Friday, June 29, 2012

Some Notes on Genesis 45:21-50:26

A main focus of both the Jacob and Joseph material is God’s unfolding of this portion of his plan of salvation for the whole world, the goal being the redemption of all creation and the undoing of all the evils recorded in Genesis 3-11.  With the call of and promises to Abraham in 12:1-3, the plan is set into motion.  Jacob and Joseph represent its continuation with chapters 12-50 as a whole telling us about the beginnings of God’s plan to undo 3-11.  Genesis is thus always forward-looking, anticipating the next and final stages of God’s plan, and backwards-looking, remembering God’s promises and his original creation intentions to give life and blessing.  This wider perspective gets played out throughout the stories of the patriarchs and recurs throughout the historical writings of the Old Testament. 
Life and blessing and salvation or rescue from God, however, are always available in the present even if only imperfectly in the present time.  In chapters 45-50 of Genesis we see just this work of God, anticipating the final redemption, already manifested in his dealings with Jacob and his family.  As part of his plan to bring that great redemption, God has chosen a particular family to make into a nation for himself as a vehicle to move his plan forward and bring redemption, life and blessing, to all nations. 
In Genesis 3-4 we see a broken relationship between God and humans but also between humans and humans.  Cain, the older, kills his brother Abel, the younger, in his jealousy.  This fallenness manifesting even within the human family has been manifested again in Jacob’s own family – the family which is to be part of the solution is itself also part of the problem, as the nation of Israel will learn again and again throughout their history. 
45-50 shows us, however, that it is God’s plan to heal that breach (the reunion with the brothers heals the separation through guilt, the reunion with the father heals the separation through grief) – this time, the plans of the older to kill the younger brother are transformed in God’s hands and turned into blessing rather than curse, unlike the case of Cain.  The sin of Cain is in some sense undone in the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers.  God’s plan and promises are not simply for the future but bear fruit in the present as well.  He can use the evil purposes of fallen humanity to further his plan to redeem them (Romans 8:28) – like Jesus, Joseph was handed over for God’s greater purpose.
God’s promises and plan always win out ultimately, since God is the one in ultimate control.  It is his desire not to complete wipe out all of humanity, but to preserve life and bless humanity in redeemed form.  45:7 describes God as preserving a “remnant” (She’erit), a concept common in the Ancient Near East and throughout the Bible, emphasizing continuation of life in the form of a remaining group.  In the Old Testament (especially Isaiah), this notion of a remnant often has an emphasis of faithfulness to God and a vehicle of blessing – it is in the form of the remnant that Israel will survive its Exile and the nations of the world will themselves be preserved by God in the form of remnants faithful to Yahweh, the idea being that God’s people as a whole, embracing all nations, will be the form in which humanity will survive and receive blessing and redemption from God.  The preservation of the remnant is how God saves the human race.  Through Joseph, the remnant has been preserved, not for the last time (in fact, his adoption and blessing of Joseph’s may be in part motivated to preserve Joseph in the form of his sons by guaranteeing that they, though born in Egypt and not in Canaan, are part of the family and hence heirs of God’s promises). 
The blessings of God for all nations through Jacob’s family find their way through the preservation of that family into the nations with which they come into contact.  These nations may not yet achieve any ultimate redemption (though perhaps some do turn to Yahweh), but some aspect of blessing and preservation spill over to them nonetheless – the promises of God are powerful beyond human measure.  God’s saving of Jacob’s family from starvation has resulted in Egypt’s salvation from starvation as well, as imperfect as it may be in either case.  In 47:7 Jacob appears like Abraham in chapter 12 and the nomadic shepherd blesses the powerful king as a spiritual superior – the one who once ungenerously tricked his brother for blessing is himself now a generous source of blessing.  Jacob’s blessings, whether of Pharaoh or of his own sons (or grandsons) here are an expression of the future work of God in history looking forward to the fulfillment of his ultimate plan. 
Jacob is himself, however, also a recipient of the blessings of God’s plan.  Whereas he previously seemed to have lost all hope and despaired of life, seemingly failing to rest in God’s promises in 37:33, 35; 42:36, 38, now in 45:28 all of this is reversed.  God has graciously looked out for Jacob and been faithful even when Jacob seemed to have lost any hope of that.  Jacob himself experiences God’s salvation, a foretaste of the final redemption, receiving Joseph “from the dead”.  In response to this, he has himself become alive from being dead – his spirit, the life-giving principle (see 2:7; 6:17; 7:15, 22), is said to be revived.  After a long hiatus, God once again speaks to Jacob in 46:2-4, affirming that going into Egypt is part of God’s plan to bring salvation and Jacob, strengthened by his revival of hope, hopes in and believes in God’s promises here as well. 
47:29-30 reaffirms Jacob’s hope and trust in God’s promises, his own burial in Canaan looking back to God’s promise of the land and forward to Israel’s return by God’s hand.  Hope here, as elsewhere, seems to be a response to God’s faithfulness to his promises and plan which will ultimately be expressed in the final redemption.  Jacob’s foretaste of this returns him to hope.  The promised return to Canaan, however, will not happen until after his death – for himself, not long after his death, but for the rest of his family not until after a long time under a yoke of slavery.  50:24-25 expresses the same hope in a much later fulfillment by God.  God’s promises require patience and their fulfillment may not be realized even prior to our own deaths, as this emphasizes. 
By contrast with Jacob and Joseph, the other sons of Jacob have failed to trust God’s promises or his plan and so are stuck in their guilt over what happened to Joseph and imagine still that he may harm them, despite the blessings of Jacob.  Joseph, because of his trust in God’s fulfilling of his plan to fulfill his promises and preserve Israel for blessing and for life, rules that their concerns are overruled by God himself, thus completing their reconciliation.  
The changes in our characters and the blessings bestowed on them in 45-50, as we look closely, are expressed in terms that do not dwell as much on the characters’ interior faith or faithfulness or in their own initiative or worthiness or even repentance.  Rather, the force of change in the story and initiation of salvation is always on God’s side.  It is his work alone – Jacob’s family is imperfect and God’s faithfulness to them is not directly dependent on their own faithfulness to him.  As is constantly emphasized throughout the Old Testament, God’s favor of Israel and his relationship to them is based on his grace, not their merit (even in the Old Testament, salvation is not by works, contrary to many popular presentations – obedience to the Law was seen as a proper response to God’s grace and election, not a means to these).

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