Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” They said to him, “No, my lord; your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.” But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have said to you; you are spies! Here is how you shall be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you; or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.” And he put them all together in prison for three days.
Remember those first two dreams, way back at the beginning of Chapter 37? (17th April 2018). The dreams that got Joseph’s brothers so riled that they hated him even more? The one where Joseph’s sheaf of corn rises over his brothers’ sheaves and they bow down to it, followed quickly by the one where the sun, moon and eleven stars were all bowing down to Joseph? Yes, you remember them now, and so did Joseph as his brothers come to Egypt from their home in Canaan to buy food for their survival. They come in full submission, faces to the ground, bowing down before their unrecognised brother who, in a sheer reversal of roles, now holds all the aces. I’ll leave it to later writers to determine whether this ‘dream come true’ is the stuff of nightmares or is, in fact, a blessing in disguise.
What is striking is the suspicion that Joseph had of his brother’s motives. We might say he was just playing them along, accusing them of spying, making them wait and jump through various hoops before he would help. After all, they deserved nothing from him did they, after the way they had treated him?
I fear there is something in his attitude that lingers today when people who are hungry seek help, whether that be from international aid organisations or the local food bank. We like to be generous, provided it’s on our terms. We need to remain in control, lest those who are in need begin to take advantage. We want to make sure their needs are genuine so we set conditions and expect hoops to be jumped through. I’m sure Joseph didn’t intend his actions to be interpreted this way, but then neither do we!
We might dream of a time when all people who are hungry will be fed. Until that time the least we can do is treat those who come to us with dignity and respect rather than demean them further.
Generous God, when we are confronted by hunger, asked for our help, and challenged to give, may compassion fill our hearts, and kindness be on our lips that we might follow the example of Jesus and go the extra mile. So may the hungry may be satisfied and our need of you increased. In Jesus name, Amen
The Rev’d David Salsbury is minister of Dyserth and Holywell and Training and Development Officer in the National Synod of Wales.