Have you ever picked up a book, opened it about three-fourths of the way through and started reading it? You don’t know the characters, the plot, the context. Even if you can tell that something important is happening it doesn’t quite make sense.
To read only the resolution, without knowing the events leading up to the climax robs the dénouement of much of its power and suspense.
Well, today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis is like that. We’ve been placed smack dab at the point of climax in one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible — the story of Joseph and his brothers. But the drama is lost if we don’t go back and recap what has happened in the earlier parts of the story.
The story begins with Joseph, the great grandson of Abraham, grandson of Isaac, and son of Jacob. Jacob has 12 sons, but Joseph, the 11th, is his favorite — and he knows it.
Joseph delights in flaunting his status as the favorite. He tells on his brothers when they’re not working hard enough. He lords it over them at every opportunity. He struts around in his beautiful coat of many colors, a gift from his father, more splendid than anything the other brothers have been given.
Joseph, in short, is an arrogant, bratty, twit — and his brothers, understandably and predictably, cannot stand him.
They hate him so much, in fact, that they discuss killing him — but instead decide to throw him into a deep pit in the middle of a remote pasture and leave him there.
They have done just that when a group of nomadic travelers pass by. The brothers immediately see that they can not only get rid of Joseph, they can profit from him as well, so they sell him to the traders for 20 pieces of silver.
They then dip Joseph’s famed coat of many colors in goat’s blood and return home to tell their father that his favorite son has been killed by wild animals.
Joseph, meanwhile, is taken to Egypt and sold into slavery. Surprisingly, he does well there. He is made overseer of his master’s house. He has a gift of interpreting dreams, which brings him to the attention of Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, who has had a disturbing dream.
Joseph tells Pharaoh the dream means that his land will prosper for seven years, but that time of prosperity will be followed by seven years of famine.
Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of making sure that resources are saved and used wisely during the time of prosperity so that Egypt will not suffer when the hard times come.
Joseph does his job well. When the famine hits, hunger is widespread in countries throughout the land, but in Egypt there is food for all.
One day Jacob, hungry in the land of Canaan, decides to send his sons to Egypt in search of food before they all die of starvation.
More than 20 years have passed since Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. During all this time Joseph has heard nothing about his family. By this time, the brothers probably believe that Jacob’s favorite son really is dead.
Joseph, second in power only to Pharaoh, sees his brothers in the market trying to buy food. He recognizes them, and orders his servants to bring these men to his house, and prepares to reveal to them who he is.
This is where the first part of the story ends. As today’s passage begins readers may wonder: Will Joseph finally get his revenge? How badly will the brothers squirm when they realize who’s house they are in? What torturous payback awaits them?
The drama builds as Joseph clears the room of everyone but his brothers, then turns to them and says:
“I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
The brothers are literally speechless, dismayed and terrified to realize that this powerful man is the bratty little brother they sold into slavery so many years ago.
Joseph says to them again:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”
The brothers’ terror grows even greater.
Then comes the dramatic twist as Joseph continues:
“Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life….It was not you who sent me here, but God.”
If ever there was a person who could be justified in holding a grudge or taking revenge it is Joseph. Yet at the moment he is able to do just that Joseph not only forgives his brothers, he reassures them that God was at work in their truly evil actions.
Four times Joseph tells his brothers that it is God who sent him to Egypt, that it is God who made him a ruler in that land — and that God has done this to preserve the family of Jacob, that family of brothers who sold their own flesh and blood into slavery.
Then Joseph tells his brothers they will be given the best land in Egypt on which to live, and they will be provided with the best food and clothing.
Joseph not only passes up his chance for revenge; he not only forgives his brothers, but he blesses them and does good for them.
Joseph, an ordinary man, is able to do these extraordinary things because he realizes that behind all the events of his life God has been at work bringing good out of evil.
Selling Joseph into slavery was an evil act that resulted in grief and pain and suffering — for Joseph, who is separated from his family and made a slave; for Jacob, who for more than 20 years believes that his most beloved son is dead; and for the brothers, who live with guilt and deception.
The brothers’ actions are not good; they are evil.
But as Joseph tells his family later in the story — what you intended for evil God used for good.
Evil does not have the last word. God cannot be blocked or limited by the evil we do.
God is at work through the concrete actions of humans — no matter how evil those actions may be. The world of human choice and human actions — with all of its flaws — is precisely where God’s saving work is done.
God uses even the dark side of humanity to achieve God’s purposes.
For long stretches of time God’s purpose may seem hidden and mysterious.
Surely Joseph wondered where God was when his brothers threw him into the pit, then sold him into slavery.
Surely Jacob wondered where God was when he received news that his most precious son was dead.
Surely they both raged against God and wondered how God could let evil triumph. And for years and years it seemed as if evil did.
Surely it was difficult for them to believe that God could possibly be at work in those dark and destructive moments of life — moments of betrayal and death. Just as it is often difficult for us to see God at work in those moments of our own lives.
The story of Joseph and his brothers shows us that the grace of God can transform a curse into a blessing.
At the moment Joseph forgives his brothers he is blessed.
With that blessing comes the possibility of new life for all of Jacob’s family — a life of freshness that triumphs over the past, redefines the present, and opens the future. A life in which a gracious God provides abundance for all — the betrayed and the betrayers.
All of us have at times in our lives been Joseph — betrayed by someone we love and trust. And all of us at times have been the brothers — the betrayers of someone we love.
We can let our lives be defined and controlled by those moments. We can allow our present and our future to be defined by the grudges and evils of our past.
Or we can trust that God is active even in the broken moments of our lives, even at the times when God seems most absent. When we do that we, like Joseph, may be able to forgive, opening the way for God to transform our past curses into blessings, leading us to a new life of freshness, abundance, and grace.