Which is the right picture of our biblical Joseph?
There is Joseph, the young idealist who through no fault of his own is hated by his brothers who first try to kill him then sell him into slavery, who has beautiful visions of the future and acts on them, who although enslaved nevertheless was responsible and caring, who was a victim of sexual assault and unjustly imprisoned, who took care of his fellow prisoners over himself, who through his skill and wisdom was given political power, whose genius saved a nation, and who was able to forgive those who had wronged him.
Then there is Joseph, who lavished in his father’s favoritism and took advantage of it to get out of work, who spied on his brothers and gave negative reports to his father, who flaunted his seemingly divinely ordained superiority, who craved power, who opportunistically promoted himself into the position of second in command of Egypt, who forced Egyptians to turn over their resources for redistribution ultimately nationalizing all land and industry, and who put his brothers through tests and trials to emotionally abuse them.
Which one is correct? They both are.
Joseph displays all of these behaviors. And although we generally tell the story as if it stars only the first Joseph, the second Joseph is a player in this as well. Together they form one well-rounded, extremely complex character.
And aren’t we all well-rounded, complex characters?
I’ve thought of this this week watching the ceremony around the death of President George H. W. Bush. I was no fan of Bush—for years a Dukakis/Bentsen sticker hung in my room growing up, and I have a clear memory of celebrating at college when Clinton defeated his bid for a second term. I am drawn to, however, the pomp and circumstance that comes with the death of a President, the power and procedure of ritual.
Much has been written this week about Bush, and in all the ink spilled since his death about Bush and his life and Presidency, there has been talk of whitewashing the Bush legacy—that only the positive is remembered, the man is only lauded and not criticized. And that is true, around a death we tend to only hold up the positive characteristics and celebrate the life that was lived. And there is, of course, a lot of justified criticism of what Bush did or didn’t do in the years he held public office.
But we need to be cautious of trending too much to the other side as well. To paint someone as wholly negative, or to posit that the negative then completely negates the positive, is to do the one thing that is most harmful to another: to deny their humanity.
A man who started wars and ignored AIDS also defended the environment and the rights of those with disabilities. That is part of Bush’s complex legacy. We could say he was both a sinner and a saint.
Indeed, we can say we all are.
And the raw emotion showed by George W. Bush in eulogizing his father, choking up when he spoke of him as a father, points to the sometimes double lives we lead in public and in private, showing different parts of ourselves to different people and in different situations. This doesn’t make us a hypocrite, it makes us human.
Joseph, too, was both a sinner and a saint, holding qualities we may wish to emulate and others we may criticize. And although we tend to remember him and tell the story one way, it does not serve us to do so. To honor one’s humanity, we must remember that we are all capable of both rectitude and baseness, success and failure, love and hatred, compassion and stubbornness. We all lead multiple lives, some in private and some in public.
And we all have the capacity, as Joseph shows in the end, of coming to terms with these different aspects of our selves, and to grow and change in the process.