Genesis 45: 4-8; 50: 15-21
Let me first say, I’m going to get to the story, I promise, but this duesy of a tale requires some set-up. You may know something about Joseph’s story if you’ve ever seen a performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” It’s a play that captures well the dramatic nature of Joseph’s life- it pulls together details of an extremely long biblical narrative in a way that's vibrant and colorful.
I happen to have my own “coat of many colors here.” A friend of mine made this stole for me because he learned it was my favorite bible story! I’ll try to point out his artistic expression of these different scenes as we go along.
Joseph’s story begins in Genesis chapter 37 and doesn’t come to resolution until the end of Genesis- 15 chapters later! I've decided to be kind today and give you the cliff notes version. One of the first things we learn about Joseph is that he’s the favorite son, and he knows it. (do you have a sibling who’s a favorite? I sure do, right Alison?)
Joseph gets his daddy Jacob's preferential treatment, and his brothers hate him for it. So much so, that they take his special coat from daddy, throw him in a pit, and leave him for dead. They deviously go back and tell dad he was killed by an animal- "here's the blood to prove it!"
That's a pretty good plot, right?- but it gets even crazier. In a sudden turn of events, Joseph is pulled out of the pit, and sold to an Egyptian guy named Potiphar, who works for Pharaoh....Joseph becomes a slave, gets thrown into prison (for something he didn’t do), and is left to rot in an underground cell for years. Joseph’s life is looking pretty terrible, until one day Pharaoh has a dream.
Now dream interpretation is a fairly respectable thing in these days, and word gets to Pharaoh that there’s a guy in the dungeon who knows about dreams. So Pharaoh uses Joseph to interpret the dream, and in the blink of an eye- his world is turned upside down. From prison to pleasing the king.
Okay, this is important though-in between being betrayed by his brothers and being elevated to Pharoah's right-hand man, Joseph spends 13 years enslaved or imprisoned. 13! Remember this when we get to the text for today. So back to the dream.
Joseph interprets Pharoah's dream to mean that Egypt and all the surrounding lands will experience 7 years of prosperity, and 7 years of famine. So Pharaoh’s favorite new guy Joseph is put in charge of ALL the grain. He's a saavy businessman, turns out, and after 7 years of plenty, Joseph makes sure that Egypt’s kingdom is overflowing with food.
Two years into the famine, word of Egypt's surplus spreads back to Joseph's homeland, Canaan, and Joseph’s brothers (yes, the ones who threw him in a pit) travel to Egypt because everyone needs the one thing Joseph has in plenty…food. By this point, Joseph (who was only 17 when his brothers left him for dead), is nearly 40 years old, so when the brothers come for grain, they don’t recognize him. And because of how difficult their relationship had been in the past, Joseph performs a series of odd tests that his brothers oblige, because they'll do anything for food. Finally, it comes time for Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers- and in an emotionally charged scene, here's where we enter the story…
Genesis 45: 4-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Hold up, what? For all the brothers knew, Joseph was dead! And now he's alive? Scripture says, "They were terrified at his presence." Can you imagine it? That's got to be the shock of a lifetime! [...] As the story goes, the family is reunited, and Joseph enjoys the company of his father Jacob and little brother Benjamin for a time. But when father Jacob dies, the brothers try to leverage his death to find favor with Joseph Why? Because they don't buy Joseph's forgiving nature just yet.
Genesis 50: 15-21…”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.”
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.
There are a million reasons and ways Joseph could have gotten even with his brothers. It's our natural impulse- some might even say our "inner sense of justice" that wants revenge for wrongs committed against us. I'm guilty of this impulse as much as anyone...which is why Joseph's story is one of my favorites.
What a difference his perspective on life makes! What a difference his faith makes- faith in a God that is bigger than all of our troubles, a God that dwells within each of our circumstances. And Joseph's life reveals something so important for you and I to hear today...that a life of forgiveness is far more valuable than holding grudges.
Rather than being known as the guy who was thrown in a pit by his brothers, and got revenge by refusing to help them when they needed it the most...Joseph is known as the one who forgives, even though his brothers don't deserve it. That's forgiveness from the pit at its best.
Who or what are you being called to forgive? As you contemplate this, let me add that forgiveness is not meant to wash away wrongs that have not yet been accounted for. I will never advocate that any victim of injustice simply forget and move on. Forgiveness in the case of Joseph, and the forgiveness I speak of today- is a change of our spirits after wrongdoing is already accounted for. So let me ask again- Who or what are you being called to forgive?
When revenge feels so tempting, we have a choice to make. We choose the perspective we take on life. We can choose to harbor resentment, wallowing in self-righteousness...or we can choose the difficult, but life-giving forgiveness from the pit, just like Joseph.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. What if this became our perspective in family relationships? I'm not saying it's easy, or even possible all the time- but I know the real temptation to harbor bitterness, we all do, and we know the results are bad for our souls. When I resist forgiving someone, I think of Jesus and his sacrifice. It's in the saving light of Jesus Christ that you and I begin to see a better way. We are offered a way to rise above revenge...and that's the powerful Good News of the Gospel for us every day of our lives.
May we help one another embrace Joseph’s perspective. “What you intended for harm, God intends for good!” And may our identity be that of people seeking healing and wholeness, giving up our grudges for the good God intends in our relationships with one another. If you need a safe space to talk about this hard stuff in life, I’m here. Your pastors and church leaders are here. These are the stories worth share for their healing powers. Amen!