Joseph and Benjamin
I have never really paid close attention to the story of Joseph before but while reading the story the other week I found myself asking “why didn’t Joseph simply tell his brothers who he was when they first turned up?” The whole shell game Joseph played with secret identities, silver cups, and elaborate feasts seems inordinately complex and a waste of time.
Some commentators take the line that Joseph orchestrated a number of tests for his brothers designed to bring them to awareness of their sin in selling Joseph into Egypt so that the brothers could make proper repentance before God and a true family reconciliation could take place based on full recognition of the brothers’ sin and its effect on Joseph.
The line is that Joseph with genius-level psychological and spiritual insight calmy pulls the emotional levers in his brothers until they become truly penitent for their past behaviour. Finally, at the apogee moment Joseph leaps out of the birthday cake with a big sign on saying “Surprise, surprise” and all live happily ever after.
I feel that this view misguidedly “canonises” Joseph, elevating him into a kind of spiritual superman while failing to take into account Joseph’s struggles with his feelings and his deep human pain at his past treatment by his family.
As in the lives of all the Patriarchs, beginning with Abraham, the real hero of Genesis is God, who regularly redeems the chronically bad choices made by His children (including those of Abraham), who actively protects His own promises, and who works through tragically flawed vessels for righteousness sake. In his deep mercy and lovingkindness, even while working his purposes for mankind at a global and cosmic level, God simultaneously reconciles brothers and families, bringing dignity to his people, even the cowardly (like Abraham and Isaac), the wantonly violent (like Simeon and Levi), the fornicators (like Judah), the duplicitous (like Jacob) and the emotionally slaughtered (like Joseph).
God’s ways are deep and tender.
When Joseph had his first son in Egypt he called him ‘Manasseh’ (which means ‘causing to forget’), saying ‘now I forget my family and my father’. For Joseph, his heritage was dead and buried. He was making his career and life in Egypt as an Egyptian. What a rude awakening when his 10 brothers suddenly appeared in his court during the famine.
What memories came flooding back. Imagine the pain that resurfaced in those moments. Joseph’s first response – he threw them all in jail for three days while he thought about…everything. It is not always pleasant when family turns up suddenly.
In his first reflections on this unexpected turn of events, Joseph recognises the fulfillment of the prophetic dreams of his youth. The brothers are here, bowing before him, but Joseph is concerned for Benjamin, not present at the first meeting, and for his aged father. In all Joseph’s interactions with the brothers before his revelation of his identity there are the repeated solicitous inquiries –
– What about your younger brother?
– What about your father? Is he alive?
For the 10 older brothers there is the repeated dismissal
– You are free to go
In my opinion, Joseph had no intention of reconciliation with his older brothers prior to the completion of their second visit. Their value to Joseph lay solely in the access they provided to Benjamin, which access Joseph guaranteed by holding Simeon captive prisoner (i.e. hostage) for several months after the first visit. The silver cup then provided the pretext for Joseph to retain Benjamin permanently in Egypt in Joseph’s care following their second visit. Joseph’s objective was to bring Benjamin to live with him in Israel while dismissing his older brothers back to Canaan and to continue his forgetting-life (Manasseh) separated from them.
Joseph, based on his own personal experience, did not trust his older brothers. After all, neither did Jacob, who had long ago figured out that the older brothers had disposed of Joseph and had (in Jacob’s opinion) killed him (see Genesis 42:36)
I am uncertain whether or not Joseph originally intended to reveal his identity to his brothers at the banquet. Overall I think Joseph wanted to tell his brothers who he was but was inhibited by the pain and mistrust he felt toward them. Certainly at the great feast that accompanied the arrival of Benjamin in Egypt there were two significant hints as to the identity of Joseph, these being the arrangement of the brother’s seating in age order and the favourable treatment given to Benjamin. A third hint followed during the search for the cup, which was also done in descending age order. These hints could be taken to show that Joseph wanted to make his identity known to his brothers but nevertheless his final words to them following their arrest for the frame-up on the silver cup were “go back to your father.”
It is Judah’s entreaty to Joseph which provides the catalyst to Joseph’s revelation of his identity and this speech is centred firmly on the sorrow that Jacob will experience at the loss of Benjamin. Judah’s speech thus hits Joseph in his weak points – his father and Benjamin. The emotional force of Judah’s entreaty overwhelms Joseph’s remaining barriers. The twin torrents of pain and love for his brothers are finally intermingled. He breaks down utterly. Love prevails. The whole family is reconciled and reunited.
I think the story of Joseph in Genesis 42-45 shows a progressive work of God in Joseph of forgiveness. God took Joseph on a journey from a wastleand of emotional denial (Manassah ‘I forget’) to rude pain (throw brothers in Jail) to masked affection (The Great Feast) to full reconciliation (I am Joseph). This was not achieved without significant emotional struggle. But God did it. He worked in Joseph and Joseph finally yielded.
I believe that Joseph knew at an early stage that he was God’s agent to protect the Abrahamic Messianic blessing on Israel – possibly as early as those first three days he had his brothers in the slammer. But Joseph tried to do his duty to God while simultaneously withholding family affection and reconciliation – ask Simeon about Egyptian jails sometime – but as God worked in Joseph, he gradually moved closer to true relationaship with his brothers. Lots of masks were first involved but God ripped them off in His time and to His glory, for the benefit of His children 🙂
A question that appears to undermine my analysis of Joseph’s attitudes is “when did Joseph decide to settle his family in Goshen ?”.
Immediately after Judah’s entreaty and Joseph’s self-revelation Joseph comforts his brothers with a description of their family history centred on God’s sovereign will and His promises to Abraham, which also encompasses the realities of the present famine and Joseph’s response to it on behalf of his family (Gen 45:5-11). This short speech by Joseph in which he guarantees Israel’s habitation of Goshen is rich in understanding of God’s plans and promises and exhibits careful forethought. It is obvious that Joseph could not have produced this analysis without careful prayer and reflection. I think it is on this basis that most commentators make their Joseph Spiritual/Psychological superman line.
I agree that Joseph knew what God wanted him to do with his family (i.e. house them in Goshen), what I disagree with is the view that Joseph was always willing to do so. In the first instance I think that Joseph felt he would guarantee Israel’s survival by periodically selling them grain (Gen 43:34). Just as God progressively worked in Joseph for forgiveness I think that God progressively worked in Joseph for compliance to His plans. By the time the brothers had been framed for the cup Joseph knew what he had to do (house them in Goshen), but his pain and mistrust of the brothers prevented his obedience. Remember those last words before Judah’s entreaty – ‘The rest of you may go home to your father’. Judah’s entreaty based on Jacob’s feelings and fate being intertwined with that of Benjamin undid Joseph. That speech was God’s final instrument in God’s work in Joseph vis-a-vis reconciliation with his brothers.
The great benefit of viewing the story of Joseph in this way, I believe, is that it leaves it in harmony with the other Patriachal narratives. (In Craig Groves’s terms “we have more treasure value”.)
In all the other narratives from Genesis 12, God is the hero, working with and in and in despite of fallible, disobedient, sinful humanity to protect his promises to Abraham. Abraham gives his wife away, so God has to get her back for him. Isaac does the same, then underhandedly tries to re-sell the birthright to Esau against God’s prophetic word. God intervenes to pass the blessing in line with his word. Barren wives bring forth children, famines ruin the land, but God protects his word. Joseph’s struggle to completely forgive his brothers would have left Israel in a parlous state, dependent on intermittent trade for survival and teetering on the brink of starvation for the next five years. God wanted them in Goshen where they could prosper and multiply. His obstacle was Joseph, just as his obstacles had been Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Making Joseph the hero of his narrative pushes God put of the picture somewhat. It is God who gave Joseph his dreams, God who interpereted them, God who blessed Joseph in prison and in Potiphar’s house and God who dealt with Joseph’s brothers and Joseph’s own pain.
God is the hero.
Of Genesis and every other story.
The “Joseph as Hero” scenario has it that Joseph engineered repentance and confession in his brothers and it is this that allowed Joseph to reveal his identity, since the preconditions for true reconciliation had been made. But the brothers never confessed fault to Joseph. Judah’s entreaty mentioned only Jacob’s supposed belief that Joseph had been killed by wild animals – but Judah knew that not even Jacob really believed that. The only brother to admit murderous intent while in Egypt was Reuben, and he had never agreed to the plot anyway, and when he spoke of it he wasn’t talking to Jospeh.
The brothers never confessed anything to Joseph.
Why, of all the brothers, did Joseph select Simeon to be held hostage ? Reuben was the eldest, but Reuben was opposed to killing Joseph at the time the other older brothers had hatched their plan in Dothan those many years ago and had ended up dumping him in a cistern. Simeon was second-eldest and had a reputation for excessive violence (Genesis 49:5, Genesis 34). It is possible he was the ring-leader of the plot. Maybe Joseph was enacting revenge.
Our Lord’s Messianic promises to Abraham ended up being secured and protected through the vehicle of forgiveness. This is another way in which Joseph is a type of Christ who fulfills the Messianic prophecies and obtains descendants uncountable like the stars for Abraham through His cross and the forgiveness of sinners.