Every spiritual journey begins in a context of time, place, and family. Joseph’s journey is no exception; but in many ways, his context is extremely complicated. Joseph’s immediate male ancestors were all men who had experienced dramatic encounters with God. Abraham had experienced an explicit call from God that initiated a special covenant that was passed down to his descendants. The Lord appeared to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 17:1; 18:1), spoke to him, guided and protected him in his travels, and gave him a son of the covenant in his old age. Abraham secured from among his own people a wife for his son Isaac, who shared in experiencing appearances of the Lord (26:2, 24) and a renewal of the covenant made with Abraham. Isaac (through a deceitful manipulation by his wife) passed on the blessing of the covenant to his younger son, Jacob, who also experienced appearances of the Lord (28:13; 35:1,9). In establishing the covenant with Jacob, God changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” (32:28). Jacob named the location of his encounter with God “Peniel,” which means “the face of God,” “for,” as Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30).
In the place of face-to-face encounters with God, Joseph had dreams (37:5,9). His brothers called him “the dreamer” (37:19). Joseph also possessed the gift of interpreting dream (Gen. 40—41). As to a highly charged personal encounter with God, Joseph would seem to be lacking. References to the covenant with God in the book of Genesis die out at Genesis 17:21). Joseph’s faith experience is vastly different from the experiences of his forefathers.
Joseph’s experience foreshadows some of the significant problems that we face in spiritual development. The fervency of faith seems to decline in subsequent generations. I guess most every family looks at the family they birthed and sense that their own faith in some degree has been watered down in the generations of their children and grandchildren. The highly personal experience of faith shifts to a more social and moral context, and the vitality of personal experience seems to decline. This is not a fixed outcome, for exceptions surely exist; but Joseph’s less-personal experience with God is more the rule than the exception.
The biblical history is not an encouraging one in many ways. Long periods of decline seem to be integral parts of the biblical story. Think of the periods from Joseph to Moses, from Moses to the judges, from David and Solomon to the divided kingdom, from the fall of Israel to the Babylonian exile, from the rebuilding of the temple to the Roman-dominated setting into which Jesus was born. Faith survived all of these transitions; but it was not the triumphal, socially dominating kind of faith that many of us hope for and wish for.
I am not implying that a family’s emphasis on having their children attend church and participate in religious activities is a bad or hopeless thing; but the reality is that at some point faith must escape the family, church, and social traditions and become a personal experience. That personal experience will not be a carbon copy of the parents’ faith experiences. In some sense, because faith is primarily a personal experience, we cannot and should not expect the faith of the next generation to be exactly like our own. We must try to provide an environment in which our children will have opportunities to experience God in their own unique and personal ways.
Joseph’s faith was not a matter of parental failure, even though his father’s favoritism certainly was a poisoning influence in the family. Joseph’s faith experience was different from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We’ll explore more about Joseph’s faith experience in future postings.