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Politics of Scripture

Breaking Barriers from Our Background

We all learn ways of negotiating life from our histories, families, religions, and our broader society. These passages suggest that some of what we learn can be deadly to our siblings and our neighbors, but we can explore different visions of God and abandon the toxic ways of thinking that are so often deeply embedded in our world.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Genesis 45:1-15

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:21-28

In our First Reading and our Gospel reading for this week, Joseph and Jesus approach situations in which they have the power of life-and-death in their hands, and society has taught them to deal out death in the form of retaliation and exclusion. Thanks be to God that, by the end of each passage, they choose a better way. If they were socialized to adopt deadly responses, how do things end more positively in each encounter? And what can we learn from this?

Starting with the Joseph story, our lectionary reading comes from a climax in Joseph’s life. In Genesis 37, Joseph is introduced as his father’s favorite child, and his older brothers react violently to this favoritism. They sell Joseph into slavery and convince their father he has been killed by wild animals. So begins a saga of ups and downs as Joseph rises to the highest position in his enslaver’s household, falls into prison after being falsely accused, escalates to the highest station among the imprisoned, languishes in obscurity, and finally reaches new heights as an advisor—even “a father”—to pharaoh (Genesis 39–41; 45:8).

Joseph’s high status in the royal court may have given him a sense of security, but his past vicissitudes have taught him that he could once again be snatched from comfort to confinement, from satisfaction to slavery. Thus, I assume that Joseph would remain guarded.

Joseph was not just the victim of anonymous fate; he can point to his brothers, Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife, and the chief cupbearer as the reason he suffered so greatly. Consequently, we might think of it as natural for Joseph to withhold trust. He has learned from experience that his well-being can be put in jeopardy by the jealousy, lust, lies, or forgetfulness of others. Thus, it is wise that Joseph does not hastily reveal himself when he first sees and recognizes that his brothers have come to him in Egypt looking for sustenance during a famine (Genesis 42:7).

But that is not all. Joseph’s first reaction is also to speak “harshly” to them.

Generations of encounters in Genesis have taught Joseph (and Bible readers) to expect harsh, violent conflict in the interactions of siblings. Joseph should remember the bitter rivalry between his mother and his aunt over the affections of his father. This conflict led each of them to force enslaved women into surrogacy (Genesis 30:1–13) and eventually pushed his mother to death in one last childbirth (35:16–20). Joseph should remember the fear in his father’s eyes as Jacob anticipated an encounter with his estranged brother. I imagine young Joseph reading his surroundings as he watches the frightened patriarch, Jacob, put his least-loved family members in the front of the group and set up siblings’ and other-mothers’ bodies as buffers to protect Joseph, the beloved son (Genesis 33:2). Maybe Joseph knows about the deception his father played on Esau, the reason why Jacob should be scared (Genesis 25:27–34; 27). Maybe Joseph even knows that the sibling rivalries go all the way back to Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4:1-16).

Generations of experience would have taught Joseph distrust, bitterness, acting out of fear, and violence by the time we reach Genesis 45. His brothers’ fright when Joseph reveals himself suggests that they anticipate a continuation of these deadly traditions that they contributed to. But Joseph chooses a peaceful reconciliation. How is he able to choose a different path?

Part of the solution is a theology Joseph has developed. He recognizes the harm his brothers have done and even names it, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4). But instead of only focusing on the harm they intended and caused, Joseph theologizes God’s role: “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5, 7). By framing his brothers’ harmful actions within the larger program of God’s salvific work, Joseph is able to imagine his past and present in relation to God’s plan and not merely react to human wrongdoing.

Joseph’s theology—that his brother’s evil was part of God’s larger salvific plan—has both dangers and benefits. In terms of its harmful consequences, a theology like this has been, and continues to be, used to celebrate ends relative to horrific means. For example, this theology has been applied to the evangelization of Africana people brought about through Transatlantic Slavery. Such thinking implicates God as complicit in extreme suffering and seems to justify something as inhumane as slavery.

Although some Christians have adopted this theology in the past and present, others reject it, and still others argue that the Bible presents something more nuanced. Ever since the 1700 publication of The Selling of Joseph, (by Samuel Sewall and considered the first anti-slavery tract published in New England), careful readers have asserted that the Bible does not justify the evil actions and intentions of people. Following this reading, although Joseph assures his brothers’ safety through the end of Genesis, he still asserts that God’s role is to judge them for the evil they devised (Genesis 50:19–20). Since some people interpret Joseph’s God-talk in ways that justify or come close to justifying slavery, this is a theology that must be handled with great care.

The obvious benefit of Joseph’s theology is that it allows him to peacefully reconcile with his brothers. And the reconciliation goes a step further than tolerating their presence. Joseph invites his brothers’ children and their children’s children to live near him (Genesis 45:10). Why focus on the children?

Perhaps Joseph is thinking about the root causes of generational violence—that he can be a formative influence in a new generation, a new community, that can break away from the worst traditions of the past. Perhaps Joseph’s optimistic theology about God transforming evil human intentions into a greater good allows him to endure trauma and seek to transform society for the better rather than seeking revenge. Perhaps Joseph’s theology of a divine plan for saving many lives helps him to conceive of justice without retribution: justice is building healthy relationships where everyone, especially victims and perpetrators of abuse, can weep, come together, and develop a better future for all members of society (Genesis 50:15–21).

While I would like to celebrate these aspects of Joseph’s response to his brothers, I find it dangerous to uncritically applaud the man that Joseph has become. Two chapters later, Joseph (an official of the Egyptian empire) conforms to debilitatingly oppressive tactics when he uses the famine to prey upon vulnerable people’s money, possessions, and property until they are reduced to slavery (Genesis 47:13–26). Biblical authors may have intended this as an admirable demonstration of his cunning; I think it is irresponsible to applaud these traits today. Thus, there might be some good that we can learn from Joseph in our First Reading, but readers should be careful not to idolize him as perfect.

Jesus, on the other hand, is consistently treated as perfect in Christian reflections on the gospels. Therefore, it might be unsettling for Christians to sit with this Gospel Reading and its implications that Jesus was socialized into harmful beliefs. However, if we honestly wrestle with the text, then I think we can see Jesus modeling a way that we all can be transformed into better ways of thinking.

At the start of the story, Matthew says that Jesus “went away” or “withdrew,” which translates a Greek term commonly used in Matthew to denote times when someone leaves to escape or find solitude (2:12–14, 22; 4:12; 12:14–15; 14:13). In this case, Jesus finds no peace since a resident of the region he visits comes pleading with him for help. The narrator describes the petitioner as a Canaanite woman. Her gender puts her in a power imbalance with Jesus, and her Canaanite ethnicity marks her as a member of the indigenous people of that land. According to some of the most horrid, genocidal prescriptions in the Bible, God commanded the chosen people to annihilate these Canaanite natives in order to manifest their destiny as inheritors of God’s promised land (cf. Exodus 23:23; 34:11; Deuteronomy 7:1–2; 20:16–17).

Many Jews and Christians today cringe at the thought that God would demand genocide. Some would rather ignore these passages, and others treat them as symbolic (about eradicating sin, for example). But there has been a practice from Second Temple literature into modern times to rationalize the genocidal texts—to explain that the Canaanites deserve eradication for their utter depravity and willful wrongdoing (cf. Wisdom of Solomon 12:3–11 and Jubilees 10:27–34). Across the centuries, and even today, some Christians and Jews have interpreted these passages to justify genocide, conquest, crusades, and settler colonialism. This ugly theology, or one like it, is what Jesus would likely have grown up learning from his Bible and the world around him. As Mitzi Smith writes in Womanist Sass and Talkback, “fallible human beings are carriers of oppression, and Jesus [in his humanity] is no exception” (35).

When this mother comes to Jesus pleading for the welfare of her daughter, he excludes her. At first, Jesus completely ignores her suffering much like how many Bible readers disregard the value of Canaanite suffering (Matthew 15:23). When his disciples urge him to send her away, Jesus doubles down on rejecting her by informing this non-Jew, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). When the woman presses Jesus further, his answer turns insulting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).

Yet she persists. In a type of verbal jiu-jitsu, she seems to accept Jesus’ words, but cleverly neutralizes their death-dealing rhetorical goal. She uncovers Jesus’ analogy as thinking based on an economy of scarcity (there is not enough, so we must guard resources) that actually plays out according to an economy of sufficiency in her real-world experience. Actually, she retorts, “even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). This response secures her daughter’s healing.

It is a grave injustice that this marginalized mother’s access to health care for her daughter is contingent on her ability to withstand insults and wield an unparalleled wit. (Is that what Matthew calls “great faith”?) This ancient mother’s situation is also a reality in our world: when our systems of thinking and practices deny certain people access to resources, only the most resilient, resourceful, skilled, and fortunate of them can flourish. To celebrate the successes of disenfranchised people is also to recognize the exceptional nature of their story. Doing so should always indict those systems that render thriving exceptional.

What can we learn from Jesus in this text? Adopting Patricia Hill Collins’ theory of people’s relationships to power in a matrix of domination (Black Feminist Thought, 291-301), Jesus stands in this story as part of the structural domain; he is a gatekeeper to the resources that this mother seeks for her ailing child. Furthermore, when Jesus controls access to benefits—in this case, God’s blessings—he is influenced by the hegemonic domain, which are the oppressive ideologies that inform his actions. While we might wish Jesus had initially responded with compassion, the fact that he eventually provides access in contrast to the deeply embedded, anti-Canaanite ideology of his upbringing models a transformation that we can imitate when we play the role of gatekeepers.

Mitzi Smith states that “Jesus’ consciousness is raised as a result of the woman’s sass” (40). She shows that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ vocabulary around children has more inclusiveness after this incident than it did before. In Matthew’s account, one can see Jesus’ ministry culminates with him having learned from the truth that this woman spoke; he tells his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), not just the lost sheep of Israel. Christians call this command “The Great Commission,” and consider it central to Christianity. In a sense, Matthew presents Christianity born out of Jesus heeding this Canaanite mother’s perspective and rejecting the exclusionary beliefs he was raised with.

Like Joseph and Jesus, we all learn ways of negotiating life from our histories, families, religions, and our broader society. These passages suggest that some of what we learn can be deadly to our siblings and our neighbors. But, following Joseph, we can explore different visions of God and the future that compel us to live into a calling to be “your brother’s keeper.” And Jesus shows us that, if we find a way to abandon the toxic ways of thinking that are so often deeply embedded in our world, then we can walk down a different path with the potential to change the world for the better.

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