< August 17, 2008 >

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

 

The text for today describes a moving scene of reconciliation, the self-revelation of Joseph to the brothers who sold him into slavery many years before, and gives us the theological lens through which to view the whole story of Joseph.

This scene of reconciliation comes right after an eloquent and extended speech by Judah. It should be noted that Judah was the brother who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place, though by doing so he saved Joseph from the murderous intentions of his other brothers (37:26-27). Now, in chapter 44, Joseph has framed his brother, Benjamin, for stealing his silver cup. This is the last of a series of deceptions through which Joseph (in his position as an Egyptian ruler) has manipulated his unsuspecting brothers, causing them a good deal of consternation.

In this last deception, then, Joseph frames Benjamin, his full brother, who is innocent of any wrongdoing. Joseph claims him as a slave and offers to let the other brothers go free. One could interpret Joseph's actions here as revenge for the pain his brothers caused him. A more sympathetic and (I would argue) more accurate interpretation is viewing Joseph's actions as a sort of test. Will the brothers sell Rachel's other son into slavery, just as they sold Joseph? Will they buy their own freedom at the expense of Jacob's remaining beloved son?

If this interpretation is correct, Judah--and, presumably, the other brothers--pass the test. Judah will not abandon Benjamin. In a moving speech, he describes how he swore to their father, Jacob, that he would bring Benjamin back. He tells Joseph that their father has already lost one beloved son, and that if he loses another, he will die. Judah then offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin: "Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father" (44:33-34).

It seems that Judah and the other brothers have changed over the course of the story. Gone is the intense hatred they once held for the favored son of their father. There is no hint that they envy or hate Benjamin for the special place he holds in their father's heart. They bear the guilt of what they did to Joseph, interpreting the trouble they're experiencing as punishment for their sin long ago (42:21-22). Now, they have repented and are determined to save Benjamin.

It is this change of heart, and the compassion they show for their elderly father, that finally moves Joseph to reveal himself to them. He has been speaking with them through an interpreter, pretending that he doesn't speak Hebrew (42:23). Now, he sends all the Egyptians away and speaks directly to his brothers: "I am Joseph." And he adds a concern close to his heart: "Is my father still alive?" Too dumbfounded to speak, they stand dismayed. So Joseph calls them closer to him and says again, "I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt." Then he moves quickly to reassure them: "And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God" (45:3-5, 8).

Eventually, the brothers are able to absorb this stunning revelation. Joseph weeps loudly, embracing his brother, Benjamin, and then kissing and weeping over his other brothers. Then, at last, they find their voices. We are left to imagine what they say. Perhaps, like their father Jacob in his own reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, they speak of seeing the face of God (33:10). Perhaps they say now what they will say to Joseph years later, after Jacob's death: "Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father" (50:17). Whatever they say, Joseph reassures them; he urges them to fetch Jacob and to come and live in Egypt, where he will care for them. The scene is one of reconciliation, of forgiveness, and of grace.

Joseph's words to his brothers also give us the theological lens through which to view his whole story. "God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God." Joseph makes the same statement to his brothers years later, after their father's death: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today" (50:20).

Note that Joseph does not attribute the brothers' sinful actions to God. God did not make them sin: "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (emphasis added). Joseph does, however, affirm that God was able to use those sinful actions for God's own purposes. The brothers devised evil, but God turned it to good. Note also that God's will is for the preservation of life, the life of the family of Jacob (45:7) and, indeed, the lives of many people, including the Egyptians (41:56-57; 50:20). Joseph's presence in Egypt is the means by which God ensures that human life will go on, even in the face of famine.

In these last chapters of the Joseph story, we see that God has been at work all along in the events of Joseph's life. God has not spoken to Joseph directly as he did to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but God has been at work behind the scenes, so to speak, preserving life in spite of (and even by means of) human sin. The descendants of Abraham (and all humanity) continue to be deeply flawed, but through it all, God fulfills God's promises and provides for God's creation.

As we finish reading this series of texts from Genesis, it is also worth noting that God's initial promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 have begun to be fulfilled in Abraham's descendants. In Jacob's family--the 70 people who come to live in Egypt (46:27)--is the beginning of the "great nation" promised to childless Abraham (12:2). In Joseph, we see the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham: "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (12:3). God makes everything Joseph does prosper, even in slavery (39:2-3); even in prison (39:23). And, when Joseph ascends to be second-in-command in Egypt, God uses him to save the whole world (41:57). The only promise remaining to be fulfilled at the end of Genesis is the promise to Abraham that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan (12:7). It remains, then, for the rest of the Pentateuch to tell the story of the return to that promised land.