Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Works of Charles Kingsley, Vol. 25 (published 1885).
(Preached on the Sunday before the Wedding of the Prince of Wales. March 8th, third Sunday in Lent.)
GENESIS xxxix. 9.
How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?
The story of Joseph is one which will go home to all healthy hearts. Every child can understand, every child can feel with it. It is a story for all men and all times. Even if it had not been true, and not real fact, but a romance of man’s invention, it would have been loved and admired by men; far more then, when we know that it is true, that it actually did so happen; that is part and parcel of the Holy Scriptures.
We all, surely, know the story—How Joseph’s brethren envy him and sell him for a slave into Egypt—how there for a while he prospers—how his master’s wife tempts him—how he is thrown into prison on her slander—how there again he prospers—how he explains the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants—how he lies long forgotten in the prison—how at last Pharaoh sends for him to interpret a dream for him, and how he rises to power and great glory—how his brothers come down to Egypt to buy corn, and how they find him lord of all the land—how subtly he tries them to see if they have repented of their old sin—how his heart yearns over them in spite of all their wickedness to him—how at last he reveals himself, and forgives them utterly, and sends for his poor old father Jacob down into Egypt. Whosoever does not delight in that story, simply as a story, whenever he hears it read, cannot have a wholesome human heart in him.
But why was this story of Joseph put into Holy Scripture, and at such length, too? It seems, at first sight, to be simply a family history—the story of brothers and their father; it seems, at first sight, to teach us nothing concerning our redemption and salvation; it seems, at first sight, not to reveal anything fresh to us concerning God; it seems, at first sight, not to be needed for the general plan of the Bible history. It tells us, of course, how the Israelites first came into Egypt; and that was necessary for us to know. But the Bible might have told us that in ten verses. Why has it spent upon the story of Joseph and his brethren, not ten verses, but ten chapters?
Now we have a right to ask such questions as these, if we do not ask them out of any carping, fault-finding spirit, trying to pick holes in the Bible, from which God defend us and all Christian men. If we ask such questions in faith and reverence—that is, believing and taking for granted that the Bible is right, and respecting it, as the Book of books, in which our own forefathers and all Christian nations upon earth for many ages have found all things necessary for their salvation—if, I say, we question over the Bible in that child-like, simple, respectful spirit, which is the true spirit of wisdom and understanding, by which our eyes will be truly opened to see the wondrous things of God’s law: then we may not only seek as our Lord bade us, but we shall find, as our Lord prophesied that we should. We shall find some good reason for this story of Joseph being so long, and find that the story of Joseph, like all the rest of the Bible, reveals a new lesson to us concerning God and the character of God.
I said that the story of Joseph looks, at first sight, to be merely a family history. But suppose that that were the very reason why it is in the Bible, because it is a family history. Suppose that families were very sacred things in the eyes of God. That the ties of husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, were appointed, not by man, but by God. Then would not Joseph’s story be worthy of being in the Bible? Would it not, as I said it would, reveal something fresh to us concerning God and the character of God?
Consider now, my friends: Is it not one great difference—one of the very greatest—between men and beasts, that men live in families, and beasts do not? That men have the sacred family feeling, and beasts have not? They have the beginnings of it, no doubt. The mother, among beasts, feels love to her children, but only for a while. God has implanted in her something of that deepest, holiest, purest of all feelings—a mother’s love. But as soon as her young ones are able to take care of themselves, they are nothing to her—among the lower animals, less than nothing. The fish or the crocodile will take care of her eggs jealously, and as soon as they are hatched, turn round and devour her own young.
The feeling of a father to his child, again, you find is fainter still among beasts. The father, as you all know, not only cares little for his offspring, even if he sometimes helps to feed them at first, but is often jealous of them, hates them, will try to kill them when they grow up.
Husband and wife, again: there is no sacredness between them among dumb animals. A lasting and an unselfish attachment, not merely in youth, but through old age and beyond the grave—what is there like this among the animals, except in the case of certain birds, like the dove and the eagle, who keep the same mate year after year, and have been always looked on with a sort of affection and respect by men for that very reason?
But where, among beasts, do you ever find any trace of those two sacred human feelings—the love of brother to brother, or of child to father? Where do you find the notion that the tie between husband and wife is a sacred thing, to be broken at no temptation, but in man?
These are the feelings which man has alone of all living animals.
These then, remember, are the very family feelings which come out in the story of Joseph. He honours holy wedlock when he tells his master’s wife, ‘How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ He honours his father, when he is not ashamed of him, wild shepherd out of the desert though he might be, and an abomination to the Egyptians, while he himself is now in power and wealth and glory, as a prince in a civilized country. He honours the tie of brother to brother, by forgiving and weeping over the very brothers who have sold him into slavery.
But what has all this to do with God?
Now man, as we know, is an animal with an immortal spirit in him. He has, as St. Paul so carefully explains to us, a flesh and a spirit—a flesh like the beasts which perish; a spirit which comes from God.
Now the Bible teaches us that man did not get these family feelings from his flesh, from the animal, brute part of him. They are not carnal, but spiritual. He gets them from his spirit, and they are inspired into him by the Spirit of God. They come not from the earth below, but from the heaven above; from the image of God, in which man alone of all living things was made.
For if it were not so, we should surely see some family feeling in the beasts which are most like men. But we do not. In the apes, which are, in their shape and fleshly nature, so strangely and shockingly like human beings, there is not as much family feeling as there is in many birds, or even insects. Nay, the wild negroes, among whom they live, hold them in abhorrence, and believe that they were once men like themselves, who were gradually changed into brute beasts, by giving way to detestable sins; while these very negroes themselves, heathens and savages as they are, have the family feeling—the feeling of husband for wife, father for child, brother for brother; not, indeed, as strongly and purely as we, or at least those of us who are really Christian and civilized, but still they have it; and that makes between the lowest man and the highest brute a difference which I hold is as wide as the space between heaven and earth.
It is man alone, I say, who has the idea of family; and who has, too, the strange, but most true belief that these family ties are appointed by God—that they are a part of his religion—that in breaking them, by being an unfaithful husband, a dishonest servant, an unnatural son, a selfish brother, he sins, not only against man, and man’s order and laws, but against God.
Parent and child, brother and sister—those ties are not of the earth earthy, but of the heaven of God, eternal. They may begin in time; of what happened before we came into this world we know nought. But having begun, they cannot end. Of what will happen after we leave this world, that at least we know in part.
Parent and child; brother and sister; husband and wife likewise; these are no ties of man’s invention. They are ties of God’s binding; they are patterns and likenesses of his substance, and of his being. Of the eternal Father, who says for ever to the eternal Son, ‘This day have I begotten thee.’ Of the Son who says for ever to the Father, ‘I come to do thy will, O God.’ Of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren; but like a greater Joseph, was sent before by God to save our lives with a great deliverance when our forefathers were but savages and heathens. Husband and wife likewise—are not they two divine words—not human words at all? Has not God consecrated the state of matrimony to such an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the mystical union between Christ and his Church? Are not husbands to love their wives, and give themselves for them as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it? That, indeed, was not revealed in the Old Testament, but it is revealed in the New; and marriage, like all other human ties, is holy and divine, and comes from God down to men.
Yes. These family ties are of God. It was to show us how sacred, how Godlike they are—how eternal and necessary for all mankind—that Joseph’s story was written in Holy Scripture.
They are of God, I say. And he who despises them, despises not man but God; who hath also given us his Holy Spirit to make us know how sacred these bonds are.
He who looks lightly on the love of child to parent, or brother to brother, or husband to wife, and bids each man please himself, each man help himself, and shift for himself, would take away from men the very thing which raises them above the beasts which perish, and lower them again to the likeness of the flesh, that they may of the flesh reap corruption.
They who, under whatever pretence of religion part asunder families; or tell children, like the wicked Pharisees of old, that they may say to their parents, Corban— ‘I have given to God the service and help which, as your child, I should have given to you’—shall be called, if not by men, at least by God himself, hypocrites, who draw near to God with their mouths, and honour him with their lips, while their heart is far from him.
I think now we may see that I was right when I said—Perhaps the history of Joseph is in the Bible because it is a family history. For see, it is the history of a man who loved his family, who felt that family life was holy and God-appointed; whom God rewarded with honour and wealth, because he honoured family ties; because he refused his master’s wife; because he rewarded his brothers good for evil; because he was not ashamed of his father, but succoured him in his old age.
It is the history of a man who-more than four hundred years before God gave the ten commandments on Sinai, saying,
Honour thy father and mother,
Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not kill in revenge,
Thou shalt not covet aught of thy neighbours—It is the history, I say, of a man who had those laws of God written in his heart by the Holy Spirit of God; and felt that to break them was to sin against God. It is the history of a man who, sorely tempted and unjustly persecuted, kept himself pure and true; who, while all around him, beginning with his own brothers, were trampling under foot the laws of family, felt that the laws were still there round him, girding him in with everlasting bands, and saying to him, Thou shalt and Thou shalt not; that he was not sent into the world to do just what was pleasant for the moment, to indulge his own passions or his own revenge; but that if he was indeed a man, he must prove himself a man, by obeying Almighty God. It is the history of a man who kept his heart pure and tender, and who thereby gained strange and deep wisdom; that wisdom which comes only to the pure in heart; that wisdom by which truly good men are enabled to see farther, and to be of more use to their fellow-creatures than many a cunning and crooked politician, whose eyes are blinded, because his heart is defiled with sin.
And now, my friends, if we pray—as we are bound to pray—for that great Prince who is just entering on the cares and the duties, as well as the joys and blessings of family life—what better prayer can we offer up for him, than that God would put into his heart that spirit which he put into the heart of Joseph of old—the spirit to see how divine and God-appointed is family life? God grant that that spirit may dwell in him, and possess him more and more day by day. That it may keep him true to his wife, true to his mother, true to his family, true, like Joseph, to all with whom he has to deal. That it may deliver him, as it delivered Joseph, from the snares of wicked women, from selfish politicians, if they ever try to sow distrust and opposition between him and his kindred, and from all those temptations which can only be kept down by the Spirit of God working in men’s hearts, as he worked in the heart of Joseph.
For if that spirit be in the Prince—and I doubt not that that spirit is in him already—then will his fate be that of Joseph; then will he indeed be a blessing to us, and to our children after us; then will he have riches more real, and power more vast, than any which our English laws can give; then will he gain, like Joseph, that moral wisdom, better than all worldly craft, which cometh from above—first pure, then gentle, easy to be entreated, without partiality, and without hypocrisy; then will he be able, like Joseph, to deliver his people in times of perplexity and distress; then will he by his example, as his noble mother has done before him, keep healthy, pure, and strong, our English family life—and as long as that endures, Old England will endure likewise.