The Funny Side of Grace

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Why did Joseph Punk his brothers?

Friends, it is my joy today to think with you on the subject, The Funny Side of Grace.  I’d like to invite you to turn or swipe with me to the Story of Joseph’s Cup, found in the book of Genesis, Chapter 44 verse 1? [Then he commanded the steward of his house, [“Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the top of his sack.   Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.   As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys.   When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup?  Is it not from this that my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination? You have done wrong in doing this.’”] I wonder, why did Joseph punk his brothers? That is, why did he have the cup placed in his own brothers satchel and falsely reveal them to be criminals, to have them punishable with prison time or potentially execution?

Punk 1

At this point in the story, there’s no doubt which brother is sitting on top: Genesis 45:8 ’he [God] has made me [Joseph] a Father to Pharoah, Lord of All His [Pharoah’s] House, and Ruler of all the Land of Egpyt’].  These are not small titles. Jospeh’s first title here, the Father of God, is likely an honorific title for someone whose such as Jospeh who’s served ‘the God’, the divine Pharaoh, long and faithfully.  It’s like the Queen’s Award, which was given to my Aussie grandma for her work with what she called ‘stroke survivors’, not stroke victims, stroke survivors. Or its like a military badge: ‘well done general for your service to the empire’. The second title, ’Lord of Pharaoh’s House’,  in the English equivalent is, ‘Chief Steward of the King’. This means that he’s not only a civil servant, but he’s the one in charge of the kings personal agricultural estates, which would have been vast. It get’s bigger still. Joseph’s third title, ’Ruler Throughout All the Land of Egypt’, suggest’s he’s the General Minister or the Prime Minister.  So Joseph a top dog, or should I say cat, in the land of the sun. He’s second only to Pharaoh himself.

And let us not forget that Joseph is wielding his power in Egypt of all places, then the most powerful nation of the world. In those days there was two ways of getting the water needed to make the grass needed to feed us animals, whether that be you directly by eating the the grass, such as wheat, or indirectly through you eating the animal that eats the grass: you could relying upon the skies or you could reply upon the river.  When the skies dried up, you were left alone with the rivers. Specifically, you’re left with a delta, which is is the low-lying flat land of a river which causes the one river to split into several, providing the water and fertile soil needed to sustain grass. So in order to survive and thrive you needed access to these deltas.  The Middle East had two main deltas: one at the end of the nile, where Egypt existed, and the other was all the way on the the other side the desert, the one between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the one where the garden of Eden is said to have been, where Babylon existed.  So it came to pass that Egypt and Babylon Emerged as the two great bastions of power in the Middle East, which jostled the smaller nations of the middle east like a tennis ball on a Tennis Court. Egypt’s delta, however, had a more steady flow compared to that of Babylon – remember the tale of Noah’s flood? So in the time of Jospeh, before the rise of king Hamorabi and his code, Egypt rose and stood alone as the greatest power in the world. If you have been a tourist in that part of the world, you’d be familiar with a land that is still dotted with relics that testify to that power.

As for Joseph’s brothers, their scrapping the barrel to make do with whatever Vegemite they can muster. [Genesis 41:53] There was famine in every country, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread. There we go, a large-scale famine except around Egypt’s delta. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.”  And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt.  Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.’] Genesis 42:1-4 [When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another? I love that! You get that the sense that the brothers are looking at one another in the void of an uncertain future, not unlike the vultures of jungle book, and asking ‘what do you want to do?’ I don’t know, ‘what do you want to do?’  I don’t know. Now don’t start that again! ’ 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. These are timid times. Will they grant us an audience? Will they trade?  In those days the Egyptians, an urban people, had a notorious distrust of nomadic, rural peoples, such as these shepherds of Israel. If not, will the sons have enough supplies to get back? Worse still, will the sons fall into slavery for the sake of one of their notoriously grand military and political aspirations? Will other needy tribes attack us while they’re gone?  Jacob deems that all this uncertainty and fear is no place to send forth his weakest.  But he goes ‘all in’ otherwise, sending all his oldest sons, the strength of whatever remains in his household.

 Genesis 42:6: [And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground] They come with the most humble diplomacy with goods to trade and face downward.  They’re not fooled as to who holds the upper hand.

How does Joseph respond? [Genesis 42:7: ’When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him (for he’s aged, dressed as and Egyption, and even speaking to them at a throne’s distance through an interpreter as an Egyptian)…He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land!”  They said to him, “No, my lord; your servants have come to buy food.  We are all sons of one man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.”  But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!”  They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have said to you; you are spies! Here is how you shall be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here!  Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you; or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.” And he put them all together in prison for three days.’ There we have it: punk 1. But why does Joseph punk his brothers?  Why is he accusing them falsely of being spies and putting them in prison?

A little family psychology and history is helpful here. You see, sibling rivalry in the Jacob household had had reached ‘code red’.  Though the brothers share one father, they come from four different mothers, a mixed stock from Leah and Rachael as well as both of their women servants.   Maybe dad got sidetracked on the command ‘go forth and multiply’.  As if that wasn’t enough grounds for tension, Joseph acquires the common trait of younger brothers, small dogs, and the like, of shouting in order to be heard.[(Jospeh said to his brothers) Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” Joseph was born the last of twelve brothers.] [Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me….and the brothers hated him] As older brothers do from time to time to teach their younger siblings a lesson in authority, they hazed him by throwing him down a well.  ‘Let us see what becomes of his dreams’, they said. Another time they even thought of leaving him out in the wilderness to die, but decided they’d pass on the problem to one of the caravans passing by and fake Josephs death before their dad.  Joseph ends up becoming a slave in a man named Poitiers’ household.  He furthermore ends up a criminal, as he was falsely accused of making advances on Potifer’s wife.  So when Joseph remembers his brothers, he is not without reason for trauma in his mind and anger in his heart.

[Genesis 41:51: Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.”  The second he named Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.” When Joseph is finally released from prison, as Pharaoh deems him, his dreams, his wisdom useful for running the granaries as Chief Steward, which is an expanded role which he rose to become in Potifers household, and he begins to build his own fruitful family, he deems that perhaps its best to just forget all the pain of my past and move on from here in his new Egyptian home.  He feels this so strongly that he brands it into the names of his first sons.

Moments later, as if by the humor of God, who shows up on his doorstep? His brothers! And he punks them by accusing them falsely of being spies and throwing them into prison. Why?  Was it because he’s mind and heart and will is stuck in the serious world of anger? Or something else? We’ll see as the game continues.

Punk 2

[Genesis 42:18: ’On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God:  if you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here where you are imprisoned. The rest of you shall go and carry grain for the famine of your households,  and bring your youngest brother to me. Thus your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they agreed to do so.] He takes it one step further [Joseph then gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to return every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. This was done for them.] What’s he up to?

[Genesis 42:26: They loaded their donkeys with their grain, and departed.  When one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money at the top of the sack.  He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in my sack!” At this they lost heart and turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” Again, why does Joseph punk his brothers? 

Punk 3

A famine yet again hits their native land and the brothers are forced to return to Egypt and Joseph for bread. [Genesis 43:16: When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, “Bring the men into the house, and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the men are to dine with me at noon.”  The man did as Joseph said, and brought the men to Joseph’s house.  Now the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph’s house, and they said, “It is because of the money, replaced in our sacks the first time, that we have been brought in, so that he may have an opportunity to fall upon us, to make slaves of us and take our donkeys.”  So they went up to the steward of Joseph’s house and spoke with him at the entrance to the house.  They said, “Oh, my lord, we came down the first time to buy food;  and when we came to the lodging place we opened our sacks, and there was each one’s money in the top of his sack, our money in full weight. So we have brought it back with us.  Moreover we have brought down with us additional money to buy food. We do not know who put our money in our sacks.”  He replied, “Rest assured, do not be afraid; your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I received your money.” Then he brought Simeon out to them.  When the steward had brought the men into Joseph’s house, and given them water, and they had washed their feet, and when he had given their donkeys fodder,  they made the present ready for Joseph’s coming at noon, for they had heard that they would dine there.’] [They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. When they were seated before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, the men looked at one another in amazement…So they drank and were merry with him.] 

Whew!  [Genesis 44:1: Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the top of his sack.  Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.  As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys.  When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup?  Is it not from this that my lord drinks? (Just as they are lulled into the muse that everything is okay, God is in heaven and I am on earth and all is fine, Joseph punks them again.) Does he not indeed use it for divination? (Ha. he even invokes the weightiness of religion. Besides the tremendous cost of such a silver cup in those days, it was the very cup or bowl used for divination, which was said to have held the secret power for challenging the future, spirits, sometimes even life and death itself) You have done wrong in doing this.’”] The game continues. [Genesis 44:6: When he overtook them, he repeated these words to them.  They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing!  Look, the money that we found at the top of our sacks, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan; why then would we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house?  Should it be found with any one of your servants, let him die; moreover the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”  He said, “Even so; in accordance with your words, let it be: he with whom it is found shall become my slave, but the rest of you shall go free.”  Then each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each opened his sack.  He searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.  At this they tore their clothes. Then each one loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.] He punks them again! But why does he punk these poor souls?

The Reveal

[Genesis44:14: Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house while he was still there; and they fell to the ground before him.  Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that one such as I can practice divination?”  And Judah said, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; here we are then, my lord’s slaves, both we and also the one in whose possession the cup has been found.” But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the one in whose possession the cup was found shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father.]

But Judah steps forward to offer what is the longest speech found in Genesis: [Then Judah stepped up to him and said, “O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are like Pharaoh himself. My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him…. and so on. ] The joke is no incidental thing. It was the joke alone in which all the lies, all the deceit, all the rancor, came tumbling down to reveal the truth.

[Genesis 45:1: Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.] The Joke is not some incidental thing.  Jospeh forgives his brothers. but how could you ever communicate that you forgive them?  If you just forgive them, theres still me, as the forgiver, and them as the forgiven.  There’s still superiority thinking.  Jospeh, however, uses a joke to reveal the funny side of Grace.   It’s the joke that makes them all five year olds again, that breaks down the walls of hostility and laugh in accord with God’s gracious truth.

Scholars of humor, a paradox I know, usually divide humor into three types:

  1. Superiority Humor. Superiority humor is Thomas Hobbs’s dictum: ‘the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly”.  That’s a long, boring, academic way of saying a joke is a funny because its not funny for that person.  How did the New Zealender find the sheep in the long grass? Very good.  Why are murder records in Tasmania so hard to solve?  Because their are no dental records and all the DNA matches.  How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb.  O never mind us, we’ll just continue working away in the dark.  How do we know the teeth brush was invented in Queensland? Because anywhere else and it would have been called the teethbrush. Superiority humor is a laugh because i’m up here in power and you’re down here in weakness. This captures something of the spirit of Jospeh’s punk.
  2. Release humor.  Release humor a product of the the psychoanalysis’s, Herbert Spencer and Sigmond Frued.  In The Physiology of Laughter, Spencer suggests that humor is a type of ‘hydraulic’ dispossession of nervous energy, whereby pent-up energy ‘must expend itself in some way or another.’  Freud develops the theory in his book Jokes and the Relation to the Unconscious, where he upholds that humor is the saving of emotional energy (namely sexual and hostile energy) whilst releasing psychic energy through laughter.  Release humor is the happy hour just after a long day of work.  It is me and my friend Uri in a Chapel in Oxford, high Anglican, where the choir and us are singing a hymn and the note gets higher and higher, and we struggle to keep up, and I look towards my friend who looks back and me, and we are overcome by fits of laughter.  It is Sarah who is confronted by these strangers (or where they angels? Sometimes it hard to tell them apart!) who raise the notion she’ll have a baby.  Sarah and her womb, we read, is ‘as good as dead’.  She’s old. When the strangers speak of her having a baby, how does she respond, as she reminisces of all the times they’ve tried and failed at this most basic task?  She laughs.  Well, it seems that God has a sense of humor too, for God grants the reveal of the joke by giving Sarah a child.  And what does she called the Child? Isaac, which means in the Hebrew ‘laughter’. It is the Christian holiday of Martis Gras.  Marty gras emerged in Christian Europe when people started celebrating a day of opposites: men would dress up as women, and woman would dress up as men, and they’d put pope hats on their pigs. The church of the time, not always without humour, actually saw the merits of the holiday and sanctioned this day of comic release. Perhaps there a touch of release humour with Jospeh’s cup
  3. Incongruity humour. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant says “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”.  In other words, less categorical and less imperative words, humor says, ‘I’m going to view the problems of the world through a background picture that suggest’s its not the end, but just a small moment, and because of this I can laugh and these relatively insignificant moments’. For Kant, this is the most transcendent, most sublime, the highest form of humor.

In the bible it is also, by far, the most common type of humor. It is God pointing out his several creations of asses in the book of Job, ‘

Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,

to which I have given the steppe for its home,
the salt land for its dwelling place?

It scorns the tumult of the city;
it does not hear the shouts of the driver.

It ranges the mountains as its pasture,
and it searches after every green thing.

“Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will it spend the night at your crib?

Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes,
or will it harrow the valleys after you?

Will you depend on it because its strength is great,
and will you hand over your labor to it?

Do you have faith in it that it will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?

“The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.

For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground, 

forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.

It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;

because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.

When it spreads its plumes aloft,[c]
it laughs at the horse and its rider.

It is God’s humor in the Psalm 37, ‘the wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming’.  It is Jesus comparing Solomon to the ‘the lillies of the field’.  It is the woman wisdom at the end of Proverbs who can look at the business and family ventures of her future and, what, ’laugh at the days to come’.

Incongruity humor is Jospeh’s humor, is it not? [Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.]  Joseph punks his brother not because his head and heart are stuck in the serious world of anger, revenge, and competition, which are the cornerstones of superiority or release humour, but because he’s built his house in the funny world of Grace. 

Conclusion

The religious and political world is full of people who may speak of some gospel in abstract, about grace, about unconditional love in the abstract, but do not embody such grace, do not bring it down to earth.  Inwardly such hearts are serious because they are solemn and even angry at the shortfalls of oneself and others. Why? Because they fail to recognize the penultimate.   If we’re truly trying to portray divine sublime truth, I would go so far as to say we need a light heart.  If we’re trying to cannot organize a good society, but  instead censor the laugh, we do not have a good society, a happy society.   I would go so far to say that if do not have sense of humor, a light heart, it’s a sign that we do not really understand the Gospel of God’s grace.

May you go in the light spirit of God.

Amen.