The reading today from Genesis recounts what is for my money one of the most powerful stories in all of Western religion: Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. While I have never done a deep-dive on this passage here, I have commented before on Joseph’s remarkable, gracious reframing of his brothers’ betrayal in terms of God’s faithfulness. But, while we definitely have to come back to that, today, I want to zoom out a bit and look at the bigger dynamic of repentance and reconciliation that plays out between Joseph and his brother Judah.
Before we get to that, though, we need to zoom out even further, since the Sunday lectionary has skipped over quite a bit of Joseph’s story. First, we need to remember that the whole narrative of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is very messy. These are deeply flawed people, who make a lot of mistakes. And as a result, dysfunction runs through their whole family lineage. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Joseph’s father Jacob was born the younger twin to parents who played favorites between their sons — a state of affairs that led to Jacob stealing his brother’s birthright and then running away in fear for his life. Sadly, Jacob doesn’t learn from his parents’ mistakes, and when the time comes, he too plays favorites, between his wives and amongst his sons. And so there’s a complicated history of privilege and marginalization within the family that impacts all of the brothers. Judah is among the older brothers whose mother was Jacob’s first wife Leah, and so he has significant authority and power over Joseph; Joseph was younger and weaker, but as the first son from Jacob’s second and favored wife Rachel, he was Jacob’s favorite. Worse still for family peace, Joseph is a dreamer, gifted with both dreams sent from God and the ability to interpret others’ dreams. And, like most precocious children, he lacks the wisdom and grace to keep his mouth shut, earning him even more of his brothers’ hatred. For their part, the brothers couldn’t really have handled things worse, and first left Joseph for dead in a pit, and then decided to make some money on the deal and sold him into slavery, which is where last Sunday’s reading left off, in Genesis 37.
Between then and this week’s reading from Genesis 45, a lot has happened. After some false starts, Joseph has now risen to second-in-command over the Egyptian empire. His God-given wisdom has allowed Egypt to thrive despite a famine so severe that it has forced Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt from Canaan to beg for refuge. Before we get to the big reveal and reconciliation in today’s reading, however, Joseph decides to keep up with the dysfunctional family legacy and toys with his brothers one last time. First, he makes them go back to Canaan and bring back the youngest brother Benjamin, of whom Jacob has become overly protective since Joseph’s disappearance. Then, he plants a ‘stolen’ cup on Benjamin, giving him an excuse to keep him as a slave and send the brothers away.
The brothers are then faced with a choice: Do they repeat history: leave their brother behind and go back to their father once again without his favorite — and Rachel’s only remaining — son? Or do they break with the past and do right by their brother and father?
Judah steps up. In a sense he’s speaking out of turn; he’s the fourth-born, in the middle of the pack of Leah’s sons. And so, he is acting out of character and not simply out of his ‘natural’ role. Back at the pit all those years before, it was Judah who convinced the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery rather than leave him for dead. Whether this was because he was greedy or because it was some small way of giving Joseph a chance at a future, we don’t know. But either way, we see a very different man now. It was Judah who offered his own life to his father as a surety of Benjamin’s safety; and now in a moment of extreme danger, he follows through on that promise, begging Joseph to take him as a slave instead of Benjamin:
Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father (44.33f).
It is this desperate plea that causes Joseph to drop the charade and reveal his identity to his brothers.
Why? After so many years of strife, enmity, and resentment, why does this lead Joseph to tears?
I have long been persuaded that true repentance is not about feeling badly about what you’ve done, but about not doing it again. I was pleased to find in my reading this week that this intuition finds some support in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Stephen Fuchs notes that while someone who comes clean about their wrongs is called a ba’al teshuvah, a ‘master of repentance’; someone who does better the next time they are in the same position is called ba’al teshuvah shelemah, ‘a master of complete repentance.’ Sackcloth and ashes are good, but a transformed life is better.
By standing up for Benjamin, by thinking about the impact his loss would have on their father and not just his own selfish ambition or bruised ego, Judah has shown Joseph that he has changed. His love for both Benjamin and Jacob is all the repentance Joseph needs to see. After clearing the room, he reveals his identity to his brothers:
Come close to me. … I am Joseph, your brother, 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 … (45.4f).
This is an incredible act of grace on Joseph’s part. And, in its own way, this forgiveness too is an act of repentance. He repents of his resentments and victimhood and desire for revenge. Note that this doesn’t mean that he ignores or forgets the past — he identifies himself as the one they sold into slavery — but that he allows the past with all its legitimate grievance to be transformed by both the hope of a better future and healed, whole relationships, and more importantly, by his faith that God was and is at work within his life circumstances.
This is a hard idea. And, because it is such a foundational concept in Christianity, I think we often take forgiveness for granted. But, we must not forget that forgiveness is actually something deeply sacred, a profound miracle of the heart and its freedom from the oppression of the past.
This is what keeps Joseph’s belief that what his brothers had intended for evil God had intended for good from being a bland “Everything happens for a reason.” It is instead the insistence that whatever the disappointment, loss or trauma that life throws our way, we can find God at work in the midst of it — that no one’s sin can separate us from the working of God’s grace.
And so, in this story of the two brothers Joseph and Judah we see two very different ways of repentance. Judah repents of the past by not repeating it, by standing up where he once fell down. Joseph repents of the past by not lording his authority over his brothers, and giving up his longstanding resentments and welcoming them as just that, his brothers. It is a beautiful, powerful, and challenging story. Repentance, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation may not look the way we think they will or should. They are movements of grace from our infinitely-creative God and so we should expect nothing less than the unexpected. And so, as we enter into this next week, let’s be on the lookout for unexpected ways to let this grace shine through; let’s decide not to let the past repeat itself, let’s decide to choose the future over the past. Let’s choose God and choose each other.