Genesis chapter 37 begins the story of Joseph, a story rich with twists and turns and surprising reversals. It is yet another story in which the last becomes first, the outsider becomes the saving agent for people who are in distress. It is a tale that concerns God’s unseen providential care that has the power to transform human circumstance and human prospects. It is a story, as Psalm 105 later reflects upon it, that lays out the hidden ways in which God works through our trials and temptations that largely go unnoticed. Like Israel, and like Peter as he steps out of the boat onto the raging sea in Matthew 14:22-33, the Joseph story invites us to look back upon past events to offer assurances in present circumstances that there is an unseen presence, an unseen hand, shaping the end of the story in ways we can never imagine.
At the time, Joseph is the youngest of Jacob/Israel’s sons, and the first son of the dearest of his four wives, Rachel. Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph after a similar and long period of barrenness like her ancestors Sarah and Rebekah had also experienced. Among the other eleven of Joseph’s brothers it was perceived that he was his father’s favorite. To make matters even worse there are those insufferable dreams of his – and not only his dreams, but Joseph’s insistence on sharing them with his brothers. For these dreams ended with not only his brothers, but even the sun, the moon and the stars bowing down before him. And although Jacob warns him not to share these dreams, it is his father who outfits him with a fine coat, a coat of long sleeves (not many colors!), the kind worn by those who are to be honored and revered.
So, it is understandable that as Joseph heads out to join his brothers who are tending Israel’s herds that they plot to be done with him and toss him into a pit with no water. With no water, life in the Judean wilderness does not last long. Yet, first Reuben, and then Judah, come up with the quasi-moral decision not to leave him to die, but rather to make a profit off of ridding themselves of their arrogant and obnoxious little brother by selling him to a traveling caravan for twenty pieces of silver. The more mercantilist among us might note that by the time Judas conspires to get rid of Jesus inflation had increased the price to thirty pieces of silver. The caravan takes Joseph to Egypt as a slave in fetters.
Were the story to end here one would be hard pressed to imagine that the unseen hand of YHWH, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob is in anyway involved. In fact, there is no mention of God or even an angel to say to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” The history of our country is ripe with examples of how Joseph must have felt to be betrayed by his brothers and led away in chains to a foreign country to work as a slave. We know this story all too well. Such feelings are unresolved to this day, and daily we are plagued with young girls, boys and women being kidnapped, sold, and transported throughout the United States and around the world to be kept in sexual servitude – nearly two million children alone each year. While still others are being prescribed into opioid addiction. The Baltimore Sun just reported on two doctors who have sold, sold, hundreds of prescriptions from their Mercedes Benzes in Baltimore and Bel Air. And for two days now in Charlottesville, VA, demonstrations and violence by those enslaved to ideologies of White Supremacy. Slavery takes on many different guises, but is very much with us every day.
Joseph’s story continues to the end of Genesis – and as it turns out upon reflection, as Psalm 105 proclaims, it is believed to be the Unseen Hand of YHWH that sent Joseph ahead and raised him to prominence in Egypt placing him in a position to save his brothers and all his family from starvation in the land of Canaan. Remarkably, Joseph fulfills the dreams of his youth, and yet without requiring those who betrayed him to bow down in his presence. Joseph becomes an active participant in God’s saving mercy and grace.
Then there is Peter in Matthew 14. This is now the second time the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. This time they are alone as Jesus needs time by himself on a mountain top to be with God. They are far from the land, the wind is against them and the boat, once again is being battered by the waves. In the morning, he walks out upon the water and approaches the boat. The disciples are terrified thinking it is a ghost! “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid,” says Jesus. Peter asks Jesus to command him to step out of the boat and onto the water. Jesus says, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, came toward Jesus, but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” For a moment, his fear must be like that of Joseph being led away in fetters. The power of a roiled sea is fearsome indeed.
At this moment, the unseen hand of YHWH is made visible and reaches out. Jesus takes Peter by the hand and leads him back to the boat. The wind ceases. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” That’s a question for all of us. Yet, Peter does not ask for a miracle so much as he knows that what Jesus and YHWH command, Jesus and YHWH make possible. When Jesus says “Come,” a reservoir of resources opens up without which unusual things often do not happen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic analysis of Peter’s response is worth citing:
“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to draw the theological paradox that emerges from this scene: only the one who believes is obedient, and only the one who is obedient believes. “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience” (The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Macmillan Co., 1960, pp. 53–60). Had Peter remained in the boat and not taken the first step, his faith would have been worthless.
Every day we face our own fears. Every day we hear of terrifying situations like sex trafficking, opioid addiction, possible nuclear conflict, White Supremacist demonstrations and more. Often times it is a fearful heart struggling to make it to tomorrow in peace – fearful for ourselves, fearful for those we love. If these stories have anything to teach us, it is, like Peter, to call out for help, to reach out to the unseen hand, and to “come” when called. The command “to come” is an invitation to obey YHWH’s commands to welcome the stranger and to help those in need. YHWH cares for the widow, the orphan, the resident aliens, those who are enslaved, those who are addicted, those who are sick, those who are hungry tonight – all those, in short, who need a helping hand. The question at the end of the day would be, Are we willing to let the Unseen Hand lead us, take us by the hand, to help those in deepest need? Peter did. Joseph did. Faith is acting and doing, not believing.