“You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good….” (Genesis 50.20).
Joseph, having been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is eventually able to forgive them for what they have done. That forgiveness doesn’t come easily to Joseph but, after a lot of struggle and a lot of time, Joseph develops enough perspective to embrace the potential of a good future instead of dwelling on the sins of the past.
The story of Joseph begins before he is born. He is the son of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob is the one who cheats his brother Esau out of his father’s blessing. Jacob is the younger twin son of Isaac and Rebecca, the favorite son of his mother but seemingly not his father. His mother leads Jacob to deceive her husband Isaac so that he may inherit his father’s blessing which includes the greater inherited wealth. Jacob dresses up in animal skins to appear more hairy. His elderly, blind father mistakes Jacob for Esau and gives him his blessing. The history of the brothers was full of strife. Esau actually cheated Jacob in the birth canal. Jacob was headed out of the womb first but Esau grabs his heal and pulls him back so that he can be born first. Years later Esau comes in hungry from working in the field and Jacob tells him he will give him food if he sells his birthright to him. To seal the deal, Jacob later gets the deathbed blessing from his father by deceiving him.
Jacob gets some recompense. He flees to another land after cheating his brother. He falls in love with Rachel and asks for her hand in marriage. Rachel’s father, Laban, agrees to give Rachel in marriage even though the eldest daughter, Leah, is supposed to be married first. Jacob works for Laban for seven years to gain Rachel’s hand in marriage but then, on the wedding night, Laban puts Leah into the tent where the marriage is to be consummated. Jacob is thereby tricked into having Leah as his wife instead of Rachel. A compromise is worked out: Jacob receives Rachel as his wife too but has to work another seven years for Laban.
Joseph is born to Jacob and Rachel and the strife continues. Joseph is the first son of Rachel who later has one more son. Joseph has ten half-brothers, sons of Leah and Jacob, who treat him poorly. Joseph brags a lot, is clearly their father’s favorite child, and they resent him. So much so that they eventually sell him to travelers and tell Jacob he has been killed by wild beasts. What goes around, comes around, we might infer at this point in the story.
Strife is handed down from generation to generation. Abused children often become abusive adults. Children of alcoholics often become alcoholics themselves. A parent who feels unloved typically raises a very insecure child. Prejudice is passed down from parents to their children. There are famous generations-long feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys. The Middle East seems full of inbred hatred. Almost always there is a long and sinful past which has led to any current struggle.
Joseph is cocky and narcissistic. He’s not always the best model of behavior in Egypt but he gets some breaks, uses his gift of dream interpretation and his planning skills to help build a little empire. He is put in charge of all the food stocks which is parlayed into great wealth during a time of shortage. His life in Egypt involves struggle but it leads to prosperity. When his brothers come seeking food, they don’t recognize him but he recognizes them and, after jerking them around a while, his heart softens. He lets go of the pain they have caused him, counts the comforts of his life above the hardships, and does the healing work of forgiveness. “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good….” Joseph sees that God has turned his hardship into great blessing and he chooses not to hold the actions of his brothers over them. The family is reunited and the generations-long strife begins to heal because Joseph chooses to stop the cycle.
Sometimes in life we hold onto things just because we really don’t know anything else. We might want to let go of some things that hold us and the people we love down but we don’t really know how. We want to see a future full of freedom and goodness but all we know is a past full of hurt. We all have a little hole inside us and sometimes we just keep on living a life we really don’t want.
When we are able to let go of harm that has been done to us, a new way of living opens up. Usually that work takes a long, long time. Usually we can let go of things only after we’ve been ruled by them for years. Usually we have to find a way to extricate ourselves from the harm we have experienced in order to be able to forgive those who have hurt us. But when we do finally reach the point of being able to let go and forgive, it really does feel like, despite all the sinful behavior of people all around us, God has been working throughout to teach us his great love for us. Forgiveness takes a long time but when we practice it, healing begins.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.