(Read Genesis 45: 1-15)
The story of Joseph and his 11 brothers is a long saga, one that begins in jealousy and brokenness and ends in reconciliation and love. There is much we can learn about our own lives and relationships from Joseph’s story.
In Genesis, chapter 37, we learn that Joseph is the youngest of Jacob or Israel’s children, and he is also Jacob’s favorite. This made Joseph the object of his brothers’ contempt. Scripture says, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37: 4).
As long as Joseph was not a threat to his brothers, they tolerated his existence, but then, to make matters worse, Joseph has a dream that causes his brothers to hate him even more. In innocent exuberance, Joseph says to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”
What was to Joseph a fantastic dream was to his brothers a threatening premonition. They feared that he would rise above them somehow. So perhaps with trembling, perhaps in anger, Joseph’s brothers say to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” (Genesis 37: 6-8).
Suspicion and fear of Joseph multiplies until the day comes that Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, the young dreamer. But discussing it among themselves, they quickly decide that they cannot kill their youngest brother outright, and opt instead to strip Joseph of his clothing and throw him into an empty pit with no water in it, knowing that death would inevitably be his fate.
However, when a group of Ishmaelites comes by, the brothers again redevise their plan. Instead of leaving him to die in the pit, they decide to sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. And thus, Joseph is taken to Egypt as a slave.
But the story continues that Joseph finds favor with Pharaoh, and so, he becomes a ruler of Egypt. Many years after selling their brother into slavery, Jacob’s sons are forced to go to Egypt to buy grain for there was famine in Canaan where they lived. And who was it that was selling the grain to them? None other than Joseph, although they did not recognize him. So it comes to pass that the one who was betrayed, Joseph the dreamer, now has his brothers’ fate in his hands.
What will he do?
None of us here have been sold into slavery by our families, yet, many of us have been betrayed by our families in some way. Children who have been molested or beaten have been betrayed by their families. Children who have been neglected or abandoned have been betrayed by their families. More subtly, children are often the recipients of their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins’ dysfunction. These people don’t intentionally try to hurt us, but because they are broken and needy themselves, they help to form in us brokenness and need. For example, I know a woman who was not happy with the way that she looked. She was insecure. Then, when she had a son, she used to cover his mouth when he laughed because she didn’t like the way his teeth and gums looked. What was happening was her own insecurity and shame was being acted out on her son, who then in turn felt embarrassed and ashamed about himself. I think this is why the bible says that a family’s sins are passed down from generation to generation. In this case, the boy inherited the shame of his mother. But there are a myriad of dysfunctions and unhealthy thinking and behaviors that can be passed among family. Feelings of worthlessness, extreme guilt, fear, indifference, anger, addiction…the list goes on.
Oftentimes, we aren’t even aware of the cycles that our families are caught up in, and thus it is nearly impossible for us to break them. But if we do become aware through self-reflection, observation, and the insight that comes from God, we have the opportunity to be healed. Nobody can keep us down if God is working to raise us up.
As God, as Jesus, as the Holy Spirit works in our lives to mend our brokenness, there comes a time when we must face the people who have hurt us. In the beginning, anger and resentment are natural and a healthy part of the process, but in time, an understanding needs to set in that stops casting blame. If we are ever to truly heal, we must be able to forgive.
That is why the story of Joseph gives me pause to think. There he is with his brothers before him, their lives now in his hands. Does he take an eye for an eye? Does he seek retribution? No. He has mercy and compassion for his brothers and their families.
In today’s text, Joseph says to his brothers, “Come closer to me. I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45: 4-5). Rather than yell at them and accuse them and blame them, he forgives them and tells them to come live with him, and he kisses them and weeps on their necks. And they kiss him back and weep on his neck because the guilt and burden they felt for all those years is finally being released.
I think about my brokenness and the ways that I’ve been hurt, and when I am in a healthy, evolved state of mind, these things don’t make me bitter, they make me feel compassion for myself and for the world. Like Joseph, you and I, can take what we’ve been through and use it to bring healing and life to others.
One small way I do this in my own life is that I often felt left out as a kid because I was the youngest. Nobody intentionally left me out, but that’s how I felt nonetheless. Now, I have a nephew who is the only young boy in our family. His girl cousins play together, and oftentimes, he sits there by himself playing his DS. He’s lost in his own world, but because of my experience, I always go over to him and say “hi” and see if he wants to play catch or talk or whatever. We can use what brought us down in life to raise others up.
God doesn’t want us to stay down forever. God wants to raise us up. God wants us to be well and happy and whole.
There’s this empowering poem by Maya Angelou called “Still I Rise.” In it, Maya, who is an African American woman and knows what it is to be marginalized and betrayed, refuses to stay down because of what has happened to her. She writes:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Joseph rose. He came out of the pit he was thrown in. He came up to help others who tried to put him down.
Jesus rose. He came out of the grave he was buried in. He came up to save everyone so that we wouldn’t have to stay put down.
You can rise. I can rise. We don’t have to let anything that happened before keep us down. We can rise ourselves, and we can help others to rise as well.
Thanks be to God who gives us the strength, the courage and the fortitude to rise.