When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. Genesis 50: 15-21
The Joseph stories, found in Genesis 37-50, have always been among my favorite Bible stories, and I particularly love the conclusion to his saga as told in today’s reading. Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37, where he is the pampered and probably somewhat spoiled eleventh son of Jacob. It doesn’t help the family dynamics that he is the son of Jacob’s favored wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Although Benjamin is also given special treatment by his aging father, it is Joseph who bears the brunt of his older half-brothers’ anger and jealousy. Joseph’s personality probably had a fair amount to do with that, as he seems to have had a tendency to flaunt his superior status. The ten older brothers cook up a plot to kill Joseph and make it look like an accident, but relent when an opportunity arises to make a few bucks as well as getting rid of their annoying little brother. Instead of killing Joseph, they sell him to slave traders, who carry him off to Egypt in chains. There he undergoes quite a few more trials and tribulations before eventually rising to power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He had learned to harness the power of his dreams not only to promote himself, but to advance the welfare of others. Joseph uses his position of authority not only to save Egypt and his family from famine, but also to make Pharaoh a tidy little profit in the bargain. When Jacob finally dies of old age, it sends Joseph’s guilty brothers into a bit of a panic. What if Joseph, no longer constrained by consideration for his father’s feelings, decides it’s payback time? Instead, Joseph responds, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” And unlike his great-great-great-many times nephew David, Joseph really means what he says. He has changed, and so have his brothers.
I think one of the reasons I like the Joseph story so much is that I can relate to it in several ways. I was a precocious but not very socially aware child, and as a result was frequently ostracized and sometimes bullied. The bullying was usually verbal, but sometimes physical. Usually I could outrun or pedal faster than my would-be tormentors, and escape their intended harm to my person. However, on one occasion when I was walking to school, one of the patrol-boys (this dates me, I know!) deliberately kept me waiting at a crosswalk long enough for a second child to come up from behind and repeatedly hit my back with a plastic golf club. My desire for self-preservation took precedence over my desire to follow the rules, and I took off running and stormed into the principal’s office to report the incident. I remember being quite upset with both my parents and my school because as far as I knew, my attackers were never punished. In retrospect, perhaps that is why “The Count of Monte Cristo” became one of my favorite books for the next few years. Fast forward to about fifty years later, when people began finding long-lost and forgotten classmates through social media. The golf club incident had not been part of my conscious mind for decades. Out of the blue I was contacted by the man the patrol-boy had grown up to be, apologizing and asking for my forgiveness! I had thought that he wasn’t punished, but he told me that not only was he permanently banned from being a patrol-boy, he had been tormented for years remembering and regretting the incident and his part in it.
When I received his first email, I couldn’t help but think of the Joseph story. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”, because that was how I feel about my painful past now. In retrospect I see that even the bad things that happened in my life have helped mold me into who I am now. I became quite analytical about improving my social skills, and eventually got pretty good at them. Because I knew first hand how painful it is to be ostracized and teased, I became very sensitive to picking up on the suffering of others, as well as a fierce advocate for the underdog. I grew out of my Alexandre Dumas-inspired revenge fantasies, and sought instead to become a “wounded healer”. to use my painful experiences as a springboard to help others in pain. My former classmate and I continued to correspond up until the time of his death several years ago. Both of us had changed for the better over the years, and both of us attributed those changes to the working of God in our hearts and minds.
Centuries after the time of Joseph but long before my time, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul understood what Joseph was talking about, although I think this verse is often misunderstood and misapplied in harmful ways. There are some people who believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God that they think that if something bad happens, God caused it to happen for a reason. I find this kind of thinking disturbing theologically as well as psychologically harmful to the people to whom it is often directed. When someone loses a child, I don’t think it’s because God needed another angel. When someone loses a job, has their home destroyed by a hurricane, or gets cancer, I don’t think it’s because God wants to teach them a lesson of some kind. I don’t think that’s the moral of the Joseph story, or what Paul understood about the nature of God either. The way I see it, bad things can and will happen to all of us. Sometimes these are the result of our own mistakes, but more often they are the result of other people’s bad intentions or bad choices, or just plain bad luck. It is how we respond to the bad things in life that determine whether we are broken or made stronger by them. We can turn inward and be consumed by despair and anger and regret, or we can turn to God, who is able to turn suffering into hope.
I understand the character of God to be a creative, redemptive force for good in the universe. For me, God is not a puppet master, but a beloved companion. When bad things happen, God is with us, weeping with us, striving to help us weave the broken threads together into something good and true. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, working with and through us for the transformation of our lives and of our world. And that’s good news to me.