This summer our Old Testament readings have been from the Book of Genesis, following the stories of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and passing on through their descendants.
With today’s reading we are with a new generation, Joseph and his 11 brothers, the sons of Jacob, the grandsons of Isaac, and great grandsons of Abraham.
Joseph is the favorite of Jacob’s many sons, and he takes every opportunity to let his brothers know that. They finally have enough of him, and they sell him to passing traders for 20 pieces of silver.
The brothers then take Joseph’s coat, a special gift from their father, dip it in sheep’s blood, and report to Jacob that this favorite son has been killed by wild animals. Meanwhile, the traders take Joseph to Egypt and sell him as a slave.
(As an aside, whenever I hear people talk about family values and the Bible I wonder just what family and just what values they are talking about).
Joseph is 17 when his brothers sell him into slavery. In today’s reading he is 39. Much has happened in the intervening 22 years. The traders sold Joseph to a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar, who eventually made Joseph the overseer of his estate, a job at which he was very successful.
But Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of seducing her, and he is put in prison. There he develops a reputation for interpreting dreams. When Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, has a series of disturbing dreams he brings Joseph in to interpret them.
Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that Egypt will have seven year of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh responds by putting Joseph in charge of all the land of Egypt.
Joseph is never portrayed as a particularly pious or religious man, but through all the ups and downs of his years is Egypt, scripture says that “the Lord was with Joseph.”
Joseph’s interpretation proves true. During the seven years of abundance, he makes sure that grain and food are stored for the long lean days ahead. Sure enough, after seven years the abundance gives way to famine, not just in Egypt, but throughout the world.
Or as the Bible puts it, “There was famine in every country, throughout Egypt there was bread.”
In the story we hear today, the famine has been going on for two years. It has reached the land of Canaan, where a now elderly Jacob still mourns the death of his favorite son.
Rumors reach Canaan that there is grain available in Egypt, and Jacob summons his sons and orders them to go there to buy grain to feed the family.
And so the brothers come before Joseph as supplicants, seeking to buy food. They do not recognize the prosperous man before them, but Joseph immediately recognizes them.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of this moment, “In pure literary terms, what could be a juicier turn of events? Joseph, with one wave of his hand, may now avenge the terrible wrongs done to him.”
But that is not what Joseph does. Instead, he sends everyone but his brothers from the room. And then he tells them who he is.
“I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
The brothers, understandably, are speechless with shock and I would imagine, fear.
Joseph tries to put them at ease. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here,” he tells them. “God sent me here before you to preserve life.”
Two things stand out for me in this story.
The first is Joseph’s absolute forgiveness of his brothers. He doesn’t scold or blame them. He doesn’t try to make them feel guilty. He doesn’t demand an apology or retribution.
Instead, he tries to reassure them and put them at ease.
One might think that is an easy thing for Joseph to do. After all, his sojourn in Egypt has turned out pretty well. Next to Pharaoh, he is the most powerful man in the land.
But prosperous and powerful as he may be, he is still an alien in the land, separated from all he loves for more than two decades, wondering if his beloved father is still alive.
How easy it would be to take the moment for revenge.
But instead of justifiable revenge, Joseph offers unqualified forgiveness.
The second thing is what Joseph tells his brothers to reassure them — that God has redeemed their actions. Later in the story he puts it this way, “What you intended for evil, God used for good.”
What you intended for evil, God used for good.
We have to be careful with this.
Some commentaries on this passage suggest that the whole Joseph story was planned out in advance by God — that God intended for the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery; that it was God’s plan for Jacob to mourn for 22 years; that God wanted Joseph to be imprisoned.
It’s the same kind of thinking that leads some to say that events of great tragedy or evil are part of God’s plan, that we may not be able to understand the purpose of the tragedy, but that God has one.
I confess those kinds of comments make me want to scream.
I cannot believe in a God who intentionally plots out evil, who intentionally causes innocent people to suffer.
Selling one’s brother into slavery is an evil act. Evil is very real and very powerful — as much now as it was then. All we have to do is turn on the news to see the consequences of evil every day. Suffering is all too real.
What the story of Joseph does show us is that God works through even the worst of human actions to bring good out of evil.
“God’s will is limited by no human choice,” Brueggemann says. “God works through even the darkest side of human actions.”
That does not mean it was ultimately a good thing that Joseph was sold into slavery, thrown into prison, and separated from his home and family.
It means that in spite of those things, God was able to accomplish something good; that the evil actions were not the last word.
Sometimes it may seem like evil wins. Hungry people in the world’s most prosperous country line up for blocks for handouts of food in Atlanta.
A black man jogging through a neighborhood is lynched by three white men not so many miles from where we are today.
Children live in cages on our border, separated from their parents by our government.
It is easy to look at these situations and feel despair and hopelessness. It may seem that there is no way out, that evil will prevail.
But scripture tells us that even in the darkest times God is there, present with those who suffer working through the chaos of human affairs to bring about God’s purposes.
I don’t believe that God has a detailed pre-planned road map for each of use, but I do believe that God has a purpose for each life, for each community, and for the world.
That purpose is always the way of forgiveness and reconciliation, of life and justice and peace, and God will never rest until those purposes are achieved.