Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.
And old children’s song helpfully tells us that
‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’
‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’
Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.
He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.
Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.
But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.
I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.
And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?
[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.
Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.