Ashley Hibbard lives in Canada and has been studying for the last few years with Trinity College, Bristol, towards a PhD in the Old Testament. She will be defending her thesis shortly.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
I have spent much of the last few years examining several narrative and legal texts, among them, Joseph’s sale by his brothers in Genesis 37 and the law against life-stealing (human trafficking) in Deuteronomy 24:7. I have become convinced that one of the purposes of Genesis 37 is to provide a real-world example of why a law not to sell your brother is necessary.
In one of my earlier presentations of this material, an individual pushed back quite firmly and said something to the effect of, “It is well established that the purpose of Genesis 37 is to explain how the chosen family ended up in Egypt, setting up for God’s great salvific act of Old Testament history.” And I didn’t quite know what to say. I felt both that he wasn’t wrong, but that I wasn’t wrong either. As I’ve rolled the incident around in my mind for the last few years, I think I’ve figured out the problem. We were talking about different stories.
This is an error that sometimes occurs when interpreting biblical stories. We are not necessarily careful to adjust out interpretation based on the parameters of the narrative. I had been talking about Genesis 37, the narrative of Jacob’s family dysfunction leading to Joseph’s sale by his brothers. And while the individual who was challenging me technically knew that, I think he was actually talking about the story of Joseph that occurs in Genesis 37-50. Genesis 37 must be interpreted differently if it is read as a self-contained narrative than if it is read as the first chapter of the Joseph story. Genesis 37 is a self-contained narrative, and it is quite a horrible one, but that is an easy thing to forget for those of us who have known the story of Joseph’s life for as long as we can remember.
At the end of Genesis 37, it seems like Joseph’s brothers have won. They have stripped him literally of his robe, and thus symbolically of his identity. They have thrown him in a pit as so much refuse, then hauled him back out when they realise that their garbage is worth some money in their pockets. They have succeeded in their endeavour to remove Joseph from the family. We don’t yet know that God is with him (Gen 39:1, 23), or that he will be raised to the highest echelons of political power in Egypt (Gen 41:40) or that God has a plan to bring good out of this horror (Gen 50:20).
Not only do we make this error in interpreting stories, but too often we make it in the lives of people who suffer in some way, and perhaps especially for those who have been oppressed or victimised. “God has a wonderful plan for your life” or “God can redeem your pain” are absolutely true theological statements. These are great and necessary truths that, when rightly appropriated, may give God’s people strength in suffering, but at a certain stage they are pastorally inappropriate. If a person has just fallen off a ladder and broken their arm, we don’t run up to them and say, “Don’t be upset; you’ll heal!” We find them help, treat their symptoms, try to comfort them. Or to put it another way: perhaps the adage, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming” neglects the pain of Friday. Perhaps we haven’t dwelt long enough in the land of pain, preferring to bypass it as quickly as possible for the sake of redemption, restoration, and glory. But glory is not reached by bypassing pain; it is reached by walking through pain. And when we cannot sit with people in their horror, in their pain, without instantly looking forward to future healing, we violate the parameters of a life-story into which we have been called to minister. While mis-read narrative parameters can lead to errors in exegesis that we ought to avoid, mis-read parameters in a life-narrative can cause us to fail to meet a person’s need for deep compassion and empathy that meets them in their suffering.