One of the oldest and most popular forms of fiction is the revenge story. Examples include The Count of Monte Christo, Kill Bill, the Princess Bride; we find ourselves on the side of the one who has been wronged and hoping for their success. We ignore the fact that when success is achieved, if it can be called that, and revenge obtained, the hero often limps away empty, deprived now of the all consuming passion that has driven them for so long. And in today’s more cynical age, the hero does not always triumph, as Prince Oberyn Martell found out. These and many others are all fictional, and perhaps not easy to believe or take seriously. So welcome to this instalment of the life of Joseph, where he does not seek revenge. I wonder if we find that more difficult to believe?
When we last saw Joseph, he had been attacked by his half-brothers, who at first planned to kill him but then changed their minds and sold him into slavery. They were deaf to his pleadings and distress, and went home to their father Jacob where they lied and said that Joseph was dead, eaten by a wild beast.
Fast forward 22 years, and we find Joseph has somehow become prime-minister of Egypt! He started as a slave in the service of Potiphar. Everything he did seemed to prosper and so he was swiftly promoted, ending up as chief steward, running the household. But, he was unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife and throne into prison. But, everything he did seemed to prosper and he was promoted and given status in the running of the prison. But, he was still a prisoner. Two prisoners had puzzling dreams, and Joseph offered interpretations of the dreams, which proved accurate; it went badly for Pharaoh’s baker who came to a sticky end, but well for the cupbearer who was restored to his position. He promised to remember Joseph and help him. But, he did not.
After two years Pharaoh had a puzzling dream which his servants could not interpret. Only then did the cupbearer remember Joseph who had helped him when he had been in prison. Joseph heard the dream about seven fat cows being followed by seven thin ones, and seven fat ears of wheat being followed by seven gaunt and blasted ones. He interpreted the dream as seven years of agricultural plenty, to be followed by seven years of disastrous draught and faminePharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of economic planning. Extra food was stored and put by during the fat years, so that when the famine started the store-houses of Egypt were full.
Two years into the famine, Jacob and the eleven remaining brothers are in trouble. Jacob sends ten of the brothers on a trading mission to Egypt to get food. He keeps the youngest, Benjamin, at home with him. Benjamin is his remaining favourite, the son of his true love and favourite wife Rachel, and the true brother of Joseph, whom he presumes to be dead. The brothers arrive in Egypt but fail to recognise Joseph who disguises his identity. He carries out a complicated series of tricks to unsettle them, and persuades them to come back with Benjamin, leaving behind Jacob who is all the time fearing the worst and dreading the loss of his favourite son. More tricks follow, and Benjamin stands accused as a thief who will be kept in Egypt and denied to his father. The brothers are aghast. They are convinced that God is punishing them for their terrible sin against Joseph all those years before, but they do not realise that Joseph is listening and able to understand what is being said. Convinced that losing Benjamin will be the death of their father Jacob, the brothers offer themselves as slaves so that Benjamin can go free.
At this point, Joseph can keep the pretence up no longer. As we read earlier, he sends out of the room all of his servants and reveals his true identity to his brothers. They are horrified! The obvious thing that they are expecting to happen next is that Joseph will extract a bloody revenge for the torment that they have put him through.
What has Joseph been thinking about during those long years. We know that when he came out of prison and was married, he gave his sons the names Manasseh and Ephraim; these had symbolic meanings suggesting that he was coming to terms with the loss of his family and homeland, and was getting over his sufferings. It backs up the suggestion that he was miserable and desperate all the time that he was in prison. Joseph was not a goody-two-shoes who just wondered through all these events, not being affected by them. When he confronted his brothers, he was looking at siblings who had treated him most terribly.
And yet there is a bigger picture. As a teenager he had been unbearably spoilt and conceited. This was partly what had got him into the mess in the first place. For 22 years he has been living out the process that Paul talks about in Romans 5: 3 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Something kept Joseph going through all of his terrible ordeal. Something kept him from accumulating a mass of hurts and indignities and becoming bitter and twisted, giving him hope for the future. Andrew Lloyd Webber gets it partly right in the songs that he has Joseph sing: it is not true that any dream will do, but it is true when Joseph sings “I have been promised a land of my own”. God had made promises to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, that he would have descendants who would become a great nation, that they would inherit a land, and that through his descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed. If Jacob and his family had been wiped out by the famine, then what would become of the promises? As Joseph thought about God’s purposes, and the amazing way that he had come through all his hardships to be raised up to a position of power and influence at just the right time to protect and save his brethren, I wonder if his thoughts were similar to those of Paul in Romans 8: 28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Joseph’s reflection on his experience was that God had planned it all. That may very well be Joseph’s take on it. Paul is a little more circumspect: he never says that God wills evil on anyone, but God is nevertheless able to bring good out of the most trying circumstances. Joseph welcomes his brothers literally with open arms because he is seized with a higher vision. Where there was a history of bickering between the brothers with their different mothers, and tis would be carried on down the line of their descents who became the tribes of Israel, Joseph saw them as one family, united in the purposes of God, and the mission to be part of the fulfilment of the Promises made to Abraham.
Today the followers of Jesus are united in one family. Our great elder brother Jesus has been through the torment of imprisonment and death on our behalf and has brought us new life. We are part of the family, the gathering, the church, that is bringing hope and new life to this troubled world. Are there things to distress and trouble us in our lives today? Yes. Do people cause us hurts that might make us want to retaliate or withdraw ourselves? Yes. Even if we have experienced nothing to rival all that Joseph went through, are we called to be a people of love and forgiveness? Yes.
Listen to these words of Jesus: Matthew 6:15: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Luke 6:37: ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’
Mark 11:25: ‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’
And this is what Paul said in Colossians 3:13: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
More widely, we are to the loving people. Jesus said in John 13:34-35 ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
Paul said in Romans 12:10 “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” And in Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” And in 2 Corinthians 13:11 he says “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. “
In 1 Peter 3:8 we read “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” In 1 John 4:7 we read “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
It is not a surprise that we have to be reminded so often. Joseph’s brothers did not expect forgiveness, and people in the time of the early church found it did not come easily. God our Father help us to share the forgiveness that we have received in Jesus, and find joy in him and each other.