Opening The Old Testament
Revenge is Sweet? Reflections on Genesis 45:1-15
August 17, 2014
Jesus' famous admonition, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," is far more quoted than practiced. It is regularly been said that no one can, in reality, do such a thing, since it moves well beyond our too-limited human capacities. Such a thing is okay for Jesus—after all he is the son of God!—but since I am not, I will more likely hate, or at least feel little regard for, my enemies and will probably pray for their eventual demise. Why would Jesus call us to do something we are little inclined to do?
It just might be that this "love your enemy" bit is rather more practical and useful than first meets the eye. The story of Joseph and his brothers may be a case in point.
Much has often been made of the lines that Joseph utters after he (finally!) reveals himself to his brothers: "God has certainly sent me before you (plural) for making life" (Gen. 45:5) and "God sent me before you (plural) to raise up for you a remnant in the land and to make for you many survivors." Many a preacher has waxed eloquent about Joseph's long-range theology of God's continuing and surprising care even when God's provision seems very far away. When Joe was chucked into a well, sold into Egypt, and given up for dead, one can imagine that God's care appeared very distant indeed.
I do not wish to throw cold water on all this grand theologizing on Joseph's part, but two issues arise for me as I read it. First, it quite simply took him far too long to get there! Joseph's brothers first appear before him in Egypt at Genesis 42:6, when they join a parade of supplicants who are victims of a large famine in the Near East. Egypt was long the place that poorer nations went to buy grain, since the gift of the Nile was its glorious regularity, rising and setting nearly without fail, and watering Egypt's crop nearly for the full length of the river. In the time between Joseph's disappearance into Egypt to an almost certain death and the brothers' need for food from the Egyptian authority, astonishing things have happened. Through his skill at dream interpretation, and his continual great good fortune, Joseph has become nothing less than the "shalit over the land." A common translation of this term is "governor," but given the role he plays in the scenes to follow, a more likely meaning may be "secretary of agriculture." He is clearly in the pharaoh's inner circle, his cabinet. After all, he is wearing pharaoh's signet ring and gold neck chain, given to him by the great man himself (Gen. 41:42)!
Thus, it is to Joseph that the lying, would-be murderers come, but obviously the very last person on earth that they would expect this mighty Egyptian overlord to be is their tattle-tale little brother; but that is exactly who he is. He stands apart from them, speaking always through an interpreter. They have come to buy grain, and they expect the powerful official to give them grain for a fair price. But that is hardly what they get. "When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. 'Where do you come from,' he said (with a snarl)? They said, 'From the land of Canaan to buy food.' Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph then remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them, and said 'You are spies who have come to see the vulnerabilities of the land'" (Gen. 42:7-9)! And with that cruel lie, Joseph begins his cat-and-mouse game that lasts all the way until his revelation to them in Genesis 45.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.