< September 14, 2008 >

Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

 

Jacob showed special favor to his young son Joseph, the child of his old age (Genesis 37:3).

Ten older brothers hated the one who possessed the love they could not have (37:4). Joseph had something else they did not have: the gift of dreams, visions into a future where he would be their master, and they would fall down before him (37:7,9). Even his father knew that such dreams did not bode well (37:10). Visions of mastery and service soon elicited a murderous plot. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery.

Joseph rises from slavery to mastery over all Egypt, where he saves countless lives, including his family's (47:12). But when Jacob dies, guilt begets fear (50:15). Perhaps Joseph only sustained his brothers for the sake of their father. The powerful Joseph might now seek vengeance for their crimes.

The brothers voice their anxiety. The ambiguity of their words speaks to the complexity of guilt: "What if Joseph...pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" (50:15). The first word, , translated here "what if," in fact means "if only," or "would that"--it expresses a wish. Nowhere else in Scripture does this word introduce an outcome that the speaker does not want to happen. We must ask: do the brothers hope for absolution through punishment? If so, what grace is needed to move from the cycle of retaliation and abuse--abuse of self and others--to the place of true forgiveness?

Their next action again signals something out of joint: their bid for forgiveness begins not with a confession, nor even a request, but with a command (50:16). NRSV translates "they approached Joseph." The Hebrew states: "they commanded to Joseph." Many interpreters suspect an ellipsis here: "they commanded someone to go to Joseph." To whomever they issue the command, such an exercise of power--an insecure bid for mastery already denied them--seems out of place. Their wound still festers.

Their command reaches Joseph: we do not know whether they speak to him in person or through an intermediary. Their first words tell Joseph of another command, issued by "your father" before he died. They have distanced themselves from Joseph. They do not make a personal claim on him. In their guilt they take refuge behind the dead father whose testament, they say, commanded his brothers to seek forgiveness and asked Joseph to give it (50:17).

As the speech continues the brothers retreat still further away from Joseph. They beg forgiveness for "the crime of the servants of the God of your father." They do not name themselves. They do not call themselves his brothers. They do not invoke their common bond by the language of "our father" or even "our God." They abase themselves as servants, or slaves, of the God of Joseph's father.

We see in these layers of indirection the fear that prevents ten brothers from coming face to face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their appeal for forgiveness is awkward and complicated. They do not fully own their confession. It is not "our crime." Their words and actions vacillate between command and subservience, between acknowledging Joseph's freedom and attempting to constrain him by appealing to powers greater than his own.

Joseph weeps, as he has done so many times before. What do these tears signal? As we move backward into the story of Genesis, we witness Esau's tears at the loss of his father's blessing (27:38) and again at his reunion with the brother he had forgiven (33:4). We hear Hagar's weeping for Ishmael, when she is sure he will die (21:16), and Jacob's wailing when he believes Joseph has already died (37:35). We find Joseph, confused in his pain and longing, weeping even as he cruelly binds his brother Simeon into captivity (42:24). Later Joseph is overcome with tears when he first sees Benjamin, his younger brother (43:30), and when he embraces each brother in turn (45:14-15). He weeps when he is reunited with Jacob (46:29) and when he embraces his father on his deathbed (50:1).

At each moment the fear, memory, or certainty of a loss--loss of a relationship, a dream for the future, a loved one--is overwhelming. Equally overwhelming is the moment of regaining, the barely hoped for possibility of a new beginning. The simple statement, "Joseph wept when they spoke to him" (50:17), helps us to see the depths of emotion that so often lead us on the path both toward and away from forgiveness.

The wounded penitents now fall weeping before Joseph and declare themselves his slaves (50:18). The dreams are fulfilled, recapitulating harsh dramas of slavery and mastery. As I read this verse, I ask again, what grace is needed to move from this abusive cycle to the place of true forgiveness? Joseph's words pave the way: "Do not fear" (50:19,21). Fear has been the obstacle to confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom.

Finally, Joseph can recognize and reveal that he is not in the place of God (50:20). Punishment is not his to mete out. If Joseph has yet failed to acknowledge his own wrongdoings, he points to God's will and ability to transform evil into good (50:20). God's plans for good and for life trump the plots of fearful and wounded hearts. God's grace creates the space for forgiveness that will break the cycle of retaliation and abuse, setting slaves and prisoners free.