A grudgeless God.

February 15, 2011

Dear reader, today I read Genesis 48-50. I guess, on finishing this rather long book I should feel a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even closure. But instead I feel a bit…hmm… Yes, like that.

This is because, dear reader, I just don’t know what write about. There is some nice heart-warming family time between Jacob and Joseph in chapter 48, Jacob’s ‘blessings’ on all this sons (most of which read more like admonitions!) in chapter 49 and then a sort of ‘wrapping in all up’ bit in chapter 50. I enjoyed reading but nothing jumped out at me.

So, what to do when you don’t what to write? Read!

I read commentaries and sermons on this passage and I found out something very interesting. In 50:15, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers say ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ A justified fear, seeing as they left him in a pit to die and have been living from his provision since their reunion.

But the ‘what if’ that we read in English translations is not ‘what if’ at all in the Hebrew; it is the word lu. In all other translations in scripture lu  becomes ‘if only’ or ‘would that’. But here it can’t be that can it? Then the translation would be ‘if only Joseph still bears a grudge against us…’ Why would the brothers desire Joseph’s wrath?

Well, two reflections (well worth a read; here and here) that I read suggested that in some way the brothers may well have wanted this. They desired to be punished and so have their guilt assuaged. Joseph offers them forgiveness, but this is a difficult thing to accept. 

I really recognise this symptom of guilt, don’t you? This feeling that we deserve retribution, that somehow it would be easier to take that than to fully accept we are forgiven. How hard it is to really accept forgiveness? To see that the past is forgotten, redeemed, washed clean.

This Sunday morning I was standing in church waiting to take communion and I was thinking about what that sacrament meant to me. They sermon had been on Matthew 5:21-26, all about being reconciled with one another before we approach God. And I had been thinking about a certain relationship in which I struggle with feelings on anger.

As the bread and wine came around it struck me that communion didn’t fix me, but it reminded me that I was forgiven. Jesus came so that we might be free from sin; and that freedom only comes if we are forgiven by God. And we can only fully live our freedom if we are aware of God’s forgiveness.

A difficult thing to really accept at the core of our beings; isn’t it? But it is a truth. And for a fleeting moment on Sunday morning I felt it, I felt the freedom of knowing that was nothing hanging over me, no list compiled to be read out at the end of time. There were no grudges being held in heaven.

Aaaah, what a relief!

Advertisements

 

Continuing from last week’s post on this subject, here’s the second part of Joseph’s story in my own words:

Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, betrayed brother, stood in his feasting hall as the empty plates were gathered. His brothers, each one, had sat at that table in front of him. And those brothers, whom he had tried to forget, were now readying themselves to leave again. He needed to tell them who he was, but how? Had things gone too far? Had he pretended so long to be a distant Egyptian that he had become one?

He couldn’t speak, paralysed with fear of another rejection, or was he afraid of their loving embrace? Whatever the case, neither could he bear to see Benjamin leave again. He’s mother’s son, his little brother.

He called his stewards and told them to load the brothers’ donkeys with as much food as they could carry, and to place their silver back in their bags.

“But in the sack of the youngest,” he added “place my silver cup.” He was plotting again, to keep Benjamin near, why could he not just ask him?

As he saw his brothers ride off he called his trusted servant, telling him of the missing cup. The servant rode out to the brothers. Stopping them, he asked “Has one of you repaid kindness with evil? My master’s silver cup is missing, and you have taken it.” Of course, the brothers denied it. Why would they come all the way back from Canaan to return the man’s silver only to steal his cup? “If any of us has it, kill him, and let the rest of us will be your slaves.” They said. But the servant would not accept such a boast, instead he said only the one who had stolen would be the slave. Very well.

One by one, oldest to youngest the men opened their sacks. They were not afraid, they knew themselves to be honest men. More the horror, then, when out of Benjamin’s sack fell the silver cup. The brothers tore their clothes. The boy they had sworn to protect, the brother of the one they had abandoned. How could their father bear it? Surely he would die of grief. They wouldn’t let Benjamin be taken back alone. Loading their mules up once more they all returned to Egypt.

When Joseph met them he saw that their faces were worn. They were afraid, they were shaken. These were not the boys from his youth, who had thrown him into a pit through their own jealous wrath. These were men, fathers, looking at their youngest brother with such love, such grief. But somehow he still clung to the pretence.

“What have you done?” he asked them. “I have invited you to eat with me and you have insulted me so deeply. You have abused my trust.” He pretended not to hear their pleading, though it echoed in his mind, and insisted that Benjamin be his slave. Perhaps when they were alone, perhaps then he could tell the truth.

But then Judah was there, close to him, asking for just a word. His eldest brother told him of his father Jacob, of how the man clung to Benjamin, of how without him there would be no light in his life.

“I promised that if anything happened to him I would be accountable.” Judah confided “I told him I would give my life for his. So take me, though I am not so young any more, take me as your slave and let the young man go.”

Now here was a change. The one who had sold Joseph into slavery would now give up his own freedom in place of his brother. There was a spark of jealousy in Joseph and then a rush of warmth. He could no longer hold himself together. The pretence was over.

“Leave me!” he cried to his servants. And almost before they left he had broken down. His cries carried over the evening air, but he no longer cared.

For a moment the brothers stood, perplexed. Here was this man, this powerful Egyptian, the object of their fright, balling like a child before them. What was going on? But then he spoke, not in Egyptian this time, but in Hebrew.

“It is I, Joseph. Your brother lives and prospers in Egypt.” Silence. “I know it is a shock, and perhaps I should have told you that first day, but here I am. Does my father still live? How I long to see him.”

Some of his brothers were jubilant. Others kept their eyes to the floor, were they crying?

“No, no.” said Joseph “Don’t be afraid, have no regrets. It was not you who sold me into slavery, but God. I was sent here so that I might foresee the famine. And in this I will save you and our father from poverty. And many more besides.” When he had finished this speech there were no more words. He fell on Benjamin and wept. They all wept and kissed and embraced.

The twelve were together again, and soon their father would join them.

and they all lived happily…ever after?

 

I hope you enjoyed this story, dear reader. Writing this really has given it  more depth for me. Thinking about Joseph’s emotional state makes him more human, and more inspiring. His faith and forgiveness (two things I quite like, as you may have guessed by my username) are quite astonishing. To be able to see that all the bad times have led him there, and to have let go of all blame (Genesis:45:4-15). Amazing.

I’d really recommend this exercise, or at least the idea of considering the feelings of a character as you read. Suddenly they are not ancient patriarchs who did things we could never dream of, but people just like us. In this we see our own potential and our own flaws. Suddenly scripture is in the present. What a gift.

 

P.S. I really the picture above, I feel it encapsulates something of the reconciliation of the brothers, but with the presence of brokeness. Thank you nicolasnova at Flickr.

Dear reader, in yesterday’s post I let y’all know that I would be trying out a few different things this week. I want reading and thinking about the Bible to be a creative act. So in today’s experiment I’ll write a story. Now, I’m kind of cheating, as it’s a story you’ve probably heard before. Well, you’ve definitely heard it if you’ve read Genesis 40-43. My idea is to read those chapters and then write out in the story in my own words, without referring back to the text. Here’s the result:

 

Joseph, the betrayed brother, the beloved son of Jacob now found himself wrongly imprisoned in a foreign land. He had found favour with the prison warden, who gave him charge over other prisoners. But sometimes favour just feels like extra work though, doesn’t it? He still dreamed, still hoped in God, on the brighter days.

Now there came a time when employees of the Pharoah were thrown into jail, and Joseph was to wait on them. These men were nice enough, the wine-taster and the baker, and he got to know them a little, enough so that he noticed one morning when their expressions changed for the worse. The men had dreamt dreams, but who would interpret them?

Joseph knew, unlike others around, that it was not a special skill you needed to interpret dreams, but a touch of faith. So he told them that he, with God’s help, would reveal their dreams meanings, and somehow they believed him. So each in turn told their dream. The first of thee vines and a cup held by Pharoah himself, the second of three baskets and bread pecked by the birds. The first dreamer found joy in his interpretation, and this had made the second brave, but he would find despair. For one would live and one would die, and on the third day, like so many proofs after, it came to pass, just as Joseph had said.

“Remember me.” was Joseph’s simple request to the wine-taster, the living man, and for a while hope fluttered in his heart. Any day now he would be free by command of the Pharoah, his innocence would be known and, perhaps, he would return to his father. But the day was long in coming, and just as he had begun to forget his hope, his touch of faith paid off. He was called to his destiny, but first he needed a shave.

The Pharoah had dreamed dreams, dreams that  the fate of a nation, of a world. Seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven starved ones, seven healthy ears of corn devoured by seven hungry ones. No one knew what it meant, until Joseph was remembered, and called. Of course, he did not know either, but God did and he knew God.

There were to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity. The only way to survive was to plan; they would need to collect a fifth of all that was produced in the next seven years. Joseph knew this, he had always had a knack for organisation, with his father, with his former master, even in prison. Somehow the Pharoah saw this in him. Joseph, was, after all, the only one who could interpret his dream.

And then it seemed to happen all at once. From being prisoner Joseph was suddenly second in the land. This Hebrew boy was given a grand home and a chariot, power and authority, and a wife, a beautiful wife. He loved her, and she bore him two sons. He began to forget the pain of the brothers who had left him for dead; his family was here now. He wanted for nothing. But still, a part of him ached.

Perhaps he was not surprised when, in the time of famine when all were coming from near and far to find food, he saw the ten figures approaching. Men from the land of Canaan, Hebrews, he was told. But he knew already who they were, and he was overcome. With what? Anger. Grief. Perhaps worst of all, love.

There they were, his brothers. Bowing before him now, just as in his dream. The thought flickered across his mind that without the dream its prophecy wouldn’t have come to pass; it was that which pushed his brother’s jealousy over the edge, that made them abandon him.

He longed to be recognised, but when they looked up at his face they did not see. How could they? He was grown and he was alive. How would they see their brother’s ghost in the face of this Egyptian. His name and his language had changed, he wandered what part of him, the beloved son of Jacob, still remained.

It was then that he panicked. Where was Benjamin? His mother’s only other son was not among them, had they killed him? Or left him for dead too? He had to know, so he concocted some story; they were spies and to prove their story they would have to bring their brother back. But they should leave a brother as collateral.

He saw their fear of him, they called him themselves his servants, and then he heard them speak. He had not heard his mother tongue for many years, just the familiar tones brought tears to his eyes. And what they were saying; that this misfortune was a punishment for their mistreatment of their brother long ago. How true it was, yet they did not know and he could not tell them, not without Benjamin. He went away to weep, his control could stand no more.

When he returned he selected Simeon as their guarantee and sent them home, but not before he had ordered for their bags to be filled with wheat and their money returned to them. Of course, they could not know the reason for this. Yet.

And then Joseph waited. Meanwhile the brothers travelled home. Reuben repeated what he had been saying for many years. If only they had listened to him and cared for their little brother; God would not have punished them so. It was perhaps Reuben, the firstborn, who had carried the most guilt all these years; he could not stop it and now he watched his father wither away with grief, clinging unhealthy to Benjamin; the only son of his beloved Rachel left in this life.

And, of course, Jacob would not give up his youngest son to this unknown Egyptian, however hungry they were. His sons pleaded with him but it was only when the food ran out that he yielded. He was bereaved, he said, as he watched them leave again. Since the day they had returned with the torn cloak of his dreamer son he could not bear to watch his sons leave.

When they returned Joseph was waiting. He ordered them to come to his house. Now course, they were afraid and they began their interaction with him by offering gifts and explaining the mistake with the money; they had meant to pay for his grain. They were not thieves, they were his humbled servants. But they were surprised by his easy manner; he had received the money, they need not worry. They were to eat with him, and their brother, Simeon, was returned.

They joy that Joseph felt on seeing Benjamin seemed to blind him. When his brothers were seated around their table, ordered from oldest to youngest, he longed to take his place among them. But it was not yet time. Instead he made his excuses and rushed away, to weep again, like he had done these many weeks, waiting. He had been trying to stifle his hope, afraid that the brothers would never return. But they did not leave Simeon as they had once left him. Perhaps they had learned.

So Joseph took his place at the Egyptian table, but he sent portions to his brothers, and the biggest by far to the little one, whom he had once seen in his mothers arms and was now grown. He would spoil him for all those times that he had missed…

To be continued!!

 

Well, that was fun. I hope you enjoyed it. But was it a good experiment?

Yes, definitely, I feel like this story, which is very familiar to me, has been refreshed. Writing it out like that made me really connect with the emotions involved, especially for Joseph, but also for Reuben and Jacob. I also noticed that, for me, the dream interpretation and the getting all rich and stuff is not the remarkable part of the story; it’s the family stuff that really gets me. I got a sense of Joseph’s longing for home even through his great success. It also hit me how every misfortune led him to the amazing place he finally finds himself.

Wow, I’m actually raring to go now, can’t wait to read the next part, think I’ll probably use this exercise again. But there’s a whole week of wonder to come before then. And I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow with the Psalms…