Genesis 42:6-7 (New International Version)
Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked. They replied, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.”
The last time Joseph had seen his brothers was as he was being carted off as a slave. His final vision of them would have been through panicked, tear-filled eyes, hoping that they would, at the last moment, relent in their cruelty. How could his own brothers do this? Of course they would have to stop, tell him it was all just a bad joke, and release him from the ropes that bound him. His heart must have broken as they turned their backs on him and allowed him to be taken away. In the years since that scene, Joseph has experienced so much pain, but has remained strong, trusting in God even when the people around him let Joseph down again and again.
Now, when he is at the pinnacle of earthly success, his stony-hearted brothers suddenly show up in his court, begging for food. The famine has reached Canaan, and their familes are starving. They have no idea that this powerful, strong, intimidating Egyptian official is the small, powerless brother who they betrayed so long ago. And as much as Joseph had tried to forget all that had been done to him, he had not. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t trust them. After all, these are the same men who seriously discussed killing him, and who then sold him into slavery. Can you imagine the turmoil Joseph must have experienced when they unexpectedly popped back into his life?
Almost 1200 years later, God sent the prophet Jeremiah to speak truth to the people, and when he experienced abuse at their hands he cried out to God in Jeremiah 18:23, “But you, Lord, know all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.” (Or, here’s the Collver paraphrase of that verse: “Take them out, God, but wait until you’re in a really bad mood to do it!”)
It’s so very, very easy to imagine Joseph praying similar words to God when he sees his brothers walking through his heavily guarded doors. These men should have protected their littlest brother. They should have loved him and cared for him, even when he was bratty. They should have taught him and mentored him. But, instead, they tried to destroy him. And now their lives are in Joseph’s hands. If this was something that happened in 2013, the comments to the online report of the story would probably go something like this. “Fry ’em, Joseph!” or “Looks like it’s time for a little payback, eh?” or “Wow, I wish I had a chance like you have, Joseph. Show those jerks what it’s like to hurt.”
As they say in detective shows, Joseph had “means, motive and opportunity.”
But Joseph is a God-honoring man of deep integrity. Before he makes a decision about his brothers, Joseph wants to know if they’ve changed. He tests them over and over again, giving them chances to show that they have grown. Finally, it’s his brother Judah who convinces him. Judah had been the one to suggest selling Joseph into slavery instead of killing him outright. At this last test, Joseph tells the brothers that he will be keeping their youngest brother, Benjamin, as his slave in Egypt. Judah humbly steps forward and offers himself as slave in Benjamin’s place.
That’s when Joseph loses it. He kicks everyone out of the room except his brothers, and breaks down sobbing: “And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it” (45:2). He does something that our society would think was completely crazy: he forgives! He shocks his brothers by revealing that he is their brother Joseph, who they thought was gone forever. Then he orders them: “Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me– you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute'” (Genesis 45:9-11).
This is the passage I woke up thinking about this morning. Joseph’s brothers stood in front of him, guilty and deserving of judgment. Joseph had the power to destroy them– either by ordering them enslaved, imprisoned or killed, or by simply withholding the food they desperately needed. And yet he chose something so radically different. He not only provided the food, he also invited his entire family– including these brothers who had abused their position of authority over him– to move to Egypt to live under his protection and benevolence. In one broad, sweeping gesture, Joseph offered forgiveness and freedom.
When have you experienced unexpected forgiveness? Who do you pray would forgive you? Who in your life right now do you need to forgive?