saul. We don’t know how he felt about Jonathan choosing him over his father or the dangerous position he was putting his friend in. The author of I Samuel provides key insights into the psychology of all of the major actors in this drama except for the star, David.

Attempted Murder                        At first it appeared that Jonathan’s appeasement of his father had worked. Saul did not send his henchman to have the shepherd hero murdered in his sleep. At least, not yet. Instead, David was restored to his place in the royal court, and soon he was leading the king’s men in battle against the Philistines. As usual, David was victorious, but he was not welcomed home by the king. Presumably, Saul had hoped that this battle would result in David’s death. We had a verse to that effect in a previous chapter, but it makes more sense here. Jonathan had convinced Saul not to have David killed, and so the king decided to let the Philistines take care of things for him. But God was with David and he was victorious. The best laid plans can fail if they are contrary to God’s intention.

David returns in triumph. Perhaps the women once again greeted him with songs of praise and victory, and this angered the king. In the court of the king, it was David who had to play and sing rather than being sung to. The evil spirit was upon Saul, and only David’s soothing hand on the lyre could bring him back to sanity. But not this time. This time the spirit was not subject to the music. This time the evil spirit was fueled by Saul’s irrational hatred of the younger man who was always successful. Saul’s resentment and paranoid grew beyond the bounds of music, and he took his spear and hurled it at the warrior musician.

This is such a dramatic scene that we might be inclined to dismiss it as fiction, but things like this happen in real life. Powerful people in positions of authority sometimes lose it. They throw things and break things. They try to destroy even the people who helped make them successful. Sometimes they kill. I have no trouble picturing a tormented king like Saul throwing a spear at David; I am just surprised David avoided the spear and it stuck into the wall. I imagine that years later people would point to the hole in the wall where the spear had been and tell of that night.

Michal            Rather than being ashamed of what he had done, Saul decided he needed to finish in cold blood what he had begun in rage. He sent men to kill David in his home. It is possible that this happened sometime later than the throwing of the spear, but the biblical author, like a Hollywood director, shortened the timeframe for dramatic impact. In any case, David is at home with his wife, Michal who knows what her father is planning. Michal, like Jonathan, will have to make a choice. Will she support her father even when he is planning something reprehensible? Will she be loyal to her husband or her father?

This is an important scene in the Bible that is rarely the subject of sermons. Many of us had to memorize the Ten Commandments growing up, and the most important one was “honor your father and your mother.” It is the only commandment with a promise attached to it. This commandment to honor one’s parents was the basis of the social order of many nations for thousands of years. Even nations that did not worship the God of Israel believed that the basis of morality was the obligation to be obedient to one’s father. I have known Christians in America who view this commandment as absolute.

Michal knows that it is her father’s will that David be killed, but she helps David escape. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant might argue that Michal sinned in violating the commandment to honor her father. Worse, she used deception rather than telling the truth. Personally, I think what Michal did was moral, and that her actions are praiseworthy. Comenius wrote that the commandment to honor one’s parents does not apply when parents ask a child to do something immoral or harmful. There are ten commandments, not just one, and even parents do not have the right to tell a child to violate the other commandments. Sometimes we honor our parents most when we disobey them.

So Michal did the right thing and saved her husband’s life that night. It sounds a bit like a movie in that she put something in the bed to fool the guards into thinking that David was lying there sick. What she used is a bit surprising, though. It was one of the terephim, which were household idols. You may remember from our study of Genesis that Rachel stole the terephim of her father when she left Haran with Jacob. Centuries later the wife of David had terephim in the house. It is surprising that the author of I Samuel is not at all embarrassed by these idols in the house of David. Michal is not criticized for having idols nor do any of the characters in the story seem disturbed. There is no effort to justify her actions either. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. She placed an idol in the bed and covered the head with goat hair. This is a reminder that the world of ancient Israel was more complicated than we often think, and the fact that the Israelites condemned idolatry did not mean that all images were abolished in the households.

When Saul discovered that he and his men had been fooled and that David had escaped, he confronted his daughter. She lied to him and claimed that David had threatened her life if she did not help him. Again she appears to have violated the commandments, and yet there is no hint that the author of I Samuel criticized her. Her deception kept her father from committing the sin of killing his own child, and Michal was right to deceive the king.

Michal is often overlooked when people list heroes and heroines of the Bible, but she should be remembered as a strong and bold woman who took action to save the life of David. She was used by God to preserve the life of the anointed king of Israel. Though she was not an ancestor of Jesus, we Christians should respect her for saving the life of Jesus’ ancestor, David. History might have been different if she had been obedient to the evil intentions of her father. We should also pause and think about all of the brave women in the world today who risk their lives to save the lives of others or to prevent angry men from committing crimes. There are many Michals today who deserve our support.

Conclusion                        We have come to the end of our time on the radio for this week. Thank you for tuning in to the Adult Bible Class. Let me remind you that you are welcome to join us in person in the chapel of Home Moravian Church. Next week we will continue the story of David’s flight from the murderous rage of Saul.



Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 39: ch. 42-44 Revenge

Genesis 42-44: Joseph’s Revenge

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 13, 2006; Craig Atwood

Introduction:       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Today is August 13, which is a special day in the Moravian Church. It was on August 13, 1727 that the modern Moravian Church was reborn in Herrnhut, Germany. The old Moravian Church, named the Unity of the Brethren, had been destroyed by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Descendents of the old Unity of the Brethren, led by Christian David, decided to flee Moravia. They found refuge on the estate of a young nobleman named Count Zinzendorf. Under Zinzendorf’s leadership they built an extraordinary religious community that was guided by the Brotherly Agreement.

On August 13, 1727 they had a communion service to celebrate their new constitution, and the experience of love, forgiveness, and unity was so overpowering they proclaimed that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. Their communion service literally turned into a lovefeast as they ate and sang and prayed together all afternoon. After this they began sending out preachers, teachers, evangelists, musicians, linguists, and others to bring the message of God’s infinite love to all the people of the world.

I mentioned last week that we were having a roof put on our house, and I pleased to say they did a good job. I do not have the answer to the immigration problems in America, but I can say that the men who worked on my roof were the hardest working men I’ve seen in a long time. 

Joseph’s Brothers:            This week we are continuing our story of Joseph and his brothers. Chapters 42-45 narrate Joseph’s reconciliation with his family in Egypt. This is the longest part of the Joseph tale, and it is far too long to read aloud to you this morning, so I’ll just read portions. It is a little surprising that this part of Genesis is so drawn out. The earlier parts of the Joseph saga, such as his imprisonment, were told with remarkable brevity. Even the rest of Genesis uses an economy of words to tell some very powerful stories, like the binding of Isaac. So why does the author take three long chapters to describe the reconciliation? Clearly this was important to him.

It is possible that the story is so long because the author drew on two or more versions of the original story. Rather than choosing one; he used them both. So we have two stories very skillfully assembled so that the duplication makes sense and adds to the drama of the tale. Another reason this section is so long is that the narrator had to find a way to bring Jacob and Benjamin to Egypt. It is interesting that this is one of the few parts of Genesis that calls Jacob by the name Israel. This was probably to emphasize that it is one not one man who was involved. The nation of Israel went down to Egypt, but the narrator did not want Israel to get to Egypt too easily. Israel belongs in the land of the covenant, the land promised to the descendents of Abraham. The twists and turns of the Joseph narrative show that Israel was unwilling to go into exile again.

There is also a lot of unfinished business to be resolved in this story. There has to be a reconciliation, but there are issues of justice. Part of the tension of the Joseph narrative is that Joseph has grown wiser and more humble, but has he become just and merciful? Have the brothers have changed over the years? Do they regret what they did? Can the wrongs of the past be remedied?

The Story:            Let’s look more closely at the story itself. It has five distinct parts. First, is the initial counter between Joseph and the brothers. Second is the brothers’ return to their father. Third is the second encounter between Joseph and the brothers which leads to the arrest of Benjamin. Fourth is the scene when Joseph reveals his identity. Fifth is the reunion between Joseph and Jacob in Egypt. Throughout this narrative, it is Joseph who is controlling the situation and manipulating his brothers, but behind Joseph’s actions is the unseen hand of God.

Leaving for Egypt:       As you may recall from last week, Joseph had carefully prepared Egypt for the expected crisis. Since there was food in Egypt, people from many neighboring regions came to buy grain. The famine also affected Canaan, and Jacob decided to send his sons to buy food in Egypt. We saw in the story of Abraham that the patriarchs had journeyed to Egypt in times of famine, but this time is different. The patriarch of the family stayed behind in the tents and sent his sons to bring food back. Clearly, the wandering Aramean, Jacob, had put his wandering to an end.

When we hear of a father sending sons to perform a task, we generally picture them as young men, but that was not the case in this story. Joseph was the second youngest son, and he is a man at this point in the story. At a minimum, he was 30 years old. The brothers were older. We also know from chapter 38 that Judah had a family of his own and had become a tribal leader in his own right. The same would have been true of the other sons of Jacob.

Patriarchy means that grown men with families of their own answer their father’s command and make a difficult and arduous journey. Of course, they probably recognized that Jacob was proposing something prudent. They all needed food, so why not travel together? Ten chieftains with pack animals, money, and servants would have made an impressive troupe coming to Egypt. They did not want to appear as poor beggars coming to Pharaoh’s door. This was to be a business deal, not charity.

Benjamin:            The one surprising thing is that Jacob did not send Benjamin with his brothers. It is quite likely that Benjamin was the one who took care of Jacob in his old age and blindness. Later tradition assumed that Benjamin, like Joseph, reflected the beauty of his mother. In the Book of Judges we learn that the tribe of Benjamin was shockingly violent. It was also the tribe that produced the first king of Israel, Saul, who turned out to be paranoid and schizophrenic. Scholars have tried to make some connection between the later stories of the tribe of Benjamin and Jacob’s son in Genesis, but there is not much to go on.

What we know for certain is that Jacob doted on the youngest son of Rachel. The text says that Jacob feared losing Benjamin, which tells us three things. Jacob stilled grieved for Joseph. He was overly protective of the youngest child. He knew that journey to Egypt would be dangerous. The older sons, with their cunning and weapons, could defend themselves, but Benjamin would have been vulnerable. He was young, beautiful, naïve, and did not have a retinue to protect him. A fourth thing we can conclude is that Jacob did not trust his sons to protect their half-brother. They had failed him before.

The First Encounter:             When the ten sons of Jacob came to Egypt, they had to deal with the steward of Pharaoh’s realm who had the keys to the granaries. This alone probably shocked them. It would be like coming to the United States to buy grain and having to appear before the Secretary of State. The brothers did not know who this grand and powerful official was, but we do. They did not recognize the man who was dressed as an Egyptian with a headdress and make-up on his eyes. They did not recognize the voice of this man who spoke only Egyptian to them and who had an army of servants at his command. But Joseph knew his brothers.

Joseph did not reveal himself. Perhaps he hoped that they would recognize him; that their hearts would burn strangely in the presence of this great lord. It is possible that he was cautious because he did not know what to do and wanted time to think. He had the power and the authority to throw them into prison, as he was thrown into prison. He had the power and the authority to sell them into slavery as they sold him. Most would say that this was justice. Imagine the temptation that Joseph faced. Had he lain awake in jail fantasying about the revenge he would bring on his brothers one day? Who would blame Joseph for having these faithful brothers cast into dark dungeons or left to die in dry wells? That would be the manly thing; the just thing. It was what Egyptians should do.

The Plot:            Joseph will have his revenge in this story, but he was subtle and good. His revenge will be both subtle and redemptive. But first, he needed information. Using the intimidation of his office, Joseph accused the sons of Jacob of being spies and put them in prison. Joseph had his brothers interrogated and learned that they were indeed who he thought they were. More important he learned that his father was still alive. He also learned that Benjamin had not been killed or sold into slavery, the way he feared. The brothers’ attack had been only against him, not his whole family.

Joseph was shrewd, and he devised a plot to bring Benjamin safely to Egypt. He could have sent soldiers to fetch his brother, but that might have led to bloodshed. It would be much better to have the brothers themselves bring Benjamin to him. So he made this the condition of their release from prison. They could prove they were honest men by bringing Benjamin to Egypt.

Bring Benjamin:            Joseph’s order forced the brothers to remember the brother they had sold into slavery. They had taken one child from Jacob, and now this Egyptian potentate was asking them to take another child away. They recognized that the two events were connected, but they did not know how. All they knew is that the time of reckoning was upon them. They were going to atone for their sins. Reuben, the eldest, reprimanded the brothers for their old crime that he had been opposed to. The brothers recognized that the harm we do to others tends to rebound against ourselves. This is what philosophers call the moral order of the universe. It does not mean that we are punished for every sin. It certainly does not mean that the troubles we have in life are punishments for sins. Joseph suffered unjustly as we sometimes do. But I think it is true that what goes around often comes around. The scales of justice do balance, but sometimes in unusual ways. At times the scales balance in redemptive ways, as we shall see.

Tears:                        The text says that Joseph turned away and shed tears when he heard the brothers discussing their crime against him. This is one of the few times that a man cries in the Bible. Was Joseph crying over his lost childhood and the separation from his father and brother? Was he crying because he heard that Reuben had tried to save his life? Was he crying over the revenge that he was plotting? We don’t know, but the tears humanize Joseph. No longer is he the great and powerful lord of all Egypt whose revenge will be terrible. The reader sees that Joseph is a man with a heart and soul who is trying to find the best way to resolve this tense situation.

Hostage and Money:                        To make sure that these untrustworthy sons of Jacob brought Benjamin to Egypt, Joseph kept a hostage. He chose Simeon. We don’t know why it was Simeon chosen. Perhaps it was because he was the one who led the assault against Shechem that caused problems for the family. He was also the second oldest son and should have protected Joseph but did not. Perhaps Joseph had some special reason to fear Simeon or to make Simeon suffer more than the others. We don’t know, but the brothers watched as Simeon was bound, and then they left. Presumably, Simeon stayed in prison until they returned. Some of have suggested that Joseph was testing the brothers to see if they would leave a brother behind, but they really had no choice. Their father and families in Canaan would starve without the grain. Simeon’s own family would starve. They did the right thing and left him behind.

The odd thing that Joseph did was put the brothers’ money back in their sacks of grain. By doing so, he made the grain a gift to his father. He knew that it was his duty as a son to provide food for his father and family, but he could not do that openly, yet. There may have been a rebuke in this as well, since the brothers had sold him for silver. I think Joseph knew that this act of kindness and generosity would seriously raise the anxieties of the brothers because they could be accused of theft when they returned to Egypt. So, Joseph was able to help his father while making his brothers suffer terribly. That’s every brother’s desire, isn’t. So far, it is not a bad bit of revenge.

It is interesting that one of the few times the brothers mention God, it is when they see the money and panic. They wonder why God put the money their sacks. Without knowing it, they make the important theological observation that God works through humans. It was Joseph who did this.

Jacob:                        Jacob was not at all happy with the news that his sons brought. Pharaoh’s second-in-command was demanding that Benjamin be brought before him in Egypt. Simeon was held as a hostage, and the sons apparently had stolen the grain from Egypt. The scene is almost comical. Just picture Ricky Ricardo in the role of Jacob here: “Judah, you got some splaining to do!”

But Jacob’s sufferings were real. Had Joseph known the pain he was causing Jacob, he might have chosen a different course of action. Joseph expected that Jacob himself would bring Benjamin to Egypt to rescue Simeon, but Jacob refused to leave Canaan. He was so protective of his youngest son that he was willing to leave Simeon to die in prison. He faced a hard choice, but his decision seems selfish and heartless. Perhaps he was still angry about the slaughter of Shechem or perhaps he was just too wrapped up in grief over Joseph to care about anyone but himself.

In the end, though, hunger did what the hostage could not. In chapter 43, the famine continued, and Jacob knew that the family would need more grain from Egypt. There was no choice now; they would have to meet the demands of the tyrant in charge of the granaries. Jacob, who had once used hunger to cheat his brother out of his birthright now faced a terrible decision. He was about to sell his youngest child, his birthright so to speak, for a bowl of pottage from Egypt. But God was merciful to Jacob. It was Jacob’s beloved son who was offering nourishment to the wandering Aramean. Next week we’ll examine Joseph’s reunion with his family.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 38 – Pharaoh

Genesis 41 – Pharaoh’s Dreams

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast August 6, 2006; Craig Atwood 

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. I hope it was a good week for you. It was a busy one for me, in part because we discovered that our house is in need of a new roof. They are supposed to start the work tomorrow. I’ll let you know next week how it went. This has certainly lain heavily on our minds, but when you see film of buildings destroyed in Lebanon and forests burning in Israel, it is hard to be too worried about a leaky roof in a peaceful neighborhood. I have an official statement from the Moravian Church about the war to read to you.

            “The Provincial Elders’ Conferences of the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in North America, meeting jointly on July 28 and 29, 2006, call upon the congregations of our two provinces to observe an immediate, urgent and special season of prayer during the month of August, 2006 for peace in the Middle East. Pray for a time of calm and the cessation of the escalating violence. Pray for all those who are suffering. Pray for the local, national and international leaders who make decisions on the implementation of war to show restraint and a desire to work for justice. Pray for an end to hostilities that will both save lives and lead to a lasting and secure peace for the area. Pray for the leading of our Chief Elder, even the Prince of Peace, to make us instruments of His peace in all we do and say in this time of great concern and loss of human life.” I hope that you will set aside a few moments to lift these concerns to God.

Pharaoh:            Today we are looking at Genesis 41, which concerns Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation. Anyone in a position of leadership wants to have some idea of what is likely to happen in the near future. It is much easier to play cards if you know what the next cards are going to be. In our modern world, governments and businesses employ pollsters, researchers, economists, and spies who try to read the signs of the times and make predictions for the future. What will happen if we do nothing about North Korea? What will happen if we cut taxes and increase spending? What will happen if we change the formula of Coca Cola or if we invest in Vioxx? Good leaders want to make wise decisions that improve the future for the people they lead and they use all of the information at their disposal to make decisions that have the best chance of success. Wise leaders go to bed each night laden with their minds full of information, ideas, and decisions to be made. Good leaders have dreams and nightmares.

            Such was the case with Pharaoh in Genesis 41. He had dreams that have become part of our cultural literacy. First he dreamed that seven fat cows came out of the Nile. Today it is insulting to call someone a fat cow, but in an agricultural world a fat cow is a very good thing, but Pharaoh’s dream turned into a nightmare. Seven thin cows appeared and ate the fat cows. In his second dream, he dreamed of stalks of grain. Seven plump and healthy stalks were swallowed up by seven withered stalks of grain.

            You may have had worse nightmares in your life, but these were very bad dreams for Pharaoh. The greatest fear for people before modern times was famine. Ancient people lived in the shadow of hunger. Egypt was a powerful nation because the annual flooding of the Nile brought fruitfulness to the fields beside the Nile. Pharaoh was powerful because his people were well-fed. The priests of Egypt predicted the time of the flooding of the Nile and watched for signs of change in the river of life. It is no wonder that the king of Egypt would be disturbed by a dream involving starving cows and withered grain.

Joseph the Interpreter:             The interpretation is easy for us because we already know the answer. It was harder for Pharaoh and his advisors to understand the significance of the dreams. When none of the official interpreters and soothsayers could give an interpretation that seemed right to Pharaoh, his cupbearer told him about a Hebrew slave he had met in prison. He told the king that Joseph no only had the gift of interpretation, but he was also honest in all things. Joseph would be truthful and brave enough to tell Pharaoh bad news as well as good news. That’s what a leader needs: intelligence, wisdom, and honesty in his advisors.

            The cupbearer identified Joseph as a Hebrew. It is a curious thing in the Old Testament that the word Hebrew was used mainly by non-Israelites to describe the Israelites. The cupbearer was letting Pharaoh know that Joseph was a foreigner, but Pharaoh did not let racial or national prejudice stand in the way of good leadership. This is an important lesson for Americans today: truth is not the property of a single nation. National or personal pride should not keep us from learning from others. Pharaoh was wise enough to listen to a foreigner, someone outside of his inner circle of advisors.

            Pharaoh was so concerned about these dreams that he was willing to listen to a prisoner. In our day, the stigma of incarceration is never removed, and it is hard for us to imagine the leader of a great nation asking a prisoner for advice. Of course, both the cupbearer and Pharaoh knew that sometimes innocent people are falsely imprisoned. The story of Joseph as recounted in the Quran shows Pharaoh investigating Joseph’s case and determining that he was indeed innocent before he released him from prison. Potiphar’s wife, according to the Quran, confirmed that Joseph was so truthful and faithful that he had resisted her.

            Pharaoh told Joseph that he had consulted his magicians, but they could not make sense of it for him. This prefigures the contest between Moses and the Egyptian magicians in Exodus. Who is stronger, the God of the Israelites or the gods of the Egyptians? Joseph assured Pharaoh that the true interpreter of dreams is God, and that God will give a favorable answer. Favorable here means an answer that will make sense of the dream so that Pharaoh can quit brooding about it. It does not mean that the interpretation itself will be pleasant.

Interpretation:            Pharaoh retold the dreams, adding all sorts of graphic detail. Joseph understands what the dreams mean, and Pharaoh immediately recognizes the truth of Joseph’s interpretation. Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Seven in the Bible is often a symbolic number of completion or perfection. In other words, a time of perfect crops and prosperity will be followed by complete and total crop failure.

            Joseph told Pharaoh that God had already decided this and nothing could change it. In other words, there was no point in calling for days of prayer or sitting in sackcloth repenting of sins. This was not the time for priests and magicians to intercede with the gods to change the future. The cycle was already in motion and could not be stopped by humans.

            Joseph’s statement raises interesting theological issues about divine providence, but I think we’ll save those for a later lesson. It might make more sense in our time to understand this in terms of the laws of nature. Joseph told Pharaoh the simple truth that nature is not ultimately controlled by human beings. Mighty Pharaoh may have been worshiped like a god on earth, but he could not prevent the coming famine. There is a legend of a sheik who decided to fight a sandstorm with his mighty army. The army was swallowed by the desert.

            This is a harsh lesson that we are still learning today. Humans can affect the weather, but we cannot control it. The signs of the times are around us, and there are many Josephs trying to tell the Pharaohs of our time that the earth is growing warmer and the climate is changing for the worse. The years of plenty are coming to an end, and the years of famine are on their way. The sun will scorch our crops and melt the polar caps. It may already be too late, but we can take inspiration from Joseph and do what we can while there is time.

Preparations:                        Joseph did more than interpret Pharaoh’s dream; he offered sound advice on what to do. It is remarkable how often people know what the future will bring, but still do not prepare for it. Most investors knew that the internet stocks were going to collapse in the 1990s, but they bought them anyway. That’s what Alan Greenspan called irrational exuberance. Pharaoh could have responded to Joseph’s dream with irrational exuberance, thinking of ways to spend the money he could make off of the surplus crops for the next seven years. But Pharaoh was wise enough to listen to a Hebrew slave. Joseph advised him to prepare for the years of famine by saving the surplus crop.

            It is hard to convince people that they should not enjoy the fruits of their labor to the fullest. It is hard to make them see that a period of economic prosperity will not last; that borrowed money must be repaid. Joseph knew that most individuals would not prepare for the future famine on their own. The government would have to assist in order to make sure that things went well. A piece-meal, voluntary program would not be sufficient; therefore Joseph encouraged Pharaoh to use his power and authority to command that the surplus be preserved for the days of drought and hunger.

            Over the years, I’ve heard people claim that the Bible supports the free enterprise system and lack of government involvement in the economic. Such people ignore the story of Joseph, which demonstrates the benefits of massive government intervention in the economy. If you have ever felt a need for biblical support for the social security system or even the Federal Reserve, you can find it here in chapter 41 of Genesis. My tongue is only partly in my cheek in saying this. The Joseph story cautions us against being dogmatic about government and economics. What is most important is good and wise management of resources, not the success or failure of an economic dogma. God wants people to have food, shelter, and a meaningful existence.

Joseph the Prime Minister                        Pharaoh saw the wisdom in Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams and his advice on how to deal with the crisis before it became a crisis. He appointed this Hebrew slave to the highest office in the land and gave him the symbols of his authority: a signet ring, new clothes, and a chain of office. Joseph rode in a chariot throughout the kingdom so the people could see that this new official had the authority to tax them. All of Egypt, except for Pharaoh, knelt before Joseph. Wouldn’t it be nice if we responded this way to people with intelligence and wisdom in America? Instead we call them geeks or wonks, and we appoint cronies to high office. We marginalize those who warn us of disaster and ridicule their research. Had Egypt responded to Joseph the way we are responding to our scientists and economists, the nation would have starved.

The Egyptian Joseph:                        Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name and a wife as well. She was the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On in the temple of Heliopolis, the city of the Sun God Ra. It is now a suburb of Cairo. Linguists say that Potiphera is actually the same name as Joseph’s owner in chapter 39, and it is possible that in the original story, Joseph married the daughter of his master. So, Joseph was rewarded for not having committed adultery with Potiphar’s wife by receiving the beautiful Ashena as his wife. And he became the vizier of Egypt. He continued to be a steward, just as he always had. Joseph did not seek his own glory, but labored for the good of the nation. Though he had an Egyptian name, he remained a servant of God and his fellow humans.

            Modern researchers have been interested in the story of Joseph becoming vizier of Egypt and have sought for evidence of this in other sources. Unfortunately, Egyptian records do not mention any Hebrews who rose to prominence in the kingdom. They do mention people known as the Apiru who did so. There is no scholarly consensus on who the Apiru were, but they probably had ties to the Hebrews. Historians have also wondered if the Joseph story could have taken place during the time that the Hyksos ruled Egypt (around 1800 BC). They were foreigners who controlled the government, and it is plausible that someone like Joseph could have risen to prominence during that era, but there is no evidence to support this. When archaeologists discovered that one of the Pharaohs, Akhenaton, had tried to make Egypt monotheistic, there was hope that this might have been connected to Joseph. It was tempting to think that Akhenaton was had been influenced by Joseph and Asenath, but that theory has long been rejected.

Joseph’s Wife:            All we have about Joseph is this story in Genesis and later legends based on it. It is a rich story, but the fact that Joseph’s wife was the daughter of a pagan priest really bothered later Jewish interpreters. There is a story about Joseph and Asenath, which is written in Syriac. According to that story, the pagan Asenath fell in love with Joseph, but he piously rejected her as an idol worshiper. With the help of angels, she was able to repent and become a worshiper of the LORD. Once she became a good Jewish girl, Joseph married her. That story became very popular in Islam as well as Judaism, but it goes far beyond the biblical text.

            It is very surprising, and perhaps illuminating, that the Bible does not include any mention of Asenath’s conversion away from the worship of Ra. Genesis is not embarrassed by the fact that the patriarch Joseph’s Egyptian wife was the daughter of a pagan or that she was the matriarch of two of the most important tribes of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Several times in Genesis, we have found a surprisingly open and positive attitude toward non-Israelites. There is no condemnation of the Egyptians.

Final Reflections             What lessons can we take from this story about Joseph’s rise to power and authority? Certainly there is the obvious message that faithfulness is rewarded in the long run. Joseph was a slave, but he remained faithful to the LORD and served with integrity. Although the immediate result of his faithfulness was imprisonment, he was finally rewarded with a wife, status, and greater service. We should think of Jesus’ message that the servant who is faithful in small things will be trusted with great things.

            The story of Joseph also teaches us that God gives us abilities that he expects us to use wisely. Joseph chose to use his gifts to serve others, and he was able to save Egypt. On a theological level, we should note that there are no miracles in the Joseph story. God is at work in this story behind the scenes. History is moving in the direction that God wants, but humans are the actors in the drama. We should not be so bigoted and arrogant that we think that God is not working through the gifts and abilities of others.

            I think that one of the most important messages in the Joseph story for us today is that God used Joseph to save the Egyptians from famine even though they were pagan. God did not demand that the Egyptians convert to Judaism before he helped them, a fact that churches should remember in their own mission work. Many churches refuse to help those who are suffering unless they are willing to convert to Christianity or Islam.

            I think it is also important to recognize that Joseph the Hebrew did all that he could to save the people who had enslaved and imprisoned him. We live in a time when people believe that the best way to be secure is to kill their enemies and intimidate their neighbors. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike can learn from the Scriptures that Joseph the Hebrew saved Egypt with God’s help. As we shall see next week, in saving the Egyptians, Joseph unwittingly became the savior of his own people.              

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 37 – Joseph

Genesis 40: Prisoners and their Dreams

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 30, 2006;  Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope that it has been a good week for you. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. I’m thankful that Christy and Lehoma were able to fill in for me while I was gone. Our family vacationed in Wisconsin. We enjoyed the water slides and other attractions at Wisconsin Dells, and then we relaxed in Door County, which has Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. Green Bay and Door County were first settled by the Moravians, by the way. Do ask my daughters about the goats on the roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish restaurant in Sister Bay. More impressive to me than goats on the roof, was the sunset over Sister Bay. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.

Recap: Joseph the Slave                        I realize that some of you have been vacationing as well, and so you may have missed some of the lessons this month. We are studying the story of Joseph, who was the favorite son of Jacob. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his status in the family and angered by his arrogance. They seized him and sold him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph was purchased by a wealthy man named Potiphar. He recognized that Joseph was intelligent, hardworking, and trustworthy, and he gave Joseph authority over all of his affairs. Slavery in the ancient world was different from the slavery that we had in the United States. Slaves were not considered sub-human, and it was not uncommon for slaves to attain higher status than free persons. We need to keep in mind when reading about Joseph that it would have been unimaginable for a slave in North Carolina to have the authority and dignity that Joseph was given under Potiphar.

            The message of the first part of the Joseph story is that a smart and moral person can turn even a tragedy like betrayal and enslavement into something worthwhile. Joseph was trusted because he was trustworthy. We see in the Joseph story, the meaning of stewardship in the Bible. Stewardship is a lifestyle of service and trustworthiness. God has entrusted us with property, abilities, and intelligence so that we will use these gifts wisely for the good of others rather than indulging ourselves. Joseph was the steward of Potiphar’s house, and he managed his master’s affairs well, but as Christy talked about last week, Joseph could manage his master’s wife.

Fortune:                        In the Middle Ages, writers used the image of the wheel of fortune to illustrate what Joseph experienced. Fortune spins the wheel, and the mighty are brought low while the low are lifted. Each time that Joseph rises, his fortune changes and he is brought low. He was stripped of his coat and sold into slavery, but prospered as a servant. He was falsely imprisoned, but prospered there as well. It appears that Joseph is a victim of fate, and we need to acknowledge the truth that we do not have full control over our destinies.

            All of you listening to this radio broadcast have privileges and benefits that you have not earned. All you did was have the wisdom and foresight to be born in America in the 20th century. Think how different your life would have been had you been born in Mongolia or Haiti or if you had been born before modern medicine. Some of you have privileges and blessings because you chose your parents wisely and were born into money and education rather than being born to drug addicts or parents with HIV. We like to take credit for our success in life, but what did we do to earn our status? What did the workers who were laid off when the textile mills closed do to merit their unemployment? The wheel of fortune seems to dictate our lives, and we could read the Joseph story this way. Joseph appears to be a victim of fate. His story cycles between highs and lows. Joseph could have become a blues singer, but when we look at the story closer, we realize that Joseph is not a puppet of fate, like Hamlet claimed to be. The Lord is with him, but Joseph is the actor in this drama. Joseph makes choices. He uses his opportunities and his gifts to make his world a better place. Despite the cycle of fortune, Joseph remains a steward.

Prison:            It was precisely because Joseph was a trustworthy and faithful steward that he was thrown into prison. The Joseph story is sobering and unsentimental. Sometimes, doing the right thing is costly. It would be nice if people were always rewarded for doing the right thing, but it does not work that way in this corrupt world of ours. Sometimes the world is unjust. Sometimes people hate you because you are good and honest and hardworking. If you don’t believe it, just read the papers. Think of the people have been pushed out of government offices for doing their jobs with integrity. Think of times when you were rejected by friends or co-workers because you would not do something immoral or indecent. The Bible acknowledges this. Joseph served his master with devotion and decency, but he was still thrown into prison.

            That is where we find Joseph in this week’s lesson. Joseph’s prison was not as nice as the one that Martha Steward did time in, but it was probably not as bad as some of the prisons in the United States today. He was in the royal prison, but for all he knew Joseph was going to spend the rest of his life in jail. This was a worse form of slavery than he had known under Potiphar, and Joseph could have responded with bitterness and hatred. He could have given up on life, cursed God, and died. But he knew that even in prison, the Lord was with him. He still had gifts and opportunities for service. He was still intelligent, hard-working, and trustworthy, and he chose to use his gifts wisely even while he was in prison. The warden learned that he could trust Joseph, and so Joseph was given authority even within the prison.

            I am reminded of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The hero, Andy, was falsely imprisoned for life, but he used his skills as an accountant to make himself useful to the guards and the warden. He was eventually able to improve the lives of his fellow inmates. There is a wonderful scene where he and some other inmates have been putting down a new tar roof on a hot day. Andy negotiated with the guards so that the workmen each got a cold drink because a working man desires a tall cold beverage at the end of the day. It makes him feel like a man rather than animal, Andy said. I think of Joseph when I watch that scene. I picture prisoners and guards alike looking at Joseph with gratitude and respect because he was a good steward of his gifts and took care of the people around him. He knew that they were men, not animals.

            The message we should take from this story of Joseph in prison is that integrity is always important. One of the survivors of the Holocaust wrote that he learned that people can take everything from you, even your clothes, your family, and your life, but they cannot take away your integrity and decency. You have to give those things away. Joseph did not give away his integrity or his faith. He remained a steward of what God had given him. I’ll be reading from chapter 40 of Genesis.

Purpose of the Dream stories:            This chapter focuses on dreams, and as I said in a previous lesson, the Joseph saga is unusual in that dreams play such a major role. At no time does God appear to Joseph, nor is he a prophet in the usual sense of the word. Instead we have six major dreams. Joseph has two that his family interprets for him. In prison, he interprets two dreams for fellow prisoners, and then in next week’s lesson, he interprets two dreams of Pharaoh’s. It is easy to get so distracted by questions about whether dreams predict the future today that we miss much of the significance of the Joseph story.

            The dreams here are primarily a way to teach important lessons about how we can live our lives with faithfulness, compassion, and hope even in the darkest times. One reason the story-teller included this story of Joseph interpreting the dreams in prison is to set up the much more important story of when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. Several things are established in this chapter. First of all is that Joseph did have the gift of accurate interpretation of dreams. Second is that God worked with Joseph and through Joseph for a greater purpose. Third is that Joseph was a compassionate steward who chose to work for the common good and betterment of others. Fourth is that Joseph seized opportunities when they arose and was not merely a victim of fate. And finally, Joseph remained honest and trustworthy even when giving unpleasant news. The reason Pharaoh could trust Joseph was because Joseph was correct about the good news and the bad news. He was not merely trying to please people; he was devoted to the truth. The Joseph saga was used by the sages of Israel to teach people how to be good government servants. I think it continues to offer us a much needed model of public service for our time.

Cupbearer and Baker:            Let’s look closer at today’s reading. Two of the king’s most important servants were in jail with Joseph. The cupbearer and the baker were not mere slaves; they were royal officials. We should think of them more as the President’s chief of staff and head of the Secret Service than as his cook and waiter. They were among the few people in Egypt who could approach the king and speak with him confidentially. One of their most important duties was to make sure that Pharaoh was not poisoned by his enemies. Even though he was a son of one of the gods and the most feared man in the world, it was not unheard of for one of the Pharaohs to be murdered by disgruntled office seekers or political rivals.

            We aren’t told what happened, but for some reason these two men were thrown into the royal prison. Most likely, there was evidence that someone had indeed tried to kill the king and suspicion fell on these two servants. They were persons of authority and respect, and so they were given special treatment in prison. The captain of the guard wisely placed them in the care of the trustworthy Joseph. The text indicates that they were in prison for a long time. We can presume that during that time Pharaoh was investigating the allegations against them. No doubt the prisoners had been receiving word about the investigation from their friends in the court and in the prison. Like all prisoners they were concerned about their fate. Each day they wondered if the truth would come out. One of them looked forward to vindication; the other feared that evidence would convict him. But both men had come to trust Joseph over time because he was trustworthy.

Compassionate Steward            Joseph noticed that these men who were in his care were depressed, and he chose to help them. In teaching this lesson through the years, I have found that people often overlook the significance of Joseph’s simple question. “Why are you so sad?” On the surface, it is a ridiculous question. Why would someone who has served in one of the highest offices in the land, who had wealth, prestige, and servants, be sad in prison? Can you imagine someone like former Sheriff Hege asking such a question of the prisoners in charge? It could be a cruel question, but Joseph wasn’t mocking these men.

            They were in his care, and it was his job to make their imprisonment as humane as possible. He cared about them and noticed they were distressed. More important, he chose to intervene. He sought to help them without even knowing what the problem was. We can find many instances in the Old Testament when the fate of the world was ruled by the compassion of a slave like Joseph. Even though he was in prison, he chose to care about others. In return, they trusted Joseph. They shared their dreams, their fears, and their hopes with this man. They looked to him to interpret their disturbing dreams.

Interpreting Dreams:            Joseph told the men that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God, not humans. It appears that the wisdom that Joseph gained in slavery was humility and the knowledge that people cannot force the future to match their goals. The interpretation of dreams belongs to God because only God truly knows the future. This is a very profound statement, but it is a bit confusing here since Joseph immediately gave an interpretation of the dreams. He didn’t ask God about them. Unlike the Egyptian magicians and priests, he did not go into any elaborate rituals to contact God with smoke and incense. He didn’t go into a mystic trance like the oracle of Delphi. He didn’t even cut open a bird to read the entrails like the Romans did. In the story, Joseph simply listened to the men and thought about what they said. Presumably, he already knew that God had given him the gift of interpretation, but we haven’t seen that in the story so far. He was the dreamer, not the interpreter earlier in the story. So, this conversation between Joseph and the prisoners is a bit odd.

            I do not think it is impious to assume that Joseph had access to information about his prisoners and their fate that they did not have. Dreams make more sense when we know what is happening in the waking world. It is probably best to assume that Joseph’s statement that interpretation belongs to God is consistent with the rest of the story we are studying. God plays a major role in the Joseph saga but always behind the scenes. We are told that God was with Joseph even when he was a victim of injustice, and we will see that at the end of the story, God was working through the twists and turns of human decisions and even crime to bring about a good result for the people of Egypt and Israel. Even with dreams, humans can only give their best guess at what will happen in the future. Only God knows for sure what our dreams mean. What we see in this story is that Joseph used his God-given talents to give his best answer to the riddle of the prisoners’ dreams.

Good News and Bad News            As you heard in the reading, the cupbearer dreamed that his grapes ripened and he turned them into wine and brought them to his master. In other words, he dreamed that he was serving Pharaoh as he had in the past, and Joseph reassured him that this will be true. In three days, his head will be lifted up and will been found innocent of the charges. Pharaoh will trust him again. This is a message that we like to give to someone who is sad. Chin up! Things are going to turn out okay for you. If this was the only dream that Joseph interpreted, we could dismiss it as platitudes given to a depressed man or to curry favor. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember him when he was freed.

            But there was another dream.  The baker hoped that Joseph would give him a similar interpretation about his dream in which he offered his baked goods to Pharaoh. But he dreamed that birds came and ate the bread he carried. Joseph told the baker that Pharaoh would raise his head up, but he will do so with a rope. The birds will feast on the man’s flesh. This is a grim interpretation, but it fit the facts. It is likely that if one man was exonerated, the other would be convicted. Joseph knew the situation. More important, the baker knew it as well. Someone had committed a crime, and someone would pay the penalty. Guilt can play a powerful role in dreams, and we can assume that the baker knew that he was guilty.

Telling the Truth:            Joseph could have offered the baker a few days of peace and hope by lying to him. Believe me, this is a strong temptation in counseling. Let me make you feel better by telling you what you want to hear rather than the truth. This is a strong temptation at work, too. Only tell the boss encouraging news, never bad news. Hide the newspapers from the president and give him only the facts that agree with him. Joseph could have been that kind of person; a yes-man or a toady. But he wasn’t. He had integrity even in prison. He told the baker the harsh truth that he would soon be hanged for his crimes. And he was.  As for Joseph, he was forgotten and left behind in prison for two long years. Next week, we’ll discuss Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s solutions.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 36 – Joseph

Gen. 37 – Joseph the Dreamer

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 9, 2006

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you. Today we are looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers. Since it is a long and important story, I’m going to skip my normal chatting about current events and launch right in. This is one of the most familiar stories in the OT, in part because of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical titled “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which is a favorite of my wife and children. The trouble with familiar stories, though, is that we sometimes overlook what the original text actually says.

            So, over the next few of weeks, we’ll look closely at this marvelous story of sibling rivalry, big dreams, attempted murder, slavery, sexual harassment, false imprisonment, political intrigue, famine, deception, redemption, and reconciliation. My wife told a co-worker that last week’s lesson was on rape, terrorism, and political intrigue, and the co-worker said that she hated it when Sunday School teachers just talked about current events. My wife let her know that I was teaching about Genesis. The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it remains so current. That is very true of the Joseph saga.

Overview of the Story:          You probably know the outline of the Joseph saga, but let me repeat it in order to orient you to the story. Joseph was chosen by his father, Jacob, to be the head of the household. His brothers were so jealous they got rid of him and lied to their father about his death. Jacob was sold as a slave in Egypt. Through hard work, intelligence, and trustworthiness he rose to a position of power and authority. But his good looks got him in trouble with his master’s wife and he was thrown into prison. His skill at interpreting dreams was noticed by government officials who presented him to Pharaoh. Joseph correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and gave sound advice on how to deal with an upcoming famine. During the famine, the Egyptians had food, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain without knowing that they were dealing with their old brother. Joseph played with them for a while before he revealed himself and was reconciled to his family. Throughout the story, there is a theme that God is working behind the scenes to work his will in the world.

Exegetical Notes:      Before reading the first part of this long saga, there are some scholarly notes that might be helpful to you in interpreting. The Joseph story was probably written down during the days of King David or Solomon, and it appears that it may have originated in Egypt. It has a number of parallels with an Egyptian story called the Tale of Two Brothers, which is also known as the myth of Bata and Anubis. That story includes the reversal of fortune of a shepherd who is falsely accused of rape but who rises to great heights. The biggest difference between the Joseph saga and the Egyptian myth is that the Egyptian tale is really about two deities rather than human beings. There has been a debate for two centuries over which was the original story. We can’t give a definite answer ince we do not know for sure when the Joseph story was recorded.

            Walter Brueggemann asserts that the Joseph narrative “is distinguished in every way from the narratives dealing with Abraham and Jacob” (Genesis 288). The earlier stories involved direct encounters with God, but in the Joseph cycle all communication is in the form of dreams. Archaeologists in the 20th century discovered a large number of texts from the Nuzi and Mari people in Syria dating to 2000 BC. Some of those texts discuss dreams and interpretations in ways similar to the Joseph story. One of things we learn from those texts is that the dreamer should not interpret his or her own dreams. There were dreamers and there were interpreters. The Joseph story is odd in that he is both a dreamer and an interpreter. We will return to this theme of dreams later.

History of the story:  We can be fairly certain that this story in Genesis has a long history. There were many additions to the original story, and now it runs for 12 chapters.         It appears that an early version of the Joseph saga was written down in the days of Solomon and was used in the education of government officials. As we shall see, Joseph was the model bureaucrat: hard-working, honest, and incorruptible. But the Joseph saga also reflects the concerns of the sages of Israel and should be considered part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible. It raises the question of justice in a profound way, and asks how the wise man responds to adversity. The answer given in this tale is more encouraging than the book of Job, but it reflects the same kind of questioning among the intelligentsia.

            At some point after the time of Solomon, the Joseph saga was incorporated in the story of the patriarchs even though it is much different in style and themes. The final author of Genesis, perhaps the scribe Ezra, took this wisdom tale and added other stories of the patriarchs to it. He also added material that explained how the Israelites came to be enslaved in Egypt. The Joseph saga serves as a transition to the book of Exodus. The themes of Joseph are different from the earlier stories, which dealt with the mysteries of faith and God’s covenant. The Joseph story deals with ethics, faithfulness in exile, and the mysteries of Providence. I’ll be ready a simplified version of the story that is probably close to the original version from the days of Solomon.


The Coat:                   The story begins with Joseph as a 17 year old boy living with his father and brothers. Joseph was one of two sons of Rachel, and we saw earlier that it took years for Rachel to have children. So Joseph was born to Jacob when he was growing old by the standards of the day. Jacob was probably about 55 and retired when Joseph began having his dreams. We don’t know for sure why Jacob preferred Joseph to his older sons. The context implies that the pillaging of Shechem played a role in Jacob’s preference for Joseph. It is also likely that Jacob considered Rachel his one true wife and treated her sons preferentially. It is possible that Jacob recognized Joseph’s intelligence and charm. Moreover, having been the last-born son, Jacob may have had sympathy for Joseph and preferred him over the more legitimate heirs. Most likely all of these things figured in Jacob’s preference for Joseph.

                        We aren’t told much about the adolescent Joseph, but what we are told is not very positive. He was a snitch who gave his father bad reports about his brothers. He was so disliked by his brothers that they would not even talk to him. It appears that things were so bad that Joseph started hanging around the tents with Jacob rather than going out in the fields working like the others. In some ways he reminds us of the young Jacob hanging onto his mother’s skirts and usurping his brother’s place, but in this case it was the father who made Joseph special. In the long run, Jacob was correct about Joseph, but in the short run his preferential treatment nearly killed his favorite son.

            Jacob showed his love for Joseph by giving him a special coat. Translators have debated for centuries over just what kind of coat it was. The only other time that this particular Hebrew word is used in the Bible is to describe coats worn by the virgin daughters of King David. This has led some commentators to claim that Jacob dressed Joseph up like a girl! This might be good news for transvestites, but I doubt that this is what the author intended. The Greek version of the OT, which was used as the basis for the Latin Vulgate, translated the Hebrew as a multi-colored coat. Most of the Protestant translators during the Reformation did the same. Today a multi-colored coat does not sound like much of a gift. You can buy a coat of many colors at any discount store, but in ancient times, dyes were very expensive. Beautifully dyed cloth was very expensive. A coat of many colors would have been a fabulous gift in an age when people owned one or two sets of clothes.

            Many modern translators dispute the claim that Jacob gave his son a coat of many colors. The consensus among modern translators is that this was really a coat of long sleeves. That may be accurate, but it is not certain. One thing is certain. That translation lacks poetry and zest. No one would write a musical titled Joseph and the Amazing Coat with Long Sleeves. Let’s not pass too quickly over the significance of the long sleeves. They probably covered Joseph’s hands, which meant that this was a coat for an overseer, not a worker. I’m willing to be open-minded, though. Let’s assume that Jacob gave Joseph a coat with long sleeves that was also multi-colored! Jacob was not simply identifying Joseph as his favorite son; he was to be the leader of the clan. And the brothers hated that fact.

The Dreams               Joseph was a dreamer. We all have dreams when we sleep, and you know that dreams are difficult things.  How do you tell if someone is reporting a dream or simply trying to convince you of something? Where is the line between dreams and wishful thinking? It is interesting that in Genesis, it is Joseph who reports his dreams rather than the narrator. The text leaves us with the ambiguity inherent in all dream reports. Another problem with dreams is that we forget most of our dreams as soon as we wake up. But there are a few that are so evocative that we must tell others. Sometimes we need someone to provide an explanation of the symbolism of the dreams that makes sense to us. The interpretation of the dream gives you an insight into what is going on in your life now. It can even help shape the future if the dream affects your decisions.

            Joseph’s dreams are like our dreams in many ways. We are told about two dreams. In one his sheaf of grain rose higher than the others, and his brother’s sheaves all bowed down to it. In the other the sun, moon, and stars all bowed to him. Some dreams! I think we can safely say that young Joseph thought rather highly of himself. The interpretation seems fairly clear, but notice that it was Joseph’s family that supplied the interpretation of these dreams. They are the ones who believe that Joseph is planning to take over leadership of the tribe.

            Young Joseph was a dreamer. Clearly the gift of the special coat had made him a bit arrogant and ambitious. His real problem wasn’t his ambition, though; it was his foolishness. These are not the kind of dreams that you tell people. “Hey, Dad, I just dreamed that you and mom and all the family are going to bow down to me.” What did Joseph expect the family to do? Jacob was not happy with his dreams, but his reaction is more thoughtful than hostile. There is a touch of pride in his son. But the brothers were already angry at their arrogant kid brother. The dreams push them too far. It was not a good idea to tell them that he was going to be their master one day. You’d think Joseph would have learned something from his family’s history. Brothers try to kill brothers.

The Attack                 The brothers had moved with the flocks to Shechem. The geography of the Joseph saga is a bit confusing. It wonders over much of ancient Palestine, which probably indicates that different parts of the story came from different parts of Israel. In any case, Jacob had to send Joseph to find his brothers and work with them. Apparently he had stayed behind, yet again, because they were angry at him. According to the text, the brothers were debating among themselves about what to do about the dreamer with the fancy clothes. They decided on a desperate and evil plan. They will kill the dreamer. People still do this sort of thing, you know.

            The sons of Jacob were not unanimous in their violence against Joseph. It is a little confusing because two different versions are blended here, but one of the brothers intervened to save Joseph by cunning. In one version it was Judah who rescued Joseph. He convinced his brothers that it would be better to sell Joseph as a slave to some Ishmaelites in the area. This way Joseph will be alive and the brothers will profit from their mischief. Judah is at best a half-hero in this story. We learn more about Judah in chapter 38.

            In the other version, it was Reuben who saved Joseph. He convinced his brothers to throw Joseph in a pit. He planned to come back secretly and rescue the boy and restore him to his father. The brothers liked the pit idea because they could eat next to the pit listening to the cries of their brother beneath them. It made them feel strong and powerful to have Joseph at their mercy. But before Reuben could complete his plan, some Midianites stole Joseph out of the pit and carried him off as a slave. I like the Reuben version better myself. Reuben should be the patron saint for all who do good deeds that go awry.

            The net result is the same in both versions of the story, though. Joseph was taken into slavery in Egypt because of the hatred of his brothers. This foreshadows the later enslavement of the Israelites, but it also gave a message for the Israelites later. Conflict between the tribes will lead to the enslavement of them all.

Tricking Jacob:          In our story for today, the brothers succeeded in their plan. They had removed Joseph. The dreamer with the coat was dead to them. It always baffles me, but people honestly think that you can solve a problem by getting rid of the person that represents the problem. People kill their spouses or ex-spouses because they are lonely and in pain.  Disguntled employees try to remove their co-workers. Stalin believed that if you have a problem with a person, eliminate the person and the problem disappears. Over 20 million persons died as a result of this kind of thinking. The Nazis believed that the Final Solution to Germany’s problems would be to eliminate the Jews. The Catholic Church tried to solve its problems in the 15th century by killing Hus and his followers. The Roman Empire tried to exterminate Christians because they thought Christians. It is a long story that goes back to Cain.

            But murder does not really solve problems; it creates more problems. Violence certainly does not restore relationships because death is not the end of the matter. It is only in movies and comic books that the story ends with the death of the villain. In real life, we have to deal with the results. Someone had to clean up the bodies and rule Denmark after the end of Hamlet. In our tale this morning, the sons of Jacob had to tell their father that Joseph was no more.

            They took the beautiful coat that he had given his son, and they soaked it in goat’s blood. Now it was distinguished only by the fact that it was red. Jacob, who had paid so much for tricking his own father, suffered the indignity of being cruelly tricked by his own sons. His grief is palpable. Like many grieving parents, Jacob is eager to die to be with his lost son. He will grieve for him even in Sheol. I wonder what the sons of Jacob thought as they watched this grief. Did it confirm their hatred of Joseph or did it soften their callous and selfish hearts?

Conclusion:                 What did the sons of Jacob hope to gain in getting rid of their brother? They wanted their father to love them as much as he loved the son of Rachel, but instead of gaining Jacob’s love they broke their father’s heart. Rather than being free of Joseph, the brothers would live the rest of their lives under his shadow. Joseph’s dreams had been already fulfilled. Though absent, he became the dominant figure in his brother’s lives. His father bowed down, but in grief. The brothers hoped to put an end to Joseph’s story, but this is just the beginning. Eventually, the sons of Jacob would have to kneel before the brother they had plotted against, and they would learn the meaning of mercy. But that is a tale for another day.

Lessons from John, ch. 14

John 14:1-11,  Way, Truth, Life

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 22, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. I drove 4 times to the mountains in 8 days this week. We went canoeing one day in West Jefferson, which was a lot of fun. Then I took Sarah to camp. On Tuesday I returned to camp to do a monolog as John Hus. I carefully avoided the fire. Then I had to pick Sarah up at camp. In the between times I finished my paper for the conference I’m attending in England. So, it was a busy week.

Farewell Discourse    In our lesson for this week, we are turning our attention to the 14th chapter of John and a verse that has become very controversial in recent years. First, let me give you a little background to larger context of ch. 14. This is part of a long section of John’s Gospel commonly called the Farewell Address of Jesus. Some scholars limit the Farewell Address to ch. 14-16; others include ch. 13 and 17. Ch. 17  is actually a long prayer of Jesus. The old Moravians used to call this Jesus’ Last Will and Testament, and it does have some of that quality to it. This was his final summation of his ministry and his instructions for what the church should be. Here we read central aspects of Jesus teaching, but he is also promising an inheritance to his spiritual descendents. They will receive the Holy Spirit and eternal life if they fulfill the covenant Jesus has established.

            If you have been following these lessons all year, it will come as no surprise that there are a host of interpretative problems in this section of John. Scholars have widely different opinions on how to handle these problems, some of which involve translation of the Greek text. Read it straight through yourself, and you will probably notice some of the difficulties. In verse 14:31, for instance, Jesus tells the disciples to get up because he is leaving, but then he talks for another three chapters. In all, he gets up to leave three times before he actually does. Now, this could be one of those honest historical details that show Jesus changing his mind like we all do. My family jokes that you have to tell my mother that you are leaving three or four times before you can actually leave. But most scholars think is more likely that 14:31 marked the end of Jesus’ farewell address in the original version of John’s Gospel. In other words, the other chapters were added later.

            We also have the curious fact that Peter asks Jesus where he is going in 13:36, but three chapters later Jesus says that no one has asked him where he is going. If this was reported accurately, Peter was probably wondering why his question didn’t count – or whether Jesus had forgotten it. Again, it seems more reasonable to assume that ch. 16 was not originally in the Gospel and when it was added the editor did not change what had come before.

There are also some strange shifts in the tenses of the verbs in this Farewell Discourse. At times Jesus is speaking of the future as if it is already past. Keep in mind that these chapters were written for people who already knew Jesus had been resurrected. They were not taken down by a stenographer at the Last Supper. It is not surprising that many of these passages are read in church on the Sundays following Easter since they make most sense after Easter. Remember as well that John’s Gospel was written and edited by people who believed that Jesus was alive and still guiding the church.

            There is a general consensus among scholars that the Farewell Discourse brings together at least two versions of Jesus’ last words to his disciples and includes a number of sayings that were given at other times in his ministry. It may even include teachings given after the resurrection. We do not have time to list all of the parallel passages, but many of the statements in ch. 14 can be found in slightly different form in the following chapters. There is lot of repetition in this section. It appears that the Farewell Discourse was stitched together from a number of sources, and we can still see some of the seams. That does not mean that this is not authentic material from Jesus. It simply means that the evangelist has assembled these materials into a single long discourse and intentionally included in the last supper because these teachings are the apex of Jesus’ ministry and the foundation of the church.

            Keep in mind, however, that the different units in this long discourse were shaped by those who preserved them. In other words, we can trace some different theological perspectives that reflect the diverse ideas of the early Christian preachers and scholars who preserved these teachings. If we knew enough about the dating of the different units, we might even be able to discern the process of theological development in the church, particularly as the church moved away from apocalypticism.

Farewell Genre          One thing is fairly certain. This Farewell Discourse is an example of a particular type of Jewish literature: the last words of a great man before his . Each of the major figures of the OT has such a scene: David, Elijah, the patriarchs. The entire book of Deuteronomy is one long farewell discourse by Moses, and it was probably the inspiration for this section of John’s Gospel. Moses summarizes the history of the Exodus, repeats the commandments of the Torah, and urges his followers not to be afraid as they go into the Promised Land without him.

Jesus does basically the same thing in John, except he tells his disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare the way. This genre of farewell discourses or -bed pronounements was very popular in the period following the OT. Many Jewish apocryphal books, such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testament of the Patriarchs are farewell discourses. Such books are fictional, but they show us that Jewish scholars around the time of Jesus were comfortable writing about theological matters in this way. To what extend the author of John’s gospel put his theological reflections in the mouth of Jesus in this Farewell Discourse is impossible to determine. Keep in mind, though, that the author of John’s Gospel believed that the Holy Spirit was guiding him and the other disciples into deeper understandings of Jesus even after he had gone away.

Do not be Troubled:   You may have recognized the opening verses from the funeral liturgy of many churches. This is an appropriate reading at the time of since it urges followers of Christ not to be too troubled by . Throughout the gospel, we have seen that faith is the antidote to fear, including the fear of . Three times Jesus’ own spirit was troubled in John, each time in a confrontation with . According to John, the admonition to not let your hearts be troubled was given by someone who had experienced this kind of inner turmoil and pain. This verse is a word of encouragement and consolation for those who are facing the reality of and grief. Having faith in Christ does not erase all of the pain, but it can help overcome the fear.

Dwellings        The famous statement about there being many dwelling places in the Father’s house in verse 2 is very hard to translate. The key word could be translated as room rather than dwelling. The Greek word has its root in the word for remain, by way; thus, it is a place where you remain. Some of you may remember this verse in the KJV as speaking of many mansions, which has led to the belief that heaven is like Beverly Hills or Bermuda Run. In the 17th century, though, the word mansion simply meant a place to remain or stay. Regardless of how we translate this verse, the basic point is clear. There will be room for Jesus’ followers with the Father in eternity. This is the consolation. Jesus will be returning to the Father to prepare for a place for his followers. will be the path to greater life.

            The Greek word translated as place here is tropos. There is an interesting bit of Moravian history related to this word. Zinzendorf argued that Jesus was preparing many places, not just one. There would be different dwellings for his disciples. This indicates that there will be pluralism in heaven. According to Zinzendorf, the different churches and nationalities will each have their own place or tropos in heaven with Christ.

This “tropus concept” was the basis of Zinzendorf’s controversial ecumenism. Moravians, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Mennonites, Catholics, Orthodox, and Coptic Christians all have a place in the house of the Father. This broad view of the church was attacked by many during Zinzendorf’s lifetime. One writer was horrified that Zinzendorf “maintained, that the Pope was not the Antichrist. He has sent a Deputation to the Patriarch of Constantinople, which has been very well received.” Based on John 14:2, Moravians believe that it is Christ who prepares a place for us with the Father, not the Pope, patriarch, or preacher.

Return of Christ:        According to verse 3, Jesus promised that he would return and take his disciples with him to the Father so they may be with him forever. This is probably a very old statement since it implies that Jesus would be returning before the disciples died. There is evidence that many early Christians expected that Jesus would return soon from heaven. Maranatha, or Come Soon, Lord, was a prayer in the early church. Paul had to deal with the fact that Christians were dying before the return of Christ. This verse in John seems to support the view that Christ would return shortly to claim his followers, but we will read other statements in the Farewell Discourse that indicate believers are already united with Christ and the Father without the need for a Second Coming. It is possible that this statement in 14:3 does not refer to a literal return of Christ but to his coming in spirit to dwell with all believers.

What Way?    Clearly, the disciples were just as confused by these sayings of Jesus as we are today. Thomas challenges what Jesus has said by pointing out that the disciples did not know where Jesus was going. It is possible that Thomas has made the mistake of literalism and assumes that Jesus is talking about going for a trip. But it is also possible that Thomas knows that Jesus is speaking of his journey back to the Father, but is reminding the teacher that there are lessons yet to be taught. Thomas is the most inquisitive and honest of the disciples in John’s gospel, and his question provides the opportunity for one of the core teachings of the book.

John 14:6 has been the topic of much controversy in recent years in most churches. For many Christians, Jesus’ statement that “no one comes to the Father except through me” is the trump card in the debate about other religions. Some people have even gone so far as to assert that unless you believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then you yourself cannot be saved even if you have faith in Jesus. The debate has been acrimonious in many churches, particularly since 9/11. At times it has even been played out in the local paper as Moravians have discussed this issue.

As with all things in Scripture, we need to read John 14:6 in context and pay close attention to what it says and doesn’t say. I think it is important that this statement was given for  Jesus’ disciples, not to the crowds in Jerusalem. This was a teaching for those who have already dedicated their lives to Jesus, who listened to his teaching, who have been taught to humble themselves in service. This was a teaching given at the Last Supper before Jesus was crucified. We should not read this as an abstract philosophical point given to the world at large. Jesus is reassuring his disciples that they will not get lost on their journey to the Father because they know him and are following his way. They will indeed come to the Father through him.

This statement was also a direct response to a question by Thomas. How can we know the way? Jesus answered that he is the way. This sums up much of the teaching of all four gospels and is the high point of John’s Gospel. How do we know what the Lord requires of us, the prophet Micah asked? John’s Gospel responds: by following the way of Jesus. He is the revelation of the Logos, the word of God in human form. We set up systems of sacraments or five-points of salvation, but the Gospel of John challenges us simply to follow the path of Jesus.

            Think back on what we have learned in the gospel about the way of Jesus. This is the man who celebrated a marriage by turning ordinary water into abundant wine. This is the man who challenged the injustice and chaos of the Temple, who redefined devotion to God as devotion to truth. This is the man who took meager resources and fed the multitude, who enabled the blind to see, who brought life out of a situation where everyone else saw . The way of Jesus is the way of abundant love and selfless giving. This is God’s revelation in Christ. This is the path to the Father.

Truth and Life:           Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” There are many ways to interpret this. The Greek fathers believed that this meant that the way of truth leads to life. Other ancient theologians believed that Jesus is the way to both truth and life. There is much for us to meditate on in these words, but our time is short today. I want to emphasize that no matter how we interpret the way and the truth and the life, we should agree that the way of Jesus can never be the way of deception, lies, and . Our place in the Father’s house is not prepared through dishonesty or threats of . This is a lesson that the church has had trouble learning through the years, but John’s Gospel makes it clear that the way of Jesus is a way of truth, a way that brings life.

Conclusion      There is evidence in the NT that early Christians called themselves “followers of the Way,” similar to the Essenes at Qumran who had called themselves “The Way.” This highlights the fact that Christianity did not begin as a set of metaphysical propositions or a systematic theology; it was a way of life. The teachings and example of Jesus were to help people on their pilgrimage through this world so that they could find the place prepared for them with the Father. The church is constantly in danger of losing this sense that the Way is a journey that leads to truth and eternal life.

The 14th chapter of John was not written to help modern Christians self-righteously condemn other religions (or other Christians); it was written to reassure the followers of Jesus that his way leads to the Father. His was not a tragedy that invalidated the good he said and did; it was part of the journey of salvation. He returned to the Father and showed us the path to follow. That path is loving service and life- , not condemnation of others. We are not going to solve the theological problem of other religions today. It is more complicated than you might realize, but I think at a minimum we must avoid the sin of claiming for ourselves the role of God. We are not the ones who determine who is saved. That authority belongs only to God, our judge. John’s Gospel tells us to focus on following the Way of Christ as disciples of Christ. That is challenge enough for a life-time. We can certainly proclaim the love of God in Christ and tell the world that Christ who opens the way to the Father. We can celebrate our conviction that it is Christ who prepares places for all us in the Father’s house.