Year A: Pentecost 15
August 14, 2011
The climax of the story of Joseph contains high drama, overpowering emotion, deep contrition, and a further glimpse of God’s direction of his people. Today’s reading sees the resolution of the family events recounted last week in Genesis 37. Through jealousy and hatred toward Joseph his brothers had sold him into slavery. In the story Joseph is taken into slavery in Egypt, but through several fortuitous events Joseph rises to the highest level in the Egyptian government. In the process of meeting after a long separation, the brothers undergo a difficult reckoning within their own lives. In Gen. 44:16 on the second return of the brothers to Egypt after the discovery of the cup in their bag they proclaim: ‘God has found out (our) guilt’. They speak not about the cup but about what they did to Joseph. Their change of heart and confession is exemplified in the episodes to follow.
There are many echoes and not a little irony throughout the story. He brothers had cast Joseph into a pit as they plotted to get rid of him. Later, in prison, Joseph refers to that as a ‘pit’ (Hebrew: bôr; 40:15). Now the brothers in turn will descend into prison. The experience of the brothers will follow that of Joseph, which in turn is an echo of Jacob’s experience at the supposed loss of his favourite son. He described his life as descended to Sheol (also called ‘the pit’; cf. Gen. 37:36). There is a sense of measure for measure here. In the midst of all this, the dreams of Joseph in Gen. 37:5-11 will come to fulfilment. Three times his brothers will bow down to him (Gen. 42:6; 43:28; 44:14).
The change in Joseph’s brothers at the end of the story is sharpened by Joseph exhibiting a forgiving and reassuring attitude once his identity is discovered. In many ways Joseph controls the narrative, not only within the story in terms of his being ruler in Egypt, but in terms of the story itself. But Joseph himself seems to be controlled by his dreams from Genesis 37. In Gen. 42:8 Joseph sees his brothers for the first time and he remembers his dreams. Joseph’s action following is not so much of revenge as of fulfilling both dreams. What happens to Joseph determines the way the narrative progresses and reveals where we might locate God in the narrative. The reader is said to come close to the heart of the God who is able to bring about good in spite of the evil thoughts of human beings.
The story itself is one of the most heart-rending passages in scripture. The scene relies on a thorough reading of the process whereby Joseph’s brothers are brought to the point of recognizing him (Genesis 42-44). As the story unfolds we see Joseph toying with the emotions of his brothers as he arranges for them to appear guilty of theft, and then demands that Simeon remain as hostage while the rest return to Canaan and bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin. On return they are treated well, and assured that they are not thieves. They are even invited to dine with Joseph. However, on leaving again, Benjamin’s sack is found to contain Joseph’s own silver cup and Joseph orders that he remain as a slave while the other brothers return to Jacob. The turning point comes when Judah pleads with Joseph that Benjamin return home with them, otherwise losing Benjamin will cause their father Jacob to fret and die. At the end of his plea, Judah offers himself as slave in place of Benjamin.
This is the point at which the repentance of the brothers for their treatment of Joseph is complete. Joseph is overwhelmed by proximity to his own family, and at the sincerity and emotion of Judah’s speech. He can contain himself no longer, and ‘wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it’ (Gen. 45:2). The story ends beyond today’s reading with Jacob hearing the news that his long lost son, considered dead by his father, is still alive. Jacob is delighted with this news and we are told that his ‘spirit … was revived’ (45:27). This Hebrew phrase echoes the one in 42:2, which is translated ‘that we may live’, where Jacob initially sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain in time of famine. Jacob is revived in the end as is the family in its entirety. The end proves to be more than the aging Jacob had hoped for. His ‘coming to life’ again embodies what is happening to the whole nation that is represented by his twelve sons.
On making his identity known, the brothers are naturally afraid of Joseph, but because they have already experienced repentance that Joseph is able to give them a very different explanation of their actions. He explains their actions as part of God’s plan to preserve the descendants of Abraham (‘a remnant on earth’, v. 7). First, God sent Joseph to Egypt to become powerful enough to be the ‘saviour’ of his own people. The scene is set for all of Jacob’s family to be brought into a place of safety and deliverance. The unfolding of God’s plan also brings reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers (v. 15).
While God’s role in this story is revealed in the end, it is a fact that God has been hidden in all these events. The one who determines the outcome appears to be absent for most of the story. A significant point of faith is explored here. It is the issue of the relation of the sovereignty of God and freedom of God to the freedom of humans in determining the course of events in this world. At points the future of the family of Jacob appears in the balance. The future of the promise of heirs to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is cast in doubt (Gen. 12:1-3 etc.). The working out of the divine promise often depends on passing Midianites or Ishmaelites (Genesis 37); it depends on a butler’s memory (40:23 and 41:9ff after a two year lapse of memory). However, the story attests to God’s working within this very uncertain situation.
This story does not support a superficial faith which naively sees God as either the puppeteer behind all human events or the one whose will is to be sought before any human action is undertaken. Nor does it support a sceptical faith that ultimately sees history in the control of unpredictable human activities and encounters. This story presumes a faith in which the sovereignty and activity of God is seen as tightly bound to human agendas, yet at the same time possessing a freedom within certain bounds. It acts with, against, for, and in spite of those creaturely agendas. Once again we see the way in which God’s purposes are worked out with his creation, but in a way which exhibits both vulnerability and compassion. In that commitment is hope of the divine promise for all creation.
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