Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s household; and Joseph lived for one hundred and ten years. Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were also born on Joseph’s knees.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ And Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
We now come to the end of Genesis, with the intrigues and plots of the Joseph Story fresh in our minds. Joseph dies and is buried after a long settled life and distinguished career in a foreign land, and laid to rest there till his remains are taken to his ‘homeland’. Through time and fortuitous circumstances, yet feeling intense inner pain, Joseph’s willingness to forgive led to reconciliation with his brothers and an eventual reunion with his father.
Joseph’s rise to power should not detract from the fact that he got to Egypt by force. It resonates with the contemporary situation of millions of people being displaced fleeing war, poverty, racism, inhumanity, and calamities of nature – although most of these people don’t do as well as Joseph. In this story, God is mentioned only at the critical points leaving much unsaid.
Joseph refused to repay his brothers in kind for the way they had treated him. Would he have done so if they were not his brothers or had he not been in a position of authority?
How then do we read this passage in light of revelations of sexual abuse in all our institutions? What about the “Me-too” campaign in outing celebrities who have blighted the lives of many? Do the perpetrators necessarily assume the right to be forgiven? Have we witnessed sufficient personal and institutional contrition?
Should we see ourselves as Joseph, who had power as Second-in-Command in Pharaoh’s Court, hence claiming some moral high-ground? Or, might it not be that our real place is that of his brothers – mortals in constant need of forgiveness? The beauty of Hebrew Biblical narrative, with its ethical conundrums, is that it doesn’t give you pet answers and constantly challenges the values of our ‘civilised society’.
I take heart in today’s royal wedding, with an outsider marrying into Establishment. Introducing cultural diversity into the royal household, Meghan herself has had to overcome and to forgive racial abuse.
God, give us the heart we need to forgive others, to grow in grace, understanding and love, so that our forgiving of others may echo, even faintly, your forgiving of us. We ask in the name of Jesus who, even in his deepest pain, forgave his tormentors and taught us all the depth of love. Amen.
Andy Lie is the Ecumenical Officer for Northern Synod.