Since I was a kid, the story of Joseph in Egypt has always been one of my favorite in all of scripture. Even now as an adult, I find it intriguing, powerful and multi-layered.
One layer that I became aware of for the very first time on my latest reading of it has to do with the fact that as a result of being sold into slavery in Egypt, Joseph ended up marrying “Asenath, daughter of Potipherah priest of On.” This time reading Genesis, I’ve been paying particular attention to the problem of lineage and marriage. Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, was also Egyptian; she and her son Ishmael were banished into the wilderness, possibly to die, because of Sarah’s jealousy. Isaac and Rebekah were grieved when their son Esau married two Canaanite women; Esau tried to please them by marrying two kinswomen, as they had arranged for Jacob to do. When Jacob’s daughter Dinah had an affair with the Canaanite Prince Shechem, despite Shechem’s attempt to make it right through an honorable marriage proposal (he even offered to accept the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision!) her brothers craftily arranged to murder him and every other male in the city where he lived. Clearly, the Hebrews had issues with marrying non-Hebrews.
What exactly the nature of those issues was seems unclear. The footnotes in the 1979 LDS edition of the King James Bible tend to treat it as a problem of marrying outside the faith, not as a racial prohibition, though the Book of Abraham account of Pharaoh seeking the priesthood (1:27) reads against that — at least from an LDS perspective.
In any event, Joseph married not only an Egyptian woman, but the daughter of a pagan Egyptian priest. It’s unclear whether Joseph’s wife ever converted to the God of Abraham. There’s even some inkling that Joseph participated in at least some pagan Egyptian religious practice. When Joseph plants his personal silver chalice in the sack of his younger brother Benjamin, Joseph’s guards confiscate it, telling the sons of Jacob that this is the cup “whereby indeed he [Joseph] divineth” (Genesis 44:5-6). The Jewish Publication Society translation of the text states it more bluntly: “which he uses for divination.”
In any event, the progeny of Joseph by his Egyptian wife are Manasseh and Ephraim, through the latter of which most Latter-day Saints claim (at least spiritual if not literal) lineage to Abraham.
Whatever complexities Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt introduces into the history of Israelite lineage, one of the high points in the story of Joseph takes place after Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. His brothers had plotted to kill him. Then, thanks to the pleading of Reuben, they commuted their sentence to selling him into slavery to Ishmaelite tradesmen and telling their father he’d been killed by wild beasts. Now in a position to save his family from starvation in his role as governor of Egypt, Joseph comforts his brothers, reassuring them (Genesis 45:5, 8):
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life…. It was not you that sent me hither, but God….
Sometimes people do terrible things, and there is nothing more to their doings than that they are terrible. But sometimes seemingly terrible things happen for a very, very good, divinely ordained reason.
A few years ago, I remember meeting with a fellow gay Mormon. At the time he was single, and barely holding on to his Church membership. Like me, he had had a number of spiritual experiences that confirmed to him that there was nothing wrong with being gay, that it was an inherent and good part of who we were, and that in the eyes of God there was nothing wrong with the loving relationships we establish so long as we establish them according to divine principles of commitment and love. After I had recounted some of the spiritual experiences I’d had, he told me with desperation in his eyes, “I’ve had those experiences too. But if that’s true, why hasn’t the prophet received that understanding yet?” In his mind, the prophet must automatically know everything in the mind of God, and if God had communicated to us that we were OK as we were, how could the prophet not know and still be a true prophet of God?
I told him that sometimes the Lord puts us to the test in just this way.
One of the interesting layers in the Genesis account of Joseph in Egypt has to do with the irony that when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they set in motion a train of events that would ultimately result in the entire house of Israel becoming slaves in Egypt. (Isn’t this proof, after all, that we are all interconnected? That what we do to others, we do after all only to ourselves?) After Jacob learns that his son is alive in Egypt, “God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I. And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation: I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again” (Genesis 46: 2-4). When God says, “I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again,” he is speaking not individually to Jacob. Jacob dies in Egypt. God here is speaking to Israel collectively. And when he says, “I will there [in Egypt] make of thee a great nation,” the Lord is certainly speaking of what the crucible of slavery will do to Jacob’s descendents. Slavery and exodus will make a great nation of them, a nation that understands God’s liberating and life-giving intentions for all of humanity in ways they might never have without the experience of slavery and divine liberation from it.
The suffering of LGBT people in American society has been intense. In the first half of the twentieth century we were treated as criminals and traitors. We were subjected to various kinds of torture masquerading as “treatment.” We were excommunicated from our churches, abandoned by our families. Exposure could ruin our careers and turn us into shunned pariahs for the rest of our lives.
In the 1980s, AIDS seemed to many like God’s punishment on us. Sometimes we ourselves believed it was God’s punishment on us. But, looking back, I think AIDS was actually the beginning of the end of our pariah status. AIDS became the occasion for a society-wide discussion of homosexuality. And the more light society shed on homosexuality, trying to understand exactly what it was, the more the extreme sanctions against us didn’t seem to make sense. One after another, legal and social sanctions against us began to fall. One after another municipality, then one after another state began to pass laws protecting us from harsh, punitive discrimination. Gradually our relationships began to be seen as having worth and being deserving of recognition. America now stands on the verge of recognizing our relationships through the blessing of marriage.
Three decades of social activism by gay rights groups of various sorts had made some progress, but it was AIDS that most helped ordinary Americans see us as human beings.
It often seemed ironic that the intensest rejection we experienced, we experienced in our churches, the institutions that were supposed — before anybody else — to see us primarily through the eyes of love. “Love” took some pretty harsh forms in those days. People thought they were serving us by preaching at us about our “sinfulness” or trying to “exorcise” us of the “demon” of our homosexuality. And often — though not always — the more devoutly “Christian” our families were, the harsher the rejection we experienced from them. Tough love meant turning kids out onto the streets; cutting all ties to a “prodigal” son or daughter. And we reaped a harvest of suicide — both the direct kind of suicide, and the indirect kind through a variety of self-destructive behaviors.
I don’t know how that compares with having your older brothers threatening to kill you, and then selling you away to flesh merchants. Not sure how it compares to languishing in prison for years. I’m not sure how it compares with the horrors of slavery. But Joseph of Egypt suffered. And in the end, he declared that it was not, after all, his brothers who had done this to him, but God himself, in order to “preserve life.” (It was not just the Israelites who were saved by this divine gesture, but all of Egypt and the surrounding lands that were struck by the seven years of famine God had foretold through Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph’s interpretation of it.) He and his brothers, his father and all their families wept tears of joy in the end, realizing what God had wrought through them — whether they intended it for good or evil. God himself affirmed to Jacob: “I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again.” God was a part of this journey from beginning to end.
Those who know me know that, like Joseph, I’m something of a dreamer. God speaks to me often in dreams, teaching me things I might never otherwise have guessed in my wildest waking imaginings. And the deepest part of me is convinced that there’s a wisdom at work in the exile of LGBT Mormons from our Church and from our families. We will be regathered again, and some good will have been wrought through this that will enable us to say, like Joseph, “It wasn’t you who sent us hither, but God.”