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The challenge and consolation of context

2.12. 2018 Written By: Dora Dueck

Dora Dueck lives in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, is the author of two novels and a collection of short fiction, and attends Cedar Park Church in Ladner, B.C. Reach her at www.doradueck.com.

I’ve always loved the story of Joseph. It has psychological complexity, conflict, character development, suffering and solace, a well-wrapped ending — everything a good story needs. It also offers truths about God and lessons on being patient and wise.

As a child, I encountered Joseph one incident at a time in Sunday school settings or family devotions. As a mother, I once read the entire narrative to our young sons and was startled by its strong emotional arc and impact as a whole. Still later, I returned for personal study, worming into the details, and found myself startled again.

“This is the story of Joseph,” Genesis 37 announces as the spotlight turns on the 17-year-old son of Jacob — and great, we’re straightaway into the drama of a radiant young dreamer and the betrayal of brothers. I like starting at the point where the protagonist is cognizant, an actor even when victim, engaging with his world; I’m quickly irritated when autobiographies or biographies, especially amateur ones, linger too long in the thickets of the family tree and the doings of forebears generations back.

But one moment, please.

If my study is going to have integrity, I’d better go back seven chapters to see where Joseph first appears: at his conception, birth and naming. Seventeen is not the young man’s beginning, after all.

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb.  She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach”; and she named him Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” —Genesis 30:22-24

Joseph’s “fore-story” slows me down, as background detail always does. This slowing, this widening, is necessary, even if I’m chafing to move on. It reminds me that every life has context. Long before Joseph is underway on his own, he begins as a factor in someone else’s story. The mother conceives and bears, she names. He begins without autonomy, he’s been “willed” outside himself and won’t remember his birth.

Joseph will have to contend with a particular mother with a specific angle on his arrival, and a particular father, and the relationship of those two, and a certain place in the birth order and a web of relatives, not to mention the wider circumstances of his world — his historical situation. All the where, what, why and when has already imposed itself. Unbeknownst to Joseph, he’s given a name that concerns the undoing of mother Rachel’s shame and her intense desire — not quenched by his birth — for yet another son, after him. She’s been jealous, distressed in her barrenness, negotiating for children via her maidservant. The whole family, in fact, is a jostling stew of rivalry, a tale of lies and tricks stretching back to Abraham and Sarah and probably beyond.

Into all this, this real life where beginnings are often messy and complicated and rarely line up as ideal, Joseph now exists. He is, a new small voice in the human symphony. He howls for hunger. Soon he, too, will be entangled in the family chronicle, set beside Rachel to meet the infamous Uncle Esau and made to bow to him.

It seems obvious enough, this recognition that we emerge from — and into — a context, and this context may enable or limit us. Throughout our lives, we have to reckon with what has been given rather than chosen. Choices are eventually possible, with or against the stream in which we’re launched, but the stream itself is powerful and may always humble us.

For instance, I dwell within the facts of being female, born mid-century in Canada, one of those postwar confidence babies (that is, a Boomer), the second oldest of Mennonite Brethren parents keen on missions and pastoring. The catalog could go on. Every item has implications. I’m grateful for my heritage; I’ve wrestled with it, too. I’ve embraced but also tried to change or let go of parts.

May the Lord add, Rachel named her firstborn. She was thinking of herself. As Joseph grew, he had to transcend her desire and take on the meaning of his name for himself. He fulfilled it by saving his kin from starvation, by forgiving and serving the family that had marked him. He would not be listed among the tribes of Israel but doubly represented instead by his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

I notice something else as I slow down to ponder Joseph’s true beginnings, pre-Genesis 37 and the colorful coat. God is there, “remembering” and thus “giving heed,” thus “opening.” This is the frame of Rachel’s story. It becomes the frame of her son’s as well. More significant than a role in his mother’s narrative is his role in God’s. Repeatedly it will be said, God was with Joseph. And if his life opens with God’s remembering, it ends there, too, as he affirms to his brothers on his death bed, “God will be sure to remember you…” (Genesis 50:24, Jerusalem Bible).

“[I]n biblical language,” philosopher Paul Ricoeur has said about God’s remembering, “memory is not reduced to remembrance, under pain of slipping back into the time of history, but signifies something like concern, solicitude, compassion.” God’s gathering into divine memory is a purposeful love not described by categories of the line (lineage) or time (past, present, future). And God, Ricoeur contends, is “affected by” human existence.

So God has context, too.

God’s context includes Joseph, and it includes you and me. I think this offers me freedom; it certainly offers consolation.

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