Forgetting Joseph

My apologies to those of you who started following me in January.  With the start of the new semester, I am making a resolution to stay current with this blog.

For many folks in the US, this has been truly a week of reflection and remembering, as the 10th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy has come and gone.

This week, for my classes, I have been going through the Exodus narrative.  There is a particularly striking line at the beginning of the story, that the new Pharaoh has forgotten Joseph and the things he did to save Egypt from famine.  Of course the Exodus story is a narrative of Israel's liberation from injustice and oppression.  Yet this other dimension, the dimension of remembering and forgetting, did not strike me until I read through the story again this year.   Of course, it is a bad thing for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers that Pharaoh has forgotten that Joseph's wisdom and action saved Egypt from famine.  By forgetting the unique and important contributions that Joseph (and his kin) brought to Egyptian society, Pharaoh and his people are able to view the Israelites as so much chattel, forcing them into a regime of brutal slavery.

Yet the forgetting does not stop there.  After growing up in Pharaoh's household, Moses' story becomes a journey of remembering, remembering who he is, remembering who his people are, and figuring out his response to the oppression he sees.  Unable to temper his anger and fear, we see this young "bi-cultural" Moses flee both identities, running off to Midian to marry into another family and culture altogether.  It is only here that YHWH comes to him, revealing not only the divine name and charging Moses with an important task, but reminding him that his God is the YHWH of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, i.e. the God of his people.

The other dimension of forgetting is readily apparent in the multiple complaints of the Israelites to Moses in their flight from Egypt and journey to Horeb.  Again and again, the people complain to Moses, yearning for their former life in Egypt.  What a strange and yet realistic portrayal of human nature!  The people have so quickly forgotten the oppression and injustice of their past situation, even after witnessing one remarkable event after another through their liberation.  When memories are weak, hope grows so ever more fleeting.  People submit willingly and readily to systematic injustice, when they are allowed (or encouraged) to forget the true horrors of their past (or present) bondage.

Those of you who are politically astute can probably more readily draw parallels to contemporary situations than can I.  I'm wondering, though, how much of this week was one of honest remembering.  How much of our own story, and its interconnection with our neighbor's stories, have we forgotten over the past 10 years?  Can the three great religions that see themselves as the children of Abraham remember his great-grandchild, Joseph?  Or are we more like Pharaoh, enslaving and oppressing our neighbors, as we forget their intrinsic value?


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