Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15
The story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.
His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They “settled” for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.
And now, in today’s lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.
The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph’s rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.
Joseph’s experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here but God” should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph’s perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.
The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh’s other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh’s idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.
Today’s lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.
Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel’s father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.
Joseph’s complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph’s story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).
Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today’s lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.
One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph “enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other.” Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.