If I tell you a story, a story about myself, your reactions will vary based on what you already think about me.
If I told you that I gave a significant amount of money to a local charity (which I haven’t as of yet), but your opinion of me up to that point is that I'm a scoundrel, you may question my motives and doubt my sincerity.
If I told you that early on in my dating relationship with my wife I broke up with her on her birthday (which sadly I did) and your opinion of me is already positive and hopeful, you may shake your head and cluck your tongue but you will ultimately find a reason to think I’ve changed or that there is some strange and extenuating circumstance that led to the break up.
There wasn’t. I was just an idiot. Plain and simple.
In any case, hearing a story about me or anyone else we “know” (whether personally or through their public persona) impacts us based on what we think or feel about that person.
Why go into all this? The truth is that when we come to the stories of the Bible we do the same thing. The challenge in this approach is that sometimes we miss the bigger picture of what’s going on.
Sometimes, we have to work very hard just to let the story “be.”
The story of Joseph in Genesis is an amazing story of a man with potential in his youth, sold into slavery by his jealous (and annoyed, honestly) brothers, then framed as a rapist and thrown into prison. Then as his reputation as a person who can interpret dreams spreads, he is brought to the palace of power and asked to read the signs of a fat & skinny cow dream flowing through the mind of the King, the Pharaoh.
He discerns the deeper meaning of the dream (there will be 7 years of plenty, followed by 7 years of famine), he quickly attributes his skill to God, and immediately becomes second in command to the King himself.
Throughout the trials and tribulations of Joseph’s life, a refrain is repeated: “…because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” (Gen. 39:23)
However, here’s a point where we often take the story out of its boundaries and make it something it is not.
During the 7 years of plenty, Joseph has Egypt store enough grain for the coming 7 years of famine. A wise move, none can dispute. But then…then something happens that we miss if we do not let the story be what it is.
There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world. (Gen. 41:54-57)
Did you see it?
The entire region in a famine is critical not only because of the absence of food but because of the economy. Agriculture WAS the economy. A famine meant you didn’t eat (crops) but also that you couldn’t earn a living (crops as well).
Famine means poverty. Unless, of course, you have all the grain in the region.
The business folks reading this are all nodding here – yes, yes…the reality of supply and demand…
Suddenly, Egypt has all the food in the region and rather than being generous to people who have no money (remember, crops are currency) they sell the grain. Joseph sells the grain.
They draw in those who have nothing and – this conclusion can’t be avoided – end up indebting people to Egypt. If they want to eat, that is.
Joseph, the man whom God was with and the man who attributed his interpretive powers to God, masterminded a plan where the Egyptians were able to draw the entire region under their thumb.
Including Joseph’s own family.
No doubt you’re uncomfortable at this point if you have a long history with the Bible. Yet this is the story. We must let it lie as it is.
We’d love to think Joseph helped the people around him, generously giving grain, but that isn’t what happened. Or that it wasn't his intention.
We believe Joseph to be a hero, but sometimes our heroes struggle and fail in what seem to be the simplest of tasks. Instead we get a Hebrew people so indebted to Egypt that it creates the scenario where a book like Exodus is actually possible.
Do you see it? Do you see it as it is?
So often we want our stories to be perfect, seamless, heroic tales of life with God and free of mistakes and self-interest. Yet this isn’t realistic. Joseph, the one whom God is with and to whom is promised wealth and success, creates a situation that would lead to the bitter enslavement of the Hebrew people.
But that is the story. It is the one we are given.
We look at our own stories, seeing our own short-term stumbles and long-term languishing and we want to create a narrative that minimizes and excludes those details.
We can’t. We must let the story be.
In so doing we begin to see where God is truly working. We contemplate – meaning we think on things as they are– our lives and understand our graces and our groans, our heights and our hang-ups, our strongholds and our strengths.
When we let the story be we actually see hopeand grace emerge. We train ourselves to live in reality (which we need) instead of fantasy (which we so desperately want).
Today, what would it look like for you to approach the stories of Scripture and let them be what they are? To read them not to confirm the heroes as such, but to see what is truly happening and elevate the power of a story told as it is.
What would it look like for you to do the same with your own story? Perhaps today you need to look realistically at your own life, both in seeing the places where you aren’t perfect and the places where you need to know that you aren’t quite the villain you may think you are.
Chances are, just like Joseph, we are the signposts stating that God is with people who aren’t always operating at the highest and most beautiful level. Yet he is with them all the same.
That is what the story is. We should let it be.