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Genesis 45:1-15

Like a Russian doll, the history of Joseph and his brothers presents multiple stories nested one within the other. The outward and most obvious narrative is the famine that grips the world, compelling starving nations to seek aid from Egypt, where grain in abundance has been stored away. But hidden within this story is the tense drama of Jacob’s family and the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which seem to hang by a slender thread. The next layer contains the relationships among the sons of Jacob. How will the brothers atone for the sin of selling Joseph into slavery and deceiving their father? And, at the very center, stands Joseph, the one on whom the outcome of each of these stories depends.

The Lectionary has not followed the story of Joseph through its development from the days of sibling resentment and betrayal to Egyptian prison and, finally, elevation to authority in Pharaoh’s court. The preacher will need to provide some background to Genesis 45 and help the listeners appreciate the spectacular flow of this narrative. Otherwise, the power of the climactic scenes will be lost.

Many years have passed since Reuben persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph, but, instead, to sell him to Midianite traders. After all this time, Joseph has become an Egyptian. He has an Egyptian name, he speaks Egyptian, his face is clean shaven, he wears the uniform and headwear of Egyptian royal authority and he has married an Egyptian wife who has borne him two sons. Nevertheless, Joseph remains conscious of his personal history—his identity as a Hebrew, the love of his father, Jacob, the betrayal by his brothers and the providence of Yahweh in preserving his life and granting him favor.

We can assume that Joseph was not prepared for the shock of seeing his brothers’ faces in the crowd on the day they came to buy grain. Though he recognizes them, he knows they do not recognize him. And he uses this advantage to manipulate his brothers for a time. Why doesn’t Joseph reveal himself earlier in the narrative? What is to be gained by toying with his brothers and putting them (and his father, Jacob) through agonizing accusations and tests? Two possible answers come to mind. First, we witness Joseph struggling with his feelings toward his brothers. How will he treat the ones who cast him out of his own family? There must have been a tumult of conflicting impulses in Joseph. In his position of authority, he can do as he pleases with the brothers—imprisonment, execution, banishment without food aid. He certainly doesn’t have to reveal to them his true identity. But, as Joseph thinks of his father, Jacob, and his brother, Benjamin, he aches with longing to be restored to his long-lost family. How will he decide?

Professor R. R. Reno describes the inner conflict this way:

When his brothers came before Joseph to ask for grain, what did he see if not the distress of their souls, a fear about the future that was in his own soul when he lay in the pit? So we can imagine Joseph asking himself, “When they came to me, did I listen with sympathy and a desire to restore the brotherhood?” . . . Perhaps, then, Joseph cries because his brothers serve as a mirror. They reflect back to Joseph his own bitter feelings of recrimination, feelings that hover on the edge of doing to his brothers as they once did to him.[1]

Second, Joseph delays his decision because he needs to discern the character of his brothers. If there is to be any kind of reconciliation, Joseph wants to know what kind of people his brothers have become. How have the years changed them? In 42:21, the brothers make the connection between their act of betrayal against Joseph and the consequences they are now experiencing: “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” (Joseph hears this exchange, though the brothers think he doesn’t understand their language.) Furthermore, they show genuine concern for their father’s welfare—a concern conspicuously absent when they sold Joseph in reckless disregard for their father’s grief. In