Gen. 43-44: Family Reunion
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast August 20, 2006; Craig Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and the people you love. There’s a lot going on in the Moravian Church and in the community this week. School begins in the public schools and at Wake Forest. One of the new pre-school teachers in town will be Lehoma Goode who is retiring from the Moravian ministry next week. In addition to all of her duties as Associate Pastor of Home Church, Lehoma is a regular member of the Adult Bible Class. I hope we can convince her to teach occasionally even in retirement.
Next week I will be the preacher for the anniversary lovefeast at Hope Moravian Church, which is my home congregation. Their service is at 10:00 a.m. so I will not be on the air. Instead we have a special treat. Dr. Bill Leonard, one of the leading public intellectuals in America, will teach the Adult Bible Class. If I don’t see you at my home church, which is Hope Church, then I hope you’ll be listening to Home Church. Seriously, though, I hope you will be able to come out next week for Lehoma’s farewell address and reception.
Memoir of a Life Well Lived: In the past two weeks I’ve attended memorial services for two saints that I was blessed to know, Bob Williams and Dick Gillette. In the Moravian Church, the pastor gives a memoir of the person who has died as a way to remember a life well-lived. The memoir bears witness to God’s work in the life of the person who has died. The memoirs for Bob and Dick were beautiful sermons on what it means to view your own life as a sacred trust from the Creator. These stories in Genesis function the same way by offering us insights into faith and life.
Return to Egypt: Last week we ended with Jacob agreeing to send Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers. Judah, the eldest son, told his father that he would take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. But Jacob also took practical steps to gain the favor of the Egyptian potentate who held Simeon in prison. He sent honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds along with money for the grain. It is unlikely that you would have such delicacies two years into a famine, but that is not important. The list gives us a nice look at what were considered treasuries in ancient Israel. The gifts were not impressive enough to be bribes, but Jacob knew that Pharaoh’s vizier would recognize the sacrifice these gifts represented for a common man. They were merely ways to establish a human connection between strangers.
Benjamin in Egypt: You may remember from last week that when the sons of Jacob returned home they found that their money had been put in the sacks of grain. When they returned to Egypt, they tried to return this money to Joseph. He refused to take it, but he learned that the brothers had become honest men. They had sold him into slavery once, but now they tried to return money they thought they did not deserve rather than trying to keep the money.
When they introduced Joseph to Benjamin his emotions almost overwhelmed him gave away his secret. He had to leave the room so he could cry. How many times have you turned away or gone into another room to cry because you did not want the people you love to see your sorrow? It is nice that this story reminds us that our ancestors in faith shared our emotions. The characters of the Bible are not cardboard cut-outs; they were people who knew love and loss, joy and grief, anger and forgiveness.
Dinner with Joseph: Simeon was returned to the brothers, just as Joseph had promised. But then Joseph had dinner served to all of the sons of Jacob. This was the first family meal they had had in over decade, but this was in part a political move. What better way to demonstrate to foreigners the might of Egypt than to prepare a feast for them in the middle of a famine? What better way to impress upon the brothers that Joseph had become very powerful in Egypt? There was more to this meal than crass politics, though. It was another step toward reconciliation in the family. Joseph treated his brothers with kindness rather than punishment; he fed them.
The text says that Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews because that was an abomination to them. It is an odd comment, since at the time Genesis was written, it was the Jews who were developing religious laws that prevented them from eating with foreigners. This is the first mention in the Bible of food being used as a way to divide people ethnically, but it is blamed on the Egyptians. The irony in the story is that Joseph ate with the Egyptians even though he was a Hebrew.
Joseph continues playing games with his brothers during the meal. He kept sending food from his table to the Hebrews, but Benjamin was clearly singled out for special treatment in front of his brothers. Joseph probably wanted to see how his brothers responded to this. Would they be jealous of Benjamin like they had been jealous of Joseph? Would they begrudge the good fortune of one brother and let envy destroy them all? Although they were amazed that Benjamin was treated so well by this intimidating official, they all ate and drank and were merry. In other words, they did not let envy destroy the pleasure of the evening.
The Silver Cup It appeared that Joseph’s brothers had changed for the better. They were honest and no longer jealous. Most important, they had expressed regret over what they had done to Joseph. But there was a final test, and this one was the cruelest trial of all. Joseph told his servants to fill the Hebrews’ sacks with grain and put their money in the sacks, just like before. But this time, he told his steward to hide his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. It was a cunning trick, which authorities still use sometimes. Police and secret service have been known to plant evidence. Only in other countries, of course.
We know what Joseph was up to when he planted the cup because we’ve read this story dozens of times. But think about hearing this story for the first time. Think of the tension this raises in this saga. Why would Joseph set things up so carefully to prove that these Hebrews were ungrateful thieves? The simplest explanation would be that Joseph planned to have them arrested, tried, and convicted for theft. There would nothing to stop him. Perhaps as they ascended the scaffold, he would reveal himself to them, like Edmund Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo revealing himself as he exacted his revenge on those who had imprisoned him and stolen his happiness.
Perhaps he had another plan. When the Egyptians discovered that it was Benjamin who had the silver cup, Joseph told the brothers that they were free to return to Canaan. Only the thief would have stay behind as a slave. This was one way that Joseph could keep his brother Benjamin with him. Benjamin would be safe, and the brothers would have to go back and face their father whom they had deceived years before. It would not have been a bad plan. But perhaps Joseph did all this just to test the brothers/
Judah Judah was the oldest. He was also the patriarch of the tribe of David. The Jewish people are named for Judah. Thus, it is not surprising that the story would have Judah as the hero who spoke up to Pharaoh’s grand vizier. Judah told the vizier of Jacob’s grief and the despair he would face if Benjamin were to be taken from him. No doubt Joseph was moved by this, but Judah went further and told the great and powerful vizier that he had pledged his own life for Benjamin, and he would make good on his pledge. “Take me in Benjamin’s place,” Judah begged Joseph. “I will remain in Egypt as a slave if you free Benjamin.”
This was an extraordinary offer, one that is easier to make in a novel than in real life. Judah was sacrificing everything, even his family, to save Benjamin. Perhaps he did it out of love for the boy, or perhaps he did it because slavery appeared preferable to telling Jacob that Benjamin was gone. Judah may have even seized this opportunity to atone for the sin he had committed against Joseph all those years ago. All we can judge are the actions themselves. So, whether it was from love of Benjamin or fear of Jacob, Judah did offer his life in exchange for Benjamin. It was a noble action, and it moved Joseph greatly.
Redemption: Joseph cried for a third time, this time in front of his family. Again we can ask why he was crying. Was he saddened by the thought that Judah had not defended him this way? Was he moved by the love and sacrifice of Judah? Was he grieved at the thought of the suffering of his father? Or did he just break down under the strain of his charade and his overwhelming desire to return to his family?
The tears were a sign that the dam had broken. Joseph had seen all he needed to see. He saw that his brothers had changed. They would not sacrifice Benjamin the way they had sacrificed him. Joseph ended his games and revealed his identity to the other sons of Jacob. “I am your brother, whom you sold into slavery.” There is so much packed into a single sentence. I am your brother, flesh of your flesh. I am still your brother even though you disowned me, dishonored me, and nearly destroyed me. I am still your brother, whom you sold.
The original meaning of the word “redemption” in the Bible was to buy someone out of slavery and set them free. It was like paying a ransom. Joseph had been sold by his family, but he had been redeemed and set free by God himself. In this great moment of reconciliation, Joseph redeemed his own brothers. They had sold him, but they were the ones enslaved. Joseph saw that they were bound by guilt and fear and grief. By saying, I am your brother, Joseph freed his own brothers. The ordeal was over. The tests were over. Revenge is never as sweet as the tears and laughter of redemption.
God’s Work: Joseph did more than reveal himself to his brothers. Over the years, he had amble opportunity to think about his life and its twists and turns. He had had time to think about his dreams that his family would bow to him. Those dreams had come true in unexpected ways, but he did not remind his brothers of this. In this moment of recognition, he did not lord it over his brothers. They knew that the one whose anguish they had once ignored now had their fate in his hands. He did not indulge the sickly sweet delight of gloating over those who had wronged him.
Joseph was a man of faith who was confident that God had worked through him. Joseph told the brothers something that remains powerful in its simplicity. “Do not be distressed or angry at yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” This is the heart and soul of the whole Joseph saga in a single sentence. Forgiveness remains incomplete when we cannot forgive ourselves. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers was so complete that he did not want them to dwell on their crime any longer. Forget it, he said, and he meant it. He wanted to redeem his brothers, not make them slaves to their guilt and fear. As long as they hated themselves for what they had done, they would also fear and hate Joseph, too. Revenge never brings peace, only more hatred.
In this moment when Joseph tells the brothers to forget what they had done, we see how great Joseph has grown. We knew he was smart and clever and beautiful to look out. Now, we see that he was noble and generous and wise. He was also a theologian. Even though the sons of Jacob had acted abominably and for the worst possible reasons, God had used their crime for a good purpose.
John Calvin and others have used this verse as evidence that the Bible teaches that God has foreordained all of history; that we are mere puppets in God’s play. The good and evil that we do is scripted by God who controls all thoughts and actions. I don’t think that is what Genesis is saying here. At least I hope it is not saying that. Joseph seems to be saying that even the harm we do may produce good. There is a force for good in the world that seeks to turn even the greatest personal tragedy into a possibility for redemption. One point of the Joseph story is that we should not become too distressed over the ills of the moment because the future may turn out far better than we anticipate. Genesis is also telling us that even though God is at work in history. we are not puppets, we are co-creators of the future.
Joseph’s statement that “God sent me before you to preserve life” provides a touchstone for determining whether something is of God or not. God is the God of the living, a God of life, and he calls upon us to preserve life and promote reconciliation.
Conclusion: After this, the brothers returned to Canaan with wonderful gifts for the whole family of Jacob. Jacob was too stunned by the news to believe it. Like the waiting father in the story of the Prodigal Son, the son he thought was dead was restored to him. According to ancient legend, by this time Jacob was blind like his father, but when his sons gave him the coat that Joseph had been wearing in Egypt, he smelled it. He recognized Joseph’s scent on the coat and he knew his son was alive. One coat brought grief; the other redemption.
So, in the end, Joseph was restored to Jacob, and the family survived the famine because of Joseph. There are many ironic twists and reversals of fate in the Joseph story, but the major themes shine through. The brothers had sold Joseph because they did not want to bow down to him, but in the end this is what they had to do to save their own families. In saving the Egyptians, Joseph had also saved his own family. And by finally giving him his son Benjamin, Jacob was restored to his lost son Joseph. It is a story of loss and gain, grief and forgiveness, wisdom and mercy.