Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Long before HBO had Tony Soprano, the Bible had Joseph, arguably the original bad-guy protagonist.

The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter
Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source: Wikimedia.

August 17, 2014

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Long before HBO had Tony Soprano, the Bible had Joseph, arguably the original bad-guy protagonist.

Many excellent commentaries will describe Genesis 45 as an admirable moment of forgiveness, reconciliation, and catharsis, and that interpretation is both reasonable and edifying. But we miss the theological and emotional complexity of this passage if we allow Joseph to become merely a paragon of mercy, a model for how we approach reconciliation.

For that reason, I want to offer in this commentary a deliberately skeptical counter-reading of his character. Rather than being a “good guy” with complicating character twists and occasional missteps, consider in what ways Joseph is a “bad guy” with whom we are nonetheless encouraged to sympathize because of his larger role in the story of God’s journey with Israel.

We saw in last week’s reading that Genesis 37 presents no virtues for Joseph that should win our admiration or our sympathy for his character. He is a tattle-tale and a braggart, and he inexplicably receives favoritism from his father Jacob. He might not look like a bad guy yet, but he doesn’t quite come across as a good guy, either. We initially root for him because he is the one the camera lens — i.e., the narrative’s point of view — follows. The camera follows him because of who he is: the favorite son of Jacob, i.e., Israel, and Israel has been chosen by God. In the Joseph story, everybody plays favorites.

As we read through the Joseph cycle (Genesis 37-50), Joseph’s character becomes more complex. We discover in Genesis 39 that Joseph is handsome and successful, rising to the position of overseer over his fellow slaves. We hear Joseph’s piety shine through when he refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances and, as a consequence, is imprisoned on false charges of sexual assault.

In chapters 40 and 41 we learn that Joseph is skilled in dream interpretation, and, upon interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, he advises Pharaoh to store up 20% of the harvest in seven years of abundance to feed the land in seven years of famine. He becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command: “Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:45).

In chapter 42, Joseph’s family life and his work life collide. Facing starvation in Canaan, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy some of the grain hoarded there. It should not surprise us that Joseph can recognize his brothers even though they do not recognize him; his ability to interpret dreams has already demonstrated his perspicacity.

That insight, combined with his control over the largest known food supply during that time of famine, gives Joseph all of the power in this situation. If Joseph is a stand-up guy, a hero with forgiveness in his heart, surely this is the point in the story at which we should expect reconciliation?

Rather than reconciliation, Joseph meets his brothers with manipulation. He pretends not to know them, accuses them of spying, throws them all in jail for three days, and demands that after they take their grain home, they return to Egypt with Benjamin, their youngest brother. He even has Simeon bound and held in Egypt to guarantee their return (42:24). He sneaks the money they paid for the grain back into their sacks, surely a gesture of generosity but understood by the brothers, terrified of the powerful governor and racked with guilt, as a sure indication that stealing will be added to their spying charges.

Citing the loss of both Joseph and Simeon, Jacob refuses to allow Benjamin to return with the brothers to Egypt until the family is out of food again and left with no other choice. The emotional roller coaster continues for the brothers in chapters 43 and 44, when Joseph feasts with his family, including the newly favorite son Benjamin.

Rather than reveal his identity now, Joseph has his own silver cup slipped into Benjamin’s sack, setting him up for a charge of stealing. Judah, who, at Genesis 37:26 lobbied for selling Joseph rather than killing him, steps in to plead for Benjamin’s release for the sake of their father Jacob, whose “life is bound up in the boy’s life” (44:30). It is at this point, with Jacob’s life on the line, that Joseph makes himself known to his brothers.

Genesis 45 is the climax of the Joseph cycle. All the dramatic irony of the story — the details that we readers know but Joseph’s brothers do not, especially Joseph’s true identity — builds to this moment, when Joseph reveals himself to his family. Multiple times over the course Genesis 37-44, Joseph has turned aside to weep privately, but those deeply held feelings have not stopped him from testing and otherwise manipulating his brothers.

It would be difficult to overstate Joseph’s position of imperial power in this story; anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He hoards the grain, and he decides who may purchase it and at what price, at a time when all of the world is riddled with famine (41:57). Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die. Having that power does not necessarily make Joseph a bad guy, but his use of that power to control those around him surely does, no matter how much he cries.

The power to forgive must always be in the hands of the one who has been wronged; it is right for Joseph to be empowered to forgive the wrongs done to him by his brothers. But before Joseph weeps on their necks (15:14-15), he plays on their fears and exploits his imperial power over them. His actions may not constitute intentional revenge, but they certainly are not worthy of a Hallmark card, either.

We will see in Genesis 50 that the brothers remain terrified of the brother they wronged long after this scene from Genesis 45, and such persistent fear will continue to indicate Joseph’s power over his brothers, not reconciliation with them. But will this family ever be made whole? And can we agree with Joseph’s observation that God, rather than Joseph or the brothers, is the primary agent in the drama? Stay tuned.