“Now a New King…”

Written by Ted Troxell : May 20, 2008

The story of Joseph is usually told as a hero tale, and in general it wants to be read that way. We might interrogate it for more meaning — there might be some significance to the roles of the other brothers in light of the later tribal relations that probably color the telling of the story — but the ‘hero tale’ designation seems to hold. Joseph is marked as a kind of seer, lauded for his moral certitude in the face of temptation and his placid acceptance of his fate. The story, like many such stories, has an ironic twist at the end where everything predicted comes to pass in an unexpected way and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except they don’t. The opening lines of Exodus add another twist, a dark and almost deconstructive turn that throws a wrench in our expectations and shatters the fairy-tale ending. Without getting into speculations about who redacted what and when, Exodus 1:8 unsettles the usual reading of Joseph’s story: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This sets the stage for YHWH to deliver and claim the Hebrew people in a formative act of liberation; in some ways, the import of Joseph’s story is that it gets them to Egypt. But it is more than a narrative device or literary convention. Read in light of verse 8’s unsettling revelation, we can see that Joseph, though he meant well, leveraged the short-term survival of his family against the future of his people.

It is impossible to say what Joseph should have done — the story has to end the way it does, for any number of reasons — but his acceptance of privilege under Pharaoh, this sidling up to power that he uses to his family’s advantage (and understandably so), results in betrayal, in tragic loss, becoming the dark ground against which the figure of redemption and liberation will be defined. All it takes for Joseph’s collusion with the superpower of his day to turn ugly is a regime change, which is not so much a random stroke of bad luck as an inevitable part of life in empire.

In a way, we should see this coming. Joseph’s life is full of circumstances wherein some sort of privileged status turns around to bite him. He rises to prominence in Potiphar’s household in a sub-plot that often serves to underscore a Protestant work ethic: be diligent, and you might just be put in charge of the whole operation. On the dark side, you might also get seduced by the boss’s wife and thrown in jail. Or the privileged status — the technicolor dreamcoat and all that — that raises the ire of his brothers and lands him in slavery to begin with. Sit with this thread long enough and you begin to wonder if maybe if Joseph isn’t really a tragic figure, who never quite learns. The happily-ever-after ending is not just subverted by the opening lines of Exodus, it’s unmasked as false to begin with.

This thread is present in other parts of Genesis as well. Abraham is called out of Ur of the Chaldees, which have been Sumeria and thus the height of civilization at the time. Regardless, Abraham is called out of a settled existence to become a nomad, wandering in the direction of God. Along the way, none of his compromises with the powers-that-be seem to turn out well; he does much better when he simply trusts God for provision and resists brokering deals for protection or support. The Babel narrative is one in which an attempt at civilizational grandeur is thwarted in favor of a diasporic existence, quite possibly an allegory of exile, as is the creation narrative itself. We don’t have time to go into it here, but whether you read covenant and exile as a recapitulation of creation and fall, or creation and fall as a redactionary foreshadowing of what YHWH’s children would learn in exile, the structural similarity is striking.

The life and ministry of Jesus, the message of Jesus and the message that is Jesus, confirms what Yoder calls the “Jeremiac turn”: that the life of diaspora in exile is not an unfortunate cul-de-sac but a new way of being God’s people. A way that eschews power and privilege, seeking solidarity with those for whom such formulations are out of reach. A way that identifies with the “least of these”, knowing that there is always a base of the lowly and the meek on whose backs the burden of injustice rests. A way that seeks to tabernacle in the negative space of empire.

The story of Joseph, read through the lens of this new way, becomes a cautionary tale: when we sidle up to power, when we seek to claim for ourselves the benefits of privilege, or fail to interrogate it even when it seems to be providential, we lose something precious. Sooner or later, the situation will turn and we will stand, as we always do, in need of redemption.

Author Bio:: Ted Troxell is a PhD student at Michigan State University researching Christian radicalism.

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    Ted...I love this article. I've never heard that sort of interpretation of Joseph's tale...where could I read more on this?

    Over the past few years I've begun to read the OT differently. It isn't so much that I no longer see it as inspired, per se, but I definitely don't read it in the same way that I read the NT. I'm convinced that most of what Christians read out of the OT is almost exactly opposite of what the OT teaches.
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    That's....really interesting. I'm not sure it's so much a point of the passage as perhaps an assumption, which is why so many miss those undercurrents.

    I'll have to go back and read Genesis myself, but that definitely jives with later tales in Kings. Ahaz leans on Assyria, the current empire, for military support when the prophets call on him to lean on God. Hezekiah rebels, breaking the treaty and is rescued barely. Rinse, repeat; on a small and a large scale there is a distinct theme going on here. I find Jeremiah particularly interesting: calling for capitulation to the enemy and openly advocating treason. It puts his initial calling in a new light:

    "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you" says the LORD.
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    Mark -- Yoder and Brueggeman are always good places to go. There's a collection of Yoder essays called _The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited_ that is very interesting in this light.

    hewhocutsdown -- I think you're right about the distinct theme, especially if we read the OT in light of what Jesus confirms and disconfirms in the trajectory of God's people.

    The typical evangelical take on the OT is a kind of pro-Constantinian reading inspired (at least in part) by the Puritans. If we look at how the NT interprets the OT, we see the undercurrents given interpretive priority.

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    This is a brilliant analysis. It reminds me too of Samuel's lecture to the people about kingship. Short term benefits (you won't be serving the Ammonites), long term misery (you will be serving the king).
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    I LOVE alternative readings like this! Well written, too. I don't know how many times I've been told that Joseph and Daniel are examples as to why Christians should be involved in the government.


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