Commentary on Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Siblings fight. In the book of Genesis, the violence can be extreme. Some siblings kill each other (Genesis 4:1–16) or want to kill each other (Genesis 27:41). Some siblings take their murderous impulse out on hapless civilians recovering from surgery (Genesis 34:25 – 29). A sibling might mock (or molest) their little brother (Genesis 21:9). Another sibling is famous for deceiving his twin (Genesis 25:27–34; 27:1–40). A pair of siblings conspire against their incapacitated father (Genesis 19:30–38). Yet another pair of siblings compete in a fierce rivalry that leads them to coerce the most vulnerable members of their community into forced surrogacy (Genesis 30:1–13). And at the start of Joseph’s story, siblings initially intent on murder settle for selling their little brother into slavery (Genesis 37:12–36).
Joseph’s life story is like a mini-novel concluding the book of Genesis, and our lectionary reading is the climax of this novella. Therefore, it is appropriate that this passage deals with the issue of violent sibling conflict that has plagued humanity from the first brothers’ falling out east of Eden to the favorite child enslaved in a foreign land.
Joseph’s dramatic journey began when his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt in Genesis 37. Joseph goes through a roller-coaster of good and bad fortunes as he rises to the highest position among his enslaver’s household, falls to the depths of false imprisonment, rises to be in charge of other prisoners, languishes in prison, and finally experiences a resurgence to new heights as an advisor—even “a father”—to Pharoah (Genesis 39–41, see also Genesis 45:8).
Knowing this turbulent journey and considering the perpetual sibling violence and deception that recurs throughout Genesis, a reader might enter this lectionary passage anxious about how Joseph will interact with his brothers. Maybe we expect fierce retaliation from the former victim who now lords over Pharaoh’s entire household. After all, Joseph has been manipulating and deceiving his brothers since Genesis 42 when they first came to Egypt trying to survive a famine. But that is not what we get. Something has changed. At the start of our passage, Joseph is weeping and crying aloud (Genesis 45:1–2).
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they seem to presume that the old patterns of violence will persist; the narrator notes that they were silent because they were terrified (Genesis 45:3). But Joseph responds to their fears by revealing his surprising new perspective on the matter. He starts by vocalizing their wrongdoing, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4). But instead of only focusing on the harm that the brothers intended and caused, Joseph transitions to asserting God’s role: “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5; see also verse 7). By framing his brothers’ harmful actions within the larger program of God’s salvific work, Joseph charts a different path from their expectations.
This theology from Joseph—that the harm done by his brothers was actually part of God’s bigger plan to save many lives—has both dangers and benefits. In terms of its harmful consequences, a theology like this has been, and continues to be, used by those who see the slaughter and enslavement of millions of Africans as part of the larger plan from God to spread the gospel and save souls. One apparent danger of this theology is how it implicates God as a cause of extreme suffering and seems to justify something as inhumane as slavery. Although some Black Christians have adopted this theology in the past and present, others reject it, and still others argue that the text presents something more nuanced. They argue that God’s will for the greater good does not justify the evil actions and intentions of people. These Christians note that, by the end of Genesis, Joseph has not forgotten or forgiven how his brothers “intended to do harm to me” (literally “devised evil against me”) and God will be the judge for that offense (Genesis 50:19–20). Since people interpret Joseph’s God-talk in this passage in ways that justify or come close to justifying slavery, this is a text that must be handled with great care.
In terms of the clear benefits of Joseph’s theology, one can see that it allows Joseph to have a non-violent interaction with his brothers who harmed him. Admittedly, a peaceful encounter between alienated brothers is not entirely unheard of in Genesis. The narrator of Genesis briefly divulges that Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father, Abraham (Genesis 25:9–10). In Genesis 32–33 there is a much more dramatic description of estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau, meeting again. Jacob exudes fear of righteous vengeance coming from the brother whom he wronged (Genesis 32:8, 11, 17–21), but Esau falls on Jacob’s neck to hug and kiss him when they meet (Genesis 33:4). In spite of good reason for retaliation, Esau is happy to reunite with his brother. However, Jacob (likely still fearful) dissembles when Esau suggests they journey together (Genesis 33:12–15). In the end, Jacob extinguishes any hope from Esau that their reunion might have a greater impact than the single moment of this encounter.
The Joseph story is different. Joseph invites his brothers to live with him, and this reunification brings together the family that will eventually develop into an entire people in Egypt. In Joseph’s invitation, there is a special detail worth noting: Joseph wants to keep his brothers’ children and their children’s children near him (Genesis 45:10). Why focus on the children?
Perhaps Joseph is thinking about the root causes of generational violence. Perhaps Joseph understands that retribution would never solve the violence done to him, it would only perpetuate it. Perhaps Joseph wants the children near so that he can be a formative influence in a new generation, a new community, that can break away from violent norms. Perhaps Joseph’s optimistic theology about God transforming evil human intentions into a greater good allows him to endure trauma and seek to transform society for the better rather than seeking revenge. Perhaps Joseph’s theology helps him to understand justice as building healthy relationships where everyone, especially victims and perpetrators of abuse, can weep, come together, and develop a better future for all members of society (Genesis 50:15–21). Perhaps …
Perhaps Joseph is also a flawed product of his environment. Regardless of how his relationship changes with his brothers and their descendants, Joseph (an official of the royal superpower) still conforms to the strategies of empire. Look at how he uses the famine to prey upon vulnerable people’s money, possessions, and property until they are all reduced to slavery (Genesis 47:13–26). Clearly, Joseph is not perfect. Still, there might be some good that we can learn from him in our lectionary passage.