But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives.
(Preached on Sunday, August 20, 2017)
The ten men were brought in for their audience with Joseph. They bowed to the ground before him. He was clothed in the chain of gold eagles and wore the king’s seal on his hand. A lamb’s wool beard was on his chin and his eyes were painted out to the side as long as almonds. Believing he could not understand their language, the men talked with their hands and eyes. Their eyes were dull with hunger. Their hands calloused, broken-nailed and empty. They pointed to their mouths. They pointed to the panniers of snail-shaped loaves on a table. Joseph called a servant to him who spoke several tongues beside his own and spoke the ten men through him, pretending he needed the man as well to tell him what the men were saying. They were of various heights and shapes – a fat one with a soiled cloak that hung about his shins, a tall one who never raised his eyes from the floor – and Joseph saw at once who they were. He had named his first son “Making to Forget,” but he had not forgotten. He remembered the pit and the naked boy. He remembered how the boy’s mouth had leaked spittle into the sand. He remembered the horror of betrayal as his brothers, his own brothers, these very men, had sold him to the passing slavers for twenty pieces of silver.
Such is the probable scene some chapters earlier in Genesis when Joseph first encounters again the brothers on whom he had once tattled – back in another life, when he was the favored one among all his father’s 12 sons. Back when he was given a special tunic with long sleeves, the kind no one expected to do any real work would ever wear; back when he had his dreams of grandeur with his brothers and father bowing down to him. Those were the dreams which brought forth the hatred and contempt from his family when he was obtuse enough to share them. That life was long ago and far away. It had seemed wonderful and blessed. But it had ended in pain and confusion and deep, deep hurt.
Joseph’s life changed forever. The spoiled brat raised amid rustic sheaves of wheat and sheep grazing is plunged into a foreign language, foreign customs, and a world of large-scale enterprises. In this new world Joseph learns about slave markets and sexual boundaries; he learns about prison cells and palace intrigue; and he survives it all. No longer is he an innocent, naïve child. He grows into one who is self-possessed, urbane, and accustomed to power. He rises out of that desert pit, the slave pit, the prison pit, to eventually help Pharaoh safe his people. As a result Pharaoh elevates him to prime minister of the realm, with responsibility for social affairs. Once he had worn a special tunic with long sleeves; now he wears garments of linen and a gold necklace.
Then one day he is suddenly confronted with that life which he had tried to forget. Joseph himself could have written the following words, although he didn’t. They were composed by the author Pat Conroy for his novel Prince of Tides:
I wish I had not history to report. I pretended for so long that my childhood did not happen. I had to keep it tight up near the chest. I could not let it out. I followed the redoubtable example of my mother. It’s an act of will to have a memory or not, and I chose not to have one. Because I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity, I could not afford to address them directly about the felonies committed against all of us. I could not hold them accountable or indict them for crimes they could not help. They, too, had a history – one that I remembered with both tenderness and pain, one that made me forgive their transgressions against their own children. In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.
While Joseph does forgive his brothers, it is not until after several acts of trickery and treachery on his own part. When first he is confronted by them, he accuses them of being spies and requires one of them to stay in prison while the others return to their father to fetch their youngest brother as proof they are not spies. Then when they bring their youngest brother, Joseph schemes to have his personal goblet placed in that brother’s sack of grain and then sends his soldiers after them to arrest him for thievery. He threatens his brothers that he will keep the thief as his personal slave as punishment for his crime, driving them to near hysterics at the prospect of returning to their father once again without one of his favorite sons. Obviously Joseph was struggling with his own feelings about his brothers and his history. Certainly he was toying with them, making them jump through hoops. Clearly he tests their honesty and their character (and who can blame him after what these ten supposed “brothers” had done to him!) Maybe it was all a great con-game to secure his brother Benjamin’s company in Egypt. Undoubtedly there was an element of revenge at work in Joseph as well.
An honest reading of the story demonstrates that Joseph was not some shining moral icon, come great ideal we are all to look up to and imitate. He is very human and he remains very human to his very death. But Joseph is able, upon reflection on his life, to look at it in perspective and see not just the actions of his brothers nor his own actions. Joseph is able to discern present through it all the actions of God as primary and central.
That is why this scene where Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers is the climax of the Joseph story; the whole plot becomes clear at once. This is in fact a revelation of the presence and activity of God. The malevolence and ambiguity of the human dimension of the story is a powerful counterpoint to the gracious and benevolent action of God. Because Joseph is so clearly flawed just as his brothers are flawed it is clear that it is God’s work that enables Joseph to rise to something better.
More than anything else, Joseph’s story demonstrates how truly amazing, wonderful, loving and gracious is God. What God does in this story stands independent of the brothers’ repentance. In fact, to this point, they have never repented for what they did to Joseph. Joseph’s motives and actions may appear ambiguous, but when Joseph speaks to them with forgiveness and reconciliation, he is speaking a clear gospel word – good news for them all. God has acted so that life, rather than death, now abounds. God has preserved life; God has kept this family intact in the face of the threat of death. And it was not because of the good actions of any of Jacob’s twelve sons. It was completely, totally, purely by the grace of God. Somehow God brings good out of all their evil.
I know this is a message I need to hear. I believe it is a message we all need to hear. I know it is a message our world needs to hear. This story is a beautiful and powerful story of reconciliation. It raises significant issues about why one chooses reconciliation over grudge-bearing in the first place. We all know situations in which individuals refuse to extend forgiveness to their offender. (If we are honest, we ourselves have been in that place at sometime in our lives.) Perhaps the hurt is too fresh or too deep. Perhaps holding on to the anger seems more satisfying or more secure than the thought of allowing the anger to dissipate. Perhaps holding back one’s forgiveness is one’s way of ultimately getting even. Whatever the dynamic, harboring ill-will continues to be a well-franchised cottage industry.
Thankfully, God is better than we are! We may struggle to accept other people and their actions, but God doesn’t have that problem. God can see good in all. God is at work to bring out the best in all of us. UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the freedom and joy and creativity unleashed in our lives by God. He writes: When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God. … Life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined.
The fear and even terror being nurtured in us these days makes us want to shrink and withdraw rather than breathe deeply of God’s grace and mercies. But that is exactly what faith, trust, requires of us, no matter how things appear at the moment. And who knows? That unleashed creativity may be exactly what’s needed – God’s timely gift – to deal with the crises at hand. Also, of course, taking stock of what power we have, and like Joseph, using it for good: not for ourselves, or for revenge, but for the good of all.