The Joseph story in the book of Genesis is one of my daughters’ favorite stories in the Bible. It’s perhaps my favorite, too. (Genesis, along with the Psalms, are frequently cited as the most frequently read books of the Bible.) Why?
Probably for a number of reasons–e.g., it’s just great storytelling. (I once heard an interview with a well-known Hollywood screenwriter who was asked, “What do you do when you’re out of ideas?” The screenwriter responded without hesitating, “Actually, I read Genesis.” The interviewer was caught off guard: “You mean like Genesis in the Bible?”)
But the biggest reason (for me) is that the Joseph story is a story of hope. It is a story of a God whose thoughts, as the prophet Isaiah would later declare, are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways. How so? The prophet continues:
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55.9).
(Here “thoughts” refers not so much to one’s interpretation of life or one’s intellectual ability (i.e., how “smart” a person is), but rather to the way in which persons (be it humans or God) plan, devise, and contrive. The gloss “thoughts” is a bit too general but perhaps more accessible than, say, “devices” or “machinations”, though “plans” might work fairly well.)
Israel’s God is saying that there is an unfathomable divide between the way he devises and plans and how we humans devise and plan. That unfathomable divide exists because of who God is: He is holy.
What does it mean that Israel’s God is holy?
It means that there is no one like him. In every way (in his justice, mercy, power, goodness, wisdom, etc.) there is no one like him. Earlier God says through the prophet Isaiah, “‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.”
And this is one of Isaiah’s favorite titles for Israel’s God–viz., “the Holy One of Israel.” Indeed, just before God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts”, he refers to himself precisely in this way (55.5). God is saying, “You can’t even begin to grasp my purposes and plans–they are so infinitely greater and more sweeping and more beautiful than you could comprehend.”
In short, God’s holiness means that we will always underestimate him. He will always surprise us. Indeed, he will never stop surprising us for all eternity. He is the sole inexhaustible source of awe. What does this have to do with hope (and the Joseph story)? Everything.
Isaiah goes on to describe one particular expression of God’s holiness: quite simply, there is no one as powerful as he is. God says through Isaiah:
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isa 55.10-11)
Israel’s God will have his way. His devices, his machinations, his scheming always come to fruition.
My favorite part of the Joseph story comes after Jacob’s sons have returned from Egypt. They have encountered the appointed ruler of the land (a disguised Joseph), who has accused them of being spies and demanded that they leave Simeon as collateral and then return home and bring Benjamin back with them. Upon their return, after their father Jacob hears of this deeply discouraging development, with no little anger and exasperation he accuses his sons (and his God):
“You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” (Gen 42.36)
This is my favorite part for two reasons: first, I can resonate deeply with Jacob when he says, “Everything is against me”; second (and ever so subversively), I know that Jacob couldn’t be more wrong. The result: the conclusion that I have so often made (“Everything is against me”) as well as the discouragement and despair that accompany them, are radically marginalized, even overthrown by the recognition that my own imagination is so very limited. Jacob could never imagined a world in which he would one day see Joseph again. He was struggling to imagine a world in which his family would survive the famine; he was struggling to imagine, therefore, that God’s promises could be true. But he would come to discover and worship a God whom Paul celebrates as the One “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”
His (and our) conclusion that “Everything is against me!” rests solely upon a reliance on the limits of his own past/present sensory input and the limits of his own imagination. So much of our despair (and even our s0-called depression?) are conceived, nourished, and sustained by a pride that demands to be able to see how one’s life is going to work out. And when we can’t, we despair; we get “depressed”–which so often is actually just a deep-seated anger but one that is on the back burner (better that it’s on the back burner so that others can readily conclude that we are victims of our circumstances and not victims of our own pride).
“Despair” by Maren Jeskanen
Peter Berger, whose sociology of knowledge has been widely employed (for good or bad), said, “The most important vehicle of reality maintenance is conversation.” That is, essential to maintaining some contact with reality is engagement with someone else. Why? Because our perspective is so incredibly limited. Reliance upon self–especially self in isolation, says Berger, is the perfect recipe for a departure from reality. We need outside input.
And yet we–I–regularly rely upon–give pride of place to, even receive uncritically–my own perspective, my own “thoughts”–i.e., devices, machinations, etc. But Berger’s observation implies that humans were never meant–could we say, never created?–to rely upon their own individual perceptions to arrive at reality. And the prophet Isaiah (who predates Berger by a bit) urges us:
“Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (55.7)
This invitation could provide freedom from the chains of despair (and, possibly, some forms of depression). But it probably doesn’t, because Isaiah is addressing the “thoughts/devices/machinations” of “the wicked” and “the unrighteous.” And we all know that can’t possibly refer to any of us. Why? Because reality is determined by me alone, and if I don’t feel wicked or unrighteous, that must mean that I’m not. Hence, it’s best to remain in my self-declared “innocence,” in deep despair.
But to those (lucky?) wicked and unrighteous persons who do in fact forsake their own “devices” Isaiah holds out not only mercy and pardon but the glorious promise of a “going out”–i.e., a departure or exodus–from hopeless captivity and the promise of being guided not by self but by Another: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.”