The account of Joseph in Genesis is one of my favourite parts of the Bible. I love how God’s purposes for the world are inseparably linked to the transformation of messed-up individuals and the restoration of a broken family. But have we missed a key element of the story?
We tend to treat Joseph as some kind of super saint. Joseph’s behaviour towards his brothers elicits from them a remarkably clear demonstration of repentance, particularly on the part of Judah. (Judah’s speech in Genesis 44 must be one of the most moving passages in all the Scriptures.) But we then assume that this was deliberate on Joseph’s part. Why was Joseph so harsh on his brothers? We assume he wanted the best for them, but – like a skilled surgeon – he knew that it was necessary to wound in order to heal. But what if this is to misinterpret Joseph’s actions? What if his motives were not so laudable? What if he intended to harm his brothers, even if God ultimately meant it for good?
One suggestion – which I picked up from a sermon by Joe Kennedy (a vicar I got to know on the Wirral), and which Joe picked up from Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun (also here), among others – goes like this: Joseph was trying to rescue his only full brother, Benjamin, from his wicked older brothers and from his cruel father, who had rejected him. Let me explain.
Consider first Joseph’s relationship with his father, Jacob. They hadn’t parted on good terms. Jacob was distinctly unimpressed with Joseph’s dreams. And then he sent him, alone, to check up on his brothers, fully aware that his brothers hated his guts. And it’s not as if there was no family history of fathers rejecting their sons in order to preserve the peace: Abraham and Ishmael, for example. Why else did Joseph not send word from Egypt to his father to tell him he was alive? It wouldn’t have been hard! No wonder Joseph showed so little concern for his father’s feelings in the demands he made of his brothers.
Then there’s the nature of Joseph’s treatment of his brothers. He keeps one of them as a prisoner, in order to make sure the others bring Benjamin next time. Success: Benjamin is duly brought to Egypt. Then he has his cup put in Benjamin’s sack. Why? So that he can have Benjamin kept with him, while the rest of the brothers return home, never to be seen again. He knows how little these brothers would care for Benjamin (poor lad!), and that they would be more than happy to leave him to rot in Egypt, just as they had done to Joseph himself.
I think this makes a lot of sense. But what does it add to the story, apart from a bit of intrigue?
I think the difference it makes is as follows. Restoration of right relationships involves both repentance and healing. But if we assume Joseph’s motives were always pure and loving, then it is a story only of repentance. But what about Joseph’s healing? Are we to assume that years of slavery and imprisonment would somehow have bound up the wounds he had suffered? Unlikely. So if we see Joseph’s behaviour as motivated by bitterness towards his older brothers and his father, then the subsequent actions of his brothers (particularly Judah) not only serve to demonstrate their repentance, but are also profoundly therapeutic for Joseph. We are all sinners in need repentance and forgiveness, like Judah, but we are also all deeply broken, like Joseph, and stand in need of healing. We each need to hear from God both, ‘I forgive you,’ and also, ‘I love you.’
Reading it in this way also shows that the only true hero of the narrative is the only true hero of the whole Bible: God himself. All stand in need of God’s grace, both his forgiveness or his healing touch. Even Joseph! And God remarkably works things together so that the greedy, vengeful, twisted actions of broken, sinful people actually achieve what he wanted all along: reconciliation and restoration for his people, and for the whole of his creation.
And this is how Joseph, Judah, and Jacob point us to the cross of Jesus.