Pete Wilcox, Living the Dream: Joseph for Today. London: Paternoster, 2007.
When the Anglican Dean of Liverpool, Pete Wilcox, looks at the stories about Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37-50, he sees jealousy, pride, ambition, rivalry, and fear. “Joseph wrestles with the issues of money, sex and power,” he writes, and the patriarch lived in a time of crisis when the whole world as he knew it faced famine and starvation. But this is also a story about the Church, specifically the Church of England, Wilcox tells us, as his church struggles with decline and disunity. “Lessons for today” serve as bookends to this wonderful little book, as Wilcox uses Joseph’s story to emphasize the need to trust in God despite our circumstances and to bear with each other in our weaknesses. Joseph’s dreams “might easily have led him either to despair of God in anger and bitterness, or to forsake his obligations in indolence and complacency”, he writes, and notes that “by the same token, Joseph is a challenge to the church today in the face of a potentially difficult future, to combine trust in God on the one hand with courageous action on the other.” But the vast majority of the book is dedicated to an insightful chapter-by-chapter commentary on Genesis 37-50. Considering that the back cover carries recommendations from such theological heavyweights as Rowan Williams, Alister McGrath, Walter Moberly, and Charles Taliaferro, it is surprising how readable Wilcox’s commentary is. He has dispensed with footnotes, ignores source criticism, and rarely mentions the scholarly literature on the topic, which is not to say that he is unaware of it, just that he chooses not to bother us with such distractions.
One of the main themes of the book is character development. Joseph begins as “a spoiled and arrogant individual”, but after being sold by his brothers he starts noticing that God matters, confessing his faith first to Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:9), then to the baker and cupbearer (Gen 40:8), and finally before Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:16). Once he is in prison he begins to take notice of others: “The self-absorbed teenager has given way to a self-aware adult, apparently more concerned with the predicaments of others than with his own. When he asks Pharaoh’s officers, ‘What’s the matter?’, there is no indication that he had any idea dreams were involved.” But he is far from perfect, and as he pleads with the cupbearer not to forget him “he seems to lose sight of what he had earlier seemed to know so fully – that the future belongs to God, and that he himself has been entrusted with a mission from God”.
The extent of his weaknesses appear later in the story when he bullies, manipulates and terrifies his brothers. When Jacob dies, his sons still worry, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did him?” (Gen 50:15). Wilcox writes, “it is a sad moment in the story. It is sad firstly, because the brothers had evidently been living in Joseph’s presence for seventeen years, without any assurance that he had forgiven them. It is sad, secondly, because they are not able to approach him directly and in their own voice, as it were. They not only send him a message (which in itself implies a certain continued distance between them and him), but they feel the need to put their please in Jacob’s mouth. And it’s sad because …. they call Jacob, ‘Your father’. Not ‘our father – yours’. The word seems loaded with all the baggage of Jacob’s favouritism towards Joseph. Those wounds went deep.”
Living the Dream overflows with tiny but important observations that will transform how you read this text, but the other character I want to focus on here is Judah. After the brothers sell Joseph, Judah sets out on his own. He “left the rest of his family to settle close to his friend, Hirah the Adullamite”, Wilcox points out. “How distant this was from his family, and how far it was a reaction to the events in Chapter 37, we are not told. Perhaps he could not bear to live in a house dominated by his father’s grief.” He quickly loses the plot. He refuses to marry his third son to his widowed daughter-in law Tamar and then sleeps with her thinking that she was a prostitute. When he learns that she is pregnant he orders her burned to death without even listening to her side of the story. But she sends him his seal and staff with the words “You don’t recognize it, do you?” (Gen 38:25) – the same phrase the brothers had used when they showed Jacob his son’s bloodstained coat (Gen 37:32). Wilcox reflects: “Recognition is a recurring theme in the whole narrative. And Judah responds (with self-recognition) in the most profoundly penitent words: ‘She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah”, he says. Christian theologians have always argued that the knowledge of God goes hand in hand with a true knowledge of oneself.” Repentance changed Judah, and later in the story he shows himself willing to sacrifice his life for that of his youngest brother (Gen 44:16-34) and it is Judah – the fourth eldest son – who represents his family in Egypt (Gen 46: 28). Penitence matters, and learning from one’s weaknesses can be a great blessing.
Artworks by James Tissot (1836-1902).