The lectionary reading for last Sunday focused on the early part of the story of Joseph where he is sold into slavery by his brothers. If we read on from there we see how he ends up in Egypt. At the beginning of chapter 39 we’re told that “the LORD was with Joseph and he became a successful man” (v.2). The evidence of God’s presence with Joseph is also noted by his Egyptian master Potiphar, a high-up in Pharoah’s regime, and Joseph soon makes a name for himself.
The lectionary reading for last Sunday focused on the early part of the story of Joseph where he is sold into slavery by his brothers. If we read on from there we see how he ends up in Egypt. At the beginning of chapter 39 we’re told that “the LORD was with Joseph and he became a successful man” (v.2). The evidence of God’s presence with Joseph is also noted by his Egyptian master Potiphar, a high-up in Pharoah’s regime, and Joseph soon makes a name for himself. But he doesn’t just get attention for his good housekeeping and management - his good looks also help to raise his profile and he finds himself the recipient of some unwanted attention from Potiphar’s wife. Joseph ends up in prison but God still works for his good and he is given responsibility for all the other prisoners (vv.21-23). Despite the fact that his dream analysis got him into trouble with his brothers earlier on in his story, it has the opposite effect here in prison and later with Pharaoh. Pharaoh is so impressed that he puts Joseph in charge of the whole of the land of Egypt, and thanks to Joseph’s wise stewardship, enabled by God’s insights, Egypt reserves the resources to ride out the worldwide famine when it comes. People come from far and wide to seek help from Joseph, and so it is that his brothers arrive in Egypt, not knowing that their brother is in charge, wanting to buy grain. After various tricks with money and a silver cup in their sacks, and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between Canaan and Egypt, by the end of chapter 44 Joseph has all his brothers in front of him.
The chapter we’re looking at today picks up where Joseph can’t keep up the pretence any longer. He is practically the ruler of all of Egypt, he has survived many plots against him, but now he needs to reveal the truth. The irony over the preceding chapters is that Joseph recognises his brothers but they do not know him at all, and the tension builds to this point. In an emotional outburst Joseph metaphorically removes his mask and tells his brothers who he is - but this is in stark contrast to his brothers’ silent response. They are awestruck and can’t speak. Joseph has to tell them more. You can imagine some of the things that are going through their minds. In verse 3 we’re told that they’re “dismayed” to realise they’re in the presence of the brother they thought they’d got rid of all those years before. They probably can’t quite take in what Joseph is saying to them. It’s impossible to believe - even if Joseph had survived his ordeal and lived, how could he have made the journey from slave to influential political leader? They’re probably also terrified - what is Joseph going to do to punish them for what they did to him? They probably feared for their lives. And so Joseph tells them his story, to reassure them and perhaps to also give them a bit more time for the impact of his news to sink in.
Joseph tries to calm his brothers. In verse 5 he tells them that God sent him to this place years earlier to preserve their lives. And he similarly repeats this in verses 7 and 8. Joseph wants his brothers to know, and the writer wants his readers to know that in all the events of Joseph’s life God has been working to bring good out of evil. Joseph pushes on to more practical arrangements. There are still going to be 5 years of famine left, but Joseph’s family will know and experience peace and plenty under Joseph’s protection and provision. the whole extended family - father, brothers, children, grandchildren, flocks and herds will all be safe and have plenty.
Joseph has many chances in the previous chapters to get revenge on his brothers. He could refuse to help them when they first come to him, and when they come back again. He could reveal himself earlier and throw them into prison for attempted murder. Joseph doesn’t gloat over their misfortune, he doesn’t judge them and sentence them to imprisonment or death. Instead Joseph reinterprets the story of their relationship. He writes a new page. Many years earlier the story of Joseph and his brothers had been one of hubris, hatred, jealousy, resentment, violence and deceit.
But Joseph does not want to repeat those early destructive themes. He wants a new beginning, and forgiveness is the starting point. The evil intent of his brothers is overshadowed by God’s good intent so that Joseph can save them. Joseph has suffered and lived quite precariously, dependent on the whims and decisions of others, but God never left him. Joseph knows that he has been blessed, but more than that, he realises that he has been saved and blessed not for his own benefit but for the benefit of his family. Joseph imitates God’s grace. Joseph reflects the image of God in showing love and mercy and kindness. Joseph may have been rejected by his family, but he is the one whose goodness and kindness is needed by his family in order to survive.
Sometimes it can be as hard for us today as it was for Joseph’s brothers to believe that God is with us and is at work even in dark and destructive moments of life. The stories of Joseph can help us to see things differently. Joseph shows us the power of what God can do in human life - the power to transform curse into blessing. Without Joseph’s generous actions and the decision to forgive and take a new direction, the whole of the salvation history of Israel, and of Christianity, would have turned out very differently. So Joseph shows us what is possible when we choose love and forgiveness over hatred and revenge. And in the light of what we see in the New Testament, Joseph may also be seen as a metaphor for God. He has every reason to reject his wayward and destructive human family, but instead he loves and forgives them, and actively seeks their blessing and wellbeing, longing for reconciliation and the opportunity to begin again, to write a new chapter.
For further reflection…