Joseph: Queer Coded and Empire Aligned

event_note August 30, 2023

A sermon by Rev. Laurel Dykstra (no pronouns or they/them) delivered at St. Clement Anglican Church, North Vancouver, August 2023.
Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:21-28
In “ordinary time” or the season after Pentecost the Gospel and the Hebrew bible readings are allowed to unfold in the order that they are given to us and to me the
summer feels like lazily reading two novels each a chapter at a time.
This week I think the most compelling characters are the Joseph and the Canaanite woman. I suspect that you have heard and you will hear excellent and thoughtful sermons about the Canaanite woman. So I have I decided to preach the sermon I think that you are less likely to hear.
Joseph’s story is one of the most detailed in scripture taking up 1/3 of Genesis
We talked last week about type stories, the story of Joseph is a court tale: a Jewish protagonist hero rises to favored status in a foreign court. Once elevated, the hero has the opportunity to save their family or people because of access to imperial power.
In today’s reading Joseph, second in command to Pharoah, reveals his identity to his brothers who he has not seen since they sold him into slavery decades ago.
So a little recap of his biography which you may remember parts of from Sunday School or the musical Joseph and the amazing technicolor dream coat.

Joseph is the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah, one of 12 sons and one daughter of Jacob (the mama’s boy whose name means liar or trickster) by two official wives and two enslaved women.
Joseph is Jacob’s 12th child, first of his mother Rachel and father’s favorite,
his father gives him a special coat
Joseph tells his family about dreams of power and domination
Joseph’s jealous brothers fake his death and sell him into slavery.
He is sold to an Egyptian official
When he refuses sexual advances wife of the household she accuses him of assault and he lands in jail
His dream interpretation fuels a rise to power
Saves his family/people during a time of famine
Bringing them to live in Egypt
So all this is a rather long story of how the people of Canaan came to be enslaved in Egypt.

Joseph as Queer-coded

So far you haven’t heard anything you are unlikely to hear from anyone else, that ends now.
Joseph is the most Queer Coded or Gender non-conforming character in the bible.
The first time we hear about Joseph by name he is seventeen years old. A man by the standard of the time yet he is referred to as a boy.
Torah scholar Gregg Drinkwater notes that the medieval rabbis’ explanation–although Joseph was indeed a man “he behaved like a boy,
penciling his eyes,
curling his hair
and lifting his heel”

Joseph is frequently associated with men described as eunuchs (who functioned as a third gender) -the official Potiphar, a baker and a wine steward.
When sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife Joseph’s beauty is described using exactly the same language as for his mother Rachel, “graceful and beautiful”
Joseph is a young man with opportunity for a heterosexual encounter who does not take advantage of it. -is he chaste or uninterested?
Joseph’s grandsons are “born on his knees”. This could signify that he adoption or surrogacy But it also refers to the physical role of the midwife and to presence at birth -which men did not typically attend
When his father Jacob (the smooth man who made a mean lentil stew and sewed him a special outfit) is dying he bestows on Joseph “blessings of the womb and breast.”
And then there is that coat: Jacob makes Joseph a ketonet passim translated variously -coat of many colours, special tunic, ornate robe, cloak with long sleeves, Often a note says the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear. Seldom do the commentaries indicate that the phrase appears elsewhere
In 2 Samuel 13 the rape of king David’s daughter Tamar, Tamar wears a ketonet passim. scholars conclude that a ketonet passim was
Worn by royalty
Too long to be worn for manual labour
But 2 Sam then 13:18 says of the ketonet passim “for that is how the virgin daughters of kings were clothed in those times”
Peterson Toscano who studies gender and scripture, reminds us how we typically refer to the virgin daughters of kings And calls what Joseph wears a “princess dress.” An interpretation that he uses to explain the brothers’ hatred for Joseph and the way that their rage is focused -stripping him and destroying the garment.
Each of these examples is unusual but taken all together show that Joseph at minimum ambiguous in his gender expression and perhaps sexuality.

Joseph as empire aligned

Scripture included diverse time periods, types of literature, and points of view but according to biblical scholars like Walter Brueggemann and Wes Howard Brook most fall into two fundamentally opposed worldviews
Brueggemann calls them Royal Consciousness and Prophetic Imagination
Howard Brook calls them the Religion of Empire and the Religion of Creation
-Herod/John Baptist
-some would say that in today’s gospel Jesus represents empire and the Canaaanite woman the prophetic
Joseph is firmly situated in the Royal or Empire trajectory.
The animosity between Joseph and his brothers does not begin with the garment. Genesis 37 begins with Joseph and the brothers who were born to enslaved women, tending sheep. Usually the translation says Joseph was helping his brothers shepherd. But an equally valid interpretation of the preposition is that Joseph was shepherding his (older -and possibly lower status) brothers. That Jacob has set up Joseph as manager. And he brings back a bad report.
Next Jacob gives Joseph this garment that indicates royalty and is designed in such a way as to prevent manual labour. Then Joseph tells his older brothers that he has repeated dreams that they and even their parents will bow down to him. -can you see how this might have been a bit hard to take?
Joseph rises to be second in command -first in the house of the captain of the guard and then to the Pharoah himself, who (like Joseph’s father) dresses him in royal garments.
And gives him his second chariot. Chariots were a sign of military power, rank, and honor. -a runner goes before Josephs chariot commanding the population to bow before him
Joseph is the key figure when the idea of scarcity is introduced to the abundance of Genesis, he sets up supply cities for food. (in direct contrast to the Exodus -where Hebrews slaves build supply cities, and anyone who tries to hoard manna is cursed) -Enslaved without anyone he considers to be “his people” Joseph is almost an anti-Moses
Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt as essentially climate refugees he engages in elaborate manipulation, accusing them of spying, taking one brother hostage, framing the others for theft and literally enacting his dream of being bowed down to.
When famine comes Joseph exploits the Egyptians’ desperation, buying Egyptian and Hebrews wealth, animals, land, and them as slaves in exchange for food.
Repeatedly God’s people are offered the choice between the land of Canaan and that of empire. Joseph who consistently interprets events according to “an imperial sense of the ‘divine order’” that favors the powerful, delivers his family and his people to the dominant empire in the narrative.

So what’s your point?

on pride Sunday in a progressive congregation with a large LGBTQ2S+ membership You might hear a sermon about Joseph and the princess dress, queer resistance and joy. You could hear a sermon about Joseph as empire aligned in a church with a particular social and economic justice focus. But as I said at the start, I think this is the sermon you are least likely to hear elsewhere
Here are the key points that I hope you leave with:
trauma and violence in families is real and has lasting impact
diverse genders and sexual expressions have existed through history and in our religious tradition
most of the time we are faced not with tidy stories with a moral but with complex people who have experienced and who perpetrate harm

Keep looking for people showing you parts of themselves you might not expect
And together let us keep on choosing abundance and community over scarcity and empire.

Art by Avery Arden