Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genesis of Forgiveness III: Joseph's Saga

A continuing exploration of the Bible for themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. See part one (and comment thread) for goals and rationale as well as for mention of the Hebrew words cited here.

Old Chapters and New [Gen 35-37:2]:

When we last caught up with Jacob's family, they were moving to Bethel after the ugly episode with Dinah's rapists. We do not get to hear much about this growing entourage, but with the addition of all the new widows and orphans of the Shechemites we can imagine this must be an odd restart to say the least. That it happens on the very spot where Jacob had wrestled with God seems appropriate [35-1-7]. When they do move away from Bethel, Rachel dies giving birth to Jacob's last son, Benjamin, and Isaac also dies "old and full of years" [35:16-29]. If we had more written about it, the family dynamics of Isaac's final years would have put food on the tables of psychologist and sociologists for centuries. As it is, the Bible lets us read between the lines and leaves us with the parting image of Jacob and Esau together at the graveside of their father, "laughter", the son of Abraham [35:29]. Something is keeping this family going.

At this point we get an account of Esau's descendants, and a transition to the story of Joseph which will consume the final 1/3 of the book of Genesis. Interestingly, Joseph's story is introduced to us as "the account of Jacob" [37:2]. Clearly we are to understand that what happens to Joseph happens for the sake of Israel.

Jacob's Sons and Joseph's Troubles [Gen 37-41]:

Knowing what we know now, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that those who will eventually be rescued from deathly famine by Joseph have actually bitterly hated him from early on for having found favour with Jacob. (Joseph was born to him in his old age, presumably when he could actually have relaxed and spent more time with him [37:2-11]). Given the history of violence in this family and the fact that Jacob's recent history does not exactly involve a lot of retribution, we should probably not be too surprised when Joseph's brothers aim to kill him [12-20]. Although it will end up that the younger brother rather than the firstborn ends up with the bulk of Jacob's blessing, it is interesting to note that here it is the eldest brother, Reuben, who is in some sense a deliverer of Israel's eventual deliverer [21-22]. Joseph is thrown into a well and when opportunity knocks is later sold to merchants heading to Egypt [23-28].

Anyway, for our purposes we need to fast-forward in this story, and even though the word is being used to means something other than forgiveness, we will do so utilizing occurrences of the Hebrew root nasa', which means basically to lift, carry, or bear up:
  • Having cast Joseph into the well, Jacob's sons nasa' and see the Ishmaelite traders (who nasa' spices, balm and myrrh) coming from Gilead [37:25]. Tempted as I am by echoes of future events and metaphors, I will merely press the interesting fact that the people of their estranged Great Uncle Ishmael also have a hand in Israel's deliverance via Joseph in Egypt. God works in mysterious ways.
  • Potiphar's wife nasa' her eyes and lusts after Joseph, such that when he refuses her advances it ends up costing him some prison time [39]. (By the way, Joseph ends up getting her daughter as his wife [41:50]. Now that must have been an awkward son- and mother-in-law relationship!)
  • After interpreting the dreams of his inmates, Joseph's prediction about them comes true. The king nasa' the heads of both his cupbearer and his baker -- the cupbearer to his former position and the baker to death on a tree. The whole thing seems pretty random, and it doesn't seem likely that Joseph could have just predicted it without some divine assistance [40:1-22]. Whatever the case, the prison guard's knowledge of this ends up buying Joseph the chance to interpret Pharoah's troublesome nightmares about the impending famine; and with Pharoah's recognition that Joseph has "the spirit of the gods" it means Joseph is put in charge of Egypt's preparation for the natural disaster [41:1-49]. Joseph's Egypt ends up being the vehicle not only for Israel's deliverence, but for "all the world" [57].

Joseph Messes with his Brothers [Gen 42-45]

When Joseph's brothers finally come to Egypt to ask for food for Jacob's family back in famine-riddled Canaan, Joseph recognizes them, but not they him [42:1-8]. Along with his recollection of what they did to him, he recalls his dreams about them, and this instigates what for him seems to be a mission to not only provide for them but to bring them to their knees [42:9]. Whether the way that he messes with them is entirely called for or not, it surely does just that, and by the end his insistent conflict with them does result in reconciliation as truth-filled as it is emotional [45]. What follows are my reflections on the back and forth that takes place along the way.

Joseph is no doubt justified in wanting justice for what his brothers did to him, but is bound by the fact that he would have to reveal himself in order to pass that judgment. He does not seem to want to do this, for reasons we will speculate on momentarily. Suffice it to say for the moment that he comes up with a way to exact punishment on them without playing his whole hand; without exposing himself to the same vulnerability as their's. Pretty cunning, pretty self-protective stuff, and perhaps not a model for truth and reconciliation, but interestingly enough it has the desired effect.

Not only do the brothers conclude that "we are being punished because of our brother" but they confess in Joseph's hearing that they dismissed the opportunity to listen to his desperate pleadings [42:21]. Joseph also gets to hear how Reuben tried to stick up for him and from Reuben's lips we hear echoes of God to Noah, that they are indeed "accountable for his blood" [9:5-6; 42:22]. All this understandably sends Joseph to tears, but he regains his composure and throws Simeon in prison (rather than Reuben, whom we might expect) [42:22-24].

Back in Canaan, Jacob refuses to send Benjamin to Egypt with the brothers as Joseph requested, even to free Simeon. He is done trusting his children to others in this way, and considers Simeon "no more", just like Joseph [42:36]. However, over time the famine takes its toll, and Jacob reconsiders, assisted by Judah's pledge to take full responsibility for Benjamin's life [43:1-10]. Jacob of course resorts to some old strategies (perhaps wisely) and sends along plenty of gifts in order to appease this prince of Egypt. But the mature Jacob here confesses that even in this prudent gesture he is at the mercy not simply of this man, but of God Almighty [43:14].

On return to Egypt the brothers are at the end of their rope, and are actually the better for it. They offer their gifts as well as their restitution for the missing silverware, and in doing so they also pull no punches and 'fess up to the extra silver in their sacks (which they didn't steal, but which Joseph had put their to test them) [43:18-21]. In this they appear to pass the test, and they are given not only the silver but Simeon as well [23]. Truth is coming out more and more.

Crazily enough, however, Joseph is interested in blessing them way sooner than he is interested in reconciling with them. Despite the tears shed in private and the willingness to bless his brothers publicly, he is content to let those tears end in personal catharsis and to let the blessing be given from a safe distance. The brothers are sent home with all the food they can carry and more [43:26-44:1].

This might strike readers as odd, but on further consideration isn't it exactly how we tend to operate? In the aftermath of wrongdoing and broken relationships, we will sooner forgive someone in our heart and even begin to pray blessing for them than we will actively seek to sort out our differences with them face to face and aim for what seems an unimaginable reconciliation. In fact we easily spiritualize this version of forgiveness, preaching it as a kind of therapeutic freedom rather than seeking the goal within which forgiveness actually makes sense.

But deep in his heart, Joseph isn't done with them. He tests them again. He puts his silver cup in Benjamin's sack, pauses, and then sends a servant on the road to catch the brothers red-handed [44:2-13]. When they are brought back and are beside themselves with contrition, Joseph messes with them again, demanding to hold Benjamin (the brother with whom he has no conflict) in custody and let the rest be on their way [14-17]. When Judah for the sake of Jacob offers his life in exchange for Benjamin's, it finally pulls Joseph over the edge [44:18-45:2]. He reveals himself to them, interprets the entire debacle in light of God's plan of deliverance for them, and in light of this invites them to bring the entire family to Egypt.

The saga ends with Joseph kissing his brothers amidst mutual tears of profound relief [45:3-15]. Quite awesomely, Joseph sends them back to get Jacob with a knowing word that hints toward a fresh start for this family, saying "Don't quarrel on the way!" [45:24].

Further Ever After [Gen 46-50]:

Now I ask you, can Genesis -- this book which beautifully sets humanity's origins and its purposes in the context of the Creator's overflow of love and shalom and yet so aptly depicts the outcome of creaturely disobedience in terms of brokenness and discord -- can Genesis end more fittingly than that?

Actually, it can.

Jacob's family moves to Egypt and is finally reunited in fellowship and security [46-47]. Jacob blesses each of his sons, oassing the blessing of Abraham and Isaac particularly to the sons of Joseph [48-49], before dying as one "gathered to his people" in peace [49:33]. And after a road trip to Canaan together to bury Jacob back with his forefathers, the children of Israel have one more confrontation. Josephs's brothers would not blame him if he held a grudge against them and wished to exact revenge on them now that Jacob was gone. So they tell him (truthfully or not we don't know) that Jacob instructed them to ask forgiveness, and do so. (Breaking all today's rules, they do so via a messenger rather than in person, but being afraid for their lives perhaps we can forgive them that!)

The message begins by quoting Jacob, and then goes out on its own: "'I ask you to forgive (nasa') your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive (nasa') the sins of the servants of the God of your father." Reunited, Joseph says to his brothers, now bowing in his presence as he'd dreamed so long ago: "'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish ... the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.' And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them."

In some sense I think Joseph does stand in the place of God here. We will hear these merciful words from the lips of Jesus to those rightfully bowing at his feet later on. And the people who take those words to heart will in turn become a people who are defined by what becomes known as the ministry of reconciliation -- even called to be ambassadors of that reconciliation. For the sake of God and because of God's Sovereign grace they will be called to resist the false peace of conflict avoidance and the downward spiral of perpetual revenge, instead sharing a communion from beyond themselves, meeting together in the peace that passes understanding for such things as forbearance, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and the difficult road to restoration and shalom.

Epilogue: Ephraim Ahead of Manasseh [Gen 41, 48-49]:

Oh, and one more thing: When Joseph had his sons in Egypt he named the firstborn Manasseh, which sounded like "forget", and the second son Ephraim, which sounded like "twice fruitful" -- doing so in order to signify first that "God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household" and second that "God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering" [41:51-52].

With "Manasseh" we have evidence that Joseph was at first content to "forgive and forget" from a safe distance and not take forgiveness to its divine telos in reconciliation. As already mentioned, this tends to be a pious form of "settling" pretty common in Christian circles where private salvation has eclipsed the kingdom of God in importance and the spiritual disciplines have fallen in line accordingly. With "Ephraim" we have foreshadowings of something that Christianity will eventually draw out and emphasize even more: The fact that it is not only survival that God seeks to bring out of suffering but double fruitfulness. God does not just deal with sin in Christ, God overcomes it and intends to achieve his original purposes to overflowing.

Curiously enough, when Jacob comes to bless these children of Joseph he switches them around so that, while both are blessed, it is Ephraim who gets the blessing of the firstborn [48:8-20]. We don't want to read too much into this (after all, Jacob may simply be passing on his historical precedence for the second child!), but Jacob is no doubt aware of the meaning of their names when he declares that the "younger will be greater" and "puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh" [19-20]. Later we learn that Jacob considered each son's blessing appropriate to each, and we hear him add that "Joseph is a fruitful vine near a spring ... attacked ... but steady ... because of your father's God" [49:22-25]. This is the vine into which we have been grafted by Jacob's offspring, Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

Whatever we take from Genesis about forgiveness, it is probably best that we recognize it as more than forgetfulness for the sake of a private feeling of contentment. We should probably understand that forgiveness is a part of God's gracious plan to bring not just survival but fruitfulness in the land of our suffering and our enmity. May we as Christians recognize that we are not set apart because we are righteous, but because of Christ's overflow of grace and love to the least of us -- and go forward in bold humility like salt in the earth and trust in Him for just that.

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