Divine Providence and Family Reconciliation

Genesis 45:1-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So, no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

                We continue with our journey through the Genesis story, which takes us from the call of Abraham through to Joseph’s rise to power, which serves as a means of rescuing the family through whom God is going to bless the nations. I used the term “divine providence” in the title, because the trajectory of the Genesis story has in mind God’s intent to bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants. While I embrace this message, believing it connects the Christian community to Abraham, through Jesus, so that we might share in God’s purpose of blessing the peoples of the earth, I also believe that the future is open. That means we humans can choose not to cooperate. Perhaps that is why the covenant story isn’t a straight-line path. We wander off, and God woos us back on the path forward. God knows where God wants to go, but it will take some cooperation on our part to get there.
             The Joseph story is an example of how God can make use of wrong choices to further the goal. In Genesis 37, the reading for the previous Sunday, Joseph’s older brothers plot to rid themselves of their arrogant sibling. While they did consider fratricide, in the end they decided to sell him into slavery and then tell their father that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. It would break their father’s heart, but he would get over it in time. At least that was the plan. So, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he ended up in prison with a former government official. Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, while in prison, got the attention of Pharaoh, who had an unsolvable dream. The government official suggested that Joseph be called in, he was, and he interpreted the dream, which spoke of seven years of good harvests and seven years of famine. Hearing this word, Pharaoh made Joseph one of his primary advisors and put him in charge of preparing for the famine. That’s how we get to this passage. Famine has hit Canaan, Jacob had sent his sons to Egypt to get food, and ultimately, they encounter Joseph. While he recognizes them, they don’t recognize him. Joseph is prepared to give them the food, but he puts them through the ringer, until this moment when he finally decides to reveal himself to his brothers.

This story makes some assumptions about how the world works, that we might not share, at least if we believe that the future is open. I think we can leave aside that part of the story and focus on the reunion, for that is the centerpiece of this reading and the choice of the lectionary creators.

                Joseph’s brothers chose to do what was evil, and that was get rid of their brother. But, it appears that God used this choice to bless Egypt and Joseph’s family. Joseph had requested that his brother Benjamin be brought to him. When this occurred, though Jacob did not want to part with his son, the only remaining son of his favorite wife, Judah pledged his life as surety. Judah now offers himself as a substitute. He will remain with Joseph as his slave, if only his youngest brother could be set free (Gen. 44:18-34). It is now that Joseph broke down, and revealed himself. Judah, who participated in the acting selling him into slavery was willing to take responsibility for his brother, with whom Joseph shared a mother.  Joseph’s revelation did not come as a welcome sign. You can understand why. People tend to hold grudges. Even though things seemed to work out well for Joseph, he still was the victim of his brothers’ jealousy. They didn’t know what would come next. It was possible that he would through them all into slavery (except for Benjamin, of course).

                Joseph reached out to his brothers (in tears), offering them a pastoral word, a comforting word. Don’t be angry with yourselves. God used your act for the good. God had used Joseph to create the foundation for their survival as a people (so that the covenant community could continue). Since the famine was going to continue for five more years, Joseph invited his family to come and join him in Egypt. They could make their home in Goshen. Thus, a family is reunited and reconciled. Good has come out of evil. The blessing promised to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12:1-4) continues through Joseph’s ministry in Egypt. There will come a time when a Pharaoh will arise who did not know Joseph, and things will go bad, but again God will reach out and change the trajectory, so that the covenant community can continue toward the fulfillment of its calling (Exodus).

                Now to the theology involved here. The passage raises important questions about the nature of God, and what a story like this says about the God whom at least some of us affirm to be love. More specifically, “uncontrolling love.” In an essay written in response to Tom Oords’s Book The Uncontrolling Love of God, (IVP Academic), I asked the question of what good is God, if God cannot prevent evil. The answer seems to be found in God’s omnipresence and ongoing relationship with creation. That is, how does love function in a world, where power and coercion always seems to have the upper hand? (Uncontrolling Love, 139-142). As we ponder these questions of how God brings good out of bad situations, I find helpful these words from Ron Allen and Clark Williamson:
Because God is omnipresent trying to help each event in life reach the highest potential available, the community can affirm that God is ever at work in events such as those in Genesis 37-44. God tries to help every event reach as much blessing as possible. When good does result from difficulty, we can give thanks for the good without thinking that God orchestrated the difficulties. [Preaching the Old Testament, 74].
As we attend to the words of this story, may we pay attention to those signs of God’s presence, working at the deepest levels of reality, helping us all participate in God’s desire that all creation be blessed through the covenant community. As Christians, we share in that covenant through Jesus, whom we declare to be Lord. Joseph came to understand his own calling to be one of preserving life. That is a worthwhile calling, especially in times such as these.                

Picture Attibution: Pontormo, Jacopo da, 1494-1556. Joseph in Egypt, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49486 [retrieved August 11, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.


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