Sight, Obligation, and Forgiveness in the Joseph Text
Michael Kelley Shepherd, Jr.
In the Joseph
story, and specifically the scene presented in the forty-fourth and forty-fifth
chapter of Genesis during which Judah pleads to the "Egyptian Ruler" for Benjamin's
life, only to have that "Egyptian Ruler" ultimately confess to being the
younger brother, Joseph, that the Patriarchs had sold into slavery many years
earlier, the reader is given a picture of two facets of the moral life: the
nature of obligation to one another and why one person knows that obligation
while another does not; and how it is one is able actually to forgive another for failing to uphold it. The interplay between Joseph and his brothers
provides an example of knowledge and ignorance, of sight and blindness; these
metaphors play out to teach the reader lessons in the moral life.
Genesis passage begins with Judah's
explanation of both the structure of Israel's
family as well as the position of the brothers with respect to the Egyptian
ruler to whom they are speaking. Judah
recognizes their position: having been caught with an item that belonged to a
(hitherto) benevolent authority from whom they had procured grain necessary for
the survival of their family, they are afforded no bargaining power. They are guests in this land, though their
guest status could quickly turn if the ensuing exchange goes awry. But they are also sons of a fragile man, one
still shaken by a tragedy that befell his family some years before. Judah
understands the weight on his shoulders: the burden of ensuring that Benjamin, Israel's
youngest son, arrives safely in Canaan is his to
bear. And behind that is the obligation
to uphold the life of Israel
himself, understanding (as Judah
does) that Benjamin cannot ultimately "leave his father; if he were to leave
him, his father would die." After all, Benjamin was Israel's
favorite son, the only living son of Rachel, the wife for whom Israel
suffered fourteen years of labor, the wife he endured trickery and bad blood to
hold. To lose Benjamin would mean losing
the very "son of my [Rachel's] suffering" (Gen. 35:18), the son for whom his
beloved died. Israel
had already lost the first of Rachel's two boys (Joseph), purportedly killed by
a wild animal while out in the field; he had already lost Rachel herself, and
to lose the final member of that beloved trio would be catastrophic. Judah
understands all of this and genuinely wants to prevent such an outcome. He makes clear to the Egyptian the damage
that their failing to return with Benjamin would do: it would "send my [Israel,
their father] white head down to Sheol in sorrow" (Gen. 44:29). As such Judah
would "stand guilty before my father forever" (Gen. 44:32), and be rendered
guilty of failing the man unto death.
noble, how much can one say for a man who once sold his brother into slavery?
Where was his moral obligation then? Perhaps his actions may be explained not
by his failure to uphold a known moral obligation but by a failure to know that obligation at all. Indeed, during Joseph's enslavement, the
highest obligation most of his brothers show is expressed by their response to
Ruben's advice not to take his life.
They understand only that they ought to "shed no blood" (Gen. 37:22). They express no qualms about casting him "into
that pit out in the wilderness" (Gen. 37:22) so long as they did not actually
lay hands on him to cause his death.
They understand that shedding their brother's blood was wrong, but they
do not understand that this is really an injunction against harming him at all.
They do not understand that their obligation toward him is not a
legalistic "thou shalt not do this or that" but something far greater,
something holistic, nor do they fully understand their obligation to their
father. Selling the original "child of his [their father's] old age" (Gen.
37:3) into slavery and then telling him that the child had been devoured by a
wild beast bears no reflection of the sort of ethical mandate that Judah
claims in Egypt. Not one of the brothers understands this
mandate, not even the high minded Ruben, who does "try to save him from
them"(Gen. 37:21) but who never bothers to inform Israel
of his sons' deception after they show him the bloody tunic and allow him to
believe that "Joseph was torn by a beast!"(Gen. 37:33).
Ambrose's commentary on the story in his sermon entitled Joseph helps
add a layer of depth to the reader's understanding of the situation. He notes that when Joseph went out from Israel
to find his brothers and initially could not find them at all, "it was right
that he wandered about, for he was seeking those that were going astray." He was not seeking those that had gone astray, but Joseph was acting
as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah: hunting a prey he sought to redeem, a prey
that nonetheless ran and ran to escape him.
They had not gone astray and
sat, waiting for someone to find them; the image that Ambrose paints is of the
brothers going astray, actively
moving away from the very source of their redemption. And why?
Because hitherto they are angered by Joseph's dreams, because "he had a
dream that when he was binding sheaves with his brothers...his sheaf rose up and
stood straight, while the sheaves of his brothers turned and bowed down to his
they see his supposed arrogance and violation of the order from which they come. They are unable to know an inkling of the
truth: that "in this [his dream] the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that was to
come was revealed"; that
Joseph is dreaming both of his future and the future of the world, a day in
which the lost would bow down to Jesus.
They are unable to see that their salvation is to come from their
younger brother and so (all that much more egregiously) they try to kill
him. Joseph arrives to meet them when
they are actively engaged in rebellion against the moral law.
brothers were like one "in a deep corporeal sleep," that cannot "open his eyes
to the mysteries of God." They were not at all able to see their
brother for who he really is, let alone understand their obligation to him,
only understanding their jealousy and their anger. They are like the
aforementioned man as he "supposes that...worldly power is of some importance,"
when the person of faith who can fully see
the truth knows full well that it is of no importance at all. They live in a dream world they do not
actually inhabit. The reality of their
brother has completely escaped them.
Perhaps they are blinded by the awesome light that shines forth from
Joseph, "the splendor of grace (which) is bright like a companion to his
chastity." Perhaps they
close their eyes because, bright and beautiful as it is, they are unable
to bear the truth and beauty they see in him.
Perhaps they never notice a hint of light emanating from him as one
blind at birth, so to speak. Whatever
the case might be, the Patriarchs do not understand the situation: they owe
their brother all the help he needs in order to preserve his life, not only because he is their brother but
because he represents something far greater than that.
the time the brothers speak to the Egyptian ruler they are not so blind as they
once were. At the very least one may
safely say that they have changed with respect to their obligation to their
father. The acceptance of the fact that
by leaving Benjamin in Egypt Judah would stand "guilty before my [his] father"
is no minor realization. Perhaps the grief of their father at the loss of
Joseph brings this realization upon them, perhaps it is a divine revelation, or
perhaps it occurs in a far less dramatic fashion. No matter how the amendment of their
consciences occurs, it is one that plays an important role as the scene
unfolds. This newfound nobility of mind
is one that propels Judah
to greater moral heights as he exclaims "let me not be witness to the woe that
would overtake my father" (Gen. 44:34) at the loss of his son!
all this talk about the brothers' obligations to their father, what about
Benjamin? Do the brothers owe him
anything? Might they not stick up for
him when he is accused of stealing the Egyptian goblet, might they not actively
try to protect their own brother when foreign authorities want to imprison
him? In all of the rationales that Judah
gives for not leaving his youngest brother in Egypt,
not once does he offer to take his place in order to prevent harm from
befalling the boy. Judah's
primary concern is Israel's
welfare, but Benjamin does not even appear as a secondary concern. Even the pledge that Judah makes to Israel,
the one in which he vows to take care of the boy and keep him safe, is one
directed not toward Benjamin but instead toward Jacob. Judah
tells his father, "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.
Put him in my care, and I will return him to you"(Gen. 42:37). The welfare of Judah's
children is not the primary concern nor is the welfare of Benjamin. The threat levied against the brothers by the
Egyptian official is that "he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be
my slave" (Gen. 44:17) (emphasis added). The offer is not that the youth is left to
become a houseguest of the Egyptian, but a servant. Judah
is "defending" Benjamin, but he gives scarcely a hint that he might be
defending the boy for the boy's own sake and not solely for the sake of his father. Though the brothers may indeed grow to such a
point that they understand their duty toward their father, they still fail to
recognize their duty to one another.
one crucial respect, they are still blind and still unable to see the depths of
their obligation to Benjamin and to each other.
They are deeply concentrated on their father, deeply worried for the
sake of the old man. There remains
another obligation, however, that when they worry for their father, they cannot
see. Again Ambrose adds an interesting wrinkle to the story when he juxtaposes
the situation of the Patriarchs with that of the Jews during the time of
Paul. "The Hebrews are seen now and they
are seen by Christ, who is the true Joseph, when they come with the figure who
symbolizes Paul." And just as the Jews of Paul's era fail to
recognize Paul and Pauls teaching, the brothers fail to recognize the
significance of Benjamin. Thus, Judah's
excessive interest in his father may be seen as all the more damning because
Benjamin represents something truly special.
Benjamin is not just the little brother, but the youngest—and presumed
only surviving—son of the wife, or,
as Jacob refers to her "my wife"
(Gen. 44:27) (emphasis added). She was
not "a wife," or "Rachel," or "Leah's
sister," but "my wife," "the wife." Yet Judah
cannot understand his obligation toward the boy, special though Benjamin
is not able to see the significance of Benjamin's life for its own sake; he
only appreciates its significance through the lens of his father's life.
a result, Joseph's tears as he reveals himself to them could mean a myriad of
things. They may be tears of joy as he watches his brothers uphold their father
and their father's interest, but they may also be tears of sadness that after
all these years and all they have done the brothers still do not understand the
obligation they owe each other. First
they sell him into slavery, and then they worry not about their youngest
brother's fate in a strange land but about their father's health. They still lack the moral vision to truly
understand the situation. Judah
misses the point: it is wrong to do
harm to one's father, but it is also wrong for its own sake to allow one's own
brother to be forced into slavery in a foreign country!
at the very end of Genesis it is readily apparent that the brothers have little
concept of the obligation each owes the other.
Fearing that Joseph might use power and influence as a means for
reprisal upon the death of their father, they send Joseph a phony message "from
their father" urging him to "forgive the offense and guilt of your brothers who
treated you so harshly" (Gen. 50:17).
Joseph might as well cry again here, because his brothers yet again fail
to understand what is meant by the simple statement that "I am your brother
Joseph." The brothers understand that
they are subject to a moral obligation to their father that they believe keeps
Joseph's anger at bay for many years, but they are still blind to the truth of
the larger obligation that stems from his being their brother.
still forgives them, and this pronouncement of forgiveness of his brothers
presents a truly remarkable picture for the reader: forgiveness being
pronounced not out of resolution or "superiority" of the transgressed over the
transgressor, but out of weakness and humility.
It is pronounced because "Joseph could not longer control himself...and
he cried out" (Gen. 45:1) in pain so loudly "that the Egyptians could hear, and
so the news reached Pharaoh's palace" (Gen. 45:2). This is not a civilized cry. Joseph is not the picture of a man fully in
control of himself, but he is a man with the extraordinary capacity to respond
to the pain and hurt of his situation who humbles himself before those who had
humiliated him years earlier. Despite
Joseph's understanding that he holds all the bargaining power, his pain
overcomes him, and he forgives them through his tears.
such pain? Though the one pronouncing
forgiveness may be the less strong of the two, and as is the case here the one
previously violated, the notion that such a person thereby ought to be weeping
loudly as that forgiveness is pronounced seems more than a little
counterintuitive. But this is exactly
how forgiveness is doled out here; it is pronounced not over the bowed and
humbled heads of those being forgiven once they understand all that it
signifies, for the brothers here are incapable of fully understanding why they
are being forgiven over the ignorant and the blind. It is pronounced out of the depth of Joseph's
hurt to persons wondering why he is crying!
When Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, telling them "I am
Joseph. Is my father still well?...His brothers could not answer him, so
dumfounded were they on account of him" (Gen. 45:3). When they send the boy away so many years ago
he is, as far as they can tell, gone for good.
They do not literally kill him, but figuratively they do. They never expect to see him again, and they
never know the full extent of what they had done wrong. And now that they are confronted by the
extent of the pain they have caused they can neither speak nor even really see.
is clear that Ruben understands that they never should have harmed Joseph, as
he notes in a prior scene that their misfortunes on their trips to Egypt must
have come "on account of our brother, because we looked at his anguish, yet
paid not heed as he pleaded with us"(Gen. 42:21), but even Ruben is unable to
respond when that very brother falls upon them weeping, telling them "do not be
distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save
life that God sent me ahead of you" (Gen. 45:5). Even Ruben, the one who partially understands
his obligation to his younger brother then and now, does not know what to say
and plays a part in the confused final chapter, which indicates just how
shallow his understanding is. All of a
sudden their punishment is taken away wholly and completely. All of a sudden the brothers are told that
their misdeeds are somehow a part of the divine
plan for Joseph, that in fact Joseph has to go down into Egypt in order to
"ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary
deliverance" (Gen. 45:7). All of this emerges
from a man who comes to them not in superiority but in sadness.
again Ambrose's commentary helps the reader understand the Patriarchs. Joseph is the model that represents their
savior, an image of Christ to the Brothers.
He shows himself to be their lord, and his grace provides for them an
image of things to come. If Joseph is
such an image of Christ as Ambrose says he is, that "mirror of purity" from
which the "splendor of grace is bright,"
and if they are unable to see him and recognize him for what he is, then it is
impossible for them to see the moral obligation they owe him. As a result, they are dumfounded when the
Egyptian ruler falls to his knees and starts weeping before them; even once
they realize who that Egyptian ruler is, they cannot fully appreciate the
significance of the happening. Of course
they, like fools, implore his forgiveness or try to use false means to secure
his forgiveness after their father's death.
By virtue of their inability to truly see, they cannot also
forgives them because he understands that God is always with him. Saint Stephen's
retelling of the Joseph story in Acts makes clear that it is not by
happenstance that anything in the story happens, because it is God who "rescued
him [Joseph] from all his afflictions"
after his brothers, in their jealousy of him, sold him into slavery. It is God who "enabled him to win favor and
to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt"
(Acts 7:10), which subsequently leads to Joseph's being appointed one of
Pharaoh's second in command. And from
that position of power and influence he is able to save many lives, even the
lives of his own family. In spite of the
evil that the brothers attempt to do him, Joseph is God's vehicle over which
the brothers have no control. Acts
places Joseph alongside both Abraham and Moses as an instrumental character in
the story of God's redemption of the world and fulfilling of his promise, made
to Abraham, to give him land and descendants.
It is ultimately Joseph's knowledge of at least a part of this plan that
enables him to forgive his brothers.
Acts makes an analogy between the rejection of Joseph, the Israelite people,
Moses, and the rejection of Jesus and the newly founded Church; Acts makes
clear that the rejection of God's vehicle by those unable to see that what is
really occurring was built into the plan.
God knows that the story of the redemption of the world will cause his
people to suffer trials and that the descendants of Abraham "would be resident
aliens in a country belonging to others who would enslave them and mistreat
them" (Acts 7:6) before they would finally see peace and rest. This Covenant with Abraham laid out in Acts
7:5-6 is the point of the matter. St.
Stephen shows this to be the dominant promise throughout the story of God
working with his people during the days of the patriarchs. Yes, many of them reject him, but he chooses
one and works through one to ensure that the promise he makes to Abraham is fulfilled. And it is the knowledge of that promise and
the ability to see that plan that enables those involved in that same covenant
both to see their moral obligations and to forgive those who fail in theirs.
 The JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH, Second Edition (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society) 2003, Gen. 44:22.
 Ambrose, "Joseph" in Bernard M. Peebles, ed, Seven
Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.:The Catholic University of America Press) 1972, 3.10.
Michael P McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America P. 1972) 191
 The New Oxford Annotated
Bible—New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition (Oxford:
Oxford University Press) 2001, Acts 7:10.
© 2006 Society for Scriptural Reasoning
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