God Provides, Reconciles, and Redeems - A lectionary reflection for Epiphany 7C (Genesis 45)
Genesis 45:3-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 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.
4 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. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 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. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 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. 9 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.
If you grew up learning the stories of the Bible you will have heard the stories of Joseph and his brothers. You would know that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, for he was the first-born child of Jacob’s favorite wife (Rachel). You may know that Joseph was a bit arrogant, especially after his father gave him a coat of many colors. In his arrogance he told his brothers that they would bow down to him and serve him. This arrogance on Joseph’s part so angered his older brothers, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once in Egypt he made his mark and rose in stature, but then ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him, and subsequently crying attempted rape. Joseph was arrogant, but not a rapist. His ability to interpret dreams got him freed from prison and eventually brought to the attention of Pharaoh, who had a dream he couldn’t understand. Joseph interpreted the dream, telling Pharaoh that a famine was coming, and that Pharaoh should plan for that eventuality. Pharaoh decided that it would be wise to give responsibility for this project to the one who interpreted the dream. Thus, Joseph moved from slavery to prison to chief minister. Not bad for an arrogant brat! Then again, his father was something of a trickster who always seemed to come out on top!
Joseph fulfilled his responsibilities, and provision was made for the time when famine arrived, not only in Egypt but as far away as Canaan, the land of his father and mother. When Jacob heard that there was food to be had in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase supplies. This they did, not knowing that the one who would provide for them was their long-lost brother. They may not have recognized him, but he recognized them. So he played a trick on them, to test them. He had a silver cup he used for divination (yes Joseph practiced divination) placed in Benjamin’s belongings, and then sent his guards after them. That episode, leads to the reading for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany. It’s rare to make it seven Sundays in Epiphany, but here we are with this encounter between estranged brothers, which serves as another manifestation of God's presence.
In the chapter prior, Joseph sets up a test (trap) to see, apparently, where the heart of their brothers was? Had they changed over the many years of separation. And, what would they do about their brother Benjamin? Would they ransom him or not? Judah does so. He pleads for his brother’s life. This leads to the moment of revelation.
When Joseph could no longer keep up the act, having been satisfied that his brothers had changed, and wanting to provide for his long-lost father, he identifies himself as their brother. Now, you can just imagine the first thoughts of his older brothers. Here was the brother they first tried to kill, then sold into slavery. They figured he was dead by now. Instead, he had risen to be the second most important person in the land. He could easily have them killed. So, what would he do to them?
Joseph, who desired to be reconciled, quickly let them know they had nothing to fear. They may have meant him harm many years before, but things sometimes have a way of working out for the benefit of all, even when they are entered into with the wrong motives. There is a bit of a theological challenge here. Joseph, in trying to allay their fears, tells them that while they meant him harm, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” This episode raises a question that is worth exploring. Does God cause bad things to happen, so good can come of it? Or, does God work with us to bring good out of bad situations? In other words, did God orchestrate all of this, or did God partner with Joseph to bring a blessing out of a difficult situation? As for me, I affirm the second position.
Tom Oord takes up this episode in his book God Can’t. He suggests that “God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed.” God did this in Joseph’s situation. The brothers may have intended harm for Joseph, but God didn’t. Nevertheless, God did bring good out of bad. [God’ Can’t, p. 115].
Having revealed himself to his brothers and suggesting that God had brought good out of bad, he invited his brothers to bring their father to Egypt so they could settle in Goshen and enjoy the bounty that was God’s provision. They do so. They gather their father and settle in Goshen. And all is good, or so it seems.
It’s interesting that the brothers remain suspicious of Joseph’s motives. Once their father has passed from the scene, they begin to worry. Maybe Joseph hasn’t really forgiven but didn’t want to his father. Now that the father is dead, well Joseph might decide to exact revenge. Joseph, who was good at reading things, realized his brothers were worried, so he reassured them. He told them, “Do not be afraid!” He assured them that “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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:15-21).
What we see in this final episode of Genesis is a reminder that God is committed to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. God will continue to be with them, even when a time will come when there will arise in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8). This new Pharaoh grew frightened of this “foreign presence” in the land. But that’s another story, except that it too is part of the covenant story. God will not forget God’s people. God is always on the lookout for partners, whether Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, or Moses.
As for the relationship of estranged brothers, Joseph’s actions presaged the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke regarding loving one’ enemies:
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).
And the covenant people kissed, wept, and made up—though it took more than once before everyone was truly convinced! This is a good reminder that forgiveness is not easy. Sure, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. Forgive, and we’ll be forgiven. Yet, we know the difficulties involved. Joseph learned some important lessons during his sojourn in Egypt. It took some time for him to come to the point of forgiveness. It took longer for his brothers to believe him. Reconciliation is not easy. But it is possible, when we join with God in the act of redemption. This act of reconciliation that took place here is one small part of a larger story or redemption, which we are invited to share in. Thanks be to God!
Picture Attribution: Bourgeois, Leon Pierre Urbain. Joseph recognized by his brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55355 [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers.jpg.