Why I chose to retell one of the most retold stories in the Bible
Imagine you’re back in Sunday School, sitting down with all your friends and watching the volunteer parent who teaches the class smile over the flannelgraph. (Or, if you never went to Sunday School, just imagine yourself in a smallish room with too many little friends around you, and an adult who doesn’t want to mess this up running the class.) “Now, friends,” (s)he says, holding up a flannel image of a teenager in what looks like a rainbow bathrobe: “This is Joseph.”
Joseph is plastered to the flannelgraph, and the parent puts up a flannel group of angry men next to him. “His brothers hated him because his father gave him a beautiful coat. They threw him in a pit and sold him as a slave!”
Appreciative gasps echo from the crowd of five-year-olds – even kids know that good drama comes from torturing your characters.
“His master threw him in prison – ” (we necessarily skip why) “– but one day Pharaoh had a dream!”
Flannel Pharaoh appears, slapped on the flannelgraph, wearing a white skirt and lots of bling.
“Joseph interpreted the dream, and Pharaoh made him his second-in-command. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for food in a famine, Joseph helped them. And you know what, friends?” The parent looks around with a grin. “Joseph never lost his faith in God! Isn’t that amazing?”
You and your friends nod solemnly. What a guy.
You probably hear this story at least once a year in Sunday School, with more detail added each time, but by the time you’re a worldly-wise sixth grader, you start to nod a little less and frown a little more.
You know the story like the back of your hand.
But it doesn’t make any sense anymore.
The truth is that this version of Joseph, whose flannel avatar has been waved in your face for years, this icon of the Sunday-School world, isn’t a person to emulate. He can’t be emulated.
Because the story of a man who faced every unthinkable hardship thrown his way with a smile on his face and praise on his lips and forgiveness in his heart is. Not. A. Story. Of. Real. Faith.
You want real faith? Look at the guy who talked to Jesus in Mark Chapter 9. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Translation: “I know I’m supposed to trust You, but in this moment, I don’t. Please help me out!”
Humans aren’t perfect. Why then are we shown a perfect Joseph?
Various adaptations of the Joseph story have tried their hand at mitigating this problem. For the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the whole thing is played so humorously that character exploration ranks at exactly nil, and no one questions anything Joseph does. For the perennial Sunday-School favorite Joseph: King of Dreams cartoon movie, God and faith are taken mostly out of the story, so Joseph is free to be an “ordinary person” (Do you see the problem with this last idea? I hope you do. faith ≠ superhuman).
Other adaptations have tried as well, but this fantasy and science fiction writer had yet to see an adaptation where the story was told, exactly as it was in the Old Testament, while carefully building around the narrative to show the raw humanity, faith, and lack of faith of the people in the story.
I challenged myself to do it – firstly because I loved the story (remember, torturing characters = good drama, and boy does Joseph get the – extremely – short end of the stick for a good chunk of his life) and secondly, because I knew it would be an insane ride:
Maintain Biblical accuracy? Check.
Maintain historical accuracy? Check.
Find logical, character-based, human reasons for each action recorded in the Old Testament account? Check.
Still get Joseph to the point at the end of the story where he is able to forgive his brothers and see that God’s hand had been at work? Hoo boy. Check.
It was crazy, but I had an absolute blast.
Come, follow me through my next blog entries, and I’ll tell you all about it!