The story of Joseph is one of the many highlights recorded in the book of Genesis. The development of the story deserves our careful attention. There are great lessons we can learn from it, especially when it comes to dealing with personal grievances and sufferings. Most importantly, it teaches us that human minds are susceptible to influence and subject to change. A thin line is always drawn between what is an acceptable action and an action that inflicts pain on others. A person’s state of mind can either prompt someone to carry out one or the other.
The storyline centres upon the life and destiny of Joseph. It begins by stating how Joseph was ill-treated for reporting to Jacob the wrongs some of his brothers had done (Gen 37:2). In addition, Joseph’s relationship with His brothers was not helped by the special love his father had for him (Gen 37:3). Perhaps, in the midst of mistrust, Joseph should not have related his dreams to his family, which ultimately proved too much for the brothers to take in. However, what he did was not wrong in itself. Rather, in hindsight perhaps, he was a little immature in the way he dealt with the hostile reactions of the brothers.
Joseph’s Brothers Hated Him
Something quite disturbing caused Joseph’s brothers to lose their minds. One idea that is repeated in Genesis is that Joseph’s brothers hated him (Gen 37:4, 5 and 8). Where did this hatred come from? Looking at the entire episode, this hatred was nothing short of the result of carnality. Carnality means that when uncurbed wickedness of the brothers was given an opportunity to grow, it spiralled out of control. This very wickedness is evident in the wicked deeds that Joseph’s report disclosed. Instead of thanking Joseph for reminding them of their wrongs, they allowed their faulty mindsets to get the better of them to drive against him.
From then on they could never think about Joseph and look at him with any clarity again. Their inability to speak peaceably to Joseph attests to the fact that they were under the dictates of the hatred they harboured against him (Gen 37:4). Whatever he said was met with utter contempt (Gen 37:8). The brotherliness that they should have shared with one another was nowhere to be seen. Every charitable act from Joseph towards them only brought about further aggravation. The trouble he took to locate the whereabouts of his brothers (Gen 37:14ff) at the instruction of his father somehow exacerbated them to the full. With this mindset, they were blinded from seeing the love that Joseph had for them.
His brothers eventually sold Joseph to Egypt (Gen 37:28). For us today, it seems quite inconceivable. How could brothers end up pressing for the destruction of one of their own? The inner turmoil they experienced must have been so overwhelming in them that, eventually, they were driven to conspire to kill him (Gen 37:18), insensitive to the inconceivable anguish Joseph must have suffered at their hands during that time (Gen 42:21). It is deplorable for such a shameful event to have happened in the chosen family of God and with reason we may question: ‘Where was the care and concern the people of God were expected to have for one another?’
Sometimes, the same can be said about the current church’s community, perhaps, to a lesser degree. It is no rare thing that minor misunderstandings amongst believers develop into on-going tussles, causing immense damage to the church. A careful analysis of the situation will reveal the undeniable fact: more often than not, the crux of the problem does not lie with who is right or who is at fault. Rather, it is the mind of a person in conflict that plays tricks causing people to act irrationally. This is especially so when one’s spirituality is below par, being led astray to believe in one’s emotions more than anything else.
It is very hard for us to imagine what Joseph’s state of mind must have been just after being sold as a slave. There is no mention of his struggle when he was in Potiphar’s house. Genesis merely talks about the abiding work of the Lord on him (Gen 39:2ff). Yet, although God was with him, he was still clearly distressed. The story reveals how Joseph, being human, struggled to come to terms with the evil his brothers had done on him. His grief over being sold is documented in the way he pleaded with the butler, whose dreams Joseph interpreted, to remember him when the butler would be restored to his butlership (Gen 40:14f).
Even after Joseph had risen to power, the struggle still continued. This is very much revealed in the names he gave to one of his two children. The firstborn was called Manasseh meaning ‘God has made me forget all my toil and my father’s house’ (Gen 41:51). The meaning of the name speaks volumes about his inner struggle. He must have been trying very hard to forget about the past but to no avail. In reality, once a heart is wounded it is extremely difficult to heal and even the oldest of wounds can be easily opened up by anything and everything.
The struggle within Joseph became more intense when he faced his brothers (Gen 42:7). From the very first time he met his brothers in Egypt until the moment he revealed his identity, his reactions show the conflict he had within himself. His pain resulted from his inability to forget about his family even though he had been very determined to do so. The harder he tried the deeper the hurt became. At one point he even resorted to imprisoning his brothers – not exactly something a person at peace would do (Gen 42:17).
Tangible actions could not simply sooth Joseph’s hurt. Living with this kind of pain creates a torturous state of existence. It can spring to the surface time and time again without any concrete reasons. Pain can be aggravated when the mind is unable to find a permanent rest away from the constant flashbacks of agonising experiences. It seems that Joseph’s exceptional gift from God to interpret dreams, the power given to him to rule all and even God’s presence with him had not done anything to assuage the agony in his heart.
Joseph’s Triumph Over Himself
To escape such a tormenting situation requires more than just offering prayers to God. Being such a godly person, Joseph must have opened his heart unreservedly to the Lord in prayer. His fear for God kept his mind in line with God’s principle and him in His presence and guidance. He did not sin against God despite being made a slave (Gen 39:9). He might not have understood the pains he was experiencing then but he did not turn his back on God. This was the source of Joseph’s power, from God, that enabled him to overcome insurmountable situations.
With this god-fearing heart, he remembered the dreams he had when he first met his brothers (Gen 42:9). He must have surely thought long and hard about the connection between his dreams and the ordeals he had been through. In the process, the promise of God had panned out awesomely before his eyes. This would have given him great understanding. He now realised the purpose of his life and the significance of the role he had been made to play. In a way, he had been given the strength he needed to face meeting with his brothers.
One thing is certain. At this most critical moment, he could have taken his revenge on his brothers when he saw them. It is not difficult to understand what the outcome would have been had he allowed his emotions to dictate the situation. Instead, he was continuously governed by his reverence for God (Gen 42:18) and his understanding of God’s will. Having said that, it does not mean his thoughts were subdued towards his brothers. In fact, they emerged stronger than ever when he finally revealed himself before them (Gen 45:3). This had been the main problem he tried so diligently to remove all along.
When one’s inner self is released through emotional upheaval, the mind is cleared and can then be directed to perceive the divine will of the Lord. Joseph did not forget that what his brothers did against him was evil. Despite more than twenty years of not seeing his brothers, their act of selling him (Gen 45:4f) was still very fresh in his mind. However, the most encouraging part of this story is that now, at this point, he was no longer hurt by it. He had been freed from the mould of having been treated unjustly. He had come out from a tunnel of torment and utter darkness into a sphere of peace and the light of comfort.
No doubt, it had taken a long time for God’s will to fully emerge in Joseph’s life. But when understood, it melted away all the differences and soothed all the pains that Joseph suffered. His mind had been shaped in a spiritual way. Since then, the will of God taking a central stage in his existence was all that he longed to know. He became fully aware of the kindness God had conceived for him and his family: ‘God has sent me before you to preserve a remnant for you in the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance’ (Gen 45:5, 7).
Joseph’s Work on Mending the Relationship
With this comprehension (Ps 105:17), Joseph realised that he had been given a historic task of unprecedented significance. However, he was still left with the huge task of mending his relationship with his brothers. However, the dynamic of the whole affair was really in his hands as he was now the governor of Egypt. Had it not been for God, he would not have become the man he was (Gen 45:8). It was God who had made him lord of all Egypt (Gen 45:9). He was merely a vessel through which to achieve God’s work – work that God had long set out to do, for the good of His people.
Joseph was to translate his understanding of God’s will into action. He was in a position to change things around for the better. He could choose to act on impulses, behaving harshly against his brothers in revenge or he could submit himself under the mighty hand of the Lord, acting out His directives in humility. However, in order to exemplify the work of saving fully, he first needed to re-embrace his brothers. Only then could he rebuild his savagely torn family, despite the fact it had stemmed from misdemeanours by his brothers and not himself.
Mending their relationship was the best cure for the hurt Joseph suffered. The power of God’s love that diffuses a difficult situation lies in the practice of love, on the part of the sufferer. Ever since Joseph revealed his true identity, his actions towards his brothers were god-fearing: He practically acted out his acceptance through his willingness to be close (Gen 45:4), showing brotherly affection towards them (Gen 45:15). He took the trouble to assure them of his love by telling them the will of the Lord for him (Gen 45:4ff). He promised to provide for and look after them (Gen 45:11). He would give them the best (Gen 45:18ff; cf 47:6) of the land to live in.
This is a very touching scene in the story. It depicts the joy and comfort that can flow out from a relationship on the mend, warming up the hearts of generations who come to know about it. It is a sharp contrast to what the brothers did to Joseph when he was still in his father’s house (Gen 37). Joseph reversed the trend of hatred. He filled their beings with love. He returned evil with good, establishing a foundation for the family to grow in peace and stability once again. In the years of famine to come, they would be able to enjoy the grace of the Lord.
Joseph’s love for his brothers was not situational or short-lived. Even after the death of his father, he did not fail to continuously re-assure them of the promise he had made (Gen 50:17ff). He comforted and spoke kindly to them (Gen 50:21). This goes to show he had completely forgiven them of the wrongs they did to him. Their family relationship had been completely mended on account of his declaration of God’s role in his life. He had not at any moment in time put himself in the place of God. This godly attitude he adopted permeated his very existence from day to day, which was shown throughout his life.
The story of Joseph tells us what life really consists of. Life is not about how many possessions we own, what we are or remembering how we have been treated before. Neither is it about where we are. Rather profoundly, it is about fearing God and understanding His will. This is our life’s purpose. Unpleasant conflicts and at times nasty surprises will always come up in our lives and holding on to this purpose will become all the more essential if we are to know how to live through them. The continual search for understanding of God’s way in a spirit of reverence will ensure our safe navigation in times of uncertainty.
Once God’s purpose becomes evident in us, our pressures and pains will naturally ease away. The mind will be directed to tread in a godly way. Rather than choose what one’s personality controls, one will be shaped to follow God’s will. The desire to live out God’s word by loving God and man, say, in confrontational situations shall surely grow stronger. It will also provide the momentum needed to snub out ill-feelings, even hatred. When an action of love emerges in the first place, it will change the mind-set and interactions of people positively. It will stir up more love and care in the household of God.
And yet this is an aspect of life that most people find very difficult, being stalled by lingering past emotions and remembrances. If the past is not dealt with properly, personal and spiritual growth will be stifled and this could choke the progress of the community of faith. We must understand that it is not the power to forget about the past that matters since no one can really do this by virtue of their will power. Rather, it is strength from God to overcome it that removes the past’s effect. A painful past then becomes a reason for us to give thanks to God for the grace we now stand in and enjoy.