I started writing this poem in church during a sermon Genesis 37. Despite the dark content of the passage, I was very amused by the idea that the Ishmaelites were traders in gum. There’s not much to my composition process on this one—I basically wrote the first things that came to mind. I jotted down a few versions of the second stanza, one of which involved the speakers addressing Joseph directly:
Thank you, cousin.
Your shackles bought us
I tried a few things before I settled on what’s there, and I didn’t come up with the second line until later. I like the way it sounds, the way it parallels the first line and parallels the misquotation that opens the first stanza. On the other hand, I almost feel like it’s trying too hard to be clever.
It’s interesting to me how riffing on something as silly as the word “gum” can lead to a deeper reflection. Of course the gum that the Ishmaelites traded was not for chewing, and it sold for more than five cents a stick, but when it comes to selling your own flesh and blood—or any flesh and blood for that matter—how much difference is there really between five cents and twenty shekels of silver? Any price that we can offer for the image of God is a trivial one.
The silver really was a boon for Joseph’s brothers. They were already rid of Joseph. Their attitude is very worldly wise: If we’re going to get rid of him, we might as well make a buck off of it. Selling Joseph into slavery was as good as murder in their eyes (Gen 44:20) and, if the punishments in the law are any testimony, may be as good as murder in the eyes of God (Deut 24:7).
The path that Joseph takes is a path of resurrection—a path that every one of his brothers thought beyond possibility. In the end they are nevertheless forced to reckon with their crime. How like the judgment day is it when the sons of Jacob realize they are standing before the brother they have betrayed and that he has the power to spare or destroy them?
His brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. (Gen 45:3, NRSV)
What seemed wise in Genesis 37 must not have seemed so foolproof in Genesis 45. Thank God for his and Joseph’s mercy. May he renew our minds and teach us to abide in him so that we might not shrink from him in shame at his coming (1 John 2:28).