This victim refused to be held hostage to hate and revenge
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Several conversations I’ve had recently around truth and reconciliation have reminded me of one of the first Bible stories I learned as a child. I wrote about it in a column 15 years ago. Because of its relevance to current issues, I’d like to return to it this week.
I love Bible stories: Moses and the Red Sea, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale.
But my all-time favourite Old Testament story is that of Joseph.
Joseph, the kid with the coat of many colours. Joseph, the victim of bullying by jealous brothers who were to learn that what goes around doesn’t necessarily have to come around.
Joseph was the great-grandson of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahai’i Faith. Abraham’s son Isaac was Joseph’s grandfather; and Isaac’s son Jacob – a.k.a. Israel – was Joseph’s father.
Joseph had 11 brothers, 10 older and one younger. Jacob doted on his teenaged son, Joseph, which didn’t make the boy with the beautiful coat too popular with his hardworking older brothers.
One day he told them about a dream he had in which they bowed down to him. They wanted to kill him. When Joseph showed up while they were out tending their father’s livestock, they saw their opportunity.
Joseph’s life was spared at the last minute only because Judah, one of his brothers, made a deal with some Egypt-bound traders to buy him as a slave. The brothers kept his coat, however, and having dipped it in goat blood, showed it to their heartbroken father as “evidence” that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal.
Life in Egypt was a roller coaster for the Hebrew slave. Sold to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, he excelled in his service and was placed in charge of all his master’s interests, only to be thrown into prison because of a false accusation by his master’s wife.
In prison, he was put in charge of the other prisoners. One of them was the royal cupbearer who had fallen out of favour with Pharaoh. The cupbearer had a dream and asked Joseph for an interpretation. Joseph told him the dream meant the cupbearer would get his old job back. In return, the cupbearer promised to put in a good word for Joseph.
Joseph’s interpretation came true, but the cupbearer forgot his part of the bargain until two years later, when Pharaoh himself had a disturbing dream.
Pharaoh summoned Joseph from prison, and Joseph told him the meaning of the dream: that there would be seven years of plentiful harvest followed by seven years of famine throughout the region, and Pharaoh must appoint someone to oversee grain storage and distribution.
Pharaoh gave the job to Joseph, elevating the slave to the second highest position in the country.
Two years into the famine, 10 brothers from the land of Canaan arrived at Joseph’s doorstep, hoping to purchase grain. Joseph recognized them as his wicked brothers, but they didn’t recognize him.
After enquiring about their family back home, he sent them away with grain – and with the first of a series of tricks that eventually forced them to return to Egypt with their youngest brother, Benjamin. Benjamin was their father’s pride and joy, and as a ruse Joseph had accused him of theft and threatened to keep him in Egypt as a slave.
At this point Judah, the brother who had negotiated Joseph’s sale into slavery, stepped forward and pled with Joseph for Benjamin’s release, offering himself as a slave instead.
So touched was Joseph by Judah’s change of heart that he announced to his brothers, “I am Joseph.” His brothers shook with fear, thinking payback time had come.
But Joseph said: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life. . . .Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good. . . . So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
And in this great account of forgiveness and God’s providence, the children of Israel found refuge from famine, and a home-away-from-home for the next 400 years.
For us today, there is one more liberating lesson here: just because we’ve been victimized along life’s journey doesn’t mean we have to hold the rest of our lives hostage to the bitterness of the past.
The story of Joseph is recorded in Genesis, chapters 37 and 39–50.
© 2019 Warren Harbeck