When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you keep looking at one another? I have heard’, he said, ‘that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.’ So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he feared that harm might come to him. Thus the sons of Israel were among the other people who came to buy grain, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan.
I once read a book about Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights that showed me that the story that I had thought of as a high romance was profoundly formed by political events. It was a book shaped by the ‘great hunger’ of Ireland every bit as much as it was the story of a relationship between Kathy and Heathcliff. I realized how much my own reading of a story had been shaped by popular music and film (Kate Bush, but also Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier) as well as by my own longing for wild romance – and how I had managed to ignore the famine.
Some themes of the story of Joseph have also been marginalised from many of our popular readings. In Western culture particularly, the story of Joseph and his brothers is a family drama, or the story of the personal development of an individual. This seems to us the obvious and natural way to read this story. But it is also a story about politics and poverty, about slavery and oppression, about famine and economic migrants. There are others in the world who can help us read it that way. The story of Joseph is the story of how the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt and how the land of Egypt all came to be owned by Pharaoh alone. This is why Joseph remains an ambiguous character in Jewish tradition. He is not the star of a musical, but the one who helped Pharaoh enslave Israel and impoverish Egypt.
At this point of the story, there is a famine – and a famine is not just a plot device, but an experience and a political reality. It shouldn’t be ignored, just as the famines in the nineteenth century should never have been explained away or exploited, and just as the famines today should never be forgotten.
Oh God, give me grace and imagination to see the world through the eyes of the hungry. O God, give me strength and courage, to hear the voices of the most vulnerable.
O God, give me wisdom and insight, no longer to look only with my own eyes, but to have my vision changed and my perspective shifted, for the sake of all your people. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.