Simon Bowkett's Podcast

Trauma. Joseph. Genesis 41:50-52

February 26, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Show Notes Transcript

         •        Introduction


It’s everywhere around us … the more we meet and encounter people, particularly people who have issues of course, the more we see it.

And the astonishing thing is that it often pops out of people we would never have suspected to be currently dealing with it … or quite possibly NOT quite managing to deal with it … but we never knew.

Now let’s be clear what we mean by what it is and what it is not.

It’s not drama.

It is trauma.

In a practical sort of sense, ‘trauma’ is a term used very widely to describe hurtful and challenging experiences and events that threaten and cause set-backs in our life.

Trauma take different forms for different people, its origins can be as various as any group of traumatised people you care to consider.

It may be triggered by an unexpected calamity, some sort of abuse or a serious loss that confronts us and impacts us body, mind and spirit.

Always unpleasant it can become overwhelming, can take up residence at the centre of our personality and affects our behaviours … how we think, choose, feel and respond.

It’s as varied as its causes and the people it affects.

But all that having been said, there are clear and definite THEMES within that variety, as to its roots, its effects and its remediation.

And THOSE are what we’re looking at today, from the example (the case-study) of Jacob’s son Joseph.

There were many people in the Old Testament who experienced trauma … the more you discover about trauma the clearer that becomes … but Joseph’s a great example to look at because of how he exhibits typical traits of trauma and how he wins through in the end.

So much so that we read in the words of our text:

“Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. 

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” 

The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Genesis 41:50-52

So let’s look first at the experience trauma Joseph had to overcome, then look into Joseph’s survival and recovery before trying to draw conclusions and applications for our own experience of either the need to overcome trauma we have known or to weatherproof ourselves against its not-yet-experienced predations.

         •        Joseph’s experience of trauma

I identify seven traumatic incidents and experiences in Joseph’s life, up until a certain joyful and life-changing event - his response to which shows how he’d clearly won through.

Trauma is weird like that. 

It can make you not enjoy or refuse to enjoy what should be an utterly joyful occurrence or experience.

So when Joseph rejoiced at this experience … we can see that he’d certainly BEEN going through it, but that he’d equally surely COME through it.

We’ll get there!

Now, Joseph DID have a special place in the affections of reasonably godly parents.

He had been the long-awaited child of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel.

By the time he was a teenager he was a communicative, confident, articulate young man.

Naturally, yes of course, his other siblings saw him as brash and arrogant.

And that’s where it all started to go wrong for him.

Let’s look first, then, at Joseph’s seven-fold experience of trauma.

            •          1. His mother’s death (Genesis 35:16-18) 

The first trauma in Joseph’s life came early to him.

I imagine it was more common for this sort of thing to occur in those pr-medical days than it is in our times but in Genesis 35:16-18 we read that Joseph suffered the loss of his mother Rachel during the birth of Joseph’s youngest brother Benjamin.

It happened while they were on the move from Bethel, in the vicinity of what became Bethlehem, but whenever and wherever it happened the young Joseph lost his mother.

He was adored by his father and no doubt by the ladies of the extended family and the root of bitterness between him and his brothers began to develop.

            •          2. His brothers’ death plot (Genesis 37:18-20)

It was, ironically, the older people’s response to Joseph’s first trauma that seems to have given rise to his second.

Prancing about the place in the coat that his father Jacob had given to Joseph, the long-awaited son of his now deceased favourite wife aroused the antagonism of his other brothers.

I’m not going to get int the debate about whether it was a coat of many colours or, as some argue, a coat with long sleeves … the point is that it was a coat his other brothers DIDN’T have!

The antagonism became SO intense that the other brothers began to abuse him and conspire to do away with him.

In a tribal, clan-based culture this was an aberrant violation of expectation.

So in Genesis 37:18-20, as he went out to see them wearing that annoying coat as they were out pasturing the flocks, they saw him coming and conspire to kill him there and then.


But there was to be a peculiar twist in the tail of the story as the eldest brother, Reubin, intervened … 

Thrown into a pit with no water (Genesis 37:21-24)

“When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.”

Genesis 37:21-22

So Joseph’s life was initially spared … but in fact it wasn’t as simple as that.

Out there in the desert they dropped him into a deep and narrow hole in the ground … a well.

People died, and still around the world people do die, from falling into wells.

Often slowly and unpleasantly.

Now, the text says that there was no water in the bottom of that well, which sounds like a mercy, but if you think it through … out there in the Wilderness that was a death sentence.

No water, in a hole you can’t get out of, in a Wilderness … it’s a terrifying prospect.

But hang on to that thought because things are about to get a new sort of horrible for Joseph.

            •          3. Sold into slavery (Genesis 37:25-28)

As the were all out there together in the Wilderness … with Joseph in the well … the brothers saw a travelling traders’ caravan approaching and Judah came up with a bright idea.

The upshot was that Joseph’s brothers now rejected him completely by selling him into slavery at just seventeen years of age (Genesis 37:25-28).

We KNOW this was traumatic to Joseph because years later his brothers confessed it like this:

“They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

Genesis 42:21

So the young traumatised Joseph headed off towards life as a slave in the big evil state of Egypt.

            •          4. Slave life in Egypt (Genesis 37:36)

So you are 17 years old.

You are taken to a foreign country, with a foreign language you don’t know, a foreign culture you don’t understand and foreign food that you’re certainly not used to … and in all likelihood are not given much of anyway.

And you’ve gone from being the favourite son of the head man of your tribe to being the chattel of some foreigner who don’t love you.

That’s trauma four for Joseph.

Now, it has to be said, God has got a plan although a hidden one … that’s the trouble with trauma so often we can’t make SENSE of it.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t sense going on behind the scenes where we can’t see it, and that was DEFINITELY the case with the things going on for Joseph.

And Joseph was a good looking and a fairly wily lad so he got on pretty well down in Egypt.

He served usefully and well and ended up serving in the household of a man called Potiphar, a senior official of Pharaoh who was the top man in all of Egypt.

But life is about to turn traumatic for Joseph again.

            •          5. Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:1-18)

Potiphar’s wife has become a bit of a legend, but not in a very good way.

Having done well using his personal gifts and natural appearance in Egypt Joseph prospered and became a trusted servant of a highly man highly placed in the government of Egypt.

But a stark reminder not to rely on our natural abilities and gifts came to light in Joseph’s traumatic experience with that man’s life.

She tried to seduce him, but he refused her on the basis ta this wasn’t proper.

She tried to trap him, he escaped but she grabbed his cloak as he escaped and … with the fury of a woman spurned … Potiphar’s wife made a false allegation against Joseph and he was jailed (it’s Genesis 39:1-18).

It is AWFUL to be subjected to false allegations.

I listened to a man on this subject just this week … the poor guy has REALLY been going through it.

It is TOUGH.

So there was Joseph traumatised by the false allegation of impropriety because of the place his natural attributes got him to.

            •          6. Prison life (Genesis 39:19-20)

And then, trauma upon trauma, Joseph was thrown into HARD prison.

We read about it in Genesis 39:19-20.

We also read about the effect of this on Joseph in Psalm 105:17-19 which reminds us how Joseph suffered:

“ Joseph, sold as a slave.

18 They bruised his feet with shackles,

    his neck was put in irons,

19 till what he foretold came to pass,

    till the word of the Lord proved him true.”

Let’s face it, that dark dungeon, described this way in the Psalm, must surely have dragged up all the bad memories of that confined space Joseph had been thrown into in the desert by his brothers … the dried-up well trauma of his youth.

And now here in this Egyptian dungeon is the sixth experience of trauma we can identify in Joseph’s life.

Weirdly in that dungeon he has an experience of companionship … the sort of thing people may look to for relief from traumas under normal circumstances … but just as preferment in Egypt arising from his good looks and abilities turned sour on him earlier, relying on companionship to mitigate his stress turns unpleasant on him too.

Joseph is learning to tackle trauma God’s way and not simply by the things mankind may chose to rely on exclusively instead.

            •          7. The Butler’s patronage failure (Genesis 40:9-19)

Joseph enjoyed a sympathetic hearing from his fellow prisoners as he talked (it’s good to talk) about his life’s journey (Genesis 40:15) with the butler and the baker who were imprisoned in the house of the Captain of the Guard after Joseph was put there.

Again, in that unfortunate setting, Joseph used his natural gifts and talents to win favour.

He seems to have studied the Ancient Eastern ‘science’ of dream interpretation and interpreted the dreams had by the butler and the baker (Genesis 40:9-19).

But he asked the butler that when the interpretation came true and the butler was released and restored to his master’s favour he would speak out for Joseph about the injustice that Joseph had suffered.

Now there’s something you need to realise here.

This culture was a Patronage culture.

It was one of the foundations of the way their society worked that if someone did you a favour and then asked you for something like that you really were honour bound to meet that request when you were able to, and when that wasn’t done it was in that culture like the Heavens falling in!

There are cultures like that around the world today where missionaries really need to take this cultural principle on board … and where you have to be careful about who you accept a favour from.

So when Joseph intervened to really help the Butler, and when that man was rescued from prison but in his new-found fortune forgot Joseph … that was much MORE than a kick in the teeth, in ways that we from our culture might not appreciate.

This blow just served to intensify Joseph’s previous traumas of betrayal, rejection and imprisonment.

This sort of thing could easily become the ‘last straw’ that breaks a man.

In the goodness and the kindness of God to Joseph though, that isn’t the way it worked out.

The tide was about to turn for poor embattled Joseph.

         •        Joseph’s survival and recovery

So let’s take a look at Joseph’s survival and recovery.

Now I want to be absolutely clear about this fundamental principle: we cannot just ‘cope’ or ‘get over’ our experience of trauma.

We may go things that would traumatise other people but that do not traumatise us.

That IS true.

There was a man called Harry Parker on the Radio 4 ‘Saturday Live’ programme who was an Army Captain blown up by an IED while serving in Afghanistan.

He handles life now with powered prosthetics and he’s written a book called ‘Hybrid Human’ all about his use of technology to cope with his disability but when asked he was quite open about saying he never did have PTSD from his traumatic experience.

He had traumatic injuries but they didn’t traumatise HIM.

PTSD is real and quite understandable but it is not compulsory! 

It is things that WE experience as traumatic that traumatise US.

But my point is this:

Once WE have experienced something as a trauma, we need to (as they say)’ process’ that trauma of ours or it WILL remain a wound to our heart which will continue to affect US … the integrated body, mind and spirit that constitutes US.

My paternal grandfather grew up in a large family of children in the docks area of Newport.

Food wasn’t, apparently, in fully abundant supply and he ended up being brought back from the trenches in the Second World War aged 14 for having lied about his age when he signed up.

At fourteen he had witnessed the events and the effects on the human body of the things that were going on along the Western Front.

It was horrendous.

The following year he was brought back again from the Somme … under arrest this time … for having lied about his age and returned to the UK.

In his unit back over here he so impressed the Brigadier by his mastery of arms drill that he was allowed to go to Ireland to fight against the Easter Rising led by people like Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Roger Casement, Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins.

Fought out amongst civilian populations it was a messy and ugly conflict.

Now, my grandfather was actually a child and knew nothing of the politics I am sure, but my point is that he saw MANY things that no child should ever see, and quite possibly did things no child should ever do.

And he never talked about it until the very last couple of years of his life.

But I remember him fro my childhood as cold.

(It’s not a criticism … the man had had a difficult and traumatic early life)

My grandfather managed the trauma really well, but never spoke of it, and from the stories they told of their experiences, my father and uncle had what you might call a robust upbringing.

My grandfather entered the police force and I was told about him undertaking many feats of daring-do during his service.

He rose to senior rank, but would still be seen with his baton in his hand leading his men in street skirmishes outside the pubs of the industrial town where he was based venting violence on Saturday nights.

Only very much towards the end of his life did he with personal pain all across his face start to talk about SOME of his earlier traumatic experiences.

Failing to process trauma can arise from ignorance OR denial.

I don’t know which it was in this case and it may not be helpful to ask … it certainly wouldn’t be helpful to attribute blame!

My point is this - and it’s crucial to Joseph - once you have experienced stress, you need to process it or you are going to pass it on.

That really, believe me REALLY is not a criticism that I’m offering.

It’s an observation on the constitution of human nature.

You need to process it even when the tide seems too start to turn.

            •          1. The Tide starts to Turn, Genesis 41:9-52

It was two years on after the final trauma we’ve looked at in Joseph’s life that the Butler remembered his friend Joseph.

Pharaoh … in whose presence the butler now stood … had had a dream no-one could interpret for him, and Pharaoh was frustrated by that.

Genesis 41:1-8 explains the source of the frustration.

Finally the butler spoke up in that situation and recommended Joseph (still in prison) now to Pharaoh.

Pharaoh called for Joseph who told this seemingly all-powerful ruler that tis dream revealed what God was about to do to him and all of Egypt … seven years of great harvests then seven years of harsh famine (Genesis 41:14-37) … and Pharaoh gave Joseph a new beginning with great prospects and responsibility.

New identity, new vocation, new citizenship all came Joseph’s way … but wait.

Pharaoh also gave Joseph a beautiful Egyptian wife and an indigenous personalised name which meant ‘the god speaks and he (here meaning Joseph) lives’

But there was more.

During the seven years of plenty Joseph and his Egyptian wife had two sons (Genesis 41:50-52) who they named Ephraim and Manasseh  … of which more later!

Joseph is going to see his life brought to a place of restoration and relief from all his trauma, but let’s see first how he came to that place.

Basically, I want to show how Joseph ‘processed’ it.

            •          2. Inter-generational learning

The first thing that jumps out at me here is inter-generational learning.

Joseph undoubtedly followed the example in life of his father Jacob, who endured a long and stressful series of set-backs after he fell involve with Joseph’s mother Rachel.

His bride-price for Rachel was to serve her father Laban for seven years.

But Laban tricked Jacob on the wedding day and lifting the bide’s veil after the wedding turned int a bit of a trauma when Jacob realised he’ married Rachel’s sister Leah.

Jacob had to serve Laban another seven years to marry Rachel.

Rachel remained out of the picture while Leah had four boys, going on to have a total of six and a daughter … the last three offspring being born while Rachel was married to Jacob but remained childless (Genesis 29:31-30:21).

But Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph (her firstborn) and named him Joseph meaning ‘may God add prosperity’ (Genesis 30:22-24).

Jacob stayed on working with Laban in return for all the spotted sheep that were born … which infuriated Laban … so Joseph, his wives and flocks had to make away on their toes.

Jacob made clear to his wives while preparing for their departure that they had been threatened by their experiences but that God had not allowed them to be harmed (Genesis 31:7).

He also had God confirm the Lord’s favour towards them to Jacob ion a dream and then told Jacob to return to the land of his birth (Genesis 31:10-13 … and Jacob acted on these things faithfully under the protection of the faithful God.

So here’s the point:

Jacob grew up in an oral culture with a strong tradition of story-telling that passed on the wisdom of the clan to its next generation.

Joseph would have heard all the family stories being told as a youngster as he sat around the family fires at night eating his food.

He’d have had it ingrained in him how Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob had been visited, led, tested by and covenanted with by God … protect His people’s path through life towards the future blessing that the Almighty had promised Joseph’s people.

So Joseph grew up against the background of a bigger picture that would help him in making sense of where his future lay, and many years later when he seemed to experience trauma, Joseph believed the words that he’d heard from his father, words of reassurance that because of God’s Word to Joseph’s family, God wild NOT allow any actual harm to frustrate God’s plan for the very much bigger picture

            •          3. Guarding what defined him

This in its turned helped Joseph to guard what DEFINED him.

Joseph did not deny the traumatic things that happened to him, but neither did Joseph develop a victim mentality and allow all those bad things to define him.

John Steward writes this of ‘Joseph and Trauma Recovery’ (in ‘Tackling Trauma’ ed. Paul A. Barker, Langham 2019, p. 6):

“For each day of his traumatic experiences, Joseph made conscious responses, and these became a kind of antidote to his pain.”

Joseph kept his love alive for his far-away father.

Joseph did not indulge his hurt in bitterness towards his brothers.

Joseph honoured God in all his decisions, fled temptation, stayed generous, strong and patient.

Yes, he remained in what he called ‘the land of my affliction’ (Genesis 41:52) but he didn’t dwell on being a victim but on getting down to it and getting on with whatever it was God was doing by keeping him THERE.

We’re merging into the next feature of Joseph’s response which was that he refused to be a hostage to his pain.

            •          4. Refusing to be a hostage to pain

Joseph seems to have sought healing rather than seeking solace in his nurtured pain.

Let’s try to make sure you take me for what I mean here rather than something I don’t.

Let’s come at it like this.

Joseph was an habitually chatty bloke.

He didn’t treat his experiences as private pains to hoard and nurture.

You can reckon that each time Joseph talked about his pain to someone else, the pain he was feeling got lessened a bit.

And ion you’re a bloke like me the thought of talking about your troubles sounds dreadful and you don’;t want to go there.

Yes of course in my work I’ve developed the practice of being ‘chatty’.

But I have to really push myself when I know I need to talk about some trouble or other.

We read of Joseph TELLING his troubles to other people. 

Now the sceptics among us who really don’t wan to do this themselves will surely say, if that had been working for Joseph it would’ve helped him out.

That’s a great point.

And funnily enough in our text today we see Joseph and Asenath his wife naming their children.

They named their first child ‘Manasseh’ which means ‘forget’ and their second child ‘Ephraim’ which means ‘to be fruitful’.

So when in years to come the kids asked about their names Joseph could say to Manasseh ‘I have chosen to live my life without carrying heavy baggage, so I have forgotten the trauma (though perhaps not the experiences) of my past.

Then to the same question from Ephraim old Joseph could reply about the promises God age him years before that in spite of every hard thing that happened to him, Joseph and his family line were going to be fruitful.

Joseph wouldn’t accept being chained to a painful past but let go his bitterness to live with hope for the future …. The hope that God had given him to live in.

Here’s an interesting side-note right here.

Trauma tends to bind us to the past, making it difficult for us to live in the present.

You can’t live now if you’re preoccupied with your painful past.

But Hebrews paints for us the forward-looking nature of Joseph’s faith:

“By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.”

Hebrews 11:22

OK - it would be 430 years before Joseph’s bones would be taken to be re-buried in the land of his ancestors! (Genesis 50:25-26, Exodus 12:40) … but Joseph lived with that forward-looking focus.

Yes, we need to accept the burden of our past, but to do so looking forward to what Romans 8:18describes as “the glory that will be revealed in us.”

And perhaps that’s what enabled Joseph to do this next thing …

            •          5. Seeking to forgive

Fifthly Joseph didn’t return evil for evil, but good.

Amazingly obviously when dealing incognito with his grain-begging brothers, whilst not ignoring what had happened to him and probing his brothers’ guilt and repentance, Joseph did not hold grudges and never sought revenge.

Interestingly, the word ‘forgive’ is first used in the Bible in genesis 50:17 by Joseph’s brothers.

And by v. 19 Joseph is telling them to have no fear.

His words are revealing of other ways he’d handled his trauma, ways that we’ve examined already.

Hear these words:

“Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

Genesis 50:19-21

Through all the bitter experiences of his life Joseph had held on to his faith in his God, and the bigger picture that came with this faithfulness.

Nevertheless, as he processed his grief, and as an integral part of it, Joseph nonetheless mourned over his trauma.

            •          6. Lamenting

Several times Genesis frankly tells us outright that Joseph wept.

You can check it in Genesis 42:24; 43:30; 45:14; 46:29 and 50:1.

Steward again says “Asan adult he had learned the need for and value of open and appropriate expression of emotions.” (Op. cit. p. 9)

He hid his tears from his brothers in Egypt but he nonetheless shed them, and his farewell to his father involved seventy days of mourning in Egypt and full seven days of it away in the land of Canaan.

Steward  concludes: “Joseph felt pain and learned to express it freely in a healthy way.”

Of course painful memories return.

The death of my step-father this week has evoked many memories of my mother!

As memories of past traumas resurface we begin to grieve the old loss once more.

Processing pain is that, a process not just an event, and as painful memories return we need to grieve again.

But it’s a process and each time we grieve the pain diminishes, and telling our stories lessens the sting of our trauma.

Mourning, lamenting is a God-given gift to us as imperfect people in an imperfect world, and our expressions of deep feelings of loss help us to process our pain and prevent further harm occurring to ourselves and to others near us.

         •        Application

Oh yes, Joseph was a sufferer, but Joseph was a survivor.

Not always a nice one, which sometimes gave rise to and was sometimes bound up with his suffering.

That’s just reality.

But whilst the suffered he also survived, settled and served in Egypt for eighty years, living by faith in the promise of his God.

And here’s the thing: his traumatic experiences neither defined, destroyed nor even just inhibited him, because as he said in our text: “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Genesis 41:52 

I really do commend that to you a a verse to commit to memory!

Joseph became like a fruitful tree planted beside a watercourse, as Psalm 1:3 puts it … bearing fruit in the right season.

Not because he was coddled in a specialist garden.

Not because he never knew grief, pain and threats.

But because he tended to the needs of his tree, and because he chose that course of life rather than neglecting them.