Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21
Just when you think all is right in the world of Joseph and his brothers, their family drama reminds us that trust is very difficult to earn.
Genesis 50:15-21 contains the final scene of the Joseph novella, which began to unfold in Genesis 37. It depends deeply on the long story that has gone before, so some summarizing or contextualizing will be necessary when preaching from this text. The semi-continuous Old Testament lectionary includes excerpts from Genesis 37 and Genesis 45 on the ninth and tenth Sundays after Pentecost, but Genesis 50 is an option these many weeks later because its account of forgiveness pairs well with the same theme in Matthew 18:21-35.
This week’s passage reads like an epilogue to the Joseph story, almost an afterthought. Many years after selling their brother Joseph into slavery, the sons of Jacob have been reunited with Joseph and saved from starvation because of his position of power in Egypt. Their father Jacob has blessed his sons and died and a grand procession comprising both Egyptians and Jacob’s family have traveled to Canaan to bury Jacob there. Joseph and his brothers have returned to Egypt to live a life of privilege; surely all the drama of the Jacob cycle should be over.
Yet the brothers’ shared emotion quickly becomes clear at Gen 50:15: they still fear Joseph. This is not altogether surprising. We readers who have followed Joseph’s story have seen how Joseph manipulated his brothers, including holding one hostage and framing another for stealing.1 Joseph is a powerful man; anything he wishes to do to his brothers, he can accomplish. What we have thought was reconciliation turns out to have been a tenuous co-existence.
If the brothers’ perception of Joseph has not changed, their posture toward him has not changed, either. They are still liars and manipulators themselves. They play on his deep love for his father, knowing that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. Though the narrative does not specify outright that their words are not truthful, the fact that they speak out of fear of Joseph’s wrath, combined with our understanding of their character as it is developed throughout Genesis 37-50, makes it difficult to read this passage any other way. They beg for forgiveness, not with their own voices, but by co-opting the voice of their dead father.
Ever since he rose to be the administrator of the government’s supply of grain in Egypt, Joseph has had all the official power in this story. As the one who is wronged, Joseph also has the interpersonal power, the power to forgive. These two sides of Joseph’s power — the personal and the political — combine when Joseph makes his theological proclamation: “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” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph sees the ways his own personal story and that of his family are wrapped up in the stories of God’s relationship with Israel. If Joseph’s brothers, or an outside observer, were to say that Joseph’s suffering was all part of “God’s plan,” those words would surely ring hollow for him.
Just as the one who is wronged has the power to forgive, the one wronged also has the power to make this kind of theological proclamation. If a sufferer sees divine purposefulness in her or his suffering, we can affirm or at least hear out that declaration. We dare not, however, try explain away another person’s suffering with our own theological speculation; in that case we are as ineffectual and obtuse as Job’s friends.
I mentioned at the outset that the Joseph cycle reads like a family drama: parental favoritism leads to sibling rivalry and swells to violence pitting eleven brothers against one. Even so, the story also has broader political implications. Like the stories of Daniel 1-6 and the book of Esther, Genesis 37-50 is a “court story,” a genre of literature that seems to have been particularly popular in the post-exilic Diaspora.
In these court stories, a Jewish hero finds himself or herself holding favored status in a foreign court. The hero’s rise to power may be a result of special insights, like dream interpretation, or it may be because of his or her piety. Once elevated, the hero has the opportunity to save his or her family or people because of that access to the imperial power.
In the post-exilic era, stories like Joseph, Daniel, and Esther made powerful statements about how to retain religious and ethnic identity in a foreign land. They also reminded Jews in Diaspora that God’s faithfulness to Israel had not wavered, despite the exile and the subsequently ever-changing political landscape. Thus, while we can reflect fruitfully on the compelling interpersonal dynamics that the Joseph story offers, we should also not neglect the broader message of God’s election of and continuing fidelity to God’s chosen people.
Joseph’s declaration that “God intended it for good” reminds us that the stories of biblical families are not just lectionary-sized snippets of individual family dramas, but rather they are part of the long and ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel, chosen for blessing and in whom all families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3).
1 See my commentary for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost for more on Joseph as a “bad guy.”