Healing The Breach
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 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. 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. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 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. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 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. 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. 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. 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.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Family feuds can be habit forming. And the habit of being at odds with one’s family can be passed from one generation to the next. Sometimes the feud can go on for so long that people can’t remember the details of how it all started. Each side claims its own interpretation of reality, and each side blames the other for the breach that grows wider with each passing year.
As we can see in places like Iraq, the Middle East, and the Crimea, family or tribal conflicts left unchecked or unresolved and grow larger and larger- until the whole world is drawn in. Locally, we are still experiencing the impact of the Demoulis Family Feud- their feuding has become a bad habit. Which is why the story from today’s scripture feels so fresh and real, even though it is ancient.
Joseph had been angry with his brothers for so long that he could no longer remember a time when he didn’t hate them. Their family situation was complicated. To call theirs a step- family didn’t begin to cover it. Jacob was married first to the older sister, Leah, then simultaneously to, Rachel, the younger. Both wives had his children. Oh, and Jacob, busy guy that he was, also had a few kids with the maids of the two sisters. Sister Wives takes on new meaning. It’s just an educated guess that four mothers, twelve sons, and one father added up to be a family feud waiting to happen.
Given that Rachel, mother of Joseph, was Jacob’s favorite wife, it’s no surprise that Joseph was the favorite son. He’s the one who was prancing around in the fancy coat of many colors. There was always this undercurrent of competition and jealousy between the brothers, a mirror of their mothers, the wives who were competing for Jacob’s favor.
If you are new to the Judeo-Christian narrative I encourage you to read the whole narrative. It has more drams than Downton Abbey and the Kardashians rolled into one. If you have heard this story before, you will remember that the when the brothers had had enough of Joseph’s obnoxious strutting around, they threw him into a pit until a group of slave traders came along. They sold Joseph into slavery, using human trafficking as the means to punish their brother for being the favorite son that they weren’t.
As the story unfolds, we see Joseph moving from the position of being a slave to becoming the one who interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams about the years of feast and famine. Joseph has found the Pharaoh’s favor, and is put in charge of preparing for the coming years of famine by storing and distributing grain. The famine is what brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, searching for food, just trying to survive. But the bratty boy Joseph has now become a man dressed up in Egyptian clothes and his brothers don’t recognize the man who holds their fate in his hands as their long lost brother.
It all comes roaring back to Joseph as he stands looking down at his brothers. The last time he had seen them Joseph had been looking up at his brothers from the bottom of a pit, seeing their laughing faces. What might have begun as a prank turned into a nightmare as Joseph was hauled off from his privileged world into a life of bondage.
The old rage, the old hatred, was like a taste in his mouth. Joseph had perfected the habit of despising his brothers for what they had done to him, rehearsed over and over his fantasies of revenge. And the moment he had always fantasized about had finally come to pass: Joseph was in a position to destroy his brothers, and they had no idea that they were at his mercy. And we hold our breath, for we can’t decide how we want this story to turn out. Revenge might be sweet in the moment, but are we capable of better? Which will Joseph choose?
This bible story has remained a classic for generations because it is so true. It is true that we are most deeply hurt by the people closest to us, our families. It is true that rivalries and unresolved issues among one generation become the inheritance of the younger generation. It is true that human beings dream of revenge as a way of protecting themselves against the pain of hurt and rejection. And it is true that God shows up in the middle of the most complicated family dynamics and works miracles of healing that no one could ever begin to imagine. This story is painfully and wonderfully true.
And so Joseph sets his brothers up. He plays with them as a cat plays with the doomed mouse. He accused his brothers of being spies, and keeps one brother imprisoned while he sends them back home. They are to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to prove that their story is true, that they are not spies.
When they return with Benjamin, Joseph tells his servants to give his brothers the bags of grain they have come to buy, but put their money back in the top of their bags. And put his special silver cup, the one he uses as a part of his dream divination, put that cup into the bag of the youngest brother, Benjamin.
When the brothers leave, Joseph sends his men after them. Accusations fly. The brothers deny wrongdoing. The servants check their bags, and there, in the bag of the youngest brother, is the missing cup. The brothers are horrified. We expect the narrative to end the way it usually does: with the one who has the upper hand using his power to crush and punish those who harmed him. The brothers are now the vulnerable ones. Will Joseph destroy them as they once destroyed him? Sweet revenge.
But that’s not what happens. And this is where the story starts to mess with our heads. This is where the story starts to brim over with miracles. Judah begs and pleads with Joseph to share the life of their little brother Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest. “Please don’t harm him,” he begs, “For it will destroy our father.” He explains that the father has never recovered from the heartbreak of losing his son Joseph, and that if anything happened to Benjamin, it would be the death of the father.
Joseph sends everyone out of the room. The brothers wait, their hearts constricted with fear. And Joseph begins to weep so loudly that everyone outside can hear him. He sobs like a little child, crying for all the lost years, for the ways that his anger had eaten away at him, for the breach that had grown so unimaginably large between himself and his brothers. The brothers are stunned by grace. And this is where the story starts to mess with our heads, because if such an enormous rift in a family can be healed, then perhaps we too can be reconciled with our own families. In many cases, that can be a very scary thought indeed.
This is not to make light of those situations where family abuse has left deep scars. Rather the story asks us to open ourselves to the possibility of forgiveness, healing, change, and reconciliation. Such healing is deeply risky business.
And such healing might require that we let go of our narratives, our version of things, our grudges and resentments. It might require that we weep deeply for that which has been lost. It might require that we develop new ways of understanding the deep complexity of the situation, an understanding that makes space for forgiveness. Healing the breach is sacred work that starts with recognizing that God is about the business of reconciliation even when it is the last thing we can want or imagine.
Healing the breach leads us into the territory of the miracles of empathy, forgiveness, and gratitude. Healing the breach gives us the eyes to recognize God’s redemptive hand at work. Joseph’s view of things is that God was behind it all so that his family would be saved from starvation. I would state it slightly differently: God didn’t cause the brothers to throw Joseph in the pit and sell him into slavery. But once that happened, God was there, actively working to bring healing and redemption out of a miserable family feud.
Joseph’s family story is full of miracles. And so are ours. Amen.