Beyond the Lectionary Text: Genesis 45
by Heidi De Jonge
The Joseph narrative comes to a climax in Genesis 45. In reflecting on Joseph’s story up to this point, one can see that Joseph was both a wounded man and a broken man. He was wounded, certainly, by the loss of his mother, by the mistreatment of his brothers, by the mischaracterization by Potiphar’s wife, by the forgetfulness of the cupbearer. But Joseph was also a broken man. His ego and the way he handled his father’s favoritism got under the skin of his brothers. They were certainly at fault for the way that they treated him, but the complexity of a family can never be fully explained by means of ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’ parties. Joseph’s brokenness and his brother’s brokenness combined to create darkness in the family of Jacob.
The brothers’ guilt over getting rid of Joseph hung around them like a fog. And Jacob’s father, who thought his son had died, lived in a world of pain. “All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.’ So his father wept for him” (Genesis 37:35). In their pain, I’m sure Jacob and his sons all wondered if God had forgotten them. When Joseph’s brothers left him in a cistern to die, I bet Joseph wondered if God had forgotten him. When Potiphar put him into prison, I bet Joseph wondered if God had forgotten him. When the cupbearer neglected to remember Joseph to Pharaoh, I bet Joseph wondered if God had also forgotten him.
Now, of course, we know that God did not forget Joseph. We read snippets in the Joseph story that remind us that God was with Joseph. The Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in everything he did (39:3). The Lord was with Joseph and granted him kindness (39:21). And Joseph acknowledged his God. He acknowledged God when he interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer and Pharaoh. After Joseph had risen to the position of second-in-command – after he had gotten married and had a couple of boys, Joseph acknowledged God when he named his sons (41:51-52). He named one of them Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” But even as he acknowledged the fact that God remembered him by making him fruitful, Joseph wanted to do some forgetting. He named his firstborn, Manasseh – which sounds like the Hebrew for ‘forget.’ “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” My family left me for dead and then sold me… and I’m sure they have now forgotten me – and now, together, God and I will forget my family. God has helped me to forget my deepest pain.
The shadow of the famine fell over the land, just as predicted. And Joseph’s brothers came for food. Had Joseph really forgotten his deepest pain? One look at those faces – those familiar faces – those family faces – those faces he’d grown up with – those faces that return in his dreams looking down at him from the opening of an empty cistern. No. He had not forgotten. He had not Manasseh-ed them. The ones who he had pretended were dead in his mind were alive. And he recognized them. And his heart hurt.
But then he pretended to forget. He pretended they were strangers to him. And for the next chapters of the story, Joseph does all sorts of strange things… he shows kindness to them, but he wraps the kindnesses up in demands that make his brothers suffer. And he watches them suffer, as they had made him suffer. “God, I thought we had forgotten my troubles. I thought you had helped me to forget my father’s household! Manasseh! But here they are. And the pain is still there.”
Our wounds are deep as well. The shadows of the broken creation fall long on our lives. And we try to forget. We try to forget the ways that others have hurt us. We try to forget the ways that we have hurt others. And sometimes we’re successful – for a long time we’re successful. But then, in an instant, we’re reminded. A face. A voice. A box of old things falls open. And there’s the pain. The shame. The grief. The anger. Something we were pretending was dead is alive again – and it fuels our energy and our ability to wound others – to return wound for wound. Even when we try to be kind, we wrap it up in demands that make others suffer. Or maybe we don’t strike back, but we isolate ourselves from the source of our pain – withdraw farther and farther away from the people who remind us of the loss. Without God, we hurt others in the ways that we have been hurt. Without God, children with alcoholic parents become alcoholics. Without God, people who have been abused, abuse. Without God, countries that have been bombed, bomb back.
The story of Joseph is the story of God. God works in and through and around and with the shadows of brokenness and woundedness in this story. God works a healing in Joseph’s heart and he extends that healing through Joseph and to his brothers. We see it in chapter 43 when Joseph sees Benjamin for the first time: “As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, ‘Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?’ And he said, ‘God be gracious to you, my son.’ Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there” (vv. 29-30).
Joseph was ‘deeply moved.’ The Hebrew word here also means – to grow warm… it’s the same word that God uses to talk about his love for Israel in Hosea 11. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me. All my compassion is aroused (warmed/agitated/made hot)” (v. 8). How can I give you up, Benjamin? How can I hand you over to this famine, my brothers? How can I treat you like you have treated me? How can I wound you? Indeed, I cannot. My heart is changed within me. My heart is healed within me. All my compassion and love is aroused/warmed…
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them that God has done all of this… God was working through this whole story. If you had not thrown me into the pit, brothers, none of God’s good plan would have come about. (45:5, 8) All of these wounds happened – and through them, God’s salvation is coming. God’s healing of this land is coming.
Here are a couple of excellent excerpts from Walter Brueggeman:
At one extreme, one is tempted to say too much, to echo the old stories about a rescuing God who intrudes to make all things right. But this narrative addresses people who know too much and will not accept such a raw confession. At the other extreme, one is tempted to claim too little. Then one may urge a humanism which believes in a God who ‘has no hands but ours’ to do the work. The narrative works its subtle way between a primitivism which believes too easily and a humanism which is embarrassed about faith. Like the narrator, the interpreter must speak about a transcendence which is quite concrete. The overriding power of God’s rule is not a vacuous sovereignty. Its purpose is to feed a people. This hidden God has a quite identifiable historical purpose. And though that purpose is worked out with reference to imperial power and well-being, his goal is the creation of a community of liberation. (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 294)
Luther has observed that when this brother announces himself, he uses no Egyptian throne name but his own family name. He identifies himself as Joseph, the one ‘added’ by God, the surplus of meaning and joy and hope given to this family of faith. The point is a central one in biblical faith: The power to create newness does not come from detachment, but from risky, self-disclosing engagement. (Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 345)
At the end of the story – the end of Genesis… when Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers are worried that his heart is going to cool towards them, Joseph assures them again of the presence and healing of God. Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:19-20).
God intends all things for good. It’s been his modus operandi from the beginning. In the beginning, God created the earth good… very good. And here – at the end of the story of Genesis we find the word ‘good’… The God of creation and the God of Israel has only ever been about this one thing… Making and remaking his creation good.
It’s a new moment that God creates when he warms Joseph’s heart. The wounded man is healed and becomes the healer. The one who kept getting everything taken away from him… his cloak, his reputation, his freedom… he is given the power to become a provider. The father who, when he heard of his son’s death refused to be comforted – he is comforted. And the brothers – whose guilt had hung on them for decades – they are forgiven. In Genesis 50, Joseph reassured them and spoke kindly to them. In the Hebrew, it says that he ‘spoke to their hearts.’ These words are echoed almost exactly in Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort, Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to (or speak to the heart of) Jerusalem.”
Joseph was, of course, one of the many wounded healers in the Bible. Isaiah’s scorched lips spoke comfort. Hosea was betrayed by his wife Gomer, and was told to take her back and love her anyway. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, and immediately after she began to wait on those gathered in her home. Zacchaeus’ greedy heart was changed and he gave back all he had taken – and more. All of these are wounded healers – people with wounds who were healed and by the grace of God, turned into people who then extended that healing to those around them.
But the greatest wounded healer is the one who stands right at the center of history… He is the one who completely embodies all of the good that God has always intended for his creation. The Jesus Storybook Bible gets it just right: One day, God would send another Prince, a young Prince whose heart would break. Like Joseph, he would leave his home and his Father. His brothers would hate him and want him dead. He would be sold for pieces of silver. He would be punished even though he had done nothing wrong. But God would use everything that happened to this young Prince –even the bad things – to do something good: to forgive the sins of the whole world. (Sally Lloyd Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, pp. 82-83)
That wounded healer heals the wounds of your heart and in that healing, sets you free to be a wounded healer yourself. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
Look for wounded healers in the news or in your congregation, who are comforting others with the comfort they themselves have been comforted with.
The Joseph story, according to Brueggemann, leads to vocation:
Joseph’s recognition of God’s plan for Israel does not lead to abdicating trust. It leads to a vocation. There is a perfect correlation between God’s will for life and Joseph’s work of providing… Joseph does not ‘leave it all in God’s hands.’ But he also does not believe that ‘God has no hands but ours.’ He accepts his vocation.” (p. 377)
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Lloyd-Jones, Sally. The Jesus Storybook Bible, Zonderkidz, 2007.
Rev. Heidi De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Kingston, Ontario.