A few years ago, Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler delivered Harvard University’s Class Day speech. In a fake Bostonian dialect, she joked, “Just because yah wicked smaht doesn’t mean yah beddah than me.”
Then she got serious.
“All I can tell you today is what I’ve learned, what I have discovered as a person in this world, and that is this: You can’t do it alone. Be open to collaboration…it will change your life.”
“We all grow up afraid of something,” she said. Letting others in “should make you feel less alone, less scared.”
A beautiful sentiment. Which is fine, until somebody ticks us off.
As was the case for Joseph.
Joseph was the tenth son of Jacob. He had a Technicolor coat that annoyed his nine older brothers and dreams that bugged them even more.
So they shoved him in a well and left him for dead.
Wherein, a reader registers once and for all that the Bible is not a book showcasing the moral elite. Joseph’s narrative painfully highlights jealous siblings who were jerks, a sexually frustrated woman who was a jerk, and a chief cupbearer who really did not keep his promise to Joseph for a long, long time.
Eventually, finally, the tides turned for Joseph. The chief cupbearer ultimately introduced Joseph to Pharaoh, and after some dream-interpreting, Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring and a nice gold chain and said, “I hereby put you in charge of the entire land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:41).
That was Joseph’s condition—he was practically a king—when his life’s initial heartbreak came full circle and he wound up face-to-face, once again, with his nemesis brothers.
They needed his help.
And Joseph needed Poehler’s speech. Not the yah-not-beddah-than-me, part, although that did seem to be Joseph’s go-to solution, at first. Joseph threw the whole crew in jail, then yanked them back out, kidnapped one of the brothers, and sent the rest home with plunder in their packs that made them look like thieves.
Bible readers react to these castigating brotherly reprimands by picking sides. Was Joseph humiliating the brothers or invoking humility in them?
Humility and humiliation are not the same thing. One tell-tale differentiator? Humiliation is diminishing. Humility, however, is a tool that, at least in classic literature, tends to actually strengthen a character to fight harder for what is right & good.
Joseph’s brother Judah had just had this flavor of comeuppance a few pages earlier when his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was very brave and shoved it in his face that he’d been a narcissistic hypocrite and that she wasn’t going to take it lying down.
He acknowledged his wrongdoing. He acknowledged that Tamar was telling it like it should be told. “She is more righteous than I am,” he said (Genesis 38:26).
Three pages earlier, pre-Tamar, Judah had been shoving Joseph in a well.
Sometimes people do in fact go from bad to better. Sometimes they go all the way from better to changed.
Tamar was brave, which helped Judah be brave. That takes a lot of strength.
Joseph, meanwhile, had all the strength of the strongest nation in all the world at that historic moment, and it wasn’t enough. Even if Joseph brought all his power to bear on his family, eliciting their mea culpas, what piteous human remorse could possibly compensate for the havoc they’d wrought on Joseph’s life?
Then, in true the-Bible-is-often-just-a-little-bit-different-than-we-thought-it-would-be fashion, strong boss-man Joseph started to cry (Genesis 42:24).
Over. (Genesis 43:30)
And over. (Genesis 45:2)
Avenging the situation seemed hopeless.
What was a guy like Joseph to do?
What are any of us to do?
After we cry?
Through all of Joseph’s journey, he had a relationship going with God. That relationship did not rescue him from his trials, “But the Lord was with Joseph…and showed him his faithful love” (Genesis 39:21).
It was a relationship that gave Joseph the power to see things about others (Genesis 41:39). And now it gave Joseph the power to see something about himself.
Joseph could see that God used his brothers’ betrayal to grow and groom Joseph, to ultimately save a nation through Joseph’s leadership. Joseph became stronger. More secure.
That brought tears of another kind. He told his brothers, “So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:8).
Then, “weeping with joy, he embraced Benjamin, and Benjamin did the same. Then Joseph kissed each of his brothers and wept over them, and after that they began talking freely with him” (Genesis 45:14-15).
The human condition begs this question: If we give God a chance to use our relationships to change us, what exactly will he do?
Even these Bible elites received little more than “You’re about to find out.” Sometimes the abyss of the unknown made them cry.
In the end, however, the results, to a person, were very much the same.
The results were personal.
In the case of Tamar, she was the first woman named in the lineage of Jesus Christ.
In the case of Joseph, for the rest of his life, he had an ironclad perspective on his life’s calling—to lead a nation with the guidance and comfort of a God who loved him very much.
In the case of all of us? Or, as Poehler said mid-speech, “But more about me…”
Yes, more about us. God wants to be as close with us today as at any time throughout the ages. “I am the Lord, and I do not change…return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:6-7).
Anyone wondering if that means you? Too?
Try him. And you’re about to find out.
He wishes you would.
Janelle Alberts is a freelance PR and media relations specialist and has worked in communication departments for Microsoft, Wells Fargo, and UPS. She started her first religious column in 2010 for the Akron Beacon Journal and has since written for Atlanta Parent Magazine, Christianity Today’s women’s online publications, and Catholic News Service, among others.