You have to be careful about what you read in the Bible. Just because Jacob has two wives and Solomon a thousand, doesn’t mean that we are allowed to practice polygamy. Jesus never wore a mask, that doesn’t mean that I don’t need to. As one seldom sung hymn puts it, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.” (Once to Every Man and Nation – James Russell Lowell) I have come to believe that God is the God of change, history, and progressively expanding ethics. God constantly seeks to teach each nation and every human being to be more just and compassionate. God nudges us forward. The moral code of one generation is meant to be superseded by the next. This doesn’t mean that I have abandoned the Bible. On the contrary, I am pulled into it. I seek to read its stories more and more deeply day by day. I hope to gain greater and greater sensitivity to what the Holy Spirit is saying today.
Take for instance the dismal story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. (Genesis 37) On the surface, Rueben seems to save the day by talking the other brothers out of murdering Joseph. It also makes financial sense to sell Joseph rather than wasting him. The men take a vote. Everything is done according to the laws of the day. It can’t be wrong, it’s in the Bible.
When I first read this story, I interpreted it as an “all’s well that ends well” story. I was raised Presbyterian and it seemed natural to say, “sure Joseph got beat up and was made a slave, but by sending him to Egypt, God put him in the position to save many people from starving.” Some people in the Bible seem to be predestined to do wrong things, and then on Judgement Day, taken to the woodshed for their sinful choices. Others are made to suffer in silence until God rescues them and makes them great. This reading ignores the plain reading of the text. Like us, the people of the have free will and struggle with daily dilemmas in much the same way as we do. If you make a bad choice, the next day an even worse choice will be easy to make. Evil is addictive. What can save us from years of selfish habits? Nothing but the grace of God.
Earlier in Genesis, we read how Jacob’s childhood was miserable because his father, Isaac, showed favoritism, preferring Jacob’s older brother Esau. Then Jacob becomes the father of 12 boys and perpetuates the curse by making Joseph his favorite. The boy is given a coat with long sleeves so that he never has to do any chores. Joseph seems predestined to become a spoiled tattle tell. Then one day, his brothers decide to murder him. The point is, each of us deserves the guilt of our own bad decisions. But, the context of our sin is often the bad decisions made by others. Who will save us from this swamp? God alone.
We all suffer. Often in the midst of our suffering, we discover God’s grace. Joseph was sold into slavery. Imagine his brothers, having beaten him up and thrown him in a pit, see a line of camels on the horizon. “We don’t have to kill him. That caravan is Midianite traders. They always pay top dollar for kid brothers,” one of them says. I sense the Bible is making a statement about racism, slavery, and the mistreatment of immigrants. We do it to our brothers and sisters.
Joseph soon finds himself in prison and unable to help himself. Maybe this is the part of predestination that I still believe. Who saves us? God does. Often it is bit by bit. God gives us the courage to make better choices. To be more compassionate day by day. To turn our hearts to him and receive his love as a balm for all the wounds others have afflicted on us.