This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture. While the focus is on weekly preaching passages, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to Tim Simpson.
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 37, select verses).
In the midst of the largely manufactured and contrived ‘crisis’ over the nation’s debt ceiling which has occupied our national attention for the past few weeks, pundits and other observers have sought to define who the principal political winners were. While the talking heads made predictably partisan commentary on the political ramifications of the deal struck on Tuesday, very few people were talking about those who are clearly abandoned by this new law: the poor. What happened in Washington over the past two weeks was a systematic deconstruction of social safety nets and a defunding of federal student aid all for the sake of allowing the wealthiest individuals and corporations to continue to enjoy tax loopholes and our military to continue to participate in useless conflicts.
The language about the “job-creating” and “job-killing” natures of all legislation that has come before Congress in recent memory belies the fact that political conversations are occurring with only the perspective of the nation’s wealthy and political elite in mind. The merits of political action are being measured in how they affect large corporations and wealthy individuals instead of how they directly impact the most vulnerable members of society.
Similarly, in this week’s lectionary text from Genesis to we hear the story of Joseph’s assault and sale from the perspective of those who hold power: his brothers. Joseph’s voice, his protests, his cries from the bottom of the pit are conspicuously absent from the text. Only the brothers’ conversations of what they ought to do with him are heard. In their own psychic distancing from the violence they have wrought, the brothers have erased Joseph’s voice from the narrative.
At every turn the brothers sought to assuage their own sense of wrongdoing by driving distance between the blood of their brother and their own hands, but as commentator Avivah Zornberg notes, Reuben’s suggestion that they “shed no blood” and instead cast their brother into a pit amounts to “white-collar murder” (The Murmuring Deep, 300). The taboo against bloodshed rather than care for the other is what is operating in Reuben’s objections. At every turn the brothers’ power is absolute and their interests alone are central to their deliberations.
When however, later in the Joseph narrative, the brothers go down to Egypt during a famine and encounter Joseph again, the narrative begins to shift. Now Joseph’s voice enters the space of their relationships for the first time and quickly the brothers begin to repent. In fact they say to each other “alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us but we would not listen” (42:21). Joseph’s anguish and pleading make a narrative appearance out of sequential time. Keeping with the story’s point of view, they occur not when Jacob is in the pit but rather when the brothers finally realize their evil. The destructive power of forgetting is coupled with the redemptive force of remembrance.
From a political perspective it becomes vital then to stave against the self-imposed silence the brothers experienced and to hear clearly the voices of those we have cast into the pits of the earth. We see in this text the ease with which powerful people numb themselves to the cries of the poor and oppressed, and carry on about the business of governance with their own interests in mind. We see the cruelty with which family members commoditize a brother and sell him for the price of a pair of shoes.
On Tuesday this nations’ poor were sold, for the sake of a lower tax rate on the wealthy. Let us not wait years before we hear their cries.
John Allen is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.