To appreciate our first reading, we need to review a brief resume of the life of Joseph. Remember, he was one of Jacob’s sons and was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. While exiled and imprisoned in Egypt he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. The seven fat cows and full ears of grain represented seven year of plenty. Following this dream came another with the same number of famished cows and dried up ears of grain, which forebode seven years of drought. Trusting Joseph’s prediction of the tremendous danger from future drought and starvation, the Pharaoh freed Joseph and elevated him to be second only to himself in the government of Egypt. Next he appointed him in charge of providing grain for the time of future famine. So Joseph built mammoth storage facilities in all the towns during the seven years of plenty and stored up immeasurable quantities of grain.
When the famine struck worldwide, everyone came to Joseph to purchase food. Jacob and his family also were in danger of starvation so he sent his ten sons to buy grain. Not recognizing Joseph they begged on bended knee for food. Joseph, remaining incognito and aware that these were his brothers, granted their request. They paid their brother and their sacks were filled with grain. With much questioning, Joseph eventually decided to accuse his brothers of being spies and incarcerated them for three days. Then he released all of them except Simeon who would be kept as hostage. Joseph warned them that Simeon would neither be released nor were they to return for more food unless they came back with their youngest brother, Benjamin.
They took this ultimatum back home to their father. In time their food supply was exhausted. Jacob hoped they could buy more in Egypt. The brothers reminded their father that Benjamin would have to accompany them. Although it broke his heart, Jacob finally succumbed and taking their youngest brother they returned for more grain.
While filling their sacks, Joseph had his servants hide their money in with the grain and his own silver goblet in the sack of Benjamin. He then had his soldiers follow the brothers homeward and when they stopped at nightfall, Joseph’s soldiers searched the brothers’ grain sacks. In Benjamin’s sack they found the silver goblet. The younger brother was accused of stealing so he was arrested and they were all taken back to Joseph’s home.
Still unaware of Joseph’s identity they plead their innocence. In our passage today, Judah, the oldest brother becomes the spokesperson for all of them. He reviews the long saga of their treachery in selling their brother as a slave and their father’s painful anxiety in imagining Joseph’s death. Judah himself offers to be substitute for Benjamin’ crime, adding that the boy’s failure to return home with them would surely kill their Father.
Finally, after all his questioning and testing, Joseph can no longer contain his emotions. Sending everyone but his brothers from the room he finally breaks down and tells them “I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.”
The message that comes through this long narrative is one of heroic forgiveness on the part of Joseph who was wronged by his own siblings and the beneficent providence of God allowing this tragedy to bring about the lifesaving victory, not only sparing his father and brothers from starvation but also many others in the world. Joseph images the Lord, since both allow for evil to bring about lifesaving good. “It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.” Some might even recognize their own failures and sinfulness in the jealousy and cruelty of the brothers.
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