‘“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him …’ Acts 7:9-10
‘“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).’ Matthew 1:23
We don’t always see it coming, the hatred of human beings. It takes us by surprise, ambushing our bewildered hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once it hits, it stays, scarring our experiences and lingering in our minds; and there in this pit, pain dwells and all sorts of sadness lingers, feelings too thick to name, too dark to admit out loud. Being forced into a state of powerlessness can fuel all sorts of resentment, all sorts of vengeance, lurking, living in the shadowy bruises of a heart. Forgiveness? Yeah but you don’t know what they did.
And it’s these things we hold onto all white-knuckle grasped that hold onto us, holding us under the floods of the past, holding us down, holding us captive, held in the darkest hole in our hearts, like a pit in the ground that goes on forever.
He knew about holes in hearts and pits in the ground, this young man. And he hadn’t seen it coming either, just like us. The ambush. The hate.
He had lived with their taunts for years, but it was only in this moment that he began to understand their hate, the moment he was pleading for his life (Genesis 42:21) the moment he was shoved down a pit in the dark (Genesis 37:24) the moment he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37: 26-28).
Joseph, son of Israel.
And if it was you, if you were in his shoes, if you were motherless, hated, abused, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery in a distant land where you are sexually harassed, falsely accused and then unjustly jailed for years, where would you be at the end of all this? Where would you find your heart? Would you still have it? In tact? Or would bitterness have corroded all the sinews down to dust? Would your beaten heart still beat in time with God’s? Or would it wilt and bitter-beat to the thrum of vengeance in your mind? Or perhaps your heart would still be there, languishing at the bottom of that pit, the hole in the ground that goes on forever?
And if then the perpetrators one day stood before you, the ones who hated you, ambushed you and trafficked you, if they stood before you and you had the chance to take revenge. Would you? Would you avenge the years they stole from you? The pain, the suffering, the years of lonely tears and silent despair? Would you twist the knife of guilt just a little, would you push the dagger in until they begged, until they felt even a small part of what you had been through, what their hate had put you through? Would you? Where would you find your heart? Would it have been lost along the way somewhere? Down in that hole they left you in?
He had every reason to return the hate they’d hurled on him, this one young man. Every reason and then some. Because the people who put him through all this, they were his family. The chosen family of God.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.’ Genesis 37:3-4
‘Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons…’ How easily we repeat the scars we were born into, repeat our parents mistakes in a spiralling cycle of unthinking living and unexamined breathing.
Jacob had grown up in the shadow of his brother Esau, and now Jacob’s own son’s, like him, through him, become script-line conditioned to fight, fight for the attention of a father whose attention is elsewhere. An absence of justice and equity in affection becomes (once more) the presence of jealousy and rivalry in a home. These ten sons, they learn their lines by heart, habituating them, breathing them in through their lungs, drawing them into their veins, running them straight to their hearts, hearts beating in time to these lines laid out, weaving the future with the threads of the past.
Joseph, Jacob’s naive, second youngest son, motherless, and artless, trying to keep up with ten older brothers who have been script-line conditioned not to accept him; he blurts out his dreams and offends the hearts of everyone around him.
‘Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: we were binding sheaves of corn out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered round mine and bowed down to it.’
His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.’
He always was an honest sort, this Joseph, unusual in this family line, so artlessly honest that that he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, not old enough, or street wise enough to know better.
Joseph and his ten older brothers were son’s of the same man, but they’d had very different fathers. Jacob-Israel their father had met YHWH over twenty years ago, but only just begun to understand Him more recently. You don’t really begin to understand YHWH until you understand yourself through His eyes. Jacob took decades to understand himself. To understand God’s heart.
Joseph, Jacob-Israel’s eleventh son, this son born to Jacob in his old age, he’d had a very different father than his older brothers. Joseph’s older brother’s had a father who had been deceptive, self reliant and manipulative, hustling to make up for the lack he felt in his heart. Joseph’s father however, Israel, was older, humbler, and had begun to understand himself through YHWH’s eyes. Blessed. Blessed with YHWH’s presence. God with him.
But scar lines scraped across children’s hearts, heartbreakingly remain after parents change. It’s a horrible feeling as a parent, looking out over the history of your parenting, the childhood of your children, and realising all the wounds you wound around their hearts, through script-lines re-lived repeating the past. It’s a deepening sadness when you wake to the realisation that they have turned out just like you, in all your worst ways.
Joseph had not inherited as many of Jacob’s deceptions and arts as his older brothers had. He’d received a different inheritance, a blessing passed down, taught to him as a child, the inheritance of a family line ‘calling on the name of the Lord’. And Joseph was going to need this inheritance. It would become his only lifeline when his young life was on the line. Repeatedly.
Hearts primed with jealousy are ready for revenge. From Cain, the first born son in the garden long ago, to Jacob’s sons, to the violent threads throughout our whole human race. Jealousy is often a short road to hate, and hate, an even shorter road to violence.
‘So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’
When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe – the ornate robe he was wearing – and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.’ Genesis 37:17-24
‘The cistern was empty; there was no water in it’… as empty as their hearts, hearts consumed with jealousy and lack, hearts empty of God, empty of love.
But God wasn’t done with these brothers yet. They may have thrown Joseph in an empty cistern, but it’s their own hearts which were broken and vacuous, unable to hold living water (Jeremiah 2:13). Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom before you realise you’re in a pit, in a hole in the ground without wholeness or hope.
Ironically it’s his brother’s jealous over-reaction to Joseph’s dream that leads to the fulfilment of that dream. They will one-day bow to Joseph in Egypt because they first sent him there as a slave. It’s what God does in between that salvages Joseph’s life, and eventually theirs. Joseph’s brothers very act of jealousy and hate will set things in motion for their own redemption.
Hate may look strong and successful in the short term. But it never wins in the long run of things. Malice may win some battles, but it’s love who wins the war.
‘ Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’ His brothers agreed.
So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.’ Genesis 37:26-28
Completely abandoned. Alone.
Sometimes when everything else is stripped away, and all we have is the raw torrents of our grief, that is when we finally look up and discover YHWH’s silent presence which has been there all along. The noise of success, comfort, entertainment and busy day to day existence doesn’t always help us hear His voice. Not because He is absent, but because we are.
But suffering, challenge, the moments when life stops us in our tracks and brings us to our knees, when plans dissolve and hopes dash and disappointments swirl like storms around us, that is the moment we realise we need a rock to stand on. That is the moment we reach for Him and we find Him reaching back.
It’s this moment Joseph finds himself in now. Completely abandoned. Alone.
But alone with God is not alone, and stripped of everything but Him, we still have everything we need.
And let’s get this one thing clear right from the very beginning: God, He leans towards the vulnerable, He stands beside the weak, His heart is with the smallest and poorest, the victim of injustice or abuse, the widow, the stranger, the orphan, the one with nothing left but Him.
God leans towards the small the frail the weak, the vulnerable, the ones trapped in a hole in the ground they just can’t get out of.
God is with Joseph.
And Joseph knows he is with God. It’s all he knows right now. Every other future he’d dreamed he’d have has just been upended and undone. Nothing is sure now. But God. God with him.
‘Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.’
It’s not just what happens to us that either traps us in a hole or help us find our way out to wholeness, but the story we believe about what happens, the story we lean into and live out of.
Trauma doesn’t have to hold us to ransom if we have a way to process it, to make sense of the senseless mess someone else’s brokenness inflicted on us. Joseph experienced terrible trauma at the hands of his brothers, but he had a rock on which to ground every experience he had, he knew there was always a bigger story he was held by, a bigger story holding him. He was not a boat tossed in an eternally empty sea, he was anchored in all his storms by the life-line chords of grace. God was with him. This was the family-line life-line which held him in the deepest dark. When all other lines unravelled this one line held him fast. It was all he had. God with him. And it was all he found he needed.
But let’s not fairytale-airbrush the pain, it was all the deepest distress, a horrific and deconstructing experience that would scourge and scar his heart. His experience of abandonment and betrayal was hard and dark and horrible. It was the valley of the shadow of death, the darkest valley. You know the one. The one where despair dwells and you just don’t know if the light is ever going to dawn.
But this God with him wasn’t a fabled fantasy either, wasn’t a dream, wasn’t even a religion; it was his life and breath and one-step-after-the-other reason to live. It was all he had to hold onto when everything else, everyone else was stripped away.
God with him.
‘Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.’
God didn’t stop Joseph being put in a pit, sold into slavery, falsely accused or thrown into jail. His life was full of challenge. But with God, the very cords sent to strangle and bind become undone by God’s life-line chords of grace.
God never wastes a trauma, if he does not save us from them, He’ll be right there with us in them, walking us through, carrying us, whispering hope, weaving healing, working restoration.
God was with Joseph in the darkest valley. And because of this, throughout his story of anguish and pain this one line reprises again and again, a repeating refrain beating time, beating in time with God’s beating heart. ‘The Lord was with Joseph…’
‘The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.’ Genesis 39:2
‘When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…’Genesis 39:3
‘…the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warden…’ Genesis 39:21
And just in case you missed it…
‘The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.’ Genesis 39:23
Because God is with the small the frail the weak, the motherless eleventh son hated and harmed. Completely abandoned. Alone.
God was with Joseph. With.
God had been with Joseph from childhood, speaking to him in dreams and visions. Joseph had been listening, alert to the spiritual realm, alert to God’s voice. And it is this posture of listening to, and living with God that become the only assets in Joseph’s possession when everything else was stripped away. All he had was God and the gifts God had given him, and it is all he needs. Joseph’s God-fearing integrity earns him Potiphar’s trust, and Joseph’s God-given ability to interpret dreams gets him out of jail and into Pharaohs court.
Joseph was learning the lessons early that his father had taken a lifetime to learn. True blessing is not land, inheritance, wealth or fertility. These are all symptoms, by-products of true blessing.
True blessing is God’s presence with us. Whether we have any of these signs or ‘by-products’ of it in our life or not. God with us.
And Joseph, the one son of Israel despised by all the others, is the one son of Israel fulfilling Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. Every situation he finds himself in becomes blessed for him and through him to others.
Potiphar’s household is blessed and Joseph rises in trust and status.
‘The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph…’ Genesis 39:2-5
Even when Joseph walks through the dark valley of false accusations and unjust imprisonment, the blessing of God follows him into prison and flows for him and through him in the very midst of this ‘shadow of death’ experience.
‘But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.’ Genesis 39:20-23
God was with Joseph, His blessing was on him and at work through him.
And in everything he does, Joseph points to God because he knows who he is with, and he knows who is with him.
The language lining Joseph’s lines, never languishes in self pity or lunges towards self reliance, the lines he speaks into the air are more like Israel’s that Jacob’s. In all his tumultuous good fortune, despite so many heart hurting challenges, nowhere does Joseph say that he got there by his wits, his hard work or his talent. There is no self reliance or pride, just hard working humility and God revering integrity. Just under half of all Jospeh’s recorded speeches are in some way mentioning God, giving God credit for his gifts, his children, his blessing. Each time Joseph interprets a dream he makes it clear from the start that it is God who provides the interpretation, not himself.
In jail he interprets the dreams of Pharaohs cup bearer and baker…
“We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”
Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” Genesis 40:8
And then, finally after a long journey through years he stands before Pharaoh and interprets his dreams as well, mentioning God five times throughout. Joseph makes sure everyone knows it is God, not him who is at work here…
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires…” Genesis 41:15-16
…Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good heads of grain are seven years; it is one and the same dream.
The seven lean, ugly cows that came up afterward are seven years, and so are the seven worthless heads of grain scorched by the east wind: They are seven years of famine.
“It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.’ Genesis 41:25-32
The invisible presence of God was visibly with Joseph. God is so clearly with him that people who don’t know God personally can see it and name it themselves. Because it’s not what you know, but who you know. Joseph knew God and knew God was with him. Pharaoh knows this too.
‘So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.” Genesis 41:38-40
It’s not normal for a slave to end up ruling the nation they were enslaved to. That was all God. God with Joseph.
And so this famine came… like a dream. Pharaoh’s dream that found Joseph right where God had placed him in another pit waiting to be found. Found in the middle of God’s purpose and plan, His purpose and plan to bless the whole world through one family line.
Seven years of plenty, seven years of lack. Seven years of God at work partnering with human beings. Seven symbolises completeness and wholeness in ancient Hebrew thought. In seven ‘days’ God worked to create the world, and in seven years He now provides all Egypt needs to survive a famine. He provides the years of plenty, the dream to understand it and the young Hebrew man Joseph, to interpret the dream and then implement the plan.
And Joseph is blessed by God and fulfilling his grandfather’s calling to bless the whole world. And a new robe is given to him, replacing the one that was taken from him by his brothers.
Human hearts can strip us bare unravelling our lives to dust, but God’s hand not only restores every once torn thread, but reweaves the story with the grandest golds and vermilions, turquoise and azure. All the colours of God’s redemptive work in a life.
’So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way!” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt…’ Genesis 41:41-43
Because of the gift’s God had given Joseph, the gift of His presence with him, he finds himself second in charge over all Egypt. But all the success in the world cannot change the pain in a heart. It can be a welcome distraction from it, but underneath all the clamour of fame and wealth and success remains the one small hole in a heart, the pit of family abandonment and neglect, the pain of all the re-lived moments of despair.
You can’t outsmart, out-live or out-run the feeling of things. You need to be released from it. Wealth and success cannot release our souls from the chains of our past. Only one thing can.
Joseph names his sons names which name God’s hand with him in the midst of his suffering, but he and God both know the pain is not dealt with yet.
‘Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Genesis 41:50-52
‘God has made me forget all my trouble’ he said, and I’m sure Joseph wanted to believe this, but God would no more allow him to forget as He would allow him to fall into despair. Because forgetting is not the same as healing, not the same as releasing, not the same as forgiving. Forgetting is shoving our pain down into a hole in our souls and pretending we’re all okay. Forgetting numbs the human heart hardening it to stone. Human hearts must feel, must name, must beat in time with God’s. Whole. Alive.
Attempting to forget the pain we experience does not help us heal. It leaves us lost, languishing at the bottom of a pit, a hole in the ground that goes on forever.
Joseph had been abandoned but he wasn’t lost. He had a sensitive human heart, sensitive to God and sensitive to his pain. When he eventually does meet his family again, his response will not be to dismiss them as ‘forgotten’ but to weep. A lot. Scripture records Joseph weeping on seven different occasions. No other person is recorded as weeping so many times until King David, hundreds of years later.
Interestingly enough, the other thing both Joseph and King David have in common is the phrase spoken of them ‘The lord was with Him..’.
Of David it is written…
‘In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him.’ (1 Samuel 18:14)
‘And he became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty was with him.’ (2 Samuel 5:10)
The closer we are to God, the more we are with Him and He with us, the more our hearts stay human, beat wholly, and avoid the numbing hardness that life away from Him produces. God’s presence with us always re-humanises refreshes and releases into our souls the Imago Dei wholeness we were created to live in at first.
The more our hearts beat in time with God’s the more we weep in unison with Him at the brokenness all around us and within us. We weep because the breath of life within us grieves the loss of humanity all around us. Expressing sorrow is not the absence of strength, but the presence of sensitivity. Joseph weeps because he has experienced hardship, but the hardship hasn’t broken him, embittered him or numbed his beating heart. He weeps because God is with him, keeping his heart whole. Sensitive. Alive.
And all this takes place on a large stage, the largest stage available, the stage of the current superpower of the time, but also on the smallest stage, the day by day existence of one small life.
Because when God works, He doesn’t just do ‘big’ things, He also works out every small detail of our lives as well, weaving his purposes both grand and small in the warp and weft of the tapestry He unfolds.
In this story He is simultaneously saving nations from starvation, saving His chosen family line from destitution, preserving His purposes for this family line, saving Joseph from despair and saving his brother’s hearts from script-line self destruction.
Joseph’s ten older brothers are every bit as lost as Joseph was when they shoved him down the well. When they sold him into slavery they enslaved themselves to guilt, chaining their hearts and minds to years of shame and regret, years of empty cistern hearts. They’d deserted Joseph, but it was they who were wandering in waste lands. The famine of Egypt mirrored the famine in these ten men’s hearts.
Judah’s life had hit rock bottom, with two sons with wicked hearts eventually dying in sin and his own lack of integrity and sexual immorality documented in un-forgetting unforgiving print for all the world to see throughout all generations.
A numb heart creates it’s own cistern of darkness, re-shaping it’s world in the image of its own emptiness.
But God wasn’t done with this family yet, not done with Judah, not done with Israel’s family line. And now God’s great movement on all these levels, on the largest stage and the smallest, is rushing forward to this moment, this moment when finally all the chains of past pain come out into the blazing light of day.
‘Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also.’ Genesis 42:3-5
They came down to buy grain, but the nourishment they really needed was something money couldn’t buy. Only grace could provide that.
The famine had brought Joseph’s life to a head, all the threads that had appeared hopelessly unravelled and undone now begin to reweave themselves into a picture of grace. Grace that leaves no threads fraying loose, no work of restoration undone.
‘Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”’ Genesis 42:6-7
And you don’t know what you’ll do until you find yourself in that moment. The moment you have thought about every day of your life up until then. The moment the perpetrators of all your pain stand before you, within your reach; within the reach of every thought, every word, every act of retribution you’ve imagined up until now.
If you were in his shoes and they stood before you, the ones who ambushed you, just a clenched-fist arms-length away, and you had the chance to take revenge. Would you? Would you avenge the years they stole from you? The pain, the suffering, the years of lonely tears and silent anguish? Would you twist the knife of guilt just a little, would you push the dagger in until they begged, so that they felt even a part of what you had been through, what their hate had put you through? Would you? Where would you find your heart? Would it have been lost along the way somewhere? Down in that ditch they left you in?
There’s always something a soul holds onto, doesn’t let go of, a small corner of tight knuckled grasp, a pain held deep in the throbbing sinews of a heart.
It’s the things we hold onto all white-knuckled grasped that hold onto us, holding us under the floods of the past, holding us down, holding us captive, held in the darkest hole in our hearts, like a pit in the ground that goes on forever.
They hadn’t held onto him, held onto love, held onto patience, held onto family loyalty and the justice and righteousness of their life-line family-line calling. They hadn’t held onto God. And in letting go of God they had let jealousy and hate get a grip-hold on them.
They let go of their brother Joseph. Leaving him falling through a fallen world, dangling alone with nothing but God’s life line to hold him. Pendulous, suspended.
Held by grace alone.
But this is the truth we all must learn, the hard truth to break our hard hearts. Family lines will hurt us; even with the best of intentions, in the best of families, we will still break one another in a thousand corroding ways over a thousand eroding days. We are all broken and we live in a breaking world, breaking each other from the break of dawn into the deepening dead of night.
A human family is not the strengthening source of a truly free and unbroken existence. It never has been and never will be, and it’s unfair to expect that even of the best of families.
Human strength doesn’t come from human beings. It comes from God. When He first breathed His breath of life into the lining of our lungs and animated our existence into existential being, He didn’t just breathe oxygen into us, He breathed Himself, His loving, giving, wholeness-producing self into us. His life within us. His love with us. Himself with us.
The only family-line life-line that will every salvage our lives and produce in us true freedom and wholeness is the Life-line of God’s Breath in us, the song line of His presence with us.
Even this one family, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel’s family, the strength of their family line was never their talents, gifts, righteousness, wealth or any other attribute of family strength and cohesion. It was that they’d learned (slowly, just like us) to ‘call on the name of the Lord’ to rely on His Life-line over their own inherited script-lines. God’s presence was with them. He was their Life-line wrestling their script lines to the ground.
Joseph’s brothers were still learning this. Like us. Joseph didn’t know where they were on their journey to themselves, their journey to God’s heart, their journey learning to see themselves through God’s eyes. Joseph tests them, he wants a sign, a sign to hope in, like the first light of dawn, that they had changed, that they had regret, that they had cared even a little about the pain they put him through. He tests them. He tests whether their hearts are loyal to Benjamin his brother.
And in testing them he was also testing himself; was he with God, or with vengeance? Where was his beating heart?
And it is Judah who puts his life on the line for Benjamin, Judah whose words had put Joseph in chains, Judah whose heart had sunk to the thudding bottom of an empty-well existence of Godless sons and immoral behaviour. Judah who is now so changed that he would rather die in chains than sell Benjamin as he had sold Joseph.
‘Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’
“Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” Genesis 44:32-34
Physical slavery felt more bearable than the years of enslaving guilt Judah had already lived.
God hadn’t given up on Joseph’s brothers yet. Their hard hearts had needed breaking, breaking and re-forming into hearts alive in God. They had spent twenty years living with the shame of what they’d done, the grief of their father, the guilt of their sin. The moment they sold Joseph into slavery, they’d enslaved themselves to guilt. They were not free. They were broken men. Men ready to die rather than re-live it all over again.
God’s family, the one He wanted to use to bless the whole world, needed restoration, needed a brand new beating human heart, and YHWH’s breath in lungs once more. How could they lead a world of people to hope if they had no healing hope themselves?
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.’ Psalm 130:7-8
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins…
They had written God out of their self reliant hearts just as their father before them had attempted to do, but God picked up all their treacherous threads and with them wove a completely different picture. A bigger picture, the true picture of what was going on all along. Joseph and his family had seen only unravelling threads, but in God’s purposes the tapestry was never undone.
Joseph now has a choice as his broken family stands before him, will he avenge himself, or will he allow God’s presence with him, and work in him, to lead his heart (Psalm 73:26).
He had every reason to return the hate they hurled on him. Every reason. But one.
‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.’ Psalm 130:3-4
With you there is forgiveness. With God we need to understand this one thing about His heart. He is always more interested in restoration than retribution. He is more interested in forgiveness than vengeance. Forgiveness is a gift God freely gives each one of us… so that we can pass it on to others. God with us, is us with forgiveness. No matter what they’ve done.
And this sounds harsh and hard and an impossible standard for any human being to live in to, live up to. How can we let go of the pain they caused when it held us to ransom so long? Who has the strength in a soul to truly let go of that? It’s not normal, not natural.
None of us have the strength to forgive those who have hurt us. It is not a natural human attribute after pain. Retaliation is natural. Forgiveness is supernatural. It is living in the reality that supersedes all others.
God has a been with Joseph, the life-line strength of his heart all these years, now Joseph is is going to demonstrate that he is with God.
It’s not normal for human beings to forgive the people who hurt them. That was all God. God with Joseph.
The same God who kept Joseph alive and was his lifeline strength through all his suffering is the God who now gives him the strength to do one of the most difficult and remarkable things any human being will do for another.
‘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.
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, do not 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 45:3-8
Have you ever woken to the realisation that everything you thought was going on was only half the picture. The awakening to a new vision of a larger truth at work that has taken your one small perspective and stretched it out in endless-ocean vastness and spinning-universe wonder?
This is that moment for Jacob’s ten older brothers. That moment when scales drop from their eyes and light blazes in and they squint and shield their gaze as the whole truth reweaves their reality into a brand new world.
You thought you were hurting me, venting your jealousy, avenging your hurt hearts and bruised pride, but God was doing something bigger, something more beautiful and intentional and wonderful than any of us could have dreamt was possible. He was acting for the welfare of all of us, turning every dark strangling thread to glorious luminous gold, weaving a whole new reality, a whole new story. The one true story of His presence with us.
Within the word forgive is the word ‘give’. It is a gift we give, that once fully given, gives us back our hearts. Joseph gave this gift and lived it. And through this his brothers receive grace they don’t deserve and Joseph receives back his family that he lost two decades ago. In finding the strength in God to forgive his brothers Joseph releases them both from the pit in their hearts, his pit of loss and pain, and theirs of guilt and shame, and YHWH takes the broken strands of this family-line and weaves them back together with His life-line threads of grace.
We don’t always see it coming, the forgiveness of human beings. It takes us by surprise, bewildering our hardened human hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once it hits, it stays, reshaping our experiences, and lingering in our hearts, releasing, re-forming, restoring, moving like sunlight on our skin.
But forgiveness is such a strange reality for hearts accustomed to shame, retaliation and vengeance. Joseph’s brother’s guilt tells a different story in their hearts, a story of hidden vengeance and lurking un-forgiveness. Their hearts which were script-line conditioned to fight, take a long time to believe the story reshaping their experience, to fully live into the reality of what God has done.
’When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’ Genesis 50:15-21
The light blazes in once more revealing a reality that Joseph’s brothers struggle to fathom. Their squinty eyed view of things limited all they saw, blurring their comprehension of what was really going on.
In both these two momentous moments when Joseph releases his brother’s guilt making clear that he holds no grudge against them, he doesn’t do so by saying “I forgive you”. In fact he doesn’t make it about him or his heart at all. He doesn’t make forgiveness a theological principal that he names and obeys, nor does he make it a personal struggle that he finally overcomes. Instead he simply retells the story, the one true story of all that God was doing, and has done, not just despite his brothers betrayal but also through it.
Joseph’s strength to forgive his brothers did not come from a philosophical principal or a theological ideology. It came from the releasing and empowering knowledge that the story he was living in was not authored by the betrayal of his brothers, by the whim of circumstance, or the bad luck of an eleventh son. Joseph had learned through all his years to live fully into the knowledge that his path was embedded deeply in the purposes and plans of God, the large story of God’s presence with him, no matter where that story lead him.
The past had no hold on Joseph because God’s presence ruled his present. Joseph had a story that made sense of the mess his brothers had inflicted on him. So the trauma didn’t cripple and the memory didn’t dismantle, his heart was not left languishing in the hole his life had put him in, with God he had found wholeness, and a story bigger than his pain.
It’s not just what happens to us that either traps us in a hole or helps us find our way out to wholeness, but the story we believe about what happens, the story we lean into and live out of. The story we say yes to in our lives becomes the life we live.
Because God is with us, we now have a choice, a choice between the story our past experiences and traumas tell us, and the larger story that God’s presence with us speaks into being, even in the midst of the darkest valley of our pain. The question then asked of us is ‘What story will we live? The story of our pain? Or the story of God with us at work through our pain?’.
Joseph’s stunning act of forgiveness had nothing to do with his wits, intelligence, strength of character or attitude to life. It had nothing to do with his personal values and principals or his positive outlook on life. Joseph saw that behind all his experiences lay the eternal hand of God. Holding a grudge toward his brothers would be living in a smaller reality, a false story, that didn’t include all that God had done and the hand of God with him.
Joseph forgave his brothers because it made no sense not to. He was living in God’s reality, living fully into the story God breathed into being all around him. Forgiveness ensues and reconciliation rises within us and among us when we find ourselves fully alive in the story God is authoring in our lives, even through the challenges. With God there is forgiveness, because with God there is a story larger than our pain.
Un-forgiveness, un-grace, retaliation and vengeance are all maladies with one root cause: a life confined in a soul-stifling story that’s too small. A story without God.
It simply doesn’t make logical sense to hold onto un-forgiveness in the presence of the loving generous powerful presence of YHWH. His loving and healing presence releases us from the need to hold a grudge, the desire for vengeance and the reflex of retaliation; His presence with us, reweaving our story so that the very act of betrayal becomes in Him a move of grace.
Joseph’s story is a story of faith: a lived faith, the only true kind, faith that doesn’t come from years of reading theology text books or sitting in a Sunday morning church pew, but faith that is born through his personal journey of life lived with God. God with him. He with God.
Theologian and writer Lewis Smedes wrote that “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”. But forgiveness isn’t just a discipline of the soul dealing with our past. And it isn’t just a gift we give that releases the guilt of those who harm us. Forgiveness is a battle cry into the expansive whirling universe soundlessly shouting, ‘there is a bigger story, a bigger reality than all my aching anguish, a larger will at work than the perpetrators of all my pain, a stronger heartbeat than my beaten human heart. There is a God of love. With me. So, even in the dark, tomorrow is always new and I am always free.’
Forgiveness is not an act of will. It is an act of faith. A living in the beautiful reality where the healing, loving, giving God of the universe is on the throne. The God in whose presence all wounds drop away, all fears still, all scars heal, and we stand, strong. With Him.
And standing with Him we give forgiveness as an act of war; an act of war, not against any human being that hurt us, but against the very darkness that bound them in hate and harm to lead them to that act in the first place. Forgiveness declares war on the darkness and releases into this world the healing light of day.
And this story of Joseph and his broken-learning-to-be-whole family, it is the last story in the book of Genesis but it is not the final word in the story of forgiveness, for any of us. The story closes with Jacob-Israel, reunited with his once lost son, Joseph. Jacob blesses Pharaoh (as his calling foretold) and then blesses all his sons. And one blessing stands out in particular as a message to us all… a blessing for a son who perhaps least deserved it. Judah.
‘The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.’
Judah’s family will become a family line of Kings, a line of steward-Kings holding a sceptre in trust ‘until he to whom it belongs shall come…’ to be with us.
God with us.
God himself will come into the family line of this one broken family, into the hereditary line of the one family member, Judah, whom the scripture spotlights not for his righteousness but for his failings.
Because a human family is not the strengthening source of a truly free and unbroken existence. It never has been and never will be.
Human strength doesn’t come from human beings. It comes from God. Because when He first breathed His breath of life into the lining of our lungs and animated our existence into existential being, He didn’t just breathe oxygen into us, He breathed Himself, His loving, giving, wholeness-producing self into us. His life within us. His love with us. Himself with us.
The only family-line life-line that will every salvage our lives and produce in us true freedom and wholeness is the Life-line of His Breath in us, the song-line of His presence with us.
God with us.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:23
Joseph learned to forgive because he’d learned his new family lines by heart, song lines written into his heart by his true Father, our true Father. The Father who loves us all equitably and endlessly. The Father who has always been walking this long walk with us. The long walk of our lives, the long walk of our pain, the long walk of our struggle in the darkest of our valleys.
The long walk He has been on to find us there, since before all time began. ‘I’m here. With you.’ He says, and He takes all the tearing threads of our unravelling life and says Let’s take these shredded threads and reweave a brand new story together. A story bigger than your pain and bigger than your past. The only true story of my presence with you. Always. To the end of time.
‘And surely I am with you always,
to the very end of the age.”
We don’t always see it coming, the presence of God with us. It catches our breath in awestruck wonder, releasing our human hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once we do, His new story never leaves us, it stays, reshaping our experiences and healing us mind and soul, releasing us, restoring us, moving like sunlight on our skin.
The blazing light of an endlessly brand new day.
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