Saturday, April 23, 2016

Joseph and How Not to Read the Bible

Seven fat cows and seven skinny cows. Image source.
Children's bible storybooks and Sunday school lessons love the story of Joseph. I fully believe that the main criteria for choosing which bible stories to teach kids is the potential for cool illustrations, and the story of Joseph TOTALLY has that. A rainbow-colored coat. Wild dreams about the sun, moon, and stars bowing down, fat cows eaten by skinny cows.

But in Sunday school, I never heard about what happened after Joseph forgave his brothers and the whole family came to live in Egypt. You can read it here, but the main point is this: because of the famine, the people of Egypt had no choice but to buy food from Joseph [the second-most powerful person in the Egyptian government], and when their money ran out, he made them sell their land and even sell themselves to be his slaves. So then all the people of Egypt became slaves, and the government owned all their land. Except the priests, because they got an allowance from Pharoah and weren't forced to sell their land and themselves.

I had never heard about this until one day, probably when I was in high school, when I was doing my daily personal bible-reading. I was shocked and very confused- it sounds like a terrible thing that Joseph did! The people were desperate and starving and he took advantage of them! And wasn't the food in his storehouses collected from them in the first place, during the seven good years? How is this okay?

Notice that I asked the question "How is this okay?" rather than declaring "This is NOT okay." Because I knew that Joseph was one of the good guys in the bible. People always talked about how Joseph is such a good role model for forgiveness. And also hard work. No matter if you're a slave, or falsely accused and thrown into prison, or whatever, you just need to work hard and be responsible and you'll be promoted and everything will work out.

I read Genesis 47, and what Joseph did seemed to me like a monstrous evil, making victims of a famine into slaves- but that can't be right, can it? Joseph is a good guy. I had been taught to read the bible in terms of good guys and bad guys and simple morality lessons. This story confused me.

I'm thinking about all this because of this post from Fred Clark (the Slacktivist): A generation which knew not Joseph, where he talks about how Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich does not understand the story of Joseph. Joseph was a villian. His exploitation of the Egyptian people is horrifying.
The guy was simply a monster. And it’s baffling that we tend to treat him otherwise — as though he were an admirable, praiseworthy figure — just because his brothers treated him badly, and because he was a snazzy dresser.
The most important line in Clark's post is this:
Kasich, like many white Christians in America, has been taught to regard the story of Joseph as a sentimental devotional fable — Joseph’s brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
YES. American evangelicals teach their kids about the bible by distilling each story, with all its weirdness, into a simple virtue that we should try to follow. David and Jonathan is about friendship. Ruth is about loyalty. Esther is about courage. Abraham is about faith. And yes, Joseph is about forgiveness. As if the bible is straightforward and easy to understand, with obvious "good guys" and "bad guys."

So when I read about Joseph enslaving the Egyptians, I was confused. He was a "good guy", so was this a good thing? But how? Or, if it was a bad thing, why didn't the biblical writer make any comment on how evil it was? If this is an example of what not to do, shouldn't the bible point that out, you know, to teach us?

(As it turns out, the bible stories are not meant to beat us over the head with heavy-handed, impossible-to-miss moral lessons. Unlike "Christian movies.")

Here's another example: when I was a kid, one night I read the story of Hagar and Ishmael- specifically the part in Genesis 21, where there's drama between Hagar/Ishmael and Sarah/Isaac, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. I read this part:
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
... and I cried a little bit. But then I thought, no no no, I'm not supposed to feel sympathy for them- Hagar and Ishmael are bad guys. Clearly I must have been understanding the story wrong, if it made me want to cry when Hagar thought her son was going to die. (My emotions were making me interpret the bible wrong- where have we heard that before...)

(Don't worry, Hagar and Ishmael make it. Umm, spoiler warning, I guess.)

And yes, I'm aware that people in church don't believe the bible's "good guys" were perfect. I often heard about how "isn't it great how we see so many flawed and sinful people, and God can use all of them in his plan". But those were all stories where we see the character suffer the consequences of their sin- like how David raped Bathsheba and then the whole rest of his life, his family members were fighting and trying to kill each other. But what about the passages which describe things which seem very evil to me, but the bible makes no comment on whether it was good or bad, or any consequences that came as a result? It's not presented as a lesson in morality, it's just a thing that happened.

What about when Jacob lied to his father to steal the family blessing? I remember reading that in one of my "daily quiet times" and thinking, wait a minute, Jacob did a very bad thing here! And I was totally confused because I had heard this story many times before- of course they include it in the little-kid bibles because that whole thing about Jacob putting goat skin on his arms and Esau being super-hairy makes for good illustrations. Like... what exactly was the neat and tidy morality lesson that was being presented in Sunday school alongside the drawing of hairy Esau? I seriously have no idea. (Maybe "Jacob wasn't perfect, but God still chose him and did great things with him"? Which, I have some problems with that because it completely ignores Jacob's victims.)

I don't remember anyone ever saying what Jacob did was wrong. And I read the story for myself, and ... wow, what Jacob did was WRONG. But I was confused. Jacob was one of the good guys, right?

Here's another example, the most important example in the whole bible: God. God is supposed to be a good guy, right? So when God orders the Israelites to kill entire cities, we have to believe that it was right for God to do that. (And, oh my god, I just used google to find that bible reference there, and searching "god orders israelites to kill everyone" brings up a TON of apologetics articles happy to explain why it was right for God to order genocide. Disgusting.)

In this method of bible interpretation, not only are we required to see God as "a good guy", we are required to believe God is completely good and never does anything evil. So when we read in the bible about something very evil that God did, we have to come up with some way to convince ourselves that it was actually good. Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.

This is what happens when we read the bible expecting to find simple morality lessons and spiritual wisdom we can apply to our lives. That's not what the bible is. The bible is ancient, foreign, and full of WTF. It's not always obvious that "this person did a good thing" or "this person did a bad thing", and us readers are free to explore the passages from all kinds of different angles, making up our own interpretations and writing fan fiction. (Yes, I write bible fan fiction. I love it.)

It's not supposed to be easy to understand. It's not supposed to be about good guys and bad guys and role models for various virtuous traits. The bible is so much more amazing and complex than that.

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