‘“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him …’ Acts 7:9-10
‘“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”
(which means “God with us”)”
“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Genesis 50: 20
Found In Genesis 41-50, Genesis 50:15-21
We don’t always see it coming, the hatred of human beings. It takes us by surprise, ambushing our bewildered hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once it hits, it stays, scarring our experiences and lingering in our minds.
He had lived with their taunts for years, but it was only in that haunting moment that he had begun to understand their hate, the moment he was pleading for his life, the moment he was shoved down a pit in the dark, the moment he was trafficked into slavery. And the quiet moments after all these breaking moments, when he remembered and relived them all again. Again and again and again.
Joseph, son of Israel.
And if it was you, if you were in his shoes, if you were motherless, hated, abused, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery in a distant land where you are sexually harassed, falsely accused and then unjustly jailed for years, where would you be at the end of all this? Where would you find your heart? Would you still have it? In tact? Or would bitterness have corroded all the sinews down to dust? Would your beaten heart still beat in time with God’s? Or would it wilt and bitter-beat to the thrum of vengeance in your mind? Or perhaps your heart would still be there at the bottom of that pit, languishing in the hole in the ground that goes on forever?
And if then the perpetrators one day stood before you, the ones who hated you, ambushed you and trafficked you, if they stood before you and you had the chance to take revenge. Would you? Would you avenge the years they stole from you? The pain, the suffering, the years of lonely tears and silent despair? Would you twist the knife of guilt just a little, would you push the dagger in until they begged, until they felt even a small part of what you had been through, what their hate had put you through? Would you? Where would you find your heart? Would it have been lost along the way somewhere? Down in that hole they left you in?
He had every reason to return the hate they’d hurled at him, this one young man. Every reason but one.
The presence of God with him.
The years of plenty and years of famine arrived, just like Pharaoh’s dream; Pharaoh’s dream that had found Joseph right where God had placed him, in another pit waiting to be found; found in the middle of God’s purpose and plan, His purpose and plan to bless the whole world through one family line.
Seven years of abundance, seven years of lack. Seven years of God at work partnering with human beings. Seven symbolises completeness and wholeness in ancient Hebrew thought. In seven ‘days’ God worked to create the world, and in seven years He now provides all Egypt needs to survive a famine. He provides the warning of it through a dream, and the young Hebrew man Joseph, to interpret the dream and then implement the plan.
Joseph, the one son of Jacob-Israel despised by all the others, is the one son of Israel fulfilling Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. Every situation he finds himself in becomes blessed for him and through him to others.
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.” Acts 7:9-10
All this takes place on a large stage, the largest stage available, the stage of the current superpower of the time, but also on the smallest stage, the day by day existence of one small life.
Because when God works, He doesn’t just do ‘big’ things, He also works out every small detail of our lives as well, weaving His purposes both grand and small in the warp and weft of it all. In this story He is simultaneously saving nations from starvation, saving His chosen family line from destitution, preserving His purposes for this family line, saving Joseph from despair and saving his ten brother’s hearts from script-line self destruction.
Joseph’s ten older brothers are every bit as lost as Joseph was when they shoved him down the well. When they sold him into slavery they enslaved themselves to guilt, chaining their hearts and minds to years of shame and regret. They’d deserted Joseph, but it was they who were wandering in waste lands with empty-cistern hearts. The famine of Egypt mirrored the famine in these ten men’s hearts.
Judah’s life had hit rock bottom, with two sons with wicked hearts eventually dying in sin, his own lack of integrity and sexual immorality will be documented in un-forgetting unforgiving print for all the world to see throughout all generations (Genesis 38). A numb heart creates it’s own cistern of darkness, re-shaping it’s world in the image of its own emptiness.
But God wasn’t done with this family yet, not done with Judah, not done with Israel’s family line. And now God’s great movement on all these levels, on the largest stage and the smallest, is rushing forward to this moment, this moment when finally all the chains of past pain come out into the blazing light of day.
“The seven years of abundance in Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in all the other lands, but in the whole land of Egypt there was food… And all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere.” Genesis 41:53-54,57
“When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”
Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt.” Genesis 42:1-3
They came down to buy grain, but the nourishment they really needed was something money couldn’t buy. Only grace could provide that.
The famine had brought Joseph’s life to a head, all the threads that had appeared hopelessly unravelled and undone now begin to reweave themselves into a picture of grace and truth. Grace that leaves no work of restoration undone, truth that leaves no threads fraying loose.
“Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”’ Genesis 42:6-7
And you don’t know what you’ll do until you find yourself in that moment; the moment you have thought about every day of your life up until then. The moment when the perpetrators of all your pain stand before you, the ones who hated you, ambushed you and trafficked you. Just an arms length away. Revenge within reach.
“Although Joseph recognised his brothers, they did not recognise him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
“No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”
“No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.” Genesis 42:8-13
One is no more. Did they flinch as they spoke this line, did their voices waver just a little, did the words catch in their throats for even a moment? Did Joseph flinch as he heard them? Did he feel it? Like a dagger turning, even now.
It’s the things we hold onto all white-knuckle fisted that hold onto us, holding us under the floods of the past, holding us down, holding us captive, held in the darkest hole in our hearts, like a pit in the ground that goes on forever.
They hadn’t held onto him, held onto love, held onto patience, held onto family loyalty and the justice and righteousness of their life-line family-line calling. They hadn’t held onto God. And in letting go of God they had let jealousy and hate get a grip-hold on them.
They let go of their brother Joseph, leaving him falling through a fallen world, dangling alone with nothing but God’s life line to hold him. Pendulous, suspended.
Held by grace alone.
But this is the truth we all must learn, the hard truth to break our hard hearts. Family lines will hurt us; even with the best of intentions, in the best of families, we will still break one another in a thousand corroding ways over a thousand eroding days. We are all broken and we live in a breaking world, breaking our promises, breaking our relationships, breaking one another’s hearts.
A human family is not the strengthening source of a truly free and unbroken existence. It never has been and never will be, and it’s unfair to expect that even of the best of families.
True human strength doesn’t come from human beings. It comes from God. When He first breathed His breath of life into the lining of our lungs and animated our existence into existential being, He didn’t just breathe oxygen into us, He breathed Himself: His loving, giving, wholeness-producing self, breathed right there into the lungs of us.
The only story-line life-line that will every salvage our lives and produce in us true freedom and wholeness is the Life-line of God’s Breath in us, the song line of His presence with us.
The strength of this chosen family (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel’s family line) was never their holiness, talents, gifts, righteousness, wealth or any other attribute of family strength and cohesion. It was that they’d learned (slowly, just like us) to ‘call on the name of the Lord’ to rely on His Life-line over their own inherited script-lines. God’s presence was with them. He was their Life-line wrestling their script lines to the ground.
Joseph’s ten brothers were still learning this. Slowly. Like us.
Joseph didn’t know where they were on their journey to themselves, their journey to God’s heart, their journey learning to see themselves through God’s eyes. Joseph wanted a sign, a sign to hope in, like the first light of dawn, a sign that they had changed, that they had regret, that they had cared even a little about the pain they put him through. He tests them. He tests their loyalty to Benjamin his brother.
And in testing them he was also testing himself? Was he with God, or with vengeance? Was he with YHWH or with vitriolic retaliation? Where was his beating heart?
“Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.” Genesis 42:14-15
“Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: “Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack. Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.” And he did as Joseph said.” Genesis 44:1-2
And after Joseph’s test, it is Judah who puts his life on the line for Benjamin, Judah whose words had put Joseph in chains, Judah whose heart had sunk to the thudding bottom of an empty-well existence of Godless sons and immoral behaviour. Judah who is now so changed that he would rather die in chains than sell Benjamin as he had sold Joseph into slavery.
“Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’
“Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” Genesis 44:32-34
Physical slavery felt more bearable than the years of enslaving guilt Judah had already lived.
God hadn’t given up on Joseph’s brothers yet. Their hard hearts had needed breaking, breaking and re-forming into hearts alive in God. They had spent twenty years living with the shame of what they’d done, the grief of their father, the guilt of their sin. The moment they sold Joseph into slavery, they’d enslaved themselves to guilt. They were not free. They were broken men. Men ready to die rather than re-live it all over again.
God’s family, the one He wanted to use to bless the whole world, needed restoration, needed a brand new beating human heart. They needed YHWH’s breath in lungs once more. How could they lead a world of people to hope if they had no healing hope themselves?
They had written God out of their self reliant hearts just as their father Jacob had attempted to do, but God in faithfulness picked up all their treacherous threads and with them wove a completely different picture. A bigger picture, the true picture of what was going on all along. Joseph and his family had seen only unravelling threads, but in God’s purposes the tapestry was never undone.
Joseph now has a choice as his broken family stands before him, will he avenge himself, or will he allow God’s presence with him, and work in him, to lead his heart (Psalm 73:26).
He had every reason to return the hate they’d hurled at him, this one young man. Every reason but one. The presence of God with him.
‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.’
You can’t out-live, outsmart or out-run the feeling of things. You need to be released from it. Wealth, success and distraction cannot release our souls from the chains of our past. Only one thing can.
There is one thing we need to understand about this God. The one thing that is hardest for human hearts to come to terms with. The one thing that is most unnatural to us…. ‘With you there is forgiveness’. God is always more interested in restoration than retribution. He is always more interested in forgiveness than vengeance.
Forgiveness is a gift God freely gives each one of us… so that we can pass it on to others. God with us, is us with forgiveness. No matter what they’ve done.
And this sounds harsh and hard and an impossible standard for any human being to live in to, live up to. How can we let go of the pain they caused when it held us to ransom so long? Who has the strength in a soul to truly let go of that? It’s not normal, not natural.
None of us have the strength to forgive those who have hurt us. It is not a natural human attribute after pain. Vengeance is natural. Retaliation is natural. Forgiveness is supernatural. It is living in the reality that supersedes all others: the reality of God with us.
God has a been with Joseph, the life-line strength of his heart all these years, now Joseph is going to demonstrate that he is with God.
The same God who kept Joseph alive and was his lifeline strength through all his suffering is the God who now gives him the strength to do one of the most difficult and remarkable things any human being will ever do for another.
“Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.” Genesis 45:3-8
Have you ever woken to the realisation that everything you thought was going on was only half the picture. The awakening to a new vision of a larger truth at work that has taken your one small perspective and stretched it out in endless-ocean vastness and spinning-universe wonder?
This is that moment for Joseph’s ten older brothers. That moment when scales drop from their eyes and light blazes in and they squint and shield their gaze as the whole truth reweaves their reality into a brand new world. You thought you were hurting me, venting your jealousy, avenging your hurt hearts and bruised pride, but God was doing something bigger, something more beautiful and intentional and wonderful than any of us could have dreamt was possible. He was acting for the welfare of all of us, turning every dark strangling thread to glorious luminous gold, weaving a whole new reality, a whole new story. The one true story of His presence with us.
Within the word forgive is the word ‘give’; it is a gift we give, that once fully given, gives us back our own hearts. Joseph gave this gift to his brothers and to his own bruised heart. And through this his brothers receive grace they don’t deserve and Joseph receives back his family that he lost two decades ago. In finding the strength in God to forgive his brothers Joseph releases them all from the pit in their hearts, his pit of loss and pain, and theirs of guilt and shame. And YHWH takes the broken strands of this family-line and weaves them back together with His life-line threads of grace.
We don’t always see it coming, the forgiveness of human beings. It takes us by surprise, bewildering our hardened hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once it hits, it stays, reshaping our experiences, restoring our broken hearts.
But forgiveness is such a strange reality for hearts accustomed to shame, retaliation and vengeance. Joseph’s brother’s guilt tells a different story in their hearts, a story of hidden vengeance and lurking un-forgiveness. Their hearts which were script-line conditioned to fight, take a long time to believe the story reshaping their experience and an even longer time to fully live into the reality of all that God has done in their lives and in Joseph’s.
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.” Genesis 50:15-18
They expected the natural human way of things to be the way of things. They expected the holding of grudges and the payment of pay backs. They expected what they deserved, not this bewildering gift they’d been given. They were still slaves. Joseph was free, but his brothers still lived in bondage to guilt and fear. The natural way of things.
“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” Genesis 50: 19-21
Light blazes, burning eyes, revealing a reality Joseph’s brothers cannot fathom. Their squinty eyed view of things limited all they saw, blurring their comprehension of what was really going on. Grace.
In both these two moments when Joseph releases his brother’s guilt making clear that he holds no grudge against them, he doesn’t do so by saying “I forgive you”. In fact he doesn’t make it about him or his heart at all. Joseph doesn’t make forgiveness a theological principle that he names, or a law of God that he obeys, nor does he make it a personal struggle that he finally overcomes. Instead he simply retells the story, the one true story of all that God was doing, and has done, not just despite his brothers betrayal, but also through it.
Joseph’s strength to forgive his brothers did not come from a deep moral pondering or a biblical law. It came from the releasing and empowering knowledge that the story he was living in was not authored by the betrayal of his brothers, by the whim of circumstance, or the bad luck of an eleventh son. Joseph had learned through all his years to live fully into the knowledge that his path was embedded deeply in the purposes and plans of God, the large story of God’s presence with him, no matter where that story lead him. The past had no hold on Joseph because God’s presence ruled his present.
Because God was with Joseph, he had a choice, a choice between the story his past experiences had written for him to live in and live out, and the larger story that God’s presence with him was speaking into being, even in the midst of his darkest valleys.
Joseph had a story that made sense of the mess his brothers had inflicted on him. So the trauma didn’t cripple and the memory didn’t dismantle. His heart was not left languishing in the hole his life had put him in. With God he had found wholeness, and a story bigger than his pain.
It’s not just what happens to us that either traps us in a hole or helps us find our way out to wholeness, but the story we believe about what happens, the story we lean into and live out of. With God there is forgiveness, because with God there is a story larger than our pain.
Joseph’s stunning act of forgiveness had nothing to do with his wits, emotional intelligence, morality, strength of character or attitude to life. It had nothing to do with his personal values and principles or his positive outlook on life. Joseph saw that behind all his experiences lay the eternal hand of God.
Holding a grudge toward his brothers would be living in a smaller reality, a false story, that didn’t include all that God had done and the hand of God with him. Joseph forgave his brothers because it made no sense not to. He was living in God’s reality, living fully into the story God breathed into being all around him.
Un-forgiveness, un-grace, retaliation and vengeance are all maladies with one root cause: a life confined in a soul-stifling story that’s too small. A story without God.
It simply doesn’t make logical sense to hold onto un-forgiveness in the presence of the loving generous powerful presence of YHWH. His loving and healing presence releases us from the need to hold a grudge, the desire for vengeance and the reflex of retaliation; His presence with us, reweaving our story so that the very act of betrayal becomes in Him a move of grace.
Joseph’s story is a story of faith: a lived faith, the only true kind, faith that doesn’t come from years of reading theology text books or sitting in a Sunday morning church pew, but faith that is born through his personal journey of life lived with God. God with him.
Theologian and writer Lewis Smedes wrote that “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”, but forgiveness isn’t just a discipline of the soul dealing with our past. And it isn’t just a gift we give that releases the guilt of those who harm us. Forgiveness is a battle-cry into the expansive whirling universe shouting, ‘there is a bigger story, a bigger reality than all my aching anguish, a larger will at work than the perpetrators of all my pain, a stronger heartbeat than my beaten human heart. There is a God of love. With me. So, even in the dark, tomorrow is always new and I am always free!’
Forgiveness is not an act of will. It is an act of faith. A living in the beautiful reality where the healing, loving, giving God of the Universe is on the throne. The God in whose presence all wounds drop away, all fears still, all scars heal, and we stand strong.
And standing with Him we give forgiveness as an act of war; an act of war, not against any human being that hurt us, but against the very darkness that bound them in hate and harm to lead them to that act in the first place. Forgiveness declares war on the darkness and releases into this world the healing light of day.
And this story of Joseph and his broken-learning-to-be-whole family, it is the last story in the book of Genesis but it is not the final word in the story of forgiveness, for any of us.
The story closes with Jacob-Israel, reunited with his once lost son, Joseph. Jacob blesses Pharaoh (as his calling foretold) and then blesses all his sons. And one blessing stands out in particular as a message to us all… a blessing for a son who perhaps least deserved it. Judah.
‘The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.’
God himself will come into the family line of this one broken family, into the hereditary line of the one family member, Judah, whom the scripture spotlights not for his righteousness but for his failings. Judah’s family will become a family line of Kings, a line of steward-kings holding a sceptre in trust ‘until he to whom it belongs shall come…’ to be with us.
God with us.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”
(which means “God with us”).
Joseph learned to forgive because he’d learned his new family lines by heart, song lines written into his heart by his true Father, our true Father. The Father who loves us all equitably and endlessly. The Father who has always been walking this long walk with us. The long walk of our lives, the long walk of our pain, the long walk of our struggle in the darkest of our valleys. The long walk He has been on to find us there, since before all time began.
‘I’m here. With you.’ He says, and He takes all the tearing threads of our unravelling life and says Let’s take these shredded threads and reweave a brand new story together. A story bigger than your pain and larger than your past. The one true story of my presence with you. Always. To the end of time.
“And surely I am with you always,
to the very end of the age.”
We don’t always see it coming, the presence of God with us. It catches our breath in wonder, releasing our human hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once we do, His new story never leaves us, it stays with us, reshaping our experiences, healing us heart and soul. Freeing us into the story we were born to live.
Are there relationships in your life where you haven’t yet let go of past hurts and lived in God’s larger story of grace?
References, Notes and Credits
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.