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Genesis: A Happy Ending of Sorts

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

As we saw at the end of the last lesson, Judah has manifested compassion, both for his brother Benjamin and for his father. After Judah says, "I fear to see the suffering that would affect my father if I don't return with Benjamin", Joseph can't take it any longer. He orders his attendants to leave and he weeps. He weeps so loudly that even Pharaoh's household hears him.

Then, finally, he reveals his identity. And this is the second recognition moment. Long ago his brothers had recognized their sinfulness. Now they recognize their long-lost brother.

But look how he does it. He simply says, "I am Joseph." No fanfare. No recrimination. Not "I am Joseph, the brother you sold." He'll say those words a bit later. Just, "I am Joseph."

Then immediately afterwards, and before they have time to take this in, he asks, "Is my father still alive?" Notice "my": not "our". That says everything. Joseph doesn't know how his father received the report of his death nor how his brother explained his disappearance to him, though he obviously knew that whatever explanation they gave would have been devastating to him. But that possessive adjective "my" is more than enough to evoke the very special bond that existed between him and his father. He was, after all, Jacob's favoured son and in a sense he's alluding to that fact here.

Joseph now exonerates his brothers. He says they shouldn't blame themselves for what they did. It was all God's will. God sent him to Egypt to save his family from famine. There's no external evidence in the text for this by the way. It's the construction that Joseph has put on his life. He's one of those people who see God at work in everything.

Joseph tells his brothers to return to Canaan, fetch their father, and settle in Egypt. "Don't quarrel along the way," are his parting words. Ouch! Joseph couldn't resist reminding them he knew what they were capable of.

They return to Jacob, who has a dream in which God appears and encourages him to go to Egypt. Jacob's dream recalls Joseph's dreams, and it symbolically binds father and son together. After a genealogical passage, a tearful reunion takes place on Egyptian soil. Jacob says, "I can die now because I've seen your face because you're still alive."

Next Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks them what is their occupation and they reply humbly, "We are shepherds." He tells them they can settle in the best part of the land, Goshen, and look after his livestock.

The famine continues and Joseph gets the entire Egyptian population to sell themselves and their land for food. In other words, he invents taxation, because henceforth every Egyptian has to give one-fifth of their produce to Pharaoh. Pharaoh – this pharaoh – has been handsomely rewarded for the trust he has placed in Joseph. We may recall a previous pharaoh who ordered Abraham or rather Abram out of Egypt because he'd deceived him by pretending Sarah was his sister.

Jacob, now on his deathbed, adopts Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Manasseh is the older but Israel blesses Ephraim first, overruling Joseph's objections. Israel's life has come full circle: just as he supplanted his elder brother Esau, now he supplants Joseph's elder son Manasseh. He then blesses his own twelve sons, who become the twelve tribes of Israel, excepting Simeon and Levi, whom he outlaws for leading the attack against Shechem in the Dinah story. They finally get their punishment.

The final chapter of Genesis is devoted to Jacob's funeral. In accordance with his wishes, his body, after being embalmed in the traditional Egyptian manner, is buried in the cave at Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah were also buried. The funeral is a very big affair – chariots and charioteers are in attendance. It made a big impact on the locals to see all the Egyptians in mourning.

Joseph's brothers now fear that, without their father to protect them, Joseph will finally wreak vengeance upon them and they claim – from no evidence in the text – that Judah told them to tell Joseph to forgive them. We can't be certain but it seems perhaps they're still up to their old tricks. They ask his forgiveness and declare themselves to be his slaves. Joseph does at this point forgive them, once again he says it was God's plan to keep them all alive, and he promises to look after them and their offspring.

He lives on and becomes a great-grandfather. His dying words to his brothers are, "God will bring you from this land to the land he swore to Isaac and Jacob."

What are we to make of Joseph? He's far more sharply drawn than anyone else we encounter in Genesis. He certainly takes after his father. Just as Jacob was a trickster, tricking his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban, so Joseph tricks his brothers. He's gifted, charismatic, enterprising, and resourceful – all of which turns out to be a mixed blessing. These qualities get him in trouble with his brothers and they get him in trouble later with Potiphar's wife. But it's those talents, too, that attract the eye of Pharaoh and that enable his meteoric rise. He's also what we might call a "drama queen", one who goes in for grandiose stagings. There's a theatrical quality to the scenes he sets up with his brothers.

He's rightly proud of all he's achieved and he wants his father to know. "Tell him I'm greatly honoured in Egypt," he tells his brothers. But he goes further than that. He identifies himself so closely with God that it seems at times the two are almost indistinguishable, notably when he claims God put the money back in their sacks, and then when he says in Chapter 44:16, 'God has found out your servants' crime', when in fact he has.

Is Joseph gifted because God favours him or does God favour him because he's gifted? Genesis 39:2 says simply, "The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful or prosperous man."

It's perhaps curious that God and Joseph don't ever have a conversation, nor does God ever appear to Joseph in a dream. But Joseph knows God is with him and perhaps that's the point. He doesn't actually need to be prompted.

The story is also about family dynamics and, yet again, about family dysfunction. In a very unique way it's about crime and punishment. Joseph puts his brothers through the wringer, not once but twice with his false accusation of theft, and we sense them squirming, right through to the last chapter when they don't know what's going to happen to them. And it's also about the survival – against great odds and thanks to God – of the Hebrew race, even though, when the next book of the Torah begins, namely Exodus, it'll be a very different pharaoh in a very different relationship with the Hebrew people.

The Joseph story is about God's ability to turn things around. I described it earlier as a "rags to riches" story, and it is indeed that. It's a wonderfully inventive cliff-hanger with many reversals and twists and turns. As Genesis ends, the Hebrew people are, in the powerful phrasing of the New Oxford Annotated Bible, moving "towards the horizon of God's future" as the promise to his people "is pressing towards realisation."

In the final lesson we're going to draw some conclusions from this incredible book.

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Written by

Robert Garland