We finish Genesis this week and come to the dramatic denouement of the Joseph novella and the Jacob story. Joseph tests his brothers to the limit. Witnessing Judah’s remorse and willingness to sacrifice himself for Benjamin, Joseph is unable to contain himself any longer and reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph is then reunited with his father who issues blessings of various sorts on his sons.
Turning to the New Testament, Matthew takes us through the temptation/testing (apt with Lent a few weeks away) and the Sermon on the Mount. Re-reading Matthew 5-7, I was struck afresh by how Jesus’s teaching is a radical reinterpretation of the law, but never its repudiation. This important chunk of text is one that I hope to return to in subsequent readings and it raised lots of questions I hope to address in the future (see the full list below).
This week’s questions pertain to the purpose of the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50) and the nature of the blessing in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).
Old Testament (Genesis 44-50)
1. Genesis 45:5-8: what is the purpose of the Joseph story?
We can address this question in three ways: narratively (its place in Genesis and the Pentateuch), historically (the importance of this story for those who passed this story on) and theologically (the message the story offers).
First, narratively, the Joseph story connects the story of Moses and the patriarchs. When Exodus begins, Israel is in Egypt. The Joseph story answers the question of why the family of Israel is in Egypt.
Historically, the narrative emphasises the importance of the tribe of Judah. We noted last week that Genesis 37-50 is not simply the Joseph story but one part of a larger narrative: the Jacob story (Genesis 26-50). This explains why we have other brothers appear in the narrative. In some ways, the Joseph novella is the origins narrative of Judah. This is important if we posit that the Joseph narrative was edited and treasured during the times when Judah experienced succesive waves of Egyptian (ca. 612 BC) and then Babylonian invasion (605 BC).
This isn’t to deny that the story contains important historical information from the time of the Hyskos dynasty of the 17th century BC (there is the enbalming for instance, Genesis 50:3, 26 though this might also reflect the seventh century context). Some maintain that the Joseph story was composed in the Egyptian diaspora and treasured and passed down during the time of the later Egyptian and Babylonian invasions, when the story would have resonated greatly. As Konrad Schmid writes, “the Joseph story…presents an option for all Israel, which must be redefined after the loss of sovereign statehood. Its definition of Israel is not in the sense of an independent territorial nation but as a nation bound by a common purpose, a nation that remains united even after the ‘death’ or ‘Jacob'”.
The prominence of Judah highlights the important role of this tribe in the time of the exile. After the terrible sagas with Joseph and then Tamar, Judah’s narrative arc begins to turn. He is rehabilitated when he passes Joseph’s test and offers himself for Benjamin. Judah is then blessed with those memorable words: “a sceptre will not depart from Judah” (49:10-12).
Theologically, the story points to both the sovereignty and the justice of God. What Joseph’s brothers planned for ill, God has turned to good, both by preserving the lives of many throughout the known world, as well as the family of Israel. God’s justice is known through Joseph’s vindication. Surprisingly perhaps, the words of Exodus 34, (“I will punish the sins of fathers on their children’s children”, are not applied to the penitential brothers as they experience forgiveness and mercy.
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God (45:4-8)
And when Joseph’s brothers fear reprisals from their brother after their father’s death, Joseph again reminds them of God’s purposes to use him for the saving of many lives. He also reminds them that judgment and justice are God’s and hints at a future of God’s mercy which Joseph enacts in the present by providing for their families.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (50:19-21)
New Testament (Matthew 4-8:17)
2. Matthew 5:3, 10: what is the blessing of the kingdom of heaven?
The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes (5:3-12). The eight blessings (the last two refer to the persecuted and so can be taken together) can be split in half, with the first four concerning the spiritually and materially needy (poor, mourners, meek or humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness) and the second the wise who pursue justice at great costs (mercy, peacemaking, purity of heart, steadfastness in the face of persecution). It is also interesting to note that the blessings follow a similar pattern to Isaiah 61:1-4.
Do the blessings Jesus confers refer to the state/action described (e.g. being merciful) or does the state described (being merciful) lead to the blessing (being shown mercy)? The substance of the blessings lies in what God gives, or will give (e.g. mercy), though the blessing might secondarily refer to the state or action (i.e. “showing mercy”).
All blessings are followed by future promises except for two, the first and last which are associated with a blessing in the present:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) (5:3)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). (5:10).
What does “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” mean? And why is this present blessing associated with these two beatitudes while the others have a future blessing associated with them?
“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” refers to having a place in God’s kingdom, belonging to and receiving the blessing and protection of God’s reign. It has a clearly present dimension in this verse because, as Matthew has already related, God’s kingdom has come near in the proclamation of the good news that God has arrived on the scene in Jesus, as witnessed through his teaching and healing ministry (see 3:2; 4:17, 23). The good news of God’s reign has present impact, which is particularly good news for those spiritually and materially at the end of their resources. For those persecuted for righteousness’s sake–a reality faced by Jesus and his early community–the present nature of this blessing is a reminder that there is comfort in the here and now despite the horrific circumstances being faced. Far from wishful thinking, this present blessing of the kingdom refers to the very real experience of community and solidarity among the persecuted (a sober reminder to the Western church) but also, perhaps implicitly, the promise that the persecuted Jesus is known in their midst.
The blessing, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” also has a clearly future dimension, and so complements the other future promises given in the rest of the beatitudes. The poor in spirit will know ultimate fulfilment at the end of time. The unjustly persecuted will know the reward of God’s presence (see v11-12 for the future element).
Discipleship Reflection: Echoes of the Fall?
I always enjoy seeing creative connections between the readings. This week features two echoes of the Fall from Genesis 3 (this is not to say that these “echoes” are intended as explicit innerbiblical references). Both texts highlight the gradual undoing of the effects of the fall.
- The first is when Joseph asks his brothers “what is this you have done?” (44:15). , There is a great irony here because the brothers have done nothing: Joseph planted the cup and planned for it to be found in Benjamin’s grain sack. But in another sense, Joseph is asking his brothers to consider what they have done to him. The same question is asked by God of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:13; see also Gen 29:25, the point at which Jacob finds out that Laban has tricked him). The question raises the matter of justice and resounds with the profound consequences of wrongdoing. But there is deeper significance here since what Joseph’s brothers have done unwittingly, is outstripped by what God has done: he provides for the nations through bringing Joseph to Egypt.
- The second echo is when the devil tempts Jesus: “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). Like Genesis 3, the temptation involves food. Both narratives also implicitly feature the seductive suggestion that what God has said is not true. “Did God really say…”. “If you are the Son of God…”. Adam and Eve had been clearly commanded to not eat of the tree of good and evil but fail to obey. Jesus has just been declared God’s beloved son at his baptism (3:17). He stays true to his identity. The temptation Jesus faces is not only to question his identity, but also to use the power conferred by that identity as Son of God to disobey his Father. Surely the problem is not with bread per se, but the fact that he is on a fast. Moreover, there is a contrast being drawn between obeying God’s word and demanding physical provisions. There is a clear echo of the Wilderness narrative here–where the Israelites complained of their hunger and demanded food (Exodus 16), Jesus refuses to turn stones into bread.
List of Questions
- Genesis 44:5, 15: did Joseph actually practice divination?
- Genesis 44: 1-17: what is the purpose of Joseph’s ruse?
- Genesis 45:24: “don’t quarrel along the way”. Is this meant to be humorous?
- Genesis 46:3: why was Jacob fearful of going to Egypt?
- Genesis 47:16: what is the significance of the angel? Which angel is this?
- Genesis 49:10-12: what does this verse mean, especially as Jacob says that he will tell them to what will happen to them (v1)?
- Genesis 49:18: how does this verse fit in with the blessings?
- Genesis 49:28: are all the brothers blessed?
- Genesis 50:3: why is Jacob buried according to Egyptian customs (see also v26 for Joseph)?
- Matthew 4:1: why does the Spirit lead Jesus to be tested?
- Matthew 4:3-10: what are the three tests?
- Matthew 4:18-22: what does this story/episode say about family relations?
- Matthew 4:23: what is the good news of the kingdom?
- Matthew 5:3-12: does the blessing Jesus confers refer to the state/action described (e.g. being merciful) or does the state described (being merciful) lead to the blessing (being shown mercy)?
- Matthew 5:18: so there will be a time without the law?
- Matthew 5:19: what commandments? Torah or Jesus’s teaching?
- Matthew 5:22: is this the punishment for speaking against a brother/sister? Aren’t we all doomed then?
- Matthew 5:23-24: is the onus for reconciliation on the one who needs to ask for forgiveness?
- Matthew 5:38-42: this doesn’t sound very realistic. What does Jesus mean?
- Matthew 5:48: what does it mean to be perfect? What does Jesus mean when he says, “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”?
- Matthew 6:2, 5, 16: “they will receive their reward in full”: meaning?
- Matthew 6:14-15: so is our forgiveness from God dependent on our forgiving others? How?
- Matthew 6:18: what do we make of the language of reward?
- Matthew 6:20: what are treasures in heaven?
- Matthew 6:19-24: what connects these sayings?
- Matthew 6:33: what is the meaning of this verse (“seek first his kingdom…”)?
- Matthew 7:1-2: does judgment work the same way as forgiveness? (See 6:14-15).
- Matthew 7:6: how does this connect with hypocrisy and judgment?
- Matthew 7:7-12: how does verse 12, a commandment about how we treat others, follow on from teaching about asking God for what we need?
- Matthew 7:21-23: are these two verses defining two types of false disciples: false disciples who are nominal, claiming Christ as Lord but not doing anything about it and then, v22, those who do lots of works but don’t know Christ? (if so why are the latter called evildoers?)
- Matthew 7:24: is this a reference to Peter here? What is the point of this analogy? Is it about where we build (rock v sand)? And how does that relate to doing works?
- Matthew 8:3: is this verse saying that healing is dependent on Jesus’ willingness?