A Parable for a Pandemic: Joseph and His Brothers

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

I sat in a gathering the other night, all of us in a large circle, listening to one tell her story.

The group which has been going deep in our understanding of our racial history as a nation for the last couple of years is taking it a step deeper even, going local now. To do so we are inviting those whose experience of our community is likely to be vastly different from our own.

And so it was we spent an hour listening to Virginia as she recounted:

  • What it was to be born and grow up here, the only black child in her class;
  • How her family was part of the ‘great migration’ and how different life was then in Mississippi, where her parents grew up;
  • The ways in which her world and opportunities were shaped by racism, both subtle and obvious, and all the ways it divides;
  • And her yearning for a world where all people are treated alike.

Virginia’s is not an unusual story, I’m sorry to say, but this is what I especially take with me now. She said that when she would go home, wounded by the struggle which was hers in the world here where she was one of so few who looked like her, her dad would ‘go Biblical’ on her.  For instance, he would remind her that we all come from the same parents: Adam and Eve. And he pointed to the story of the Tower of Babel and how that explains the diversity and the divides we experience still.

Now, Virginia’s understanding of scripture may be vastly different from my own, but even so, she was taught from her birth that she was part of a bigger story: one that gives meaning and value and purpose. That larger story we share was and is her story. And it has made a world of difference.

This understanding rests in the background as I find myself struck by this now, that the story of Joseph, his brothers, his father, parallels our own stories and how we can find ourselves in that ancient story, as a result deepening our own understanding of who we are and who God is and our place in the world.

For this age-old story still and always speaks, this one which centers around Joseph the dreamer, the interpreter of dreams.

And yet, this being so, one cannot stay only with the small piece of Genesis which is designated for this weekend.  Indeed, one surely does well to travel back to understand why the scene which plays out before our eyes today holds such depth and meaning.

And so, I do this now, and as I go, I marvel at how we might see ourselves in the events as they unfold.

  • We could go earlier, but for now I begin with Joseph, the favored son, whose central place is all caught up in his father’s love for his mother and for their long wait before he was born.
  • And all the dynamics which played out among his older siblings: their resentment at the fact that the favor bestowed on their younger brother was too exclusive, far too obvious, leaving the rest to know that their place in the order of things was, through no fault of their own, somehow ‘less than.’
  • And Joseph who is uniquely gifted and who only makes things worse in his inclination to flaunt it before his brothers, lifting himself up while putting the others down.

With this alone, the stage is set for everything that follows with all of its struggle and pathos and eventual triumph. But let me pause in each scene for a bit to offer how I hear it now.

As I have said, because of his father’s favor, Joseph held a uniquely privileged place. In addition, when he was young, Joseph knew himself to be gifted, to be sure. And yet he was young and not yet wise. Perhaps there was only one way to interpret the dreams he relayed to his brothers and while in some real sense they would come true, alone they are pretty one dimensional. They do not begin to capture how Joseph’s eventual ‘greatness’ over and against the others would be hard earned. They certainly do nothing to speak of how that elevation would lead to or be the result of his using his best gifts to alleviate the hunger of the known world.

  • And I wonder about us now and I wonder at who we were before two years ago when the world seemed to change. Indeed, today I consider how differently I see the world now than I did then:
    • I consider often now this truth of how connected we all are one to another and how I have been forced to learn again and again so much about leadership and servanthood.
    • I realize how the challenge of these last years has led me to look more deeply to see where and how God is at work in and through and because and in spite of… perhaps as Joseph did in the end in ways he would not have words or hard-earned wisdom for when he still lived under his father’s care.
    • Indeed, I surely hope I know what matters more now than I did when all this began.

And this, how powerfully unexpected it must have been for Joseph to be sold into slavery by his brothers. Do you suppose he did not realize the resentment he was sowing among them? Do you suppose he believed he would always be shielded by his father’s favor?

  • And so for you and for me, for many of us, how in March two years ago, the shutdown came quickly and suddenly we found ourselves (like Joseph) navigating a world we could not control.
    • Should we have seen it coming?  Perhaps.
    • Did many of us also think that somehow we would be shielded from it or anything like it?  Maybe this as well.
    • And no matter where we began, don’t we also now have a sense, if only a small one, of what it is to be enslaved in a way we probably never had before? Yes, also this.
    •  And this as well.  I wonder now how unprepared Joseph would have felt for what came next. I wonder how afraid he must have been. I know I have felt the same, again and again, over the last few years. Most intensely at the start, yes, but still now even today sometimes.

And then the mix of relief and grief Jospeh must have felt as he made his way in Potiphar’s house.  What a wonder it must have been for him to discover gifts he never had reason to know he had before. But still, he was far from home, surely missing all that was familiar.

  • And wasn’t this also true for you, for me as we began to find our way? Still, like Joseph with so much beyond our control, but figuring things out, discovering gifts and a new comfort level in ways and places perhaps we never knew we had or could or would. But all the same, missing what was…

But then the sordid scene with Potiphar’s wife. Where Joseph pays the price once more for having no legal standing, no real voice with which to defend himself.

  • And how many times have you, have I, known ourselves thrown back to that seemingly helpless place again? That place where we have no control over the actions of others, even as we recognize that they are sorting their own ways forward as best they can through this unknown time as well.
    • Through this time, to be sure, too, too many among us have experienced the undeserved brunt of the anger of others, resulting from unhealed wounds old and new.
    • Many, if not most have struggled with the ways in which necessary distance from each other has made it all so much harder to sort through hard things in ways we would have before.
    • Some, maybe all of us, have paid a high price for this in one way or another.

And then, in prison, we see Joseph tapping into his first and best gifts. And while he was hoping it would gain his freedom sooner rather than later as he interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer, still he was forced to wait, for the timing was out of his hands.

  • We know what such waiting is, don’t we? For this wait (or another or others you have also known) has seemed endless.
    • In this time, we would do well, it seems to me, to do as Joseph did.
    • To know, to remember, to be reminded of our best gifts and to lean into them.
    • Recognizing they come from beyond us and are meant to benefit the world in ways we cannot maybe yet imagine, as Joseph would soon discover.

For this is what Joseph had been given and this is all it was, really: the gift of listening deeply. Of paying attention. And of speaking truth no matter how hard it would be for the recipients of that truth to hear. Oh, he had gifts of organization, of discernment, of leadership, surely.  But it all began there in the deep listening and in the wise speaking of words which came from beyond him: truly from the heart of God. And oh, I would expect these are likely gifts you have been given as well. Indeed, I wonder what it would mean for you, for me to simply keep leaning into those gifts today.

And this:

After Pharaoh’s dream played out on the world stage.

After Joseph brought everything at his disposal to ward off a world-wide disaster, ensuring that people near and far would be fed.

After all of this, those who grounded him most in the world. Those with whom Joseph’s history was so inextricably intertwined. They came to him.

It would seem then as we witness the scene before us now and all the previous encounters with his brothers as they return to Egypt again and again. It would seem at first that his childhood dreams came true.

Only not really. For simple human love broke Joseph wide open so much so that his choking tears were no secret to anyone within reach of that heart-wrenching sound. And in the end, Joseph did not, could not do what those earlier dreams might imply when he saw himself lording it over them. Indeed, recognizing that the hand of God was somehow all over this story of brokenness and restoration, defeat and triumph, despair and renewed hope, all Joseph could do then was open his arms to his brothers.

  • And so for you and for me and for all those within reach of this ancient story, I wonder how we will be led to also one day and hopefully one day soon, recognize the hand of God all over our story of brokenness and restoration, defeat and triumph, despair and renewed hope.
  • Indeed, I wonder how God will use this often heartbreaking time to use us to ‘feed the world,’ as Joseph did.
  • And I wonder at what will lead us, equip us, empower us to keep opening our arms wide to those who have hurt us, whose actions have surely done damage to us or to the world as we know it.

I imagine that it will be the lived example and experience of the One who always, always moves toward each one of us with open arms. Don’t you?

So as I said, the ancient story still speaks doesn’t it?

And maybe in ways I never heard before.

Indeed, may this old story and so many others like it which are ours to receive, lend new meaning, understanding, dignity, and hope to our own stories.

As I saw with our neighbor, Virginia, a few nights back, may it also be so for all of us.

  • What does it mean to you to know your own story to be so embedded in these ancient stories?  How does this understanding lend wisdom, discernment, dignity, or hope to you?
  • I am hearing the story of Joseph and his brothers now as a parallel to our own experience over the last couple of years. Are you able to make the connections as well?
  • As you consider this familiar story, is there any part in particular that you resonate with now more than others?




  1. Carolyn says:

    Thank you, Janet. As often happens when God is working within us, this came at just the right time in my life. It is so hard to find hope when the world seems to be crashing in on us.

    The “old stories” have messages for us we need, but often we do not dig deep enough to understand them. We tend to concentrate on the details and miss the message, like with the story of Jonah. The whale overshadows his mission and the saving of 120 thousand persons “and also many animals.”

    Thank you again for a word of hope.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      You are welcome, Carolyn.

      May the ‘old stories’ continue to uplift and guide, strengthen and bring dignity to you and your story. Indeed, may such hope always be yours.

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