Lesson 12: Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction #BCCSundaySchool2018

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothersObjective
To help class members understand that if we are faithful and obedient, God will consecrate our afflictions for our good.

Readings
Genesis 40-45

Genesis 40-41 takes place in prison, with a butler, a baker, and a candlestick mak— er, I mean, Joseph. The butler and the baker have troubled dreams in their prison cell and wake up sad. Joseph tells the butler that his dream about a three-branched vine that makes grapes for the Pharaoh’s cup means that the Pharaoh will forgive the butler in three days and give him his job back. Unfortunately for the baker, Joseph’s interpretation of his dream about three baskets full of bakemeats that get eaten by birds instead of by the Pharaoh means that the Pharaoh is going to hang the baker in three days. The dreams come true—the butler is forgiven and the baker is hanged.

The butler forgets about Joseph until the Pharaoh has perplexing dreams of his own. In the first dream, the Pharaoh sees a river where seven good-looking and healthy cows are grazing in the meadow. Suddenly, out of the river, a herd of seven awful and sick-looking cows rise up and devour the strong-looking cows (zombie cows). In the next dream, the Pharaoh sees seven really delicious-looking ears of corn on one stalk; but then, behold, seven thin little wretched ears of corn show up and consume the good-looking ears of corn (zombie corn). The Pharaoh is freaked out by these dreams and needs to know what they mean. At this point, the butler’s memory is jogged and he says he happens to know a Hebrew who can interpret dreams.

Enter 30-year-old Joseph. He tells the Pharaoh that the dreams are a warning from God about an imminent seven-year famine that will devastate the land after seven bounteous years. However, if the Pharaoh lays up tons of food storage now, they will have food during the famine and can help the neighboring villages, too. The Pharaoh does just that, plus he gives Joseph a ring from his own hand, really flashy and nice clothing, plus a new name (Zaphnath-paaneah) and a wife, Asenath the daughter of Poti-pherah priest of On. Joseph (now a vizier) and Asenath have two little boys: Manasseh (“For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house”) and Ephraim (“For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction”).

In Genesis 42-45, Jacob’s family is suffering from the famine so he sends ten of his sons (all but Benjamin, Joseph’s brother-by-the-same-mother) to Egypt to purchase grain. Joseph fakes them out and pretends like he doesn’t know them and he doesn’t speak their language. Through an interpreter, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies, but they all plead with him to believe them that they are his servants. Joseph tells them that the only way they can prove that they are not spies is if they bring their youngest brother to him. Compassionately, Joseph also sends them back with plenty of food as well as all the money they had brought with them.

Joseph sort of messes with them for another couple of chapters. They bring him Benjamin, and Joseph feasts with them, giving Benjamin five times the portions of everything. It isn’t until chapter 45 that Joseph sends away everyone but his brothers and then starts crying (loudly enough that the Egyptians hear him from outside) and says, “I am Joseph.” He tells them not to worry about selling him into slavery, because it was all part of God’s plan to help Joseph meet the Pharaoh and save people from the famine (people like his own family).

The Pharaoh was so delighted by all of this that he had Joseph send for Jacob and his family to come live in a beautiful part of Egypt. Jacob was so relieved and happy that Joseph was alive and well that he fainted. The family will be back together again, and, for now, the narrative is filled with joy and thanksgiving.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do we think about these sentiments Joseph makes after naming Manasseh and Ephraim? “For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51), and “For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52). What does it mean for Joseph to “forget toil . . . and all my father’s house,” and to “be fruitful in the land of my affliction”? Have you ever experienced bearing fruit from an affliction?
  • Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery because he argues that this put him in the right place and at the right time. What would have happened had Joseph held a grudge against his brothers? (I guess arguably, Joseph messing with his brothers might have illustrated a bit of a grudge; on the other hand, he may only have been testing to see if his brothers were truly repentant, and that he wasn’t endangering himself by revealing his true identity.) Have you ever experienced forgiving someone else in order to reunite with them? Have you ever been forgiven this way yourself?
  • Much of this story is about how God works through symbolism and narrative interpretation and dreams. As a literature scholar, I particularly appreciate the ways God values an analytical and imaginative mind—someone who can read between the lines and interpret deeper meanings from seemingly simple images or stories. In what ways can we as Latter-day Saints seek to be better interpreters and readers of texts ourselves? How can we practice and hone these creative skills, that we can better “liken [stories] unto us” in a way that helps our own families and communities become stronger, more resilient, and more prepared?
  • I don’t love loyalty tests, and I do have a hard time reading about Joseph making his brothers sweat so much (he is practically gaslighting them at certain points, making them question their own reality and sanity). However, I do appreciate that Joseph weeps repeatedly in these chapters, as he is overcome with emotion toward being reunited with Benjamin especially. How does Joseph exemplify a type of masculinity that is unafraid to express deep and powerful emotions? How does this softness help him to reunite with his brothers (who had once wanted him dead)?

Comments

  1. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful write-up regarding some of the most complex character development on display in the Bible.

    I recall teaching this class 8 years ago, and struggling to reconcile Joseph’s behavior with my mental ideal of how a prophet should behave. Finally, it dawned on me that I needed to shed my pre-conceived notions and take the text at face value. What I found was a script that doesn’t give much insight into Joseph’s mental state during his interaction with his brothers. As your comment illustrates:

    “I guess arguably, Joseph messing with his brothers might have illustrated a bit of a grudge; on the other hand, he may only have been testing to see if his brothers were truly repentant, and that he wasn’t endangering himself by revealing his true identity.”

    the script can support multiple motivations on Joseph’s part. In particular, Joseph’s grudge could be much deeper than I had initially assessed. Joseph had a decade as the Vice Pharaoh during which he could have traveled home to see his family or at the least sent a messenger to let them know he was alive. But apparently, he had no desire to re-establish contact. This told me that Joseph had not forgiven his brothers, and perhaps he was angry, even vengeful, when they came begging for food. If that were the case, his behavior in ch 42-43 was a complex deception designed to entrap these would-be murderers. It’s not until Joseph sees Judah volunteer to take Benjamin’s place in prison, that Joseph’s anger is breached. Overwhelmed by this display of compassion that indicates Judah has changed–perhaps as a result of his interaction with Tamar– Joseph breaks down sobbing and spontaneously reveals his identity.

    I admit that this is only one take on Joseph, and that I’m reading quite a bit into the text, but allowing Joseph to be a villain (briefly) makes his final reconciliation with his brothers that much richer.

  2. “I don’t love loyalty tests, and I do have a hard time reading about Joseph making his brothers sweat so much (he is practically gaslighting them at certain points, making them question their own reality and sanity).”

    I have a harder time reading about his brothers plotting to kill him and then eventually settling on ‘just’ selling him into slavery instead. A bit of gaslighting seems to be the least that they deserve.

  3. Back in the day when I was a useful professor instead of a useless administrator, I taught the story of Joseph in a World Literature for non-majors class alongside the Odyssey. The contrast worked marvelously, because 4/5 of the Joseph story is structured like a Greek tragedy. He is betrayed, he observes his culture’s most fundamental moral values, he is given a gift by the gods, and his betrayers/brothers fall into his power. According to the Greek formula, all that he has to do is massacre them in a sea of blood and then face the wrath of the Furies for killing his own brothers.

    Of course, this doesn’t happen. After the teasing (which is a dramatic necessity, not a theological one), he forgives them and they are reconciled. And this makes all the difference.

  4. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I am still thinking through the implications of these scripture narratives, and I’m grateful for these perspectives. Thanks, Ryan, for bringing up Judah. I regrettably skimmed over those details, and I’m glad your comment brings them to the table.

    Mike, I had never thought of this as following the conventions of a Greek tragedy before, and this really alters my interpretation of Joseph’s reaction to his brothers. It is far more generous of a response than a bloodbath would have been. Thank you so much for chiming in.