Middle Days

One thing I’ve been trying to do is develop the habit of reading the Psalms through every month, following the cycle laid out in the Common Book of Prayer.  This morning’s reading was Psalm 105, which instructs the hearer to praise the Lord and give thanks to him in light of what he has done in the past, and recounts in poetic form some of the founding episodes in the history of Israel.  One of the stories mentioned is that of Joseph, the transitional figure who was responsible for the Israelites settling in Egypt, which sets up the later events which bring Moses to leadership and launch Israel as an independent nation — but that’s going too far ahead.  Today, I’m thinking about Joseph.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Joseph’s life, it is a wild ride.  Told in the later chapters of Genesis, a brief synopsis runs thus: he grows up in a troubled family and appears to be a fairly arrogant young twit when we first meet him; he is sold by his brothers to foreign merchants and hauled as a slave from Palestine to Egypt; he lands by (apparent) chance in the house of a royal official; he eventually becomes entrusted with running the official’s entire household and managing all of his possessions and land holdings; the official’s wife decides she fancies him, and tries numerous times to seduce him; when he continually refuses, she lies to her husband out of spite, claiming he tried to rape her; his master has him thrown into prison; he eventually rises to a position of trust in the prison, the warden giving him responsibility for taking care of the other prisoners; he helps some high-ranking prisoners by using his prophetic gifts on their behalf, but he is forgotten by them as soon as they are freed; years later, one of them finally remembers him when the ruling Pharaoh has a disturbing dream; he is fetched out of jail to interpret the dream; the Pharaoh believes him and puts him in command of the entire nation of Egypt, second-in-command to Pharaoh himself; he prepares Egypt for a years-long famine predicted by the dream and leads the nation through; he confronts his own past when his brothers come to buy grain, because Palestine is suffering from the same conditions of drought; and in the end he is reunited with his family and clan, old hurts are forgiven, and he settles them in the best part of his adoptive land, where they are protected under royal favor and grow prosperous.

Whew.  It’s a hell of a story, and well worth reading (it starts in chapter 37 of the book of Genesis).  I believe that one of the primary intentions of the Bible is simply to be a storybook, because of the way stories can teach us about our own lives and about other people, about humans and the ways they bounce off each other and the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes incredible things they do.  I sometimes have a poor habit of forgetting that the people in the biblical stories are, you know, people, humans just like I am human; I somehow think that because they are mentioned in scripture, that they must be pious and holy and have their collective acts together, but most of them don’t.  They so don’t.  When I remember that, when I remember that I’m reading about just people, then the stories come alive for me, they start teaching me things I need to know, and sometimes reminding me about things I already knew.

The parts of Joseph’s story I found myself pondering this morning were the middles, the hard bits, the sudden and tragic reversals in fortune.  I feel like I’m stuck in a middle-place myself, and so it’s probably not surprising that I found myself considering Joseph’s difficult middle-places:  being sold as a slave, getting thrown into prison, being misunderstood and hated and forgotten about.  What would it feel like, what would one think about on the night after your own brothers haggle over your price and hand you over to a foreign trade caravan, on the way to a distant country?  Talk about an uncertain future.  What would it be like to get thrown in prison for doing the right thing?  How do you keep from getting bitter over something so completely unfair?  And then he was stuck there for years, and separated from his family for many more years, and had no promise that things would ever change for the better.  What on earth do you do with that?  How do you choose to do what’s right, time after time, when circumstances just keep getting worse?

It looks like Joseph did, that somehow he found ways to keep doing his best, in spite of terrible and unfair circumstances.  The text says numerous times that the Lord was with him and whatever he did prospered, which I don’t see at all as meaning that he sat around eating the Egyptian equivalent of potato chips, waiting for the Lord to drop good stuff on him.  The implication is that he worked hard and acted in good faith, toward his master when he was a slave, toward the warden when he was a prisoner, and most of all toward his God, who acted in good faith toward him by sticking with his story, by preparing him through the hard times for big things in his future.  I don’t mean to suggest that Joseph’s success was the result of any sort of quid pro quo between him and the Lord; that’s not the way it works.  But I do think that our choices shape us, and that God drops circumstances into our lives that give us the chance to choose, to be shaped one way or another, toward better or worse.  Joseph had hard circumstances, but his responses to those circumstances and God’s involvement in his life shaped him into a man fit to run a powerful and prosperous nation, and to save it from destruction.  I’m amazed by that, and humbled when I think about my own circumstances, and the less-worthy ways I often choose to respond to them.

So I’m still thinking about Joseph today, about the murky middle of his story, and it gives me both hope and caution for my own story.  Hope that good things can and do happen, sometimes in spite of apparent hard circumstances.  Caution that hard circumstances are going to come, and I may as well get used to the idea, not in despair but as a means of preparation to weather them.  I’m reminded that my choices matter, my daily, mundane choices, from day to day and year to year — that this is the stuff of my life, it is what is making me, and so it matters what I do in these middle-days, it matters very much.  And I’m reminded that however things look, God’s presence is a constant, it is a sure thing, and he is working to bring about good things now, in my own life and in this present world, no less than he was in Joseph’s life and in his time.  Joseph chose to believe in that and act out of that belief.  The same choice is open to me, and the same possibility for astonishing things to come.


1 comment so far

  1. brother on

    You just wrote one of the better devotions that I have read in a long time. When do you start your Theology classes?

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