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  • Auditing Trauma: How Israel Heard Joseph’s Story

    In order to heal from trauma, survivors must find ways to safely tell their stories. The “safely” part is of course the most critical, and part of that safety is the survivor seeing and feeling that those listening are supportive, empathic, and without judgment. People are being trained in how to listen well to these stories, and I commend that work. Whether as a friend, family member, church leader, etc., learning how to create safety for people recounting experiences of wounding is both possible and necessary.

    As important as it is for trauma survivors to tell their stories, it is also therapeutic to hear stories of other survivors, especially those who have engaged the healing process. That it would be healing to find shared experience, to no longer feel alone, to know at the deepest level that another understands, is something all people can relate with. Since this is a universal human reality – healing through listening to stories of trauma and growth – we should not be surprised to see this dynamic in ancient works like Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.

    In the 1990s and early 2000s, and without any connection as far as I can tell, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and classicist Roberta Stewart both began using the Iliad and Odyssey to help military veterans recover from war. Shay used the vivid descriptions of war encountered by Odysseus and other characters to both help his own understanding of what veterans experience during and after war, and also give veterans the experience of being understood. Stewart took that a step further and started reading groups with 8-12 vets where they would read through and discuss the texts. In these groups the vets identify with Odysseus’ experience as they “respond to the text from the perspective of their own experience.” “It is a book group where we put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate.” Here is Stewart’s explanation of the power of these groups:

    “I think that Homer enables the veterans to create a self-narrative about war experience and so construct a narrative about their own return. Evidence for the power of authoring narratives to recover from trauma and create a sense of self is ubiquitous and hence perhaps unremarkable, but it should be remarked…In creating narratives, veterans – individually and compositely – may come to a shared truth about their experience and an ever-deeper understanding of their individual experience.” Or as one friend, a combat vet and clinical psychologist, explained to her, “Homer offers veterans a map for coming home. The reading groups provide the opportunity to read the map.”

    The subtitle of this article is “How Israel Heard Joseph’s Story”. I believe that Stewart’s and Shay’s work with the Odyssey and Iliad provide helpful comparisons to how Genesis functioned for the original audience of Israel.

    My adult Sunday School class has been studying Genesis for the past year and we just started into a new section, chapters 37-50, which deal with Joseph and his brothers. Throughout the past year our class has retold these stories with an emphasis on the literary context, believing the book to have been composed by Moses for the people of Israel in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and before entering Canaan. The previous 36 chapters are chalk full of similarities that enabled Israel to bridge the gap between their present experience and the ancient stories of their ancestors and the ancient world of primeval history. One of the more apparent episodes with these similarities is when Abraham travels to Egypt in Genesis 12. Like Jacob’s family (Israel), Abraham went to Egypt because of a famine. While in Egypt, God afflicts Pharaoh, and and then Pharaoh sends Abraham away Pharaoh with greater wealth than when he entered. Virtually very individual narrative in Genesis contains these intentional points of connection. However, the Joseph saga of Genesis 37-50 is unique. Unlike the previous sagas of the primeval history, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the story of Joseph highlights the painful difficulties of suffering and injustice. When Genesis was read to Israel, and the people started hearing Joseph’s story, they would have been struck by the similarities.

    Like Joseph, they were enslaved in Egypt. Like Joseph, they were blessed in Egypt, but that very blessing was the pretext for later oppression. Like Joseph, God at times appeared to be silently absent in the midst of their pain. Israel would hear of Joseph’s near-death experience in Dotham and remember how their sons were almost killed in Egypt. They would hear of the providential arrival of the Ishmaelites to purchase Joseph from his brothers and think of how God used the midwives to protect their sons’ lives. Just like the Israelites flourished despite Pharaoh’s attempt at population control, they would resonate with Joseph’s success despite being sold as a slave to Potiphar. Joseph was forgotten by the chief cupbearer and surely felt forgotten by God, a feeling Israel would have felt deep in their bones after 400 years of cruel slave labor. Just as the future safety of Joseph’s family was threatened by conflict, jealousy, deceit and immorality, Israel’s welfare in the wilderness and in Canaan was jeopardized by sin in the camp. When Israel heard Joseph’s explanations for the names of his sons, they would resonate with “hardship” and “the land of my affliction” as a banner over their wounded past. 

    But equally as important, there is hope in these empathic resonances of trauma. As one example among many, Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim signal God’s grace to redeem hope out of suffering: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house,” and, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Forgetful and fruitful.

    Surely Joseph didn’t actually forget his hardship, nor could Israel expect to. The resurrection did not let Jesus or his disciples forget the nails that pierced his flesh. Rather, the hope birthed from the tomb transforms the memory of trauma into a testimony to God’s grace. And as God made Joseph fruitful, so God promised to make Israel fruitful in Canaan:

    I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and will confirm my covenant with you. You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new. I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (Leviticus 26:9-13)

    Yahweh, the God of the covenant, lovingly names the traumatic history of his people with a vivid picture of breaking the yoke which chained them to forced labor. There is something incredibly consoling about telling a sufferer that they did indeed suffer, that what they suffered was unjust and evil, and that God sees it as such. But a sufferer also needs a vision of what can be. It is all too easy for the traumatized to remain stuck in the familiar, no matter how unsafe and painful – like a battered wife romanticizing the inconsistent love of her violent husband, Israel romanticized the culinary benefits of enslavement. While that is certainly a picture of how we all as sinful humans rationalize drinking poison by focusing on the bottle’s pretty labeling, it also portrays how a wounded past clouds our ability to dream of a free future. Because of this, God ordained history so that he could give Israel the stories of Joseph, with all of his suffering, and also all of his glory; with all of his oppression, and also all of his freedom; with all of his weeping grief, and also all of his exuberant joy. 

    In hearing these stories, Israel was given the chance to “respond to the text from the perspective of their own experience” and so “so construct a narrative about their own return” to Canaan. Perhaps we could even say that hearing/reading Genesis “is a book group where we put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate”.

    That is how I am seeking to read Genesis 37-50 for myself. I do not read as a disinterested academic (although that is always a temptation). I have suffered, endured trauma, felt forgotten, been estranged from friends and family, longed for rescue, reconciliation, and redemption, been confused by the surprise of success and its swift disappearance, and wrestled with the doubt of God’s goodness in the seeming constant barrage of evil. In thus entering Joseph’s story, I also see that I am able to do so because Christ has first entered my story. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us and, through union with his story of suffering and glory, of cross and resurrection, enables us to have healing encounters with an ancient text. 

    This empowerment through union with Christ signals that it is not an isolated, individualistic act, for union with Christ means union with his body, the church. Like Greek epic oral poetry, and Hebrew oral narrative before it, it is important to note the social, dialogical process. This is not just an individual encounter with the text (as valid as that is). Stewart notes that the variety of experiences the veterans bring to the text produce a plethora of reactions and observations, making the group’s dialogue more powerful than any one person could achieve on his or her own. Engaging Genesis should operate along the same lines. For Israel heard this as a nation, a communion of persons with shared experience in the context of each unique personality. 

    So I am grateful to be studying Genesis 37-50 with a group of Christ followers seeking to hear what God might say to our 21st century experiences of suffering, how he might use the suffering of a Hebrew slave/servant/ruler to heal wounds and lead into a vision of blessing in the reign of the Suffering Servant, God’s Beloved Son.