Estrangement of family members is one of the most painful things that we see. Old people go down to their graves or into senility alienated from family members. Brothers and sisters no longer speak to each other. Ex husbands and ex wives become toxic enemies and everybody chooses up sides. As a pastor I have conducted funerals where it was obvious that two sides of a family are very uncomfortable together. On one occasion we barely averted a fist fight.
Joseph has good reason to hate his brothers. Most of them wanted him dead. They all conspired to exile him into slavery. They all conspired to deceive his father in the most cruel way, causing him to live years in grief. Reading the story, I hate his brothers. I root for him to make sure they don’t get away with what they have done.
The story takes into account the enormity of their offense. It shows Joseph not letting them off the hook. In this story Joseph is a hero. He does right. It never shows him hating his brothers, but it shows him putting them through an ordeal before they reconcile. Even though there is forgiveness and reconciliation, it comes at a price. Justice is satisfied.
So here is how the story goes. Joseph arranges it so that Benjamin’s return to Jacob is at risk. Benjamin seems to have lifted Joseph’s sacred, divining cup (44:5). Joseph’s family comes into his presence under accusation. Significantly, the family is called Judah and his brothers (v. 44:14). Judah speaks for them in a long plea that calls upon Joseph to enslave Judah as a substitute for Benjamin. Judah, in this final version of the story, saves Jacob’s life by prevailing upon Joseph.
Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. Their reaction to this shocking news does not get expressed in detail. Benjamin weeps and the others converse with Joseph (45:12). I hope the conversation included an apology. The main focus of concern for both the brothers and Joseph seems to be their father. The return of all the brothers and the news that Joseph lives revives Jacob’s spirit (45:27). He comes out of the funk that the death of Rachel and the supposed death of Joseph had left him in.
There is one thing that does not quite make sense in the story as it stands. In his speech in chapter 44, Judah talks extensively about Jacob and how leaving Benjamin in Egypt may very well cause his death. Yet in 45:3 Joseph asks if his father is still alive. This once again looks like a sign the there was some kind of cutting and pasting from different sources. One of the things about the Tanakh–and the New Testament as well–that astonishes me is that the very skillful storytellers do not try to harmonize dissonant sources. Perhaps they felt including both perspectives side by side was a way of being faithful to their sources. (I think of the two versions of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1).
Also, chronological order in storytelling does not seem to have made the same kind of sense to ancient storytellers as it does to modern ones. So my concern about 44:22 (we have an aged father) coming before 45:3 (Is my father still alive?) may not have seemed as jarring to the epic’s composer as it did to me. It is hard to put ourselves in the mind-frame of people who lived 2500 to 3000 years ago.
Anyway, the estranged family finds a way to end the alienation and restore all the sons and their father to one another. But purpose goes beyond that. Joseph explains:
“And 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” (Genesis 45:7-8).