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.
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 Judah’s appeal at the end of chapter 44, he offers himself in place of Benjamin to remain in Egypt as a servant to Joseph. Judah’s (and, presumably, all the brothers’) concern is that his father, Jacob, be spared the sorrow of losing the beloved second son of his wife, Rachel. To Joseph, these are all encouraging signs of sincerity and familial solidarity.
Chapter 45 begins right after Judah’s speech. Joseph, overcome with emotion, orders all except his brothers to leave the room. His sobbing is so loud, it can be heard throughout the royal enclave, even to the house of Pharaoh. The brothers are now shaken to the core as they witness the exalted ruler, Zaphenath-paneah (Joseph’s Egyptian name), transformed before their eyes. He is weeping uncontrollably and from his lips come the words of their own Hebrew language speaking the name of the brother they cruelly discarded long ago. “I am Joseph.” The brothers are unable to speak, “so dismayed were they at his presence.” (45:3) “They were terrified before him,” reads the Common English Bible.
Following Joseph’s self-disclosure, there are no recorded words from the brothers. Who could blame them for being dumbstruck? It’s not only the shock of realizing Pharaoh’s chief administrator is their brother, Joseph; it’s also the words they hear him speak—words not of judgment or condemnation, but gracious words giving glory to God for his providence in the welfare of nations and, particularly, in the preservation of the family of Jacob. Any fear the brothers harbored that Joseph would take his revenge on them was swiftly relieved as Joseph embraced each of them, covering them with kisses and tears.
When Joseph says to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God,” he is not absolving the brothers of responsibility for their terrible decision to sell Joseph; rather, he is acknowledging that the ultimate purposes of God are not thwarted by human sinfulness and selfishness. It’s a common theme throughout scripture: God works providentially in and through the worst of circumstances to advance his loving intentions for the world. This affirmation doesn’t come easily to Joseph. His years languishing in prison must have raised questions about whether God’s providence extended all the way into the pagan culture of Egypt. But, as the narrative repeatedly declares, and the outcome reveals, “The Lord was with Joseph.”
Joseph, a man who lacked the spiritual formation that the Covenant of Sinai would later bring to God’s people, finds it in his heart to show mercy and to seek reconciliation with his betrayers. He lived long before the Torah was given. He was not shaped by the words of the Prophets or the Psalter. But, in following his God-given instincts to embrace rather than exclude, to seek communal well-being over personal gratification and to forgive rather than seek revenge, he prefigures the holiest of saints, and Christ himself.
 R. R. Reno, Genesis, Edited by R. Reno and Robert Jensen, Brazos Press, 2010. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.