For the week of December 4, 2004 / 21 Kislev 5765
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 - 3:8
The Bible Is Not Always Easy To Understand
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. (Bereshit / Genesis 37:3,4)
Joseph is one of the most complex biblical characters. In him we find someone highly attuned spiritually. He knew great favor, opportunity and success, yet was also rejected, persecuted, and oppressed. His great impact on the world of his day was foretold through a series of dreams he had, yet he in no way anticipated the difficult road he would have to face.
There is something about Joseph that I find difficult to understand. There seems to be two ways to view his character. I have heard it said on many occasions that he was one of the only people in the Bible of whom we have no account of wrongdoing. Joseph, according to this view, is an all-round good guy, who was extremely spiritual. In fact his godliness was the sole source of his troubles. Other people just couldn't handle such a godly man. Even when his own brothers mistreated him, his heart remained true to God, desiring only their best.
More recently, I have heard another way of looking at Joseph. While he was spiritually gifted and favored by his father Jacob and God, he was actually a spoiled brat, who used his place of favor to his advantage. He may have been looking forward to taking revenge on his brothers one day and came close to doing just that when they came to him in Egypt years later looking for food. If God hadn't broken his heart for them the story of the people of Israel may have turned out very differently.
I can't provide you with a correct understanding of Joseph. I don't think I need to. In fact I think the lack of clarity we encounter in this and many other Bible stories is intentional.
There are two extremes of Bible interpretation. One extreme is to insist that each and every passage must be understood in one particular way. This approach claims that each passage has only one intended meaning. Any discussion regarding a particular passage is an attempt to get to that meaning. Those who hold this view have a tendency to be dogmatic about their interpretations, at times even denying that their understanding of a passage are interpretations at all, claiming that they are simply stating the obvious intention of the passage.
The other extreme states that each biblical passage may be interpreted in many different ways. According to this view, it is more important that readers discover what a passage means to them than to determine what the writer of the passage might have intended when it was originally written. For these people the meaning of a passage can change from day to day from circumstance to circumstance.
I don't believe the most helpful approach to biblical interpretation is found in either of these two extremes. First, I do believe that the Bible is written with intention. God moved upon human authors to write what he intended. The Bible is not a mystical collection of disjointed spiritual sayings. It is an account of different people's encounters with the God of the universe, and his communication through many of these people. What God said in times past provides us with the basis of understanding of how we are to relate to him and to life in our own day.
How the Scriptures are to be understood is not based on our preferences or creative imaginations. We need to understand them based upon what they actually say and mean within their own context.
At the same time we need to avoid oversimplifying the Bible. While there are many simple and straightforward passages, there are also others which are very profound and complex. When we encounter a complex passage, it should not put us off, but encourage us to take the time to engage that complexity.
Joseph's life was complex and confusing as he struggled to understand what was happening to him. Grappling with the account of his life and its complexity can help us deal with the complexities of our own lives.
Life is complex and requires great wisdom. Trying to live through a set of simple life principles isn't adequate. I thank God how the Scriptures manage to capture the essence of life's complexities. As I struggle to understand what God is really saying through his written word, he helps me to face life for what it really is.
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