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Auditing Trauma: How Ancient Israel Heard Joseph’s Story, Part 2
This is part two of an article connecting the healing effect for war veterans reading The Odyssey and The Iliad and the healing effect for Israel hearing/reading Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50. See part one here.
The story of Joseph offered comfort to Israel through naming their suffering. But equally as important, there was hope in these empathic resonances of trauma. As one example among many, Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim signal God’s grace to redeem suffering: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house,” and, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Gen. 41:51-52). Forgetful and fruitful.
Surely Joseph didn’t actually forget his hardship, nor could Israel expect to. The resurrection did not let Jesus or his disciples forget the nails that pierced his flesh. Rather, the hope birthed from the tomb transforms the memory of trauma into a testimony to God’s grace. And as God made Joseph fruitful, so God promised to make Israel fruitful in Canaan:
“I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and will confirm my covenant with you. You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new. I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” (Leviticus 26:9-13)
YHWH, the God of the covenant, lovingly names the traumatic history of his people with a vivid picture of breaking the yoke which chained them to forced labor. There is something incredibly consoling about telling a sufferer that they did indeed suffer, that what they suffered was unjust and evil, and that God sees it as such. But a sufferer also needs a vision of what can be. It is all too easy for the traumatized to remain stuck in the familiar, no matter how unsafe and painful; thus Israel romanticized the culinary benefits of enslavement (eg Numbers 11). A wounded past clouds our ability to dream of a free future. Because of this, God ordained history so that he could give Israel the stories of Joseph, with all of his suffering, and also all of his glory; with all of his oppression, and also all of his freedom; with all of his weeping grief, and also all of his exuberant joy.
In hearing these stories, Israel was given the chance to “respond to the text from the perspective of their own experience” and so “construct a narrative about their own return” to Canaan. Perhaps we could even say that one way to hear/read Genesis is as “a book group where we put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate.”1
That is how I seek to read Genesis 37-50 for myself. I do not read as a disinterested academic (although that is always a temptation). I have suffered, endured trauma, felt forgotten, been estranged from friends and family, longed for rescue, reconciliation, and redemption, been confused by the surprise of success and its swift disappearance, and wrestled with the doubt of God’s goodness in the seeming constant barrage of evil. In thus entering Joseph’s story, I also see that I am able to do so because Christ has first entered my story. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us and, union with his story of suffering and glory, of cross and resurrection, enables us to have healing encounters with an ancient text.
This empowerment through union with Christ means such reading it is not an isolated, individualistic act, for union with Christ means union with his body, the church. Like Greek epic oral poetry, and Hebrew oral narrative before it, it is important to note the social, dialogical process. This is not just an individual encounter with the text (as valid as that is). Stewart notes that the variety of experiences the veterans bring to the text produce a plethora of reactions and observations, making the group’s dialogue more powerful than any one person could achieve on his or her own. Engaging Genesis should operate along the same lines. For Israel heard this as a nation, a communion of persons with shared experience in the context of each unique personality.
Next time you read through Genesis 37-50, consider what God might say to your own experiences of pain, how he might use the suffering of a Hebrew slave/servant/ruler to heal wounds and lead into a vision of blessing in the reign of the Suffering Servant, God’s Beloved Son.
Quote from Frederick Buechner
“Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”
Which is harder for you, naming pain, or believing God will heal the pain? We need both.
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Stewart, Roberta. Amphora: Ancient Narratives and Modern War Stories: Reading Homer with Combat Veterans, August 8, 2015.