The chapters of Genesis 39-41 are where we see God upset the order of politics. An Israelite becomes the Minister for Agriculture and the most powerful man during time of famine.
The chapters of Genesis 42-45 are where we see God work through Joseph’s family.
Four characters have four concerns in this story. (Credit to Walter Brueggeman on his commentary on Genesis.)
Jacob and his grief – Jacob is obsessed by his grief, vowing to never get over it. He repeats the mistake he made with Joseph, with Benjamin. Everyone around him is bathed in the grief. He refuses to get the resources to feed everyone because of this grief. It hinders the action, everyone is stuck. What’s worse is that it is not based on truth – grief is not resolved if truth is not told. Genesis 42:38 says, But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my grey head down to the grave in sorrow.”
The brothers and their guilt – they immediately assume God is punishing them for their deeds in the past. They are also haunted by their violence, betrayal, lies. When you feel unresolved guilt, then everything is a punishment. Genesis 42:21,22 says They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.”
Joseph and his resentment – Joseph could have just jumped to the outcome quickly, “bring your father and whole family here and I’ll provide for you”. He spends a lot of time mucking them around. This could be testing them to see if he could trust them, it could just be basic torturing them as pay-back, it could be genuine inner conflict of wrestling to find out what he wants to do.
Benjamin and his symbolism – Joseph sees himself in Ben as the young one of a different mother to the brothers, and in the brother’s words, he is Jacob’s favourite. Joseph wants to know if the brothers would do what they did to him again. Had they changed? Young Benjamin Is a catalyst for Joseph’s change of heart. He is unique in the situation of being able to unlock Joseph to the point of tears.
The Brothers meant evil for Joseph, but his purpose was to work for their good. Jesus said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It takes Joseph time to work this out.
Michael Curry says in his book Love is the Way, “Remember always that the nonviolent [Jesus] movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.”
The trajectory of this story is not that Joseph goes back home and helps with the sheep and everything is back to the way it was. The family dynamic has moved, the family has geographically moved, their position in society and ability to survive has changed. Joseph’s status has changed – lots of things are new. When we consider just “winning”, then we don’t get the new things God is doing. Conflict is the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the relationship. A reconciliation is living under the new terms.
The very dramatic climax is Joseph declaring who he is. He stops being a foreign power-broker and claims his identity as their brother.
“The power to create newness does not come from detachment but from risky self-disclosing engagement.” -Walter Brueggemann
When we look at these questions of releasing people from grief, resolving/forgiving guilt, renouncing resentment and seeing people as who they are, not as what they symbolise, we have to be ready to turn up as ourselves, speak truth, be vulnerable. That is the path to peace and a new way of being.