I delight in narrative. You know that about me.
An old Bible story is like a playground for me –
each containing its own peculiarities to slide down
surprises to swing on
Seesaws of discomfort
And the best thing of alI is that I get to visit just such a playground every week in order to see how it might make you go
That, you see, is my highest vocation…
to make you go Hmmmm.
In his 1927 book, Aspects of the Novel, the great British novelist E.M Forster helped would-be writers understand the difference between a story and a plot. Forster did this by using two sentences.
The first sentence, which he used to explain the nature of “story” went like this:
“The king died and then the queen died”
In this sentence, two events happen. The King dies and the queen dies. The only relation between the two events is the word “then” a word that indicates nothing more than the passage of time. The only thing here that holds a reader’s interest is a kind of indefinite curiosity: I wonder what will happen next?
To define the idea of “plot” Forster offers a second sentence, which goes like this:
‘the king died and then the queen died of grief.”
A plot, then, is a sequence of events in which one event causes the conditions for the next event to take place. Time continues to be important, (the word “then” is still present) but the real connection between the two events – in this case, grief – is not inevitable – it is consequential. This is a lot more interesting, because we – you and I – know how it feels when an intolerable grief settles into our guts.
When events occur, not simply because time passes, but rather because the intricacies of human passion make one event the likely result of the last – the narrative that develops does more than relate a series of events – it reveals a cross section of the human condition.
This is interesting stuff, and it gets even more interesting when you think about it all in terms of the Bible.
The connective tissue that holds a plot together is complex enough when it is controlled by human whimsies! What happens when the passions and motivations of God take a hand in the plot?
When God plays a role in connecting the dots, the narrative is about more than what happens to the characters in the story. When God is involved, the narrative becomes an investigation of how the universe itself is structured.
When God is involved the narrative asks questions about the nature of destiny;
When God is involved, the narrative offers the hope for justice, and the possibility of destruction
The passage that Cynthia read for us earlier is the very beginning of what Biblical Scholars call “the Joseph cycle.”
A sense of foreboding develops from the first moment we hear about this child Joseph – the son of Jacob’s old age. We are told right away that Jacob, who God has renamed “Israel” loved Joseph more than any of his other children…”
And then, to complicate matters further, Joseph starts having dreams that make him look even more high on his horse. In all of Joseph’s dreams everyone in his family – including his mother and father – bow down before him!
A mere child, Joseph doesn’t know enough about how the world works, to keep these dreams to himself.
Old and going blind, Jacob is too oblivious to see what is right in front of him…
But the brothers…
You don’t have to be a genius to see that dangerous family dynamics are at work here. This child – this young johnny-come-lately – has stolen the heart of a doting father. Of course all of Joseph’s brothers are bound to be ugly with jealousy! How could they not be? They probably enjoyed the old man’s love themselves – until the kid came along.
All they needed was a moment when Dad wasn’t looking so they could get their hands on the kid.
No sooner is the cause established, then the plot delivers the opportunity for the effect to follow. The brothers are out tending the family’s sheep, when Jacob stumbles upon his favorite son, who, for some reason, is still loitering around at home.
“Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem?” Jacob asks. And then, fatefully, he says: ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’
Cause is established. Effect is lined up.
It’s sad, but it all makes sense, in a predictably human way. We can see it coming a mile away. Joseph will be the victim of the kind of petty jealousies that we all recognize…
the all too familiar nastiness that we are all quite sure we wouldn’t harbor in our breasts!
As soon as they see him in the distance, the brothers start sharpening their knives. But Reuben, one of the brothers, has misgivings, and convinces them to throw Joseph into a pit while they debate the fate of the conceited little dreamer. At length, instead of killing their little brother, they sell him into slavery, and he is taken by a caravan of wandering nomads into Egypt.
None of the brothers, none of the wandering nomads, and certainly Joseph himself – no one knew that this transaction – this trafficking of a young boy – would start a chain of events that would alter the history of the world.
The final 13 chapters of Exodus tell how Joseph went from being a slave, to becoming the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Through his leadership, Egypt would survive years of famine. The Hebrew people, too, would seek help from the Egyptians, and be saved from famine. These events would eventually lead (after several generations) to the children of Israel being enslaved by the Egyptians. This, of course, led, in turn, to the epic events of the book of Exodus – the rise of Moses, the parting of the Red sea, the Ten commandments at Mt Sinai, and the epic return to the promised land.
It’s amazing to think that none of this sprawling sweep of Biblical history would have taken place if that innocent little boy had not been sold, by his brothers, to a caravan of wandering Ishmaelites.
Before all of this…
Before all of these seismic geopolitical movements that altered the fates of nations…
Something so inconsequential, you could easily miss it.
Let’s rewind to the bit where Joseph first followed his father’s fateful instructions and went to find his brothers who were supposed to be tending their sheep in Shechem. Joseph obediently went to Shechem – but he ended up wandering around in a field because his brothers were not actually in Shechem, as his father thought. They had already moved on to Dotham.
Now consider this…
Not finding his brothers in Shechem, Joseph probably would have turned around and gone home then and there. If that kid had turned around at that moment, the course of world history would have been forever changed. He might have done exactly that, had it not been for the sudden, rather random appearance of a man…
The man is so insignificant, he doesn’t have a name. He is just “a man.”
The text says:
a man found Joseph wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan. So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. ”’
I’ve been sermonizing all morning, trying to get to that man in the field, and I’ve finally got to him!
The man in the field!
How do we account for him?
Everything else in this story is steadily and logically plot driven moving from cause to effect according to the whimsies and tragic frailties of human passion – but that man in the field comes, as it were, out of the blue.
Typically, there are two explanations for the man in the field.
One way to explain his appearance is to say that he just happened to be on the field by coincidence. The massive grinding wheel of human history hangs by the frayed thread of this one fleeting coincidence. The man that knew where Joseph’s brothers had gone, just happened to be wandering in the same field where Joseph was wandering that day.
It sounds implausible when I say it like that.
Worse, the “it’s a coincidence” explanation leaves us in a bleak morally ambiguous universe. Molecules move about in this universe, forming bonds. Gravity exerts. Time bends and moves. Everything is random. Good and evil are categories that we dream up to give ourselves the impression that the brief instant we have on this earth has some meaning. Mystery is just something we haven’t found out yet. The man ended up in the field – he just happened to be there, that’s it.
Ugh. The ugly specter of Nihilism!
But what is the alternative?
The alternative is, of course, the second explanation people typically give: Divine Intervention.
If a plot point does not follow the normal logic of cause and effect – if there is no plausible reason why the right man should be in the right field at the right moment – then perhaps God intervened to put him there.
I admit to you that, even though I am a person of faith, I find the “divine intervention” explanation just as troubling as the “It’s a coincidence” explanation.
The Divine Intervention explanation affirms that there is a moral force at work in the universe – but abundant experience tells us that the workings of that force do not conform in any way to our view of what is right or wrong. The present example is a good one. If Divine Intervention took place here, and the man in the field was put there by God to get Joseph to his brothers, we are left with the altogether dubious idea that God would interfere with the natural course of events in order to make sure that a innocent child makes it to his destined appointment with human traffickers.
I am but a lowly mortal, but my moral sensibility is very uncomfortable with such an idea.
There is nothing surprising about how this story reveals how vindictive and petty humans can be. We know all about that, don’t we? But if the man in the field was put there by God, we have to wonder about how the universe itself is set up.
The movement of plot from cause to effect is considerably more troubling when it reveals moral inconsistency on the part of God.
The man in the field reveals a problem that has always troubled us, and that we have never adequately answered.
I do not pretend to be able to answer it, but neither do I think that we can just pretend that the problem isn’t there.
To me, as a person of faith, the “it’s a coincidence” explanation is inadequate, and the “Divine Intervention” explanation is just plain unacceptable.
There has to be a third option.
This is going to sound like a cop out, but perhaps part of what it means to be a person of faith, is to be a person who believes, in spite of all, that the mysterious, unknowable third option is out there.
I don’t know how it works, but I am confident that there is something out there that leans toward what is good, and that whatever it is that does that leaning, is not willing to collaborate with human traffickers.
The awfulness of Joseph’s brothers, and the moral degradation of the human traffickers – that is all on us.
The man in the field…
I don’t know about you, but for my part, I will not attribute his appearance to divine intervention.
I will not.
Nor can I say he was there by accident.
The man in the field is, for now, a window into mystery.