The case of Joseph and his brothers and racism
Then, the unthinkable happened. Joseph’s brothers showed up hungry and desperate for food. There was a famine in the land, and they needed it for their families, and Joesph was in charge of selling food. Was this the right time to punish his brothers for all they had done to him? Was it payback time?
Before Joseph made himself known to his brothers, he invited them to his house to have a meal with him. Remember, it was mentioned that the Egyptians discriminated against the Hebrews. Because when Joesph invited his brothers, they had to eat by themselves according to the following account:
They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. Genesis 43:32 (NIV)
Can you imagine how ethnocentric the Egyptians were? They considered the Hebrews detestable to the point where they would not even eat with them. This is a prime example of discrimination at work.
Joseph had been a slave, was treated badly, and discriminated against. He was able to rise up to the occasion and overcome this discrimination because he provided a solution to Egypt in her hour of greatest need.
Pharoah’s dream had predicted seven years of abundance in the entire land of Egypt to be followed by seven years of famine. The famine was going to be so severe that people will completely forget the years of abundance. They needed solutions on what to do, and Joseph provided a solution that propelled him to the top.
The Egyptians had to swallow their pride and disdain for Hebrews by allowing this Hebrew slave to become the second most powerful person in the entire country.
This is a profound lesson that all who want to make a difference should learn. Instead of complaining and grumbling about how you are being treated, you should be focusing on how to provide solutions. When people provide solutions, doors will open, and their situation will change.
I consider this one of the tensest, yet profound teachable moments in the entire Bible. Joseph wanted to inquire from his brothers about their father and the rest of the family, this is what transpired:
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Genesis 45:1–2 (NIV)
Joseph decided to send out everybody because he did not want to disgrace his brothers. It was a family affair, and there was no need for them to “wash their dirty linens in public.”
It is amazing that instead of blaming his brothers, ridiculing them, or pointing an accusatory finger against them and demanding justice, Joseph wept!
He created the privacy that was needed for such an event to let his brothers know that they were safe and that whatever had transpired in the past will and has not been wasted.
The following verse captures precisely what one would have expected from his brothers because they were guilty as charged, and the evil they had done to their brother had not left them. But Joseph had other ideas in mind. He was on a completely different dimension from his brothers. While his brothers were focusing on the past, Joseph was looking at what is yet to come and how the past is guaranteeing that glorious future. This is what gave him to courage to draw his brothers closer instead of disgracing them in public.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Genesis 45:3 (NIV)
His brothers were in total shock and disbelief because they could not understand how a slave had become the second most powerful person in the most powerful country in the world at that time. In addition, the guilt from what they had done to their brother surfaced and it must have been unbearable. To make matters worse, Joseph had the power of life and death over them, and they knew it. Before this, Joseph had asked one of them to be placed in prison and they were helpless in defending their brother.
Joseph did not wait for his brothers who had wronged him to speak or ask for forgiveness or even plead for their lives. Instead, he forgave his brothers without any precondition or demands. What followed are some of the most beautiful words in the entire Bible:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, donot be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Genesis 45:4–8 (NIV)
There is so much in these few verses that it will take many books to digest. Can you imagine what is going on here? Joseph had the power to destroy his brothers who sold him into slavery and caused him to suffer for 13 years but refused to use that power to seek revenge from his brothers. Instead, he said that they should not be angry for selling him. What was Joseph thinking by letting these criminals go free? Then, he did the unthinkable by completely vindicating his brothers with the following statement:
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Joseph was acting weird here. Not only was he delusional in offering the olive branch to his brothers and forgiving them even though they did not ask for his forgiveness, he was saying that his brothers did commit the very crime they admitted to committing and were even terrified of it.
In fact, before they had this encounter with Joseph, the brothers had said among themselves that God may be punishing them for what they did to their brother.
Was Joseph out of his mind by suggesting that his brothers had not done anything wrong and that they should not be distressed for selling him? What was he saying here? Why bring God’s name into this mess?