The last 6 chapters in Genesis give a great case study in forgiveness. Brief summary of situation to this point: Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, the first born of his original love, Rachel. As such he was the favoured son which caused his brothers some considerable anger and resentment. Recounting his dreams of his brothers bowing down before him (Genesis 37) really did not help matters. The brothers were able to overpower him away from their father, and having considered killing him, sold him into slavery.
Now, over the centuries slavery has taken various forms as noted in this blog entry – particularly during the Roman period, the hard labour form co-existed with slaves who lived quite privileged lifestyles. At this time, however, one might reasonably expect to be to dead within 3 years from physical abuse, overwork and undernourishment. A considerable over-reaction, one might consider, to the antics of an annoying little brother. The other brothers lied to their father and said that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, meanwhile, Joseph himself eventually ended up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right hand man in overseeing the storage of food prior to a major famine revealed to Joseph by God through Pharaoh’s dreams, and then the administration of the food once the famine got going.
It was when the famine took hold that the brothers (without Benjamin, the youngest and Joseph’s only full brother) travelled to Egypt where they had heard that food was available, and then, unbeknown to them, came face to face with their brother. In chapters 42-44 we read that Joseph then gave them a considerable run around, demanding that they bring Benjamin, hiding a silver cup in their luggage and accusing them of stealing it. It is not clear how long this went on for, maybe a year or more? Quite what Joseph’s motivation for this prolonged period before he tells his brothers who he is is again not clear, is he testing them out, to assure himself that they have changed? Or is it that, having been badly wronged at their hands when he was powerless against them, he can’t resist exercising the power he now has over them, giving rise to not a little childish glee? I would like to put it firmly on record that the fact that I am the youngest of three brothers has absolutely no bearing on this totally objective consideration of this account. None at all. Obviously not.
Finally, as recounted in Genesis 45, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. If there was any harbouring resentment earlier on there is now no sign of it. Small wonder (verse 3) that the brothers are terrified, the one they have wronged so badly is now an extremely powerful person, certainly he could have ordered their deaths had he chosen to do so.
But in forgiving he makes every effort to assure them that he is genuine in wanting to rebuild relationships with them. He goes so far as to say, in verse 8, that it was not they who sent him to Egypt, but God. So, by implication, they did the right thing in selling him into slavery all those years ago. I have to say, this is a somewhat dubious line of reasoning, which would, presumably, arrive at the conclusion that Judas was right to betray Jesus. But it is clear that Joseph is looking, in his forgiveness, to be as generous and reassuring as possible.
Jacob’s whole household then came to live in Egypt, and 17 years later (Genesis 47:28) Jacob died. It was at this stage that the brothers again became afraid. What if Joseph has only been feigning forgiveness all this time, waiting for our father to die so that he can finally exact the vengeance on us that he had in mind all along? Have to say, it seems to me bit difficult to believe that Joseph would have been able to maintain this deception for so long, had they been told the story of their Uncle Esau (Genesis 27:41-45) who, after their father Jacob had manipulated their grandfather Isaac into giving him, Jacob, the blessing which Esau was due, vowed to wait until Isaac was dead before exacting vengeance on his brother?
In any eventuality, the brothers were afraid (50:15), so what did they do? Go to see him? No, they sent a message, stating that their father had asked Joseph to forgive them so they hoped that he would do so.
When Joseph received this message he wept (50:17). Why? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but I suggest he wept for two reasons: because of what his brothers were saying and the way they were saying it. It must have felt to Joseph as if his clear forgiveness all those years ago, and all his actions in the meantime bringing the family to live with him, ensuring their welfare, taking their father back to the Jordan to be buried, counted for nothing. The brothers were asking again for what they already had, I can see that Joseph found this really hurtful that they had so little trust in him.
So what does Joseph do? What he needs to, once again, to reassure them that he is genuine. He again emphasises the need for him to be in Egypt to fulfill his key role in managing the famine, and that his brother’s actions helped to bring this about.
In summary, then, what do we learn about Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers? It is total, unconditional, loving, generous, kind, long lasting, repeated where necessary. He made every effort to assure his brothers that their actions resulted in good.
My goodness, what a great example he set! I’d like also to consider another more recent example. In this blog post I mentioned Corrie ten Boom’s book, “The hiding place,” in which she tells how she and her family hid Jews in their house in the Netherlands during the Second World War. Eventually they were caught and sent to prison. Whilst in prison it is Corrie’s sister, Betsie, whose example I find quite breath taking. In the middle of a large amount of pain and suffering, with humiliations all around, Betsie saw beyond the uniforms of the guards to damaged people, with their own insecurities and needs, loved by God and needing His forgiveness and to know His presence. I mean, to take that view in the middle of all that was going on! Could I do it? In my own strength unquestionably no, with God’s help, that is my hope and prayer. So, bringing things right up to date, had Betsie heard about the terrible acid attacks in London recently, she would have felt the pain and suffering of the victims and prayed for them and their families. But she would also have prayed for the perpetrators, seeing them as damaged people locked into terrible behavioural patterns, needing God’s help, healing, forgiveness and love.
But let me make one further point. If we had complete control over our reactions and emotions, would we choose to take on Betsie’s attitude of forgiveness and compassion for others, irrespective as to what they did? Speaking for myself, I would. Firstly before God it would be the right thing to do. But also because this is, I think, the most psychologically healthy way of dealing with things. In a motoring context I’ve heard it said that getting angry with another motorist is roughly equivalent to poisoning oneself and expecting somebody else to become ill. It’s true, isn’t it?
Following on from this point, there is a time, when there is a mismatch between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do, to do the right thing as an act of the will. Can’t promise that feelings will follow actions, but that is our prayer. In the Lord’s prayer we ask that we should be forgiven, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Not easy to do, but the right thing to do from every point of view. And we have some great examples to follow.
P.S. I decided not to include also to include consideration of Simon Wiesenthal’s thought provoking book, “The sunflower” in this blog post, highly recommend it as a book to read in exploring the whole area of forgiveness, happy to discuss this privately or may return to the issue in a future blog post.