Thoughts on Joseph and breaking the cycle of abuse

Isn’t it funny how common misinterpretations of Biblical or historical events are repeated so frequently that we take them as a matter of fact?

I’ve had one such realization recently pertaining to the stories of Joseph found throughout Genesis. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I spend no small amount of time in Genesis, examining every detail.

So it surprised me on a recent re-read to notice something I hadn’t before. Maybe I’m the only one who has been lectured this way, because I can’t find much support for this online, but I know that I’ve heard it said to me so many times that I just took it for granted as truth. What is frequently said to me in the context of my own life is: Joseph could find joy in prison for 12 years, you should be able to find joy in your situation.

Now, I’m not going to get into the issue of comparing trauma. We all know better (at least we should)…so maybe that’s why this statement has stuck with me, since I’ve heard it so often.

But here’s my realization, folks: that is not the way it happened.

To recap, in Genesis 37 we are introduced to Joseph’s dreams and his jealous brothers. Troubles escalate and they plan to kill him, but settle for selling him as a slave. In chapter 39, Joseph does the honorable thing by not sleeping with his master’s wife and is jailed for it anyway. All around, he has some reasons to be angry at his circumstances! In fact, the end of chapter 39 kind of makes me chuckle with the account of how Joseph was treated in prison:

21But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.”

You may not find this as amusing as I do, but there’s a big part of me that wants to question this definition of success! I wonder if Joseph truly felt like he was succeeding in whatever he did. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings about the situation and these victories feel awfully small compared to being fully vindicated. The Bible does not report the anger many of us might feel, but it also doesn’t report the joy that so many people have preached. We do see faithfulness, which certainly counts for a great deal. Joseph was able to glorify God regardless of his circumstances, but bear with me as we continue to my discovery of Joseph’s emotional fortitude.

Continuing with our recap, in chapter 40, he interprets other prisoner’s dreams, which I have to imagine feels a little risky considering how his brothers responded to dream interpretation. It takes a while for this to manifest into anything, because he’s quickly forgotten when his interpretations prove accurate, but finally in chapter 41, he gets a lucky break when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. Amazingly, Pharaoh believes him and grants him wealth and power and a wife and all sorts of great things. This feels like a rebound, only we still seem to simply get quiet acceptance on Joseph’s part. Maybe after everything he’s gone through, it seems too good to be true; maybe he’s waiting for the next catastrophe. Up until this point, Joseph almost feels stoic – he’s doing what is good and right, he’s using his gifts for God’s glory, because that’s what he knows he should do. But where’s the joy?

What happens at the end of chapter 41 absolutely took my breath away when I caught it.

In just a few short chapters, we’ve had about 13 years in slavery or prison with no real display of emotion. Life circumstances change dramatically, and still no display of emotion. Then the 7 years of plenty transpire and we are approaching the start of the famine. For whatever reason, that is the year Joseph starts having children, which many of us might see as strange family planning considering he knows what lies ahead, but he trusts in God. Two children actually were born that year, and to me that may indicate a set of twins, which do run in families, and we know his father was also a twin. In the blip away from Joseph’s story in chapter 38, we also find his brother Judah producing twins.

The first child is born, and listen to this. “51Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.'”

Finally we get a glimpse into how he felt about the mistreatment he experienced! We can almost imagine the scene in front of us: a man whose life has been marked by tragedy, he’s been given money, power, even the first committed relationship that seems healthy enough for him to produce children, and yet it isn’t enough. But here he is, looking at the most beautiful thing he can imagine, and THAT has made all of it worth it, so much so that he chose to name his son after that awesome feeling of love and joy.

Here we get a glimpse at what he has likely struggled with for years: the “why” of it all. His life has been bitter, his relationships strained. I imagine it’s been difficult to build trust. This moment is the peak of his happiness after at least two decades of climbing through dark and rocky terrain.

It isn’t just that he will be able to forget. We can move past horrors, but they are never fully forgotten. This means much more.

As we know from recent psychological studies, abuse tends to continue in the family lineage. Instead of learning from what is experienced, as adults, people resort back to what they know, the way they were raised, the things that they experienced. I’m sure they worry what type of parent they will turn out to be. Abuse perpetuates. Often the abused doesn’t see themselves as being worthy of love, and so they have none to give, to themselves or anyone else. They’ve never been shown how.

In this passage, we see more than Joseph choosing to “forgive and forget.” This feels like a promise to his son. “I will do better. I will do differently. I will choose love. I now choose joy.” Not only has he found something worthy of his love, he is going to make sure he is worthy of the love he hopes to receive from his child, to do better than his own family did.

I read this passage, and I sobbed.

I thought of my own sweet children who have faced immense challenges, dark days, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their father, with none of it looking to change anytime soon. My mission in life is to raise them to be better fathers and husbands than the examples they’ve been given. Often I worry that it won’t be enough. This passage was illuminating, not that we will ever know the reasons why they are forced to endure, but because I can believe, based on the example of Joseph, that one day their eyes will light on something wonderful and they will say, “For you, I promise to fully love you and change what I need to so that I can receive love in return.”

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