69. Genesis 45:1-20

III. D. 4. continued

f) Joseph Revealed (Genesis 45:1–20)

It was, I think, the process of deceiving his brothers that enabled Joseph to see his brothers as his brothers and genuinely forgive them. We are all obliged to forgive our brothers, but if our “brothers” are literally our brothers and if the pain we carry is severe, then the act of forgiveness may take a bit of working out. I don’t think Joseph perceived the obligation to forgive the way we are taught in the New Testament. He had grown closer to God than anyone before him, he understood God’s character more deeply than anyone before him, but that is not to say that all the subsequent revelation would have been simply wasted on him.

So I don’t think Joseph intended to be reconciled with them when they first showed up. Seeing them, even though he had anticipated it, would have freshened the pain, reminded him vividly of the crimes of the past. He wanted to make them suffer for a while the way he had suffered. We can’t, we shouldn’t, condone what Joseph did, but neither can we judge him harshly. It was natural to want to get even and he had never been told that God doesn’t like it. However I think Joseph was also torn by the conflicting desire to be part of a family, even though his family wasn’t a very promising one. For better or for worse for each of us, our family is our family and we must make the best of it or give up. Though it may have taken a while, Joseph did come to the point where he didn’t want to give up.

The key for Joseph ultimately depended on three of his brothers, on Benjamin, Judah, and Simeon: Benjamin as his full brother, the closest brother to him even though he had never really known him – he needed to see Benjamin and he needed to see his brothers behave toward Benjamin as they should have behaved toward him; Judah as the brother who had conceived and carried out the plan to sell him – he needed to see some sign that especially Judah regretted what they had done to him; and Simeon, the brother who probably had been the most cruel, he simply wanted to hurt. I do not mean to make it sound like Joseph was a monster. He was a man like you or me. Everything I have described about Joseph is imagination based on what I know of myself and have seen in my neighbors.

But Joseph had the power and the luxury of manipulating events until he was ready to forgive. Most of us who are hurt don’t have the privileges he had and must work out our pain in a more subtle way. We have to learn to forgive without the props. Forgiving the people who have hurt us is so critical that sometimes it is justifiable to use tricks to help ourselves forgive, but there is always the danger that tricks will get out of control. Joseph was gambling with his brothers, even with his father who was old and under a lot of stress. The story of Joseph deceiving his brothers was not put in the Bible as a model to imitate. Revenge would be so emphatically forbidden that the techniques Joseph used should never lure us into imitation. But what we can do is spend energy looking for ways to get over it. We can’t forget the pain, but we can refuse to let it control us. We can refuse to let the past rule the future, as if the process of cause and effect were overpowering and we had no input, no causes, we could insert into the stream. Though we shouldn’t use Joseph’s methods, we still want to end up where Joseph did. Once he had broken down, once he finally got to the point of letting go of the past, it was complete. No longer would he bear any anger against his brothers.

It is also clear that one key to Joseph’s recovery was his understanding that God was behind it all. Joseph said in 45:5, “Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” and then in 45:7,8 he said “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” It was when he was finally able to forgive his brothers that he finally and fully realized the truth of the matter, that all things come from God, even those things which seem evil to us. He wasn’t saying that God made his brothers sell him, or that God approved of slavery or of his brothers selling him; but he was beginning to understand that there was nothing that could happen to him that was outside of God’s goodness.

It is ultimately the problem of predestination, which is so confusing to think about but which those who go through some pivotal event understand from the inside. Admitting that God predestined something seems to mean believing that He caused it to happen, that He wanted it to happen, that He approved of it. But Joseph understood God a little more deeply than that. He understood that God maintained all things, even all evil things, and that His glory consisted in always making the evil turn into good. So God predestined evil to happen to Joseph, yes, not as the instigator of evil but as the redeemer of evil. For if evil can occur without God’s predestining it, then the evil has become as powerful as God, outside of His authority, and there is no redemption. If evil can exist without God’s creating it from nothing and keeping it in being, then evil has become like God, a self-existing being, and there is no hope left to us. To disbelieve in the predestination of evil is logically equivalent to disbelieving in God’s power to redeem. Or so it seems to me.

But I think there is something else universal about the parable of Joseph’s suffering. His suffering was not ordained for his benefit only, nor even primarily. He was not sold into slavery because he was such a spoiled brat that God had to teach him a lesson to make him a better person. It is the self-centeredness of our faith that imagines God has us in view when He calls us to suffer. Sometimes it is the only way we can find to cope with great tragedy: God has inflicted this pain on me because I need it to become a better person. No doubt tragedy suffered in faith does make us better people, but the truth is that our suffering is usually – I want to say it is always – for the benefit of others, cosmic rather than personal in scope. Joseph did have one benefit that we will usually not have in our suffering, however: he got to see what it was all for. To Joseph, the perennial question, “Why do I have to suffer?” was actually answered to some extent. Most of us have to deal with our tragedies without seeing the years of famine that even one other person was delivered from through us.

What particularly strikes my imagination is how the brothers must have felt. I cannot picture myself in Joseph’s place, but I can put myself in the brothers’ place. Very few of us are the victims who suffer and who emerge through all their pain as the Hero and Savior of their people. I am not there, anyway. Joseph was very clearly a type of the Messiah to come, for the Messiah would be sold into slavery figuratively and by His own Father, He would serve faithfully as a slave, be wrongfully accused and condemned, be thrown into the prison of death by the betrayal of His own brothers, and suddenly against all the odds rise out of the prison to be given all authority and accomplish the preservation of those who were facing a spiritual famine. The metaphor Joseph’s life provides for the Messiah is worth meditating on, as it was intended. But if Joseph is a type of the Messiah, the brothers are types of us.

Suddenly the events of the previous year popped into focus for them: the money returned in the bags, the way the ruler had spoken harshly, the way he had kept Simeon in prison, the way he knew the order of their births, the preference he had shown to Benjamin, the way he ate separately from the Egyptians though he was their master, the whole course of events they had been caught up in were suddenly pulled inside out and they saw what had been going on. This kind of event is what is central to all good suspense stories, the mind-altering event that transforms the way we see all that came before. Thus God invented the suspense genre. Literary devices imitate God every time. The brothers were caught in history’s first plot twist.

And it must have frightened them totally. It must have been like their worst fears all materializing before their eyes – at least for the older brothers; it is not clear if the younger brothers knew much about what had happened to Joseph, but the older sons of Leah were trapped. There was no way to hide their guilt and there was no escape from the consequences. All the doors were closed for them and they had no hope left. It must have been astonishing, unbelievable, when Joseph spoke gently with them, when they realized they were not to be executed on the spot, or be thrown into prison. And the Scriptures indicate that they didn’t really believe it even as much as seventeen years later when Israel died. When Joseph did not take his revenge they just assumed that he was waiting until their father died so that he would not be hurt by the harm Joseph planned for them; that had been the scheme of their uncle Esau, after all. Their punishment, unintended by Joseph but the natural and just consequence of their crime, was to live in guilt and fear for the next seventeen years.

The only people really happy when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers were Pharaoh and the Egyptians. This is a mark of the impression that Joseph had made at the court. He was not just faithful and respectful when he was a slave, but as a master he had won the admiration, and even the love, of the people who saw him day by day, just as Abraham had won the devotion of his servants. This is as revealing of Joseph’s character as his years of slavery were. A man can be faithful as a slave out of simple selfishness, to get ahead; but a man who is in Joseph’s position, the ruler of all the land, all the people, can easily come to believe that he can do as he pleases. Any latent selfishness or greed or pride will certainly come out in that situation. But Joseph was a good man; his humility was his submission to God and that did not change when he moved from earthly slave to earthly master. Slave and master had become just roles to him; the point of either of them was whatever God decided to do next. Therefore the Egyptians loved him and honored him.

It is important to note in all of this that God never directly punished the brothers for their sin against Joseph. The consequences to them were all natural ones: guilt, needless anxiety, Joseph’s anger during their two visits to buy grain. But God Himself did not punish them nor did He condemn them nor did He rebuke them. It is the pattern in Genesis, and one that we need to consider carefully, that the only times God intervened to punish sin was on a global or community level in the Flood and at Sodom. We view so much of the Scripture in the light of the Law, we so commonly picture God as a policeman on the prowl for crime, ready and even eager to punish any infringement of the Code, that it is hard to see without wearing those spectacles. But before the Law, when God was simply acting on the earth and setting up all things in a context to lead to the Messiah, He was the opposite of a policeman. He simply let most events go without comment. “Should not the judge of all the earth do right?” we could ask with Abram; “Should not the judge of all the earth get busy  and do a bit of judging? That’s what we pay Him for.”

When we read the Law back into Genesis, when we insist on forcing Genesis into the mold of the Law, it colors our understanding of God’s character and purposes and makes us misunderstand everything that comes after. It is what comes first that is foundational. He put off introducing the Law for a purpose, because it was not the foundation of His relationship with the human race or with the world. Instead we should allow Genesis to color our understanding of the Law. The Judge of all the earth does not want to condemn or punish sinners, to trap miscreants. His first priority was to devise a way to get out of pronouncing our final sentence.

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