This passage holds theologically complex understandings about reconciliation, forgiveness, and the question of God’s purpose and whether God ever causes bad things to happen so good can come of them. We are in the midst of complicated family dynamics and drama, with multiple character twists, missteps and eventual spiritual growth.
Through jealousy and hatred toward Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Eventually, with his skill of interpreting dreams, Joseph gains authority by advising Pharaoh to store up 20% of the harvest in 7 years of abundance to feed the people in 7 years of famine. Joseph becomes part of Pharaoh’s inner circle, his cabinet secretary of agriculture. Andrew Lloyd Webber calls it – “Pharoah’s #2”.
Chapter 42, tells us that Joseph tried to forget his past family trauma by naming his firstborn son Manasseh:
“For God has made me forget all the troubles
I endured in my father’s house.”
Except that 13 years later, Joseph’s family history and his work life collide in the midst of the famine. Facing starvation in Canaan, Jacob sends 10 of his sons to Egypt to buy some grain.
Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now has the upper hand. Anyone who wants to eat must come through Joseph’s door. His imperial power gives him authority to decide who will live and who will die. He hoards the grain; he decides who may purchase it and at what price. Joseph is in a position to get revenge. Rather than reconciliation, Joseph chooses not to reveal his identity, and uses his power over his brothers. He stands apart from them, uses an interpreter, speaks harshly to them, accuses them of spying. He continually throws the brothers off balance by throwing them all in jail, demanding that they return to Egypt with Benjamin, planting money in their sacks and his silver divining cup in Benjamin’s sack. Racked with guilt and confusion on this emotional roller coaster, they expect punishment or death at the hands of the formidible Egyptian master puppeteer.
With these manipulative tricks, Joseph moves from the role of one abused to becoming the abuser.
Multiple times, Joseph turns aside to weep privately, but those deeply held feelings have not stopped him from testing and manipulating his brothers – one minute vindictive, the next weeping privately. Mean and spiteful on the outside, with a soft, vulnerable core on the inside. How often do you see that played out today – do you know people who present a tough exterior out of pain or rejection, hiding their vulnerability and tears, living a divided life? That kind of behavior throws people off-balance, not knowing what to expect next. Joseph’s private tears cannot and do not justify his actions of the impression of revenge and manipulation. But there is something beautiful to behold in watching the drama of Joseph’s inner turmoil and wrestling turn to spiritual growth as he attempts to make sense of the meaning of his life, casting his brother’s earlier evil decisions in a theological light.
When Judah steps in to plead for Benjamin’s release for the sake of their father, Joseph is overcome with emotion. He clears the room of everyone except his brothers.
“He wept so loudly the Egyptians heard it; the household of Pharaoh heard it!” He finally reveals his identity: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
As Jospeh attempts to make sense of the meaning of his life, we need to be cautious in telling victims of abuse to see ‘God’s plan’ in their pain. God did not plan for the brothers to do evil in ridding themselves of Joseph. They are accountable for their sin. Yet, we can acknowledge the way God can use harm done to foster reconciliation.
Walt Brueggemann:“Neither the freedom of the creature nor the gracious sovereignty of God is cancelled”.
Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes interprets the reunion and reconciliation this way.
Joseph is not excusing his brothers for their cruelty.
He’s seeing his own fate in a larger context—of God’s desire for wholeness.
Joseph is not suggesting God wanted him sold into slavery.
He’s recognizing the simple miraculous truth that God is in everything, even evil and disaster.
We need to be accountable for any of our actions which hurt others. And, part of our spiritual journey is trusting that the Holy Spirit is always at work in the complexity of our lives to bring new life, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to our relationships. And it is a loooonnnng process.
In fact, such a long process that the brothers are still not convinced of Joseph’s forgiveness, and still fear the possibility of his revenge after their father dies at the end of the book of Genesis. They talk amongst themselves:
“Perhaps Joseph still bears us enmity and intends to repay us for all the harm that we afflicted upon him!”
It’s a messy family reunion and tenuous reconciliation at best. And that’s where we need to be reminded that reconciliation and forgiveness can be a long journey.
At the end of the story Joseph proclaims:
“What meant for evil, God intended for good.”
In the midst of it, even there, At the bottom of your pit, God is at work.
God’s grace goes with us in the messiness of life, extending to us peace in the midst of what is unfinished, untidy, unclear, or unresolved. With steadfast patience, let us be encouraged in the labors of love, in the complications of forgiveness, pressing on through complexities, and staying present to the troubles that call for our attention – within us, between us, around us. Blessed be our journeys of healing and transformation.