The Joseph narratives provide a necessary conclusion to the story and journey of the patriarchs of Israel. Beginning with Genesis 12, we follow the lives of Abraham and his descendants as they engage in covenant relationship opportunities with God. While Joseph is not one of the three forefathers as are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is one of the “four” fathers of mentioned in Genesis and as such he provides the final link in the Genesis conversation about God’s faithfulness to his chosen people. The Joseph accounts in Genesis move us on the map from the Promised Land to Egypt, where the book of Exodus will pick up the story. In Exodus, the Israelites will experience their most remembered encounters with their covenantal God So, the Joseph stories, including our passage in chapter 45, find their obvious literary purpose in building a bridge, moving the Old Testament narrative along toward the eventual two critical crisis points in the journey of the Israelites, both beginning with the letter “E”: the Exodus and the Exile. With these two transition points in mind, the New Testament reader finds the keys to fully understanding the salvific act of God through Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament Gospels.
The background to Genesis 45 needs a brief rehearsal so we, the readers, can involve ourselves in the dramatic and surprising turn of events in our study passage. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was hated and despised by his brothers. Their contempt for him caused them to entertain murder and then settle for selling Joseph into slavery. In Egypt, he was falsely accused of adultery and sent to prison. But in that seemingly hopeless position, God raised Joseph up to take the second highest position in the entire kingdom of Egypt, the dominant nation in the Middle East at that time. His newfound situation gave him authority over the food resources of the land which then led his brothers to seek out his assistance when a famine swept over all neighboring people groups. As we enter chapter 45, the brothers have encountered their brother but have not yet recognized him as Joseph, concealed by Egyptian name, dress, and language. Now the time for unveiling. The moment is ripe for passion of many varieties. The one who used to be in a pit is now on a throne; and the once strong and arrogant ones have become too terrified to utter even a word from their paralyzed throats. We are reminded of the scene in Isaiah 6: Isaiah knows he is a man of unclean lips in the presence of a thrice holy God. “Woe is me!” he cries out, knowing fully well he is a dead man as he stands before the throne. As these brothers stand before Joseph they too know they are dead men.
Our passage can be outlined easily into three sections: 1. Joseph revealing himself to his brothers (vv. 1-3); 2. Joseph explaining how the brothers’ purposes have been overcome by God’s purposes (vv. 4-11); 3. The reconciliation of Joseph and his family (vv. 12-15). This rather static summary is greatly overshadowed by the sheer emotion of the setting. The reader is immediately struck by the opening and closing paragraphs and the repetition of the verb “weeping”. Surely this pure and overflowing emotion is the key to our passage. Here we see the second most powerful leader in the known world sharing the most common of all human sentiments—the shedding of tears.
This is not what the ancient reader of Genesis or the modern reader of the Bible would expect. Joseph had been wronged by his brothers. He had been betrayed and abandoned and forgotten. Yet the urge for revenge is turned into a greater urge to forgive. The Middle Eastern mindset of this day was filled with the law of revenge. The Old Testament commandment to exact only an “eye for an eye” speaks to the way revenge always multiplies its tolls. The carnal desire to get even when we feel wronged is universal; today’s road rage incidents point out the way common folks can become uncontrollably fixated on over-righting even the smallest of wrongs.
But the tears of Joseph point us in another unanticipated direction. We might even feel compelled to cheer Joseph on to exact some measure of penalty on his brothers who had so obviously treated him without respect or pity. Yet he can barely get his attendants out of the room before he explodes into tears of relief, mercy, and love. What kind of man is this? How can he so easily forget his anger, his righteous anger, and in its place allow grace to cover the entire setting? These brothers, who so deserve death if anyone ever did, are instead anxiously and extravagantly offered life.
Unreasonable Forgiveness. And so we begin to see even here in this early Old Testament text, a message so bold and so novel, that it will eventually echo its way all the way to the Cross of Christ. Here in a literary narrative designed to couch the story of Israel’s zig-zag relationship with God, we have a clear summary of the essential truth of all of God’s Word—that truth is the simple words of John 3:16: God so loved us that he sent his son to die for us. When we deserved death, we are instead offered life. We can certainly take the ethical lesson presented here and do as Joseph: offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us, just as Jesus so often taught in the Gospels. This character lesson is strong and appropriate in our day. We like revenge and we like to get even. We want the scales balanced. But Joseph whispers to us, though many tears, “let it go and forgive.” But the basis of that kind of forgiveness, which does not and cannot come naturally to any of us, must lie within the nature of God himself. That is the deep reality of our passage and indeed of the entire scope of God’s Word.
Unmerited Grace. Here is another equally important truth for us to grasp from this passage: Joseph explains that the harm the brothers had intended had been turned upside down by God’s own good purposes. What they had intended for evil, God had used for good. Now in Wesleyan terms we have to be careful not to excuse the brothers’ actions as perhaps “necessary” for God’s plans to have been accomplished. What the brothers did was sin and inexcusable. We cannot say that God desired the brothers to sin so Joseph could find his way to Egypt. That kind of theological twisting very soon places God in an indefensible position and shreds the concept of human free will. In spite of what the brothers had done, God was still able to redeem the situation so his greater purposes could be fulfilled. We are reminded of the great doctrine of prevenient grace, which proclaims in every situation: God goes before. People still make personal decisions to cooperate or not with God’s grace. The brothers did not, Joseph did. What this teaches us is that in any situation there is reason for optimism. That does not guarantee every detail will go well; just ask Joseph when he was in the pit or in the prison. But it does mean that we have confidence that God is at work—always—in ways we cannot anticipate. Romans 8:28, a verse often misunderstood, points us in the right way: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
Overflowing Love. Joseph could not restrain his tears. His desire for reconciliation was so strong it could not be stopped. Just like the father of the Prodigal Son, who had to run to greet his wayward boy, Joseph’s desire to be reunited covered all other emotions. Paul reminds us that while we were YET sinners, Christ died for us. The longing of God for his people is so uncontainable that it bursts out in immeasurable amounts of love. That is the story of the Exodus, the story of the Judges, the story of David, the story of Hosea and Gomer, the story of the 99 and 1 sheep, the story of the lost coin, the story of Paul on the Damascus Road, and finally the story of you and I. The undoing of relationship with our Creator so sadly told in Genesis 3 will not have final say. The ongoing and relentless purpose of God to reconcile the world to him fills the pages of God’s Word. Why did Joseph weep uncontrollably? Because he saw the potential for reconciliation with his own family. He saw the opportunity to redeem his brothers from their sin. He saw the chance to offer life when death and despair seemed to reign. That is a picture of our God’s love for us. He so desires reconciliation that he will go to all efforts to offer that chance. No person is beyond the love of God. And when we respond to that love, he bids us to come close, just as Joseph told his brothers to “come close to me.” Like Isaiah, we do not deserve to be admitted to God’s holy presence, but he can and does make us holy so that we can not only stand in his presence guiltless, we can do so as family.