Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 20th of Second Month, 2022
Speaker: Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm
Scripture: Genesis 45:3-11,15, NRSV
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’
I am dumbfounded by Joseph’s act of forgiveness.
I wonder what drove him not only to receive his brothers
but feed them.
Not only feed them but gift them with a surplus of grain.
And not only gift them,
But forgive them.
Why did he forgive his brothers?
It is one of the most extraordinary stories of forgiveness in all of Scripture –
and Scripture has a lot to say about forgiveness.
But this story is riddled with twists and turns,
betrayals and intrigue,
suffering and survival,
power plays and tearful embraces –
All of which culminate in ch.45
which is undeniably a story of forgiveness.
It is a story I find all but impossible to fathom
because one who was betrayed by his closest kin,
sold to strangers by his own brothers,
Why did he forgive them?
The opening verses of Genesis 45 that Lyn just read for us are the tail end of a long tale:
Back in ch. 37, we hear that Joseph was favored above all his brothers by their father Judah
who gave him the famed coat of many colors;
his brothers so envied and resented him
that they sold Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites by clandestine arrangement.
Years of suffering and intrigue followed
as Joseph was bought by Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard –
and was ultimately entrusted with Potiphar’s estate which thrived under his guidance,
earning the trust of his master.
Joseph then gained the attention and attraction of Potiphar’s unnamed wife
whose unwelcome advances and false accusations
landed Joseph in prison.
There, he heard and rightly interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s workers,
One of which, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, remembered Joseph
and commended him later to Pharaoh’s attention –
In ch. 40 we learn that at Pharaoh’s command, Joseph interpreted his dreams
(about 7 fat and 7 lean cows, 7 plump and 7 lean ears of grain).
He foretold 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.
Joseph was rewarded for his powers of divine insight,
elevated to the role of governor, overseer of all Pharaoh’s lands and goods,
including Pharaoh’s storehouses,
and it was to him that both neighbors and foreigners alike
made their appeals for food.
When we reach ch.42, we hear again of Joseph’s father Jacob who lived with Joseph’s 11 brothers in Canaan. Jacob believed Joseph to be long dead when, feeling the ache of famine, he sent 10 of his 11 sons to Egypt for grain, leaving behind his precious youngest son, Benjamin.
When the brothers arrived, Joseph recognized them but they didn’t recognize him.
He at first accused them of being spies but they responded by telling him that they are 12 brothers – one still at home and another who “is no more.”
Joseph listened to their story, and plotted his own turn in the tale:
He arranged for brother Simeon to stay behind in Egypt while the others returned home to Canaan with grain in their sacks. Joseph also demanded they return with their youngest brother. The plot thickened as Joseph played the trickster with his unsuspecting brothers: he arranged for a servant to sneak the brothers’ money back into their sacks. When they discovered this while journeying home, the brothers lost heart and trembled – fearing the retribution of Joseph and feeling the weight of God’s punishment on them.
Back in Canaan, their father was anguished when they returned without Simeon. He refused to
allow them to return to Egypt with his youngest son Benjamin.
By ch. 43, they’d eaten their grain and the threat of hunger gnawed at their bellies.
It was then that Jacob agreed: they would return to Egypt, carrying gifts as well as
the money they owed for the earlier grain, and take Jacob’s beloved son Benjamin with them,
as was demanded by their unknown brother, Joseph.
When Joseph saw his brothers arrive with Benjamin, they still did not know him. So he wept
discretely, turning aside at the sight of his youngest, beloved brother.
But there is yet another turn in this tale…
In ch.44, Joseph commanded that the brothers’ sacks be filled with grain,
and again he played the trickster – but this time he not only arranged that his servant sneak
their money back into their sacks, but Joseph also arranged for a silver cup to be hidden in Benjamin’s sack.
After they had traveled a while, a servant from Joseph’s house caught up with them, accused
the brothers of stealing – and the brothers promised that if the servant found a silver cup
among them, the person in whose sack the cup was found would become the governor’s slave.
Of course, the servant searched their goods and found the cup that was planted in Benjamin’s
Returning to Egypt again, the eldest brother, Judah, begged Joseph, asking what they could do
to clear themselves of accusations of wrongdoing… and pleaded that he allow Judah to take
Benjamin’s place so that their father would not lose his beloved youngest son. Judah, the eldest
brother who had once tacitly agreed to abandoning and selling Joseph, now begged to place
himself in another brother’s stead. It was an act of brotherly love that would have been the
envy of Joseph.
Then, in ch. 45 we pick up the story as Lyn read it to us.
Joseph finally made himself known to his brothers.
Then he makes the most remarkable turn of all: no more demands are made of those who so terribly, unforgivably wronged him. He puts them through no more tests.
He bids them not to be distressed or angry.
This man Joseph, who has everything he needs –
not only vast possessions and wealth,
but power and authority over the fate of countless others –
Joseph exerts yet another power: he chooses to interpret and retell the story of his terrible fate to the very people responsible for it.
Joseph is determined to turn the tale in another direction: in the direction of forgiveness.
He speaks of God working through the wrong that his brothers did.
He acknowledges that they sold him off
but Joseph chooses to see that God has turned his life in an unforeseen direction.
This man whose powers of foresight were exercised on behalf of Pharoah himself
could not have seen what would become of him.
But now in hindsight Joseph chooses to see a godly opportunity in all that’s happened.
Make no mistake:
When Joseph says, “God sent me before you to preserve you”
he was not saying that God meant for him to be sold into slavery and cast into prison.
This is no blithe acquittal of his brothers’ wrongdoing,
no tacit acquiescence to divine fate.
This is a person choosing to claim God’s turn of events:
Joseph now has the power not only to oversee and manage the goods before him
But to transform what’s happened to him.
Joseph does not need to forgive his brothers.
But the man who has all the power, possessions, and glory has need of one thing more:
Joseph needs relationships with those who have tried and tested one another,
who are sinful and even hard-hearted.
And the only way to regain those relationships is through forgiveness.
Trickery and clever turns of events,
the outward power plays and manipulation of one another
can only get us so far.
And they perpetuate the same patterns of resentment and betrayal,
of relationships based on tit for tat…
And so it is that the toughest, inward turn in this story is the most costly of all.
It is moving forward in relationship. With forgiveness.
Not because the other has apologized, shown remorse, or provided retribution –
which may or may not even be possible.
Joseph’s turn to forgiveness shifts their relationship from transactional to transformational.
This past week, there has been considerable news coverage of 15 year old Russian Olympic figure skater Kamila Valieva and her coach’s response after Valieva’s disappointing performance in the women’s single skating long event. Instead of offering comfort, her coach’s immediate response was accusatory: “Why did you let it go? Explain it to me, why? Why did you stop fighting completely?” // However much a coach may push an athlete toward their best performance, however much those in power would insist that achieving victories and winning competitions are of greatest importance, the response of Valieva’s coach betrayed the young woman’s greatest need: to be supported to do her best work, to grow and learn, to thrive not only through the incredible work that is needed to achieve mastery but through a life that is supported by those nearest to us in moments of greatest disappointment.
We all long for relationships that do not depend on the excellence of our performances;
that are not conditional or transactional.
We need brothers, sisters, friends. Relationships with those who will forgive.
And with forgiveness, we may discover a new relationship – one based on freedom and love.
Why did Joseph forgive? Because he chose to accept his brothers.
And more than accept them, he received them.
And more than receive them, he provided for them.
And more than provide for them, he wanted them to know him.
And more even than to be known by them,
Joseph wanted to know and love them.
He wanted relationships of brotherly love.
It is the ultimate freedom, that stops the outward turns of treachery and retribution –
and instead risks turning toward new ways of understanding relationship.
And ultimately, new ways of loving one another.
The forgiveness we offer to others ultimately frees ourselves.
It frees us to move from transactional understandings and expectations
(assumptions that if you do or act or are this way, I will respond in that way)
to transformational experiences of freedom and love.
Joseph Revealing Himself to his Brothers, Rembrandt, ca 1640.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2022 Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. All rights reserved.