A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 6 August 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
The story so far …
Joseph, the publicly favoured younger son of Jacob, having told tales on his brothers, and then shared with them his dreams where they bow down to him, is beaten up by them and sold to be a slave in Egypt. And they have convinced Jacob that his son has been killed by wild animals.
In Egypt, Joseph has served as a slave of Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, who has promoted him to oversee his household. Mrs Potiphar, however, denounces Joseph as a sexual predator which lands him in prison, where once again he is promoted, this time as overseer of the prisoners.
In prison Joseph interprets dreams for others which leads to him being freed to do the same for Pharaoh. He promotes Joseph to be his no.2, in charge of preparations for the years of famine foretold in his dreams. And now everyone in Egypt has to bow down to Joseph.
And then, the story, as we’ve heard it today …
C.42 Famine affects Canaan, and Jacob sends ten of his sons to Egypt in search of grain, keeping Benjamin (the only remaining child of his favourite wife) safe at home. Joseph is the governor of the land before whom they bow down. He recognises them but treats them as strangers. He accuses them of being spies, first demanding they bring their remaining brother, Benjamin, to Egypt, holding Simeon as hostage against their future return. He has their donkeys loaded with grain and with the money they paid for it. Discovering the money when they get home, they are reluctant to return, and Jacob will not let Benjamin out of his sight.
C.43 As the famine gets worse the brothers must return to Egypt. Judah persuades Jacob to allow Benjamin to travel with his brothers. Joseph sees that they have brought Benjamin and arranges a dinner for them where he asks how things are with their father. Benjamin gets served five times as much food as his brothers. Joseph keeps having to take timeouts in order to weep in private.
C.44 Again the brothers’ sacks are filled, but Joseph has a silver cup sneaked into Benjamin’s baggage. When this is “discovered” Joseph declares he will keep him as a slave, but the others can go home. They tear their clothes in despair. Judah makes a long speech, pleading with Joseph to have mercy for the sake of their father, Jacob, whom he says will die if they return home with Benjamin. Now they await Joseph’s response.
OK, everybody up to date?!
‘Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground.’ (42:6) So now the family are all back together – how heart-warming! Not all of the family, though. Jacob has stayed at home, keeping Benjamin with him, plus, of course, all his daughters, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Still, Joseph and his brothers are back together for the first time in more than twenty years.
They don’t recognise him, an older man, now dressed in Egyptian finery rather than the cloak they took from him and tore to shreds when they sold him as a slave. But Joseph knows who they are. We’re told, ‘he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.’ (42:7) Not overly kind, but give their previous treatment of him you can see his point of view.
We sometimes talk about church as “family” and it’s not unknown to publicise it to others in such terms. If and when we do that, however, I don’t imagine we have Joseph and his brothers in mind as our role model, although they are one example of a “biblical family.”
Families, as we know from our own experiences, as well as from the example Jacob and his extended family, can be locations of conflict, as well being places of deep love and strong emotional and practical support. But how does that relate to being a church family? Well, consider the interaction between the brothers in this biblical family, as we encounter them this week.
Just imagine that you are Joseph, now Pharaoh’s deputy and ‘governor over the land’ (42:6) when your brothers arrive from Canaan looking for food in time of famine. Ironically, it’s because they sold you off as a slave, whilst convincing your father that you were dead, that you, the governor, have power sell to them the food they need to stay alive. When you were in their power they abused you and misused you. Now, although they don’t know it, the tables have been turned, and their lives are in your hands. So what are you going to do with them, Joseph?
You could welcome them with open arms and forgive them on the spot. Centuries later, when the apostle Peter asked Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21) Jesus replied, ‘not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times [or perhaps, ‘seven times seventy’].’ (18:22) Joseph, of course, hasn’t heard of Jesus, never mind his advice, and in any case, an urge to forgive at once might not acknowledge the scale of the hurt and trauma that had been visited upon him by his brothers.
Alternatively, you, Joseph, might lash out when confronted by these brothers who had been responsible for so much of the suffering in your life: assault, kidnap, enslavement, sexual harassment, and imprisonment. Who would blame you? As a man of considerable power in the land, Joseph could have had his brothers executed on the spot. It’s the sort of thing his master, Pharaoh did. Remember how he executed his chief baker for annoying him in some unspecified way. Or he, Joseph, could simply have sent his brothers on their way, without any grain, facing the prospect of starvation for them and all of their father Jacob’s wider family.
Joseph, however, opts for neither of these extremes. Instead he plays with his brothers, though not nicely. He pretends not to know them, speaking harshly to them as strangers (42:7), then accusing them of being spies. This leads the brothers into proclaiming, ‘we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.’ (42:10) Honest men: the ones who fooled their father into believing that Joseph was dead.
And so it goes on, with Joseph retaining one brother, Simeon as a hostage to ensure their return, along with the young Benjamin. And when further famine requires their return (43:1-2, 15), and they do bring Benjamin, Joseph arranges for him to framed for the theft of a silver cup. Now, Joseph has his brothers literally tearing their clothes with fear and vexation’ (44:13), as once they tore Joseph’s clothing to convince Jacob that he was no more, and Jacob tore his clothing to mourn his son’s “death.” How Joseph must have smiled at that one.
But, of course, families are not only locations of conflict, but also places of deep love and strong support. When the brothers make their second visit, and Joseph sits them down for a feast (a strange contrast to their previous treatment they must have felt) he inquires after their father: ‘Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive? (43:27) Also, at number of occasions, during his conversations with his brothers, even when he is teasing and tormenting them, Joseph has step outside, overcome with tears, though whether from joy at seeing them, or in reaction to remembering his sufferings because of them, we can’t know.
We might hope that a church family – if ‘family’ is an appropriate description for a church – would be one where the emphasis is all on the love and support, and conflict is absent. I’m not so sure, though. It seems to me that when you get a big group of people together that some conflict is inevitable. When we come with different backgrounds, personalities and experiences then we react to the same situations, or answer the same questions in quite different ways. So there will be conflicts – it’s inevitable. If we believe that church life is only sweetness and light, we delude ourselves. And if we present the church to others as such we will be greeted with incredulity, or set people up for hurt and disillusionment.
What matters is that when disagreements and conflicts do arise in the church family, we are the sort of family that can deal with them because we also enjoy relationships of love and support.
I’m not convinced than that the way Joseph treated his brothers during their visits to Egypt provides us with a perfect role model for how things should work in the Christian family that we call ‘church.’ True, he demonstrates some restraint. He does not have them killed. He does not even consign them into slavery as they once did him – no ‘eye for eye and tooth for a tooth’ in this part of the Old Testament. And Joseph does provide them with grain to keep the family alive.
All the same, Jesus (not Joseph) is our Christian role model, and it’s hard to picture our Lord and Saviour tormenting those who did him wrong. Even at the worst moment for Jesus, in the midst of his suffering unto the death that they handed out to him, his words from the cross are, ‘Father, forgive them.’ (Luke 23:34)
Forgiveness seems a distant prospect for Joseph’s brothers. They’ve been accused of spying and then of theft. With the planted silver cup now discovered in Benjamin’s baggage he’s looking at a lifetime of slavery in Egypt. His older brothers face the prospect of telling their aged father, Jacob, that another beloved younger son is lost to him for ever. They fear that news will kill him. Joseph now has them where he wants them. Whatever will he do to them next?
Find out in next week’s sermon! – same time, same place, same preacher …