(Lectionary for August 20, 2017)
As I have stated before in these articles, I do not for a moment believe that Joseph is some paragon of wisdom and virtue who is used by the narrator as a unique model for our emulation, unlike so many of the patriarchs and matriarchs that preceded him in the sagas of Genesis. As I tried to suggest in last week’s writing, Joseph is a spoiled tattletale who is, not surprisingly, despised by his brothers. They are so furious with him that they plot his murder, and though their plan is foiled at the last minute, they imagine that his sale to traders bound for Egypt will bring about his demise. All they need do is convince their father Jacob that his favorite son has been torn to pieces by wild beasts, which lie they perfect by means of that disgusting coat, the very symbol of Joseph’s special status with the old man. By the end of Gen.37, the brothers suppose that they are well rid of the appalling little snitch, and settle back into life on their Israelite farm, albeit a farm now run by a deeply aggrieved Jacob.
It is unfortunately just like the collectors of the lectionary to skip over Gen.38-44, rushing headlong to the famous recognition scene where the now powerful vizier of Egypt, after a very lengthy and cruel game of cat and mouse with his clueless brothers, finally reveals himself to them as none other than Joseph, the brother they had assumed long dead. I imagine that literally thousands of sermons have been preached on Gen.45, many waxing lyrically about the wondrous forgiveness that Joseph displays toward those very siblings who wanted him dead. “ Now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, that you sold me here. Surely, God sent me before you to create life” (Gen.45:5). Leaping directly from Gen.37 to Gen.45, as the lectionary bids a preacher to do, could easily cast Joseph as the hero of amazing forgiveness that he is often made out to be. And I can hear a sermon conclusion now: “If the terribly abused Joseph can forgive his murderous brothers, then, my friends, can we not forgive those who have wronged us, whether they are siblings, parents, neighbors, or even ourselves?” Amen!
But I find Joseph’s forgiveness too glib by half; it attempts to reconcile him to his astonished brothers all right, but it does so with an artful and perhaps deceitful cover up, asking and hoping them to forget and forgive the terrible games that Joseph has played with them over the preceding chapters. It is necessary that any reader of the story place herself in the position of the brothers and hear how exactly Joseph speaks to them in this scene.
“Joseph was not able to control himself among all those who were standing with him, so he cried out, ‘Everybody, get out of my presence’” (Gen.45:1)! By everyone, Joseph means all those Egyptian courtiers who accompany the man of power to the audience chamber. As soon as they are all gone, Joseph then reveals himself to his brothers. But if Joseph hoped to hide his revelation from his Egyptian colleagues, “he wept so loudly that the (just removed) Egyptians heard it as well as the household of pharaoh” (Gen.45:2). So much for a private moment with his long-lost kin! Everyone within earshot of the wailing Joseph knows that he is mightily distressed about something having to do with these scruffy Israelite beggars who have come to Egypt to buy grain. Presumably after he has dried his eyes, he is able to croak, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive” (Gen.45:3)? That strikes me as a question laced with surprising ambiguity. Has he not more than once taxed his father’s very life by first imprisoning one of the brothers during their first foray to buy grain, by then demanding that Jacob’s new favorite son, Benjamin, be brought to Egypt before any more grain sales are possible, and finally placing his divining cup in the sack of that same Benjamin and accusing him of theft and bringing on the fear of death? Through all of these nasty tricks old Jacob remains at home, terrified and alone as his sons are tricked and lied to by the monstrous vizier of Egypt. For Joseph to ask whether the old man is still alive in its darkest meaning is to ask whether he is still alive after the horror I have put him through!
And then in the awful silence of the chamber, Joseph proceeds to tell them all about his power, all about his desire to save them from poverty, all about his desire to give them homes in Goshen, not far from his own home, all about his desire that Jacob should come to Egypt post haste. A careful reading of his long speech reveals that the central claim Joseph makes is that he has real power. He is, he proclaims “father to pharaoh, lord of all his house, ruler of all the land of Egypt” (Gen.45:8). One wonders what pharaoh himself might say to these grandiose claims! Is Joseph in fact pharaoh’s “father?” Is he really “lord over pharaoh’s house?” Is he actually “ruler of all Egypt?” Then when he commands the brothers to go and fetch the old man from Israel, he repeats his claim: be sure to tell him that “God has made me lord of all Egypt” (Gen.45:9). And yet again he instructs the brothers to tell Jacob “how greatly I am honored (or “seen as great”) in Egypt” (Gen.45:13). Joseph is clearly intent on demonstrating that he is a great man, not even less in authority and power than pharaoh himself. What else can this boasting be than a rebuke to these same brothers? “Thought you had done me in, huh? Well, have a look at me now!” That same arrogant boy, parading around in his splendid robe, is still parading about in his splendid Egyptian robes, but now trumpeting his grandeur and greatness before his stunned siblings, who have yet to say a word.
After Joseph’s boasting has at last run its course, he grabs his youngest brother Benjamin and weeps on his neck. And finally he kisses each of his brothers, weeping as he does so. Though Benjamin weeps, the text says nothing about any weeping from the rest of the brothers. Then, “after that his brothers talked to him” (Gen.45:15). One would love to know what the brothers said!
It is of course true that Joseph laces his speech with talk of God; God did this and that, he says. God had all this in mind that I would be great, and you would be my servants, dependent on my largesse, alive only due to my generosity. “God sent me before you to create life,” says Joseph, and the life I have created is a grand one indeed. It will not do to read this story too simply. There is forgiveness to be sure but there is grandiose arrogance, too. There is theological reflection, but there is human power, too. As always, our Bible never tells a simple story, because it knows, as do we, that our lives are far from simple, but are full of complexity and ambiguity aplenty. That is why we read it still after all these centuries and why we want our people to know and love it, too.
(Images from Wikimedia commons)