Over this past summer and fall, our family has nearly worn out our CD of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat from listening to it so much in our van on road trips. In addition, our two preschool-age daughters have nearly worn out our VHS copy of the Donny Osmond version of Joseph from watching it nearly constantly (Sorry, Donny, Jason Donovan is much better in the role of Joseph). For months, everyone in our house, kids and adults alike, has been singing snippets of Joseph over and over again. In fact, it was a little embarrassing when our then-four-year-old daughter was going around quoting Mrs. Potiphar, saying, “Every morning she would beckon, ‘Come and lie with me, Love.'” But, as they say in the musical, “It’s all there in chapter thirty-nine of Genesis.” And at least our kids are learning one Bible story really well.
In some places, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did an extremely clever job of telling Joseph’s story. “Benjamin Calypso” is a great way of demonstrating Judah’s willingness to trade his life for his little brother. And who could resist “The Song of the King,” when Pharaoh is wearing blue suede shoes?
But it’s amazing how Messrs. Webber and Rice totally missed the point of the biblical narrative of Joseph that stretches from Genesis 37, 39-50. For them, it’s the inspiring story of a young man who caught a good tailwind in life and made it big by harnessing his talents. The narrator says, “But all that I say can be told another way, in the story of a boy whose dream came true, and he could be you”–as though the story was really about our ability to make our dreams come true, just like ol’ Joe. Later on, Joseph himself reveals the purported theme of the musical: “Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!”
In fact, Webber and Rice did a pretty thorough job of sanitizing the Joseph story of all God references and making it an inspiring story of one man’s achievement. The only God stuff I can detect in Joseph (and I’ve had plenty of repetitions to check this over) are some passing words in Joseph’s song, “Close Every Door.” When he sings that the “Children of Israel are never alone,” I presume the reference is to their covenant God, who promised to never leave them or forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8). Likewise, when he says that “We have been promised a land of our own,” I assume the Promiser is the LORD their God. Otherwise, the musical is pretty much God-free, except maybe for Joseph’s comment that he doesn’t believe in “free love” when he’s resisting Potiphar’s wife (an obscure reference to Exodus 20:14 and Leviticus 18:20?).
On the other hand, the Bible’s narrative of Joseph is all about the God who calls, empowers, preserves, protects, and works all things to his grand purpose and the well being of his chosen children.
In the Bible, when Pharaoh’s servants ask Joseph to interpret their dreams, he gives credit where credit is due: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Genesis 40:8) Again when he is charged by Pharaoh to interpret his dream, Joseph, once again, demurs and says, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Genesis 41:16 ESV)
Finally, when Joseph’s brothers attempt to indenture themselves to him, Joseph sets the whole, sordid affair in its proper context. Joseph says to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20 ESV, emphasis added)
As the biblical narrative shows, God worked it out so that the brothers’ evil intent actually became their salvation, since Joseph was able to keep them fed during the famine that ravaged the region. And hundreds of years later, even through the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, God was still able to bring about his good promise to lead his people to the Promised Land. And even later still, God was able to rescue a remnant of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah–despite the people who opposed him and tried to do evil to him.
That is the true meaning of Joseph’s story–good news that is much better than, “anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break.”