An ancient Japanese practice beautifully illustrates God’s redemptive work in Joseph’s life and ours, says Eric Ortlund.
Kintsugi (literally, ‘golden repair’) is a Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with liquid gold or lacquer mixed with gold dust. For about 500 years, broken pottery has not been discarded but re-made in a way which paradoxically emphasizes the damage, contributing to the beauty of the artefact.
There is some discussion of the significance which this practice has within larger Buddhist ideas of the acceptance of transience and imperfection. But one need not be a practising Buddhist to find kintsugi highly suggestive. A friend of mine who works as a missionary in Japan told me that one needs a very healthy doctrine of common grace when interacting with Japanese culture. Although Christian influence in essentially non-existent, the image of God in man remains, however marred by sin it may be. As a result, along with every other culture in the world, Japan bears broken witness to its Creator, whether it intends to or not.
Scripture contains many examples of God’s ‘golden repair’ of his children, in which he beautifies their brokenness. Joseph is especially striking in this regard. Most of us are familiar with the Joseph who admirably resists the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, and for the noblest of reasons: ‘How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ (Genesis 39:9). There is a total lack of self-pity here; it never occurs to Joseph to think, ‘My brothers betrayed me and God did nothing to stop it: why not indulge myself?’ But we are perhaps less aware of how Joseph is portrayed in the first chapter of his story.
We’re no sooner told his name, age, and profession, when he brings a bad report of his brothers to their father (Genesis 37:2). What the narrator doesn’t tell us is whether this tale-bearing is justified. Perhaps his brothers were behaving horribly and Joseph was conscience-stricken; perhaps it was one of those immature spats which Joseph exaggerated; possibly it was a fabrication. Regardless of how one interprets it, it’s hard not to wonder about Joseph here; he seems very different from the great reconciler of later chapters. His father unwisely pours petrol on the fire by openly favouring Joseph above his brothers, creating a family life so tense that they’re not even on speaking terms.
Joseph surely must have been aware of this hostility, but it doesn’t stop him sharing his dreams with his brothers – the meaning of which are unambiguous to everyone. This is a culture in which dreams are prophetic. So why does Joseph tell his brothers, who openly hate him, that someday he’ll rule them? Why not speak to his father first, or just keep quiet (as Mary does in Luke 2:19)? Is this teenage insecurity? Does Joseph want his brothers’ approval without knowing how to get it? Or is it just pride? An ugly way of boasting to them?
As someone who steered a major superpower of the ancient world through a famine of seven years and fed most of the surrounding countries, Joseph was obviously a man of incredible talents. At this point in his journey, however, his moral character does not match his gifting. God means to do great good to both Abraham’s descendants and the nations as well, however, and means to do it through this talented, insecure man. But one wonders if God sees the profound ways Joseph needs to change, so he can stand as a channel of God’s blessing – if the only way Joseph can become the kind of man who resists Potiphar’s wife and forgives his brothers is through a very painful process of breaking. Imagine what it was like to be sold into slavery by your own brothers only because they’d make more money that way than by murdering you (Genesis 37:26-27). Whether it was insecurity or arrogance on his part, Joseph doesn’t deserve to be treated that way!
But he manages, with God’s help, to make a nice life for himself in Potiphar’s house, one he seems thankful for and disinclined to lose, only to find it slips out of his grasp! In a perfectly tragic irony, the one man trying to do the right thing in Genesis 39 is the one in prison by the end of the chapter. Surely Joseph must have thought his life was over at this point – that as a slave and a foreigner, no one would ever trust him again, and the best he could hope for was to rot in jail.
But God is with Joseph in a way even the Egyptians cannot deny, and in a suspicious series of ‘coincidences,’ he is soon second-in-command of the country. Joseph does his work well, preparing for the coming famine, and closing the book on his old life by naming his sons ‘Forget’ and ‘Fruitful’. He appears to be deliberately leaving behind the trauma he suffered at the hands of his brothers and settling into life as an Egyptian.
At this point, Joseph has made great progress from the insecure teenager of Genesis 37. But God has even greater good waiting for Joseph than a life of power and responsibility in a foreign country. Imagine Joseph’s shock when the past he has forgotten comes back, bowing and begging for food (Genesis 42:8-9)! Joseph now has complete power over his brothers and seems at first to react in anger. No sooner does he inflict his will on his terrified brothers, however, than the cracks begin to appear: he softens his approach, and weeps in solitude when he hears of their remorse. Picture Joseph, head shaven and dressed in white, obeyed by every Egyptian, reduced to helpless tears as the memory of that pit overwhelms him, the numb hours wondering whether he would die, the useless appeals to his own flesh and blood, the cold, the thirst.
Commentators wonder about the motive behind Joseph putting his brothers’ money back in their sacks, but it seems most likely that Joseph is understandably unsure about whether he can trust his brothers. He hasn’t seen them for years: have they changed? As a result, Joseph re-creates a situation similar to that in which they first sold him into slavery. If the brothers have more money than they could get by selling either Simeon or Benjamin (Rachel’s other son) and a plausible excuse to abandon a brother in Egypt, will they?
As it turns out, everyone in the family is changing, and any such thoughts are very far from the brothers (Genesis 42:28). But the narrator keeps turning our attention to Joseph’s acutely painful growth: his compassion grows warm to Benjamin and he must hurry away to explode in private. But it is not until Judah delivers his poignant and beautifully sacrificial speech which ends chapter 44, that Joseph is finally shattered. When Judah, so changed from his earlier hypocritical harshness (Genesis 38:24, 26) – Judah who, as Leah’s son, has so much reason to resent his father’s favouritism toward Joseph and Benjamin – offers his own life for Benjamin’s, Joseph cannot control himself any longer.
Imagine the awkwardness of Joseph’s Egyptian colleagues, standing outside the room but unable to ignore Joseph’s pain as his shouts and tears echo through the whole house. Imagine also the terror and wonder inside the room, as his brothers are at first not even able to speak, and only slowly able to receive the good news that not only will they survive the famine, and not only do it in the most pleasant of places, but that the family they helped to break will be restored. Their brother is alive and is their friend! Even more important than surviving the famine is Abraham’s family reconciling, growing out of their murderous hatred, and becoming the kind of people through whom God can extend his blessing to every nation.
‘God sent me before you… so it was not you who sent me here, but God’ (Genesis 45:7-8). God was the one who broke Joseph. But each scene of reconciliation is edged with gold: Joseph falls on each brother’s necks and weeps; Jacob can die at peace now that he’s seen Joseph again; Joseph receives the promise of God’s continued faithfulness and care. For all of Joseph’s family, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Joseph is definitely not the only biblical hero who is broken and re-made. Peter goes away and weeps bitterly after a single look from Jesus (Luke 22:61-62). Who can communicate all that went into that look? But only after he is broken can he strengthen his brothers, and eventually come to speak of that genuine faith which is far more valuable than silver or gold that perishes (1 Peter 1:7). And God does not spare his own Son from the agony of the cross, where he received (in the words of the old hymn) those ‘rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.’
Kintsugi is an unusually vivid illustration of how God doesn’t throw you away when you’re broken. He re-makes you, lining each scar with gold, so that what would be a permanently ugly reminder of tragedy instead become the very outline of God’s beauty reflected in your history. Such is the depth of his goodness, such the skill of his artistry.