Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Joseph And Jesus

Today, our reading from the Hebrew Scripture leaps forward from the Jacob’s ladder to Heaven and his wrestling match with the LORD to a time many years later, after Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and after his wisdom had earned him his freedom and a position in the royal court as the chief advisor to the Pharaoh.

Now, famine has fallen upon the land of Egypt, and the people are starving. Pharaoh invests Joseph with the authority to feed the people from the stores of grain. Even people in neighboring lands come to Egypt to find food, including Joseph’s older brothers, sent there by their aged father, Jacob.

When Jacob’s sons came into the presence of the royal governor, they knelt before him in homage. He recognized them immediately, but concealed his own identity and spoke sternly to them. Finally, he ordered them locked up in the guardhouse for three days.

On the third day, Joseph told his brothers: “Do this, and you will live, for I am a God-fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die." This they agreed to do.
They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us."

Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood." They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep.
In the past Joseph has endured ill treatment by his brothers, and slavery Egypt, but now he is in a place of power and privilege, as a chief counselor to the Pharaoh. He uses his power and privilege wisely, even as he recognizes his brothers who had sold him into slavery. At the outset, he deals harshly with them, but at the end of the day, he does not seek revenge or retribution. The last line of today’s reading is most telling: “he turned away from them and began to weep.” The story of Joseph and his brothers is to be continued, tomorrow and the next day.

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In the gospel, Jesus calls his twelve disciples to him, and gives them authority to drive out evil spirits and to cure every illness and disease.
These are the names of the twelve, now called apostles: Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John: Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James, son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who would betray him.

These twelve were sent forth with the following instructions: “Do not go into pagan territory or enter any Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


Once upon a time, a student in religion class asked her teacher, “Why did Jesus pick twelve apostles, not eight or ten or some other number?” The teacher answered, “The answer to that question is not clear; perhaps because that represented the twelve tribes of Israel.” It was the best answer I could think of, at the time. Today, I am even more convinced that there is no simple answer to that question.

The early commentators on the Scriptures give the impression that they are looking for hidden meanings in every word, even every syllable of the text. Here is a sample (credit to Father Donagh O’Shea) of what some of them did with the number 12.
Remigius writes: "The number twelve is a perfect number, being made up of the number six, which has perfection because it is formed of its own parts – one, two, three – multiplied into one another; and the number six when doubled amounts to twelve.” A commentator on Remigius added: “And this doubling seems to have some reference to the two precepts of charity, or to the two Testaments.”

Tertullian relates the gospel to the today’s first reading: “This number twelve is typified by many things in the Old Testament; by the twelve sons of Jacob, by the twelve princes of the children of Israel, by the twelve running springs in Helim, by the twelve stones in Aaron's breastplate, by the twelve loaves of the showbread, by the twelve spies sent by Moses, by the twelve stones of which the altar was made, by the twelve stones taken out of Jordan, by the twelve oxen which bare the brazen sea. Also in the New Testament, by the twelve stars in the bride's crown, by the twelve foundations of Jerusalem which John saw, and her twelve gates.”
When Chrysostom sees the list of apostles he looks instantly for the order of precedence (from the earliest times till the present day this is the chief sport of the clergy). “Let us observe the order of the list of disciples from the beginning…. Do you note that he does not arrange them according to their dignity? For John seems to me to be greater, not only than the others but even than his brother.” Precisely what the disciples were squabbling about when Jesus shut them up.

St Jerome has a more worthwhile point to make: “The other Evangelists put Matthew before Thomas, and they do not add the words ‘the tax collector’ to his name, so as not to appear to throw scorn upon the Evangelist by bringing up his former life. But writing of himself he puts Thomas first, and styles himself ‘the tax collector’.” Matthew’s gospel, he was suggesting, does credit to Matthew himself by showing him in a truthful and unflattering light. That is certainly the Christian spirit.

What do we do with Remigius and Tertullian and their number games? Some would say, “Let them be! That form of scripture study is passé!” But truth be told, something positive can be derived from the writings of the commentators of days gone by. And it is virtually inevitable that in some future era, scripture scholars will consider the methodology and the conclusions of the late 20th century just as arcane as those of earlier eras. The study of scripture is not comparable to the study of anatomy and physiology. The methodology of the disciple is not dissection, but meditation.

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