How do you respond to family drama? Roll your eyes? Frustration? Anger? Weeping? It is particularly difficult when it is the kind of family drama that has hurt you. When your family has betrayed you, the pain can go so deep. Have you ever experienced that? What should you do? How should you respond?
In this series of posts on another character from the history of ancient Israel, we have been following the family drama in the life of Joseph. If you’re reading this post first, I encourage you to go back to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 to see how intense the drama actually was. Or you can read the story starting in Genesis 37. Joseph had one difficult hurdle after another, but finally, as God has been faithful all along, Joseph is now the second in command of all Egypt. While Joseph’s life has gone, literally, from the pit to the palace, the family drama that started off all the pain (and led to the pit) was never resolved. At the end of Genesis 41, we learned that while Joseph was now enjoying a new family of his own, and while his family drama was decades in the past, he still thought about it. It still hurt. And it was about to walk through his door.
Genesis 42 changes the scene from Joseph’s palace to Joseph’s father and brothers in Canaan who are dealing with the famine that came on the land. They run out of food and agree to go to Egypt where they hear plenty of food is for sale.
They travel to Egypt where Joseph, as governor of Egypt, is the one responsible for selling grain to people. He recognizes his brothers right away, but they don’t recognize him! Of course not, right? Who would ever expect that the 17 year old brother they sold into slavery all those years earlier is now the governor of the nation of Egypt? Scholars believe at least 20 years had passed, so his appearance would have changed. Also Joseph would be wearing Egyptian clothing, and verse 23 tells us he was speaking through an interpreter. They had no idea this regal man speaking a foreign language was their brother.
So Joseph toys with them, accusing them of being spies, throwing them in prison for three days. Then as he overhears them arguing amongst themselves, blaming each other for this calamity because of what they did to him all those years earlier, Joseph can’t handle it emotionally.
Look at Genesis 42:24. He weeps. There is clearly lots of feeling going on inside Joseph at this surprising turn of events. The whole situation is odd. It is dramatic, for sure. But why did Joseph toy with them? For fun? Well it clearly wasn’t fun, for them or him. Why didn’t Joseph immediately reveal who he was and make things right?
Perhaps he was shocked to see them. If you look at Genesis 42:6-7, it seems that he is totally surprised. This is unexpected. You know how awkward you feel when a blast from the past enters your life? Could be a high school flame. Could be a person with whom you had a falling out many years before. Someone you haven’t talked to in a long time. And now you finally meet. It is super uncomfortable, right? Often you just want to get away, get out of there, and you might start physically shaking with nervousness, and all these strange unusual emotions come over you. You don’t act rationally.
I think Joseph was dealing with at least some of that! He reacts, and what comes out might be a bit of anger or revenge. Yet there is mercy too. In Genesis 42:25, for example, he loads them up with grain. He could have said, “No way,” to their request for food. He could have revealed himself, told Pharaoh what these guys did to him 20 years before, and Pharaoh could have easily disposed of them. What Joseph does, though, in the middle of his emotion, is respond to family drama with an act of mercy. Mercy is when you have the power to punish but do not.
We do not really know the motivation of his heart as to why he puts them through all that is to come. Was he vengeful and ungracious? Or was he being wise and careful, having been hurt so bad by these guys previously? Whatever the motivation, what is clear is that Joseph gives them mercy.
If you have been hurt, like Joseph was, by a close friend or family, what courageous act of mercy can you offer? It is scary, risky, and yet might be precisely what is needed to begin the healing process. It is wise to be cautious when you have been hurt. But in the caution, is there some act of mercy, even if it is small, that might start to decrease the drama?
Joseph’s interaction with his brothers is far from over. Check back in to Part 5 and we’ll learn where this leads.